Early Reading Strategy

The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario, 2003


Home and Community Connections

Family involvement in a child's education is a more important factor in student success than family income or education. (International Reading Association, 2002, p. 2)

Effective schools do not exist in isolation; they are an integral part of the communities they serve. Effective schools and classroom teachers involve families in their children's education and help them to connect with relevant resources in the broader community. They also work in partnership with community groups, service agencies, and postsecondary institutions to expand their knowledge, skills, and resources for helping all children learn to read.

Communities, in turn, have a vested interest in promoting reading skills because the personal and social benefits of literacy are so great, and the costs of illiteracy are so high. Children who do not learn to read in school are far more likely to require expensive and ongoing community support than children who become successful readers.

Parental Involvement

Parental involvement is a key element in a school's plan to make every child a successful reader. While the school has primary responsibility for formal reading instruction, children are more likely to succeed when their parents are actively involved in their education.

Parents need to know that children learn to read in a series of developmental stages that lead over time to independent reading. The booklet Helping Your Child Learn to Read: A Parent's Guide (Ontario Ministry of Education) is a practical resource for helping parents to understand the developmental stages. It describes the characteristics of the beginning reader, the emergent reader, the early reader, and the fluent reader. It also offers tips for helping children learn to read. Teachers can help parents by describing the most appropriate home activities at each stage in a child's reading development.

The best time for children to start learning to read is when they are very young. The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth 3 has found that children who had been read to several times a day at the age of two to three years did substantially better in kindergarten than those whose parents did not read as often. The same study found that children who experienced a stimulating preschool environment had significantly higher scores on standardized vocabulary measures.

Reading in the Home Language

Parents of children whose first language is not the language of instruction should be encouraged to continue to develop their children's literacy skills in the home language. Skills in a first language naturally support and reinforce the learning of a second language.

It can be extremely difficult, however, for children in the French-language system whose first language is not French to receive immersion in the language outside of school and become fluent speakers and readers. Without this fluency, children risk falling behind in all school subjects. In these cases, parents should work with the children to provide as much exposure to the French language as possible and should encourage the use of French at home.

Parents in the Classroom

Parents and other family members who are able to volunteer in the classroom can provide valuable support for the classroom reading program. For example, they can read aloud to children, help them with homework, and practise sight words and letter recognition. For children whose home language is not the language of instruction, parent volunteers who speak the same language can help to ease the transition into school.

Schools have a responsibility to provide appropriate training and support to enable parent volunteers to make a meaningful contribution. However, parent volunteers cannot be expected to be reading experts. Children who are experiencing serious reading difficulties should be helped by professionals who are highly trained in reading instruction.

Encouraging Family Involvement

It is important for teachers and administrators to identify parents' level of participation and then work towards removing barriers that may be preventing further participation. When teachers are supportive, responsive, and welcoming, they encourage parents to be positive partners in their child's education. Teachers can help to build positive partnerships with families by:

  • working respectfully with families and communicating effectively with them;
  • showing a genuine interest in the children;
  • responding promptly and constructively to parent concerns;
  • promoting a philosophy of teamwork;
  • being sensitive to the needs of parents and families;
  • developing and promoting multicultural understanding;
  • using creative problem-solving strategies.

These are some practical ways that teachers can help families to support early reading achievement:

  • Share information about family activities that promote reading, such as completing homework, reading in the place of worship, following daily living routines, reading signs, and writing lists and personal messages.

  • Provide families with books and book lists. The availability of books for children varies from home to home, regardless of socio-economic status. Schools can encourage reading at home by sending home familiar materials to develop fluency. This is particularly important for the Franco-Ontarian community, where books in French may only be available at schools.

  • Explain the strategies that children use to decode and understand text. During the reporting conference, the teacher can provide the parents with prompts (e.g.: "Look at the first letter in the word," "What makes sense?") to move the child through the text.

The overall goal of reading at home is to motivate further reading and to provide an opportunity for parents and children to engage in a positive learning experience together.

Cultural Enrichment and Support

Cultural awareness and respect for diversity are fundamental to a healthy, vibrant society. It is important to value the variety of contexts in which our children live. The more culturally enriched the children's environment is, the more background knowledge they will acquire to help them understand and interpret the wide range of stories and information they will encounter through reading at school. Efforts to welcome, understand, and affirm all children – and to treat their cultural and linguistic backgrounds as equally valid and important – should be reflected in every facet of the school and classroom environment.

Libraries, theatre groups, play groups, day-care centres, and community centres may already have programs in place that enrich the background knowledge and skills of young children and stimulate their motivation to read, or they may be willing to forge partnerships with local schools to develop appropriate programs. Cultural groups in the community can also be encouraged to contribute books, audiotapes, and videos for classroom libraries or for home-lending programs, or to participate in intergenerational projects. Schools can help families to become aware of local language and cultural resources by creating community directories and promoting services and special events in newsletters and on school bulletin boards and websites. Pen pal programs, student exchanges, and Internet connections can extend the sense of community beyond the local neighbourhood and into the wider world.

The Francophone Context

The francophone community faces a greater challenge because these social and cultural resources may not be readily available or even exist. The difficulty lies in the fact that the francophone population is scattered over a large territory – a dispersion that results, in some cases, in very small communities that cannot sustain French-language libraries, theatre, singing groups, day care, community centres, and other services. Social and cultural connections such as these are critical for the French-language system and, in many cases, schools must act as a driving force to provide them or ensure they are in place.

French-language schools have the important responsibility to maintain and promote francophone culture and language in a largely English-speaking society. In some communities, the school is the only milieu where the language is spoken, where books in French are available, and where cultural activities take place. In addition to being a teaching and learning environment, the school becomes a community centre.

Reading instruction – in fact, all of school life – should immerse the children and their families in a rich French-language environment that emphasizes the pleasure of speaking and reading in French and promotes animation culturelle (cultural development) to ensure that children see the language and culture as alive and relevant.

Community Agencies

Community agencies can connect the family with community supports that will help to prepare the child and family for reading in the school years. The school, in turn, is often the gateway to community support. Community agencies and schools must coordinate their efforts in order to have the most positive impact on the children and families that they serve. Early identification of children who are at risk of not learning to read can alert the school to be prepared for special needs and can help to ensure that the right instruction is in place when the child enters school. Together, the school and community agencies can strategize about ways to ease the transition to school for all children in their care, and especially for those who are at risk of learning difficulties.

Universities

Elementary schools and postsecondary institutions make natural partners in the pursuit of excellence in education. The school-university connection is reciprocal and interdependent. Such partnerships can and do provide opportunities for putting theory and research into practice, and practice into research. Schools and teachers play an essential role in the education of future teachers when they partner with Faculties of Education to supervise teacher candidates during their field placements. Faculties of Education are vitally important to schools because they educate future teachers and school administrators and are essential partners in continuing teacher education and ongoing learning. Universities, and Faculties of Education in particular, conduct research on how children learn to read and how they should be taught. Findings from this and related research (e.g., on educational leadership) form part of the evidence base that informs classroom practices and school improvement planning in early reading. Active collaboration between schools and universities – regarding pre-service, graduate and continuing education, and research – can be mutually beneficial. It should be a defining feature of the Ontario context for the teaching and learning of early reading.


3. The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) is a long-term study of Canadian children that follows their development and well-being from birth to early adulthood. The NLSCY began in 1994 and is jointly conducted by Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada. See, for example, Lipps and Yiptong-Avila, 1999, pp. 5-6.