Early Reading Strategy

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

Role of the Teacher

...[E]xcellent reading teachers .... have strong content and pedagogical knowledge, manage classrooms so that there is a high rate of engagement, use strong motivation strategies that encourage independent learning, have high expectations for children's achievement, and help children who are having difficulty. (International Reading Association, 2000, p. 1)

Teachers make a difference in the success of their students when they hold a fundamental belief that all children can learn to read and when they have the skills and determination to make it happen. These teachers base their classroom practices on sound reading theory, provide instruction that meets the specific learning needs of their students, create an organized and stimulating learning environment, and regularly assess their students' reading achievement in relation to the expectations of the Ontario language curriculum. They do not work alone but see themselves as part of a school team committed to ensuring that every child is able to read by the end of Grade 3.

Providing Knowledge and Skills

It is critical that every teacher have an understanding of the complexities of the reading process and the skills to implement all of the components of effective reading instruction. To help children decode and comprehend text in reading, classroom teachers:

  • encourage children to use their prior knowledge, and provide them with appropriate background information if they lack context for understanding text;
  • provide direct instruction for promoting decoding, fluency, and comprehension;
  • answer children's questions and monitor  performance;
  • think aloud so that children become aware of how a capable reader and writer approaches literacy tasks;
  • provide opportunities for children to engage in purposeful talk in the classroom, recognizing that oral language is the foundation for the development of reading and writing skills;
  • help children ask and answer questions to acquire, clarify, or confirm information and to explore ideas;
  • recognize the role of higher-order thinking in reading achievement;
  • reflect on the questions posed by children in order to gain insight into their thinking, identify the nature and the extent of their prior knowledge, and identify gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed in the classroom;
  • make the link between reading and writing instruction, recognizing that these are interconnected processes and that improvement in one prompts improvement in the other.

Motivating Children To Read

Teachers have a pivotal role in helping children to develop and maintain a positive attitude towards learning and literacy. Motivated readers read more, use more complex cognitive strategies, and thus become better readers. To motivate children to read, classroom teachers:

  • demonstrate a passion for reading;
  • act as model readers for their students;
  • know how children perceive the value of reading, and aim to enhance the perceived value by linking reading with the children's own interests and goals;
  • know how children perceive their own ability as readers and support them in developing a positive self-image by having them work with texts that are at their current reading level and by providing them with enough time to complete their reading tasks;
  • encourage children to apply learned reading strategies when they are not sure about the text (e.g., rereading, reading ahead, using pictures, looking at the initial consonant, and asking, "Does it make sense?");
  • make learning meaningful, taking into account the age, interests, and needs of children;
  • provide a rich and varied literacy environment that includes interesting reading material, displays, and engaging multimedia resources (e.g., audio, video, and overheads), and that reflects the cultural diversity of the school and community;
  • provide opportunities for children to choose their own reading material and develop a sense of control over the reading process;
  • provide opportunities for discussion, teamwork, and other social interactions that make reading interesting and fun;
  • integrate reading into other activities to show that it is an essential, everyday skilwith practical value;
  • focus on the internal reward of personal satisfaction and the achievement of goals that matter to the individual child.

Planning and Organizing

Teachers adapt their instruction to match their students' current development in reading, recognizing that as children progress they will need to spend less time developing and practising some skills and more time on others. They use classroom time as effectively as possible, with an appropriate combination of large-group, small-group, and individual instruction. As planners and organizers, they:

  • provide large blocks of uninterrupted classroom time for reading instruction and plenty of meaningful practice;
  • maintain predictable schedules and classroom routines so that children know what is expected of them in various activities throughout the day;
  • implement and monitor these established routines before starting small-group instruction, to ensure that children are able to work independently while the teacher is otherwise occupied;
  • use reflective practice, observation, and a variety of assessment strategies to identify each child's learning needs and provide differentiated instruction;
  • know strategies and effective practices for engaging children in large groups, small groups, and individual instruction, and for organizing the groups in the most appropriate ways for the learning task (e.g., mixed-ability groupings, or groupings differentiated by age, instructional level, developmental stage, or topic of interest);
  • use organizational structures and classroom management techniques that enable children to be responsible managers of their own learning time;
  • monitor the children's time on task and engagement in the task.

Observing and Assessing

Teachers know that ongoing assessment is fundamentally important for guiding student instruction. They:

  • use a variety of assessment tools and strategies, such as student self-reflection, conferences with students, informal reading inventories, and running records;
  • use assessment data to determine the current strengths and needs of children;
  • continually adapt their teaching strategies to match a child's growth;
  • provide meaningful feedback on the children's work, rather than just providing a mark; celebrate their successes; and let them know where improvements are needed;
  • pay attention to the needs of children who are at risk of reading failure, and seek timely intervention and supports when it is clear that excellent classroom instruction will not be enough;
  • work cooperatively with literacy experts who provide reading intervention and supports, in order to ensure that help outside the classroom is supported and reinforced by regular instruction in the classroom.

Promoting Teamwork

Effective teachers understand the importance of working as part of an early literacy team. They recognize that teachers in the early grades lay the essential groundwork for children to succeed in the higher grades. They know, for example, that children's reading achievement at the end of Grade 3 will depend in large part on the reading instruction they receive in Kindergarten and Grades 1 and 2, and so they work collaboratively to ensure seamless progression.

They meet with colleagues on a regular basis to plan cooperatively, share teaching ideas and strategies, engage in professional reading, and discuss observations based on visits to each others' classrooms. Together they:

  • agree on common literacy strategies;
  • establish school literacy goals;
  • build capacity within the primary division.

As well as working with colleagues, teachers work actively to involve families in their children's learning and encourage reading at home.

Making Cultural Connections

Teachers' expectations of and relationships with their students profoundly affect students' learning. Numerous research studies in literacy have shown that students are more academically successful when they feel welcomed, valued, and challenged by material that builds upon their prior knowledge, experiences, and interests. When these attitudes, behaviors, and curriculum considerations are missing, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may resist learning. (Willis, 2000)

All teachers have a vital role in promoting respect for the cultural diversity of their students and the community. Good teaching builds upon the cultural and language backgrounds, ways of making meaning, and prior knowledge that all children bring to the classroom. Effective teachers:

  • develop their knowledge of other cultures;
  • have high expectations for all children;
  • provide a welcoming environment that affirms all children;
  • work with family members and the community to promote student learning and build bridges of cooperation.

Culturally informed teaching supports the learning needs of all children, regardless of their cultural or linguistic background. The challenge is not to create the perfect "culturally matched" learning situation for each ethnic group, but to capitalize on diversity and to recognize when an individual child or group of children has a particular need or deficit that is making it harder to learn to read.

Teachers in French-language schools have an important additional role in promoting francophone culture and language. They immerse the children 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 relevant and see themselves as active participants in it. As well, they promote community connections by sharing information about francophone arts and services with children and their families.

While the teacher's role in promoting francophone culture is widely accepted, it can be difficult to put this mission into action. It is a huge challenge for teachers to find resources that are adapted to the Franco-Ontarian context and that correspond with The Kindergarten Program and the Ontario language curriculum for Grades 1-8. As well, because francophones are widely dispersed throughout the province, it is difficult for them to work together to create new resources and share existing resources. But in spite of these challenges – and even more because of them – it is vital that teachers include themes favouring the development of cultural life in French.

Pursuing Professional Expertise

[Professional development] must move beyond the 'sit and get' model of one-shot workshops, conferences, in-service days, and graduate courses that have no connection with the real work of schools. [It] should be ongoing, intensive, and an integral part of a teacher's regular workday. ... In addition, professional development should demonstrate a positive correlation with increased teacher effectiveness and improved student achievement. (US Department of Education, 1996)

Teachers who are committed to excellence in reading instruction recognize that there is no single instructional program or method that is effective for all children. This is why they understand the importance of improving their professional knowledge individually and within a team, and view themselves as lifelong, reflective learners. They seek out opportunities to expand their knowledge by participating in peer coaching, mentorships, professional reading circles, networking opportunities with colleagues, and literacy workshops and conferences.

Most effective professional development happens in schools during the school day, with the support and involvement of an onsite lead literacy teacher. It is research-based, practical, ongoing, and tied in a clear and meaningful way to the expectations in the Ontario curriculum and to the goal of improving student achievement. Topics could include: phonemic awareness and concepts about print; phonics and word study; vocabulary development; selection and use of high-quality literature to develop and expand oral language and vocabulary; text comprehension; written expression; ongoing assessment to inform instruction; and strategies for motivating children to read and write.

Focused professional development affirms for teachers that they have a central role to play in student learning, and shows them how to be successful in that role. It respects and nurtures the teachers' intellectual and leadership capacity. It encourages teachers to develop the daily habit of asking good questions of themselves and others, reflecting on their practices, and striving to improve both individually and as a team.