Right to Read inquiry report

View and download PDF: Executive summary and key recommendations

On October 3, 2019, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) announced a public inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system. The Right to Read inquiry, which focused on early reading skills, found that Ontario’s public education system is failing students with reading disabilities (such as dyslexia) and many others, by not using evidence-based approaches to teach them to read.

The Right to Read inquiry report highlights how learning to read is not a privilege but a basic and essential human right. The report includes 157 recommendations to the Ministry of Education, school boards and faculties of education on how to address systemic issues that affect the right to learn to read. The report combines research, human rights expertise and lived experience of students, parents and educators to provide recommendations on curriculum and instruction, early screening, reading interventions, accommodation, professional assessments and systemic issues. Implementing the OHRC’s recommendations will ensure more equitable opportunities and outcomes for students in Ontario’s public education system.

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Executive summary

View and download PDF: Executive summary and key recommendations

ISBN: 978-1-4868-5826-2 (Print)
978-1-4868-5827-9 (HTML)
978-1-4868-5828-6 (PDF)
Approved by the OHRC: January 27, 2022

 

WARNING: This summary deals with topics that may trigger some readers. It includes references to bullying, emotional and physical abuse, mental health challenges, self-harm and suicide. Please engage in self-care as you read this material. There are many resources available if you need additional support, including on the OHRC website at: www.ohrc.on.ca under List of supports.

 

Introduction

The right to equal education includes the right to read

On November 9, 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada released a unanimous decision recognizing that learning to read is not a privilege, but a basic and essential human right. The Supreme Court found that Jeffrey Moore, a British Columbia student with dyslexia, had a right to receive the intensive supports and interventions he needed to learn to read. The school board’s failure to provide special education programs and services, including intensive intervention, denied Jeffrey Moore meaningful access to education, resulting in discrimination under the British Columbia Human Rights Code. The Court said:

…adequate special education…is not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children…

The Moore v British Columbia (Education) decision (Moore) confirmed that human rights laws in Canada protect the right of all students to an equal opportunity to learn to read. This decision was lauded as a significant victory for students with disabilities, particularly students with reading disabilities. Many hoped that it would act as a catalyst for systemic change in Ontario’s education system.

Almost 10 years after the Moore decision, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released a report on its public inquiry into the right to read. The right to read applies to ALL students, not just students with reading disabilities. This inquiry found that Ontario is not fulfilling its obligations to meet students’ right to read.

Despite decades of multi-disciplinary research on what is most effective for teaching students early reading skills, and after Moore affirmed that meaningful access to education, including learning to read, is a human right, Ontario is systematically failing students with reading disabilities and many other students. The promise of Moore has not been fulfilled. This leaves many students at risk for significant life-long difficulties. The inquiry is not just about an equal right to read – it is about an equal right to a future.

The science of reading

This report uses terms like the “science of reading,” “reading science,” “research-based,” “evidence-based” and “science-based” to refer to the vast body of scientific research that has studied how reading skills develop and how to ensure the highest degree of success in teaching all children to read. The science of reading includes results from thousands of peer-reviewed studies and meta-analyses that use rigorous scientific methods. The science of reading is based on expertise from many fields including education, special education, developmental psychology, educational psychology, cognitive science and more.

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Launching a public inquiry

The OHRC has a mandate to protect human rights and the public interest in Ontario and promote compliance with the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code). The OHRC does this by developing policies, initiating public inquiries, and engaging in strategic litigation. Although the OHRC does not have the same power as the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) to make legally binding findings of discrimination or to order remedies, it has a unique power to hold systemic inquiries in the public interest (section 31 of the Code). This includes the power to request documents, data and information, analyze it with the help of experts and issue findings and recommendations. The information obtained in a section 31 inquiry may be used as evidence in a proceeding before the HRTO.

In October 2019, building on previous work on accessible education, including its intervention in Moore and its Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities, the OHRC launched a public inquiry into human rights issues facing students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system. The OHRC worked with two experts in reading development and reading disabilities, Dr. Linda Siegel and Dr. Jamie Metsala, to analyze significant information obtained from a representative sample of eight English-language public school boards, all 13 Ontario English-language public faculties of education, and the Ministry of Education (Ministry).

The inquiry also heard from thousands of students, parents, organizations, educators and other professionals through surveys, public hearings, a community meeting, engagements with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, artwork, emails, submissions, meetings and telephone calls.

The inquiry, the first of its kind in Canada, combined the OHRC’s expertise in human rights and systemic discrimination with Dr. Siegel and Dr. Metsala’s expertise in reading development, reading disabilities/dyslexia, interventions to improve reading and the extensive body of research science.

School boards and faculties of education reviewed for the inquiry

The eight sample English-language school boards selected for the inquiry were:

  1. Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (Hamilton-Wentworth)
  2. Keewatin-Patricia District School Board (Keewatin-Patricia)
  3. Lakehead District School Board (Lakehead)
  4. London District Catholic School Board (London Catholic)
  5. Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (Ottawa-Carleton)
  6. Peel District School Board (Peel)
  7. Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (Simcoe Muskoka Catholic)
  8. Thames Valley District School Board (Thames Valley).

Ontario’s 13 English-language public faculties are of education were:

  1. Brock University
  2. Lakehead University
  3. Laurentian University
  4. Nipissing University
  5. Queen's University
  6. Trent University
  7. University of Ontario Institute of Technology
  8. University of Ottawa
  9. University of Toronto
  10. University of Windsor
  11. Western University 
  12. Wilfrid Laurier University
  13. York University

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Focusing on early reading

Literacy goes beyond the ability to read and write proficiently. It includes the ability to access, take in, analyze and communicate information in a variety of formats, and interact with different forms of communication and technologies.

Word-reading and spelling are a foundation for being able to read and write and successfully interact with different forms of communication. Everyone wants and needs to be able to read words to function in school and life. The inquiry heard many accounts of people who could not read a menu in a restaurant, read ingredients on a food label, read street signs, play video games that involve reading, search the Internet, look at websites or access other forms of digital media.

Becoming fully literate also requires more than just the ability to read words. The ability to understand the words that are read and the sentences that contain them are important for strong reading comprehension. A comprehensive approach to early literacy recognizes that instruction that focuses on word-reading skills, oral language development, vocabulary and knowledge development, and writing are all important components of literacy.

The inquiry focused on word-level reading and the associated early reading skills that are a foundation for good reading comprehension. This focus was chosen because of the ongoing struggle for Ontario students to receive evidence-based instruction in these foundational skills; the difficulty in meeting early reading outcomes for many students, often from marginalized or Code-protected groups; research recognizing the importance of instruction in these foundational word-reading skills; and the recognition of the rights of students with dyslexia in the Moore decision.  

Word-level reading difficulties are the most common challenge for students who struggle to learn to read well. Most students who have issues with reading comprehension have word-level reading difficulties.

Despite their importance, foundational word-reading skills have not been effectively targeted in Ontario’s education system. They have been largely overlooked in favour of an almost exclusive focus on contextual word-reading strategies and on socio-cultural perspectives on literacy. These are not substitutes for developing strong early word-reading skills in all students. The OHRC’s position is that making sure all children are taught the necessary skills to read words fluently and accurately furthers and does not detract from equity, anti-racism and anti-oppression.

Early word-reading skills are critical, but they are not the only necessary components in reading outcomes. Robust evidence-based phonics programs should be one part of broader, evidence-based, rich classroom language arts instruction, including but not limited to story telling, book reading, drama, and text analysis. Evidence-based direct, explicit instruction for spelling and writing are also important to literacy. Many students, including students with reading disabilities, have difficulties with written expression. Explicit, evidence-based instruction in building background and vocabulary knowledge, and in reading comprehension strategies, are all parts of comprehensive literacy instruction. Although the inquiry focused on one most frequent obstacle to students developing a strong foundation in early reading skills, the report also acknowledges the other elements of a comprehensive approach to literacy. These elements must also be addressed when implementing report recommendations.

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Focusing on the Ministry of Education, school boards and faculties of education

The inquiry focused on the Ministry, school boards and faculties of education (faculties) because each has a central role in meeting the right to read. The Ministry has ultimate responsibility for education in Ontario. It sets the curriculum that Ontario teachers must teach. It can set out provincial standards, for example for assessment, evaluation and reporting, data collection and special education services, and require boards to follow them. The Ministry also funds education.

Ontario’s 72 public school boards deliver education services, including special education, in accordance with Ministry requirements. They also have significant discretion on how to spend funds and deliver services, including special education services.

Faculties have a key role in preparing teachers to teach students early reading skills, and in providing ongoing professional development in areas such as reading and special education.

Other education sector partners have important responsibilities in addressing the rights of students with reading disabilities. The Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) establishes requirements for teacher education programs for future teachers (also called pre-service teachers) and Additional Qualification courses for current teachers (also called in-service teachers). The inquiry makes recommendations about what pre-service and in-service teachers should learn about teaching reading and reading disabilities.

The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) administers provincewide tests to evaluate the achievement of students with the goal of promoting accountability and continuous improvement in Ontario’s public education system. The inquiry makes recommendations related to EQAO data.

The Ontario Psychological Association (OPA) and the Association of Psychology Leaders in Ontario Schools (APLOS) establish guidelines for diagnosing students’ reading disabilities, and the inquiry makes recommendations to the OPA and APLOS about these guidelines.

The Right to Read report sets out the inquiry’s findings and 157 interconnected recommendations for these education sector partners on how to meet the right to read. Because the issues are systemic and require a consistent system-wide response, the report recommends that the Ministry work with an independent expert or experts to implement many of the recommendations. It will also be critical that the recommendations be implemented in their entirety, because together they form a holistic approach to the right to read. The OHRC also emphasizes that sufficient, stable ongoing funding will be needed to successfully implement these recommendations.

Although the inquiry’s primary focus was on English-language boards and faculties of education, it also identified challenges related to French-language education. Most inquiry findings and recommendations likely apply equally to French-language education and the OHRC expects that the Ministry and French boards will address and implement the recommendations as appropriate for students learning in French.

 

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Background

Key findings and recommendations

This report uses both the terms reading disability and dyslexia. Currently, the Ontario education system only uses the term learning disability, which typically only includes students who have been formally identified with a learning disability through a process called an Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC). The education system does not identify if the learning disability affects word reading or another area such as mathematics, and does not collect data about students who have not been formally identified. A lot of valuable information for planning and tracking is therefore lost.

The term “dyslexia” is also not used in the Ontario education system. However, the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic or Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) recognizes dyslexia as an appropriate term for referring to a pattern of learning difficulties characterized by problems with accurate or fluent word recognition, poor decoding, and poor spelling abilities. After the inquiry was launched, the Ontario Psychological Association updated its Guidelines for Diagnosis and Assessment of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Learning Disabilities to recognize the value of psychologists using the term dyslexia when making a diagnosis. Dyslexia is well researched and understood, and there are many helpful dyslexia resources. Some also prefer the term “dyslexia” as it indicates a learning difference, and are concerned about the socially-constructed stigma that may be associated with a “disability” label. Under the Code, people’s preferred self-identification should be respected and recognized.

The OHRC recommends the Ministry, faculties of education and school boards explicitly recognize the term “dyslexia” [Recommendations 51, 54, 55, 56, 114, 126].
The OHRC recommends that school boards identify and track students by the type of learning disability/academic area that is impaired (for example, identifying that a student has a reading disability instead of a learning disability) [Recommendation 126] and collect data specific to all students with reading disabilities (including students who have not been formally identified through an IPRC) [Recommendations 133, 135, 142, 143, 145, 148].

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Reading disabilities and other barriers to learning to read

Dyslexia or a reading disability in word reading is a specific learning disability characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word reading and/or poor decoding and spelling abilities. These word-reading difficulties may also result in problems with reading comprehension and can limit learning vocabulary and background knowledge from reading. Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, and learning disabilities are the most prevalent special education exceptionality in Ontario. This means that dyslexia/reading disabilities are the most prevalent disabilities in schools. There are students with dyslexia/reading disabilities in every Ontario classroom.

Although dyslexia is assumed to be neurobiological in origin, there is evidence that with evidence-based reading instruction, early identification, and early evidence-based reading intervention, at-risk students will not develop a “disability.” If the education system is working as it should, a reading disability can be prevented for almost all students.

Students with other disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, and hearing disabilities, may also struggle to learn to read when ineffective approaches are used in the classroom. Because of marginalization and structural inequality, Black and other racialized students, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, multilingual students, or students from low-income backgrounds are also at increased risk for reading difficulties. Approaches to teaching early reading that build skills for decoding words and language comprehension have been proven to work best for all students, and are essential for many students.

For most students, but particularly vulnerable students, reading outcomes depend on the quality of reading instruction they receive. Nearly all students can learn to read words proficiently with science-based systematic and explicit instruction in foundational reading skills. Identifying and intervening early with the small number of students who may still struggle to learn to read words well, sets them up for future success in school, work and life. But failing to prevent a word-reading disability in the vast majority of cases where this is possible, has serious life-long consequences. The research and lived experience accounts gathered in the inquiry show the negative trajectory of students who do not develop proficient early word reading skills.

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What happens when students do not learn to read

Students who don’t develop good early reading skills can very quickly begin to experience negative academic consequences, which may only get worse. Reading is necessary for many aspects of learning in school, and initial difficulties can increase over time and impede accessing the curriculum in other subjects. This is one of several reasons why early intervention for struggling readers is essential.

When students have difficulty learning to read, it can affect their confidence in their academic abilities and overall self-esteem, and lead to significant mental health concerns. The inquiry heard many students describe themselves as “stupid” because they cannot read, even though reading disabilities have nothing to do with intelligence. Consistent with findings in the academic research, many students and parents told the inquiry about depression and anxiety, school avoidance, acting out, being bullied or victimized, self-harming, and thinking about or even attempting suicide.

Students with reading disabilities often underachieve academically. They are more likely to drop out of school, less likely to go on to post-secondary education, and tend to take longer to finish programs they enroll in. The effects can continue past their schooling and can have a negative impact on employment, and lead to lower incomes, poverty and homelessness and higher rates of involvement in crime and incarceration. Adults with dyslexia told the inquiry about long-term effects of not learning to read, such as mental health and substance abuse issues and negative impacts on their employment.

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Broader impacts on families and society

Parents also reported impacts on the family, something that has also been described in the literature. Parents talked about the financial effects when families spent money on private assessments and tutoring, and gave up or changed their employment to have the time to support their child. Other family impacts included the challenges of navigating the school system, negative effects on relationships and significant mental health burdens.

The broader impacts of low literacy on society are also well documented, which is why many organizations advocate for improving literacy in Ontario, with a focus on foundational word reading skills. For example, the Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario (PAO) and the Physicians of Ontario Neurodevelopmental Advocacy (PONDA) have recognized the relationship between literacy and health outcomes, and have called for curriculum and reading instruction that incorporates explicit, systematic instruction in phonics, early screening and early evidence-based intervention. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has identified improving literacy as a tool to combat crime.

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Reducing the social and economic costs of low literacy

Investment in early reading significantly reduces the social and economic costs of low literacy to the individual, their family and society as whole. It also improves equity outcomes. Children from groups protected under the Code disproportionately suffer the effects of failing to use evidence-based approaches to teaching reading and supporting struggling readers. Their parents do not always have the same access to resources and private supports as more advantaged parents. These students rely on the public education system to give them a strong foundation in reading to help reduce their historical and social disadvantage. When the education system does not do this, it can worsen their marginalization and risk of inter-generational inequality.

These significant burdens on individuals, families and society are preventable. Dr. Louisa Moats, an expert on science-based reading instruction and teacher education, said in Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, 2020 that “the tragedy here is that most reading failure is unnecessary.” Decades of research shows us what we need to do to give all students equal opportunity to learn to read, but this knowledge has not translated into what is happening in schools.

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What is needed to teach all students foundational word-reading skills

The key requirements to successfully teach and support all students are:

  1. Curriculum and instruction that reflects the scientific research on the best approaches to teach word reading. This includes explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, which teaches grapheme to phoneme (letter-sound) relationships and using these to decode and spell words, and word-reading accuracy and fluency. It is critical to adequately prepare and support teachers to deliver this instruction.
  2. Early screening of all students using common, standardized evidence-based screening assessments twice a year from Kindergarten to Grade 2, to identify students at risk for reading difficulties for immediate, early, tiered interventions.
  3. Reading interventions that are early, evidence-based, fully implemented and closely monitored and available to ALL students who need them, and ongoing interventions for all readers with word reading difficulties.
  4. Accommodations (and modifications to curriculum expectations) should not be used as a substitute for teaching students to read. Accommodations should always be provided along with evidence-based curriculum and reading interventions. When students need accommodations (for example, assistive technology), they should be timely, consistent, effective and supported in the classroom.
  5. Professional assessments, particularly psychoeducational assessments, should be timely and based on clear, transparent, written criteria that focus on the student’s response to intervention. Criteria and requirements for professional assessments should account for the risk of bias for students who are culturally or linguistically diverse, racialized, who identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, or come from less economically privileged backgrounds. Professional assessments should never be required for interventions or accommodations.

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Broader equity issues affecting student outcomes

The OHRC assessed Ontario’s current approach against these requirements. It also considered broader systemic issues related to these areas to determine if:

  • There are consistent standards and approaches at the provincial and school board levels
  • There is monitoring and accountability at the provincial and school board levels
  • Boards and the province are collecting data to monitor individual student outcomes, support evidence-based decision-making, and analyze equity gaps based on disability; race; First Nations, Métis, Inuit ancestry; socio-economic status and other identity characteristics
  • Boards are transparent in their communication with parents.

The OHRC also considered barriers faced by students with other disabilities and students from marginalized groups such as First Nations, Métis and Inuit students; Black and other racialized students; newcomer students; multilingual students; students from low socio-economic backgrounds; and students facing intersecting barriers (where several of these factors combine to create unique or compounded disadvantage).

The OHRC makes specific recommendations to address these barriers, for example, to address the unique needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit learners [Recommendations 1 to 26, 120] and multilingual students [Recommendations 62, 118, 124].

First Nation, Métis and Inuit children and youth experience unique challenges and barriers in accessing education. The ongoing legacy of residential schools; trauma; oppression, colonialism, racism and disadvantage; poverty (including inadequate housing, food insecurity and lack of access to clean water) and a lack of a feeling of belonging in school are some of the factors that have negative effects on First Nations, Métis and Inuit students’ education, including their experience in learning to read.

The inquiry heard that many of the challenges faced by students with reading disabilities and their families are amplified for First Nations, Métis and Inuit:

  • Navigating the education system is unnecessarily complex and difficult
  • As in-school supports for students with disabilities tend to be limited, it puts the onus on parents to work with their children at home. This may be more difficult for First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents due to an intergenerational lack of literacy or reluctance towards the traditional school system
  • The parents may themselves have learning disabilities that were never identified or supported
  • First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents may have greater challenges supporting assistive technology accommodations
  • First Nations, Métis and Inuit students may face barriers accessing services due to poverty, living in northern or rural locations and stigma.

While many of this report’s findings and recommendations will support First Nation, Métis and Inuit students’ right to read, particular attention needs to be paid to their intersectional needs to meet their substantive equality rights, treaty rights and their rights under international law (such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).

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Inquiry findings on reading outcomes in Ontario

Key findings and recommendations

Quantitative and qualitative data gathered in the inquiry shows an urgent need to improve reading and other student achievement outcomes in Ontario. Too many Ontario students are not learning to read well. Reading achievement for Ontario students is concerning, but the outcomes for students with special education needs (excluding gifted), learning disabilities, boys, Black and other racialized students, multilingual students, students from low-income backgrounds, and Indigenous students are even more troubling.

With evidence-based word-reading instruction, many more children can learn to read proficiently and enjoy reading in the earliest elementary grades. Built on these foundations and incorporating evidence-based instruction in all components of literacy instruction, they can be meeting provincial testing standards in Grade 3 and 6 and the Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. They can also get all the other benefits that come from having strong reading skills and comprehension. The assumption that some students – including students with disabilities – will never learn to read well is a form of ableism. It is used to justify maintaining systemic barriers instead of making changes we know will help all students learn to read.

Although the inquiry analyzed some quantitative data, there is a need for improved data collection, analysis and reporting on reading and other student achievement outcomes. EQAO reporting should be more transparent and include more detailed information about students with special education needs, including on their success rates and use of accommodations. Better data is needed to see if other students also experience inequality in reading and other outcomes, to identify and close equity gaps. There is little or inconsistent data at a school board or provincial levels on streaming and post-secondary participation. Other concerns with data collection are discussed in several sections of the report, particularly section 13, Systemic issues.

The OHRC recommends improving data collection, analysis and reporting in several areas [Recommendations 23 to 26, 55, 60, 63, 67, 81, 136, 137, 139 to 150].

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The data confirms change is needed

The inquiry gathered quantitative and qualitative data on reading and literacy outcomes in Ontario. As school boards and the province do not collect other data on reading outcomes, the main source of quantitative data for the inquiry was EQAO reading test scores. The inquiry gathered qualitative data from a variety of lived experience accounts. Both the quantitative and qualitative data show more Ontario students are experiencing reading difficulties than should be.

With science-based approaches to reading instruction, early screening and intervention, we would expect to see only about 5% of students still below grade-level expectations on word-reading accuracy and fluency. However, in 2018–2019, 26% of all Ontario Grade 3 students and 53% of Grade 3 students with special education needs (students who have an Individual Education Plan (IEP), excluding students whose sole identified exceptionality is giftedness) were not meeting the provincial EQAO standard. Although the EQAO tests do not measure word reading accuracy and fluency separately, these significantly impact early reading comprehension. The results improved only slightly for Grade 6 students, where 19% of all students and 47% of students with special education needs did not meet the provincial standard.

The inquiry found similar results in the eight school boards. Far too many students with special education needs in these boards were unsuccessful on the Grades 3 and 6 2018–2019 EQAO reading assessments. When looking specifically at students identified with a learning disability exceptionality, in most boards, only about half of students with a learning disability exceptionality were able to meet provincial EQAO standards, even with a high rate of accommodations.

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The data doesn’t show the true extent of the problem

The success rates on EQAO reading assessments are even more troubling when considering that most students with special education needs who meet the provincial standard use accommodations such as assistive technology to have the test questions read to them, and/or scribes to write down their answers. Accommodations are important and necessary for some students to access the curriculum and show their understanding of it. However, when looking at EQAO scores it is important to consider accommodations because when students use assistive technology or scribing, EQAO results do not tell us if those students can read or write unassisted.

Provincial and school board data from the eight inquiry boards shows that very few students with special education needs met the standard unaccommodated. For example, the International Dyslexia Association’s (IDA) report Lifting the curtain on EQAO scores found that in 2018–2019, only 8.5% of Grade 3 students with an IEP achieved the provincial standard on the EQAO reading assessment without using assistive technology or scribing. This is consistent with the OHRC’s findings from the school board data about students with identified learning disabilities. In 2018–2019, very few students identified with a learning disability exceptionality in the eight inquiry school boards met the provincial EQAO reading standard in either Grade 3 or 6 reading without accommodation.

The IDA report found little to no improvement in the unaccommodated pass rate for students with special education needs (excluding gifted) between 2005 and 2019 or for the reading achievement of all students in Ontario. The use of assistive technology and scribing accommodations has also been increasing over time.

In its 2018–2019 provincial report, the EQAO highlighted the underachievement of students with special education needs as a significant concern. It said:

The persistent discrepancy in achievement between students with special education needs and those without requires attention. EQAO data show that students with learning disabilities are the largest group in the cohort of students identified as having special education needs. Historically, students with learning disabilities have had a low level of achievement despite having average to above average intelligence. It would be beneficial to review supports available and strategies for success.

The EQAO data, which is already concerning, likely significantly under-represents the magnitude of reading difficulties among Ontario students. EQAO scores do not reflect whether the education system is equipping students to read independently.

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Achievement gaps for Indigenous students

Unique and compounded forms of disadvantage contribute to an achievement gap between First Nations, Métis and Inuit students and other students. Some gains have been made in recent years. However, using EQAO scores, credit accumulation rates and graduation rates as measures, students who have voluntarily identified as First Nations, Métis or Inuit are still behind other Ontario students.

Provincial EQAO data and data from the inquiry school boards showed that students who have self-identified as First Nations, Métis and Inuit were less likely to meet the provincial reading standard. Five-year graduation rates for self-identified First Nations, Métis and Inuit students in provincially funded schools are also lower than provincial rates for all students.

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First-hand accounts that many students struggle with reading

Qualitative data collected in the inquiry also included many examples of students failing to learn to read or only learning to read through significant effort and private services, where families can afford them. Students, parents, teachers and other professionals all provided examples of students many years behind in reading skills. Some students entering high school were reported reading at a primary level (Grades 1–3). Many educators acknowledged that this does happen and that when it does, the system has failed the student.

The EQAO also assesses students’ engagement with reading using a student questionnaire. In 2018–2019, fewer than half of students (44% in Grade 3 and 42% in Grade 6) reported they like to read. A significant proportion (38% in Grade 3 and 33% in Grade 6) said they do not think they are good readers most of the time. This suggests that current approaches to reading are failing to teach many students to read, and to promote reading confidence and a love of reading in many more.

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Inequities in other student success indicators

The inquiry examined other student outcomes and found areas of concern. For example, there have been longstanding concerns about marginalized students being disproportionately steered or streamed into applied or locally developed high school courses, instead of academic-level courses. This negatively affects the student’s future academic pathways and opportunities.

School boards that collect and analyze demographic data have found that Indigenous, Black and Latin American students as well as students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are disproportionately represented in applied and locally developed classrooms. The inquiry found that students who have been identified with learning disability exceptionalities are also more likely to be streamed. In the inquiry boards, students identified with a learning disability exceptionality were about two to four times more likely to be taking mostly applied courses in Grade 9.

The inquiry also found that streaming happens in other ways and at a younger age. This includes placing students in special education classrooms where they do not receive appropriate interventions for their reading difficulties, or streaming them out of French Immersion programs instead of providing them with accommodations and interventions so they can remain in the regular classroom or in French immersion.

The inquiry was unable to assess potential inequities in other student outcomes. The inquiry boards were not able to provide any or consistent data on student success outcomes, such as graduation rates and post-secondary participation, for students with identified learning disabilities or other identity characteristics. For example, although the Ministry publishes overall graduation rates by boards, boards do not consistently track potential inequities in graduation rates for historically marginalized students. Boards can only disaggregate graduation data for students who graduate from the same school district they started their secondary schooling in.

Due to a lack of data, the inquiry could not confirm if students with learning disabilities are more likely to leave school without receiving their diploma, a trend found in the research. Only one inquiry board provided a report that analyzed achievement data to measure progress in student learning and to help it identify strategies to improve student achievement and well-being. In terms of accumulating credits and graduating, the report found that specific groups of students, especially Indigenous students and students with special education needs, continue to experience unequal outcomes.

 

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Curriculum and instruction

Key findings and recommendations

The goal of reading is to understand and make meaning from what is read. The evidence is clear that good reading comprehension requires being able to read words accurately and quickly, or automatically. It also requires good oral language comprehension, including strong vocabulary and background knowledge.

Strong word-level reading is a key foundational skill for becoming fully literate. It is also the skill where most students with reading acquisition difficulties struggle. Students with dyslexia, and many others, do not develop a strong foundation in word reading, setting them up for further academic struggles and potentially, a lower quality of life.

If classroom instruction is based on an evidence-based core curriculum, most students (80–90%) will learn to read words accurately and efficiently, and few students will need more intensive instruction or intervention. Decades of multidisciplinary research has shown that the best way to teach all students to read words is through direct, explicit, systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills. Beginning in Kindergarten, this includes explicit instruction in phonemic awareness [the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds (or phonemes) in spoken words], phonics (which teaches letter-sound associations, also known as grapheme-phoneme correspondences and using these to “sound-out” words and to spell words). From about Grade 2, explicit instruction focuses on more advanced knowledge and skills, such as increased study of word structures and patterns (for example prefixes, word roots and suffixes), and how word spellings relate to one another. From beginning to teach these decoding skills, students also practice reading words in stories to build word-reading accuracy and speed.

Unfortunately, the current Ontario Curriculum, Language, Grades 1–8, 2006 (Ontario Language curriculum) and teacher education in Ontario’s faculties does not promote these highly effective approaches to early word-reading instruction. Instead, with few exceptions, the main approaches in Ontario are teaching word-solving skills with the three-cueing system and balanced literacy. The three-cueing system encourages students to guess or predict words using cues or clues from the context and their prior knowledge. In balanced literacy (or comprehensive balanced literacy), teachers “gradually release responsibility” by first modelling text reading, sharing text reading, then guiding students’ text reading, with the eventual goal of the student reading texts independently. These approaches for word reading are rooted in a whole language philosophy which suggests that by immersing children in spoken and written language, they will discover how to read. Given this philosophy, many of the other important literacy outcomes beyond word-reading skills may also not receive adequate explicit, evidence-based instruction.

With few small exceptions, Ontario students are not being taught foundational word-reading skills using an explicit and systematic approach to teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding and word reading fluency. Even where boards or teachers are trying to be more intentional about using direct, systematic instruction, they are constrained by the current Ontario curriculum and emphasis on cueing systems and balanced literacy.

Many leading reading reports, teachers and teacher federations have recognized the need for teachers to be well prepared and supported to deliver an evidence-based core curriculum, including teaching foundational word-reading skills. Currently, teacher education and professional development places little emphasis on how skilled reading develops and how to teach word reading using direct and systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills. Teachers also learn little about evidence-based early screening and reading interventions, or how to identify and effectively respond to struggling readers.

 

The OHRC recommends the Ministry work with an external expert or experts to revise Ontario’s Kindergarten Program, Language curriculum and related instructional guides to remove use of cueing systems for word reading and instead require mandatory explicit, systematic and direct instruction in foundational word-reading skills [Recommendations 27 to 30]. This should be done on an expedited basis while the Ministry and boards simultaneously take immediate steps to align their instructional approaches with the OHRC’s findings and recommendations [Recommendations 31, 33, 39 to 41].

The OHRC recommends that teacher education programs address the importance of word-reading accuracy and efficiency for reading comprehension; how accurate and efficient word-reading develops; how to teach foundational word-reading and spelling skills in the classroom and the importance of teaching foundational word-reading skills to promote equality for all students [Recommendation 48]. The OHRC further recommends that teacher education programs better equip teachers who are qualified to teach Kindergarten to Grade 6 to deliver the critical components of word-reading instruction and identify, instruct and support students with word-reading difficulties [Recommendations 49 to 55].

The OHRC recommends the Ministry work with an external expert or experts to develop a comprehensive, sustained and job-embedded in-service teacher professional learning program and resources that address reading instruction and how to identify, instruct and support students with word-reading difficulties [Recommendation 56].
The OHRC recommends the Ministry provide adequate funding to implement these recommendations [Recommendations 42, 43, 45, 57, 58].

 

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Curriculum and instruction are the foundation for reading success

Science-based curriculum and classroom instruction are the foundation for meeting the right to read. In the education field, a widely accepted framework to support student success is a three-tiered approach to instruction and intervention (also referred to as Response to Intervention or RTI or a Multi-tiered System of Supports or MTSS). This approach is intended to maximize outcomes for all students, not just students with reading disabilities. Tier 1 is the core curriculum that all students receive in the classroom. Meeting the right to read requires high-quality tier 1 classroom instruction using an evidence-based, scientifically researched core curriculum. This would meet the needs of about 80 to 90% of students.

Teachers play a vital role in meeting the right to read. In 2003, Ontario’s own expert panel on early reading said:

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.

Teachers must have sufficient and ongoing professional development to deliver a high-quality science-based tier 1 core curriculum as designed. Many leading reports have stressed the importance of teachers being equipped with the skills and knowledge to deliver evidence-based reading instruction, including that needed for teaching foundational word reading skills. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union of education professionals, has recognized the importance of preparing teachers to deliver science-based reading instruction both for student outcomes and to empower teachers and support their professionalism and autonomy.

The AFT worked with Dr. Louisa Moats to publish a report, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, 2020, that translates the latest research in this area into information for educators. Several Canadian studies have shown the power of effective teaching to reduce the number of children experiencing reading difficulties. So, it is vital that faculties of education prepare teachers with these skills, and that teachers receive ongoing support and professional development.

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Structured literacy is the most effective way to teach early reading

There is an enormous body of settled scientific research on how children learn to read and the most effective way to teach them. Significant reports summarizing this research include reports from Ontario (the Ontario Expert Panel Report on Early Reading) and Canada (the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network Report), as well as international reports (the National Reading Panel Report in the United States and the Rose Reports in England). The reports all endorse explicit and systematic instruction in the foundational skills that will lead to efficient word reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, including decoding and spelling words, and practice with reading words in stories to build word-reading accuracy and speed (structured literacy).

The goal of reading is to understand and make meaning from the text. The evidence is clear that one essential component of good reading comprehension is the ability to decode or read words quickly and efficiently. So, for students to understand what they read, they must learn to decode, to turn written words into the corresponding spoken word. Learning to decode our alphabetic system requires knowing letter-sound relationships (grapheme-phoneme correspondences) and being able to apply that knowledge to blend the individual sounds together to successfully identify written words (decoding).

When students are explicitly taught and practice skills involved in decoding words, the process becomes quicker and with practice, supports automatic word reading.

Poor decoding skills act as a bottleneck to good reading comprehension. When a student must put a lot of time, effort and attention into reading words, it interferes with the flow of language in the text and uses up mental resources making it harder to understand what is read. Vocabulary and background knowledge, the ability to understand spoken language, and the use of reading comprehension strategies are all also critical aspects of reading development. Indeed, the National Reading Panel found critical roles for instruction in each of the Five Big Ideas in Beginning Reading – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension.

The best way for students to gain word-reading skills, beginning in Kindergarten, is with explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and word-level decoding, learning grapheme-phoneme correspondences and how to use these to decode words, including blending sounds and segmenting words into sounds to read words and segmenting words into sounds to write words. Explicit instruction includes more advanced skills as children progress, such as studying word structure and patterns (for example prefixes, word roots, suffixes). This explicit, systematic approach based on reading science is also referred to as structured literacy.

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Ontario’s current approach is based on ineffective cueing systems and balanced literacy

Ontario’s Kindergarten Program, 2016 and Grades 1–8 Language curriculum, related Ministry guides for reading instruction, board resources, and teacher education provided by Ontario faculties of education emphasize teaching early reading skills using cueing systems for word solving and balanced literacy. Cueing systems encourage students to predict or guess words using cues or clues based on context or prior knowledge. In balanced literacy, or similar comprehensive balanced literacy approaches, teachers “gradually release responsibility” from modelling reading texts or books, to shared reading with students, to guiding students’ text reading, to students being able to read texts independently.

Cueing systems and balanced literacy for word reading are consistent with a whole language philosophy which assumes that children will “discover” how to read through exposure to spoken and written language. In these approaches, students receive little or no direct, systematic instruction in the building blocks of written language such as phonemic awareness and phonics and how to use these skills to decode words. For example, in Ontario’s current system, it is more likely that a student will be encouraged to predict a word from a picture in the text or guess at a word from the sentence or story context and first letter rather than being taught the sounds that letters and letter combinations represent and how to use that knowledge to “sound out” the word.

Balanced literacy or comprehensive balanced literacy approaches, cueing systems and other whole language beliefs and practices are not supported by the science of reading. They have been discredited in many studies, expert reviews and reports on teaching all students to read words.  Cueing systems and balanced literacy approaches are ineffective for teaching a significant proportion of students to read words, and may be most detrimental for students who are at risk. Students most at risk for reading failure, including students with reading disabilities and many students from other Code-protected groups, will not develop critical early reading skills when these approaches are used in schools.

When schools fail to teach students how to read words accurately and fluently, students will find it more difficult to understand and make meaning from what they read. They will be at greater risk of future academic difficulties and other negative consequences. Even students who can catch on to early reading when these approaches are used, may benefit in their fluency and spelling from direct and systematic instruction.

The current core curriculum in Ontario is the Language curriculum. It sets out what all teachers are expected to teach and what every student is expected to learn in each grade. The curriculum is an important tool for establishing mandatory requirements and consistency across the province. Pre-service and in-service teacher education and professional development is largely based on the Ontario curriculum.

The Ontario Language curriculum emphasizes the three-cueing system as the primary approach to teaching students to read words. It explains that this involves looking for clues to predict or guess words based on context and prior knowledge. The overall expectation for each grade is that students will be able to “use knowledge of words and cueing systems to read fluently.” Although it defines phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics in a glossary, the curriculum does not require these to be taught, or provide guidance on how they should be taught.

The inquiry reviewed the literacy component of Ontario’s Kindergarten Program as it relates to decoding and word-reading development and also found it lacking. The program does not pay enough attention to instruction in foundational word reading skills. There are references to phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics in several specific expectations, but there is little discussion of the importance of these skills. There are no clear sets of reading skills that teachers are expected to teach and students are expected to learn. There is not enough information on teaching alphabetic knowledge and decoding skills, including no mention of daily phonics instruction. Also, the Kindergarten program does not discuss the importance of monitoring students’ skills in these areas, or supporting students who are struggling in developing these early reading skills.

Ontario’s teaching guides such as A Guide to Effective Instruction in Reading, Kindergarten to Grade 3, 2003 also promote cueing systems as the main way students gain word-reading skills. The guides provide more detail about how cueing systems should be used. Although phonemic awareness, phonics and word study (which the Guide defines as an instructional activity where students practise recognizing high-frequency words and learn word-solving strategies) are mentioned, the focus is on three-cueing throughout. Even within the discussion of phonemic awareness, phonics and word study, guessing strategies are promoted.

Board-level resources also emphasize cueing-system and balanced literacy approaches. All boards reported following the Ontario Language curriculum and relying on Ministry resources, particularly A Guide to Effective Instruction in Reading, Kindergarten to Grade 3, 2003. The boards said that in addition to cueing systems, they use either a balanced literacy or comprehensive (balanced) literacy approach to teach early reading. In responses to the educator survey, most educators also identified balanced literacy as the predominant approach to teaching reading in Ontario.

With a few small exceptions, boards do not promote an explicit and systematic approach to phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding and word reading fluency. Few board resources referenced phonemic awareness or phonics. Where these were mentioned, there was not enough detail on how to teach and integrate them into an effective approach to early reading instruction. Teachers may deliver some short “mini lessons” on aspects of early reading skills, usually with small groups of students at the teacher’s discretion. However, this ad hoc approach is not the same as evidence-based tier 1 systematic and explicit whole class instruction in foundational word reading skills.

A few boards have recognized the need for more science-based early reading instruction. They have tried to incorporate more explicit instruction in some foundational skills. However, even where boards or teachers are trying to be more intentional about using direct, systematic instruction, they are constrained by the current Ontario curriculum and emphasis on cueing systems and balanced literacy. There are other barriers such as a lack of guidance on and consistent access to evidence-based teacher-friendly resources that would help teachers become knowledgeable about and implement a science-based approach in their classrooms. There are also significant issues with ongoing access to effective professional development.

The inquiry also found another barrier is that some people in the education sector are resistant to change and hold strong beliefs supporting whole language philosophies.

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Teachers are not given sufficient education and support

Currently, Ontario teachers are required to deliver a curriculum that is inconsistent with a science-based core curriculum that meets the right to read. They also learn very little about how skilled reading develops and how to teach word reading using proven approaches/structured literacy in their pre-service and in-service education and professional development.

Ontario faculties of education are required to prepare teachers to teach the Ontario curriculum and Kindergarten Program. The inquiry found that pre-service teacher education courses and in-service Additional Qualifications (AQ) courses in reading also focus on ineffective cueing systems and balanced literacy approaches (and discovery and play-based approaches in courses about Kindergarten). There is little time or instruction on making sure pre-service teachers understand general language and early reading development.

Faculties also often emphasize socio-cultural perspectives and culturally responsive pedagogy. These are important in broader discussions about literacy and equity in education, but not a substitute for preparing teachers to deliver direct and explicit instruction in foundational word reading skills. This lack of a strong focus on scientifically supported early reading instruction may be harmful to many historically marginalized student populations and contradict the goal of promoting equity.

The inquiry found that teacher education programs and AQ courses on reading and special education include little about direct and systematic instruction in foundational word reading skills. Future and current teachers are generally not taught how skilled reading develops, including the importance of strong early word-reading skills for future reading fluency and reading comprehension. Teachers do not adequately learn how to teach phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding, and word-reading efficiency. They learn little about early screening to identify at-risk students and about evidence-based interventions. Even teachers who take AQ courses specializing in reading and special education are not learning these skills and how to identify and effectively respond to struggling readers. They are also learning very little, if anything, about reading disabilities and the term dyslexia is rarely used.

Boards said that new teacher graduates have little base knowledge about early reading instruction, so boards must provide this training through New Teacher Induction Programs. Many teachers confirmed they had not learned about effective reading instruction and reading disabilities in their teacher education program or AQ courses. They must seek out this knowledge elsewhere, often by spending their own time and money on research, resources and private training programs.

Boards and teachers also reported challenges with job-embedded professional development. They said that the province’s approach to professional learning has shifted away from comprehensive, ongoing, in-person professional development. The inquiry heard that lack of funding and release time from teaching has hampered job-embedded professional learning.

The inquiry reviewed the boards’ training on reading instruction and other inquiry areas such as screening, and found it focused mostly on specific board programs, resources or assessment methods that are inconsistent with science-based approaches. The knowledge and expertise to deliver professional development based on reading science is not often found within boards, so when training has been provided it has mostly been on ineffective approaches and programs boards are currently using. Two of the inquiry boards appear to be trying to broaden their professional development and to support all Kindergarten to Grade 3 classroom teachers in explicit and systematic instruction in foundational word reading skills. However, this should not be left to the discretion of individual boards, and professional development should be consistent across the province. All Ontario boards will benefit from additional resources, direction and support from the Ministry.

Teachers told the inquiry they want a Language curriculum and professional development that will allow them to reach all students. They also want consistent approaches to teaching reading at the board, school and classroom levels. They said that they will benefit, and their students will benefit. Teachers don’t want to see their students struggle and want to be empowered and supported in exercising their professional judgment to teach their students within an evidence-based and adequately resourced system. The findings and recommendations in this inquiry are consistent with that goal.

 

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Early screening

Key findings and recommendations

A screening measure or instrument is a quick and informal evidence-based assessment that provides information about possible word-reading difficulties. It identifies students who are currently having or are at risk for future word-reading difficulties so they can receive more instruction or immediate intervention. All students should be screened using standardized evidence-based screening measures twice a year from Kindergarten to Grade 2.

Ontario does not currently have universal, systematic, evidence-based early screening to identify at-risk students who need additional instruction and immediate interventions. The current approach is inconsistent, ad hoc and relies mostly on non-evidence-based reading assessments. This leads to many at-risk students not being identified and receiving intervention early enough or at all.

Many students’ reading difficulties are not being caught early, which has significant consequences. Age four to seven is a critical window of opportunity for teaching children foundational word-reading skills and is when intervention will be most effective. Many students who are not progressing as expected in reading are falling through the cracks and are not getting timely interventions and supports. Parents who express concerns are sometimes told not to worry as delays are developmentally normal or even expected for some students (for example, boys and students born late in the calendar year). These misconceptions further contribute to harmful delays as the longer schools wait, the harder it is to close reading gaps. Universal screening reduces the potential for misconceptions and biases to affect decisions about students.

Ontario must address its inadequate approach to early screening, which creates unnecessary conflict and confusion between school boards and teachers, and neglects the best interests of at-risk children. The research on screening for early reading skills is advanced, the financial cost is minimal and the impact of current practices on students is harmful.

The OHRC recommends the Ministry work with its external expert(s) to mandate and standardize evidence-based screening on foundational skills focusing on word-reading accuracy and fluency. The Ministry should require boards to screen every student twice a year from Kindergarten Year 1 (formerly known as Junior Kindergarten) to Grade 2 with valid and reliable screening tools, and provide boards with stable, enveloped yearly funding for screening. The tools that are selected should correspond to each specific grade and time in the year (in other words, they should measure expected knowledge for that grade and point in time in the school year). The selected screening tools should have clear, reliable and valid interpretation and decision rules [Recommendations 59 to 61].
The OHRC recommends that the results of early screening be used to identify students at risk of failing to learn to read words adequately, and to get these children into immediate, effective evidence-based interventions [Recommendations 60 to 62].
The OHRC recommends teachers be given adequate professional development to effectively implement screening [Recommendation 66], and given the necessary time to complete these assessments [Recommendation 67].

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Universal screening better ensures early identification and intervention

Along with science-based core curriculum delivered by adequately prepared educators, universal evidence-based early screening is a critical part of tier 1. This screening identifies students who are at risk for reading difficulties or are not responding to evidence-based instruction as expected, which means they are not gaining the required reading skills and knowledge. Early screening makes sure students are identified and receive the programming they need before they start to experience significant difficulties. If done properly and combined with evidence-based instruction and interventions, early screening reduces the likelihood that a student will later need professional assessment by a psychologist or speech-language pathologist. Although beyond the scope of the report, early measures can also be used to screen for difficulties in oral language development.

Screening should be universal. Every student should be screened using common and standardized evidence-based screening measures twice a year from Kindergarten to Grade 2. Evidence-based screening measures supported by research have strong internal and external validity, reliability, and have been linked to the science of reading instruction and how students acquire foundational reading skills. Many screening measures have been rigorously developed and studied, and validity and reliability for predicting risk for reading difficulties is known.

Students in each grade should be screened with specific screening instruments that will measure the expected reading development at that point in time. For example, Kindergarten screening should include measures assessing letter knowledge and phonemic awareness, but by Grade 2 screening should include timed word and passage reading.

Universal screening is important to protect the rights of all students, particularly students from many Code-protected groups. Mandatory instead of discretionary screening reduces the risk of bias in assessment or selecting students for interventions. It reduces the risk that students will fall through the cracks. Universal evidence-based screening ensures better decisions about which students need additional support and ultimately improves student outcomes. Data collected from screening is also valuable for board planning. Boards can compare results from common screening tools across schools or groups of students and direct resources where they are most needed.

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Barriers for students learning in French

All students can learn French given the appropriate supports. However, the inquiry heard that students with reading difficulties do not receive equal access to French-language education. French-language rights-holders reported giving up their right to have their child receive a French-language education and moving their child to an English board because French boards have fewer resources and programs for reading difficulties. Students may be discouraged from enrolling in French Immersion, or be encouraged to withdraw, due to misconceptions that students who struggle to learn to read should not learn English and French at the same time. Some parents reported being told the school board does not offer supports such as accommodations and interventions in French Immersion.

A preventative approach is also needed for students learning in French and at risk for reading disabilities. Early scientifically validated screening and evidence-based interventions should equally be implemented within French-language instruction.

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Ontario’s approach to early screening is failing many students

As currently interpreted, the Ministry’s Policy/Program Memorandum (PPM) 155 is a significant obstacle to universal early screening. PPM 155 leaves the frequency, timing and selection of students and screening instruments to each teacher’s professional judgment. It prevents boards from requiring that all students be screened at certain times of the year with a common evidence-based screening instrument. This has led to inconsistencies and gaps and a lack of an effective, student-centred approach to early screening. It has also limited boards’ ability to collect data centrally and use it to make decisions.

The inquiry found that screening practices vary by board, school or teacher. There are also significant issues with current screening approaches which compromise the effectiveness of the school boards’ tiered approaches. A teachers’ association representative said the current approach to who gets screened, when and how is based on “a huge amount of luck.”

Most school boards are not implementing universal screening measures at several points in time from Kindergarten to Grade 2. Typically, screening only happens once, usually in Kindergarten Year 2 (formerly known as Senior Kindergarten). Not all students are screened as some educators only screen students they believe are struggling.

When screening happens in Year 2 it is most often with tests that only measure letter-name or letter-sound knowledge and/or phonological awareness. Only some aspects of phonological awareness are typically evaluated. These skills are very early pre-literacy skills, and only some of what should be assessed. Boards often mistakenly believe these basic Year 2 screeners are complete screening assessments of all the knowledge and skills for word-reading acquisition. A few boards re-administer the same screener or a slightly different one that sometimes includes some more advanced skills at a second and/or third point in time to the same students who performed poorly the first time. This misses students who performed well when screened on early literacy skills, but later struggle with more advanced skills such as reading accuracy or fluency.

After Kindergarten, boards typically assess students using reading assessments associated with commercial reading programs that align with three-cueing and balanced literacy instructional approaches. These are not evidence-based screening instruments. Teachers typically use observational tools such as a miscue analysis or running record where a student reads aloud from a levelled reader and the teacher observes the student’s reading behaviours including the words they read correctly, how they are using the three-cueing system to predict words, and their mistakes. These methods are not useful measures. They only tell the teacher if the student is significantly below grade level in their ability to read levelled readers, not how the student is progressing on foundational word reading skills. These assessments fail to identify many children at risk for word-reading failure.

Some boards did include evidence-based screening tools on their lists of “approved” screening tools. However, because of PPM 155, there is no guarantee that teachers will pick these assessments and boards could not confirm if they are being used. Some boards use board-developed assessments which have some good components but not all necessary elements, and they do not appear to have been adequately assessed to make sure they are effective.

The inquiry also found that boards could not provide clear information about how the results of screening are used, or do not know the best way to respond to the information from screening.

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Establishing a standardized approach for universal evidence-based early screening

Ontario needs to standardize early screening and make it universal and based on the reading science. This includes stipulating that all students must be screened, when, how often, and with what screening instruments. Educators and other school professionals such as board speech-language pathologists and psychologists should be an integral part of developing this approach.

Educators administering the screening should be given adequate professional learning on the basic principles of early reading screening measures and knowledge about the specific tools that will be used. Experience from other jurisdictions that have implemented successful early screening programs indicates screening students takes 10–15 minutes per student. Educators must be given adequate time to do this important work, including recording the data from screening.

The screening tools selected should be standardized for consistency, and must be evidence-based, include the appropriate measures for each grade, and be administered to every student twice a year from Kindergarten to Grade 2. Boards should use a consistent system to record each student’s screening results. The results should be used to identify and provide immediate intervention for students who need it. Collecting data on early screening is also very important, but the data should not be used for performance management or to blame educators for issues related to reading. Boards must also be very careful not to use or report the data in a way that stereotypes or further marginalizes any student, group of students or school.

Communicating with parents is also a key part of successfully implementing early screening. Parents must understand that the screening is universal, their child is not being singled out, and the purpose of screening is to see if their child may need further supports or interventions. Some parents may be concerned that screening could lead to their child being labelled or stigmatized. Boards must explain that screening helps avoid the risk of a student developing a reading disability or needing more intensive special education supports later on.

Screening is an essential part of a systematic and comprehensive approach to meeting the right to read. The earlier we identify students needing more targeted instruction and intervention in foundational word-reading skills, the better. Investing the time and effort to conduct universal early screening and implement interventions will reduce the need for more costly and intensive services in the long run. Students will have better outcomes and educators will be better off when they have reliable and useful information about their students and are in a better position to respond.

 

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Reading interventions

Key findings and recommendations

Many more students will learn to read if we change our current approaches to classroom reading instruction, screen all students and then provide early and tiered evidence-based interventions. Ontario’s approach to reading interventions is deficient resulting in many students failing to learn foundational word-reading skills. When this happens, our education system has failed these students.

Many more students need reading interventions because classroom instruction in word reading is not based on reading science. The need for reading interventions exceeds the available spots. So, many students never receive these interventions in school or receive them far too late.

Intervention is most effective when delivered in Kindergarten and Grade 1, and no later than Grade 2. Yet, in Ontario the most effective interventions are only available, if at all, after Grade 3 or much later. Boards’ first response to struggling readers is often to provide more of the same ineffective reading instruction that has already failed the student, but in smaller groups or one-on-one. If a more formal intervention program is available in the earliest grades, it is almost always one of the several ineffective commercial programs that do not have a solid research base in building foundational word-reading skills. A critical window of opportunity begins to close, and students fall further and further behind.

There are a few exceptions where boards do have good programs for the youngest students, but once again, demand outstrips supply. The lack of consistency between boards and schools is concerning. Good early intervention programs should be available to all students, regardless of where in Ontario they go to school or which school they attend in a board.

There are some good intervention programs in the older grades, typically after students have struggled and fallen behind for many years. However, boards appear to lack a systematic and fair way for selecting students. Parents who can advocate or can pay for a private psychoeducational assessment are more likely to secure a spot for their child. Although boards may have some measures to assign students to programs, they are typically problematic such as requiring the student to be several years behind based on unreliable book-reading levels. Many students’ needs go unmet due to limits on how many can be offered reading interventions.

Ontario needs to decrease the need for reading interventions by using explicit, systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills in the classroom while simultaneously increasing access to proven interventions beginning in the earliest grades. To do this, the OHRC recommends the Ministry work with an external expert or experts to select appropriate early (Kindergarten and Grade 1) and later (Grades 2, 3 and onwards) interventions that school boards must choose from. These interventions should be evidence-based and include systemic, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics and building word-reading accuracy and fluency [Recommendation 69].
The OHRC recommends school boards immediately stop using reading interventions that do not include these components or have a strong evidence base for students who struggle with word reading, and students at risk for or identified or diagnosed with reading disabilities or dyslexia and only use interventions from the Ministry’s list [Recommendation 70].
To increase and standardize access, the OHRC recommends school boards make sure every school has at least one evidence-based tier 2 and tier 3 (more intensive than tier 2) reading intervention for students in each grade who need them [Recommendation 73]. This will require additional stable, enveloped yearly funding and implementation support from the Ministry [Recommendations 68, 80 and 83] and adequate professional development and support to make sure there are knowledgeable and skilled educators who can deliver these interventions [Recommendations 83 to 85].
The OHRC recommends removing inappropriate eligibility criteria for interventions, such as requiring a learning disability diagnosis or that the student not have a co-existing disability [Recommendations 75 to 78]. Instead, the Ministry should work with external expert(s) to develop consistent research-informed student selection criteria for interventions based on standardized reading test results. To ensure equitable access, ANY student who meets the criteria should receive interventions [Recommendations 71, 72, 75 to 78].
The OHRC recommends making improvements to monitoring individual student progress and overall effectiveness of intervention approaches [Recommendations 81 and 82].

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Key components of effective reading interventions

Early, evidence-based interventions that are fully implemented and closely monitored are highly effective in reducing the number of students who fail to learn to read. Students in all grades from Kindergarten to high school should have access to effective interventions for reading difficulties, although early intervention is best. With effective classroom instruction and early intervention, fewer students will need interventions in the later grades, when they are less effective. Any student who struggles should have access to interventions regardless of whether they have been identified with a reading disability.

Evidence-based reading interventions represent tier 2 and tier 3 in a tiered approach to supporting students with reading difficulties. Tier 2 reading interventions are for the approximately 15 to 20% of students who may still struggle with reading after receiving tier 1 science-based instruction. These students receive tier 2 support in smaller groups with increased intensity.

Evidence-based tier 2 interventions in Kindergarten and Grade 1 will be effective for most students. Tier 3 supports are intended for the very small percentage who do not respond as expected with tier 1 instruction and tier 2 intervention. These students are at high risk for failing to learn to read words adequately, or have already experienced time in the classroom without being able to meet the reading demands. Intervention at this level means smaller groups or individual interventions of increased intensity.

Interventions generally occur daily in focused blocks of time. The main difference between tier 2 and tier 3 interventions is their intensity, duration and frequency.

At tier 2, evidence-based interventions/programs must explicitly target the foundational skills of sound-letter knowledge, phonemic awareness, decoding skills and word-reading accuracy and fluency. These areas will be consistent with areas taught in evidence-based tier 1 classroom instruction for foundational word-reading skills. Tier 2 should be implemented with small groups of students, with sufficient time and intensity. Later interventions should also focus on more advanced word-reading skills (including more advanced orthographic patterns, syllables and morphemes) and strategies.

Tier 3 should either use approaches that incorporate more intensive use of tier 2 intervention programs, or more specialized programs. Tier 3 should include more explicit instruction and scaffolded practice, enough cumulative review to ensure mastery of the skills, and more time in the intervention.

Other key components of a successful tiered approach include:

  • Clear and appropriate decision-making rules for choosing evidence-based programs for classroom instruction and tiered interventions, and for matching students to intervention programs (for example, using standardized scores on assessments of foundational word-reading skills, rather than vague language about being “significantly” below grade level in reading)
  • Valid and reliable progress monitoring and outcome measures for interventions
  • Clearly identified rules and guidelines for decisions on individual students, at each point within the multi-tiered system
  • Distributing interventions to make sure all students have access to effective interventions
  • Rigorous methods for making sure an intervention is delivered as intended, including how and when the intervention is delivered, and for evaluating the program (for example, standardized word-reading, fluency and comprehension measures)
  • Adequate resources to implement the interventions, and quality professional development and ongoing coaching for teachers.

Strategies learned in effective intervention programs must be supported and reinforced in the classroom. Once interventions have ended, students will not continue to develop the necessary skills if classroom practices are not evidence-based.

No single reading intervention will completely address every student’s reading difficulties. Approximately 3–5% of students will have word-reading problems that are less responsive to even effective interventions. School boards must have evidence-based interventions at each tier to help reach all students.

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Ontario’s failure to provide science-based classroom instruction results in more students needing intervention

Currently in Ontario, many young students need interventions because classroom instruction is based on three-cueing and balanced literacy instead of structured literacy approaches. Many more students need intervention than would otherwise, and there are not enough spots for everyone. This greater need for interventions than availability contributes to a “wait and see” approach where boards wait to see which students fall furthest behind and thus appear to most need intervention. This “triaging” due to limited spots means that students who get interventions often get them too late, and many students never get access to the tier 2 and 3 supports they need.

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Boards’ earliest interventions are mostly ineffective programs

The first approach to struggling readers is typically to increase guided reading in the classroom. If the student still struggles, boards provide vaguely defined “extra reading support” or ineffective commercial programs. These programs often use the same instructional approaches used in classrooms, just in a smaller group or one-on-one setting. There are better programs that have a research base. Providing ineffective programs delays student progress.

A few boards have developed their own isolated approaches to intervention, but these are incomplete and ad hoc and have not been adequately evaluated to be confident they are effective.

A few inquiry boards reported some access to good programs as their earliest interventions. For example, one board reported starting to use an evidence-based program for some students in Kindergarten and Grade 1. Two other boards had some access to such programs before Grade 3.

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A lack of provincewide consistency means uneven access for students

The Ministry of Education does not mandate any approaches to intervening when students are not developing foundational word-reading accuracy and fluency. School boards decide which reading intervention to use, in which grades to provide the interventions, eligibility criteria, and if and how to track student progress. Sometimes boards delegate this responsibility to individual schools.

The inquiry boards reported having at least 16 different commercial interventions, only five of which were evidence-based. However, two of these evidence-based interventions were seldom used. There were six board-developed interventions, but none of them had been rigorously evaluated or included the scope of skills needed to address early or later reading difficulties.

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Evidence-based interventions are available but there are issues with timing, access and implementation

Boards are using some evidence-based interventions and some parents reported good results. However, these interventions are often provided too late. Research has clearly shown the benefits from intervening earlier. Students make the most gains when they receive interventions in the earliest grades. After Grade 2, students who are behind in word reading fall further behind their peers who are more successful at reading words fluently and efficiently, and it becomes harder to address these critical skills. When students with weak reading skills do not receive effective early interventions, it is very likely they will continue to have accuracy and/or fluency difficulties throughout their school years.

Most boards are not providing tier 2 or tier 3 evidence-based interventions until Grade 4 and above and sometimes not until Grades 6 to 8. By this time, a critical window of opportunity is lost and it will be much harder to catch these students up.

The inquiry found that even where good programs are available, access is limited and varies widely. There are not enough spots for all students who need them, or they are only available in some schools. Some schools may have access to programs but do not deliver them. School boards and schools often do not have the funds to buy interventions or to provide adequate professional development and coaching for educators to deliver them. Having sufficient staff who are skilled to deliver an evidence-based program is one of the essential components of effectively implementing tier 2 and tier 3 interventions.

Even when boards deliver evidence-based interventions, the full program, including the earliest interventions, may not be available in all schools. In some boards, only a relatively small percentage of schools were delivering early interventions (for example, only 30–40% of schools). One board did not have any evidence-based interventions for students until Grade 5.

The inquiry also heard that students in an intervention program may not receive it as intended (for example, only receiving it a few days a week instead of every day or not receiving the full program).

Generally, boards do not have clear procedures or valid, objective criteria for selecting students for interventions. Most boards rely partly on unreliable or invalid assessments to determine who receives interventions. These assessments look at students’ book-reading levels at certain points in each grade (which are unreliable for assessing students’ foundational word-reading skills).

Boards also set cut-offs that may not be valid, such as the student having to be a certain number of years behind in their reading. Both educators and parents told the inquiry that the selection process is unsystematic, with parents’ ability to advocate often determining whether a child is selected. Although all but one board said that psychoeducational assessments are not required, the inquiry heard that they often do help secure an intervention. Of concern, one inquiry board requires an assessment and learning disability diagnosis and others give preference to students who have this, which makes interventions inaccessible to many students. Current approaches to student selection are susceptible to bias and inconsistent implementation. Finite resources mean that not all students who need interventions can receive them.

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Better student progress monitoring and program evaluation

School boards are not adequately monitoring individual student progress or the overall effectiveness of intervention programs. This data is needed for decisions about individual students, and at the board level.

Ontario boards do not currently have a consistent system to measure students’ response to the intervention, or to monitor long-term effects. School boards should collect valid and reliable data on students’ immediate and long-term outcomes, to inform their decisions about individual student programming. For example, reliable information about response to interventions should be used to determine if a student needs more intensive interventions or referral for a professional assessment.

Boards are not using reliable and valid methods to examine the effectiveness of interventions. Most boards reported assessing a student’s book-reading levels before and after an intervention. This is a problematic approach for gauging progress in an intervention. Instead, standardized measures of multiple aspects of reading should be used.

Reliable data on progress and outcomes for an intervention should also be tracked and analyzed at a system level, but this not consistently happening. Many of the same issues with student progress monitoring also apply to how school boards examine program effectiveness. Boards need better data, based on standardized reading measures and not book-reading levels, to understand which intervention programs are leading to successful outcomes, for which students, and in which schools. For example, a program that was promising may not be having good effects across most schools, or a family of schools may be getting exceptional results with a certain intervention and could offer lessons about implementation procedures for the board or province.

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Knowledge about evidence-based approaches to intervention needs to be translated into practice

It is not enough to recognize the importance of a tiered approach to intervention. The actual approach must be consistent with what many studies and reports have shown works best. Ontario’s education system acknowledges the importance of evidence-based tiered approaches, but much still needs to be done to translate this into sound practice.

Access to evidence-based tiered early interventions for word-reading accuracy and fluency in school is an equity issue. Many parents who can afford it have given up on the public education system and are paying for private services. Students who come from families who can’t afford to pay or do not have good private services in their communities must navigate a complex system to try to find out whether their school offers an intervention, and if so, how to advocate to have their child placed in it. Even then, the intervention offered may not be evidence-based.

There are better ways to ensure equitable access to word-reading interventions for struggling readers. There have been some positive developments in recent years but there is a lot more work to do. There are clear steps that Ontario can take to meet the needs of students who struggle to learn foundational word-reading skills. Providing evidence-based interventions at every tier to all who need them will lessen the short- and long-term burdens on students, families, educators, and ultimately the education system. It will help reduce the need for accommodations and professional assessments.

 

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Accommodations

Key findings and recommendations

Systematic, explicit instruction in foundational word-reading skills supplemented with evidence-based interventions for students who require more support to learn to read will result in many fewer students needing accommodation. Providing accommodation should never be a substitute for the goal of teaching all students to read, but where students need access to accommodation it should be timely, effective and supported.

Schools should be proactive in identifying students’ accommodation needs and providing accommodation without delay and the need for parent or student advocacy. Accommodations should be implemented consistently by all teachers and seamlessly when a student transitions from one school year to the next or to a different school. There should be better communication with parents about accommodation, so they know if and how their child’s accommodation needs are being met.

Modifications are not the same as accommodations as they change curriculum expectations for students. Modification to expectations from a lower grade means that students may never be able to get back to working at grade level. This negatively affects their future academic pathways (for example, limiting their ability to take academic-level high school courses). Modifications should only ever be used when all other steps have been taken to make sure students can meet grade-level curriculum outcomes. Parents (and students, where appropriate) should be fully aware of the modifications and the potential impact of modifying the student’s curriculum expectations.

While accommodations are provided at the school board level, the Ministry has an important role in setting standards and ensuring consistency across Ontario. The OHRC recommends the Ministry work with external expert(s) to revise its program planning and professional development policy documents to provide greater guidance on the appropriate use of accommodations and modifications [Recommendation 86]; establish a list of effective and accessible assistive technology products and training that is required on each [Recommendations 91 and 92]; make it easier for students to access and use assistive technology [Recommendations 91, 93 to 97] and set standards for IEPs [Recommendations 104 to 107].
The OHRC recommends the Ministry evaluate existing funding structures and levels to make sure there are sufficient resources for timely and effective accommodation [Recommendation 90].

The OHRC recommends school boards (and the Ontario College of Teachers, as appropriate) make sure educators receive training related to accommodation and modification and the use of assistive technology [Recommendations 87 to 89, 90, 92, 97]. The OHRC further recommends that school boards make several changes to current approaches for better transparency and accountability around accommodations and modifications [Recommendations 102 to 110].

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Accommodations are not a substitute for teaching students to read

The primary purpose of accommodations is to provide students with supports so they can access the curriculum across subjects and show what they have learned. Accommodation must be provided along with, and never in place of, evidence-based curriculum and interventions. However, within the current system, accommodations such as assistive technology are often being used in place of making sure all students learn to read using a science-based core curriculum and instruction and early, tiered evidence-based interventions. Even still, there are issues with students’ access to timely and effective accommodation.

Implementing this report’s recommendations will make sure many more students can read unassisted. However, some students may still need to be accommodated to have meaningful access to education as required under the Code.

A common accommodation for students with reading disabilities is assistive technology. This can be a device, piece of equipment, software or system that helps students access grade-level curriculum. Access to the curriculum means that students can take in and understand the material being taught in school, understand and complete assignments, and show what they have learned. Other typical accommodations include extra time for tests or assignments, teaching and assessment strategies (such as breaking tasks down into smaller components) and assistive services such as a note-taker or scribe (someone who writes down answers dictated by the student).

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Modifications are different than accommodations and should be used sparingly

The goal of evidence-based reading instruction, interventions and accommodations is always to make sure a student is working at grade level. However, in rare cases, it may be necessary to modify grade-level expectations for a subject or course to meet the student’s learning needs. This may involve developing expectations that reflect the knowledge and skill for a different, typically lower, grade level in the curriculum or reducing the number of grade-level expectations. Accommodations help students meet curriculum outcomes; modifications change curriculum outcomes.

Modification to lower grade-level expectations must be used very cautiously, and only as a last resort after all possible interventions and accommodations have been tried. Modification has long-term consequences for the student. They may never catch up with their peers who are working at grade level and may be streamed into applied and locally-developed high school courses as a result, limiting their future education opportunities.

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Issues with meeting the duty to accommodate in Ontario’s education system

There are accommodation success stories. Some students are receiving effective accommodations to allow them to access the curriculum. The inquiry heard about the power of good accommodation approaches to reduce stress and mental health issues and allow students to be and feel successful in school. Boards have largely moved away from only accommodating students who have been through an IPRC process, and are being more flexible in providing accommodation to all students who will benefit. Increased access to technology in the classroom can be a good inclusive design approach, and some boards are prioritizing training educators, students and parents on how to use technology.

However, the inquiry heard from educators, parents and students about many challenges and shortcomings with accommodation. The most significant concern is the over reliance on accommodations as a substitute for teaching all students to read. For example, the inquiry heard of struggling readers in Grade 1 being given assistive technology instead of evidence-based early reading instruction and interventions. Substituting technology for science-based reading instruction and intervention is simply unacceptable.

Educators described how a lack of access to human and material resources hampers their ability to accommodate. They said they deal with many things in the classroom and would benefit from extra support to better meet the accommodation needs of all their students. They described spending time and energy to fight for resources to support their students and even spending their own money to purchase materials.

Parents described difficulties getting schools to even acknowledge the need for accommodation and then to put an accommodation plan, or IEP, into place. Many said they were only able to get this through persistent advocacy or obtaining a private professional assessment. They reported delays in their child receiving accommodation, inconsistent implementation of accommodation, and being told their child is doing “well enough” without accommodation, even though accommodation would help the student reach their full potential. They often did not know whether their child was actually receiving accommodations identified in their IEP and how well they were working. A common concern was that schools provided accommodations for EQAO testing but these were not always extended to support the student’s everyday learning. Parents also reported being told their child could not have accommodations or interventions in French Immersion and would have to transfer to the English stream to receive supports.

Students described their own accommodation challenges, such as having to self-advocate to have teachers implement accommodations, being bullied or stigmatized for needing accommodations, and even being told by some educators that they were “faking” or that accommodations are a form of “cheating.” They said they did not always have enough training on how to use the technology they were given, and described situations where their technology had to be shared among many students or did not work.

A persistent theme was how difficult it is for students and parents to navigate the system. There appeared to be a direct relationship between parents’ ability to strongly advocate and access resources (such as private professional assessments and even lawyers) and their child’s access to accommodations. This raises significant equity issues as families from historically marginalized backgrounds such as being racialized, Indigenous, living with disabilities, being a newcomer or lacking fluency in English or French or having lower income may not be in the same position to get and monitor accommodations.

Parents described agreeing to modifications to their child’s curriculum expectations without knowing that their child may never be able to catch up and that their child’s later educational choices would be affected. Several boards agreed there may be a tendency to modify rather than provide necessary interventions and accommodations, so schools will not have to tell parents their child is not meeting grade-level expectations.

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The way forward to meet the duty to accommodate reading disabilities

To meet the right to read, accommodation must give students with reading disabilities meaningful access to the education all students receive. Accommodation must be timely, as accommodation delayed is accommodation denied. It should also be consistent from class to class, year to year and when the student transitions to another school. Students should not be expected to self-advocate to receive their accommodations, nor should parents have to become involved to make sure their child receives the needed supports.

Accommodations should address any intersecting needs, for example from other disabilities. They should respect dignity and privacy and not isolate students. Students may feel uncomfortable with accommodations that single them out among their classmates, so schools should be sensitive to this and take proactive steps to prevent any bullying or stigma associated with receiving accommodation.

There is a need for greater standards and guidance on accommodating reading disabilities within Ontario’s education system, including how accommodations and modifications should and should not be used, and which assistive technology resources are accessible and effective. School board communication with parents and students around accommodations can be improved and boards should provide an accessible complaints process to resolve any concerns.

Whenever modification must be considered, parents (and the student, where appropriate) should be aware of how the student’s expectations are being modified and the potential ramifications. At the same time as modifying curriculum expectations, schools should provide evidence-based interventions and suitable accommodation to try to bring the student to the point where they can meet grade-level expectations.

Better professional development, ongoing coaching and resources for educators are also critically important. Educators are often doing their best but are stretched thin. Helping them understand how best to accommodate and providing them with the needed support will help make sure the duty to accommodate is better fulfilled.

 

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Professional assessments

Key findings and recommendations

Ontario’s current approach to teaching word reading and responding to these reading difficulties needlessly contributes to increased demand for costly professional assessments. Many students will not need professional assessments for dyslexia within a system with science-based classroom instruction, screening beginning in Kindergarten for potential reading difficulties, and evidence-based tiered interventions in the earliest grades. The few students who do still have word-reading difficulties and need professional assessments, for example by board speech-language pathologists and psychologists, should have timely and equitable access. A professional assessment should never be required for a student to receive accommodations or interventions.

School boards lack clear, consistent criteria for deciding when to refer students with suspected reading disabilities for board professional assessments. The referral process is highly discretionary, and due to limited resources, only some students who need an assessment are referred, often based on boards’ assessment of “priority of need.” As a result, there is a high risk of bias and unfairness in selecting students for a board professional assessment. Many students are never referred and are only assessed if their families can afford costly private assessments.

The one consistent criterion most boards use is requiring a student with a suspected reading disability be in at least Grade 3 before being considered for a psychoeducational assessment. This type of age/grade level requirement is problematic and inappropriate. Instead, referral for assessment should be based on response to intervention. Any student who has not responded appropriately (based on standardized reading test scores) to a period of classroom instruction and evidence-based early intervention should be referred for assessment. This may happen as early as late Grade 1.

Delaying referral for assessment until at least Grade 3 combined with wait times for assessments means that many students do not get assessed until Grades 4, 5 or later. There are currently long wait times for board professional services, particularly psychoeducational assessments. Few inquiry boards maintain centralized waiting lists, track average wait times or take steps, such as redeploying resources, to make sure students are not waiting too long. This directly contradicts the Auditor General of Ontario’s 2018 recommendations for what boards should be doing to ensure timely and equitable access to professional assessments.

The Ministry’s current definition of learning disability (which includes a reading disability) is not consistent with up-to-date research and the DSM-5 requirements for diagnosing a learning “disorder,” including dyslexia. It also states that students do not have a learning disability if their learning difficulties are because of “socioeconomic factors; cultural differences; [or] lack of proficiency in the language of instruction.” However, these factors are not acceptable reasons for students to fail academically, although due to a culture of lowered expectations, some students’ struggles may be seen as inevitable or beyond the control of the education system.

The OHRC recommends that the Ministry immediately update its definition of learning disability to be consistent with the criteria in the current DSM-5 and address any potential bias [Recommendations 111 and 112].
The OHRC recommends school boards develop clear, transparent, written criteria and processes for referring students with suspected reading disabilities for psychoeducational assessment based on their response to intervention, and not a minimum age/grade [Recommendations 113, 119, 123]. The criteria should make sure that multilingual students, culturally diverse students, racialized students, students who identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, and students learning in French Immersion have equal access to assessments [Recommendations 117, 118, 120, 124].
A psychoeducational assessment must never be required for accessing interventions or accommodations [Recommendation 125].
The OHRC recommends boards better manage wait times and track professional assessments to make sure they are being completed in an equitable and timely way [Recommendations 127 to 129]. Any student who needs an assessment should have access and any limits on or barriers to assessment should be removed [Recommendations 121 and 122]. The OHRC recommends the Ministry provide sufficient stable, enveloped yearly funding to make sure boards can implement the recommendations related to assessment [Recommendation 130].

 

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Reducing the need for professional assessments

Ineffective approaches to teaching early reading, failing to identify students who are at risk for word-reading difficulties in Kindergarten or Grade 1, and not providing these students with early, evidence-based tier 2 and 3 interventions leads to more students needing costly professional services, particularly psychoeducational assessments. By addressing students’ early reading challenges effectively, we can reduce the need for assessments and free up board professionals to support students and educators in other ways.

Board professionals such as psychologists and speech-language pathologists have a wealth of knowledge and an important role to play in implementing this report’s recommendations. Currently, however, due to excess demand, their focus is on assessment and they have less time to support students in other ways. By reducing the number of assessments that are needed due to word-reading difficulties, professional staff will have increased capacity to support evidence-based early screening and interventions; help determine which students need interventions and which interventions would be appropriate; help assess students’ response to intervention; help with accommodation planning; and support professional development for educators. Psychology staff also have demands to deal with student mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression, help students experiencing social and emotional difficulties, engage in crisis response and make referrals to community-based services.

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Many students are waiting too long or not being assessed at all

In the current system, by the time a student receives a board professional assessment, if they receive one at all, they have been struggling for years. Boards rarely consider referring a student with a suspected reading disability for a psychoeducational assessment before Grade 3, even though the Ontario Psychological Association has said that delaying assessment for a learning disability is not necessary or appropriate and can be harmful to students. If the student is referred for an assessment, they may be on a wait list for several years, particularly if they are not deemed to have high needs or be a high priority for assessment. Students who struggle in silence may be overlooked for assessment or may be moved down to the bottom of the list. They may not be assessed until Grade 5, 6 or even later. Many students are never referred, so their families pay for costly private psychoeducational assessments, if they can afford to.

Although boards do not report formal quotas on how many students they can refer for professional assessment, in reality there are limited spots per school. Many students who would meet objective criteria for assessment may not be considered because a school has already assigned all available spots. This is exacerbated by the lack of formal, written, transparent referral criteria in many boards.

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Boards lack appropriate criteria for referring students with suspected reading disabilities

Other than the highly problematic requirement that students be in at least Grade 3 before being referred for an assessment, boards had little or no consistent and objective criteria for identifying students with suspected reading disabilities for assessments. Some inquiry boards had relatively clearer, documented procedures and flow charts or checklists, and some specific criteria for decisions about professional assessments. However, other boards had little or no transparent documentation for the process or factors that are considered. Decisions about assessments are often left to school-level teams. This creates the potential for wide differences between schools within a board, and between different school boards. Students with the same pattern of academic functioning may be candidates for an assessment at one school but not at another.

Bias can play a role when referrals are not based on transparent and objective guidelines from the board or the province. Inquiry boards even identified considerations that would appear to have a high risk of bias such as cultural factors, lack of student motivation, language differences, and poor student mental health. Many boards reported waiting years before referring a multilingual student for assessment on the inaccurate assumption they need several years of exposure to the language of instruction before they can be assessed for a learning disability.

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Decisions to refer students should be based on response to intervention

Clear and transparent criteria and formal processes for referring students for psychoeducational assessments should be developed. These criteria should not be based on arbitrary or potentially biased factors such as a minimum age/grade cut-offs (for example, age 8/Grade 3), a certain minimum number of years of instruction in the language of the school system (for example, for multilingual students), or assumptions that learning difficulties are due to socioeconomic factors or cultural differences. Instead, the criteria should be based on a student’s academic functioning and response to intervention.  

As discussed, a tiered approach with evidence-based instruction and interventions for foundational word reading skills would mean many fewer students need referral for reading difficulties. Referring a student for a psychoeducational assessment in these cases can happen as early as late Grade 1 or Grade 2. For students beyond these initial grades who struggle with word reading accuracy or fluency, referrals can be initiated at the same time as tiered interventions.

Schools should also be alert to the signs of a reading disability in multilingual students. They should not delay intervention or assessment unnecessarily. They should not set rigid cut-offs for interventions or assessments, such as requiring a minimum of two to three years of schooling in the language of instruction (English or French).

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Requirements for identifying a learning disability should be aligned with current knowledge

The current Ministry of Education definition for identifying a student as having a learning disability says students should have “academic underachievement that is inconsistent with the intellectual abilities of the student” which should “be at least the average range” and/or “academic achievement that can be maintained by the student only with extremely high levels of effort and/or with additional support.” The latest research or principles for diagnosing word-reading disabilities/dyslexia in the DSM-5 do not require students to have at least average intelligence or a discrepancy between their ability and achievement. These criteria do not predict whether a student will respond to an evidence-based intervention.

The current DSM-5 criteria for diagnosing a learning “disorder” simply requires finding:

  1. The student experiences difficulties in reading, writing or math skills, which have persisted for at least six months even though the student has received interventions that target the difficulties
  2. The difficulties result in the affected academic skill(s) being substantially and quantifiably below those expected for the student’s age. This is determined through standardized achievement tests and clinical assessment
  3. The learning difficulty started during school-age years (or even in preschool), although it may not become fully evident until young adulthood in some people
  4. The problems are not solely due to intellectual disabilities, hearing or vision problems, other mental or neurological “disorders,” adverse conditions or inadequate instruction (however, reading disabilities/dyslexia can co-exist with other disabilities including mental and neurological “disorders”).

Assessments for suspected reading disabilities do not always need a battery of intelligence and cognitive processing tests. Instead, assessments for a learning disability or “disorder” in word reading/dyslexia should include a thorough assessment of reading and spelling skills, document the student’s response to interventions, and identify further interventions or accommodations for the student. If there are other concerns, a psychologist can also investigate and identify possible co-existing difficulties or disabilities such as attention issues, developmental language disabilities, or mental health issues. However, even if a student with dyslexia has other disabilities, they should not be disqualified from receiving reading interventions.

When a learning disability is diagnosed, there should be a statement of what academic areas are impaired (for example, word-reading accuracy or fluency (dyslexia); reading comprehension; written expression; or math). If several areas are impaired, they should all be identified.

The DSM-5 recognizes dyslexia as an alternative term to refer to “a pattern of learning difficulties characterized by problems with accurate or fluent word recognition, poor decoding, and poor spelling abilities.” The current practice in Ontario is to use only the non-specific term “learning disability” and not to recognize the term “dyslexia.” As a result, a lot of valuable information for students, parents and educators is lost.

Categorizing learning disabilities by the area of academic impairment and recognizing and using the term “dyslexia” will allow better data collection on the prevalence of specific learning disabilities for better allocating resources, tracking the effectiveness of interventions for students with word-reading difficulties, and monitoring achievement for these students. This is currently not possible with the general category of “learning disability.” Collecting information on specific learning disability areas, rather than learning disabilities in general, is more useful and will provide more clear and accurate information for students, parents and educators.

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Boards should improve their management of professional assessments

The Auditor General of Ontario has identified concerns with boards’ current approach to managing professional assessments. In 2017, the Auditor General found potential for wait times to vary significantly based on the school the student attends and because the wait-list information is not consolidated, boards cannot properly prioritize students for assessments. The Auditor General recommended steps boards should take to better manage their professional assessments. Yet, with few exceptions, boards have failed to implement these measures.

Most inquiry boards do not maintain centralized, electronic wait lists or have case management systems for tracking or assigning professional assessments. As a result, several boards could not provide any information on students waiting for assessment, including identifying when students were placed on a wait list and how long they were waiting, or providing average and mean wait times for assessment. The inquiry boards lack data that would allow them to assess whether they are providing this service in a timely and equitable way.

The inquiry boards have limited or no ability to reallocate students between psychology staff to make sure a student does not wait too long for assessment as recommended by the Auditor General. None of the inquiry boards conduct summer assessments as recommended by the Auditor General.

The Ministry is aware of the issues with boards’ management of professional assessments. Board Special Education Plans are supposed to include information on managing wait times and wait lists for assessments, but even the Ministry has little information or data on wait times and wait lists in individual boards. It was not clear whether the Ministry has plans to require boards to improve their approaches to managing and collecting data on wait lists and wait times for professional assessments.

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Professional assessments should not be required to access accommodations and interventions

Psychoeducational assessments are often used to obtain a formal diagnosis (and used, for example, for the IPRC process). However, under the Code, a professional assessment or diagnosis must not be required for a student to receive interventions or accommodations. The Ministry has also recognized that a diagnosis is not a pre-requisite for special education supports, saying that special education programs should not be based on any “specific diagnosed or undiagnosed medical condition, but rather the needs of individual students based on the individual assessment of strengths and needs.”

Most boards reported they do not require a professional assessment or diagnosis to offer a student accommodations or interventions. However, one board does require a diagnosis to access its most intensive intervention and other boards said a student with a learning disability diagnosis is more likely to be included. This is a significant barrier for many students who need the program. A diagnosis should not be needed to access interventions or accommodations.

The inquiry heard from many parents and educators that even when not required, a professional assessment helps secure accommodations or interventions for a student. Given the very limited access to board professional assessments for students with suspected reading disabilities, parents often pay thousands of dollars for a private psychoeducational assessment. This is a significant hardship for some parents, and many others cannot afford to pay for a private assessment at all. This creates a “two-tiered system” in a public education system that should be equitable for all. It can entrench pre-existing disadvantage and intergenerational cycles of low literacy. From a human rights perspective, it is critical that all students who need them have equal access to accommodations and interventions, regardless of their parents’ means to pay for private assessments.

 

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Systemic issues

Key findings and recommendations

There is a significant lack of standardization in approaches to supporting students with reading difficulties across Ontario. Students’ experiences vary widely based on where in the province they go to school, and even which school they attend within a board. There is an urgent need for the province and school boards to establish consistency and provide clear guidance on how all boards and schools should approach the issues identified in this inquiry.

There is little data available at the board or provincial levels to support high-quality decision-making, service delivery and programing or to measure and address achievement gaps for groups of students. Good data is not available to support monitoring or accountability. Data is not being used to identify and close equity gaps, an important requirement to prevent systemic discrimination under the Code.

The inquiry identified lack of transparency and communication as significant concerns for families. Parents often don’t know about their child’s reading development and difficulties or what interventions and accommodations are available or being implemented. A lack of effective dispute resolution processes in schools and boards has caused significant stress for students, parents and educators.

The OHRC recommends the Ministry and boards set standards and ensure consistency, monitoring and accountability in the education system generally, and for students with disabilities and other Code-protected identities [Recommendations 131 to 137].
The OHRC recommends the Ministry and boards continue to improve data collection, analysis and reporting, and better use data to increase equity, improve student achievement and outcomes and for better decision-making [Recommendation 139 to 150].
The OHRC recommends better approaches to transparency and communication when a student is having difficulty with reading, and about screening, intervention, accommodation and professional assessment supports available to them. Parents should be kept aware of student progress and conflict resolution options available to them [Recommendations 151 to 157].
The OHRC recommends the Ministry provide sufficient stable enveloped yearly funding to meet the right to read. This includes funding for boards to hire extra staff such as literacy leads [Recommendation 45], provide comprehensive in-service professional development [Recommendation 57], conduct universal evidence-based early screening [Recommendation 59], provide evidence-based interventions to all students who need them [Recommendation 68], improve access to accommodations [Recommendation 90] and remove barriers to receiving professional services [Recommendation 130].
The OHRC further recommends the Ministry provide additional funding and support where it is needed to make sure northern, remote, rural and small boards can fully implement the recommendations [Recommendation 134]. At the same time, the Ministry of Education should make sure money isn’t being spent on supports that are not validated or proven to be effective for students with reading disabilities, and explore bulk purchasing opportunities [Recommendation 138]. Resources should not be taken away from supports for other vulnerable students to implement the recommendations in this report.

 

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Students across Ontario should have equal access to evidence-based approaches

The systemic issues and barriers identified in this inquiry require a systemic response. Ontario students deserve consistent, standardized approaches and universal access to the same level and quality of services and supports regardless of which school or school board they attend, and whether the language of instruction is English or French. They deserve a systematic response that addresses all the key components of meeting the right to read. Instead, students’ experiences vary widely by where they live or go to school. They experience a piecemeal and ad hoc patchwork of largely ineffective approaches and services that often fail to address their needs.

Educators and other board professionals also deserve consistency and support to implement evidence-based approaches with their students. They want to do the best for their students. They see and must respond to the academic and mental health challenges that many students face when they fail to learn to read. The lack of clear and consistent guidance is an additional burden on educators, as they often are left to figure out the best approaches on their own. They must also deal with the downstream effects of failing to respond well to early reading difficulties such as increased need for accommodations. Educators also told the inquiry that changes in school and board leadership may result in frequent, unsettling shifts in direction depending on these leaders’ preferences, which may or may not be based on the research science.

Ontario’s highly decentralized approach to education, including special education, leaves decision-making on key components of the right to read to the discretion of 72 different school boards and school authorities with little centralized guidance or few standards. One board told the inquiry this means that “not all boards are rowing the boat in the same direction.”

When it comes to meeting the right to read, Ontario needs consistency and stability. This means clear, mandatory standards related to curriculum and instruction, early screening, reading interventions, accommodations and professional assessments. It requires ongoing monitoring and better accountability within the education system. And, importantly, it requires stable, enveloped yearly funding.

The inquiry collected information from multiple sources and found that there is little standardization, consistency, monitoring or accountability in the five areas that are essential to meeting students’ right to read. Processes currently in place do not hold boards to a standard of excellence in reading instruction and related services, do not ensure equitable access to evidence-based interventions and accommodations, and do not allow boards or the Ministry to identify problems or disparities in the system.

Boards are required to follow the Ontario Language curriculum and the Ministry’s Policy/Program memoranda (PPMs). Unfortunately, the current curriculum and PPMs related to screening, professional assessments, learning disabilities and other matters relevant to students with reading difficulties are mostly outdated, do not reflect current science or evidence, or limit boards’ ability to promote consistency and standardization. Where the Ministry has tried to supplement these with better information about responding to the needs of students with reading difficulties, it is mostly with optional guidance.

The inquiry’s findings about failing to set standards and ensure consistency, monitoring and accountability are not new. Many other reports, such as by the Auditor General of Ontario and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act K-12 Education Standards Development Committee, have identified similar concerns and made recommendations to address them. Implementing these and the inquiry’s recommendations will be important to ensure a systemic response to a systemic problem.

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Little data is collected or analyzed to track and improve student achievement, outcomes and equity gaps

The OHRC has identified data collection as an important tool to protect and promote human rights. Data collection is often necessary to make sure all groups benefit equally from services. In education, data collection and analysis allows school boards and the province to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of special education services and supports, and to take steps to measure student achievement and outcomes, particularly for students who come from Code-protected and disadvantaged groups. Currently, the lack of data collection, analysis and reporting is a major accessibility barrier in Ontario’s education system.

Many previous reports, studies and plans about the Ontario education system have identified a need for better data collection, management, analysis and mobilization. These documents have recognized that data is important for student equity as well as to support effective evidence-based program delivery. They have also found significant deficiencies in the education system’s current approach to data.

The inquiry found that some progress has been made in the number of boards collecting demographic data due to the requirements of the Anti-Racism Act, 2017. All boards will be required to collect demographic data by January 1, 2023. However, there is still a long way to go to address deficiencies in data collection, analysis, reporting and use. Currently, school boards and the Ministry are not effectively using data for high-quality decision-making, service delivery and programing, or to measure and address achievement gaps for groups of students. Good data is not available to support monitoring or accountability.

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Boards lack the means to collect data centrally

The inquiry boards are either not using centralized information management systems, are using different student information management systems, or have varying abilities to generate information from their student information management systems. Boards do not collect important data or it is only kept by individual teachers or at the school level. Boards are often not able to collect, analyze or respond to this data centrally. This also means that the Ministry of Education cannot compile and analyze important data from across the province.

The inquiry asked for data on students’ progress in reading, early screening, reading interventions, accommodations and professional assessments. With few exceptions, boards did not have this important data. They had some information on students formally identified with a learning disability exceptionality, but no information about students who have reading disabilities/dyslexia specifically and students who are having difficulty in reading and who may therefore be at risk for a reading disability or dyslexia. They had little centralized data on students’ reading progress and student achievement or outcomes. They largely could not measure the effectiveness of their reading instruction, early screening, intervention programs and accommodation approaches or identify equity gaps.

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Issues with student demographic data

Although more boards are now conducting a student census to collect demographic data about equity indicators such as race, ethnicity, creed (religion), disability, gender identity, sexual orientation and socio-economic status, they are not always collecting the same data. This makes it difficult to compare data across boards or analyze it at a provincial level.

In terms of disability, boards typically only collect some limited data on students who have gone through an IPRC process and been formally identified as having a learning disability exceptionality. Many students with reading disabilities are never formally identified through this process. Even where they have been identified by an IPRC, it is not known whether their learning disability is in reading, and if the student has been identified with more than one exceptionality, they are categorized under a general “multiple exceptionalities” category. This obscures the nature of the exceptionalities and does not allow meaningful data collection on students with co-existing disabilities. Even census questions about disability do not allow parents or students completing the census to identify a reading disability/dyslexia.

At the time of the inquiry, boards did not appear to be analyzing data to identify intersections between having a learning disability and other Code grounds. For example, the inquiry boards had little or no data about gender identity, race, co-existing disabilities, Indigenous ancestry or socioeconomic status of students identified with a learning disability exceptionality. As more boards start to collect student census data (required by January 1, 2023), it will be important that they conduct intersectional analyses and link the demographic data to other available data in their student information systems (for example, student achievement data).

While boards have relatively more data about students who self-identify as First Nation, Métis or Inuit, there are issues there as well. For example, one board told the inquiry that data about students who have self-identified as First Nation, Métis or Inuit and who also have special education needs is school-level data that is “not easily acquired.”

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Student success indicators and equity gaps

Most boards lack useful data to analyze indicators of student success and outcomes such as academic pathways (whether students were taking mostly academic or applied courses in Grade 9) and post-secondary attendance. Most boards do not collect this data, or if they do, they do not link it with other data to assess whether there are disparities for certain groups (for example, students with disabilities, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, racialized students, or students from low-income backgrounds).

Only one inquiry board had started the process of linking its census data with other data to assess disparities in student outcomes (achievement, suspension rates and graduation rates). It has recognized the importance of going further to analyze disproportionate representation of different groups across programs and services, and to consider if there are differences in students’ sense of belonging and safety.

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Lack of transparency and communication with parents

Many parents find the education system opaque and difficult to navigate. They don’t know or understand how processes for screening, intervention, accommodation, modification and professional assessments work. They are often not aware what services and supports may be available to their child, or whether and how their child’s needs are being met. In a system that relies heavily on parental advocacy, this places some parents at a significant disadvantage. For example, the inquiry heard that First Nation, Métis and Inuit parents feel intimidated by the school system due to ongoing trauma from the residential school system and other reasons, and are even less likely to raise their concerns with the school.

The OHRC identified situations where schools failed to share important details with parents about their child’s progress in reading, screening, interventions, accommodations, modifications and professional assessments. For example, we heard that schools do not always tell parents when an educator has observed that their child is having difficulties with reading. Parents may be unaware of what accommodations their child is receiving, what interventions are being tried and how their child is progressing. Some parents even reported agreeing to modifications to their child’s curriculum expectations without understanding the implications and consequences. Parents also described not knowing how long their child would have to wait for a reading intervention or professional assessment.

Schools communicate with parents through tools such as report cards, IPRC recommendations and IEPs. But, the inquiry heard that these are generally not detailed, accessible, frequent or dynamic enough to provide information to understand how the student is progressing and what extra supports they may need.

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Improvements to communication and transparency will benefit students, parents and educators

Sharing information with parents (and with students, where appropriate) in an accessible, plain-language way that invites their involvement and feedback helps parents and students feel welcome and engaged, which improves outcomes for students.

Many educators also advocated for more effective information-sharing between teachers and other school staff. They felt this would help them build on and support the practices of other educators, and better ensure a seamless experience for students when they transition between classes or schools.

Communication needs to take into account the reasons why some families may be worried about their child being assessed or given accommodation or interventions. Parents may be worried that their child may face stigma if assessed and found to be at risk for reading difficulties or withdrawn from the classroom to receive intervention. This may be a particular concern for certain communities who have been stereotyped or have experienced data being misused to portray them in negative ways. It will be important for boards and schools to provide information so that families can make informed decisions for their children through a variety of means, such as community council or parent council meetings, multilingual school newsletters, education open houses and parent-teacher meetings.

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There are better ways to resolve disputes when they arise

From time to time, parents and educators disagree on the needs of the student and how best to meet them. Without good dispute resolution mechanisms, these disagreements can become tense and even escalate to the point of human rights complaints. Many parents reported being uncomfortable raising concerns or fearing reprisal for their students. Once again, some parents are in a better position to raise concerns or to advocate on behalf of their child.

Parents need to know which staff members, and which dispute resolution services, are available to them when they have a conflict. Boards should have and publicize an accountable and non-adversarial timely dispute resolution program.

 

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Conclusion

The OHRC identified ableism and low expectations for students from certain Code-protected groups as a significant theme in its inquiry. Some supporters of approaches currently used for early reading instruction in Ontario argue that the education system should not be changed to accommodate students with reading disabilities or others who fail to learn to read well. They suggest that many students’ reading difficulties are inevitable, or that instead of focusing on the instruction and supports students receive as contributing to equity gaps, we should be focusing on other reasons why students are falling behind their peers.

There are indeed several sources of historical and societal disadvantage for many students. Having strong early word-reading skills is not enough on its own to overcome structural disadvantage in education and in life. However, when students start school at a disadvantage and then fail to learn this basic skill, it only deepens their disadvantage.

Our education system has a responsibility and a legal duty under the Ontario Human Rights Code to remove any barriers that limit students’ opportunities to learn and succeed. The findings and recommendations in this report are a matter of overall equity in education.

There are also many education stakeholders who recognize that the current approach to early reading instruction is a social justice issue because it contributes to education and lifelong inequities. They are important voices for change and will be important partners in addressing this report’s findings and recommendations.  

Responding to this inquiry’s findings and implementing its recommendations will take work. It will require many partners to come together to implement change. It will require a sustained commitment to address the inequities in learning to read that many Ontario students currently face. As this report does not address all aspects of a comprehensive approach to literacy, further research will be needed to make sure Ontario addresses all the critical components of a rich language arts curriculum while improving its approaches to teaching foundational reading skills. This work can and must be done. It is time for change.

 

Executive summary audiobook

Right to Read executive summary now on audiobook!

In February 2022, the OHRC released its much-anticipated Right to Read inquiry report, which found that Ontario’s public education system is failing students with reading disabilities (such as dyslexia) and many others, by not using evidence-based approaches to teach them to read.

This release included a shorter executive summary, which is now available in audiobook format. The summary combines research, human rights expertise and lived experience of students, parents and educators to provide recommendations on curriculum and instruction, early screening, reading interventions, accommodation, professional assessments and systemic issues.

The audiobook is divided into 11 audio chapters, for ease of use. Each chapter has an audio player with navigation buttons to help you play, pause, increase volume, decrease volume, fast forward and rewind. The total listening time is approximately three hours.

WARNING: The Right to Read executive summary deals with topics that may trigger some listeners. It includes references to bullying, emotional and physical abuse, mental health challenges, self-harm and suicide. Please engage in self-care as you listen to this material. There are many resources available if you need additional support, including on this website under List of supports.

ISBN: 978-1-4868-5829-3 (Audiobook)

 


 


 

1. Introduction

 


 

         

         


 

2. Background

         

         

         


 

3. Inquiry findings

 

         

         


 

4. Curriculum and instruction

 

         

         


 

5. Foundation for success

 

         

         


 

6. Early screening

 

         

         


 

7. Reading interventions

 

         

         


 

8. Accommodations

 

         

         


 

9. Professional assessments

 

         

         


 

10. Systemic issues

 

         

         


 

11. Conclusion

 

         

         

If you would like a downloadable version, click on the Right to Read audiobook Sync folder (Download) to save the MP3 files.

Access the full transcripts for the audiobook.


 

 

1. Introduction

View and download PDF: Right to Read Report

ISBN: 978-1-4868-5826-2 (Print)
ISBN: 978-1-4868-5827-9 (HTML)
ISBN: 978-1-4868-5828-6 (PDF)

 

Never, in a million years did I think our public education system would pick and choose which children are worth helping and shrug their shoulders and leave others behind.

- Parent

It is our job to get kiddies reading. One of the things we do as educators is teach students how to read. Getting to all students regardless of their profile is a moral imperative.

- Board administrator

I have had a front-row seat to see the emotional distress, mental health disorders such as school avoidance, anxiety, depression and suicidality that are a result of unaddressed reading problems at school…As you know, educational level and literacy are social determinants of health and economic outcomes. We know that a system-wide approach needs to be adopted to inform the development of policies that can adequately solve this problem – and it is solvable.

- Pediatrician

Education is the foundation lives are built on. The first few years of school help shape a person’s future, influencing everything from their lifelong sense of self-confidence and self-worth to their future employment and income, and even their physical and mental health. Reading is a fundamental building block in this foundation. No skill is more important in the first few years of school than learning to read.

It is the education system’s job to teach every student to read. Yet, the reality in Ontario is much different. Many students are not learning this foundational skill, with devastating consequences. Students who do not develop strong early reading skills struggle in school and later life. This negatively affects the student, their family and broader society.

This does not have to be the case. Many researchers have studied how children learn to read, and for decades we have known the best way to teach foundational word-reading skills. But we are not using these approaches in Ontario. Instead, Ontario is using approaches to early reading that we know will fail the most vulnerable students.

Students with word-reading disabilities/dyslexia and other disabilities, students from lower-income backgrounds, racialized students and Indigenous students are all much more likely to fall behind their peers when it comes to early reading. When schools do not use proven approaches to teach word-reading skills, these students disproportionately experience higher rates of reading difficulties. This makes learning to read a human rights issue, which is why the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) launched an inquiry focusing on the right to read.

Ableism is a belief system, similar to racism, sexism or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as less capable or worthy of respect and consideration than others.[1] It is an attitude that exists in society and is reflected in our education system. For far too long, lowered expectations for certain learners – including students with disabilities – have resulted in systemic failures in the education system. A belief that some students cannot learn as well as their peers has led to limiting their opportunities instead of removing barriers to make sure they can learn. However, these students’ struggles are not inevitable. They can be prevented with high-quality, scientifically validated curriculum and instruction, universal early screening to identify who may be at risk for difficulties, providing early evidence-based interventions, ensuring timely and effective accommodations if required, and providing professional assessments for the small number of students who may still need them.

Our public education system has a responsibility to improve equity outcomes and provide students with an equal opportunity to succeed in life. However, for many students, the system creates, deepens and exacerbates disadvantage.

The OHRC’s mission is to promote and enforce human rights and create a culture of human rights compliance and accountability. The OHRC 2017–2022 Strategic Plan, Putting people and their rights at the centre: Building human rights accountability,[2] identifies education as one of four strategic priorities, and places a special focus on addressing systemic discrimination in our education system.

For over 20 years, the OHRC has exposed and challenged systemic discrimination in education by publishing policies on accessible education for students with disabilities;[3] making many submissions and recommendations to government, school boards and post-secondary institutions; engaging in strategic litigation; and using its other powers under the Ontario’s Human Rights Code (Code).

In 2007, the OHRC initiated and settled human rights complaints about safe schools provisions under the Education Act and related school discipline policies that had a disproportionate effect on students with disabilities and racialized students.

In 2008, the OHRC successfully argued that the Ministry of Education (Ministry) should be added as a respondent to a human rights case before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). In Davidson v Lambton Kent District School Board,[4] the HRTO found that the Ministry has a role in how school boards exercise their responsibilities, and can potentially be liable for discrimination where its definition of exceptionalities prevents or delays a student (in this case, a student with ADHD) from receiving required accommodations. This important decision ensures that matters the Ministry is responsible for – the framework for providing special education services, and the standards that set preconditions for access to special education services – can be the subject of a discrimination claim.

In 2012, the OHRC intervened in Moore v British Columbia (Education).[5] This landmark Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) case dealt with the denial of meaningful access to education for a student with dyslexia. The SCC agreed with the OHRC’s arguments about how to analyze discrimination claims about accessible education, and upheld the original decision that found discrimination.

After intervening in and settling a case involving the rights of post-secondary students with mental health disabilities in 2016, the OHRC obtained a commitment from all Ontario public colleges and universities to implement steps to reduce systemic barriers for these students. With Learning in Mind [6] reports on the systemic barriers the OHRC identified, the modifications to post-secondary institutions’ policies and procedures requested by the OHRC, and the institutions’ self-reported progress in implementing the requested changes.

In 2018, the OHRC released an updated Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities and made recommendations for improving education outcomes for students with disabilities to the Ministry, school boards, private education providers and post-secondary institutions.[7]

These are just a few of the OHRC’s efforts to address discrimination in education. Yet despite these efforts, the OHRC has continued to hear concerns about students’ experiences in Ontario’s public education system, particularly related to the largest special education exceptionality in Ontario – learning disabilities, and especially reading disabilities/dyslexia.

These concerns, combined with the results of extensive background research, led the OHRC to start a public inquiry into human rights issues facing students with reading disabilities. On October 3, 2019, the OHRC announced it would use its inquiry powers under section 31 of the Code to investigate whether students with reading disabilities have meaningful access to education as required under the Code and international human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities[8] and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.[9]

The OHRC’s public inquiry powers under section 31 include but are not limited to:

  • The power to request the production of documents or things
  • The power to question a person on matters that may be relevant to the inquiry
  • The ability to use expert assistance to carry out the inquiry.[10]

The OHRC’s public inquiries support its mandate to promote and enforce human rights compliance in Ontario.

 

 

[1] Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability (27 June 2016), at 3, online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-ableism-and-discrimination-based-disability/9-undue-hardship [OHRC, Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability].

[2] Ontario Human Rights Commission Strategic Plan 2017–2022 (8 December 2016), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/ontario-human-rights-commission-strategic-plan-2017-%E2%80%93-2022.

[3] Policies approved under section 30 of the Code reflect the OHRC’s interpretation of the Code, and set out standards, guidelines and best practice examples for how individuals, service providers, housing providers, employers and others should act to ensure equality for all Ontarians. OHRC policies must be considered by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario if a party or intervenor requests it (Human Rights Code, RSO 1990 c H19, s. 45.5 [Human Rights Code]). For more information see A Policy Primer: Guide to developing human rights policies and procedures (revised December 2013), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-primer-guide-developing-human-rights-policies-and-procedures/purpose-ohrc-policies.

[4] Davidson v Lambton Kent District School Board, 2008 HRTO 294 at paras 34–36 [Davidson].

[5] Moore v British Columbia (Education), 2012 SCC 61 [Moore].

[6] With Learning in Mind: inquiry report on systemic barriers to academic accommodation for post-secondary students with mental health disabilities (April 2017), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission www.ohrc.on.ca/en/learning-mind [OHRC, With Learning in Mind].

[7] See Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities (revised March 2018) and Appendix A to the Policy, online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-accessible-education-students-disabilities [OHRC, Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities].

[8] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 13 December 2006, 2515 UNTS 3, art 24 (entered into force 3 May 2008, GA Res 61/106, UNGA, 61st Sess, Supp no 49, UN Doc A/RES/61/106, Annex I) [CRPD].

[9] Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, 1577 UNTS 3, art 23 (entered into force 2 September 1990) [CRC].

[10] Human Rights Code, supra, note 3, s 31.

2. Inquiry scope

The Right to Read inquiry’s terms of reference[11] explain the scope of the inquiry. The inquiry looked into five requirements that are essential to meeting the right to read:

  1. Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Whether Universal Design for Learning, an approach to education that meets the diverse needs of every student, is being applied within Ontario’s reading curriculum and in classroom teaching methods.
  2. Mandatory early screening: Whether all students are being screened for reading difficulties in Kindergarten (or in Grade 1, where a child does not attend public school for Kindergarten) using scientific evidence-based early screening tools.
  3. Evidence-based reading interventions: Whether students who have been identified as having reading difficulties through mandatory early screening or psychoeducational assessment have access to timely, scientific evidence-based reading interventions.
  4. Accommodation: Whether students who have been identified as having reading difficulties through mandatory early screening or psychoeducational assessment have access to timely and effective accommodation and assistive technology.
  5. Psychoeducational assessments: The role of psychoeducational assessments and whether students have access to timely and appropriate psychoeducational assessments where needed (in addition to mandatory early screening for reading difficulties).

The inquiry considered systemic issues that contribute to human rights concerns, including in the areas of teacher training; setting standards, ensuring consistency and monitoring; data collection; and communication and transparency.

The inquiry also considered perspectives on definitions of reading disabilities and dyslexia, including whether these terms are appropriately used and understood.

The inquiry used an intersectional framework to consider how race, gender, identifying as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, lower socio-economic status, co-existing disabilities, being a newcomer, refugee or English language learner (multilingual students who are learning English at the same time as they are learning the curriculum), or being in the child welfare system can combine with a reading disability to create unique and overlapping experiences of disadvantage and discrimination.

There are several reasons why children may struggle with reading. Becoming fully literate requires more than just the ability to read words. The ability to understand the words that are read and the sentences that contain them are important for strong reading comprehension. A comprehensive approach to early literacy recognizes that instruction that focuses on word-reading skills, oral language development, vocabulary and knowledge development, and writing are all important components of literacy.

Word-level reading skills involve learning the correspondence between sounds and letters, and using this knowledge to sound out words and to spell. The inquiry focused on word-level reading difficulties more than difficulties related to reading comprehension. This focus was chosen because of the ongoing struggle for Ontario students with reading disabilities to receive evidence-based instruction in these foundational skills; the difficulty in meeting these early reading outcomes for many more students, often from marginalized or Code-protected groups; research recognizing the importance of instruction in these foundational word-reading skills; and the recognition of the rights of students with dyslexia in the Moore decision. Specifically:

  • Word-level reading difficulties are the most common challenge for students with reading disabilities, learning disabilities and even all young students who struggle to learn to read well.
  • Most students who have issues with reading comprehension have word-level reading difficulties. The reading comprehension difficulties may be caused solely by the time, effort and attention needed to decode the written words. This interferes with the flow of language from the text, and requires students to use limited cognitive resources that cannot then be put toward understanding the texts. A smaller group of students may also have difficulty with language comprehension that impairs reading comprehension. These difficulties are most often compounded by their word-reading impairments. For all these students, effective word-reading instruction and interventions are needed.
  • The solutions for students with word-level reading problems have been extensively researched and are well understood. Responding to students with only reading comprehension difficulties is significantly more variable and complex, with less agreement on effective interventions at this time.
  • The areas identified as the main focus of the inquiry are the most frequent obstacles to developing early reading proficiency.

The OHRC acknowledges the importance of the education system not only teaching all students to read well, but also making sure all students become fully literate. A robust and evidence-based phonics program should take place within a rich evidence-based language arts instructional experience. Modern definitions of literacy include the essential elements of being able to read and write proficiently, and also the ability to access, take in and analyze information. For example, the Alberta Ministry of Education defines literacy as “the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living.”[12] Being able to read and write are fundamental building blocks to becoming fully literate.

While the focus of this report is on teaching students foundational reading skills, there are references to literacy and the importance of enhancing all students’ ability to understand, make meaning out of and analyze what they read. The report also acknowledges the importance of culturally responsive pedagogy, and having students engage with literature and other forms of art and information that reflects their diverse sociocultural backgrounds alongside using scientifically supported, evidence-based methods to teach all students to read. For example, other areas of literacy instruction and engagement will be required to fully meet the needs of Indigenous students.

Early word-reading skills are critical, but they are not the only necessary components in reading outcomes. Robust evidence-based phonics programs should be one part of broader, evidence-based, rich classroom language arts instruction, including but not limited to storytelling, book reading, drama, and text analysis. Evidence-based direct, explicit instruction for spelling and writing are also important to literacy. Many students, including students with reading disabilities, have difficulties with written expression.

Explicit, evidence-based instruction in building background and vocabulary knowledge, and in reading comprehension strategies, are all parts of comprehensive literacy instruction. Although the inquiry focused on one most frequent obstacle to students developing a strong foundation in early reading skills, the report also acknowledges the other elements of a comprehensive approach to literacy. These elements must also be addressed when implementing report recommendations.

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Teachers and other educators

This report focuses on the role of teachers in meeting the right to read, because teachers are responsible for delivering language curriculum to students. However, the OHRC acknowledges that a range of educators play an important role in helping students learn to read. The report discusses different educators’ roles below (see section 4, Context for the inquiry). In short:

  • Principals are responsible for the “quality of instruction” at their school, and assist and supervise teachers and other staff.[13]
  • Early childhood educators who work alongside teachers in Kindergarten classes “have knowledge of early childhood development, observation skills and assessment skills,” and focus on “age-appropriate program planning” that promotes language development. Teachers base their formal reporting to parents on “the teacher-ECE team’s assessment of children’s progress.”[14]
  • Educational assistants act as support staff, and may assist “teachers and other classroom staff in carrying out education plans.”[15]  
  • Literary specialists work with students and other educators on reading and writing processes.
  • Speech-language pathologists, psychologists and other professionals provide advice and support with regard to how a student’s educational and other needs can best be met.

Wherever possible, recommendations in this report should be implemented in a way that empowers educators to be effective reading instruction partners.

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Students with other disabilities

While students with reading disabilities were our focus, the inquiry revealed that many other students are at higher risk of reading failure. The OHRC heard that students with other disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, hearing disabilities, vision disabilities, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also struggle with reading for many of the same reasons as students with reading disabilities. They face many of the barriers identified in this report and will benefit from the report’s recommendations.

 

Students with ASD, ADHD, intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities

Students with other disabilities also experience unique challenges that differ from those of students with reading disabilities. Some students are never given the opportunity to learn to read. For example, students with intellectual disabilities are often placed in segregated special education classes that focus on social and life skills with little academic instruction in reading, writing or math. As will be discussed later in greater detail, students with disabilities such as ASD, ADHD, intellectual and developmental disabilities who are behind in reading may not be considered suitable candidates for reading interventions, even though these interventions would help them improve their reading (see section 10, Reading interventions).

ARCH Disability Law Centre’s submission to the inquiry reported that one of the biggest barriers students with ASD and intellectual disability exceptionalities face is being excluded from school (or regular classrooms)[16] due to behaviour or safety issues, or simply due to a lack of accommodations or support services being provided in school.[17] If students are not in school, they can’t be taught reading and other literacy skills. ARCH also raised concerns about students being placed in segregated special education classes where the focus is on social and life skills with little to no academic instruction in reading and math.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Down Syndrome Association of Ontario noted that children with developmental disabilities are assumed to be unable to read and are given no reading instruction. The Association also said that the tendency to modify curriculum expectations to below grade level limits students’ opportunities and life pathways. This report addresses the issue of modifying versus intervening and accommodating (see section 11, Accommodations).

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Students with blindness, low vision or deaf blindness

The OHRC heard that students with blindness, low vision or deaf blindness also face serious barriers in learning to read. The fact these are “low-incidence” disabilities affecting fewer students does not mean that less attention should be paid to meeting their right to read. VIEWS for the Visually Impaired and the CNIB Foundation submitted that school boards across Ontario do not employ enough teachers of the visually impaired (TVI). A TVI provides hands-on direct training to students with vision loss on braille reading and writing where needed, on using assistive technology that is critical to literacy, and on other vital skills relevant to reading. The TVI also supports classroom teachers, special needs and educational assistants and other teaching staff and guides them on how to effectively teach students with vision loss.

VIEWS also outlined concerns with the training requirements for TVIs. VIEWS noted that three or fewer Additional Qualification (AQ) courses are all that is required to be a TVI, and these courses do not need to be delivered through a faculty of education. According to VIEWS, this is inadequate preparation to work with visually impaired students. At least five Canadian provinces and many other jurisdictions have higher training standards for TVIs. VIEWS submits that a qualified teacher should be required to complete a one-year graduate degree specializing in teaching students who are blind, low vision or deafblind and that Ontario should fund that graduate training, just as it now does for the one-year graduate-level program required in Ontario to qualify as a Teacher of the Deaf.

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Deaf and hard of hearing students

The OHRC heard that deaf and hard-of-hearing students[18] also deal with serious challenges when learning to read. For example, the Ontario Cultural Society for the Deaf (OCSD) said that deaf and hard-of-hearing students are prone to experiencing reading difficulties, and many fail to become fluent readers.[19] OCSD also said that deaf and hard-of-hearing students do not get enough access to American Sign Language (ASL) instruction, which it says is required for many deaf students to be able to learn to read. It noted that students who can hear have access to oral language, and that many deaf and hard-of-hearing students who do not have this access find written text foreign and largely inaccessible. It further submitted that the province does not have a well-established and effective reading program for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Deaf or hard-of-hearing students whose primary language is not ASL or Langue des signes québécoise, and who primarily use auditory-verbal communication, may require different supports for learning to read.

A significant theme in this report is the concern that teachers are not properly equipped to support all students learning to read. The OHRC’s recommendations here should benefit students with a variety of disability-related needs. Although this report could not address unique barriers for students with other disabilities, those issues merit further consideration by the Ministry, school boards, faculties of education, and the Ontario College of Teachers. All the recommendations in this report should be implemented with proper consideration of intersecting concerns and impacts. All children, regardless of their disability, deserve equal access to a meaningful education, which includes learning to read.

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Other students at risk of reading disabilities

Because few school boards were collecting or analyzing student demographic data at the time of the inquiry, there is limited Ontario data connecting reading achievement with factors such as race, place of origin, gender, LGBTQ2S+ identity, and socio-economic status. However, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Ontario’s largest school board, has conducted a student census for several years. It has helpfully analyzed reading and literacy achievement patterns of TDSB students on the Grades 3, 6, and 10 Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) standardized assessments against various demographic and student family background characteristics from the TDSB’s School Information Systems (SIS), Parent Census in 2007–2008 and 2011–2012, and Student Census: Grades 9 to 12 in 2006 and 2011.

The TDSB has found that students from particular identity groups (low socio-economic status; Black, Latin American and Middle Eastern; from the English-speaking Caribbean; with special education needs; male; and not sure of or questioning their sexual orientation) experience significantly lower achievement in reading.[20] This is consistent with data from jurisdictions such as the United States showing that students who are African American, Hispanic, learning English, and/or from low-income homes fall behind and stay behind in reading in far greater proportion than students who are White and middle-class.[21]

While the inquiry focused on students with reading disabilities, it also revealed that many other students are at risk for reading difficulties and the negative outcomes associated with failing to learn to read well. These students do not achieve at the same level as others for many of the same reasons, such as lower phonological awareness at school entry and ineffective curriculum and teaching methods.[22] Instructional approaches that reflect the research science (discussed in greater detail in section 8, Curriculum and instruction) will in fact benefit all students who are at risk. The issues and recommendations identified in this report are matters of overall equity in education.

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First Nations, Métis and Inuit students

The OHRC’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit engagements revealed significant disadvantage experienced by First Nations, Métis and Inuit students attending provincially funded schools, and First Nations students attending federally funded First Nation schools on reserve. As a provincial human rights agency, the OHRC does not have the legal authority to compel federal schools or the federal government to provide documents or data, and cannot enforce their non-compliance with human rights obligations. Nevertheless, this report addresses what the OHRC learned about First Nations, Métis and Inuit students’ experiences in provincially funded schools and First Nations students’ experiences in federally funded schools. We will share this report and recommendations with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the federal government.

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Students learning in French

The OHRC is aware that issues exist within French-language school boards. Although the OHRC did not select a French school board to be part of the inquiry, we did hear about many of the same concerns exist with the Ontario curriculum and the approach to reading difficulties in French boards.

The inquiry also heard about unique challenges for Francophone students with reading difficulties from a lack of resources, reading interventions and supports in French. We also heard from families of students in French Immersion programs in English-language boards.

Most inquiry findings and recommendations likely apply equally to French-language education, and the Ministry and French boards should work with French reading expert(s) to address and implement the recommendations as appropriate for students learning in French.

 


[11] Right to Read: Ontario Human Rights Commission inquiry into human rights issues that affect students with reading disabilities in Ontario’s public education system: Terms of reference (3 October 2019), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/right-read-terms-reference.

[12] “What is Literacy?” (last visited 9 January 2022), online: Alberta Ministry of Education education.alberta.ca/literacy-and-numeracy/literacy/everyone/what-is-literacy/.

[13] “Who’s responsible for your child’s education?” (last modified 31 July 2009), online: Ontario Ministry of Education, edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/brochure/whosresp.html.

[14] “Full-day kindergarten: Who is working in the classroom?” (last modified 28 February 2019), online: Ontario Ministry of Education, http://edu.gov.on.ca/kindergarten/whoisworkingintheclassroom.html [Ontario Ministry of Education, “Full-day kindergarten”].

[15] “Education/Teaching/Teaching Assistant” (last visited 9 January 2022), online: Ontario Colleges Application Service  ontariocolleges.ca/en/programs/education-community-and-social-services/education-teaching-teaching-assistant.

[16] For example, through overuse of the sensory room.

[17] See If Inclusion Means Everyone, WHY NOT ME?” (May 2018), online: ARCH Disability Law Centre archdisabilitylaw.ca/resource/paper-if-inclusion-means-everyone-why-not-me/ [ARCH, If Inclusion Means Everyone, WHY NOT ME?].

[18] According to the Canadian Association of the Deaf, “deaf” is “a medical/audiological term referring to those people who have little or no functional hearing [and it may] also be used as a collective noun (“the deaf”) to refer to people who are medically deaf but who do not necessarily identify with the Deaf community.” The Association defines “Deaf (with a capital D)” as “a sociological term referring to those individuals who are medically deaf or hard of hearing who identify with and participate in the culture, society, and language of Deaf people, which is based on Sign language. Their preferred mode of communication is Sign.” See: “Terminology” (last visited 9 January 2022), online: Canadian Association of the Deaf cad.ca/issues-positions/terminology/ [Canadian Association of the Deaf, “Terminology”].

[19] Robert Hoffmeister & Catherine Caldwell-Harris, "Acquiring English as a second language via print: The task for deaf children" (2014) 132:2 Cognition 229, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2014.03.014; Peter V Paul, Literacy and Deafness: The Development of Reading, Writing, and Literate Thought, (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1998); Peter V Paul, Language and Deafness, 4th ed (Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2008).

[20] Toronto District School Board, “Right to Read: Closing Achievement Gaps with Adolescent Learners,” (2019) [TDSB, “Right to Read: Closing Achievement Gaps”].

[21] “The Condition of Education 2020” (May 2020), online: National Centre for Education Statistics nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2020144 [NCES, “The Condition of Education 2020”]; National Assessment of Educational Progress, “Nation’s Report Card: Reading” (2019), online: National Centre for Education Statistics nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/ [NAEP, “Nation’s Report Card: Reading”].

[22] Louisa C Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science (2020), online (pdf): American Federation of Teachers https://aft.org/sites/default/files/moats.pdf [Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science].

 

3. Methodology

To assess Ontario’s performance on its approach to reading disabilities, the OHRC obtained documents, data and information from a variety of sources using several different methods.

 

School boards

The OHRC worked with its expert to select a representative sample[23] of eight Ontario English-language public school boards:

  1. Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (Hamilton-Wentworth)
  2. Keewatin-Patricia District School Board (Keewatin-Patricia)
  3. Lakehead District School Board (Lakehead)
  4. London District Catholic School Board (London Catholic)
  5. Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (Ottawa-Carleton)
  6. Peel District School Board (Peel)
  7. Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (Simcoe Muskoka Catholic)
  8. Thames Valley District School Board (Thames Valley).

The boards were selected based on a variety of factors, including lived experience accounts, size and type of school board (public and Catholic), different geographic regions, demographic information, EQAO data including reading test results, boards’ Special Education Plans, the proportion of students with different Code-protected identities, and public reports.

The OHRC used its section 31 Code powers to request significant production of documents, data and information from the eight boards.[24] The OHRC obtained additional information and clarification from the boards through follow-up interviews and questions.

While there were delays in receiving information from one school board, the school boards’ overall level of cooperation and assistance was excellent. This was especially noteworthy given the challenges boards were facing with providing continuity of learning during school closures due to COVID-19 and other challenges. The OHRC extends its appreciation to the school boards for their assistance.

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Faculties of education

To assess whether teachers educated in Ontario receive adequate training and academic preparation to teach all students to read, the OHRC requested production of documents, data and information from Ontario’s 13 English-language public faculties of education (faculties).[25] After seeking several extensions, the faculties eventually provided the requested information.

 

Ministry of Education

The OHRC is grateful to the Ministry for its ongoing assistance throughout the inquiry. The OHRC obtained and reviewed relevant Ministry documents and asked the Ministry questions about the areas being considered in the inquiry. 

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Public engagements

The OHRC received a significant amount of information from the public through a variety of means. A total of 1,425 students, parents and guardians[26] completed an online Qualtrics survey and shared their experiences with learning to read and the impact on themselves and their families. A survey for educators and other professionals was widely distributed, including to every school board in Ontario. The OHRC received 1,769 surveys from educators (classroom teachers, teacher candidates, special education teachers, early childhood educators, educational assistants, school and board administrators), private tutors, and other professionals (such as speech-language pathologists, psychologists and pediatricians). Both quantitative and qualitative data was analyzed for this report.

The OHRC received surveys about school boards across Ontario. This included 100 surveys about French public and French Catholic school boards.

The OHRC received over 1,000 telephone calls or emails and many more engagements through social media.

The OHRC also received over 20 submissions from organizations representing a variety of perspectives.

The OHRC held four public hearings corresponding with the location of five of the eight school boards selected for the inquiry: Brampton, London, Thunder Bay and Ottawa. At each public hearing, up to 20 speakers or groups of speakers shared their experiences. The OHRC heard from students, families, educators, service providers (such as private tutors, a child welfare agency) and other professionals. Over 600 people attended the hearings. All but the Brampton hearing were live streamed, and all hearings are archived on the OHRC’s YouTube channel.

The OHRC had also planned to hold community meetings in Kenora, Barrie and Hamilton to give people in those communities the opportunity to share their experiences. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the province’s Emergency Order prohibiting public gatherings,[27] only the Kenora public hearing took place, with 25 people attending.

The OHRC held Indigenous engagements at the London, Thunder Bay and Kenora Friendship Centres, and met with representatives of an Inuit organization in Ottawa. The OHRC also met with representatives of the Métis Nation of Ontario. Further Indigenous engagements planned for Barrie and Hamilton could not take place due to the pandemic.

To mark Human Rights Day, December 10, 2019, the OHRC called on students to submit art, poetry and media on “what the right to read means to me.” The OHRC received several submissions.

Both before launching the inquiry and afterwards, the OHRC interviewed many people with specialized knowledge or expertise or unique insight into the issues in the inquiry. This included school board staff (teachers and other professionals) who approached the OHRC independently to provide confidential insight into their experiences working within boards.

All of these engagements combined provided the OHRC with a rich understanding of a variety of perspectives on the right to read. The OHRC is grateful to everyone who took the time to share their knowledge and experience. Your voices have been instrumental in shaping this report and its recommendations.

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Expert assistance

The OHRC retained two experts, Dr. Linda Siegel and Dr. Jamie Metsala, to assist with the inquiry and analyze the information received.

Dr. Siegel is an international authority on reading disabilities and the former Dorothy C. Lam Chair in Special Education, an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology and Special Education at the University of British Columbia and a registered clinical psychologist. She has over 200 publications on early identification and intervention to prevent reading problems, dyslexia, reading and language development, mathematical concept learning, mathematical learning disabilities, and children learning English as a second language.

Dr. Metsala is a Professor of Education and the Gail & Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in Learning Disabilities at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. She was previously an Associate Professor in Educational Psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she also served as the Associate Director of the National Reading Research Center. Dr. Metsala has expertise in the psychology of language and reading, dyslexia and learning disabilities, psychological assessments, has taught English language arts methods to pre-service teachers, and is a registered clinical psychologist.

The experts’ participation was central to all aspects of the inquiry. The analysis, findings and recommendations in this report are based on the combined expertise of the OHRC in human rights and discrimination and the experts in reading disabilities. While many reports have studied the most effective way to teach reading, this report is unique in making clear how these research-based approaches are essential to meeting human rights obligations.

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Research

Among other things, this report draws on extensive multi-disciplinary research into:

  • How children learn to read
  • What causes reading difficulties
  • Which students are at risk
  • The essential components of effective reading instruction
  • How to identify children who may be at risk of reading failure
  • Reading interventions that are scientifically supported and effective
  • Teacher training
  • The impact of not learning to read on the individual and society
  • Best practices in other jurisdictions.

References to this research are found throughout the report.

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Limitations

While the level of public engagement in the inquiry was significant, there were some limitations of note. The OHRC has been mindful of these limitations in drafting this report.

The OHRC’s student/parent and educator/other professional surveys were based on self-selection (people choosing to complete the survey) rather than random sampling, (randomly selecting people to complete the survey). The risk of self-selection bias exists as the people who chose to take part may not represent the entire population of students with reading difficulties or educators/other professionals. For this reason, the OHRC has used multiple sources of information, not just the surveys, to draw its conclusions. For example, the 479 student/parent surveys and 635 educator/other professional surveys concerning one of the eight school boards selected for the inquiry were carefully reviewed to compare students’ and educators’ lived experiences with the information provided to the OHRC by the school boards.

A relatively low number of student/parent surveys described the experiences of:

  • Racialized students[28] (132 out of 1,369 surveys where a race category was specified)
  • First Nation, Métis and Inuk/Inuit students (44 out of 1,369 surveys where a race category was specified)
  • Students whose first language learned was not English or French (68 surveys)
  • Students who were not born in Canada (60 surveys).

Student/parent survey respondents also tended to have income levels higher than the Ontario average, and relatively higher levels of education. Half reported a household income of over $100,000 before taxes, compared to the median after-tax income of Ontario families of $66,200 in 2018.[29] Of the 1,405 respondents who indicated the highest level of education they completed, 31.8% had a professional degree (such as a law or medical degree), Master’s degree or Doctorate degree.

The OHRC recognizes that completing a survey or attending a public hearing may have been challenging for families that are the most marginalized. More diverse engagements may have been possible had the COVID pandemic not affected the OHRC’s ability to hold additional in-person meetings. The OHRC has paid special attention to the accounts it did receive from vulnerable groups to better understand intersectional barriers. As well, given the research that shows students from these groups are even more likely to fall behind in reading, it is reasonable to assume that the challenges these students with reading difficulties face are just as significant, if not more significant, than challenges faced by students with relative privilege. Concerns about the particular impacts on marginalized students are noted throughout this report.

The student/parent survey described experiences of individuals ranging in age from four to 84. The OHRC recognizes that the experiences of older students or people no longer in the public education system may not reflect the current situation in all cases. Even so, these accounts had significant value to the inquiry as they showed the profound, long-lasting impacts of failing to address a reading difficulty. Unfortunately, the OHRC also found that many of the issues these surveys identified remain today. This shows the systemic, enduring intergenerational effects of the public education system’s failure to adequately meet the needs of students with reading difficulties.

The survey for educators and other professionals asked respondents to rate the effectiveness of different approaches to teaching reading, screening tools for reading difficulties, and reading interventions. Educators may have a bias toward rating as most effective the teaching approaches, screening tools and reading interventions they are most familiar with and currently use. They may not be familiar with other options, and may not be in a position to assess their effectiveness. Therefore, in assessing effective approaches to teaching reading, screening for reading difficulties and reading intervention, the OHRC has placed less emphasis on survey responses compared to scientific research and empirical validation.

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[23] The Office of the Auditor General of Ontario audits government activities and programs and public sector organizations; See “Welcome” (last modified 1 December 2021), online: Office of the Auditor General auditor.on.ca/index.html. When examining issues related to school boards, it audits up to four of Ontario’s 72 publicly funded school boards.

[24] For more details on the OHRC’s initial production request, see the November 8, 2019 letter that was sent to the Chair and Director of Education of each of the eight school boards, online: ohrc.on.ca/en/news_centre/letter-board-chair-and-director-education-eight-selected-school-boards. Additional information was requested through oral interviews and questions for each Board.

[25] For more details on the OHRC’s production request, see the December 20, 2019 letter that was sent to the Dean of each of Ontario’s English-language public faculties of education, online: ohrc.on.ca/en/right-read-inquiry-letter-deans-13-ontario-faculties-education.

[26] Throughout this document, the term parents refers to parents and guardians, as appropriate.

[27] Order Under Subsection 7.0.2 (4) of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act – Organized Public Events, Certain Gatherings, O Reg 52/20.

[28] Where the race category selected to describe the student included one of: Black (e.g. African, Afro-Caribbean, African-Canadian descent); Latino (e.g. Latin American, Hispanic descent); Middle Eastern (e.g. Arab, Persian, West Asian descent, e.g. Afghan, Egyptian, Iranian, Lebanese, Turkish, Kurdish, etc.); East Asian (e.g. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese descent); South Asian (e.g. East Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Indo-Caribbean, etc.); Southeast Asian (e.g. Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Indonesian, other Southeast Asian descent).

[29] “Canadian Income Survey, 2018” (24 February 2020), online: Statistics Canada (“The Daily”) www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/200224/dq200224a-eng.htm.

4. Context for the Inquiry

WARNING: This section deals with topics that may cause trauma to some readers. It includes references to bullying, emotional and physical abuse, mental health challenges, self-harm and suicide. Please engage in self-care as you read this material. There are many resources available if you require additional support, including on the OHRC website, under List of supports under List of supports.

 

What are reading disabilities?

Reading is a fundamental skill that students must have to navigate their school experience and their later lives. Our public schools should be able to teach students to read. Yet, this may not be the reality for students with reading disabilities and others.

Reading is a complex cognitive skill. While good readers seem to read effortlessly, to get to that point, they must first learn how to decode the words on the page.[30] This means they must learn to turn written words into corresponding spoken words. The process of learning to decode our alphabetic system requires both knowledge of letter-sound relationships, and an ability to apply that knowledge, blending the individual sounds together, to successfully identify written words. It is this process that allows the child to then make meaning from the written words. Over time, with lots of practice at deliberately decoding words, the process becomes quicker and eventually, automatic. Once a reader can decode, fluency (reading accurately and quickly) will follow.[31] Vocabulary (knowing what individual words mean), language comprehension and reading comprehension (understanding and interpreting what has been read) are also critical aspects of reading development.

A reading disability, formally known as a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading,[32] is a type of learning disability[33] that affects one or more of these skills. A reading disability can range from mild, to moderate, to severe. Reading disabilities are due to differences in the way the brain processes specific types of information, and are not a sign of lower intelligence or unwillingness to learn.[34]

Dyslexia or a reading disability in word reading is a specific learning disability characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word reading and/or poor decoding and spelling abilities. These word-reading difficulties may also result in problems with reading comprehension and can limit learning vocabulary and background knowledge from reading.[35]

Although dyslexia is assumed to be neurobiological in origin, there is evidence that with early identification, evidence-based reading instruction and early evidence-based reading intervention, at-risk students will not develop a “disability.” If the education system is working as it should, a reading disability can be prevented for almost all students.

According to the DSM-5, “Dyslexia is an alternative term used to refer to a pattern of learning difficulties characterized by problems with accurate or fluent word recognition and/or poor decoding, and poor spelling abilities.”[36]

In practical terms, people with a word-reading disability/dyslexia may experience problems with:

  • Learning letters and the sounds they represent
  • Blending sounds to make words
  • Reading quickly enough to understand
  • Spelling
  • Keeping up with and understanding longer reading assignments.

Despite this, people with learning disabilities and reading disabilities may have unique skills, strengths and talents, just as in the larger population.[37] Learning disabilities do not need to be impairments to life-long success. Many entertainers, designers, architects, writers, athletes, jurists, physicians, scientists, political and business leaders have self-identified as having dyslexia or another learning disability.

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Prevalence

Word-reading, spelling, phonological and fluency skills exist on a continuum, with no clear-cut off point for a diagnosis of a reading disability.[38] The prevalence of reading disabilities has been estimated to be about 5–10% of the population.[39] However, many more children in Kindergarten and Grade 1 are at risk for reading disabilities (about 25%),[40] and without evidence-based instruction in these grades, many more children will meet diagnostic criteria for a reading disability.[41]

Reading disabilities are the most common childhood learning disability.[42] They affect all genders, ethnic, racial and socio-economic groups almost equally,[43] although the experience of having a reading disability may differ based on intersecting characteristics.

The Ministry of Education (Ministry) has recognized that students with learning disabilities are the largest exceptionality group among students with special education needs in Ontario.[44] Since reading disabilities, and dyslexia in particular, are the most common learning disability,[45] it is reasonable to assume that reading disabilities are the most prevalent disability in schools and that there are students with reading disabilities in every classroom.

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Heredity component

Some reading disabilities run in families. For example, approximately 40% of siblings, children or parents of an affected person will have dyslexia.[46] This is significant for several reasons. Failing to address reading disabilities can lead to intergenerational cycles of illiteracy. Parents with reading disabilities may have more challenges supporting their children with learning to read at home. This may be magnified if they have more than one child who struggles to read, which is more likely.

When educators or professionals assess the learning profile of a student, it is important to note if they have been told that there are other family members who experience or have experienced significant academic challenges, or been diagnosed with any disability that could affect learning.[47] This knowledge is a red flag that can allow for earlier identification and intervention. However, many children who have a learning disability will not have a family member who has been diagnosed with one. These children will also need to be flagged with universal early screening.

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Overlap with other learning disabilities

Reading disabilities can exist along with other separate but related disabilities. For example, dyslexia and dysgraphia (problems with writing, including difficulties with spelling, grammar, punctuation and handwriting[48]) can overlap as they both involve processing language.[49] While dyscalculia (difficulty with math) is an independent learning disability, it commonly exists along with dyslexia.[50]

Reading disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often go hand-in-hand. Estimates are that 30% of people with dyslexia also have ADHD.[51] Where ADHD is noted at a young age, it may indicate a child is at risk of later reading problems.[52] Of course, reading disabilities can overlap with any other disability.

 

Terminology

The term “dyslexia” has been used to describe word-level reading difficulties for hundreds of years.[53] It is commonly used in international research and practice and the education field around the world. It is highly researched and there is considerable evidence about what teaching methods and interventions work for dyslexia.[54]

Many people prefer the term dyslexia to describe impairments in word-reading accuracy and/or rate rather than the more general terms reading disability or learning disability. There may be several reasons for this:

  • It is more specific or descriptive, and indicates word-level reading difficulties
  • This specificity helps to clarify what intervention is required
  • There are many resources available, in books and websites that are specific to dyslexia.[55]

One leading researcher noted: “The word [dyslexia] indexes a treasure trove of interdisciplinary scientific research, books and articles that summarize that research, advocacy and support organizations that assist parents and families, and legitimate therapeutic interventions.”[56]

Many people think that dyslexia indicates a learning difference as opposed to a “disability.”[57] They may prefer the term dyslexia to avoid the socially constructed stigma often associated with the “disability” label. The OHRC’s position is that people should be allowed to self-identify and if someone objects to a term used to describe them, it should not be used.

There has been a move away from the term dyslexia in Ontario education over the past several years. This may be, in part, due to a concern that the term is sometimes misunderstood, with people thinking it refers to visual difficulties, such as the tendency to invert letters. The broader term of learning disability may have also been preferred because it includes other reading difficulties as well as sometimes related learning difficulties in other domains (such as writing or math).

The Ministry and school boards do not currently use the term dyslexia or even reading disability, preferring the broader umbrella term learning disability.

Consistent with the fact that the terms dyslexia (when the reading disability relates to word-level reading difficulties) and reading disability are more descriptive and useful, this report uses “reading disability” and “dyslexia” as appropriate throughout. The report also uses “learning disability” where the research referred to uses that term, or where the report refers to the “learning disability” exceptionality as defined by the Ministry.

The report uses “reading difficulty” when referring more broadly to all students who face challenges as they learn to read. Students from several Code-protected groups disproportionately have reading difficulties because of societal factors such as structural inequality. The Code protects the right to read of all students – not just students with reading disabilities.

This report further discusses and makes recommendations about the terminology used in Ontario’s education system in section 12, Professional assessments.

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Identifying reading difficulties

It is possible, and in fact essential, to identify children who may be at risk of reading difficulties at a very young age.

Some signs of reading difficulties in children who are in Kindergarten to Grade 2 include difficulties in learning to:

  • Associate sounds with letters
  • Blend phonemes and segment words into phonemes
  • Decode words.[58]

Early screening for reading difficulties does not require psychological testing. Many professionals including educators, speech-language pathologists and physicians can administer evidence-based early screening tools. Interventions can and should be started without a formal learning disability or reading disability diagnosis.

Where a diagnosis is required, in Ontario it is typically made by a licensed psychologist. However, physicians can also make a clinical diagnosis of a learning disorder based on the DSM-5 criteria.

This report addresses many issues with how reading difficulties are identified and reading disabilities are diagnosed (see sections 9, Early screening and 12, Professional assessments).

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The consequences of not teaching children to read

Introduction

Most children can learn to read.[59] Reading failure can be prevented in all but a small percentage of students with serious reading disabilities by starting early and using approaches that through decades of research have been proven to be most effective.[60] One expert on reading disability noted:

Researchers now estimate that 95 per cent of all children can be taught to read by the end of first grade.[61]

Despite this, many children still have difficulty reading and writing with significant, lifelong consequences. Children and adults with unsupported learning disabilities and dyslexia[62] can struggle with many aspects of school, employment and life. They are at higher risk for negative emotional, social, educational and occupational outcomes.[63] The negative impacts can be substantial and affect individuals, their families and broader society.

The negative effects of struggling to learn to read can begin very early. As young as age seven, many students with dyslexia feel they have failed in school.[64] When a student is not a proficient reader by the end of Grade 1, it predicts longer-term outcomes such as ongoing reading failure throughout schooling, dropping out of school and developing psychiatric problems.[65]

The difficulties that develop from having an unsupported reading disability are often interrelated, mutually reinforcing and cumulative. For example, when a student loses confidence in their learning abilities, it affects their academic performance and self-esteem. Their impaired academic performance reinforces their poor academic confidence and low self-esteem, and contributes to social, mental health and behavioural difficulties, and so on. The adverse effects can continue over the person’s lifetime, leading to increased risk of underemployment or unemployment, relying on social assistance, poverty, homelessness, criminalization[66] and even suicide.

At the same time, many of these dire consequences can be reduced or prevented through effective and early instruction and intervention.[67] This can change a person’s life course for the better, and lessen the burdens on individuals, their families and society.[68] Many studies note that long-term social and economic costs are reduced by investing in making sure every child learns to read.

Adverse outcomes for persons with reading and other learning disabilities have been extensively researched and documented.[69] These findings are consistent with the lived experiences we heard in the inquiry (see section 6, The experience of students and families). Given the prevalence and seriousness of these consequences, and the cost to individuals, families and society, it is essential that Ontario schools identify and appropriately respond to early reading difficulties.

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School effects

Teaching students to read has been described as “the single most important task assigned to elementary schools.”[70] This is because learning to read in the early grades enables children to read to learn throughout their lifetime. Students who struggle to gain word reading accuracy and fluency fall further behind their peers in their ability to access all aspects of the curriculum in all subject areas:

No other skill taught in school and learned by school children is more important than reading. It is the gateway to all other knowledge. If children do not learn to read efficiently, the path is blocked to every subject they encounter in their school years.[71]

Students without foundational word-reading skills experience a chain of escalating negative academic consequences.[72] A lack of these skills contributes to the “Matthew effect,” where the academically “rich get richer and the poor get poorer” over time. Young children who are good readers experience more success, which encourages them to read more. This additional reading practice further increases their word-reading automaticity (the ability to read without conscious thought), their vocabulary and world knowledge, which all contribute to increased comprehension. This can lead to greater success in all academic areas. On the other hand, struggling readers are less likely to enjoy reading and will avoid it. They do not get additional practice, and do not improve in their word-reading automaticity, and are less likely to learn new vocabulary and knowledge from reading. As a result, their motivation towards reading and school decreases. They can fall behind in all subjects. In this way, early differences between students in acquiring reading skills can get amplified and become huge differences in later grades.[73]

Students with reading difficulties often realize they are struggling to learn to read and write, are making mistakes, and are not meeting expectations (their own and other people’s). One study noted:

This is extremely frustrating to them, as it makes them feel chronically inadequate. This in the long term can cause them a lot of problems in their personal and social life.[74]

From a very young age, students with reading difficulties develop low academic self-concept (a poor perception of their abilities in school).[75] Academic self-concept affects a wide range of educational and emotional outcomes including achievement, motivation, effort, education goals, course choices and career aspirations. Academic self-concept and academic achievement are mutually reinforcing. Low academic self-concept predicts a later lack of academic success, which in turn leads to a lower future academic self-concept.[76]

Students with reading disabilities often experience low academic achievement (or failure) that does not reflect their potential.[77] They can develop school avoidance behaviours and higher absence rates.[78] They are more likely to have behavioural issues at school and to be suspended.[79] They are more likely to drop out of school,[80] less likely to go on to post-secondary education,[81] and they take longer to finish programs they enroll in.[82]

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Stereotyping, discrimination and victimization

Stereotyping, discrimination and victimization can compound the struggles that young students already face with learning to read. This further contributes to their academic difficulties and social isolation.

Both children and adults with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, have been stereotyped as stupid, cheating, lazy or careless before they get a formal diagnosis.[83] Educators may hold negative attitudes towards students with learning disabilities, believing they are less intelligent, more difficult to teach or lazy.[84]

Their peers may hold similar negative attitudes.[85] In reality, students with reading disabilities are often working extra hard.[86]

As is the case with many other disabilities, attitudes in society that celebrate ability and ostracize difference have a significant impact on the experience of having dyslexia and learning disabilities.[87] People with dyslexia have reported that stereotyping, perceptions and assumptions take a greater emotional toll than the language difficulties they experience.[88]

Implicit negative attitudes of some educators towards students with dyslexia may also directly affect their’ educational experiences and academic performance.[89] Studies have found that negative perceptions towards dyslexic students may affect teachers’ efforts to help, the opportunities they offer, the feedback they give, their nonverbal behaviour,[90] as well as their teaching.[91]

Researchers[92]  used Toronto District School Board data to compare teachers’ subjective assessment of “learning skills and work habits” on provincial report cards[93]  with objective measures of achievement (EQAO scores). Even when they had the same achievement level, there was a disparity in teachers’ perception of students’ learning skills connected to race, gender, disability and socio-economic status. Students who self-identified as White, female, not having special education needs (excluding gifted), and who were from relatively historically privileged family contexts (for example, access to two parents, parents with university education, and living in higher-income neighborhoods) were all perceived to have “better” learning approaches than students who were racialized, male, had special education needs, and who were less socio-demographically privileged, despite the same level of achievement. The researchers concluded that this suggests that teachers have implicit biases that can influence students’ academic pathways and academic outcomes. 

Students with learning disabilities are also at increased risk for bullying and victimization, rejection and social isolation.[94] There is evidence that children and youth with learning disabilities are significantly more likely to be bullied than their peers.[95] They are also more likely to have greater social challenges and fewer friends.[96]

One study of adults with dyslexia found a relationship between dyslexia and childhood physical abuse.[97] Using Canadian data,[98] researchers found that 35% of adults with dyslexia reported being physically abused before they turned 18. In contrast, 7% of people without dyslexia reported experiencing childhood physical abuse. Even after adjusting for variables such as age, race, sex and other early adversities such as parental addictions, dyslexia was six times more likely to be present in children who were physically abused.

In another study of adult dyslexic learners, adults described being ridiculed and punished, and facing traumatic teaching practices (for example, having to stand up and spell in front of the class; or the teacher handing back tests and assignments in the order of marks).[99] While these practices may seem outdated, several people described similar recent experiences in surveys they completed for the inquiry.

Being victimized is connected to withdrawal, stress, depression, social problems, problems with thought and attention and disruptive behaviour.[100] The effects of bullying can further contribute to learning difficulties. One paper on bullying noted:

For those victims with learning disabilities (LD), pre-existing cognitive difficulties can be exacerbated by anxiety and depression brought on by bullying.[101]

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Self-esteem

Self-esteem is the attitude we have about ourselves and our overall sense of self-worth and personal value. Self-esteem is created by our experiences and begins to be shaped from the earliest years of our lives. Self-esteem is vital to our psychological functioning and mental health.[102]

Low self-esteem is one of the most common psychological challenges for people with dyslexia and is a risk factor for children, adolescents and adults. For children with dyslexia, a lack of self-esteem often emerges in the early school years. This can interfere with establishing a healthy personality and sense of self.[103] Negative effects on self-esteem and self-concept are more likely when students are not identified as at risk for reading difficulties and supported from a young age.[104]

The combined effects of low academic self-concept, low self-esteem and other challenges associated with reading difficulties affect individuals in many different ways, and may affect social interactions with peers or supervisors in the workplace, as well as success at all levels of schooling and employment.[105]

When reading difficulties are identified early and effective teaching methods and interventions that improve reading skills are used, it contributes to positive self-esteem. Healthy self‐esteem and a good understanding of their reading disability may help children avoid or reduce some of these difficulties.[106] Teaching children to read will help prevent these negative cycles from developing in the first place.

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Mental health effects and suicide

Children with dyslexia may be susceptible to becoming withdrawn, anxious and depressed due to their academic underachievement.[107] People with learning disabilities have been shown to have more psychiatric problems, including depression, anxiety and substance use disorders[108] than people who do not.[109]

For example, one study that examined comorbidities in young people (aged 7–16) with specific learning disorders (in reading, writing and math) found that 28.8% also had an anxiety disorder and 9.4% had a mood disorder.[110] Studies have also found a relationship between reading achievement and behavioural problems, particularly among boys.[111]

Sadly, some research has found an association between suicide and learning/reading disabilities. In one study, adolescents with reading disabilities were more likely to experience suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide) and suicide attempts.[112] Another study that analyzed suicide notes for errors in spelling and writing found that 89% of the 27 adolescents who completed suicide had problems in spelling and handwriting consistent with learning disabilities.[113]

Another Canadian study showed that one in every six women and one in every nine men with a learning disability had attempted suicide. Even after controlling for many of the known risk factors for suicide attempts, people with learning disabilities had 46% higher odds of having ever attempted to die by suicide than people who did not have a learning disability.[114] Among people with learning disabilities, lifetime episodes of major depression and witnessing ongoing domestic violence as children were associated with higher incidence of suicide attempts.[115]

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Overall health

Education and literacy are key determinants of overall health. Lower levels of education and lower literacy skills are associated with worse health outcomes, and may even be associated with premature death.[116] Canadians with low literacy skills are more likely to suffer poorer health and worse health outcomes than Canadians with high levels of literacy.[117]

One paper noted:

The development of reading proficiency in childhood is a public health issue: literacy is a widely recognized determinant of health outcomes and is associated with many indices of academic, social, vocational, and economic success. A recent National Academy of Medicine summary highlights that duration of education, which is highly dependent on reading proficiency, is a better predictor of health and long life than cigarette smoking or obesity.[118]

 

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Underemployment, poverty and homelessness

Literacy is an essential skill to get and keep a job, and to adapt and succeed at work. Yet in Ontario, a substantial portion of adults (42% according to the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey) do not have the literacy skills they need for home, work and everyday life. Sixteen per cent struggle with very serious literacy challenges and have trouble reading even the most basic text, while the other 26% can read but not well enough to meet the demands of today’s society.[119] Low literacy is worse among certain groups. For example, a Statistics Canada report found that while 17% of all persons had a literacy score in the lowest category in 2012, 30% of recent immigrants, 26% of Indigenous persons,[120] 27% of unattached non-elderly persons, and 23% of people with an activity limitation had a literacy score level in the lowest category.[121]

As of 2018, Ontario’s five-year graduation rate was 87.1% with almost 13% of Ontario students failing to earn an Ontario Secondary School Diploma within five years of entering Grade 9.[122] This rate is even more troubling for certain communities. Only 60% of First Nations students, 68% of Inuit students and 76% of Métis students graduated within five years.[123]

People with low literacy skills are much more likely to experience unemployment and for longer periods of time. In Ontario, just 61% of adults with the lowest literacy levels are employed, while 82% of people with the highest levels of literacy are in the workforce.[124] Without the ability to read or write, many people become trapped in a cycle of poverty with limited opportunities for employment or earning income.[125] Approximately 29% of adults with the lowest levels of literacy live in low-income households (households whose income is below Statistics Canada’s after-tax Low Income Measure), compared with only 8% of people with high levels of literacy.[126] People with low literacy skills are also more likely to receive government social assistance.[127]

Fewer people with diagnosed learning disabilities are employed, and if they are they have less job satisfaction and more work-related challenges.[128] Adults with reading disabilities may have underachieved educationally and may be underemployed.[129] They may avoid jobs that have a lot of reading and writing. They may be reluctant to tell their employer about their disability because they fear discrimination.[130] A wage gap has been found between employees with and without learning disabilities.[131]

The higher school dropout rate for students with learning disabilities leaves them at greater risk for socio-economic disadvantage, street involvement, and even homelessness.[132]

People with childhood learning disabilities are over-represented among homeless youth and adults.[133] A 2016 pan-Canadian study of young people who experience homelessness reported:

Homeless youth have challenging and disrupted academic trajectories, with bullying and learning disabilities impacting school engagement and achievement for these youth. Among study participants, 50% reported being tested for a learning disability while at school, indicating that school staff view these youth as suffering in some way. Importantly, those who had dropped out of school were much more likely to report learning disabilities (41.8%), ADHD (46.1%), and physical disabilities (47.9%).[134]

In a study examining the prevalence of math and reading difficulties in 16- to 21-year-old clients of a shelter for runaway and homeless street youth in Toronto, 52% of participants had a reading disability.[135]

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Criminalization and incarceration

As well as being over-represented in the homeless population, youth and adults with low literacy, learning difficulties, and who have dropped out of school are disproportionately involved with the criminal justice system and in correctional facilities.[136] The 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey found:

  • Offenders are three times as likely as the rest of the [Canadian] population to have literacy problems
  • 79 of 100 people entering Canadian correctional facilities don’t have their high school diploma
  • 65 of 100 people entering correctional facilities have less than a Grade 8 education or level of literacy skills, and 82% test lower than Grade 10.[137]

Studies from other jurisdictions have found a high prevalence of learning disabilities and dyslexia in adult and youth prison populations (from 30% to 70%).[138]

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) has recognized the link between literacy and crime. In an 18-month project, Literacy and Policing in Canada: Target Crime with Literacy, the CACP identifies several ways that low literacy contributes to crime and recidivism (re-offending). In addition to statistics about lower levels of literacy among offenders compared the general population, the CACP noted:

  • Neighbourhoods with lower literacy have higher crime rates[139]
  • Witnesses with lower literacy have difficulty communicating effectively when giving a report to police or testifying in court[140]
  • Offenders with low literacy have a harder time successfully completing many sentencing programs that involve reading, such as programs for anger management and drug rehabilitation.[141]

The CACP report recognizes the link between literacy and factors such as poverty, racism, being an immigrant, being Indigenous, and having a disability, including learning disability.[142]

CACP has identified increasing literacy as a way to prevent crime.[143]

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Impact on families

The challenges associated with reading difficulties do not end with the affected person. They extend to other family members including parents and guardians, siblings, grandparents and extended family.

Parents want the best for their child and often worry about their child’s physical and mental health (including their confidence and self-esteem), safety (including security from bullying), development, education, future success and overall well-being. When a child experiences difficulties in any one of these areas, it takes a significant toll on parents, siblings and families. Studies that looked at the impact of a reading or learning disability on the family have confirmed that parents of children with reading disabilities experience significant additional stress[144] and anxiety[145] as well as guilt, fear, shame, helplessness, frustration, disillusionment and isolation.[146]

Parents who themselves have a reading disability may have a trauma-like reaction to their child’s diagnosis. They may feel additional guilt, for example from believing that they are genetically responsible for the reading disability, and additional responsibility for trying to protect their child from the same negative experiences they faced. Parents who do not share the disability may feel a painful loss of connection to their child.[147]

Parents also commonly report tension in the relationship between parents and an impact on family dynamics and unity,[148] as well as financial impacts and interrupted careers.[149]

Parents expend significant time, money and emotional energy to try to get help for their child.[150] Parents must become advocates for their child within the school system and they must also locate and pay for services outside the school system. Parental involvement and persistence are often needed to get any supports in school. Many parents cannot afford to pay for outside private supports such as psychoeducational assessments and private education services. This contributes to their guilt, stress and anxiety.[151] An Australian paper describing the many struggles that parents, often mothers, face when their child has dyslexia noted:

Mothers become emotionally and physically drained as they become heavily involved in their child’s remedial education…and worry for the child’s future. Many mothers choose to quit their jobs to focus their energy and time attending to their child…Overall, the literature reports ongoing difficulties for parents as they struggle to support their child before, during and after the assessment of dyslexia...[152]

When a child struggles and needs extra attention from parents and other relatives, it can also have a negative impact on siblings and sibling relationships.[153]

Other families without the means for private psychologists and networks to learn about reading disabilities may be unaware of or unable to tackle the obstacles impeding their child’s success at school.

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Costs of low literacy

The negative impacts described above result in significant socio-economic costs to the affected individuals, their families, and society as a whole.

The estimated financial costs that result from reading disabilities, learning disabilities and low literacy have been quantified and are substantial. A report prepared by the Roeher Institute for the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada[154] estimated direct and indirect costs that result from learning disabilities. It considered costs to individuals, families and society arising from:

  • Hospital and medical services
  • Miscellaneous health-related expenses
  • Medications
  • Education services
  • Criminal justice services
  • Income transfers through social assistance programs
  • Services provided by community agencies to assist with everyday activities because of disability
  • Reduced earnings of people with learning disabilities
  • Reduced household incomes (forgone income related to taking care of persons with learning disabilities).[155]

The Roeher report took a conservative approach to quantifying costs by not including costs of assessments, re-evaluations, reports to employers or accommodation costs in its calculations.

It found that the estimated simple incremental cost of a learning disability (the cost difference between the situation of a person with a learning disability and a person without, from birth to retirement) is $1.982 million per person. The burden of these costs mainly falls on the person with the learning disability and their family (61.4% of the costs). Public programs cover approximately 38.5% of the costs and private-sector insurers take on the balance (for example, by covering medication costs).

The report quantified the estimated overall costs to society. Using a conservative estimate that 5% of the Canadian population has a learning disability, the report found that the simple incremental cost of learning disabilities from birth to retirement (to all individuals with learning disabilities, their families and to public and private programs in Canada) is about $3,080 billion.[156] These figures are from the early 2000s, and would likely be much higher in today’s dollars.

Similarly, in evidence submitted to a United Kingdom (U.K.) Parliamentary Committee in 2006, the Dyslexia Institute in the U.K. quantified long-term economic costs to society from the systemic failure to support children with dyslexia. The institute estimated that undiagnosed dyslexia and reading failure cost the U.K. economy $1 billion per year.[157]

There is an economic cost associated with students failing to complete high school, which is more likely for students with reading disabilities. One study looked at financial costs to society in the areas of health, social assistance, crime, labour and employment. The study found that a 1% increase in the graduation rate could save the Canadian economy $7.7 billion per year (in 2008 dollars).[158]

A report on literacy in Canada noted that Canada has a problem with literacy that is getting worse.[159] The report cites data showing that more than 40% of Canada’s workforce does not have the literacy skills needed for most of today’s jobs. It identifies several reasons for this, including low youth literacy due to failures in Canada’s education system.[160]

One of the report’s main recommendations is to improve the literacy skills of graduates of Kindergarten to Grade 12 and post-secondary programs. This would have significant benefit to our economy and would lead to a “tangible return on investment.”[161] Increasing literacy skills in the workforce, particularly of people with the lowest literacy levels, by an average of 1%, would over time lead to a 3% increase in Canada’s Gross Domestic Product, or $54 billion every year, and a 5% increase in productivity.[162]

A Canadian study concluded that improving health literacy,[163] which is affected by general literacy, could lead to reductions in health costs:

Although the evidence of the financial costs associated with low health literacy in Canada is sparse, there is enough Canadian and American research to suggest that policies designed to raise average health literacy levels might lead to improvements in population health and concomitant reductions in health costs.[164]

It is well known that money spent on early education reduces the overall costs to the education system over time. In Moore v British Columbia, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal noted:

The importance of early intervention as a means of helping to ensure the academic success of all students cannot be overstated. A report prepared for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Clarifying Report, 1995) put it this way:

Special instruction for under-achievers, especially at the beginning of primary education should be regarded…as a first-class investment….It become[s] progressively more costly to deal with the difficulties of [students with low achievement] since, as they move “up” from class to class, compensatory programmes tend to have less and less effect….Investment in compensatory education should be seen, therefore, not as a charge on educational budgets but as a deferred gain.[165]

A special education report commissioned by the British Columbia Ministry of Education noted that research has shown “that for every education-related dollar we spend during a child’s early years we save many dollars in the health care and justice systems.”[166]

Investing in ensuring every child in Ontario has the best opportunity to learn to read simply makes economic sense. The financial and social returns of investing in proven, effective methods to teach reading and prevent reading failure far outweigh the original investment.

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Literacy as a social justice issue

Teaching all children to read has been identified as a social justice issue. One of the goals of a publicly funded education system is to give every child an opportunity to succeed, no matter their background.[167] However, children from historically disadvantaged communities, including children who are Black, Indigenous, learning English or who live in poverty, are disproportionately represented among students who struggle with reading.[168] Lower literacy has been identified as one of the reasons these communities have lower academic achievement, are under-represented in professions that require higher education, and are over-represented in prison populations, among other things.[169]

When the education system provides vulnerable children with a strong foundation in reading, it has the potential to reduce their historical and social disadvantage. When it does not, it can deepen their marginalization and entrench their risk of intergenerational inequality.[170]

A paper written for the Canadian Education Association described the role of the education system in levelling the playing field for disadvantaged children. It said: “when children at risk receive the support necessary to develop literacy skills early in their school career, they close the gap with more advantaged peers.”[171] It concluded that schools have a role in benefitting society and redressing social inequity by teaching children to read early and well:

Schools can better reflect Canada’s commitment to equity and inclusivity by equalizing educational opportunity for disadvantaged children at an early age. … improving literacy outcomes is not just about raising reading scores; it truly is a matter of social justice.[172]

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Education in Ontario

The purpose of education

Education is essential to both individual and societal progress. International legal instruments recognize the importance of education for human development and also for collective growth. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights[173] (UDHR) states that the goal of education is “the full development of the human personality” and also to promote “understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.”[174]

Education is so important for realizing other rights and freedoms that it is reflected in many other international and foundational documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[175] (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[176] (ICESCR). Education “is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realizing other rights.”[177]

The ICESCR and other human rights instruments[178] elaborate on the UDHR and underscore the role of education in fostering a person’s capabilities, sense of dignity and self-worth so they can actively take part in and meaningfully contribute to society.[179]

Ontario’s Education Act[180] echoes these principles. The Act states: “A strong public education system is the foundation of a prosperous, caring and civil society,” and the “purpose of education is to provide students with the opportunity to realize their potential and develop into highly skilled, knowledgeable, caring citizens who contribute to their society.”[181]

Internationally and in Ontario, the consensus is that education is critical to a person’s personal, social and economic development, and vital to their ability to contribute to the well-being of their community. To realize this vision, all students must have equal access to a meaningful education. In Ontario, education partners each have their own set of distinct responsibilities to ensure this reality for all students.

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Responsibility for public education in Ontario

The Education Act and its accompanying regulations govern public education in Ontario and set out the duties and responsibilities of different education partners. The Act states:

All partners in the education sector, including the Minister, the Ministry and the boards, have a role to play in enhancing student achievement and well-being, closing gaps in student achievement and maintaining confidence in the province’s publicly funded education systems.[182]

Some of the main partners in delivering education are described below.

 
Ministry of Education

Under the Education Act, the Ministry has ultimate responsibility for education.[183] As well as funding and oversight functions, the Ministry has overall responsibility for developing legislation, regulations and policies for education. The Ministry is responsible for:

  • Issuing policy directives, known as Policy/Program Memoranda (PPMs) to school boards to outline expectations for implementing Ministry policies and programs
  • Monitoring the implementation of these policies and programs, making sure that school boards comply with the requirements of the Education Act and its regulations
  • Allocating funding through a series of grants that are described annually in regulations under the Education Act, and establishing reporting and accountability requirements for these grants
  • Issuing curriculum,[184] which includes the “front matter” (foundational information), curriculum expectations and teacher supports. Curriculum expectations, overall and specific, make up the mandatory Ontario curriculum. They are the standard knowledge and skills that students are expected to show in each subject by the end of the grade
  • Developing and publishing policy and resource documents for Kindergarten to Grade 12. Policy documents outline mandatory requirements and standards. Resource documents support implementation of policy, and their use is a local decision.
  • Setting out the categories and definitions of “exceptionality” that school boards must use, and ensuring that boards provide appropriate special education programs and services for these students in accordance with the Education Act and its regulations[185]
  • Providing regional office staff with special education expertise to monitor and assist school boards in implementing special education policies
  • Setting provincial standards and guidelines for all assessment, evaluation and reporting for all students
  • Setting requirements for diplomas and certificates[186]
  • Requiring school boards to maintain Special Education Plans, review them annually, and submit amendments.[187] Special Education Plans provide information to the Ministry and the public about special education programs and services that school boards provide
  • Preparing lists of approved textbooks and other learning materials[188]
  • Initiating research and grants available for school board use.[189]

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Provincial and demonstration schools

The Ministry also operates provincial and demonstration schools that provide specialized integrated programming for students with special learning needs.[190] Ontario has three English/American Sign Language provincial schools for students who are Deaf/hard of hearing, one English-language provincial school for students who are blind/low vision and deafblind, three demonstration schools for students diagnosed with severe learning disabilities, some of whom may also have ADHD and one French-language provincial school for children who are Deaf or hard of hearing, blind or have low vision, are deafblind or have severe learning disabilities. Unlike the other provincial and demonstration schools, this French-language school, Centre Jules-Léger (CLJ) is not governed by the Ministry. CLJ is operated by a consortium of French-language school boards. Provincial schools offer the Ontario curriculum for students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 and parallel courses provided in school boards. Demonstration schools provide a one-year residential school program for students with a possibility for a second year in certain program areas.

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School boards and school authorities

The province’s 72 publicly funded school boards are responsible for delivering special education programs and services in accordance with Ministry requirements – the Education Act, regulations and policy. These boards are made up of 31 English public boards, 29 English Catholic boards, four French public boards and eight French Catholic boards. Ten Ontario schools are operated by school authorities that oversee schools in hospitals and treatment centres, and in remote regions.[191] School boards are responsible for most aspects of delivering education to students and for providing education programs that meet the needs of the school community, including the needs for special education. School boards are responsible for:

  • Setting standards for delivering education and services in their schools
  • Developing and monitoring policies in achieving goals such as effective instruction
  • Ensuring schools follow Ministry requirements
  • Implementing curriculum according to Ministry policy
  • Deciding how to spend funds from the Ministry
  • Providing statistical reports to the Ministry as required and as requested
  • Implementing procedures for early and ongoing identification of children’s learning needs[192]
  • Developing procedures and protocols such as Multi-Year Strategic Plans and Board Improvement Plans for Student Achievement and Well-being
  • Developing Special Education Plans and reviewing them annually[193]
  • Providing appropriately qualified staff for programs and services for exceptional students
  • Preparing guides to provide parents with information about special education programs, services and procedures
  • Providing professional development to staff
  • Establishing new teacher induction programs (NTIP) as required by the Ministry,[194] including orientation, mentoring and professional learning.

Many different administrative, teaching and professional staff support student learning and achievement. Some of these staff are described below.

Principals

Principals are responsible for organizing and managing individual schools, including any budget the school board assigns to the school. They are responsible for the quality of instruction at their school and for student discipline. Principals are responsible for assigning teachers to classes and selecting textbooks and other learning materials from the approved Ministry list, with the help of teachers. Principals are also required to provide the Ministry with any information that may be required on the school’s instructional program, operation or administration.[195]

Teachers

Teachers are responsible for preparing lesson plans, effective instruction and supporting their students. They carry out different kinds of assessments – diagnostic, formative and summative. Diagnostic assessments occur before instruction begins so teachers can determine students’ readiness to learn and plan instruction and assessment that are differentiated. Formative assessments occur during instruction, and help teachers monitor students’ ongoing progress. Summative assessments occur at or near the end of learning. On request, teachers report to the principal on their students’ progress. Teachers are also responsible for taking part in regular meetings with students’ parents or guardians.[196]

Special education teachers

Special education teachers hold qualifications, in accordance with the Education Act,[197] to teach special education. They play a variety of roles including consulting with and assisting classroom teachers with early identification, differentiating and modifying curriculum, assessment, intervention strategies, developing and coordinating Individual Education Plans (IEPs), and in-class or withdrawal support for special education students.[198]

Special education teachers may teach in self-contained classrooms. In a self-contained/specialized/special education class, students are placed in a smaller class with students who have similar academic needs. These students spend their whole day or at least 50% of their day outside the regular classroom.[199] Special education teachers may also work as a learning resource teacher or in-school support person, or may be a consultant/itinerant role where they support a variety of schools. 

Registered early childhood educators

Registered early childhood educators work alongside a teacher in every Kindergarten class that has 16 or more students in Ontario. They are trained in early childhood development, observation skills and assessment skills. They focus on age-appropriate program planning that promotes each child’s physical, cognitive, language, emotional, social and creative development and well-being.[200]

Educational assistants

Educational assistants work in and outside the classroom as directed by the principal. Depending on their qualifications, they enable students with a variety of emotional, behavioral, physical, personal care, and medical and academic needs to access the curriculum.

Literacy specialists

Literacy specialists work with administrators, educators and students to deepen their understanding of the reading and writing process and extend the repertoire of teaching and learning strategies. Their goals are to promote student learning and to raise achievement.[201] School boards in Ontario set their own standard for hiring specialists, and use different language to refer to their literacy support specialists – including early literacy teachers, lead literacy teachers, literacy coaches, itinerant teachers and literacy resource teachers. Literacy specialists can be either based in school boards where they work district-wide (often assigned to a family of schools), or can work in a specific school (often with release time from teaching).[202]

Speech-language pathology staff

Speech-language pathologists work in school boards and provide a range of interdisciplinary supports for students, such as reading instruction using Universal Design for Learning strategies and evidence-based reading intervention for children with or at risk for reading disabilities across all tiers of instruction. They also provide screening for literacy skills, communication programming and interventions, professional assessments of literacy and oral language, and training for educators. They work with individual students, groups of students and educator teams, both inside and outside the classroom.[203]

School board psychology staff

School board psychology staff provide a range of services for students such as consultation, diagnostic assessments, counselling, crisis response, referral to community-based services, and professional development for staff. Psychology staff conduct psychoeducational assessments (also known as psychological assessments). These assessments identify a student’s learning strengths and needs and provide programming recommendations.[204]

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Ontario College of Teachers

The Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) regulates the teaching profession and governs its members, as set out in the Ontario College of Teachers Act.[205] The College develops codes of conduct for teachers, investigates complaints and makes decisions about teacher discipline and fitness to practice.

The College also sets requirements for the Certificate of Qualification. This certificate is a member’s license to teach in Ontario and outlines teaching qualifications. To receive this certificate, most teacher candidates complete a minimum three-year post-secondary degree, a four-semester teacher education program at a faculty of education. The College sets the standards for teacher education programs at Ontario faculties of education and monitors these programs to make sure they meet the standards.

Teachers who complete their teacher education program in Ontario have the required areas of study – known as Basic Qualifications – to teach in two consecutive divisions – Primary/Junior (Kindergarten to Grade 3), Junior/Intermediate (Grades 4–6), and Intermediate/Senior (Grades 7–12). Basic Qualifications determine what language, grades and subjects teachers can teach. Teachers can take Additional Basic Qualification (ABQ) courses through a faculty of education to add another division or subject area to what they are already qualified to teach. Additional Qualification (AQ) courses allow teachers to expand their knowledge and skills within the divisions and subjects they are already qualified for. Examples of AQ courses include Special Education or Reading. Faculties of education and other providers across Ontario offer AQ courses, based on guidelines the College has developed establishing learning expectations, instructional strategies and forms of assessment.

Specialist and honour specialist courses allow teachers to focus on leadership and developing curriculum.

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Faculties of education

Thirteen public faculties of education offer English-language initial teacher education programs in Ontario. Preparing for a career in teaching in Ontario currently involves successfully completing a three- or four-year bachelor’s degree, followed by a two-year (four-semester) program of professional education accredited by the Ontario College of Teachers. After completing a four-semester teacher education program, teacher candidates apply to the OCT to receive a Certificate of Qualification. It is also possible to get certification through a concurrent program, where the five or six years of academic and professional studies are undertaken at the same time. All pre-service teacher education programs offered by Ontario's faculties of education must be accredited by the Ontario College of Teachers.

Select faculties of education are recognized providers of AQ courses accredited by the OCT.

 

Professional organizations and bargaining agents for teachers and other educators

The Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF), established by the Teaching Profession Act,[206] is the professional organization for all teachers in Ontario’s publicly funded schools. OTF is the official liaison between teachers and the Ministry and provides advice and input about policy decisions.

Teachers also belong to one of four Ontario federations (or unions) affiliated with the OTF. Some of these unions also represent a significant number of non-teaching school board staff such as early childhood educators and other professional support staff. The four federations are:

  • The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) represents English-language elementary public school teachers
  • The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) represents secondary teachers in English-language public school boards
  • The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) represents both elementary and secondary teachers in Catholic boards
  • The Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens (AEFO) represents all teachers in French-language boards.

While some unions represent other education workers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents the majority of school-based staff who are not teachers. Members include office; clerical and technical; custodial and maintenance; early childhood educators, and educational assistant employees.

Unions represent their members in negotiations to reach collective agreements with school boards. These collective agreements include central and local terms. When negotiating central terms, school boards are represented by their school board association, and the Crown is a participant. Decisions about which items are negotiated locally or centrally are determined by the central table. Central terms could include salary, hiring practices, professional development, class sizes, funding and the exercise of professional judgment. Educator sector unions issue directives to their members on matters that affect their collective bargaining rights or public education, more broadly.[207] They also issue internal and external policies or position statements to guide their members or set out beliefs that guide union action on issues such as equity and inclusive education, disability issues and developing curriculum.[208]

Education unions also provide resources to help their members implement the Ontario curriculum, advance equity, support student learning and negotiate their employment. Some unions also offer AQ courses accredited by the OCT on a range of subjects.

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Education Quality and Accountability Office

The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is an arm’s-length agency of the provincial government that develops and administers province-wide tests to evaluate the achievement of students in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10. Grade 3 and Grade 6 students are tested in reading, writing and mathematics based on Ontario curriculum expectations. Grade 9 students are tested only in mathematics. As a condition of high school graduation with an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD), all students, including students in private schools, must pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT), which is usually written in Grade 10. It is possible for a student to graduate with an OSSD by completing the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course instead of the OSSLT.

All students are expected to write these assessments, but exemptions can be made. Exemption decisions are made in consultation with the student, parents or guardians, principal and appropriate teaching staff, with the consent of the parents or guardians. If a parent or guardian want their child to write the assessment, the student must be allowed to write.

The EQAO sets the criteria for who qualifies for an accommodation and what form of accommodation is permitted. Accommodations are generally only available to students with an IEP, certain English language learners and other students with special circumstances. Examples of permitted accommodations include scribing or assistive technology.

As well as achievement scores, the EQAO collects and reports on student demographic data and questionnaire responses from students, teachers and principals. The EQAO also collects data on special education needs by category of exceptionality and on matters such as types of accommodation received and enrolment in academic vs. applied courses. The EQAO reports to the Minister of Education, the public and the education community on assessment and education issues and makes recommendations for improvement.

The mandate of EQAO is to enhance the quality and accountability of the education system in Ontario and to work with the education community.

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Special education framework

School boards identify and meet students’ special education needs in formal and informal ways.

School boards must identify students’ learning needs early on and on an ongoing basis.[209] This may identify students who show difficulties in learning. If these students would benefit from special education supports and accommodations, they are entitled to receive them. In addition to these special education services, these students should have an Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Some students may be referred to an Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC), a formal process that might identify the student as “exceptional.” If identified as “exceptional,” an IEP must be created and the student must receive the necessary accommodations and special education supports. Students may have an IEP, setting out what special education services they may receive, without an IPRC.

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Exceptionalities

The Education Act requires the Ministry to ensure that appropriate special education programs and services are provided for all exceptional students in Ontario in accordance with the Act and its regulations.[210] The Act identifies five categories of exceptionalities:

  1. Behavioural
  2. Communicational
  3. Intellectual
  4. Physical
  5. Multiple.[211]

In policy documents, the Ministry defines these exceptionalities and lists subcategories.[212] “Learning disability” is a subcategory of “Communicational” exceptionalities.[213] Although reading disability is not explicitly listed, a student with a reading disability may be identified as an exceptional student with a “learning disability.”

In a memo directed to all school boards, the Ministry has elaborated on how these categories should be interpreted broadly.[214] Including some disabilities (such as autism) is not meant to exclude other disabilities (such as ADHD).

All students with demonstrated learning-based needs are entitled to special education programs and services, including classroom-based accommodations. The determining factor for providing special education programs is the need of the student, and not a diagnosed or undiagnosed medical condition[215] or formally identifying the student as exceptional.[216]

Also, under the Code, education providers must accommodate all students who have or may have disabilities, not just students whose disabilities are listed in the exceptionality categories.

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Identification, Placement and Review Committees (IPRC)

School boards must establish Identification, Placement and Review Committees (IPRC).[217] An IPRC is the committee that meets and decides if a student should be identified as exceptional, and if so, what placement will best meet the student's needs.

If identified as exceptional, the committee decides whether a student should be placed in a regular classroom with supports, in a special education class or a combination of both.[218] Where placement in a regular classroom would meet the child’s needs and is consistent with parental preferences, the IPRC must place the child in the regular classroom.

The IPRC also has the power to make recommendations, but not decisions, about special education programs and services. The IPRC must review the identification and placement at least once in each school year. A parent (or guardian) may give written notice dispensing with the annual review.[219]

School boards are required to establish Special Education Appeal Boards (SEAB). Parents may appeal the decisions of an IPRC to the SEAB.[220] Identification and placement decisions can be appealed, but recommendations on programs and services cannot be appealed.

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Individual Education Plan

If the IPRC decision is not appealed, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) must be prepared for the student.[221] The student’s principal is responsible for ensuring this happens. An IEP is the school’s written plan of action to address the student’s learning expectations. The Ministry describes it as an “accountability tool” for the student, the parent and everyone else who has responsibilities under the plan.[222]

The Education Act sets out certain requirements for an IEP.[223] The Ministry has also set out additional requirements in PPMs and policy standards that school boards must follow when creating IEPs.[224] The IEP must describe:

  • Reasons for developing the IEP
  • Student profile
  • Relevant assessment data
  • The student’s strengths and needs
  • Specialized health support services the student needs
  • The subjects, courses or alternative programs the IEP applies to
  • Accommodations the student needs
  • Any accommodations for or exemptions from provincial assessments (EQAO)
  • The student’s current level of achievement in every subject or course where modified expectations are required and in every alternative program
  • Modified or alternative expectations for the reporting period
  • Teaching strategies and other accommodations tailored to the student’s strengths, needs, learning style and interests, to support learning and determine progress in achieving modified or alternative expectations
  • Human resources (both teaching and non-teaching) to be provided
  • Reporting dates for evaluations and how student progress will be reported to parents
  • A transition plan (for example, on entry to school, between grades, from one program area or subject to another, when moving from school to school, from elementary to secondary school and from secondary school to the next appropriate pathway)[225]
  • A record of parent/student consultations
  • A record of staff review of the IEP
  • Signatures of the principal, parent, and student if 16 or older.[226]

The Ministry conducts reviews of selected school boards’ IEPs on an annual basis to assess compliance with these standards.[227]

In developing the IEP, the principal must consult with the student’s parent or guardian (or with the student, if they are 16 or older), and must consider any recommendations made through the IPRC process.

An IEP may also identify “modified” or “alternative” learning expectations. Modifications are changes made to the grade-level expectations for a subject or course to meet a student’s learning needs.[228] Modifications can include assessment at a different grade level or changing the number and/or complexity of the regular-grade level expectations. Alternative expectations are those that are not derived from the expectations set out in the curriculum.[229]

Students who have not been identified with an exceptionality by an IPRC are also entitled to receive special education programs or services and accommodations to meet their education needs. In these cases, an IEP may be developed for a student who the board has deemed to require a special education program or services to attend school or achieve curriculum expectations and/or to demonstrate learning.[230] 

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Legal obligations

Equal access to education is a fundamental human right guaranteed under the Ontario Human Rights Code[231] (Code), the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms[232] (Charter), and international law. The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has affirmed that all students must have meaningful access to education, which includes being provided the supports needed to learn to read.[233] In Eaton v Brant Country Board of Education (Eaton), the SCC also emphasized the importance of inclusive education as an equality right, finding that “…integration should be recognized as the norm of general application because of the benefits it generally provides.”[234]

 

Ontario’s Human Rights Code and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Code protects students from discrimination and harassment in education based on disability, including reading disability/dyslexia,[235] and other prohibited grounds such as race, ancestry, place of origin, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.[236]

Family, friends, advocates or others are protected from discrimination based on their association with students with reading disabilities.[237] The Code also prohibits reprisal, which is an action or threat that is intended as retaliation for claiming, enforcing or refusing to infringe a right under the Code.[238]

The Code has primacy over all other Ontario laws, including the Education Act, unless the law specifically states that it operates notwithstanding the Code.[239] This means that where the Education Act conflicts with the Code, the Code will prevail. It is not enough for education providers to do what is required under the Education Act. They must also comply with the requirements of the Code, which may mean doing more than what is required under the Education Act.[240]

For example, while the Ministry has its own framework for identifying “exceptional pupils” under the Education Act, the Ontario Human Rights Code and human rights case law[241] establish that education providers have a legal duty to accommodate students’ disability-related needs to the point of undue hardship. This legal duty exists whether or not a student with a disability falls within the Ministry’s definition of “exceptional pupil,” has received a diagnosis, gone through a formal IPRC process, or has an IEP.

Like the Code, section 15 of the Charter guarantees students’ right to equality without discrimination based on mental or physical disability, among other grounds.[242] State actors (such as governments and school boards) must not infringe Charter rights unless the infringement can be justified as a reasonable limit under section 1 of the Charter.[243]

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Forms of discrimination

Discrimination may take different forms. It may take place in a direct way,[244] where students receive worse treatment than others because of disability and/or another Code ground. This form of discrimination is often based on negative attitudes, stereotypes and bias. However, intent or motive is not relevant for a finding of discrimination. Discrimination is often subtle and hard to detect. It may be unlikely that discriminatory remarks will be made directly, or that someone will freely voice their stereotypical views as a rationale for their behaviour.

Adverse effect discrimination (also called constructive discrimination) results from requirements, policies, standards, qualifications, rules or factors that may appear neutral, but have a negative effect based on a prohibited ground. Adverse effect discrimination can only be justified as reasonable and bona fide if the needs of the student cannot be accommodated without undue hardship.[245] 

Discrimination in education can also be systemic[246] or institutionalized.[247] Systemic or institutional discrimination is one of the more complex ways that discrimination happens.[248] This discrimination includes attitudes, patterns of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the social or administrative structures of an institution or sector, and that create or perpetuate a position of relative disadvantage for students with disabilities or who identify by other Code grounds.[249]

Education providers have a positive obligation to make sure they are not engaging in systemic or institutional discrimination. This means that even if there are no complaints, educators are expected to consider and plan for avoiding this discrimination. An important principle that helps avoid adverse effect and systemic discrimination is inclusive design. In the education context, “Universal Design for Learning” (UDL)[250] is a form of inclusive design that emphasizes equal participation and recognizes that all students have varying abilities and needs.

In Eaton, a case about inclusive education, the SCC noted the need to “fine-tune” society so that structures and assumptions do not exclude people with disabilities from taking part.[251] Education providers should never create barriers when designing new systems or revising old ones, and should design their programs, services and facilities inclusively with the needs of all students, including students with disabilities, in mind.[252] Effective inclusive design reduces the need for people to ask for individual accommodation.

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Duty to accommodate and undue hardship

Consistent with human rights principles, education services must be designed to reflect and include all students, as much as possible.  Where individual needs remain, there is a duty to accommodate those needs to the point of undue hardship.

The duty to accommodate has both a procedural and substantive component. This means that the process to explore and assess accommodation options is just as important as the accommodations that are provided. Courts and tribunals have found that education providers must at least consider alternatives in meeting the duty to accommodate, and not doing so can result in findings of discrimination even if no accommodation would have been possible.[253]

Accommodations must be provided unless it would cause undue hardship. Undue hardship is a very high standard. Under the Code, the only considerations when assessing this are cost (factoring in outside sources of funding)[254] and health and safety requirements.[255]

The cost standard is a high threshold.[256] The government is required to make sure that school boards have access to enough funding to safeguard equal access to education. Given the Ministry’s size and access to resources, it would be very difficult for it to establish undue hardship based on cost.[257] School boards also have a responsibility to provide adequate funding to schools to enable them to provide accommodations. The appropriate way to evaluate cost is based on the global budget of the school board, not the pre-determined special education budget.[258] Inclusive design at the outset can often avoid expensive costs later on.

The Code recognizes that the right to be free from discrimination must be balanced with health and safety considerations. Depending on the nature and degree of risk involved, an education provider may argue that accommodating a student with a disability would amount to an undue hardship, based on health and safety risks. However, the seriousness of the risk of accommodation should be judged based on taking suitable precautions to reduce it.

Factors such as business or institutional convenience,[259] student or educator morale,[260] third-party preferences,[261] and collective agreements[262] are not valid considerations in assessing if an accommodation would cause undue hardship.[263]

Accommodations must be both effective and timely. When educating children, accommodation delayed can be accommodation denied. Education providers must therefore provide early intervention or interim accommodation as soon as a disability-related need is suspected, and must not obstruct or delay the accommodation process by rigidly insisting on formalities, unnecessary professional assessments, or diagnosis information.[264]

Effective communication about accommodation procedures is essential to the accommodation process.[265] Information about accommodation procedures should be readily available to students, and where applicable, their parents and guardians. The duty to accommodate is a shared responsibility that requires all parties to cooperate.[266]

However, parent behaviour cannot be the basis for failing to accommodate a student’s needs, unless the behaviour interferes with an education provider’s ability to accommodate.[267]

Also, before concluding that a student (or their parent/guardian) has not co-operated, education providers should consider if there are any disability or Code-related factors that may prevent taking part in the process. These factors may then need to be accommodated.

In Moore v British Columbia (Education), the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) unanimously affirmed that the right to meaningful access to education includes early and effective intervention.[268] For this access to be meaningful, there must be a range of services available, and services must be specific to each student’s identified needs.[269] In this case, student Jeffrey Moore needed intensive and individualized remediation to have meaningful access. The SCC said that for students with severe dyslexia, remedial instruction to learn to read “is not a dispensable luxury,” but a “ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children…”[270] The SCC confirmed that if parents must resort to private education because the public system is found to discriminate, then boards can be ordered to compensate the parents for the cost of tuition. The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) has also found that if a school board did not provide the supports necessary to provide meaningful access to education, and the school board cannot show that providing the supports would be undue hardship, the HRTO can order the school board to reimburse parents for private school.[271] 

The accommodation process must be individualized.[272] The SCC states: “The importance of the individualized nature of the accommodation process cannot be minimized”[273] and disability means “vastly different things depending upon the individual and the context.”[274] Individualized accommodation also requires education providers to be mindful that many students with disabilities will identify by other Code grounds, in addition to disability.

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Intersectionality

Discrimination may be intersectional when it occurs based on two or more Code grounds. Students who identify based on more than one Code ground can experience discrimination in unique and compounded ways because of how these identities intersect.[275]

In Egan v Canada[276] and Corbiere v Canada,[277] former SCC Justice L’Heureux-Dubé stated: “More often than not, disadvantage arises from the way in which society treats particular individuals, rather than from any characteristic inherent in those individuals”[278] and individuals with more than one ground of discrimination can be “doubly disadvantaged.”[279] The HRTO has also stated that individuals with “multiple/intersecting social identities may be particularly vulnerable.”[280]

Examples of intersecting identities creating distinct disadvantage could include:

  • Black students with disabilities may be streamed into particular programs based on stereotypical assumptions about their capabilities because of their disability and race[281]
  • The impact of intergenerational trauma and educators’ lack of cultural competency may have a negative impact on the learning experiences of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students with disabilities[282]
  • Racialized and First Nations, Métis and Inuit students with disabilities may be disproportionally excluded from the classroom due to suspensions or other forms of discipline[283]
  • Francophone students with disabilities may have difficulty accessing special education services in their language
  • Multilingual or newcomer students may not receive timely supports for their disability needs because of assumptions related to language or their place of origin
  • Students with a disability who also have low incomes may not have the same access to private services as other students, or may not benefit equally from services offered within the school[284]
  • Female and male-identified students with disabilities may receive different treatment based on stereotypes about learning potential related to their gender.[285]

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OHRC Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities

The OHRC’s Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities (Accessible education policy) provides more detail on applying the Code to special education. This policy provides practical guidance for rights-holders to understand the scope of the Code, and for education providers to meet their legal duties. 

Section 30 of the Code authorizes the OHRC to establish human rights policies to provide guidance on interpreting provisions in the Code, effectively setting standards to ensure compliance.[286]

 

International human rights law

Canada has signed or ratified many international documents that guarantee the right to education, including:

  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[287]
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)[288]
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)[289]
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)[290]
  • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration).[291]

International human rights treaties and conventions are not part of Canadian law unless the relevant legislature has implemented them.[292] However, even unimplemented but ratified treaties can be relevant and persuasive before Canadian courts.[293] The SCC has acknowledged the importance of international law in interpreting domestic law.[294]

International law helps give meaning and context to Canadian law. The SCC has stated that courts should interpret domestic law according to the presumption that it is consistent with Canada’s international obligations.[295] The SCC has also affirmed that the Charter should be presumed to provide protection at least as great as that provided by similar provisions in international human rights documents that Canada has ratified.[296]

Under Canada’s constitutional framework, education falls under provincial authority. Federal and provincial governments are jointly responsible for implementing international human rights treaties. Each jurisdiction must pass legislation to incorporate international law into domestic legislation. As a practice, Canada seeks the consent of provinces before ratifying treaties, and co-ordinates with provinces to meet the United Nations’ reporting requirements on implementing different treaties.[297]

International human rights agreements are influential in interpreting Ontario’s laws, and have also helped shape these laws. The Preamble to the Ontario Human Rights Code’s emphasis on the “inherent dignity” of all people was inspired by the 1948 UDHR.[298] The UDHR is the foundation for many other international human rights agreements. Article 26 is the basis for the global right to education for all.[299]

The right to education in the UDHR has been further recognized in other international legal instruments. Article 13 of the ICESCR deals with the right to education and Article 2 allows for progressively achieving this right subject to “maximum available resources.”[300]

International law recognizes that children have their own rights and deserve special protection due to their particular vulnerability. Article 23 of the CRC recognizes the rights of children with disabilities to “enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community.”[301] This Article further requires state parties to extend special care to children with disabilities, to make sure they have effective access to and receive education in a way that makes it possible for the child to achieve the fullest possible social integration and individual development. Article 3 requires decision-makers to make the best interests of children their primary concern in all actions that may affect them.[302]

Most recently, Article 24 of the CRPD recognizes the right of people with disabilities to education without discrimination.[303] Articles 2 and 24, read together, expressly support Universal Design for Learning;[304] and require state parties to train teachers on disability awareness, accommodation and educational techniques to promote the right to inclusive education.[305] Article 24 further requires state parties to provide reasonable and individualized accommodation for people with disabilities to facilitate their effective education.[306]

Canada has signed the Optional Protocol of the CRPD, which means that people can complain directly to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Canada has not signed the optional protocols under the ICESCR and CRC, which would allow for a similar complaint and inquiry procedure. However, Canada and other provinces must provide periodic reports to the United Nations on government initiatives and case law that address the right to education under the ICESCR, CRC and CRPD. The United Nations committees responsible for monitoring implementation of these treaties then provide recommendations.

All of these international human rights instruments highlight the link between the right to education and the ability to participate in society. Literacy is critical to the right to education. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that literacy is both a “tool for learning” and a “social practice whose use can increase the voice and participation of communities and individuals in society.”[307] UNESCO also recognizes the impact of failing to acquire literacy: “Literacy is about more than reading and writing…Those who use literacy take it for granted – but those who cannot use it are excluded from much communication in today’s world.”[308]

In Canada, education is an inherent treaty right for First Nations, which both the federal and provincial governments must honour.[309] Particular attention must be paid to the intersectional needs of First Nations students with special needs.[310]

In addition to the Code and Ontario’s treaty commitments, the UN Declaration protects the right to education without discrimination for Indigenous children, including children with disabilities.[311] The UN Declaration recognizes that education not only empowers individuals[312] and improves their economic and social conditions,[313] but also is the means people use to transmit their culture and language. Article 13 provides that Indigenous peoples have “the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures.”[314] Article 14 requires Canada (and Ontario) to take effective steps so that children have access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language.[315] 

In addition to the UN Declaration, several international legal instruments protect the right to education for specific groups such as the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.[316] 

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[30] Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, supra note 22 at 10.

[31] R F Hudson et al, “Relations among reading skills and sub-skills and text-level reading proficiency in developing readers” (2012) 25:2 Reading & Writing 483; J K Torgesen & R F Hudson, “Reading fluency: Critical issues for struggling readers,” in S J Samuels & A E Farstrup, eds, What research has to say about fluency instruction, (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2006) 130 [Torgesen & Hudson, “Reading fluency”].

[32] This is the diagnostic label in the current version of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed), Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2013) [DSM-5]. Specific learning disorders are defined as “Learning disorders interfering with the acquisition and use of one or more of the following academic skills: oral language, reading, written language, mathematics. These disorders affect individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities essential for thinking or reasoning. As such, Learning Disorders are distinct from Intellectual Developmental Disorders.” This definition goes on to state: “… the diagnostic criteria do not depend upon comparisons with overall IQ and are consistent with the changes in the USA’s reauthorized IDEA regulations (2004) which state that, ‘the criteria adopted by each State must not require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability.’”

[33] For a definition of “learning disabilities”, see “Official Definition of LDs” (last visited 10 January 2022), online: Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario ldao.ca/introduction-to-ldsadhd/what-are-lds/official-definition-of-lds/.

[34] “What are reading disorders?” (last modified 5 March 2020), online: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/reading/conditioninfo/disorders.

[35] Adapted from “Definition of Dyslexia” (last visited 10 January 2022), online: International Dyslexia Association dyslexiaida.org/definition-of-dyslexia/. The IDA’s definition of dyslexia was adopted by the IDA Board of Directors on November 12, 2002. It is used in US state education codes, including the codes for New Jersey, Ohio and Utah (ibid). It is also used by the Ontario Psychological Association: Guidelines for Diagnosis and Assessment of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Learning Disabilities: Consensus Statement and Supporting Documents (last modified March 2020) at 37—38, online (pdf): Ontario Psychological Association psych.on.ca/getmedia/9710b802-aae3-4b6e-a215-789f2bfe59c5/OPA-Guidelines-for-Diagnosis-and-Assessment-of-Learning-Disabilities-03-2020.pdf [OPA, Guidelines for Diagnosis and Assessment of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Learning Disabilities].

[36] DSM-5, supra note 32 at 67. DSM is a standard classification of “mental disorders” used by health professionals. The DSM-5 elaborates on our understanding of the origins of learning disabilities, including dyslexia: “The biological origin includes an interaction of genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors, which affect the brain’s ability to perceive or process verbal or non-verbal information efficiently and accurately”

[37] Linda S Siegel and Stewart Ladyman, “A Review of Special Education in British Columbia” (2002) for the Ministry of Education at 29, online: Research Gate
www.researchgate.net/publication/234589880_A_Review_of_Special_Education_in_British_Columbia [Siegel & Ladyman, “A Review of Special Education in British Columbia”], cited in Moore, supra note 5 at para 586.

[38] M J Snowling et al, “Defining and understanding dyslexia: past, present and future” (2020) 46:4 Oxford Rev Education 501.

[39] Thuraya Ahmed Al-Shidhani & Vinita Arora, “Understanding Dyslexia in Children through Human Development Theories” (2012) 12:3 Sultan Qaboos Univ Med J 286, online: National Center for Biotechnology Information ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3529662/.

[40] P G Mathes & C A Denton, “The prevention and identification of reading disability” (2002) 9:3 Seminars in Pediatric Neurology 185.

[41] F R Vellutino et al, “Response to intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between children with and without reading disabilities: Evidence for the role of kindergarten and first-grade interventions” (2006) 39:2 J. Learning Disabilities 157 [Vellutino et al, “Response to intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between children with and without reading disabilities”]; D M Scanlon & F R Vellutino, “Prerequisite skills, early instruction, and success in first‐grade reading: Selected results from a longitudinal study” (1996) 2:1 Developmental Disabilities Research Rev 54.

[42] “What Is Specific Learning Disorder?” (August 2021), online: American Psychiatric Association psychiatry.org/patients-families/specific-learning-disorder/what-is-specific-learning-disorder.

[43] Society for Neuroscience, “Dyslexia: What Brain Research Reveals About Reading” (2004) reprinted from Brain Research Success Stories, Society for Neuroscience, online: Learning Disabilities Online ldonline.org/article/10784/; “Frequently Asked Questions” (last visited 12 January 2022), online: International Dyslexia Association dyslexiaida.org/frequently-asked-questions-2/.

[44] In 2013–14, school boards reported that 41.4% (75,543) of exceptional students identified by an IPRC (Identification, Placement, Review Committee) had a learning disability. This is the largest group of the 12 exceptionalities specifically recognized by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry states that it is a reasonable hypothesis that a significant portion of students receiving special education programs and services, but not identified by an IPRC, have learning disabilities (144,987 or 7.1% of total enrollment), Ontario, Ministry of Education, Special Education Update (June 2016) at 5 [Ontario Ministry of Education, Special Education Update].

[45] Approximately 80% of people with learning disabilities have dyslexia; American Academy of Pediatrics, “Joint Statement – Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Vision” (2009) 124:2 Pediatrics 837 at 838, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2009-1445 [American Academy of Pediatrics, “Joint Statement”].

[46] Ibid. Other studies have suggested that where a parent has dyslexia, the child has a 40–60% risk of having it and that this risk is increased when other families have it too; see Johannes Schumacher et al, “Genetics of dyslexia: the evolving landscape” (2007) 44:5 J Med Genet 289, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/jmg.2006.046516.

[47] OPA, Guidelines for Diagnosis and Assessment of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Learning Disabilities, supra note 35 at 11.

[48] APA, “What Is Specific Learning Disorder?” supra note 45.

[49] “Understanding Dysgraphia” (last visited 12 January 2022), online: International Dyslexia Association dyslexiaida.org/understanding-dysgraphia/.

[50] Lien Peters et al, “Dyscalculia and dyslexia: Different behavioral, yet similar brain activity profiles during arithmetic” (2018), 18 Neuroimage Clin 663-674, online: Research Gate  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323546175_Dyscalculia_and_dyslexia_Different_behavioral_yet_similar_brain_activity_profiles_during_arithmetic; Erik G. Willcutt, et al, “Comorbidity Between Reading Disability and Math Disability: Concurrent Psychopathology, Functional Impairment, and Neuropsychological Functioning” (2013) 46:6 J Learn Disabil 500, DOI: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022219413477476.

[51] International Dyslexia Association, “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) and Dyslexia” (last visited 12 January 2022), online: dyslexiaida.org/attention-deficithyperactivity-disorder-adhd-and-dyslexia/; Nicolas Langer et al, “Comorbidity of reading disabilities and ADHD: Structural and functional brain characteristics” (2019) 40 Hum Brain Mapp 2677, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.24552; Javier Gayan et al, “Bivariate linkage scan for reading disability and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder localizes pleiotropic loci” (2005) 46:10 Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 1045, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2005.01447.x.

[52] “The comorbidities are clinically significant because dyslexia is not diagnosed until after a child has been exposed to formal reading instruction, but ADHD, SSD, and LI are all likely to be apparent earlier and can thus indicate a child’s risk for later reading problems,” from Robin L Peterson & Bruce F Pennington, “Seminar: Developmental Dyslexia” (2012) 379:9830 Lancet 1997, online: The Lancet: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)60198-6/fulltext.

[53] Louisa Moats, “Defending the "D" Word ... Dyslexia” (5 Oct 2017), online: Voyager SOPRIS Learning voyagersopris.com/blog/edview360/2017/10/05/defending-the-d-word-dyslexia. [Moats, “Defending the “D” Word”].

[54] “Among developmental disorders, dyslexia is one of the most extensively studied and best understood… real progress in our scientific understanding of dyslexia has benefitted from a highly interdisciplinary approach drawing on numerous fields and subfields including developmental psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, speech science, behavioral and molecular genetics, and clinical psychology. The answers to some basic questions about the disorder, particularly those confined to a single level of analysis, have been reasonably clear for many years.” Robin L Peterson and Bruce F Pennington, “Developmental Dyslexia” (2015) 11 Annu Rev Clin Psychol 283; see also OPA, Guidelines for Diagnosis and Assessment of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Learning Disabilities supra note 35 at 38.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Moats, “Defending the “D” Word”, supra note 56.

[57] Elizabeth M Wadlington & Patrick Wadlington, “What Educators Really Believe About Dyslexia” (2005) 42:1 Reading Improvement (Project Innovation: Alabama), online: researchgate.net/publication/266219687_What_educators_really_believe_about_dyslexia.

[58] Russell Gersten et al, Assisting Students Struggling with Reading: Response to Intervention and Multi-Tier Intervention in the Primary Grades: IES Practice Guide (Washington, DC: National Centre for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, 2009) at 4, online: Institute of Education Sciences ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/docs/practiceguide/rti_reading_pg_021809.pdf [Gersten et al, Assisting Students Struggling with Reading].

[59] Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores (September 2021) at 2, online (pdf): International Dyslexia Association idaontario.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/LiftingTheCurtainOnEQAO69747.pdf [IDA, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores]. J M Fletcher et al, Learning disabilities: From identification to intervention, 2nd ed (New York, NY: Guilford Publications, 2018) [Fletcher et al, Learning disabilities]; J K Torgesen, “The prevention of reading difficulties” (2002) 40:1 Journal of school psychology 7 [Torgesen, The prevention of reading difficulties”].

[60] Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science supra note 22 at 4; Vellutino et al, “Response to intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between children with and without reading disabilities”, supra note 41; Scott Lingley, “Program dramatically improves reading of at-risk students at an early age” (2 October 2017), online: University of Alberta www.ualberta.ca/folio/2017/10/program-dramatically-improves-reading-of-at-risk-students-at-an-early-age.html [Lingley].

[61] Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, supra note 22 at 5.

[62] The studies referenced in this section pertain both to dyslexia specifically and learning disabilities more broadly. However, since an estimated 80% of people with learning disabilities have dyslexia (Sally E Shaywitz et al, “Management of dyslexia, its rationale, and underlying neurobiology” (2007) 54:3 Pediatr Clin North Am 609, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2007.02.013), we have assumed that statistics on the broader category of learning disability are likely to correlate significantly with the subcategory of dyslexia.

[63] Emily M Livingston et al, “Developmental dyslexia: emotional impact and consequences” (2018) 23:2 Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities 107 at 113, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/19404158.2018.1479975 [Livingston et al].

[64] Barbara Riddick, Living with dyslexia: The social and emotional consequences of specific learning difficulties/disabilities, 2nd ed (New York: Routledge, 2010) at 11.

[65] Marita Partanen & Linda S Siegel, “Long-term outcome of the early identification and intervention of reading disabilities” (2014) 27 Reading & writing 665, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-013-9472-1 [Partanen & Siegel, “Long-term outcome of the early identification and intervention of reading disabilities”]; see also: C Juel, “Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades” (1988), 80:4 Journal of educational Psychology 437 [Juel].

[66] J L Metsala et al, “An examination of reading skills and reading outcomes for youth involved in a crime prevention program” (2017) 33:6 Reading & Writing Quarterly 549 [Metsala et al, “An examination of reading skills and reading outcomes for youth involved in a crime prevention program”]; M J Snowling, J W Adams, C Bowyer-Crane and V Tobin, “Levels of literacy among juvenile offenders: the incidence of specific reading difficulties” (2000), 10:4 Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 229–241.

[67] Vellutino et al, “Response to intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between children with and without reading disabilities”, supra note 41; Lingley, supra note 60.

[68] Livingston et al supra note 63 at 26; Manuel Barrera Jr et al, “Early Elementary School Intervention to Reduce Conduct Problems: A Randomized Trial with Hispanic and non-Hispanic children” (2002) 3:2 Prevention Science 83 at 91, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1015443932331.

[69] Livingston et al supra note 63 at 113. For more information on outcomes for other disabilities, see J L Metsala et al, “Emotional knowledge, emotional regulation, and psychosocial adjustment in children with nonverbal learning disabilities” (2017) 23:5 Child Neuropsychology 609; Tanya M Galway & Jamie L Metsala, "Social cognition and its relation to psychosocial adjustment in children with nonverbal learning disabilities" (2011) 44:1 Journal of Learning Disabilities 33.

[70] U.S. Department of Education, Learning to Read, Reading to Learn: Helping Children with Learning Disabilities to Succeed – Information Kit, (Eugene, OR: National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators,1996) at 1, online (pdf): Education Resources Information Center files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED398691.pdf [U.S. Department of Education, Learning to Read, Reading to Learn]; see also Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science supra note 22 at 4.

[71] Ibid, at 1.

[72] See Moore, supra note 5.

[73] A E Cunningham & Keith E Stanovich, “Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later” (1997) 33:6 Developmental Psychology 934 [Cunningham & Stanovich, “Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later”]; Keith E Stanovich, “Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy” (1986), 21:4 Reading Research Quarterly, online (pdf): Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/u81/Stanovich__1986_.pdf [Stanovich, “Matthew effects in reading”]. For a simple explanation of the Matthew Effect, see Marie Rippel, “Is the ‘Matthew Effect’ Affecting Your Child’s Desire to Read?”, online: All About Learning Press https://www.researchgate.net/publication/230853161_Matthew_Effects_in_Reading_Some_Consequences_of_Individual_Differences_in_the_Acquisition_of_Literacy . [Rippel]

[74] Enkeleda Sako, “The Emotional and Social Effects of Dyslexia” (2016) 2:2 European Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, DOI: https://doi.org/10.26417/ejis.v2i2.p233-241 [Sako].

[75] Ibid at 232.

[76] Munirah Shaik Kadir & Alexander Seeshing Yeung, “Academic Self Concept” in V Zeigler-Hill & T K Shackelford, eds, Encylopedia of Personality and Individual Differences (Springer International Publishing AG, 2016) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1118-1.

[77] Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study: Putting a Canadian Face on Learning Disabilities (PACFOLD)” (2005), online (pdf): Putting a Canadian Face on Learning Disabilities www.pacfold.ca/download/Supplementary/Framework.pdf. [Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study”]

[78] Michelle L Patterson et al, “Missed opportunities: childhood learning disabilities as early indicators of risk among homeless adults with mental illness in Vancouver, British Columbia” (2012) 2:6 BMJ Open e001586–, online: BMJ Open : https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/2/6/e001586. [Patterson et al, “Missed opportunities”]

[79] Ibid.

[80] Failing to achieve reading proficiency by the end of Grade 1 is associated with an increased risk of drop out. Partanen & Siegel, “Long-term outcome of the early identification and intervention of reading disabilities” supra note 65; see also Kali H Trzesniewski et al, “Revisiting the Association Between Reading Achievement and Antisocial Behavior: New Evidence of an Environmental Explanation From a Twin Study” (2006) 77:1 Child Dev 72, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2006.00857.x [Trzesniewski et al].

[81] Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study” supra note 77 at 14; Jay W Rojewski, “Occupational and Educational Aspirations and Attainment of Young Adults With and Without LD 2 Years After High School Completion” (1999) 32:6 Journal of Learning Disabilities 533, online: Sage Journals: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/002221949903200606 [Rojewski].

[82] Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study” supra note 77 at 14; see also Jim Hewitt & Marlene Scardamalia, “Design Principles for Distributed Knowledge Building Processes” (1998) 10:1 Educational psychology review 75.

[83] Michael A McNulty, “Dyslexia and the Life Course” (2016) 36:4 J Learn Disabil 363, online: Sage Journals: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00222194030360040701 [McNulty].

[84] Ibid; Kelsey Lisle & T Wade, “Does the Presence of a Learning Disability Elicit a Stigmatization?” (2014) 4:2 British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science, 211, online (pdf): digitalcommons.bucknell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1729&context=fac_journ.

[85] Michael Kuhne & Judith Wiener, “Stability of social status of children with and without learning disabilities” (2000) 23:1 Learning Disability Quarterly 64; online Sage Journals https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.2307/1511100; Faye Mishna, “Learning Disabilities and Bullying Double Jeopardy” (2003) 36:4 J Learn Disabil 336 at 338, online: Sage Journals https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00222194030360040501​ [Mishna]; Adel S Alanazi, “Critical Incident Analysis Technique to Examine the Issues faced by the Individuals with Learning Disabilities” (2018) 8:5 World Journal of Education 17 at 20, DOI: https://doi.org/10.5430/wje.v8n5p17; Alison L May and C Addison Stone, “Stereotypes of Individuals with Learning Disabilities: Views of College Students With and Without Learning Disabilities” (2010) 43:6 J Learn Disabil 483 at 484, online: Sage Journals https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022219409355483.

[86] Sako, supra note 74; Cynthia M. Zettler-Greeley, “Understanding Dyslexia” (2018), online: KidsHealth kidshealth.org/en/teens/dyslexia.html [Zettler-Greeley]; Rae Jacobson, “Tips for Recognizing Learning Disorders in the Classroom” (last viewed 13 January 2022), online: Child Mind Institute childmind.org/article/recognizing-learning-disorders-in-the-classroom/ [Jacobson].

[87] Suze Leitão et al., “Exploring the impact of living with dyslexia: The perspectives of children and their parents” (2017) 19:3 International J of Speech-Language Pathology 322, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/17549507.2017.1309068 [Leitão et al]; see also Hazel Denhart, “Deconstructing Barriers: Perceptions of Students Labeled With Learning Disabilities in Higher Education” (2008) 41:6 J of Learn Disabil 483, online: Sage Journals: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022219408321151 [Denhart].

[88] Leitão et al, supra note 87; Denhart, supra note 87.

[90] Lisette Hornstra et al, “Teacher Attitudes Toward Dyslexia: Effects on Teacher Expectations and the Academic Achievement of Students With Dyslexia” (2010) 43:6 J of Learn Disabil 515, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219409355479; see also Ruth Gwernan‐Jones & Robert L Burden, “Are they just lazy? Student teachers’ attitudes about dyslexia” (2010) 16:1 Dyslexia 66, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/dys.393 [Gwernan-Jones & Burden].

[91] Gwernan-Jones & Burden, supra note 90.

[92] Gillian Parkekh et al, “Learning Skills, System Equity, and Implicit Bias Within Ontario, Canada” (2021) 35:3 Educational Policy 395, online: Sage Journals: https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904818813303.

[93] The learning skills and work habits “responsibility,” “independent work,” “initiative,” “organization,” “collaboration” and “self-regulation” are rated as “E-excellent,” “G-Good,” “S-Satisfactory,” “N-Needs improvement.”

[94] Integra, “A Handbook on Learning Disabilities” (2009) at 23, online (pdf): Child Development Institute childdevelop.ca/sites/default/files/files/WAM%20LD%20handbook.pdf [Integra, “A Handbook on Learning Disabilities”].

[95] Malgorzata Gil & Jose da Cosa, “Students with disabilities in mainstream schools: District Level Perspectives on Anti-Bullying Policy and Practice within schools in Alberta” (2010) 25:2 International J of Special Education 148 at 149, online (pdf): files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ890594.pdf [Malgorzata & da Cosa].

[96] Ibid, at 149–150; Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study” supra note 77 at 16–17, 21.

[97] Esme Fuller-Thomson & Stephen R Hooper, “The Association Between Childhood Physical Abuse and Dyslexia: Findings From a Population-Based Study” (2015) 30:9 J Interpers Violence 1583, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260514540808 [Fuller-Thomson & Hooper, “The Association Between Childhood Physical Abuse and Dyslexia].

[98] Ibid. 

[99] Mark Dale & Barbara Taylor, “How Adult Learners Make Sense of Their Dyslexia” (2001) 16:7 Disability & Society 997, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09687590120097872.

[100] Audrey L Baumeister et al, “Peer Victimization in Children with Learning Disabilities” (2007) 25:1 Child and Adolescent Social Work J 11, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10560-007-0109-6.

[101] Mark Totten & Perpetua Quigley, “Bullying, School Exclusion and Literacy, Discussion Paper” (16 May 2003) at 5, online (pdf): Canadian Public Health Association cpha.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/resources/antibullying/discussion_paper_e.pdf.

[102] Michael H Kernis, “Measuring Self-Esteem in Context: the Importance of Self-Esteem in Psychological Functioning” (2005) 73:6 J of Personality 1569 at 1570, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00359.x; Melody M Terras et al., “Dyslexia and Psycho-social Functioning: An Exploratory Study of the Role of Self-esteem and Understanding” (2009) 15 Dyslexia 304 at 306–7, 316, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/dys.386 [Terras et al].

[103] McNulty, supra note 82; Blace A Nalavany et al, “Psychosocial Experiences Associated With Confirmed and Self-Identified Dyslexia: A Participant-Driven Concept Map of Adult Perspectives” (2011) 44:1 J Learn Disabil 63, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/002221941037423. [Nalavany et al, “Psychosocial Experiences Associated With Confirmed and Self-Identified Dyslexia”]

[105] Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study” supra note 77 at 25.

[106] Sako, supra note 74.

[107] Ibid; Elizabeth Mayfield Arnold et al, “Severity of Emotional and Behavioral Problems Among Poor and Typical Readers” (2005) 33:2 J of Abnormal Child Psych 205, DOI: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10802-005-1828-9; J Carroll & J Iles, “An assessment of anxiety levels in dyslexic students in higher education” (2006) 76:3 British Journal of Educational Psychology 651.

[108] Joseph H Beitchman et al, “Substance Use Disorders in Young Adults With and Without LD: Predictive and Concurrent Relationships” (2001) 34:4 J Learn Disabil 317, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/002221940103400407.

[108] Patterson et al, “Missed opportunities,” supra note 78.

[109] Anne M Undheim, “Dyslexia and psychosocial factors. A follow-up study of young Norwegian adults with a history of dyslexia in childhood” (2003) 57:3 Nordic Journal of Psychiatry 221, DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08039480310001391; Erik G Willcutt & Bruce F Pennington, “Comorbidity of Reading Disability and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Differences by Gender and Subtype” (2000), 33:2 J Learn Disabil 179, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/002221940003300206.

[110] Lucia Margari et al, “Neuropsychopathological comorbidities in learning disorders” (2013) 13:1 BMC Neuro 198 at 3, DOI: https://bmcneurol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2377-13-198; see also Robert M Klassen et al, “Internalizing Problems of Adults With Learning Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis” (2013), 46:4 J Learn Disabil 317, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219411422260.

[111] Trzesniewski et al, supra note 80; Sako, supra note 74; Terras et al, supra note 102.

[112] See Stephanie S Daniel et al, “Suicidality, School Dropout, and Reading Problems Among Adolescents” (2006) 39:6 J Learn Disabil 507 at 512, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00222194060390060301.

[113] Hazel E McBride & Linda S Siegel, “Learning disabilities and adolescent suicide,” (1997) 30:6 J Learn Disabil 652, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/002221949703000609.

[114] Esme Fuller-Thomson et al, “Suicide Attempts Among Individuals With Specific Learning Disorders: An Underrecognized Issue” (2018) 51:3 J of Learn Disabil 283 at 287, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219417714776 [Fuller-Thomson et al, “Suicide Attempts Among Individuals With Specific Learning Disorders”].

[115] Ibid.

[116] Irving Rootman & Deborah Gordon-El-Bihbety, “A Vision for a Health Literate Canada Report of the Expert Panel on Health Literacy” (2008) at 20, online (pdf): Canadian Public Health Association cpha.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/resources/healthlit/report_e.pdf [Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety].

[117] Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety, supra note 116.

[118] Joseph Sanfilippo et al, “Reintroducing Dyslexia: Early Identification and Implications for Pediatric Practice” (2020) 146:1 Pediatrics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2019-3046 [Sanfilippo et al].

[119] “Literacy: Why it Matters” (February 2013), online (pdf): Community Literacy of Ontario communityliteracyofontario.ca/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/literacy_why_it_matters.pdf [Community Literacy of Ontario, “Literacy”].

[120] Statistics Canada uses the term “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous” to refer to individuals identifying themselves as “First Nations people, Métis or Inuit.”

[121] Andrew Heisz et al (Statistics Canada), Insights on Canadian Society: the association between skills and low income, Catalogue No 75-006-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 24 February 2016) at 2, online (pdf): Statistics Canada www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/75-006-x/2016001/article/14322-eng.pdf?st=pQh8VcQW. [Heisz et al]

[122] “Five-Year Graduation Rate” (last modified 25 March 2020), online: Ontario Ministry of Education app.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/bpr/allBoards.asp?chosenIndicator=11.

[123] Ontario Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey: Third Progress Report on the implementation of the Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework (2018) at 70, online: Ontario, Ministry of Education https://www.ontario.ca/page/strengthening-our-learning-journey-third-progress-report-implementation-ontario-first-nation [Ontario, Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey].

[124] Community Literacy of Ontario, “Literacy,” supra note 119.

[125] The Economic & Social Cost of Illiteracy: A White Paper by the World Literacy Foundation (2018) at 2, online (pdf): World Literacy Foundation https://worldliteracyfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/TheEconomicSocialCostofIlliteracy-2.pdf [World Literacy Foundation].

[126] Heisz et al, supra note 121 at 1.

[127] Community Literacy of Ontario, “Literacy,” supra note 119; see also Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety supra note 116 at 20.

[128] Livingston et al supra note 63 at 126; see also Joost de Beer et al, “Factors influencing work participation of adults with developmental dyslexia: a systematic review” (2014) 14:77 BMC Public Health, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-14-77; World Literacy Foundation supra note 125 at 2.

[129] Blace A Nalavany et al, “The relationship between emotional experience with dyslexia and work self‐efficacy among adults with dyslexia” (2018) 24:1 Dyslexia 17, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/dys.1575.

[130] Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study”, supra note 77.

[131] David L Dickinson & Roelant L Verbeek, “Wage differentials between college graduates with and without learning disabilities,” (2002) 35:2 J Learn Disabil 175, DOI: https://doi/10.1177/002221940203500208. See also Simonetta Longhi, The disability pay gap (2017), online (pdf) Equality and Human Rights Commission equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/research-report-107-the-disability-pay-gap.pdf.

[132] Mishna, supra note 85 at 338.

[133] Patterson et al, supra note 78.

[134] Stephen Gaetz et al, “Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey – Executive Summary” (2016) at 10, online (pdf): Canadian Observatory on Homelessness homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/attachments/WithoutAHome-execsummary.pdf.

[135] Melanie A Barwick & Linda S Siegel, “Learning Difficulties in Adolescent Clients of a Shelter for Runaway and Homeless Street Youths” (1996) 6:4 J of Research on Adolescence 649 at 657, online: Research Gate www.researchgate.net/publication/234633209_Learning_Difficulties_in_Adolescent_Clients_of_a_Shelter_for_Runaway_and_Homeless_Street_Youths.

[136] May Lindgren et al, “Dyslexia and AD/HD among Swedish Prison Inmates” (2002) 3:1 J of Scandinavian studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention 84, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/140438502762467227.

[137] Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, “Literacy and Policing in Canada: Target Crime with Literacy: The Link between Low Literacy and Crime” (last visited 13 January 2022) at c 2, sheet 2, online (pdf): Copian en.copian.ca/library/research/police/factsheets/factsheets.pdf [Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, “Literacy and Policing in Canada”].

[138] See for example: Mary K Evans et al, “Learning Disabilities and Delinquent Behaviors among Adolescents: A Comparison of Those with and without Comorbidity” (2014) 36:3 Deviant behavior 200, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2014.924361; Jimmy Jensen et al, “Dyslexia among Swedish prison inmates in relation to neuropsychology and personality” (1999), 5:5 J of the International Neuropsychology Society 452, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1355617799555070; K C Moody et al, “Prevalence of dyslexia among Texas prison inmates” (2000) 96:6 Texas Medicine 69, online: europepmc.org/article/med/10876375; Sanfilippo et al, supra note 118.

[139] Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, “Police and Literacy Awareness Resource Manual” (2008) at 20, online: Literacy and the Police policeabc.ca/images/stories/CACP_workbook_EN_FINAL.pdf [Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, “Police and Literacy Awareness Resource Manual”].

[140] Ibid.

[141] Ibid.

[142] Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, “Police and Literacy Awareness Resource Manual,” supra note 139 at 8, 12, 13, 26–27, 36.

[143] Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, “Literacy and Policing in Canada,” supra note 137 at c 2, fact sheet 2.

[144] Marco Carotenuto et al, “Maternal Stress and Coping Strategies in Developmental Dyslexia: An Italian Multicenter Study” (2017) 8 Front Psychiatry 295, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00295 [Carotenuto et al]; see also Lamk Al-Lamki, “Dyslexia: Its impact on the Individual, Parents and Society” (2012) 23:3 Sultan Qaboos Univ Med J 269, DOI: https://doi.org/10.12816/0003139 [Al-Lamki].

[145] Kerrie Delany, “The Experience of Parenting a Child with Dyslexia: An Australian Perspective” (2017) 7:1 The J of Student Engagement at 100, online (pdf): University of Wollongong Australia ro.uow.edu.au/jseem/vol7/iss1/6 [Delany].

[146] Nalavany et al, “Psychosocial Experiences Associated With Confirmed and Self-Identified Dyslexia,” supra note 103 at 64–65; Carotenuto et al, supra note 144 at 2; see also Al-Lamki, supra note 144 at 270.

[147] Alice V Mangan, The Influence Of A Child's Learning Disability On A Parent's Psychological Experience: A Comparison Of Parents With And Without Learning Disabilities (PhD Dissertation, City University of New York, Graduate Faculty in Psychology, 2015) at 78–9, online (pdf): academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2050&context=gc_etds.

[148] Lily Dyson, “Unanticipated Effects of Children with Learning Disabilities on their Families” (2010) 33:1 Learning Disability Quarterly 43 at 48, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/073194871003300104 [Dyson].

[149] Ibid, at 45; Delany, supra note 144 at 100; Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study,” supra note 77 at 50.

[150] Livingston et al, supra note 63 at 122–124; Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study,” supra note 77 at 50.

[151] Livingston et al, supra note 63 at 123.

[152] Delany, supra note 144 at 100.

[153] Al-Lamki, supra note 144 at 270.

[154] Cameron Crawford (Roeher Institute), “Learning Disabilities in Canada: Economic Costs to Individuals, Families and Society” (last modified 2007),online (pdf): Learning Disabilities Association of Canada www.ldac-acta.ca/downloads/pdf/research/5B%20-Economic%20Costs%20of%20LD%20-%20Jan%202002%20RJune_2007.pdf [Crawford].

[155] Ibid, at 8.

[156] Ibid at 23. The report estimates that the direct and indirect costs of a learning disability from birth to retirement is $1.982 million per person with a learning disability. Taking a total Canadian population of 31,081,900 and estimating that 5% of the population, or 1,554,095 Canadians, have a learning disability, the report estimates that the total cost for the 5% of people with a learning disability, from birth to retirement, is approximately $3,080 billion. It estimates that that the present value cost (the current value of a future sum of money) at a 5 per cent discount rate is about $707 billion in year 2000 dollars.

[157] UK, Select Committee on Education and Skills, Minutes of Evidence: Memorandum submitted by the Dyslexia Institute (6 July 2006), at s 3.2, online: Parliament UK publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmeduski/478/6031504.htm.

[158] Olena Hankivsky, Cost Estimates of Dropping Out of High School in Canada (December 2008), online (pdf): e Canadian Council on Learning (CCL): http://200.6.99.248/~bru487cl/files/Costofdroppingout.pdf.

[159] Janet Lane & T Scott Murray, Literacy Lost: Canada’s Basic Skills Shortfall (December 2018) at 2, online (pdf): Canadian West Foundation cwf.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018-12-CWF_LiteracyLost_Report_WEB-1.pdf. [Lane, Literacy Lost]

[160] Ibid, at 5.

[161] Ibid, at 14.

[162] Ibid, at 2.

[163] The Expert Panel defines health literacy as “The ability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course” at p. 22 and discusses the relationship between literacy and health literacy throughout the report; see Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety, supra note 116.

[164] Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety, supra note 116 at 22.

[165] Moore, supra note 5 at para 585.

[166] Siegel & Ladyman, “A Review of Special Education in British Columbia,” supra note 37 at 29.

[167] “The Equalizer: How Education creates Fairness for Children in Canada” (30 October 2018), online: People for Education peopleforeducation.ca/our-work/the-equalizer-how-education-creates-fairness-for-children-in-canada/.

[168] Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, supra note 22 at 9; see also Joan F Beswick & Elizabeth A Sloat, “Early Literacy Success: A Matter of Social Justice” (2010) 46:2 Education Canada, online (pdf): EdCan Network www.edcan.ca/wp-content/uploads/EdCan-2006-v46-n2-Beswick.pdf [Beswick & Sloat, “Early Literacy Success”]; “Native Literacy at a Glance” (last visited 13 January 2022), online: Ontario Native Literacy Coalition onlc.ca/literacy-facts/; see also Pierre Lefebvre, “Socioeconomic Gradient Literacy and Numeracy Skills of 15-year-olds across Canadian Provinces and Years using the PISA Surveys (2000-2012)” (2016) Research Group on Human Capital and Department of Economics Working Paper No 16-02, online: Ideas ideas.repec.org/p/grc/wpaper/16-03.html.

[169] Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, supra note 22 at 9.

[170] Beswick & Sloat, “Early Literacy Success,” supra note 168.

[171] Ibid.

[172] Ibid.

[173] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, GA Res 217A (III), UNGAOR, 3rd Sess, Supp No 13, UN Doc A/810 [UDHR].

[174] Ibid at art 26.

[175] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 19 December 1966, 999 UNTS 171 art 18 (entered into force 23 March 1976, accession by Canada 19 May 1976) [ICCPR].

[176] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, 993 UNTS 3 arts 2, 13–14 (entered into force 3 January 1976) [ICESCR].

[177] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 13 on the right to education, UNCESCR, 21st Sess, UN Doc E/C.12/1999/10 (1999) at para 1, online: United Nations Human Rights www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Education/Training/Compilation/Pages/d)GeneralCommentNo13Therighttoeducation(article13)(1999).aspx.

[178] See for example Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, 1577 UNTS 3 art 23 (entered into force 2 September 1990) [CRC]; Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 13 December 2006, 2515 UNTS 3, art 24 (entered into force 3 May 2008, GA Res 61/106, UNGA, 61st Sess, Supp no 49, UN Doc A/RES/61/106, Annex I) [CRPD]; Human Rights Code, RSO 1990, c H.19 [Code].

[179] See for example ICSER, supra note 176 art 13 (“they further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society”); CRPD, supra note 178 art 23 (“States Parties recognize that a mentally or physically disabled child should enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child's active participation in the community”); CRPD, supra note 178 art 24 (“States Parties shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning directed to… Enabling persons with disabilities to participate effectively in a free society”); Human Rights Code, supra note 3 at Preamble (“…having as its aim the creation of a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person so that each person feels a part of the community and able to contribute fully to the development and well-being of the community and the Province”).

[180] Education Act, RSO 1990, c E.2 [Education Act].

[181] Education Act, s 0.1(1)–(2).

[182] Education Act, s. 0.1(3).

[183] See Davidson, supra note 4 paras 4, 34: “The Minister fulfills his or her duties through providing a regulatory framework within which individual school boards exercise their responsibilities in the delivery of special education programs and services. This framework is established through such measures as regulations, policy and program memoranda and mandatory standards.” See also list of recommendations to the Ministry of Education and respective follow-up reports to the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario: 2001 Annual Report (29 November 2001) at s. 3.06 (“Special Education Grants to School Boards”), online (pdf): Office of the Auditor General auditor.on.ca/en/content/annualreports/arbyyear/ar2001.html; [Auditor General, 2001 Annual Report]; 2003 Annual Report (2 November 2003) at s. 3.05 (“Curriculum Development and Implementation”), online (pdf): Office of the Auditor General auditor.on.ca/en/content/annualreports/arbyyear/ar2003.html [Auditor General, 2003 Annual Report]; 2008 Annual Report (8 December 2008) at s. 3.14 (“Special Education”), online (pdf): Office of the Auditor General auditor.on.ca/en/content/annualreports/arbyyear/ar2008.html [Auditor General, 2008 Annual Report]; 2017 Annual Report (6 December 2017) at ss. 3.08 vol 1, (“Ministry Funding and Oversight of School Boards”) & 3.12 (“School Boards’ Management of Financial and Human Resources”),  online: Office of the Auditor General auditor.on.ca/en/content/annualreports/arbyyear/ar2017.html [Auditor General, 2017 Annual Report].

[184] Education Act¸ s 8(1)(2).

[185] Education Act¸ s 1(1).

[186] Education Act, s 8(1)(1).

[187] RRO 1990, Reg 306.

[188] Education Act, s 8(1)(6).

[189] Education Act, s 8(1)(24).

[190] Education Act, s 13.

[191] Education Act, s 68. Six of the schools are hospital-based school authorities established to provide programs for students with complex medical needs who cannot attend regular school for medical reasons. These schools operate in hospitals and treatment centres. The other four school authorities manage schools in remote and sparsely populated regions.

[192] Education Act, s 8(3)(a); Ontario, Ministry of Education, Early Identification of Children’s Learning Needs (Policy Program Memorandum No 11), revised 1982.

[193] RRO 1990, Reg 306.

[194] Education Act, s 268.

[195] RRO 1990, Reg 298, s 11.

[196] RRO 1990, Reg 298, s 20.

[197] RRO 1990, Reg 298, s 19.

[198] Special Education in Ontario, Kindergarten to Grade 12: Policy and Resource Guide, Draft (2017), at A12, online (pdf): Ontario Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/policy/os/onschools_2017e.pdf [Ontario Ministry of Education, Special Education in Ontario].

[199]  “The Identification, Placement and Review Committee” (last modified 26 July 2007), online: Ontario, Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/identifi.html; RRO, Reg 298, s. 31.

[200] Ontario Ministry of Education, “Full-day kindergarten,” supra note 14.

[201] The Ontario Ministry of Education introduced the concept of lead literacy teachers in their 2003 report: Early Reading Strategy: The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario (2003) at 58, online (pdf): Ontario Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/reading/reading.pdf [Ontario Ministry of Education, Early Reading Strategy].

[202] Jacqueline Lynch & Steve Alsop, “The effectiveness of literacy coaches” in What Works? Research into Practice Monograph #6 (The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat & Ontario Deans of Education, 2007), online (pdf): CiteseerX: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.495.5896&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

[203] Written submission from the Ontario Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists to the OHRC (March 2020) as part of the Right to Read Inquiry.

[204] Written submission from the Association of Chief Psychologists with Ontario School Boards to the OHRC (April 2020) as part of the Right to Read Inquiry.

[205] Ontario College of Teachers Act, SO 1996, c 12.

[206] Teaching Profession Act, RSO 1990, c T2.

[207] “Bylaw 8.1 Directives” (last visited 25 January 2022), online: ETFO/FEEO https://www.etfo.ca/about-us/governance/bylaws.

[208] “Policy Statements,” (last visited 25 January 2022), online: ETFO/FEEO etfo.ca/aboutetfo/governance/pages/policystatements.aspx; Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, “Policies and Procedures 2021-2022” (last visited 26 January 2022), online: OSSTF/FEESO https://www.osstf.on.ca/about-us/constitution-bylaws-policies.aspx.

[209] Policy Program Memorandum 11 on Early Identification of Children’s Learning Needs (1982), online: Ontario Ministry of Education ontario.ca/document/education-ontario-policy-and-program-direction/policyprogram-memorandum-11 [PPM 11]; Policy Program Memorandum 8 on the Identification of and Program Planning for Students with Learning Disabilities (26 August 2014), online: Ontario, Ministry of Education ontario.ca/document/education-ontario-policy-and-program-direction/policyprogram-memorandum-8 [PPM 8]; Ontario Ministry of Education, Special Education in Ontario, supra note 198 at C6.

[210] Education Act, s 8(3).

[211] Education Act, s 1.

[212] See for example, Ontario Ministry of Education, Special Education in Ontario, supra note 198.

[213] For list of subcategories and definition of “learning disability”, see Ibid, at A14.

[214] Memorandum from Barry Finlay (Director, Special Education Policy and Programs Branch) to Directors of Education et al) regarding “Categories of Exceptionalities” (19 December 2011), online: Ontario, Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/2011CategoryException.pdf.

[215] Ibid.

[216] PPM8, supra note 209 at 4.

[217] O Reg 181/98, s 10.

[218] O Reg 181/98. The IPRC may also refer the student to a provincial committee for consideration of eligibility for admission to one of the provincial or demonstration schools.

[219] O Reg 181/98, s 21(4)(b).

[220] O Reg 181/98, s 26.

[221] O Reg 181/98, s 6(2)-(8), 8.

[222] Ontario Ministry of Education, Special Education in Ontario, supra note 198 at E6, online: www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/policy/os/onschools_2017e.pdf.

[223] O Reg. 181/98 s 6(3).

[224] Policy/Program Memorandum No 156: Supporting Transitions for Students with Special Education Needs (1 February 2013), online: Ontario Ministry of Education ontario.ca/document/education-ontario-policy-and-program-direction/policyprogram-memorandum-156 [PPM 156]; Policy/Program Memorandum No 140: Incorporating Methods Of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) Into Programs For Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) (17 May 2007), online: Ontario Ministry of Education www.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/140.html [PPM 140]; Ontario Ministry of Education, Special Education in Ontario, supra note 198.

[225] The standards specifically state that this requirement is for all students who have an IEP, whether or not they have been identified as exceptional by the IRPC, including those identified as exceptional solely on the basis of giftedness. Note that this adds more requirements than what is set out in legislation under the Education Act. See PPM 156, supra note 224.

[226] O Reg 181/98, s 6(2); Ontario Ministry of Education, Special Education in Ontario, supra note 198. See also Ontario, Ministry of Education, Individual Education Plans: Standards for Development, Program Planning and Implementation (2000), online: Ontario Association for Families of Children with Communication Disorders oafccd.com/documents/IEPstandards.pdf [Ontario Ministry of Education, Individual Education Plans].

[227] The Ministry of Education reports that due to a variety of factors, including COVID-19, this review has not taken place in recent years.

[228] Ontario Schools: Kindergarten to Grade 12 Policy and Program Requirements (2016) at 41, online Ontario Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/policy/os/onschools_2016e.pdf.

[229] The Individual Education Plan: A Resource Guide (2004) at 26, online: Ontario Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/guide/resource/iepresguid.pdf. An IEP must also be developed as supporting documentation, if an Intensive Support Amount (ISA) funding claim is submitted by a school board on behalf of a student who has not been identified as exceptional by an IPRC, but who is receiving a special education program and services (Ontario Ministry of Education, Individual Education Plans, supra note 226).

[230] Ontario Ministry of Education, Special Education in Ontario, supra note 198 at E11.

[231] Human Rights Code.

[232] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), c 11 [Charter].

[233] Moore, supra note 5 at paras 28, 48.

[234] Eaton v Brant County Board of Education, [1997] 1 SCR 241 at para 69, 142 DLR 4th 385 [Eaton]. However, the SCC found that segregated accommodation was in the child’s best interests in this case, noting that this was one of those unusual cases where segregation was a more appropriate accommodation.

[235] Human Rights Code, s 10(1)(c).

[236] Human Rights Code, s 1.

[237] Human Rights Code, s 12.

[238] Human Rights Code, s 8.

[239] Human Rights Code, s 47(2).

[240] For example, while the Ministry of Education has devised its own framework for identifying “exceptional pupils,” it is the Ontario Human Rights Code and human rights case law (see for example DS v London District Catholic School Board, 2012 HRTO 786 [DS v London Catholic] at para 62) that establish that education providers have a legal duty to accommodate the disability-related needs of students to the point of undue hardship. This legal duty exists whether or not a student with a disability falls within the Ministry’s definition of “exceptional pupil,” has gone through a formal IPRC process, or has an IEP.

[241] See for example DS v London Catholic, supra note 240 at para 62.

[242] Charter, s 15.

[243] Charter, s 1.

[244] Human Rights Code, s 9.

[245] Human Rights Code, s 17.

[246] For detailed information on how to identify systemic discrimination, see section 4.1 of the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Policy and guidelines on racism and racial discrimination (2005), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/sites/default/files/attachments/Policy_and_guidelines_on_racism_and_racial_discrimination.pdf [OHRC, Policy and guidelines on racism and racial discrimination].

[247] One author noted, “…the philosophical and ideological foundations upon which discrimination against disabled people is justified are well entrenched within the core institutions of society.” See: Colin Barnes, “A Brief History of Discrimination and Disabled People,” in The Disability Studies Reader, 3rd ed., Lennerd J. Davis, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010) at 31. While the author’s observations relate to discrimination against people with disabilities in the United Kingdom, it can be argued that much of what he describes pertains to the situation for people with disabilities in Canada.

[248] In Moore, supra note 5 at para 59, the SCC reaffirmed its earlier definition of systemic discrimination set out in its seminal 1987 decision Canadian National Railway Co v Canada (Human Rights Commission), [1987] 1 SCR 1114 [CNR] as “practices or attitudes that have, whether by design or impact, the effect of limiting an individual’s or a group’s right to the opportunities generally available because of attributed rather than actual characteristics” at 1138–1139. The OHRC uses “systemic discrimination” when referring to individual institutions, or a system of institutions, that fall under the jurisdiction of the Code (e.g. the education system).

[249] CNR, supra note 248 at 1138–1139.

[250] The Universal Design for Learning framework was first developed by David Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s. For more information, see Tracey E Hall et al, eds, Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: Practical Applications (New York: Guilford Press, 2012); CRPD, supra note 178 states at Article 2, “‛Universal design’ means the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. ‘Universal design’ shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed.”

[251] Eaton, supra note 234 at para 67.

[252] See Council of Canadians with Disabilities v VIA Rail Canada Inc, 2007 SCC 15 at para 186: “…while human rights principles include an acknowledgment that not every barrier can be eliminated, they also include a duty to prevent new ones, or at least, not knowingly to perpetuate old ones where preventable.”

[253] Moore, supra note 5 at para 52. See, for example, LB v Toronto District School Board, 2015 HRTO 1622; LB v Toronto District School Board, 2016 HRTO 336 (Reconsideration decision); LB v Toronto District School Board, 2017 ONSC 2301 (Judicial review on the issue of remedy); Tang v McMaster University, 2015 HRTO 551 (Reconsideration decision); RB v Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, 2013 HRTO 1436 (Reconsideration denied); JF v Waterloo Catholic District School Board, 2017 HRTO 1121 (note that the Tribunal found that the respondent had not failed in its procedural duty to accommodate in this case).

[254] Providence Health Care v Dunkley, 2016 BCSC 1383 at para 132: The Tribunal found that the cost estimates put forward were likely severely inflated and other less costly options as well as funding arrangements (including outside sources of funding) were not considered.

[255] Human Rights Code, ss 11(2), 17(2). In British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Commission) v BCGSEU, [1999] 3 SCR 3, 176 DLR (4th) 1 [Meiorin], the SCC stated at para 63 that “The various factors [in assessing undue hardship] are not entrenched, except to the extent that they are expressly included or excluded by statute” [emphasis added].

[256] British Columbia (Superintendent of Motor Vehicles) v British Columbia (Council of Human Rights), [1999] 3 SCR 868 at para 41, “One must be wary of putting too low a value on accommodating the disabled. It is all too easy to cite increased cost as a reason for refusing to accord the disabled equal treatment”).

[257] Ontario has acknowledged this in its own policies: “Because the Ontario Public Service is such a large organization with access to so many resources, it would be extremely difficult to meet this threshold. In other words, accommodations should almost never be denied because of cost.” Ontario, Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Undue Hardship: Providing Accommodation Short of Undue Hardship (2015), cited in Independent Review of Ontario Corrections, Independent Advisor on Corrections, Segregation in Ontario, Independent Review of Ontario Corrections (Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2017) at Appendix B.

[258] Moore, supra note 5 at para 65; see Gamache v York University, 2013 HRTO 693 at para 17 that the responsibility to provide accommodation for students with disabilities rests with the institution as a whole, not just a particular department: “It is no answer to point to limited resources that were allocated by the University to a particular service it provided.” The United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has also stated: “The availability of accommodations should be considered with respect to a larger pool of educational resources available in the education system and not limited to resources available at the academic institution in question; transfer of resources within the system should be possible”: see Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, General Comment No 4 (2016) on the right to inclusive education UN Doc CRPD/C/GC/4 (2016) at para 30, online: UNCHR tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRPD/C/GC/4&Lang=en [CRPD, General Comment No 4].

[259] “Business inconvenience” is not a defence to the duty to accommodate. In amending the Code in 1988, the Ontario Legislature considered and rejected “business inconvenience” as a possible enumerated factor in assessing undue hardship. If there are costs attributable to decreased productivity, efficiency or effectiveness, they can be taken into account in assessing undue hardship under the cost standard, providing they are quantifiable and related to the proposed accommodation.

[260] Meiorin, supra note 255. In McDonald v Mid-Huron Roofing, 2009 HRTO 1306, in the context of a workplace, the HRTO stated at para. 43: “If a respondent wishes to cite morale in the workplace as an element of undue hardship, it should also be able to cite its own efforts to quell inaccurate rumours that accommodation is being requested unreasonably.” It is the OHRC’s position that this principle also applies in education. See also Backs v Ottawa (City), 2011 HRTO 959 at para 58, where the HRTO disregarded morale issues as a factor in the undue hardship analysis.

[261] See Qureshi v G4S Security Services, 2009 HRTO 409 at para 35. The issue of customer, third-party and employee preference is also discussed in Judith Keene, Human Rights in Ontario, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Carswell, 1992) at 204–5.

[262] The Code prevails over collective agreements. Collective agreements or other contractual arrangements cannot act as a bar to providing accommodation. To allow otherwise would be to permit the parties to contract out of the provisions of the Code under the umbrella of a private agreement, and would run counter to the purposes of the Code. For more detailed information, see OHRC Policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability, supra note 1 at s. 9.1, online: Ontario Human Rights Commission www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-ableism-and-discrimination-based-disability/9-undue-hardship.

[263] Note that in rare cases the HRTO has indirectly considered other factors as part of costs or health and safety. See, for example, Munroe v Padulo Integrated Inc, 2011 HRTO 1410; Wozenilek v City of Guelph, 2010 HRTO 1652; Espey v London (City), 2009 HRTO 271.

[264] See OHRC, Policy on accessible education for students with disabilities, supra note 7 at s 8.7 and Appendix A: Recommendations to improve education outcomes for students with disabilities, recommendations 17, 26, online (pdf): Ontario Human Rights Commission www.ohrc.on.ca/sites/default/files/Policy%20on%20accessible%20education%20for%20students%20with%20disabilities_FINAL_EN.pdf.

[265] In RB v Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, 2013 HRTO 1436 [RB] at para 257, the HRTO recognized the importance of communication throughout the accommodation process: “…communication is an integral part of education, especially for a student with high needs.”

[266] Central Okanagan School District No. 23 v Renaud, [1992] 2 SCR 970 at para 43, 95 DLR (4th) 577 [Renaud].

[267] For example, in RB, (supra note 265), the HRTO stated: “a school board has a high burden to prove it cannot educate a student because of the conduct of a parent” (at paras 254, 259). In its reconsideration decision, the HRTO clarified that for the parent’s conduct to be relevant, “it must relate to the respondent’s ability to accommodate [the student];” see RB v Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, 2013 HRTO at para 31. See also LB v Toronto District School Board, 2015 HRTO 132 at paras 20(d), 139.

[268] Moore, supra note 5 at at paras 47–48.

[269] Ibid at paras 10, 32—66.

[270] Ibid at paras 5, 32.

[273] Ibid at para 22.

[274] Eaton, supra note 234 at para 69.

[275] The Ontario Human Rights Commission has explored this “contextualized” or “intersectional” approach to discrimination analysis at length in its discussion paper An intersectional approach to discrimination: Addressing multiple grounds in human rights claims (2001), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/intersectional-approach-discrimination-addressing-multiple-grounds-human-rights-claims.

[276] Egan v Canada, [1995] 2 SCR 513, 124 DLR (4th) 609 [Egan].

[277] Corbiere v Canada, [1999] 2 SCR 203, 173 DLR (4th) 1 [Corbiere].

[278] Egan at 551–52, 124 DLR (4th) 609, L’Heureux-Dubé J, dissenting.

[279] Corbiere at para 73, L’Heureux-Dubé J, concurring.

[280] Asfaha-Negusse v Toronto (City), 2019 HRTO 1650. See also Baylis-Flannery v DeWilde (Tri Community Physiotherapy), 2003 HRTO 28, in which the Tribunal found that the serious forms of discrimination Ms. Baylis-Flannery endured, with respect to her race and her sex, were intersectional in nature. See also Hogan v Ontario (Health and Long-Term Care), 2006 HRTO 32 and Falkiner v Ontario (Minister of Community and Social Services), [2002] OR (3d) 481, OJ No 1771 [Falkiner]. At paragraph 72 of Falkiner, the Court of Appeal for Ontario found:

Because the respondents' equality claim alleges differential treatment based on an interlocking set of personal characteristics, I think their general approach is appropriate. Multiple comparator groups are needed to bring into focus the multiple forms of differential treatment alleged.

[281] For example, the Toronto District School Board reported in 2013, students who identify as Black are the largest racial category represented in congregated Special Education schools (over doubly represented at 30.2%), and are notably under-represented in Gifted, International Baccalaureate (IB), Advanced Placement (AP) and Elite Athlete programs. See “Selected School-Wide Structures: An Overview” Fact Sheet 9 (Toronto: Toronto District School Board, December 2013) at 3, online (pdf): Toronto District School Board tdsb.on.ca/portals/research/docs/reports/school-widestructuresanoverview%20fs-final.pdf. See also “Selected In-School Programs: An Overview” Fact Sheet 8 (Toronto: Toronto District School Board, December 2013) at 3, online (pdf): Toronto District School Board tdsb.on.ca/Portals/research/docs/reports/In-SchoolProgramsAnOverview%20FS_%20FINAL.pdf. The OHRC has also heard from members of the community that Indigenous students are similarly over-represented in special education placements.

[282] Trauma-Informed Schools (2016) 4 OFIFC Research Series at 3, online: Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres ofifc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Trauma-Informed-Schools-Report-2016.pdf [Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres: Trauma-Informed Schools].

[283] Ena Chadha et al, Review of the Peel District School Board (28 February 2020), online (pdf): Ontario Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/new/review-peel-district-school-board-report-en.pdf. [Chadha et al].

[284] The opportunity to succeed: Achieving barrier-free education for students with disabilities - Consultation Report (2003), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission www.ohrc.on.ca/sites/default/files/attachments/The_opportunity_to_succeed%3A_Achieving_barrier-free_education_for_students_with_disabilities.pdf. Consultees also reported that students with disabilities from low-income families encounter unique hurdles in the special education system. Parents of these children often find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to take time out from work to advocate on their child’s behalf.

[285] CRPD, General Comment No 4, supra note 258 at para 46: “Intersectional discrimination and exclusion pose significant barriers to the realization of the right to education for women and girls with disabilities. States parties must identify and remove those barriers, including gender-based violence and the lack of value placed on the education of women and girls, and put in place specific measures to ensure that the right to education is not impeded by gender and/or disability discrimination, stigma or prejudice. Harmful gender and/or disability stereotypes in textbooks and curricula must be eliminated. Education plays a vital role in combating traditional notions of gender that perpetuate patriarchal and paternalistic societal frameworks.”

[286] Human Rights Code, s 30.

[287] UDHR, supra note 173.

[288] ICESCR, supra note 176.

[289] CRC, supra note 178.

[290] CRPD, supra note 178 at art 2.

[291] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Res 61/295, UNGAOR, 61st Sess, UN Doc A/RES/61/295 (2007) [UN Declaration].

[292] Baker v Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1999] 2 SCR 817 at para 69, 174 DLR (4th) 193 [Baker]; Reference re Pan-Canadian Securities Regulation, 2018 SCC 48 at para 66, citing Labour Conventions Case (Canada (AG) v Ontario (AG), [1937] AC 326 (UK JCPC) at 348, 1 DLR 673. Only customary (non-treaty) law can be adopted into the domestic law by Canadian courts without the need for legislation (R v Hape, 2007 SCC 26 at para 39 [Hape]).

[293] See Quebec (AG) v 9147-0732 Québec Inc, 2020 SCC 32 at para 35 [Quebec (AG)].

[294] Baker at para 70.

[295] Hape at paras 53–54.

[296] Quebec (AG) at paras 31–34.

[297] Jean-François Noël, The Convention on the Rights of the Child (Department of Justice Family Law Reports) at endnote 10, online: Government of Canada, Department of Justice justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/fl-lf/divorce/crc-crde/conv2d.html#ftn10.

[298] Human Rights Code, at Preamble.

[299] UDHR, supra note 173.

[300] ICESCR, supra note 176 at 2, 13—14.

[301] CRC, supra note 178 at arts 2, 23, 28–29.

[302] Ibid at art 3.

[303] CRPD, supra note 178 at art 24.

[304] Ibid at art 2.

[305] Ibid at art 24.

[306] Ibid at art 24(2)(c)). The denial of which is included in the CRPD’s definition of discrimination on the basis of disability (at article 2). In 2016, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities interpreted article 24 in its General Comment 4 on the right to inclusive education. The Committee identified many barriers that obstruct access to inclusive education for persons with disabilities, including, among other things: “the failure to understand or implement the human rights model of disability;” “low expectations about those in mainstream settings;” “lack of appropriate responses to support requirements;” “lack of disaggregated data and research, necessary for accountability and program development;” “lack of political will, technical knowledge, and capacity in implementing the right to inclusive education including insufficient education of all teaching staff;” “inappropriate and inadequate funding mechanisms to provide incentives and reasonable accommodations;” and “lack of legal remedies and mechanisms.” The Committee also mentions that persons with disabilities can experience intersectional discrimination based on other prohibited grounds (CRPD, General Comment No 4, supra note 258.)

[307] UNESCO, “Literacy, A UNESCO Perspective” (February 2003) at 2, online: UNESDOC Digital Library unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000131817?posInSet=6&queryId=0a93ce89-47a7-4898-a962-70446b1683d5 [UNESCO, “Literacy”].

[308] Ibid at 1.

[309] Sheila Carr-Stewart, “A Treaty Right to Education” (2001), 26(2) Canadian J of Edu 125, online (pdf): Assembly of First Nations afn.ca/uploads/files/education/8._2001_carr-stewart_treaty_right_to_education.pdf.

[310] Ontario First Nation Special Education Working Group (Review Chair: Peter Garrow), Ontario First Nations Special Education Review Report (May 2017) at 13, online (pdf): “Ontario First Nation Special Education Review Report” (May 2017), online (pdf): Chiefs of Ontario Education Portal firstnationsspecialeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Ontario-First-Nations-Special-Education-Review-Report-May-2017-2.pdf [Ontario First Nation Special Education Working Group, Review Report].

[311] UN Declaration, supra note 291 at arts 14(2), 21(2), 22.

[312] Ibid at art 17(2).

[313] Ibid at arts 21(2), 22.

[314] UN Declaration, supra note 291.

[315] Ibid.

[316] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, 189 UNTS 137, arts 4, 22 (entered into force 22 April 1954); See also Principle 23 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement which protects the right to education for Internally Displaced Persons: UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 22 July 1998, ADM 1.1,PRL 12.1, PR00/98/109.

5. How Ontario students are performing

Introduction

Too many Ontario students are not learning to read well. Education Quality Accountability Office (EQAO) data shows that a large proportion of Ontario students (one in four in Grade 3 and one in five in Grade 6) are failing to meet provincial reading standards.[317] The data is even more concerning for students with special education needs (this term includes all students with IEPs but excludes students whose only exceptionality is giftedness).[318] Approximately half of students with special education needs (53% in Grade 3 and 47% in Grade 6) are not reading well enough to meet provincial standards. Data linking reading scores to race, gender, socio-economic status and First Nations, Métis and Inuit self-identification data shows that certain groups, particularly boys,[319] Black students,[320] students from low-income homes,[321] and First Nations, Métis and Inuit students[322] are underperforming (for more details on the Indigenous student achievement gap, see section 7, First Nations, Métis and Inuit experiences). Low literacy is also a significant issue among Ontario adults (see section 4, Context for the inquiry for more information about adult literacy rates).

The results of the EQAO writing assessment are similar.[323] In 2018–19:

  • 31% of Grade 3 students did not meet the provincial writing standard on the Grade 3 assessment
  • 18% of Grade 6 students did not meet the provincial writing standard on the Grade 6 assessment
  • 53% of Grade 3 students with special education needs did not meet the provincial writing standard
  • 46% of Grade 6 students with special education needs did not meet the provincial writing standard.

Research also shows that students identified with learning disabilities are disproportionately streamed into applied-level courses in Grade 9,[324] and are less likely to graduate from high school.[325] They are also much less likely to go on to post-secondary education.[326]

The quantitative data on reading achievement alone is cause for concern. However, the statistics combined with all the other evidence the OHRC gathered through the inquiry, establish that too many Ontario students are being left behind.

Significant attention has been paid in recent years to falling math scores. Although EQAO reading scores have been relatively steady, scores on international assessments have been declining.[327] Ontario has also not been able to increase the proportion of students meeting baseline levels of achievement on international assessments.[328] As well, there has been a significant increase in students using assistive technology and other accommodations such as scribing on EQAO reading tests, which does not provide accurate information about whether Ontario students are able to read and write well on their own.[329]

Regardless of whether reading test scores are falling or remaining stable, we cannot afford to be complacent about how effective our public education system has been in meeting the right to read. Ontario’s Auditor General has said “Ontario should be striving for improvement.”[330] Many more students should be meeting standards set for reading assessments, including students with disabilities. It is simply unacceptable that close to 50% of students with special education needs are not meeting the provincial EQAO standard.

This does not have to be the case. With the proper approach, many more children can be reading proficiently in the earliest elementary grades and meeting provincial testing standards at Grade 3 and beyond. We should not settle for anything less.

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Education Quality Accountability Office reading assessment data

The EQAO assesses reading levels for Grade 3 and 6 students. Students, including students in private schools, must pass the Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) to earn their Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD). Students may also earn their OSSD by completing the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course (if they do not pass the OSSLT).

According to the EQAO’s 2018–19 Provincial Elementary School Report,[331] only 74% of all Grade 3 students met the provincial reading standard on the primary-division assessment.[332] This means that one-quarter of Grade 3 students in Ontario are not good readers and are already at risk of, or have started to experience, the negative impacts described earlier in this report. As well, only 62% of students met the standard unassisted (without scribing or assistive technology).[333]

On the junior-division assessment, 81% of Grade 6 students met the provincial reading standard.[334] In other words, in 2018–2019, one in five Grade 6 students struggled with reading. Only 72% of students met the standard unassisted.[335] As it becomes increasingly hard to address reading difficulties after Grade 6, even with the best interventions in place, many of these students will never catch up.[336]

There are gender differences in reading achievement with boys lagging behind girls. On the Grade 3 reading assessment, 71% of boys achieved the provincial standard, compared to 78% of girls. Boys’ scores were lower on the Grade 6 reading assessment as well, with only 77% meeting the standard compared to 85% of girls.[337] That means that by Grade 6, almost one-quarter of all boys in Ontario were not able to read at grade-level standards.

There are also significant discrepancies between school boards, with southern boards consistently performing better than northern boards.[338] In an audit of School Boards Management of Financial and Human Resources, the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario compared student EQAO achievement by region and found that the percentage of students meeting the provincial standard in northern boards was 8% lower than southern boards, and 5% lower than the provincial average on the 2015–2016 Grade 3 reading assessment.[339]

The provincial EQAO results for students with special education needs are particularly troubling. Only 47% of Grade 3 students with special education needs and 53% of Grade 6 students with special education needs met the provincial reading standard.[340] The EQAO flagged the failure of a significant proportion of students with special education needs, particularly learning disabilities, to meet the provincial standard as a concern requiring attention:

The persistent discrepancy in achievement between students with special education needs and those without requires attention. EQAO data show that students with learning disabilities are the largest group in the cohort of students identified as having special education needs. Historically, students with learning disabilities have had a low level of achievement despite having average to above average intelligence. It would be beneficial to review supports available and strategies for success.[341]

The results of the OSSLT show similar outcomes for students with special education needs. Eighty per cent of all fully participating students[342] taking the test for the first time were successful, as were 50% of previously eligible students.[343] However, only 50% of students with special education needs were successful taking the test for the first time, and 34% of previously eligible students with special education needs were successful.[344] There is also a significant achievement gap between multilingual students (who are learning the language of instruction at the same time as they are learning the curriculum) and other students on all assessments, but particularly the OSSLT.[345]

There is a significant discrepancy in achievement on the OSSLT based on whether students are in applied or academic courses. Only 41% of fully participating students in applied English courses passed the OSSLT the first time, compared to 91% of students in academic English courses. As discussed below in the section on streaming, students with learning disabilities are disproportionately streamed into applied-level courses, as are Black and Indigenous students and students from lower-income families.

EQAO data from 2017–2018 tracking the progress of students over time is consistent with the “Matthew Effect” described in section 4, Context for the inquiry. Of the 64,643 students (64%) who had met the reading standard in both Grade 3 and Grade 6, 94% (60,462) were successful on the OSSLT. However, of the 13,385 students (13%) who had not met the reading standard in both Grade 3 and Grade 6, only 28% (3757) were successful on the OSSLT.[346]

Students who did not meet the standard on either the Grade 3 or 6 reading assessment also had a lower success rate on the OSSLT.[347] The EQAO has noted the importance of early success on its assessments to future education and later life, saying “analysis of student outcomes going back to 2004 show that students who do not meet the provincial standard in reading and writing in the early grades are at a greater risk of not having the literacy skills required in secondary school and beyond.”[348]

The EQAO also assesses student engagement with reading using a student questionnaire. In 2018–2019, a little less than half of students (44% in Grade 3 and 42% in Grade 6) said they do not like to read. About one-third (38% in Grade 3 and 33% in Grade 6) said they do not think they are good readers most of the time.[349] This suggests that current approaches to reading are failing to teach many students to read, and to promote reading confidence and a love of reading in many more.

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Accommodations

The EQAO results for reading achievement in Ontario are even more concerning when accommodations are factored in. A large proportion of students with special education needs receive accommodations during EQAO testing. These include verbatim scribing of responses and using assistive technology (such as Read and Write for Google Chrome).

Accommodations are important and necessary to give struggling readers an equal opportunity to be assessed on their understanding of written text and to convey their ideas in writing. However, the accommodations provided mean that the EQAO data, which is already concerning, likely significantly under-represents the magnitude of reading difficulties among Ontario students. For example, the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) analyzed provincial EQAO data. It found high rates of assistive technology and scribing for students with IEPs (students with special education needs), and an increasing use of these accommodations over time. For example, the IDA found:

In 2019 84% of Grade 3 students with an IEP completed the reading assessment using these accommodations up from 36% in 2005. Rates of AT/scribing also increased over time in Grade 6 (2005: 19.6%, 2019: 72%) and OSSLT (2005: 14.25%, 2019: 38.7%).[350]

The IDA’s data also showed that 87% of Grade 3 students with a learning disability exceptionality used scribing.[351]

The IDA found that only 8.5% of Grade 3 students with special education needs achieved the provincial standard on the EQAO reading assessment without using assistive technology or scribing. This is similar to the OHRC’s findings from the school board data. The IDA also found little to no improvement in the unaccommodated pass rate for students with special education needs between 2005 and 2019.[352]

Therefore, for students with word-reading disabilities and other special education needs, the EQAO assessment does not accurately measure whether they can read and write unassisted. Overall EQAO scores for all Ontario students do not reflect whether the education system is equipping students to read independently.

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Exemptions

Two to three per cent of all Ontario students in Grade 3 or 6 receive a formal exemption from having to complete the EQAO reading assessment. Exemptions are permitted when the student is unable to participate in part or all of the assessment even with accommodations.[353] A student must be exempted from the reading assessment, if they must be read to by a teacher or another adult.[354]

The exemption rate is much higher in some boards. For example, in Keewatin-Patricia, up to 13% of students do not participate in the EQAO reading assessment in either Grade 3 or 6. Several other Ontario boards have high exemption rates. Examples are Moosonee (7% in Grade 3, 8% in Grade 6) and Superior-Greenstone District School Boards (12% in Grade 3, 6% in Grade 6).

Students with special education needs are much more likely to be exempted from assessment.[355] The issue of whether some students should be exempted from standardized testing is complex. However, when students with disabilities are exempted from taking part in standardized assessments, we cannot know how they would have performed. Valuable information about the student’s learning is lost. System-level information that can guide policy decisions about areas such as curriculum, teaching methods and interventions is also compromised.[356]

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Inquiry school board data

The OHRC requested EQAO data from the inquiry’s eight school boards to better understand how their students with special education needs, particularly learning disabilities, are performing on EQAO reading assessments. As school boards do not break down learning disabilities further, it was not possible to assess the performance of students with reading disabilities specifically. However, as discussed in sections 4, Context for the inquiry and 12, Professional assessments, since reading disabilities are the most common learning disability, it is likely that a significant proportion of students identified as having a learning disability in the EQAO data have reading disabilities.

Another limitation in assessing the performance of students with reading disabilities was that boards were only able to provide data for students with a formally designated learning disability (LD) exceptionality (meaning students who had gone through the IPRC process and been designated under the LD exceptionality category). Not all students with a learning disability have been diagnosed by a health professional or formally identified through the IPRC process. It is also possible that students identified through the IPRC process as having “Multiple Exceptionalities” have a reading disability as one of their exceptionalities.

Consistent with provincial data, students with special education needs in the eight inquiry school boards fared poorly on the Grades 3 and 6 EQAO reading assessments for 2018–2019. For example, in Keewatin-Patricia, only 13% of Grade 3 and 35% of Grade 6 students with special education needs achieved the provincial standard. Lakehead had the highest percentage of students with special education needs achieving the provincial standard in Grade 3. However, at 55% this figure was still concerningly low. More Ottawa-Carleton students with special education needs achieved the provincial standard in Grade 6 than in any of the other inquiry boards. However, once again the percentage was low, at only 60%.

When looking specifically at students with an LD exceptionality, only 12% of Grade 3 students in Hamilton-Wentworth met the provincial standard. Simcoe Muskoka Catholic had the highest percentage of students meeting the provincial standard in Grade 3 at 60%. In Grade 6, Keewatin-Patricia had the lowest percentage of Grade 6 students at 33%, while another northern board (Lakehead) had the highest percentage of Grade 6 students meeting the standard at 69%. In most cases, only about half of students with an LD exceptionality were able to meet provincial EQAO standards, even with the high rate of accommodations, as reported below.

Quantitative data from school boards and qualitative data from surveys confirms the EQAO’s finding that all students with special education needs, a significant proportion of Ontario’s student population, and not just students with learning disabilities, struggle with reading.[357] This suggests that Ontario’s current approach does not reflect Universal Design for Learning, which requires effective reading instruction for all students.

Ottawa-Carleton, the only board in our sample that provided us with its own in-depth analysis of student achievement data, stated:

Across all provincial assessments, achievement outcomes continue to be lower for English Language Learners (ELLs), students with special education needs (excluding gifted; SpEd), students residing in low income neighbourhoods (SES), and those who identify as Indigenous (INDG) compared to all students. The data suggests that the more groups the students belong to – the lower their achievement is, especially in numeracy. Outcomes based on gender tend to favour boys in mathematics, girls in reading, writing and the OSSLT. Gaps are much wider in literacy than they are in math.

Table 1 sets out data, obtained through the inquiry, on the percentage of students[358] who met the provincial standard (achieved a level 3 or 4) in the 2018–2019 EQAO reading assessment including:

  • Overall percentage of board students who met the provincial standard in the EQAO reading assessment in each of Grade 3 and 6[359]
  • Percentage of students with special education needs who met the provincial standard in the EQAO reading assessment in each of Grade 3 and 6[360]
  • Percentage of students with an LD exceptionality (as identified through an IPRC) who met the provincial standard in the EQAO reading assessment in each of Grade 3 and 6[361]
  • Percentage of students with an LD exceptionality (as identified through IPRC) who needed accommodation (questions read to them, assistive technology, scribing) and met the provincial standard in each of Grades 3 and 6.

Table 1: Percentage of students who met the provincial standard in the 2018–2019 EQAO reading assessment[362]

 

Overall met the standard Grade 3

Students with special education needs met the standard Grade 3

Students with LDs met the standard Grade 3

Students with LDs met the standard had accommodation Grade 3

Overall met the standard Grade 6

Students with special education needs met the standard Grade 6

Students with LDs met the standard Grade 6

Students with LDs met the standard had accommodation Grade 6

Hamilton-Wentworth

67

33

12

100

73

42

48

95

Keewatin-Patricia

59

18

N/D

N/D

72

35

33

100

Lakehead

71

55

50

100

75

48

69

82

London Catholic

72

39

50

100

78

47

44

78

Ottawa-Carleton

76

52

58

89

82

60

61

94

Peel

75

50

42

100

81

35

46

96

Simcoe Muskoka Catholic

67

35

60

100

79

51

49

94

Thames

Valley

63

32

53

100

73

35

45

98

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Accommodations

The low percentage of students with learning disabilities who met the provincial standard is even more concerning when accommodations are factored in. Most or all students who met the standard had test questions read to them, had verbatim scribing or used assistive technology. In several boards (Hamilton-Wentworth, Lakehead, London Catholic, Peel, Simcoe Muskoka Catholic and Thames Valley), every student with a learning disability who met the provincial standard in Grade 3 did so with accommodation. In Grade 6, most students who met the standard did so with accommodation. Very few students with an LD exceptionality met the provincial standard without accommodation. Lakehead had the lowest percentage of students meeting the provincial standard without accommodation at 2%, and London Catholic had the highest percentage of Grade 6 students with an LD exceptionality meeting the provincial standard without accommodation at 22%. So even students with LD exceptionalities who are meeting the provincial standard may not be able to read and write adequately without assistance.

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Exemptions

The OHRC found that in the eight school boards, between 6% and 60% of students with special education needs were exempted from the Grade 3 EQAO reading assessment and between 5% and 35% from the Grade 6 EQAO reading test. Among students designated as having an LD exceptionality, between 0% and 5% were exempted from the reading assessment in Grade 6.[363]

Table 2 sets out data[364] on exemptions from the Grades 3 and 6 EQAO reading assessment (2018–2019 school year) received from the eight school boards in the inquiry including:

  • Overall percentage of board students who were exempted from the EQAO reading assessment
  • Percentage of students with special education needs who were exempted from the EQAO reading assessment
  • Percentage of students with an LD exceptionality who were exempted from EQAO reading assessment.

 

Table 2: Percentage of exemptions from the Grades 3 and 6 EQAO reading assessment, 2018–2019 school year

 

Overall exempt Grade 3

Students with special education needs  exempt Grade 3

Students with LDs exempt Grade 3

Overall exempt Grade 6

Students with special education needs  exempt Grade 6

Students with LDs exempt Grade 6

Hamilton-Wentworth

4

12.

0

4

8

1

Keewatin-Patricia

13

60

N/D[365]

13

35

0

Lakehead

4

6

0

4

5

0

London Catholic

2

12

0

3

6

0

Ottawa-Carleton

4

8

0

3

5

2

Peel

3

17

2

3

8

2

Simcoe-Muskoka

Catholic

4

15

0

3

9

5

Thames Valley

4

19

0

3

11

1

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Other observations

Data about students with special education needs includes all students with an IEP, whether or not they have been formally identified through the IPRC process. Many of these students likely have a reading disability or other learning disability.[366] The EQAO data provided by the eight school boards suggests that very few students with reading disabilities, relative to their likely prevalence in the population, have been identified as having an LD exceptionality through the IPRC process. For example, one school board told us that only 30% of students with a learning disability diagnosis go through the IPRC process. Undoubtedly, there are also other students who have or are at risk for a reading disability but who have not been assessed and diagnosed.

Although an IPRC designation is not needed to receive interventions and accommodations, in the current system, when students with learning disabilities are not identified through this process, there is no way to capture data about their performance on EQAO assessments. Section 13 includes recommendations on improved data collection for students with reading and other learning disabilities.

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Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is an international assessment that reports every five years on the reading achievement of Grade 4 students worldwide. It is the only international program that assesses reading achievement of Canadian students in the earlier years of education.

PIRLS is administered by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an independent cooperative of research institutions and governmental agencies. It was first administered in 2001 and has been administered every five years since then.[367]

The last PIRLS assessment was in 2016, when 50 countries took part. A random sample of over 18,000 Canadian students in eight provinces, including Ontario, were assessed on reading achievement. Information about students’ homes, schools and classroom contexts was also collected using background questionnaires. The questionnaires were completed by the students, their parents or caregivers, their school principals, and their teachers.[368]

Grade 4 was selected for the PIRLS assessment because it represents an important transition point in students’ development: “the point at which students are expected to have already learned how to read and are now using their reading skills to learn.” PIRLS assesses reading skills defined as “the ability to understand information presented in the written format required by society and favoured by the person, and the ability to use it.”[369]

The purposes of the PIRLS study are to:

  • Assess the reading skills of nine-year-olds (Grade 4 students)
  • Determine the contexts that influence reading development
  • Understand how young children learn to read
  • Improve teaching and learning methods in reading for all children
  • Assess and understand differences among education systems to improve teaching and learning methods in reading throughout the world.

PIRLS uses sampling to identify schools, both public and private, and students who will take part in the test. Schools and students can be excluded from the test for various reasons, such as disability (if the school serves students with disabilities or the student has a disability). The PIRLS exclusion rate should not be higher than 5%, and students with dyslexia are not supposed to be excluded but rather accommodated in test-taking, where possible.[370] Nevertheless, some have argued that the way PIRLS has been constructed and reported systematically excludes marginalized students and students with disabilities.[371]

In 2016, Ontario had a score of 544, which is above the PIRLS centre point of 500 and the international average of 511. Ontario scored one point above the Canadian average (543) but lower than British Columbia (555), Quebec (547) and Alberta (547).[372]

Table 3 shows jurisdictions with a higher score than Ontario.

 

Table 3: Jurisdictions with a higher score than Ontario on PIRLS 2016

Russian Federation

581

Singapore

576

Hong Kong, SAR

569

Ireland

567

Finland

566

Poland

565

Northern Ireland

565

Norway (Grade 5 was assessed)

559

Chinese Taipei

559

England

559

Latvia

558

Sweden

555

British Columbia

555

Hungary

554

Bulgaria

552

United States

549

Lithuania

548

Italy

548

Denmark

547

Quebec

547

Alberta

547

Macao SAR

546

Netherlands

545

Australia

544

Ontario’s performance on PIRLS decreased in 2016 (544) compared to 2011 (552), 2006 (555), and 2001 (548).[373] Importantly, data is not presented for students with learning disabilities separately, nor is the rate of accommodations for students with learning disabilities.

A report by the Canadian Council of Ministers of Education noted that PIRLS scores and other data point to the need to identify and respond early to children who are struggling with reading:

Although Canadian students are among the most proficient readers in the world…and Canadian Grade 4 students obtained strong results in PIRLS 2011…there remains a significant proportion of youth who do not possess the necessary knowledge and literacy skills to adequately benefit from educational opportunities. Indeed, the PIRLS 2011 results revealed that 14 per cent of Grade 4 students did not reach the intermediate international benchmark, although there were significant differences across provinces and by language and gender...Results from the most recent Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) assessment show that 12 per cent of Grade 8/Secondary II students in Canada did not reach Level 2 in reading, the baseline level of reading proficiency or the expected level for their grade in reading…Thus, it is of the utmost importance to be able to identify, as quickly as possible, those areas in which students encounter difficulties, so as to enable Canadian parents and educators to intervene early.[374] [Emphasis added.]

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Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort among members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In Canada, PISA is carried out through a partnership between Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) and the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC). PISA is administered every three years and measures 15-year-olds’ abilities in reading, mathematics and science. Private school and public school students take part in PISA.

In 2018, a year that PISA focused on literacy, 79 countries and economies, including Canada, took part.

Ontario students perform well in PISA with scores above the average of the participating OECD countries. However, some research suggests that Canada's results may not be comparable to results of other participating countries due to Canada’s comparatively high student exclusion rate, low levels of school participation and high rates of student absence. Excluded students were mainly students with intellectual disabilities[375] (5%), limited language skills (1.5%), and physical disabilities (0.5%).[376]

Despite Ontario’s and Canada’s generally strong performance in PISA, there are areas of concern:

  • Girls perform significantly better than boys in reading[377]
  • Students in the English-language public education system in Ontario perform better in reading than students in the French-language public education system[378]
  • Since 2000, overall reading scores have declined[379] and the number of students who cannot read to international standards has increased[380]
  • The reading skills gap between students with the highest and lowest performance levels, an important indicator for the equity of educational outcomes,[381] has widened
  • 13% of students (or about one in seven) performed at the lowest levels of PISA (below level 2)[382]
  • Socio-economically advantaged students performed better than socio-economically disadvantaged students by 63 points (or 4.8%).[383] Approximately 24% of advantaged students in Canada, but only 7% of disadvantaged students, were top performers in reading in PISA 2018.[384]

The CMEC’s discussion of Canadian students’ performance concluded:

In spite of these strong results, PISA 2018 achievement in reading literacy also suggests that there is cause for some concern. Reading performance in PISA has declined in Canada overall and in many provinces since 2000. One in seven Canadian students scored at the lowest levels identified by PISA (below Level 2), and students in minority language settings achieved lower results in reading compared to their counterparts in majority-language settings in most provinces. Furthermore, the gap in reading achievement between girls and boys persists.[385]

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Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), an agency of the Government of Ontario, is mandated to bring evidence-based research to the continued improvement of Ontario’s post-secondary education system. It reports to the Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities.

In 2016–2017, the HEQCO led a project called the Essential Adult Skills Initiative (EASI).[386] The project measured literacy, numeracy and critical-thinking skills in students entering and graduating from 20 colleges and universities.[387]

For the inquiry, the results from the literacy assessment of students who were starting their post-secondary studies are most relevant to assessing whether students are graduating from high school with the literacy skills needed to perform well in today’s economy.

Incoming students were assessed using the Education and Skills Online (ESO) assessment. The ESO is the commercial version of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) assessment. The test has been validated for adults between the ages of 16 and 65. It measures the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for adults to participate in society and for economies to prosper.

Thirty-four per cent of incoming college students and 26% of incoming university students scored level 2 or lower. This means they did not meet the minimum literacy standard the OECD considers necessary to perform well in today’s economy.[388]

The HEQCO has issued several other reports on the importance of core skills, such as literacy and numeracy, for students to be able to successfully take part in post-secondary education and in the workplace.

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Streaming

Streaming is the process of grouping students according to perceived ability.[389] It is most associated with steering students towards either academic, applied or locally developed level courses beginning in Grade 9. Students typically take most or all their courses at the same level, “stream” or “track.”[390]

Streaming affects students’ post-secondary choices, career pathways and life outcomes, and results in other disadvantages. For example, students in applied English and math classes are less likely to:

  • Meet the provincial standards on math and reading tests
  • Graduate from high school
  • Enroll in post-secondary education.[391]

Because of data collection issues, provincial data on the demographic characteristics of students in academic versus applied-level streams does not exist. However, available board-level data confirms longstanding concerns that marginalized students are more likely to be streamed into pathways that limit course selection and post-secondary opportunities.[392]

Data from two school boards that have conducted a school census shows that racialized students, particularly Black and Latin American students, and Indigenous students are more likely to be taking applied courses. For example, the 2019 Review of the Peel District School Board[393] found:

  • Black students are disproportionately streamed into applied and locally developed courses[394]
  • Indigenous students are over-represented in applied and locally developed courses[395]
  • Latin American students are over-represented in applied and locally developed courses.[396]

Also, only 34% of Peel students enrolled in applied-level courses “passed” the Grade 10 OSSLT in 2018–2019, compared to 90% of students in academic-level courses.

Data from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) shows similar outcomes for Black and Indigenous students.[397] Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are also disproportionately streamed into applied-level courses.[398]

The OHRC requested data from the eight inquiry school boards to attempt to determine whether students identified as having an LD exceptionality were being disproportionately streamed into applied courses in Grade 9.[399] The OHRC learned that the boards do not have a consistent way to store and access this data. The boards do not appear to be proactively monitoring whether certain groups of students are disproportionately in course pathways that limit post-secondary options. One board could not produce the requested data, saying that this information is not tracked or available through its current student information management system. Several other boards had difficulty providing the requested information.

The data that was provided suggests that a concerning proportion of students with learning disabilities are taking mostly applied courses and that students with identified learning disabilities are significantly more likely to be taking mostly applied courses than students who have not been identified with an LD exceptionality. This data showed that students with an LD exceptionality were about two to four times more likely to be taking mostly applied courses in Grade 9.

 

Table 4: Percentage of students with LD exceptionalities and students without LD exceptionalities taking mostly applied level courses, Grade 9

 

Students with LDs

Students without LDs

Hamilton-Wentworth

71

27

Keewatin-Patricia

69

35

Lakehead

86

41

London Catholic

71

20

Ottawa-Carleton

40

11

Peel

44

28

Simcoe-Muskoka Catholic

No data

No data

Thames Valley

16

8

 

As discussed in greater detail in sections 6, The experience of students and families, and 11, Accommodations, the inquiry revealed that streaming happens in other ways.[400] Two notable examples are streaming students with reading disabilities into segregated special education classrooms that are not equipped to address their reading skills, or out of French Immersion programs. Ottawa-Carleton trustees have expressed concerns about the large number of students with IEPs in the English stream.[401] As well, a report prepared by the board in 2019 found that students at English-only schools tend to come from lower-income areas than students attending schools that offer French Immersion.[402]

In June 2020, the Ministry of Education (Ministry) recognized the negative outcomes caused by streaming and announced that beginning with Grade 9 math in 2021, it would begin a process of deferring streaming from Grade 9 to Grade 10.[403] At the time of writing this report, there was little information about the de-streaming process, or the resources and supports that will be available to change the pathways of children and youth. Addressing the inequities that lead to streaming is complex and should begin in the earliest elementary school years.[404] Ensuring that more students have the reading skills necessary to achieve their academic potential is consistent with the goal of de-streaming in Ontario. 

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Graduation rates

Research shows a relationship between scores on literacy assessments and high school completion. For example, students with poor scores on the PISA reading assessment are less likely to complete high school. Reading proficiency continues to influence high school graduation rates even after controlling for other variables such as gender, mother tongue, parental education, family income, location of residence, and academic and social engagement.[405]

As of August 31, 2018, 81.2% of Ontario students were graduating with an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) in four years and 87.1% were graduating with an OSSD in five years. Table 5 shows the five-year graduation rate of students in the eight inquiry school boards, as reported by the Ministry.

 

Table 5: Five-year graduation rate, as reported by the Ministry

Hamilton-Wentworth

79.7%

Keewatin-Patricia

76.1%

Lakehead

75.5%

London Catholic

90.4%

Ottawa-Carleton

88.3%

Peel

89.2%

Simcoe Muskoka Catholic

88.2%

Thames Valley

79.1%

 

The OHRC requested data from the eight inquiry school boards to attempt to determine whether, consistent with the research, students identified as having an LD exceptionality are more likely to leave school without getting their OSSD. Based on the responses, school boards in Ontario do not appear to be tracking graduation rates by exceptionality.

With the data provided, we were unable to draw conclusions about whether students with learning disabilities are less likely to obtain their OSSD. One board, Ottawa-Carleton, provided an Annual Student Achievement Report (2018–2019) that analyzed achievement data to measure progress in student learning. The stated goal of this was to help inform strategies in the board’s improvement plan for student achievement and well-being. In terms of accumulating credits and graduating, the report found that “specific groups of students, especially Indigenous students and students with special education needs continue to underperform as compared to all students.”

While this was one good example of a board analyzing data on student achievement, it was not consistent practice across the inquiry school boards. For a detailed discussion on shortcomings in data collection and monitoring student outcomes, see section 13. Systemic issues.

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Post-secondary attendance

According to the HEQCO, students with disabilities, students from low-income families, Indigenous students and students whose parents do not have a post-secondary degree or diploma continue to be excluded from post-secondary education and the economic benefits it brings.[406]

Little Ontario data is available on post-secondary pathways for students with special education needs generally, or learning or reading disabilities specifically. However, data that does exist shows that students with special education needs or who do poorly on literacy assessments, including EQAO and PISA, are much less likely to enroll in post-secondary education.[407]

A 2012 research paper published by the HEQCO looked at TDSB data on students with “special needs” (students identified with an exceptionality through the IPRC process). The paper noted that only a small proportion of students with a special needs designation, in this case defined as an IPRC designation, are in a position to transition successfully to either an Ontario university or college.[408] The paper found:

...the post-high school pathways of the TDSB students in our sample generally conformed to those reported in the literature. When compared to graduates without [special needs] a higher proportion of students with [special needs] dropped out or went directly to the workforce. Only 18 per cent of students with [special needs] confirmed university acceptance while 58 per cent of students without [special needs] did so. However, 24 per cent of students with [special needs] pursued community college while only 14 per cent of students without [special needs] followed this path.[409]

There is also a correlation between scores on standardized assessments and post-secondary attendance. Students with disabilities tend to score lower on standardized assessments (see for example EQAO data). A Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) paper noted that studies have found that the likelihood of attending post-secondary education increases as PISA reading scores increase.[410] One study on Canadian students found that only 28% of 15-year-old students who scored at level 1 in reading (the lowest level) in PISA in 2000 had attended some form of post-secondary education by age 19. This number rose to 45% for level 2, 65% for level 3, 76% for students at level 4 and 88% for students at level 5 (the highest level of reading proficiency).[411]

Students with higher PISA literacy scores are also more likely to attend university rather than college. The paper noted:

Reading proficiency at age 15 had the most significant effect on a student’s choice of postsecondary pathway, even after controlling for other variables such as gender, mother tongue, place of residence, parental education and family income...[412]

This finding shows how important early literacy and reading achievement is for traditionally marginalized populations, and for promoting equity in the Ontario education system.

The OHRC requested data from the eight inquiry school boards on acceptance to college or university for graduating students with and without an LD exceptionality. Once again, the OHRC found that school boards do not consistently or reliably track this information. This report makes recommendations related to better data collection and monitoring of student achievement in section 13, Systemic issues.

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[317] Based on 2018-2019 EQAO data. See: Highlights of the Provincial Results: Literacy English-Language Students, 2018-2019 (2019), online (pdf): Ontario, Education Quality and Accountability Office  eqao.com/provincial-report-highlights-literacy-2019-pdf/ [EQAO, Literacy Highlights 2018-2019].

[318] Students with special education needs (excluding gifted) are students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) who may or may not have been identified as “exceptional pupils” through an Identification, Placement and Review Committee (IPRC), and are receiving special education programs and services. See ibid.

[319] Ontario Student Achievement 2018-2019, EQAO's Provincial Elementary School Report (2019) at 28,  35, online (pdf): Ontario, Education Quality and Accountability Office eqao.com/provincial-report-elementary-2019-pdf/ [EQAO, Elementary School Report 2018-2019].

[320] TDSB, “Right to Read: Closing Achievement Gaps,” supra note 20 at 4. For U.S. data see B Hussar et al, “The Condition of Education 2020” (2020), online: National Centre for Education Statistics nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2020144 [Hussar]; NAEP, “Nation’s Report Card: Reading,” supra note 21.

[321] TDSB, “Right to Read: Closing Achievement Gaps,” supra note 20 at 4. For U.S. data see Hussar, supra note 320. See also NAEP, “Nation’s Report Card: Reading, supra note 21.

[322] Strengthening Our Learning Journey: Technical Appendix to the Third Progress Report on the Implementation of the Ontario First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Education Police Framework (2018) at 9, online (pdf): Ontario, Ministry of Education files.ontario.ca/edu_1_1/edu-ieo-technical-appendix-third-report-en-2021-10-28.pdf [Ontario Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey: Technical Appendix].

[323] EQAO, Literacy Highlights 2018-2019, supra note 316. This report focuses on reading assessment results. However, reading and writing are closely related and depend on many of the same skills. They are both important components of literacy. See: The Reading Writing Connection (2012), online (pdf): National Institute of Child Health & Human Development files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED571549.pdf.

[324] R S Brown & G Parekh, The Intersection of Disability, Achievement, and Equity: A System Review of Special Education in the TDSB (2013) Toronto District School Board Research Report No. 12-13-12, online (pdf): Toronto District School Board tdsb.on.ca/Portals/research/docs/reports/Intersection%20of%20Disability%20Achievement%20and%20Equity.pdf [Brown & Parekh, The Intersection of Disability, Achievement, and Equity].

[325] Failing to achieve reading proficiency by the end of Grade 1 is associated with an increased risk of drop-out. Partanen & Siegel, “Long-term outcome of the early identification and intervention of reading disabilities,” supra note 65; see also Trzesniewski et al, supra note 80.

[326] Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “A Literature Framework to Guide the Research Study,” supra note 77 at 14; Rojewski supra note 81.

[327] See Pierre Brochu et al, PIRLS/ePIRLS 2016: Canada in Context – Canadian Results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Canada: Council of Ministers of Education, 2016) at 1, online (pdf): Council of Ministers of Education, Canada cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publications/Attachments/385/PIRLS2016-Report-EN.pdf [Brochu et al, PIRLS 2016: Canada in Context].

[328] Value for Money Audit: Curriculum Development, Implementation and Delivery (2020) at 46, online (pdf): Office of the Auditor General auditor.on.ca/en/content/annualreports/arreports/en20/20VFM_03curriculum.pdf [Auditor General, 2020 Value for Money Audit: Curriculum].

[329] IDA, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, supra note 59 at 2, 3, 13.

[330] Auditor General, 2020 Value for Money Audit: Curriculum, supra note 328 at 46.

[331] EQAO, Elementary School Report 2018-2019, supra note 319 at 28, 35. 

[332] Includes participating and non-participating students. The percentage of participating students who met the provincial standard in Grade 3 was 77%, see: Ontario, Education Quality and Accountability Office, School Board Report (TDSB): Assessments of Reading, Writing and Mathematics 2018-2019, (2019) at 7 (accessed September 2020, no longer available online) [EQAO School Board Report (TDSB) 2018-2019].

[333] IDA, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, supra note 59 at 3.

[334] Includes participating and non-participating students. The percentage of participating students who met the provincial standard in Grade 6 was 83%, see: EQAO School Board Report (TDSB) 2018-2019, supra note 332 at 11.

[335] IDA, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, supra note 59 at 20.

[336] Torgesen, “The Prevention of Reading Difficulties,” supra note 59; Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, supra note 22; Partanen & Siegel, “Long-term outcome of the early identification and intervention of reading disabilities,” supra note 65.

[337] EQAO Elementary School Report 2018-2019, supra note 319. 

[338] The Auditor General of Ontario defines boards north of North Bay as northern boards. Auditor General, 2017 Annual Report, supra note 183 at s 3.12, 624.

[339] Ibid at s 3.12, 623. There was less of a discrepancy on the Grade 6 reading assessment, but the difference between northern boards increased once again on the Grade 10 OSSLT.

[340] EQAO, Literacy Highlights 2018-2019, supra note 316 at 3.

[341] Ontario Student Achievement, 2018-2019: EQAO's Provincial Secondary School Report (2019) at 3, online (pdf): Ontario, Education and Accountability Office eqao.com/provincial-report-secondary-2019-pdf/ [EQAO, Secondary School Report 2018-2019].

[342] Students for whom there is work for both sessions of the administration of the OSSLT and who were assigned an achievement result (successful, not yet successful). Students who are not working toward an OSSD, students who were absent and students who were deferred are excluded.

[343] Previously eligible includes all students who were absent or deferred, or were unsuccessful during one or more previous administrations; were previously exempted but are now working toward an OSSD; entered Grade 11 or 12 from out of province or enrolled in an adult education program and began Grade 9 in or after the 2000–2001 school year. For definitions, see: EQAO, Secondary School Report, 2018-2019, supra note 341 at 62.

[344] For more findings related to the OSSLT, see IDA, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, supra note 59.

[345] The IDA found only 38% of ELL students passed the assessment compared to 60% of non-ELL students; ibid at 3.

[346] Based on the number of students in the cohort who took part in the OSSLT and for whom EQAO has Grade 3 and Grade 6 assessment results (including students who took part, were exempted or provided no work to be scored); Highlights of the Provincial Results, Literacy, 2017–2018, (2018) at 4, online (pdf): Ontario, Education and Accountability Office eqao.com/provincial-report-highlights-literacy-2018-pdf/ [EQAO, Literacy Highlights 2017-2018].

[347] Of the 18 384 students (18%) who had not met the reading standard in Grade 3 but had achieved it in Grade 6, 70% (12 847) were successful on the OSSLT. Of the 4,032 students (4%) who had met the reading standard in Grade 3 but not in Grade 6, 57% (2,294) were successful on the OSSLT. See: EQAO, Literacy Highlights 2017-2018, supra note 346 at 3.

[348] 2018-2019 Annual Report (2019) at 23, online (pdf): Ontario, Education and Accountability Office eqao.com/annual-report-2018-2019-pdf/ [EQAO, 2018-2019 Annual Report].

[349] EQAO, Elementary School Report, supra note 319 at 2.

[350] IDA, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, supra note 59 at 16.

[351] “Submission to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Right to Ready Inquiry” (March 2020) at 5, online (pdf): International Dyslexia Association Ontario idaontario.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/IDA-Ontario-Submission-to-the-OHRC-Right-to-Read-Inquiry-March-20 20.pdf [IDA, “Submission to OHRC Right to Read Inquiry”].

[352] IDA, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, supra note 59 at 3.

[353] To receive an exemption, a student must have an IEP or be in alternate programming that does not access the grade-level curriculum. If a student has a different situation (for example illness or a personal situation), the students may not attend the test and will be recorded as absent, but not exempt.

[354] According to the EQAO Administration and Accommodation Guide which was provided to the OHRC by a school board.

[355] IDA, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, supra note 59.

[356] Kevin S McCrew et al, “An Investigation of the Exclusion of Students with Disabilities in National Data Collection Programs, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis” (1993) 15:3 Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 339, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/01623737015003339; July L Elliott et al, “What About Assessment and Accountability? Practical Implications for Educators” (1998) 31:1 Teaching Exceptional Children 20, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00400599980310013; see also: Matthew J Scheulka, “Excluding students with disabilities from the culture of achievement: the case of the TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA” (2012) 28:2 Journal of Education Policy 216, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2012.708789.

[357] In the 2019–20 school year, 348,000 students had an IEP; Auditor General, 2020 Value for Money Audit: Curriculum, supra note 328 at 8.

[358] Rounded to the nearest whole per cent. If the decimal portion was less than 0.5, we rounded down; if it was greater than 0.5, we rounded up. If the decimal portion was exactly 0.5, we rounded up if the place value to the left of the decimal was an odd number and down if it was an even number.

[359] Includes participating and non-participating students.

[360] Includes participating and non-participating students.

[361] Includes participating and non-participating students.

[362] Total number of students in grades 3 and 6 at the following school boards with SEN or LD designation:

 

Grade 3 students with special education needs

Grade 3 students with LDs

Grade 6 students with special education needs

Grade 6 students with LDs

 Hamilton-Wentworth

633

8

839

88

Keewatin-Patricia

45

0

71

3

Lakehead

233

2

159

16

London Catholic

186

12

246

52

Ottawa-Carleton

953

33

1140

103

Peel

1297

102

1944

391

Simcoe Muskoka

Catholic

274

5

333

38

Thames

Valley

676

19

1114

286

 

[363] As very few students have been identified with an LD exceptionality by Grade 3, the Grade 3 exemption numbers are not significant.

[364] Percentages are rounded to the nearest whole percent. If the decimal portion was less than 0.5, we rounded down; if it was greater than 0.5, we rounded up. If the decimal portion was exactly 0.5, we rounded up if the place value to the left of the decimal was an odd number and down if it was an even number.

[365] N/D: “No data available” indicates there were no students in that group.

[366] The Ministry of Education states that it is a reasonable hypothesis that a significant portion of students receiving special education programs and services, but not identified by an IPRC, have learning disabilities (144,987 or 7.1% of total enrollment); from Ontario Ministry of Education, Special Education Update, supra note 44 at 5. In Ottawa-Carleton’s recent census (2019-2020), learning disability was the disability most commonly reported by either students or parents/guardians. Among students who self-identified as having a disability, 51.4% reported having a learning disability and 48.9% of parents/guardians who reported having a disability said they had a learning disability; see “Valuing Voices – Identity Matters!” (2020), online (pdf): Ottawa-Carleton District School Board ocdsb.ca/UserFiles/Servers/Server_55394/File/Our%20Schools/Equity,%20Diversity%20and%20Inclusion/Valuing%20Voices/Valuing%20Voices%20IDB%20Infographic.pdf [Ottawa-Carleton, “Valuing Voices”]. In Peel’s 2018 census, learning disability was the highest reported disability; see “STUDENT CENSUS 2018: Special Report Students with Special Education Needs” (2020), online (pdf): Peel District School Board FINALStudent-Census-2018-StudentsWithSpecialEducationNeeds_July14.pdf (peelschools.org) at 5.

[367] Ontario has taken part in PIRLS since 2001, so it is possible to track Ontario’s progress over time.

[368] For more detail on how PIRLS is administered and what it assesses, see Pierre Brochu et al, PIRLS 2016: Canada in Context, supra note 327.

[369] See ibid at 1.

[370] Pierre Brochu et al, PIRLS 2016: Canada in Context, supra note 327.

[371] Matthew Schuelka, “Excluding students with disabilities from the culture of achievement: the case of TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA” (2013) 28:2 J of Edu Policy 216, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2012.708789.

[372] According to PIRLS, Ontario’s score of 544 differs significantly only from B.C.’s, but not from the Canadian average or Quebec and Alberta. For the latter three, confidence intervals overlap, so it is not statistically significant.

[373] Pierre Brochu et al, PIRLS 2016: Canada in Context, supra note 327 at 37. 

[374] Ibid at 5.

[375] Defined as “students who were considered, in the professional opinion of the school principal or by other qualified staff, to have intellectual disabilities and/or who had been psychologically tested as such. The category included students who were emotionally or mentally unable to follow even the general instructions of the test.” Students were not supposed to be excluded solely because of poor academic performance or normal disciplinary problems. Systematic exclusion of all students with dyslexia, or other such learning disabilities, was not acceptable (students had to be accommodated in the test situation, if possible, rather than excluded); ibid at 81.

[376] Jake Anders et al, “Is Canada really an education superpower? The impact of non-participation on results from PISA 2015” (2021) 33 Educ Asse Eval Acc 229, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11092-020-09329-5

[377] Kathryn O’Grady et al, Measuring up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA 2018 Study (2019) at 26–27, online (pdf): Council of Ministers of Education, Canada cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publications/Attachments/396/PISA2018_PublicReport_EN.pdf [O’Grady et al, Canadian Results – PISA 2018].

[378] Ibid at 19.   

[379] Ibid at 31—32. Ontario’s overall score has declined from 531 in 2009 to 524 in 2018.

[380] Ibid at 104.

[381] Ibid at 59.

[382] Ibid at 12.  

[383] Ibid at 34—35. In PISA, socio-economic status is measured using the index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS), which is derived from three indices: the highest occupational status of students’ parents; the highest educational level attained by students’ parents; and a number of home possessions that can be used as proxies for material wealth, including the number of books and other educational resources available in the home; see: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, PISA 2018 Results (Volume II): Where all students can succeed, (Paris: OECD publishing, 2019), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1787/19963777 [OECD, PISA 2018 Volume II]. The top 25% of the index were defined as socioeconomically advantaged students, whereas the bottom 25% were defined as socio-economically disadvantaged students; see: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students’ well-being, (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2017), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1787/19963777 [OECD, PISA 2015 Volume III].

[384] Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development / F Avvisati et al, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Results from PISA 2018: Canada, (2019) OECD Country Note, online (pdf): Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_CAN.pdf [OECD, PISA 2018: Canada Country Note].

[385] O’Grady et al, Canadian Results – PISA 2018, supra note 377 at 32.

[386] “The Essential Adult Skills Initiative” (last visited 24 January 2022), online: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

heqco.ca/en-ca/OurPriorities/LearningOutcomes/Pages/the-essential-adult-skills-initiative.aspx.

[387] Algonquin College, Centennial College, Conestoga College, Fanshawe College, Fleming College, George Brown College, Humber College, Sault College, Seneca College, Sheridan College, St. Lawrence College, Algoma University, Brescia University College at Western University, Brock University, McMaster University, Nipissing University, Queen’s University, University of Guelph, York University, Quest University Canada.

[388] Harvey P Weingarten et al, Measuring Essential Skills of Postsecondary Students: Final Report of the Essential Adult Skills Initiative (Toronto: The Higher Education Council of Ontario, 2018) at 45 & 50.

[389] “Director’s response to the Enhancing Equity Task Force Report” (31 January 2018) at 10, online: Toronto District School Board tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/docs/Response%20to%20Report_Jan2018_v5.pdf [TDSB, “Director’s response to the Enhancing Equity Task Force Report”]; Carl James & Tana Turner, Towards Race Equity in Education: The Schooling of Black Students in the Greater Toronto Area (Toronto: York University, 2017) at 41, online (pdf): York University edu.yorku.ca/files/2017/04/Towards-Race-Equity-in-Education-April-2017.pdf [James & Turner: Towards Race Equity in Education].

[390] See Daniel Hamlin & David Cameron, Applied or Academic: High Impact Decisions for Ontario Students (Toronto: People for Education, 13 April 2015) at 3, online (pdf): People for Education peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Applied-or-Academic-Report-2015.pdf [Hamlin & Cameron, Applied or Academic]; Sharma Queiser & Sabrina De Araujo, Still Streamed: How High Impact Decisions are Shaping Students’ Futures (Toronto: Social Planning Toronto, September 2017) at 2, online (pdf): Social Planning Toronto d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/socialplanningtoronto/pages/1728/attachments/original/1541612433/Streaming_Report-September-v1.1-web.pdf?1541612433 [Queiser & De Araujo, Still Streamed].

[391] Hamlin & Cameron, Applied or Academic, supra note 390 at 5.

[392] For reports on the inequitable impact of streaming on marginalized students see: Queiser & De Araujo, Still Streamed, supra note 390 at 2; Hamlin & Cameron, Applied or Academic, supra note 390 at 5; James & Turner: Towards Race Equity in Education, supra note 389 at 41.

[393] Chadha et al, supra note 283.

[394] Ibid at 11–13.

[395] Ibid at 6.

[396] Ibid.

[397] David Clandfield et al, “Restacking the Deck: Streaming by class, race and gender in Ontario schools” (Winter 2014) 23: 114 Our Schools/Our Selves (Special Issue) at 221, online (pdf): http://easywebdesignsolutions.com/georgemartell/email43/docs/OS%23114Restacking%20the%20Deck%20online.pdf [Clandfield et al, “Restacking the Deck”]; see also Queiser & De Araujo, Still Streamed, supra note 390.

[398] TDSB, “Director’s response to the Enhancing Equity Task Force Report,” supra note 389 at 10; Clandfield et al, “Restacking the Deck,” supra note 397 at 9; Hamlin & Cameron, Applied or Academic, supra note 390 at 5. 

[399] The Boards were asked: What percentage of Grade 9 students who have an LD exceptionality are taking mostly applied versus academic courses? Ontario boards do not have a consistent way of tracking academic pathways, as such boards may have used different methodologies when compiling this data. The review of the Peel District School Board also assessed whether the majority of the courses taken were academic, applied, or locally developed; Chadha et al, supra note 283 at 6.

[400] See also Clandfield et al, “Restacking the Deck,” supra note 397 at 80.

[401] “English-track students less privileged than immersion peers, report finds,” CBC News (1 November 2019), online: CBC News cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/social-streaming-in-ottawa-french-and-english-schools-1.5342800 [CBC News, “English-track students less privileged than immersion peers”].

[402] Jacquie Miller, “Data reveal issues with newcomers, low-income kids in Ottawa streaming into English, not French immersion” CBC News (30 October 2019), online: CBC News cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/social-streaming-in-ottawa-french-and-english-schools-1.5342800 [Miller, “Data reveal issues”].

[403] Ontario, Office of the Premier, New Release, “News Room: Ontario Taking Bold Action to Address Racism and Inequity in Schools” (9 July 2020), online: Government of Ontario news.ontario.ca/en/release/57543/ontario-taking-bold-action-to-address-racism-and-inequity-in-schools-1.

[404] People for Education, Choosing Courses for High School: Achievement gaps, informed decision-making, and inequality (2014), online (pdf): People for Education peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/People-for-Education-report-on-streaming-in-Ontario-schools.pdf.

[405] Nicholas Dion & Vicky Maldonado, “Making the Grade? Troubling Trends in Postsecondary Student Literacy” (31 October 2013) Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Issue Paper No. 16 at 11, online (pdf): Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/HEQCO%20Literacy%20ENG.pdf [Dion & Maldonado, “Making the Grade”].

[406] “Access to Postsecondary Education” (last visited 24 January 2022), online (pdf): Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario heqco.ca/en-ca/OurPriorities/Access/Pages/home.aspx [Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, “Access to Postsecondary Education”]; see also Clandfield et al, “Restacking the Deck,” supra note 397 at 11–12.

[407] Ibid; see also Clandfield et al, “Restacking the Deck,” supra note 397 at 11–12. The HEQCO refers to post-secondary education as enrollment at a college or university and does not include taking part in an apprenticeship for a skilled trade.

[408] Robert Sweet et al, Special Needs Students and Transitions to Postsecondary Education (Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2012) at 2, online (pdf): Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/Special%20Needs%20ENG.pdf [Sweet et al: Special Needs Students and Transitions to Postsecondary Education].

[409] Ibid.

[410] For discussion see Dion & Maldonado, “Making the Grade,” supra note 405 at 15–16.

[411] Tamara Knighton & Patrick Bussière, “Educational Outcomes at Age 19 Associated with Reading Ability at Age 15” (2006) Statistics Canada Research Paper No. 81-595-MIE2006043–043 at 14, online (pdf): Statistics Canada www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/81-595-m/81-595-m2006043-eng.pdf?st=24sqbQ1N.

[412] Dion & Maldonado, “Making the Grade,” supra note 405 at 16.


 

6. The experience of students and families

Warning: This section deals with topics that may cause trauma to some readers. It includes references to bullying, emotional and physical abuse, mental health challenges, self-harm and suicide. Please engage in self-care as you read this material. There are many resources available if you require additional support, including on the OHRC website under List of supports.

 

Introduction

Children are inherently vulnerable. They depend highly on others to satisfy their basic needs and make decisions for their physical, emotional and intellectual well-being. This is even more true for children who start life facing societal barriers – whether poverty, low parental education, racism and/or ableism.[413]

When addressing reading disabilities, experts say “there is not a knowledge gap…but an action gap.”[414] With effective instruction approaches, most students can learn to read proficiently. Providing science-based instruction and early intervention to students who struggle to learn to read sets them up for future success in academics, employment and life.

Most subjects in school require reading to access the material, so the ability to read is key to future learning. However, when schools do not provide effective, evidence-based instruction and interventions, children fall further behind in school and may suffer lifelong negative consequences.

Because of structural inequality, Black and other racialized children, First Nations, Métis and Inuit children, English language learners[415] or children who live in poverty may face extra barriers. They may be at risk for reading difficulties, and their parents do not always have the same access to resources as more advantaged parents.[416] These students may rely heavily on a public education system to prevent or alleviate achievement gaps.

Students with reading difficulties, and their parents/guardians, provided information to the inquiry on avoiding school, stereotyping, self-esteem, mental health effects, low expectations by schools, and lifelong consequences. Parents also reported impacts on the family related to finances, mental health effects, navigating the school system and family relationships. Besides being felt in families, these impacts have additional costs to society as a whole.

The inquiry received 1,425 surveys from students, parents and guardians. It was evident that individuals spent a major amount of time – sometimes hours – completing their responses while juggling the many demands in their lives. The inquiry also heard from around 100 presenters at public hearings and community meetings. Presenters ranged in age from nine to 84.

It takes courage, time and energy for people to share their experiences whether in writing or in person. The OHRC is grateful to everyone who shared their experiences and contributed to the findings of this report.

This section draws from the OHRC’s public hearings, community meetings and student/parent surveys.

The word “supports” is used broadly in this section and throughout the report to include additional instruction, intervention and accommodations.

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Inquiry survey

Surveys were completed primarily by parents on behalf of a student (96%), and some parents included quotes or submissions from the student. A small portion (4%) of current and former students completed the survey about their own experiences.

This section also briefly discusses some of the limitations of the inquiry’s survey and what the OHRC did to address these concerns. See section 3, Methodology for more discussion on survey limitations.

 

Profile of students

This section provides a general overview of the characteristics of students who either had a survey completed on their behalf or completed their own survey.

Table 6 offers a snapshot of student demographic information from the survey.

 

Table 6: Profile of students as reported by survey respondents

Age (in years)

Average

12

Median

11

Mode

9

Average grade

Grade 6

Gender[417]

Boy/man

59%

Girl/woman

40%

Transgender boy/man

0.1%

Transgender girl/woman

0.2%

Other (non-binary, gender fluid, two-spirit, etc.)

0.2%

Questioning

0.1%

Prefer not to answer

1%

School system

English public

69%

English Catholic

19%

Private school

4%

French Catholic

4%

French public

2%

Provincial/demonstration

1%

Enrollment in school

 

Currently in school

90%

Graduated with an OSSD

8%

Not in school and did not receive an OSSD

2%

Reading disability[418]

 

Yes

80%

Possibly

13%

No

4%

Unknown

2%

Family member has a reading disability

46%

Reading disability and another disability[419]

 

Yes

53%

Possibly

7%

No

36%

Unknown

4%

Country of origin

 

Born in Canada

96%

Other[420]

4%

First language learned at home

 

English

92%

French

3.5%

Other[421]

4.5%

English language learner (identified by school)

 

Yes

25%

No

71%

Unknown

4%

Race[422]

 

White 

83.5%

Other[423]

3.4%

Black

2.6%

First Nations

1.8%

Latino

1.7%

Middle Eastern

1.6%

South Asian

1.6%

East Asian

1.5%

Métis

1.3%

Southeast Asian

0.7%

Inuk/Inuit

0%

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Profile of survey respondents

Most survey respondents did not represent families from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds. They were mostly White and wealthier and more educated than the average Ontarian. Table 7 shows demographic information about survey respondents based on race, family income and education level.

Students were more representative of Ontarians (9.7% racialized) than the respondents who completed surveys on their behalf (6.5% racialized).

 

Table 7: Race/ancestry of students and survey respondents[424]

 

Race of respondent

Ontario population

White 

88.0%

70.7%[425]

Black

1.3%

4.7%

First Nations

1.3%

1.8%

Latino

1.4%

1.5%

Middle Eastern

1.3%

2.8%[426]

South Asian

1.5%

8.7%

East Asian

0.8%

6.6%[427]

Métis

0.9%

0.9%

Southeast Asian

0.2%

3.4%[428]

Inuk/Inuit

0%

0%[429]

Other[430]

2.9%

N/A

Most respondents (57%) reported a household income of over $100,000 before taxes in 2018. This is well above the median total income of $74,600 for Ontarians in 2018.[431]

 

Table 8: Income of survey respondents (before taxes in 2018)

Less than $25,000

2%

$25,000 to $35,000

2%

$35,000 to $50,000

4%

$50,000 to $75,000

7%

$75,000 to $100,000

14%

$100,000 to 150,000

22%

More than $150,000

35%

Prefer not to say

14%

 

Respondents were more educated than the average Ontarian; 88% of survey respondents completed a post-secondary degree or diploma compared to the Ontario percentage of 55%.[432]

 

Table 9: Highest level of education of respondents

Education level

Survey respondents

Ontario population

Elementary school

1.3%

17.5%[433]

Secondary school diploma (or its equivalent)

5.4%

27.4%

Apprenticeship or trades certificate or diploma

1.4%

6.0%

College diploma

20.5%

20.8%

Bachelor’s degree

34.3%

17.3%

Professional degree (law/medical degree)

11.5%

N/A

Master’s degree

16.8%

5.4%

Doctorate degree

3.5%

0.9%

Other[434]

5.3%

N/A

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Barriers to survey completion

Research suggests that White people with higher incomes and education are more likely to complete self-report surveys compared to racialized people and people with lower incomes and less education.[435]

Reasons for lower response rates for certain communities are unique to the circumstances of a given community. However, some communities share similar experiences of ongoing systemic discrimination and historical violence such as colonization, slavery, assimilation, criminalization, segregation and displacement. These social factors have a greater effect on First Nations, Métis, Inuit and Black communities today. These factors contribute to intergenerational trauma, breed distrust of public institutions, and undermine social and economic conditions for affected groups[436] – which can all influence survey response rates.

Families that lack financial resources often face barriers completing surveys and attending public meetings. These types of engagements require time, and families with less flexible work schedules and less time are at a disadvantage. One inquiry respondent noted: “I am doing my best as a single mother working full time and squeezing in the time to do this survey before getting some groceries and coming home to sleep.”

To reduce some of the barriers to completing a survey,[437] the OHRC allocated open-mic time during its public hearings, and held community meetings for attendees to share their experiences. The OHRC took steps to make sure presenters at public hearings represented the views of communities that face barriers to self-advocacy, such as refugees and children in care. The inquiry also included engagements with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in Ontario. The OHRC was available to help people who were unable to complete a survey. Finally, the OHRC had a dedicated phone line and email account to receive submissions, stories and requests for assistance from the public. Some other in-person engagements were planned but cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although responses were not proportionate to Ontario’s population in terms of race and income level, the inquiry still heard from hundreds of people from intersecting Code-protected groups, who shared critical information and experiences. We have paid particular attention to these accounts and highlighted them throughout this section.

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Impact on students

The inquiry found overwhelming similarities in student and parent accounts. A common narrative emerged from surveys, submissions and presentations at community meetings and public hearings.

When schools do not provide evidence-based reading instruction, identify reading difficulties early and provide effective interventions, achievement gaps develop and grow. The window of opportunity closes and students with reading difficulties fall behind their peers. The system’s failure is downloaded to these students – they feel like they did something wrong or that something is wrong with them. This makes students vulnerable to school avoidance and oppositional behaviours, negative self-talk, bullying and other mental health disabilities.

As students move through the system, these burdens worsen. Educators may tend to blame the students’ abilities or potential, rather than blaming the education system. Students are streamed out of education opportunities and feel further isolated. Parents who were concerned about whether their child would catch up in elementary school are now worried about their child’s future and well-being after they graduate, or if they will even graduate.

This situation can be worse for students with intersecting identities. Students from some identity groups (racialized, First Nations, Métis, Inuit, low-income, multilingual, newcomers) face extra barriers and burdens.

Respondents who completed surveys about Black and/or First Nations, Métis, Inuit students disproportionately reported that race or ancestry had a negative or somewhat negative impact on the student’s school experience related to their reading disability.

 

Table 10: Race/ancestry and negative impact on school experience

Black

52%

First Nations

39%

South Asian

30%

Southeast Asian

18%

East Asian

18%

Métis

17%

Middle Eastern

7%

Latino

8%

White

2%

Survey respondents with lower incomes also noted that their socio-economic status had a negative or somewhat negative impact on the student’s school experience related to their reading disability.

 

Table 11: Income and negative impact on school experience

Less than $25,000

41%

$25,000 to $35,000

58%

$35,000 to $50,000

30%

$50,000 to $75,000

23%

$75,000 to $100,000

16%

$100,000 to 150,000

7%

More than $150,000

8%

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School avoidance

Students with reading difficulties can experience school-related stress for many reasons. Research shows that from an early age, children can recognize what appears to come easily to their peers, is difficult for them.[438]

In reading, these differences can be quite obvious. Reading is an important and widespread skill in society. Learning to read is a primary objective in elementary school and an essential step to building skills and knowledge in many domains. It is necessary for everyday life, whether reading print on paper and street signs, or digital text on screens.

Repeated failure, despite working hard, can lead to negative feelings such as frustration, anger, sadness, worry and fear. These feelings make students vulnerable to low self-esteem and other problems at school, such as lack of academic motivation.[439] Students may feel they have also let down others, like parents and teachers.

Students react or cope with this stress in different ways. Some may react to stress outwardly – by being oppositional (pretending not to care, not listening or following rules, acting up in class) or through aggressive behaviour.[440] In the student/parent surveys, 8% of respondents reported student outbursts or behaviour challenges such as acting like the class clown, constant fidgeting, screaming, or exhibiting rage, anger or violence.

Some students may internalize the stress. This can show in school avoidance, withdrawal, anxiety, depression and somatic experiences (body aches).[441] In the student/parent survey, 9% of respondents reported school avoidance tendencies such as running away from school, often going to the bathroom, causing outbursts to avoid going to school, and complaining about head and stomach aches.

Students and parents also wrote about students withdrawing while in class, and 9% of students felt embarrassed because of their disability. These students hid their reading disability from classmates and attempted to avoid reading in public.

It is often not an either/or scenario – a student may withdraw and be oppositional at different times. One parent described her son’s range of behaviour as he progressed in his schooling:

[He] had regular meltdowns after school from Grade 1 from frustration and fatigue. In Grade 3, he came home and told me that he was the "dumbest and stupidest kid at [name of school]." He tends to act out to avoid doing work that is too difficult for him and so he is often in trouble at school. In Grade 5, he developed anxiety and a facial tic. In Grade 7, he would refuse to go to school or go and hide in the bathroom because he had so much anxiety. In Grade 8, he was purposely acting out so that he would be sent out of the classroom because he could not do the work. He said his dream was to be able to read and do the same work as the other students.

The inquiry also heard about the experience of school avoidance from the President of the Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario:

Imagine an 8-year-old girl with school avoidance. It is very difficult to get her out of bed and ready for school in the mornings. Mom holds down a full-time job and has been late to work because of this. She has multiple somatic or body complaints which are symptoms of anxiety. She struggles to sleep at night –worried about school the next day and is tired throughout the school day. She struggles to read at a Grade 1 level and mom is given the names of psychologists in the community because she is told, no interventions can be put in place until they have a formal Individual Education Plan. The mom is told the school’s waiting list is at least two years to get an assessment. The mother is near to tears in my office and her voice is full of frustration and worry. How are they going to afford the expense of a psychological evaluation? These children experience poor self-confidence, will say things like “I’m stupid…why was I born,[”] and face ridicule by classmates.

Students desperately want to learn to read. However, when they are excluded academically and socially, they may protect themselves through avoidance to regain control and shield themselves from harm.[442] One parent noted:

My son's apprehension about going to school is because of the lack of support in the classroom and the lack of proper reading instruction based on reading science, not because something is wrong with him.

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Stereotyping and victimization

Students require a learning environment where they feel safe, to develop self-esteem and confidence.[443] However, this does not always exist for students with reading difficulties.

Students with learning disabilities, including reading disabilities, are at an increased risk of bullying and victimization.[444] This was evident in the survey responses, where 8% of students experienced bullying or teasing because of a reading disability.

The surveys included these examples of how students with reading difficulties are treated by their peers:

  • Ostracized for not being able to contribute to group projects
  • Ridiculed for spelling or reading mistakes
  • Laughed at for asking for help
  • Teased when singled out for accommodations
  • Called names
  • Physically assaulted.

Surveys mentioned that students found it hard to make and keep friends. Even when students are not bullied, sometimes the fear of being singled out or “found out” can have an impact on the student. One student explained at a public hearing:

Now people look at me a bit funny…because…before I was diagnosed, everyone would make fun of the people with a Chromebook.[445] So I was really scared that I would be made fun of.

Educators want students to succeed, and most are doing their best to respond to their students’ needs in the classroom. However, sometimes educator behaviour negatively affects students. The inquiry heard about explicit negative attitudes from some educators. Examples included teachers singling out students in class, asking students to read in front of the class after finding out they had a reading disability, calling them “lazy,” “slow,” “stupid” or “dumb,” or telling students they did not take enough risks and exaggerated their difficulties. These stereotypes have a heavy emotional impact on students with reading difficulties. One survey respondent reported that a teacher told a student that he would be a “bum on the streets.”

Respondents also reported that some teachers refused to acknowledge the student’s reading disability, would not provide accommodations or discouraged using them because the student did not "deserve it,” and “punished” the student by taking away recess because the student did not complete work.

Sometimes negative stereotypes were less explicit but still detrimental. One former student, who is now in his seventies, still remembers his report card reading “Good child, having a lot of reading difficulties and won’t apply himself.” Survey responses from students currently in school similarly reported examples of being told that they do not apply themselves or try hard enough.

Consistent negative feedback from peers or educators has an adverse effect on mental health and can cause trauma for students. Some students and parents reported that they paid for counselling or therapy because of bullying and victimization. Bullying can also lower self-confidence, which has further negative impacts on learning. When a student is rejected by their peer group, it affects their sense of self, engagement in class and possibly their academic achievement. For example, one parent reported that bullying affected her child’s confidence in asking for help in the classroom.

Social isolation can also occur in indirect ways. The extra time that children with reading difficulties spend on their studies takes them away from socializing with friends, taking part in extra-curricular activities and athletics, or relaxing. One parent said: “My son went to school twice every day. Once at school and then again at home.” In survey responses, 14% of respondents reported social isolation such as loss of friends, time away from the classroom or after-school time spent at a private reading program instead of with friends and family.

Students who identify with other Code-protected grounds can experience more stereotyping. One parent reported that her son has experienced repeated bullying for his gender-fluid expression and his learning disabilities, which has increased his anxiety.

One parent of a racialized and First Nations student noted that “colonization and colonial stereotypes” had a negative impact on her son’s experience at school because of their intergenerational impacts:

If my son felt excited about going to school, if he excelled in reading and was respected by the education system for his diverse cultural background (and given reading material that reflected this diversity), and was taught structured literacy approaches based on reading science, I would not have to even think of writing this survey. I expect more than "lowered expectations" from teachers and the education system…My son's ethnicity, Indigeneity and gender are things to be proud of and bring strength to him daily. Students need to see their ethnicity and Indigeneity reflected in their teachers, school staff, principals, trustees, the Ministry of Education, government, etc.

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Self-esteem

Positive self-esteem and coping strategies are critical to learning and success in school. When students continue to fail at school, they question their academic abilities and feel inferior. The inquiry found that students with reading difficulties often reported low self-esteem.

In survey responses, 31% of respondents reported negative self-talk or low self-esteem. During public hearings, many students talked about feeling “dumb” or “stupid,” compared themselves to their classmates and could tell that the work they were given was well below the work assigned to peers. Parents reported that their children referred to themselves as “stupid/dumb” and believed that they cannot or will never be able to read.

Low expectations from educators can also affect a student’s self-image as a learner. One parent talked about how teachers had “pre-conceived glass ceilings for what [her daughter] would be able to achieve in their class” and how this negatively affected her daughter’s “thoughts about her abilities both scholastically as well as her hopes for the future.”

Many parents talked about the painful process of seeing their once “bubbly” or enthusiastic child develop feelings of low self-worth and struggle to find meaning in life. Parents talked about seeing their once happy, socially adaptable child who was eager to go to school now feeling stupid, struggling with self-worth and becoming “a shell” of themselves. One 12-year-old student wrote: “I want to be like the other kids but school breaks my spirit. I feel confused. I see every colour in gray.”

One parent explained the cumulative impact of going to school, where every day, you feel you do not belong and are not adequate:

Ten months of the year, five days a week, our son goes to a place where he feels like a failure. It's a place that exhausts him because he has to work so much harder than neurotypical students to not even keep up. He has been called stupid by peers at school. That wears on his mental health and overall happiness. Not surprisingly, he is a completely different, far happier child during the summers.

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Mental health effects

Low self-esteem makes students more vulnerable to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Almost six in 10 respondents (59%) reported student mental health challenges, including students experiencing depression, eating disorders, difficulty with emotional regulation such as anger management, sleep disturbance, trauma and/or anxiety including General Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Separation Anxiety and Panic Disorder.[446]

Survey responses stressed the connection between mental health challenges and academic success. These challenges contributed to school avoidance tendencies, absenteeism and even dropping out of school.

Very young children were not immune to severe effects on their mental health. There were several accounts of students experiencing a mental health crisis in elementary school or experiencing anxiety as young as age five. There were accounts of young children thinking about suicide. Parents also reported that their children engaged in self-harming behaviours or attempted suicide. At a public hearing, the President of the Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario related this account about attempted suicide:

When I was involved in in-patient child psychiatry, a young patient under the age of 10 was admitted because of an attempted suicide. The child had developed school refusal/avoidance, and was so worried about going to school that on the way to school the child attempted to jump out of the car on a busy express highway…We contacted the school to obtain the school reports and spoke with the school psychologist. The child was discharged and within a few weeks had a psychological assessment which showed a severe learning disorder. The school psychologist called me at my office…called to apologize…”the child had slipped through the cracks.”

Many respondents reported some relief from mental health issues once the reading disability was identified. In some cases, when students learned they had a reading disability, this self-knowledge motivated them to know that it was possible to catch up:

Once he was given the tools to manage the [learning disability], his behaviour, mental health and confidence has improved – which has helped the entire family.

Many surveys that noted mental health challenges also talked about accessing counselling services, but stressed that effective reading interventions were what made a significant difference. Evidence-based instruction in the classroom and early interventions will prevent mental health difficulties from developing in the first place. Also, once students with reading difficulties receive evidence-based instruction, intervention and support to learn to read, there should be improvements to their mental health.[447]

Students and parents who talked about successful interventions noted improvements to the student’s psychological well-being. They observed boosts to self-confidence, increased motivation, better self-regulation, decreased anxiety, and healthier self-esteem. One parent talked about the transformation in her son after he received a private evidence-based reading and language program:

He went from tantruming when asked to read a short levelled reader, to reading chapter books with a flashlight after bedtime. I can't help but reflect on where he would still be, and the resultant impacts to his mental health and to our family, if we hadn't been able to pay privately for what he needed.

The President of the Pediatricians Alliance of Ontario also found this to be the case:

Many years ago, I had a patient who was being seen for mood and anxiety problems and suicidal threats. Eventually she received a diagnosis of dyslexia, and spent a very long time on the waiting list for the Orton Gillingham evidenced based reading and language program. After one year, her reading and language skills had improved so significantly that her self-confidence, mood symptoms improved and suicidal threats abated.

Effective interventions improve student achievement and mental health, and also improve family dynamics. Many parents talked about the improvements to student and family life when their child had effective interventions. One parent talked about how exciting it was to see her son “move from being a non-reader to loving reading and even reading to his younger siblings,” and “sharing with them strategies he was taught during his intervention” once he received an evidence-based intervention in school.

Evidence-based instruction and interventions and timely accommodation are essential for student and family well-being, and also reduce cost to the overall health-care system.[448] Still, students with reading difficulty will need access to appropriate mental health supports to help cope with their struggles in school. However, students who do not experience reading failure will rely less on mental health services, and students who receive effective interventions will need fewer ongoing services.

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Low expectations and false assumptions

The inquiry heard from students, parents and educators about a culture of low expectations. These are harmful because they can affect student self-esteem and mental health. As well, when schools routinely expect less from certain students, these expectations become normalized and can affect student outcomes. Low expectations can also prevent students from getting the support they need to learn to read.

Lower expectations can be compounded when students are also members of other Code-protected groups. Parents of Black students reported that their children were viewed differently or through a “deficit lens” because of institutional racism. Respondents also noted the lower expectations for boys, students whose parents were low-income or living with a disability and multilingual students.

Parents reported gendered assumptions about their children. Some parents reported that schools thought their son’s future would be “okay” because he was athletic. One parent reported that the school said “given he was a good-looking kid, he would be fine.” Many parents reported being told by educators that learning to read is delayed for boys, and they would “grow out” of their reading difficulties.

The inquiry heard examples of lowered expectations for students because of their parents’ disability and low socio-economic status. One guardian noted that the school was aware the student’s parents had low literacy, lived in social housing, lived with disabilities and received Ontario Disability Support Program income, and this factored into the school’s lower expectations for the student. The guardian reported that the student was misdiagnosed with a mild intellectual disability (MID), due to her father living with an MID. She was only reassessed in Grade 10 because the guardian insisted, and was found to have a reading disability and not MID. The student was also put on a pathway that would preclude her from graduating from high school or pursuing post-secondary education.

Educators reported seeing racialized students inappropriately identified with an MID when they really had a reading disability. Low expectations and ineffective approaches to reading instruction are harmful in different ways. They can create reading difficulties that could have been prevented with effective instruction. They can also result in under-identifying students for reading disabilities because of assumptions that difficulties are the student’s fault rather than a disability that needs to be addressed.

Objective assessments of foundational reading skills are essential for all students, but particularly for students who belong to Code-protected groups. Research shows that implicit bias, which stems from unconscious stereotyping, can affect teacher perception of student ability and performance, particularly for Black students, boys, students with special education needs (excluding gifted), students from less affluent neighbourhoods and single-parent households.[449]

Evidence-based screening, monitoring and interventions are therefore important measures to guard against implicit bias that creates lower expectations for certain students.

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Multilingual learners

Low expectations, false assumptions and cultural bias in widely used assessment measures and practices also have detrimental impacts for English language learners (ELL students), a term used in the education system for multilingual students who are learning the language of instruction at the same time as they are learning the curriculum.[450] Although multilingual learners are just as likely to have reading difficulties as other students,[451] this population has historically been either over- or under-identified.[452] Research shows that teachers have a difficult time identifying reading difficulties in children learning English as a second language.[453]

Students can be over-identified when educators and other professionals do not know how to recognize challenges associated with learning the language of instruction.[454] Research has also shown that bias and negative attitudes towards certain populations, such as Roma and Indigenous children, contribute to over-identifying for special education.[455]

Students can be under-identified when schools delay assessing them in the false belief that students must become proficient in English before they can be assessed for reading disabilities.[456] Delay can also happen because educators believe that reading difficulties are due to the student’s limited English skills or a different cultural background.[457]

Educator survey respondents reported similar trends. They reported that their schools assume that when multilingual students struggle with reading, it is because they have not been exposed to English, not because they have a reading difficulty. One educator noted: “It is initially assumed that if they are struggling to learn to read it is due to the [English language learner] status.” Schools sometimes operate on this assumption when there is evidence to the contrary. For example, one educator reported that students from Caribbean countries, who had received instruction in English and special education supports before immigrating to Canada, were treated as if their reading difficulties stemmed from being an English language learner.

These presumptions lead to delayed supports. Educator respondents reported that multilingual students are “under-served,” get “pushed back” in assessments and interventions, and do not receive supports until they have lived in Canada for a long time. One educator said:

I understand that learning another language could present itself as a reading problem when it isn't; however, waiting a certain number of years to intervene means you have a child who is increasingly frustrated and missing an opportunity to be helped.

There is no scientific basis for waiting a certain number of years to provide evidence-based interventions or assess multilingual students for reading difficulties. Multilingual students should receive regular academic assessments and interventions for difficulties as soon as the need arises.[458]

EQAO data also shows a disparity in the level of documented support received by multilingual students compared to other students.[459] Table 12 shows that far fewer multilingual students have an IEP.

 

Table 12: Percentage of English language learners (ELL) with an IEP in 2019[460]

 

ELL

Non-ELL

Grade 3

9.5%

19%

Grade 6

12%

21%

Grade 10

7%

22%

With appropriate instruction, multilingual students can perform just as well as other students.[461] The recommendations in this report will benefit multilingual students equally if not more than students who speak English as a first language.[462]

The inquiry heard from a refugee advocate who talked about the unique challenges refugee children face in the education system. He referenced a 2012 study that discussed the lack of support for struggling Afghan boys in Toronto.[463] He stated that current approaches do not work for newcomer students with limited prior schooling:

There is currently no system to monitor and provide support for a newcomer child who struggles to keep up with their peers – by the time the “wait and see” strategy has played out, the child will have transitioned to middle school.

One educator respondent noted:

ELL students who have been through trauma (e.g. Syrian refugees) need more support in school. They have parents who are also traumatized and they are alone, separated from families, often at home with a new baby. School is very challenging for these ELL children.

 

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Streaming

Low expectations can also factor into decisions about a student’s learning expectations and academic pathways.

Streaming has serious effects on student academics, mental health and employment. Streaming has disproportionate impacts on certain groups and is not applied to all groups of students equally. Perceptions about ability and potential can be influenced by normalized biases against students who are Black, First Nations Métis, Inuit, learning English, living with other disabilities or living in poverty.

The inquiry found that schools streamed students with reading difficulties by:

  • Modifying course expectations and setting up students to be streamed into applied or locally developed courses in high school
  • Recommending against students enrolling or continuing in French Immersion
  • Segregating students into special education classrooms that do not address reading skills.

Consistent with other reports,[464] responses from the OHRC survey suggest that students from lower income families are more likely to be streamed. Lower-income respondents and respondents with lower levels of education mentioned streaming at a higher rate than other survey respondents.[465]

A significant number of students/parents from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board reported that students were streamed out of French Immersion. Parents consistently reported that they were discouraged from choosing or continuing French Immersion for their children because of their reading difficulties. Some were told that there would be no accommodations or support if the student enrolled or continued in French Immersion.

This meant that students had to switch schools, because many schools in Ottawa-Carleton are exclusively French or English. The switch changed their academic pathways and uprooted them from their friend network. Parents reported that this increased their children’s school avoidance tendencies and mental health difficulties, and created a feeling of displacement.

Parents also reported that they observed a much higher proportion of children with learning and behavioural needs, newcomers, children from low-income households and boys in the English versus French stream. One parent reported that “boys who struggled were encouraged to leave in large numbers.” She felt that had her son been a girl, there would have been more of an attempt to accommodate within French Immersion.

Parents talked about the disadvantage for their children with reading difficulties of not learning French in Ottawa, where French is a requirement for many jobs. Parents also said that there is a “two-tiered system” in Ottawa-Carleton schools, and students who are unable to learn French are relegated to a “lower tier.”

This lived experience is consistent with reports that have found that students at English-only schools tend to come from lower-income areas than students in schools that offer French Immersion.[466]

Negative assumptions about aptitude affect the education of students with reading disabilities and other disabilities. Some parents of students with reading and other disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, reported that their child’s placement in segregated classrooms or streaming into locally developed courses was not based on actual ability. One parent noted that students who do not use speech are presumed to be unable to use text in most schools and are not provided with reading supports.

ARCH Disability Law Centre’s submission to the inquiry reported similar themes that “attitudinal barriers and low expectations” affect the way students with disabilities are taught in the classroom and classroom placement decisions. Through targeted interviews, ARCH learned that children in segregated or special education classes are not receiving meaningful instruction or being taught to read. ARCH also found that expectations of student achievement are often based on assumptions and stereotypes about students with disabilities.

Disproportionate numbers of racialized students are in segregated or special education classes.[467] Some educator survey respondents reported seeing a higher proportion of Black students being streamed into behavioural classes[468] versus programs for students with learning disabilities or for gifted students. One educator expressed concern that these students, who may have a reading disability, were not receiving necessary interventions because of structural and individual biases.

Some survey respondents reported that their children were placed in the TDSB’s Home School Program (HSP). The HSP offers support from a special education teacher in the student’s home school and focuses on Language and Mathematics. Students spend half of their day in the program and the other half in an integrated classroom.[469]

One study showed that students who were racialized (particularly Black students), living in low-income areas and whose parents did not have post-secondary education were over-represented in the HSP.[470]

Other consultations with Black communities in the Greater Toronto Area have also reported concerns about streaming Black students into special education programs.[471]

Educator and parent respondents from Toronto and Brampton wondered whether segregated special education classes are serving as “de facto ghettos for racialized and Indigenous children within individual schools, particularly those located in wealthier districts:”

My personal observation is that during the 2.5 years that [my child] spent in the segregated HSP class, there was a disproportionately high number of racialized (non-White), low-income, ESL students in this segregated program. [My child] was one among many children with different needs that were mixed together.

Survey respondents gave mixed reviews about the success of the HSP. Some felt the program made a positive impact because the school provided an intervention program or assistive technology. One student noted that he liked the program because in the regular classroom he was made “to feel stupid.” Others reported few gains and said it contributed to them “feeling left out.” One parent of a racialized student felt the decision to place his child into the program was done early and hastily without exploring other options.

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Lifelong consequences

Students with learning disabilities are less likely to graduate from high school.[472] The ability to read and graduate from high school are important factors in securing a job. Low levels of literacy skills are correlated with higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes.[473]

Parents of students in elementary or secondary school expressed concern about whether their children would graduate, or if they did graduate whether they would have functional reading skills to ensure successful employment. The inquiry also heard from students and parents of students who did not graduate from high school. Respondents consistently cited mental health issues as the reason for dropping out, and talked about the difficulty in getting basic jobs due to low reading levels.

There were success stories of students who overcame barriers, graduated from high school, applied to college and university, graduated with diplomas, bachelor, masters and PhD degrees. Students reported studying or working in different fields, such as engineering, teaching, social work, communications, music, art, film, law, commerce, public policy, banking, political science, industrial design, academics, chemistry, human resources and real estate. Some students’ career or education choices were influenced by the desire to help students who struggled like they did, or to pursue studies that complemented their creative skills or ability to “think outside of the box.”

However, these positive accounts also included challenges. Success often came at a high financial cost and toll on families. One family reported spending roughly $40,000 so their son could graduate high school and be able to choose his educational path. This included the cost of assessments, private tutoring and programs until Grade 12. Another parent reported: “We're university educated with financial resources and we just barely got him through the public system.”

Students said that effective interventions played a critical role in their ability to graduate from high school. One student reported how an effective intervention program received at a demonstration school was the key to “saving her life,” “eliminating the welfare pathway” and put her in a position to apply to university.

Some students with reading disabilities who graduated from high school attributed their success to factors outside the school system:

I have succeeded so far in spite of the “education” I received not because of it. It is because of my excellent family and friends that I have found success in university and at the end of high school…Had my parents not stepped in to help me, and fight the school on every issue, the school system as it is set up now would have failed me as it has with so many of my peers in a similar situation.

Past students also talked about how their successful experience was unique and that they were the “lucky ones” in making it to university:

It saddens me to hear that these issues are still on going in schools. It has been nearly 10 years since I have left elementary school but most of the struggles I went through are still persisting…I made it to university but most others don't. I knew others with the same disability from elementary/high school and out of all them I was the only one to pursue higher education (one did not even graduate high school). Their future quality of life is highly likely to suffer because of this.

Some students emphasized the lifelong consequences of learning struggles in their school years. When one person with dyslexia found out his daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia, he said it “ripped [his] heart out” because he feared she would go through the same experiences. He talked about his alcohol dependency and other struggles that stemmed from his experience in elementary school:

My sense of worthlessness has followed me into adulthood. My self-esteem is so low. I have difficulties relating to people and making friends because I always think that people are judging me. I have gone through series of depressions in my life because of how I was treated in school related to my reading difficulties. The majority of the other kids that were taken out of class with me into “special ed” have turned to substance abuse, been killed because of incidents while intoxicated, [died by] suicide or ended up in jail. I really thought we were a cursed group and in a way we were. As each year goes by and I hear of another death of one of these friends I was waiting for something to happen to me. But I realize now that I am the lucky one. I have been given a chance to speak out on their behalf and that's what I'm doing now.

Other former students talked about the mental health struggles that still follow them in their adult lives, such as a “lifelong sense of inferiority.” One tenured professor, who has published many papers and books, talked about moments that he still finds himself thinking “I am stupid.”

The inquiry also heard about historical accounts of physical and emotional abuse relating to reading disabilities, from students who have long since left the system:

It was 76 years ago and I remember as if it was this morning. I was in Grade 3 and was strapped for not being able to read. I failed Grade 3. Dropped out of high school at Grade 11. People who are not dyslexic will never know what a dyslexic student goes through. The way we treat these children, even today, is a living tragedy.

Another student shared his story of trauma:

I have PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] from the effect of the nuns making me stand, while waiting for me to read a children's version of the Bible, for a period of, what seemed to be five minutes, in complete silence. This occurred weekly for three years…My mother was constantly worried about my inability to read. This caused her a great deal of distress. My parents had both gone to university. They both were so worried and this caused stress in their marriage. Each thought the other should have the answer.

Although, these accounts are historical, the inquiry found that experiences within the current school system are similar. Students reported being made to feel stupid and humiliated. One respondent said:

One of the…teachers made my daughter write her last name…before she could go to the washroom. At the time, I couldn’t understand why my five-year-old was peeing in her pants every day. She was holding her pee so much, she stopped drinking, developed a urinary tract infection and was severely constipated. As a five-year-old, she didn’t know to inform us of this abusive “requirement” that was happening at school.

It is apparent that the current public education system is failing students with reading difficulties. These students are being subjected to biases and adverse treatment and their educational needs are neglected, resulting in detrimental effects on their mental health and life outcomes. Children are not alone in suffering these consequences. Families are bearing the financial, employment, social and emotional costs.

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Impact on families

Family members of students with reading difficulties are exhausted. Unmet educational needs for students in the schools negatively affects parents’ resources, relationships and mental health.

Half of parents (51%) felt that their need to be involved in their child’s education placed an unreasonable burden on the family.

 

Financial impact

The inquiry found that parents who could afford to do so spent a significant amount on their children’s education. Parents paid for psychoeducational assessments, tutoring, reading interventions outside of the school, technology, private schools and mental health counselling.

More than half (56%) of the families reported having a psychoeducational assessment completed outside of the school. Of these families, 63% paid for all or part of the cost.[474] The average cost of a psychoeducational assessment was almost $3,000, and on average parents paid around $1,800 of this cost.[475]

Most parents (89%) who accessed private services such as programs or tutoring paid for these services.[476] The median cost was $3,500 per year and the average was around $5,000.

Some families put their children in private schools or specialized schools for students with dyslexia. This school change was due to lack of progress in learning to read and/or bullying in their home school, and the negative effects on their child’s mental health. This cost families personal sacrifices and thousands of dollars each year.

Families able to pay for psychoeducational assessments, private programs, tutoring and private school do so at great financial cost. They reported having to:

  • Take unpaid time off work
  • Work longer hours
  • Quit their jobs
  • Give up their business
  • Withdraw funds from retirement and education savings
  • Get a second mortgage
  • Sell their house
  • Skip rent payments
  • Borrow money from family members or a bank.

Some parents reported that spending money on services to help their children learn to read meant limiting extra-curricular activities, which added to their child’s sense of social isolation.

Families who could afford such services made financial sacrifices for their children as it was “the most important thing” to set their children up for future success, or because they felt that their child’s mental health challenges were so severe, it was a necessary life-saving measure. These parents felt alone and unsupported in “subsidizing what should be part of a child’s education.”

There were differences in the financial impact on families and in their ability to pay for services. Families with more than one child with a disability experienced additional financial and personal stress. While all families talked about some sort of sacrifice, the degree and level of hardship varied. For some, it meant delaying retirement, while for others it meant worrying about current basic needs like food and shelter. One parent reported having to choose between private education services or mental health supports because she could not afford both.

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Income disparities

There were significant differences in access to private services based on family income. Low-income respondents were less likely to report receiving services for reading difficulties, such as interventions and private tutoring, outside of school. Respondents with a total income of $150,000 or more before taxes (2018) received private services at a higher rate (88%) than families earning less than $25,000 (52%) or families earning $25,000 to $35,000 (54%). However, even families with fewer financial resources felt the need to find ways to supplement their child’s public school education.

 

Table 13: Access to private services for reading difficulties and income level

Income level (2018 and before tax)

Private services for reading difficulties

Parent paid for these services

Less than $25,000

52%

65%

$25,000 to $35,000

54%

35%

$35,000 to $50,000

53%

73%

$50,000 to $75,000

71%

86%

$75,000 to $100,000

73%

89%

$100,000 to 150,000

79%

88%

More than $150,000

88%

93%

Many families (33%) with a total income that exceeded $150,000 before taxes acknowledged that their privileged position positively affected their child’s education. One parent said:

As much as it has been frustrating at times, we have had an easier time than many…I believe that this is because our education levels and income made it relatively easy for us to navigate the system, quickly decide on a course of action, and pay privately for an assessment. We were also quick to decide on private tutoring because we knew that we would be able to afford it, and that it would be more effective than anything the school could provide.

Parents also reported feeling that being White or presenting as White positively affected their child’s education experience.

Survey data showed troubling trends in access to psychoeducational assessments and income levels:

  • More high-income families are accessing private assessments
  • More low-income families need to advocate for school assessments to receive them
  • More low-income families are on waiting lists for psychoeducational assessments
  • More low-income families asked the school for an assessment but did not receive one.

 

Table 14: Access to psychoeducational assessments and income level

Income level (2018 and before tax)

School assessment

School assessment (but had to ask school)

On the school waiting list

Asked school for assessment but did not receive one

Private assessment

Less than $25,000

9%

19%

0%

22%

22%

$25,000 to $35,000

31%

19%

8%

19%

19%

$35,000 to $50,000

11%

18%

7%

19%

28%

$50,000 to $75,000

16%

16%

3%

10%

43%

$75,000 to $100,000

13%

13%

3%

11%

51%

$100,000 to 150,000

10%

9%

2%

8%

62%

More than $150,000

10%

5%

1%

7%

68%

Low-income respondents waited longer for a psychoeducational assessments. The average wait time for families with an income of less than $25,000 per year was 20.5 months, while the average for families with an income of more than $150,000 per year was 11.5 months. The lack of access to these assessments for lower-income families is highly problematic – particularly if assessments help access reading interventions or other supports. Many respondents (42%) reported that a psychoeducational assessment was required for students to gain access to a school reading intervention program.

Access to effective reading interventions in the private sector, provided by adequately trained instructors, is also costly. One parent receiving social assistance explained how the cycle of poverty continues because families with low incomes do not get the help they need. While she researched reading disabilities extensively and determined the best supports for her son, she also knew that most of these supports were “unavailable if you are low-income.” Overwhelmingly, parents who could not afford necessary supports reported feeling a considerable amount of guilt.

Vulnerable groups protected by human rights legislation are more likely to experience low social and economic status or conditions.[477] One parent explained the additional barriers he faced due to his low-income status as well as other intersecting identities:

I was a low-income, racialized parent in a generally White wealthy school…district and my concerns and verbal requests for testing…were never taken seriously. In retrospect, I also believe that I was at a disadvantage regarding what I suspect are [the school’s] expectations for children who are struggling readers: that the families in this district can afford private testing, expensive tutors, and private school tuition. This was a suggestion that teachers and administrators made to me again and again. They made me feel badly that I could not afford a tutor, as if it was my responsibility to teach [my child] to read, not theirs.

Other survey respondents echoed this sentiment. They felt their school treated them differently because of their lower incomes, and were told to “pick [themselves] up from [their] bootstraps.” One parent noted: “With the current school system, I don't see how any child from a poor family, from a non-university educated family, from a single-parent family could possibly succeed.”

Some parents reported that the school only put accommodations or interventions in place after they hired a lawyer to advocate on their behalf. Other parents said they had to take time off work to make presentations to school boards, for their children to be admitted into special education programs.

Educator survey respondents also raised concerns about the disadvantage faced by children whose families do not have the time or money to dedicate to this type of advocacy. They noted that parents with the time and money to “exert pressure” or “fight for their child” receive interventions and supports. Many educators found that higher socio-economic status and parent involvement are highly correlated to a student’s likelihood of receiving services. One educator said:

Parents with more wealth will do things like get a private [psychoeducational assessment] done and will advocate for their child more to get things in place for an IEP or accommodations, or specialized programming. My students…who struggle making ends [meet], their outcomes are more negatively impacted by their [parents] having less access.

Educator respondents also reported differences between students who attend schools in affluent areas, where there is a greater access to fundraising pools to purchase technology and licenses for reading interventions. A People for Education study showed that elementary schools with low poverty rates raise twice the amount raised by schools with higher poverty rates. They noted:

This creates a double advantage for students in higher income schools – they come from families that can afford to pay for enrichment opportunities outside of school and they attend schools that fundraise as much as $150,000 per year to provide enrichment at school.[478]

Families from high-income households still overwhelmingly reported challenges and negative experiences with the school system, but acknowledged that they were in a better position due to private access to support services and technology. Some parents even recognized other privileges. One parent said:

We are White, upper-middle class, a teacher and a child of teachers/principals. We know how the system works. We worked it as fast as possible and can afford the required supports outside of the school. It still took 2.5 years of active supports before we started to see progress. This should have started in Kindergarten.

One high-income family reported having to sell their house to afford sending their daughter to private school. Although the student was two years behind and all her subjects were modified, the school told the family that she was “not exceptional enough” to receive any reading intervention.

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Mental health effects

The financial burden alone of paying for necessary supports not provided by the school can have negative mental health consequences for families. This burden was disproportionately shouldered by mothers. Some parents put their careers on hold, cut down to part-time work or quit their jobs to home-school their children, provide extra tutoring support or drive their child to appointments. Many parents described the support they provided (researching reading disabilities and instruction, and acting as tutor and advocate) as equivalent to a “full-time job.” Although, parents reported being willing to do what was necessary, they also commented that this interfered with their sense of well-being, professional fulfillment and financial resources.

Parents reported additional stressors such as navigating unfamiliar systems, lacking expertise and feeling guilty for not acting sooner. These stressors can have a negative effect on a person’s mental health. One parent reported that the feeling of failure in students is also mirrored in parents: “As much as students feel like they are the failures, parents do too – that they didn’t recognize the signs.”

As parents learn about the critical role of effective early interventions, feelings associated with not acting sooner build. Many parents reported feelings of guilt: wondering if they had “passed on” their own reading disability to their children, worrying the critical window for intervention was missed, wishing they had pushed the school more to provide supports, not knowing what to do, not being able to afford to pay for private services, and a general sense of thinking they were not doing enough.

Parents often reported how heartbreaking it was to see their children in pain. The experience is not only traumatic for students with reading disabilities, but also for their parents.[479] Some parents reported experiencing severe and prolonged depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and other serious mental health concerns. One parent reported:

It is starting to have an impact on my health. I do not sleep well and have now started to grind my teeth…I am doing self-care…but there is never enough time. All of my spare time is spent researching how to help him and educating the educators. It is exhausting.

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Stress of navigating the school system

Families whose first language is not English face even more barriers in advocating for their children. These parents reported that schools did not inform them about available supports such as interventions. One newcomer parent talked about the additional challenges of navigating an unfamiliar school system:

I migrated to Canada as a refugee…fleeing a brutal civil war…I am grateful that my son lives in a country where he is guaranteed an education and where he has the right to achieve his full potential, something that I was denied myself as a child. At the same time, my lack of experience with a formal education system made the process of understanding the [school board’s] bureaucracy, the institutional responses to [my child’s] learning disability, and the need to advocate for [my child’s] educational rights extremely stressful, perplexing, and frustrating. While I was in [Ontario city name], I often felt so despairing in the face [of] a system that is completely impenetrable and unresponsive. It is difficult to express just how exhausting it was to struggle for [my child’s] basic rights to education with no progress.

He also explained why figuring out the school process was harder because of a foreign cultural context:

There were basic communication problems with [the school] that were based on cultural differences. I come from a culture where the most important issues are discussed orally, face-to-face, as a sign of respect, and this is how I handled the first two years of requests about [my child’s] education needs and testing. I see now how this approach was at odds with the culture in which I now live, where the most important issues are communicated in writing and produce a paper trail that holds administrators and teachers accountable and, therefore, motivates them to action. I believe this communicative dissonance and failure to take my concerns seriously contributed to the delays in testing and an inappropriate placement.

A study of the achievement gap for Afghan boys in Toronto also speaks about these challenges for newcomer and refugee parents. In that study, many parents felt frustrated about their communication with schools, most often citing the lack of interpreters or lack of materials in their home languages as significant barriers.[480]

One parent of adopted children talked about the unique needs of children who experience developmental trauma and grief stemming from the loss of their family.

The inquiry also heard from the Thunder Bay Children’s Aid Society (CAS) about the unique challenges of children in care. These children were still living with their biological families (not in foster care), but their families were receiving services from CAS. The CAS reported that parental struggles like mental health and addiction, poverty and partner violence are among the reasons why the CAS becomes involved. These children faced barriers to learning such as early childhood adversity, including the impacts of intergenerational trauma and poverty. A representative said:

Frequently the families that we work with aren’t aware of the programs, services and assessments the school can offer…Often the families we service feel powerless in these types of meetings due to the adversities they themselves have experienced.

Families with low incomes and/or single-parent families may also have less time to be involved in their child’s education, because they may have less flexibility in their work and are struggling to provide basic necessities for their child. Sometimes they may not be able to attend school meetings to discuss their child’s needs.

Many single-parent families, overwhelmingly mothers, reported additional challenges. These included being taken less seriously by the school. Many single mothers reported feeling dismissed by the school because they did not have a male partner. One respondent asked: “Would they be as dismissive and bully me if I had a husband with me?” Another respondent said she “was generally bulldozed until I brought a man or professional advocate with me to meetings.”

One single mother with a learning disability dropped out of high school but eventually completed a Master’s degree. She talked about how her struggle gave her strength, knowledge and understanding of the challenges ahead. She felt that these qualities gave her the ability to advocate and support her daughter. Many parents do not have the experiences or know-how to be effective advocates in a complex and sometimes unwelcoming education system.

Even when parents had financial flexibility, were well-educated, lived in large urban centres and worked in professions that gave them “insider” knowledge (such as teachers, speech-language pathologists, advocates), they still reported that they struggled to navigate the system and felt overwhelmed. Many parents who were also teachers reported not knowing how to teach students with reading difficulties until they had a child with a reading disability. Their reports provide telling insight into the lack of knowledge of effective reading instruction and interventions in the public school system.

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Rural families

Families that lived in more rural and remote areas also reported extra challenges in accessing supports. If supports were available, they came at an increased financial cost and increased travelling time, which was sometimes prohibitive. Many families talked about the lack of evidence-based programs, tutoring or supports even outside the school system, in smaller or more remote cities. For some families, particularly in Northern Ontario, services were a two-hour drive away or only accessible by flight. The inquiry also heard that some parents had to go out of Ontario or out of Canada to access psychoeducational assessments, programs or tutoring.

Many educator respondents commented on the disparity in services in rural compared to urban schools. One educator noted that “rural/small schools can be particularly impacted by strained resources, limited personnel and the impact of poverty and deprivation.”

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Franco-Ontarian families

Franco-Ontarians faced additional barriers in trying to access supports in French both inside and outside of school. Many noted that the combination of being Francophone and living in rural areas prevented them from accessing many supports. However, even families living in cities reported having to leave the city to access assessments, programs and tutoring in French. One parent explained the impact of the lack of supports in French for students with reading difficulties:

En Ontario, nous avons le droit à l'enseignement en français par contre lors de trouble d'apprentissage, il y a très peu de ressources ou programmes disponibles pour le personnel enseignants et les élèves. C'est en partie pour cette raison que nous avons retiré notre enfant du système scolaire francophone.

[In Ontario, we have the right to be taught in French. However, there are very few resources or programs available for teachers and students with learning disabilities. This is part of the reason why we removed our child from the French school system.]

Francophone rights-holders have a constitutional right to education services that are substantively equivalent to those of the English-language majority.[481] If interventions are not available in French, this raises concerns about fulfilling the purpose of this Charter right – to protect against assimilation.[482]

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Family relationships

Family dynamics are affected by students’ experiences of learning struggles, failing to learn how to read, and navigating what feels like an unsupportive school system. Parents talked about strained parent-child, parent-sibling and parent-parent relationships.

The day-to-day experience of parents supporting their children with reading difficulties can be very stressful. Parents reported spending a lot of time trying to get their children out of bed in the morning, which was particularly challenging when their child was dealing with school avoidance and mental health issues.

Evenings were equally stressful. Students and parents felt exhausted after stressful school and workdays. Many parents reported that homework took most of the evening and resulted in “tears,” “outbursts,” “exasperation” and “frustration” from both children and parents.

Some parents tutored their children because they could not afford to pay for a private program, or because they lived in a more rural area. Parents felt they had to assume the tutor or teacher role rather than just being allowed to focus on being a parent, and there was little time or energy left for down time. Parents reported that these experiences had a significant negative impact on the parent-child relationship. One parent said she felt like she spent more time tutoring her children than playing with them. Another parent said:

That’s a huge struggle because I want to spend my nights with him, enjoying him, but he fights me every night to read and do the program that I feel is best for him. So I don’t get to have those joyous nights as often because I’m constantly in a battle and it’s hard.

Sometimes parents made the difficult decision to separate the family so the student could receive the support they were not receiving at their school. This meant either sending the student to a year-long residential school program, a summer course elsewhere in the province, or enrolling the student in a school abroad (U.S. and U.K.). Parents felt that this helped academic progress and mental health but negatively affected family relationships.

Parents reported negative impacts on siblings and used words such as “animosity,” “friction,” “tension” and “jealousy” to describe the relationship between siblings and the affected child. Parents often felt guilty because they put the needs of other siblings “on hold” to invest time, money and energy supporting and advocating for their child with a reading difficulty. Parents took extra time to provide one-on-one homework help, research the science of reading, drive their child for reading interventions outside of school and to counselling appointments, and attend meetings at the school. Parents reported not having enough time or money to spend on other siblings’ academic studies, well-being, extra-curricular activities or sports, or on celebrating achievements.

Parents also reported the strain on their marriages or relationships with their partners. Some parents separated from or divorced their partners because of the stresses related to their child’s reading difficulty. Other parents reported that their marriages suffered because of arguments over decisions about how to best support their children. One parent reported:

As a family, my older son gets only a fraction of the attention [my other child] gets as I am now responsible for teaching my child to read and write…My marriage is crumbling. My career has been put on hold. This has been devastating to put it simply. I don't care about the loss of wages, the trips we can't take, the things we can't buy – all I want is my child to have the same opportunities as others and the possibility of a bright future.

Students and parents are losing faith in the current education system. They feel overwhelmed and unsupported. Students and parents often used the word “struggle” to describe school experiences. Although the impact of failing to teach students to read affects society, students and parents feel they carry the burden of addressing the issue. However, as one survey respondent stated, “No child should be left alone to carry their burden of shame. This is a burden for all of us to share.”

The recommendations in the following sections will help all students learn to read, and will help to reduce the negative consequences experienced by students, their families and society.

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[413] Robert S Brown et al, “Redefining Risk: Human Rights and Elementary School Factors Predicting Post-Secondary Access” (2020) 28:21 Education Policy Analysis Archives, online: Education Policy Analysis Archives epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/4200/2382; Ross Finnie & Richard E Mueller, “The Effects of Family Income, Parental Education and Other Factors on Access to Post-Secondary Education in Canada: Evidence from the YITS” (July 2008) MESA Project Research Paper, online (pdf): York University yorku.ca/pathways/literature/Access/MESA_Finnie_Mueller.pdf; Richard E Mueller, “Access and Persistence of Students from Low-Income Backgrounds in Canadian Post-Secondary Education: A Review of the Literature” (May 2008) MESA Project Research Paper, online (pdf): University of Lethbridge http://scholar.ulethbridge.ca/sites/default/files/mueller/files/mesa.may_.2008.pdf?m=1458144695; R S Brown & G Tam, “Grade 9 cohort post-secondary pathways, 2011–2016” Fact Sheet 3 (Toronto: Toronto District School Board, November 2017), online (pdf): Toronto District School Board tdsb.on.ca/Portals/research/docs/reports/FS3%20Grade%209%20Cohort%20Post-Sec%20Pathways%202011-16%20FINAL.pdf; L Musu-Gillette et al, Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic groups 2017 (NCES 2017-051) (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education NCES, 2017), online (pdf): National Center for Education Statistics nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017051.pdf;

Alan Ginsburg et al, Absences add up: How school attendance influences student success (August 2014), online (pdf): Attendance Works attendanceworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Absenses-Add-Up_September-3rd-2014.pdf; Michael A Gottfried, “Evaluating the relationship between student attendance and achievement in urban elementary and middle schools: An instrumental variables approach” (2010) 47:2 American Edu Research J 434, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831209350494;

Christopher A Kearney, “School absenteeism and school refusal behavior in youth: A contemporary review” (2008) 28 Clin Psychol Rev 451, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2007.07.012; Joyce L Epstein & Steven B Sheldon, “Present and accounted for: Improving student attendance through family and community involvement” (2002) 95:5 J of Edu Research 308, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00220670209596604; Beyond Suspensions: Examining School Discipline Policies and Connections to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students of Color with Disabilities (July 2019) Briefing Before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, online (pdf): US Commission on Civil Rights usccr.gov/pubs/2019/07-23-Beyond-Suspensions.pdf.

[414] Sally Shaywitz & Jonathan Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia, 2nd ed (New York: Vintage Books, 2020) at 86 [Shaywitz & Shaywitz, Overcoming Dyslexia]; see also: Developmental Perspective on Testing for Dyslexia: Field Hearing of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (13 October 2015) United States Senate Hearing 114-692, online: GovInfo govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-114shrg97273/html/CHRG-114shrg97273.htm.

[415] Students who are learning English at the same time as they are learning the curriculum and developing a full range of literacy skills. See Ontario Ministry of Education, English Language Learners ESL and ELD Programs and Services: Policies and Procedures for Ontario Elementary and Secondary Schools, Kindergarten to Grade 12 (2007) at 7, online (pdf): Ontario Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/esleldprograms/esleldprograms.pdf [Ontario Ministry of Education, English Language Learners ESL and ELD Programs and Services].

[416] For example, children from low-income households often start school already behind their peers: H Ferguson et al, “The Impact of Poverty on Educational Outcomes for Children” (2007) 12:8 Paediatrics & Child Health 701, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/12.8.701.

[417] Percentages are rounded to the nearest whole per cent. If the decimal portion was less than 0.5, we rounded down; if it was greater than 0.5, we rounded up. If the decimal portion was exactly 0.5, we rounded up if the place value to the left of the decimal was an odd number and down if it was an even number. Because gender categories that were not “boy/man” or “girl/woman” fell below 0.5%, we kept the value left of the decimal. Also, when comparing our inquiry data to Statistics Canada demographic information, we mirrored the number of decimal points provided by Statistics Canada for ease of comparison. Percentages, which are calculated on rounded data, may not necessarily add up to 100%.

[418] This category included self-report of a reading disability.

[419] Respondents reported co-existing disabilities such as ADHD, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ASD, intellectual disabilities, blindness, low vision, deaf, hard of hearing, language disabilities, developmental disabilities, physical disabilities and mental health disabilities.

[420] Countries reported were Australia, Bermuda, Brazil, China, England, Ethiopia, Germany, Haiti, Honduras, Ireland, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States.

[421] Other languages were: Arabic, ASL, Creole, Croatian, Farsi, German, Greek, Haka, Italian, Lebanese, Mandarin, Ojibway, Patois, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Tagalog, Telugu.

[422] Respondents could choose all that apply. The race-based categories were modelled based on Data Standards for the Identification and Monitoring of Systemic Racism, OIC 897/2018, online: Government of Ontario ontario.ca/page/anti-racism-data-standards-order-council-8972018.

[423] Many respondents who self-identified as “other” also self-identified as “mixed race.” Respondents answered: “Eastern Europe,” “White and Latina,” “Mixed race: Caucasian and Indian,” “Mixed race: White and North African,” “Why is this important to this survey,” “Mixed white and Indian,” “Canadian,” “Mixed: Japanese Canadian/Caucasian,” “Mixed Latino and Asian,” “French Canadian,” “Mix Background: Latino and White,” “Jewish,” “Mixed: White/East Asian,” “Jewish, Irish and Cree descent,” “Mixed ethnicity,” Mixed”, “Biracial: White and South Asian,” “Macedonian,” “Canadian/Central America,” “Mixed: Black/White,” “Lebanese/White European,” “White/Middle Eastern,” “West Indian/Mexican.”

[424] The total exceeds 100% because respondents could select more than one race category. When comparing the inquiry data to Statistics Canada demographic information, we mirrored the number of decimal points provided by Statistics Canada for ease of comparison.

[425] Ontario [Province] and Ontario [Province] (table), Census Profile. 2016 Census, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-316-X2016001 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 29 November 2017), online: Statistics Canada www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=PR&Code1=35&Geo2=PR&Code2=35&SearchText=Toronto&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=Visible%20minority&TABID=1&type=1 [Statistics Canada, Census Profile 2016].

[426] Statistics Canada has separate categories for Arab and West Asian while the ATRD combines these categories into Middle Eastern – the breakdown according to Statistics Canada would be: West Asian: 1.2% and Arab 1.6%.

[427] Combining Statistics Canada figures for Chinese (5.7%), Korean (0.7%), Japanese (0.2%)

[428] Combining Statistics Canada figures for Filipino (2.4%) and Southeast Asian.

[429] Statistics Canada reports that there are 3,860 Inuit in Ontario but rounds down percentages and therefore reports the percentage as 0%.

[430] Many respondents who self-identified as “other” also self-identified as “mixed race.” Respondents answered: “Bi-racial (Black and Caucasian),” “White with First Nations in family,” “White Jewish,” “Canadian,” “Mixed (Japanese Canadian and Caucasian),” “Jewish/White European,” “Franco Ontarienne,” “Mixed ethnicity,” “Mixed (Japanese Canadian and British),” “Macedonian,” “Mixed southeast Asian and European,” “West Indian/Mexican.”

[431] Statistics Canada, “Table 11-10-0190-01 Market income, government transfers, total income, income tax and after-tax income by economic family type” (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 23 March 2021), DOI: https://doi.org/10.25318/1110019001-eng.

[432] Statistics Canada, Ontario [Province] and Ontario [Province] (table), Census Profile, 2016 Census, Catalogue No 98-316-X2016001 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 29 November 2017), online: Statistics Canada www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=PR&Code1=35&Geo2=PR&Code2=35&SearchText=Toronto&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=Education&TABID=1&type=1.

[433] Ontario statistics are derived from the Statistics Canada category: “no certificate, diploma or degree,” see Statistics Canada, Census Profile 2016, supra note 425.

[434] Respondents who answered others provided various notes in the textbox; sometimes they listed multiple degrees or a specific Bachelor or Master’s degree. Others explained that they were currently enrolled in a post-secondary institution, or they had started but not completed a degree or diploma.

[435] Myoungock Jang & Allison Vorderstresse, “Socioeconomic Status and Racial or Ethnic Differences in Participation: Web-Based Survey” (2019) 8:4 JMIR Res Protoc DOI: https://doi.org/10.2196/11865;

David R Williams & Michelle Sternthal, “Understanding Racial/ethnic Disparities in Health: Sociological Contributions” (2010) 51:1 J Health Soc Behav s15 at 15–16, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383838;

Helen Sheldon et al., “Increasing Response Rates Amongst Black and Minority Ethnic and Seldom Heard Groups” (Oxford: Picker Institute Europe, 2007), online (pdf): Research Gate researchgate.net/publication/255650786_Increasing_response_rates_amongst_black_and_minority_ethnic_and_seldom_heard_groups.

[436] Under Suspicion: Research and consultation report on racial profiling in Ontario (2017), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/under-suspicion-research-and-consultation-report-racial-profiling-ontario; Rates of poverty are much higher for people with disabilities (23.5%), First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples (23.7%), Black persons (24.1%), female-led families (29.8%), immigrants arriving between 2011 and 2016 (35.6%), and Arab persons (40.6%); see: Catherine Wall (Statistics Canada), Low income among persons with a disability in Canada, Catalogue No 75-006-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 11 August 2017), online (pdf): Statistics Canada www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/75-006-x/2017001/article/54854-eng.pdf?st=0-FzFFz0; Statistics Canada, Data Tables, 2016 Census, Catalogue Nos 98-400-X2016124, 98-400-X2016173, 98-400-X2016211, 98-400-X2016206 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2018), online: Statistics Canada statcan.gc.ca/en/start; René Houle (Statistics Canada), Changes in the socioeconomic situation of Canada’s Black population, 2001 to 2016, Catalogue No 89-657-X2020001 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2020), online: Statistics Canada www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-657-x/89-657-x2020001-eng.htm; Martin Turcotte (Statistics Canada), Results from the 2016 Census: Education and labour market integration of Black youth in Canada, Catalogue No 75-006-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2020), online: Statistics Canada www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2020001/article/00002-eng.htm.

[437] Web-based surveys are not always an effective way to hear from certain communities. We did not hear from segments of the population. People with low literacy and people who may have difficulty accessing the Internet, such as people with low incomes, people in jail or prison and homeless youth, are not as well represented among the respondents. The survey was only available in English and French, which affected the number of respondents who are newcomers to Canada and/or speak languages other than English or French.

[438] Neil Alexander-Passe, “How dyslexic teenagers cope: an investigation of self-esteem, coping and depression” (2006) 12:4 Dyslexia 256 at 256, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/dys.318 [Alexander-Passe, “How dyslexic teenagers cope”].

[439] Heikki Lyytinen et al, “Early identification and prevention of dyslexia: results from a prospective follow-up study of children at familial risk for dyslexia” in Gavin Reid et al, eds, The Sage Handbook of Dyslexia (London: SAGE, 2008) at 124, DOI: https://doi.org/10.4135/9780857020987.n6.

[440] Alexander-Passe, “How dyslexic teenagers cope,” supra note 438.

[441] Ibid. [Alexander-Passe, “How dyslexic teenagers cope,” supra note 438]

[442] Neil Alexander-Passe, The successful dyslexic: identify the keys to unlock your potential (Netherlands: SensePublishers, 2017) at xvii, 14.

[443] Gavin Reid & Iva Strnadova, “Dyslexia and learning styles: Overcoming the barriers to learning” in Gavin Reid et al., eds, The Sage Handbook of Dyslexia (London: SAGE, 2008) at 372.

[444] Integra, “A Handbook on Learning Disabilities,” supra note 94 at 23.

[445] Chromebooks are often provided to students as an accommodation.

[446] See for more information about different types of anxiety disorders: “What are Anxiety Disorders?” (June 2021), online: American Psychiatric Association psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders.

[447] Mark Boyes et al, “Why Are Reading Difficulties Associated with Mental Health Problems?” (2016) 22:3 Dyslexia 263, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/dys.1531.

[448] Mental health concerns like anxiety and depression are leading drivers of the increase in suicidal ideation, emergency room visits and hospitalization, and are a component of increasing health-care costs. Data from the Institute of Clinical Evaluative Science shows that emergency room visits and hospitalization for children and youth have dramatically increased from 2006 to 2014. Children in the 14 to 17 age group had the highest rate of hospitalizations, and anxiety disorders were the most common diagnoses for mental health and addiction-related emergency department visits; MHASEF Research Team, The Mental Health of Children and Youth in Ontario: 2017 Scorecard (Toronto: IC/ES, 2017) at 7, online: IC/ES ices.on.ca/Publications/Atlases-and-Reports/2017/MHASEF.

[449] Gillian Parekh et al, “Learning Skills, System Equity, and Implicit Bias Within Ontario, Canada” (2018) 35:2 Educational Policy, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0895904818813303.

[450] This is when using the discrepancy model of assessment: looking at the student’s observed cognitive abilities and their expected achievement, as measured by standardized psychological assessments. See: Esther Geva et al, “Assessing Reading in Second Language Learners: Development, Validity, and Educational Considerations” in Kilpatrick et al, eds, Reading Development and Difficulties: Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019) at 34, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-26550-2_6: “IQ tests often disadvantage ELL learners, both culturally and linguistically, and it may therefore be more difficult to establish reliable and valid IQ scores, and therefore to establish a discrepancy between IQ and achievement. In other words, the IQ-achievement discrepancy framework may be especially biased against L2 learners.” See also Else V Hamayan et al, “Reasons for the Misidentification of Special Needs among ELLs” (2007), online: LD Online ldonline.org/article/40715/; Connecticut Administrators of Programs for English Language Learners, English Language Learners and Special Education: A Resource Handbook (2011), online (pdf): Connecticut’s Official State Website: https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/SDE/English-Learners/CAPELL_SPED_resource_guide.pdf.

[451] Christie Fraser et al, “Recognizing English Language Learners with Reading Disabilities: Minimizing Bias, Accurate Identification, and Timely Intervention,” online: Perspectives on Language mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?i=229791&article_id=1840771&view=articleBrowser [Fraser et al, “Recognizing English Language Learners with Reading Disabilities”], citing to: M M Limbos & E Geva, “Accuracy of teacher assessments of second-language students at risk for reading disability” (2001) 34:2 J Learn Disabil 136, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/002221940103400204. [Limbos & Geva, “Accuracy of teacher assessments”].

[452] Jim Cummins, Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy (Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, 1984). See also: Vicki Adelson et al, Identification, Assessment, and Instruction of English Language Learners with Learning Difficulties in the Elementary and Intermediate Grades: A Guide for educators in Ontario school boards (March 2014) (Toronto: University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 2014), online: State Education Resource Centre ctserc.org/documents/resources/ELLs-with-special-needs.pdf [Adelson et al, Identification, Assessment and Instruction.”] And see Fraser et al, supra note 451.

[453] Limbos & Geva, “Accuracy of teacher assessments,” supra note 451, citing to Limbos & Geva, “Accuracy of teacher assessments,” supra note 451; E Geva, “Issues in the assessment of reading disabilities in L2 children – beliefs and research evidence” (2000) 6:1 Dyslexia 13, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0909(200001/03)6:1<13::AID-DYS155>3.0.CO;2-6 [Geva, “Issues in the assessment of reading disabilities in L2 children.”]

[454] Fraser et al, “Recognizing English Language Learners with Reading Disabilities,” supra note 457, citing to: Szu-Yin Chu & Sobeida Flores, “Assessment of English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities” (2011) 84:6 Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 244, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.2011.590550: “Both groups may demonstrate poor listening or reading comprehension, difficulty following directions, errors in grammar and syntax, difficulty in task completion, poor self-esteem, poor oral skills and low motivation.”

[455] E Geva & J Wiener, Psychological assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse children – a practitioner’s guide, (New York: Springer, 2015) [Geva & Wiener, Psychological assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse children.]

[456] Geva, “Issues in the assessment of reading disabilities in L2 children,” supra note 453.

[457] Geva & Wiener, Psychological assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse children, supra note 455.

[458] E Geva E & L Wade-Woolley, “Issues in the assessment of reading disability in second language children” in I Smythe et al, eds, International book of dyslexia: a cross-language comparison and practice guide (Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 2004) [Geva & Wade-Woolley, “Issues in the assessment of reading disability in second language children.”]

[459] The Ontario Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (ONBIDA) obtained and analyzed provincial EQAO data and submitted their analysis to the OHRC.

[460] The Ontario Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (ONBIDA) obtained and analyzed provincial EQAO data and submitted their analysis to the OHRC.

[461] Adelson et al, “Identification, Assessment, and Instruction,” supra note 452; Louisa Moats, Whole-Language High Jinks (Thomas B Fordham Institute, 2007), online (pdf): ERIC Institute of Education Sciences files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED498005.pdf [Moats, Whole-Language High Jinks]; Amedeo D’Angiulli et al, “Literacy Instruction, SES, and Word-Reading Achievement in English-Language Learners and Children with English as a First Language: A Longitudinal Study” (2004) 19:4 Learn Disabil Research and Practice 202, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5826.2004.00106.x.

[462] Kent McIntosh et al, “Response to Intervention in Canada: Definitions, the Evidence Base, and Future Directions” (2011) 26:1 Canadian J of School Psychol 18, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0829573511400857 [McIntosh].

[463] The Learning Partnership, “A Report on Engaging Boys for Success – Academic Success for Afghan Boys in the Thorncliffe Park Community: A Shared Responsibility” (2012) [The Learning Partnership, “A Report on Engaging Boys for Success”].

[464] James & Turner: Towards Race Equity in Education, supra note 389; Clandfield et al, “Restacking the Deck,” supra note 397; “Streaming Students,” excerpt from People for Education, 2015 Annual Report on Ontario’s Publicly Funded Schools (2015), (last visited 25 January 2022), online (pdf): People for Education peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/streaming-students-2015.pdf [People for Education, “Streaming Students”]; TDSB, “Director’s response to the Enhancing Equity Task Force Report,” supra note 389 at 10; Clandfield et al, “Restacking the Deck,” supra note 397 at 9.

[465] While 9% of survey respondents mentioned some form of streaming, the rate was higher among respondents earning less than $25,000 a year before taxes in 2018 and respondents whose highest level of education was a secondary school diploma.

[466] Miller, “Data reveal issues,” supra note 402; CBC News, “English-track students less privileged than immersion peers,” supra note 401.

[467] Brown & Parekh, The Intersection of Disability, Achievement, and Equity, supra note 324 at 31; J S De Valenzuela et al, “Examining Educational Equity: Revisiting the Disproportionate Representation of Minority Students in Special Education” (2006) 72:4 Exceptional Children 425; D Kim Reid & Michelle G Knight, “Disability Justifies Exclusion of Minority Students: A Critical History Grounded in Disability Studies” (2006) 35:6 Educational Researcher 18; Beth A Ferri & David J Connor, “Tools of Exclusion: Race, Disability, and (Re)segregated Education” (2005) 107:3 Teachers College Record 453.

[468] Behaviour classes are special education placements outside of the regular class setting for students typically identified with a behaviour exceptionality as defined by the Ministry of Education. A behavioural exceptionality is defined as a “learning disorder characterized by specific behaviour problems over such a period of time, and to such a marked degree, and of such a nature, as to adversely affect educational performance and that may be accompanied by one or more of the following: a. an inability to build or to maintain interpersonal relationships; b. excessive fears or anxieties; c. a tendency to compulsive reaction; d. an inability to learn that cannot be traced to intellectual, sensory, or other health factors, or any combination thereof.” See Special Education in Ontario Kindergarten to Grade 12: Policy and Resource Guide (2017) at A14, online: Ontario Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/policy/os/onschools_2017e.pdf.

[469] The HSP was introduced in the early 2000s for students in Grades 1–8. Beginning in 2017, the TDSB phased out primary placements and provided programming only to Grades 4–8. “Special Education and Section Programs, Appendix A” (last visited 26 January 2022), online: Toronto District School Board: tdsb.on.ca/Portals/0/Community/Community%20Advisory%20committees/SEAC/AppendixASuptDeptUpdate-HSPParentLetter-FINAL.docx.

[470] Gillian Parekh & Robert S. Brown, “Changing Lanes: The Relationship Between Special Education Placement and Students’ Academic Futures” (2019) 33:1 Educational Policy 111 at 126–128, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/089590481881277 Q2.

[471] James & Turner: Towards Race Equity in Education, supra note 389 at 45, online (pdf).

[472] Failing to achieve reading proficiency by the end of Grade 1 is associated with an increased risk of drop-out. Partanen & Siegel, “Long-term outcome of the early identification and intervention of reading disabilities,” supra note 65; see also Trzesniewski et al, supra note 80.

[473] Community Literacy of Ontario, “Literacy,” supra note 119; Heisz et al, supra note 121 at 1.

[474] Parents relied on private insurance to pay the rest of the cost.

[475] Parents relied on private insurance to pay the rest of the cost.

[476] As opposed to free tutoring or programs offered at no cost through the school.

[477] The connection between membership in a group identified under the Code and the likelihood of having a low income has been recognized by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and also the courts in several decisions. Therefore, measures that disadvantage people with low incomes are likely to disproportionately disadvantage members of Code-identified groups.

[478] “The fundraising advantage” (1 March 2018), online: People for Education https://peopleforeducation.ca/our-work/the-fundraising-advantage/.

[479] J Elliott & R Nicolson, Dyslexia: Developing the debate (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) cited in Delany, supra note 144 at 100. 

[480] The Learning Partnership, “A Report on Engaging Boys for Success,” supra note 463.

[481] Charter, s 23; Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie‑Britannique v British Columbia, 2020 SCC 13 at para 26.

[482] Doucet-Boudreau v Nova Scotia (Minister of Education), 2003 SCC 62 at paras 28–29.

7. First Nations, Métis and Inuit experiences

Introduction

As of 2018, Ontario estimated there are 64,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. in provincially funded schools across the province.[483] These students attending provincially funded schools[484] have the right to read under the Ontario Human Rights Code as well as education rights that flow from their inherent Indigenous rights, Treaties, the Canadian Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international law.[485] For example, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration) emphasizes that Canada (including the provinces) has a responsibility to make sure Indigenous children have the right to all levels and forms of State education without discrimination, and access, when possible, to an education in their own culture and in their own language (Article 21). Article 22 affirms that particular attention must be paid to the rights and special needs of Indigenous children and persons with disabilities.

The term Indigenous is also used to collectively describe First Nations, Métis and Inuit. However, using First Nations, Métis and Inuit better recognizes that there are distinct groups of Indigenous peoples in Ontario who have their own political organizations, urban agencies, economies, histories, cultures, languages, spiritual beliefs and territories. There are also distinctions within these groups (for example, there are many distinct First Nations communities in Ontario). Although a distinctions-based approach is better, sometimes this report uses “Indigenous” to identify experiences that may be held in common by First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. This is consistent with the approach used in other inquiries, such as the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.[486]

Legal decisions have affirmed that First Nations children are entitled to at least the same level of services as non-First Nations children, whether they live on- or off-reserve. Extra measures may be necessary and legally required to overcome the historic disadvantage and unique challenges First Nations, Métis and Inuit children face.[487]

Despite this, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students are behind other students when it comes to the right to read. Data shows that First Nations, Métis and Inuit persons are showing poorer literacy skills and educational achievement compared to other people. The inquiry gathered information on the unique and compounded forms of disadvantage that contribute to this achievement gap. Particular attention needs to be paid to the intersectional needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students with special needs to meet their substantive equality rights, treaty rights and their rights under international law.

The discussion below focuses on the right to read in English and/or French. However, it is important to note that there are many First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages in Ontario.[488] These languages are fundamental to the identities, cultures, spirituality, relationships to the land, world views and self-determination of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.[489]

Colonial and assimilation policies in Canada targeted First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages. For example, children in residential schools were often forbidden to speak their languages, severely punished for speaking them, and made to learn English or French.[490] This had a multigenerational impact, as residential school survivors were not able to pass their languages on to their children.[491] As a result, generations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples have lost access to their ancestral languages. Several Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) relate to promoting Indigenous languages, including in education.[492]

Under section 35 of the Constitution Act,[493] “Aboriginal” rights include Indigenous language rights.[494] Although Indigenous language rights are beyond the scope of this report, the OHRC acknowledges and supports the central importance of preserving, revitalizing and strengthening Indigenous languages, alongside achieving the right to read in English and/or French.[495]

The OHRC also acknowledges that First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities must be full participants in decision-making about their own education (for example, when developing programs to support First Nations, Métis and Inuit students in provincially funded schools) or education about them (for example, when integrating First Nations, Métis and Inuit history and perspectives into provincial curriculum). This report’s recommendations about First Nations, Métis and Inuit students must be implemented in partnership with First Nations, Métis and Inuit governments, communities and organizations.

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Context for understanding First Nations, Métis and Inuit students’ right to read

Warning: This section deals with topics that may cause trauma to some readers. It includes references to mistreatment of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, physical and sexual abuse of children, racial and sexual violence, self-harm and suicide. Please engage in self-care as you read this material. There are many resources available if you need additional support, including on the OHRC website under List of supports.

 

Colonialism, racism and assimilationist policies

The starting point for any consideration of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students’ right to read is the broader context of the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls recently summarized this:

Canada is a settler colonial country. European nations, followed by the new government of “Canada,” imposed its own laws, institutions, and cultures on Indigenous Peoples while occupying their lands. Racist colonial attitudes justified Canada’s policies of assimilation, which sought to eliminate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples as distinct Peoples and communities.[496]

Many of Canada’s assimilationist policies and structures were targeted to First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and families. Two significant examples are residential schools and the “Sixties Scoop.”

An estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended residential schools from the 17th century until the late 1990s. Children were forcibly removed from their homes, taken to residential schools that were often far from their communities,[497] and prevented from leaving.[498] They were subjected to harsh discipline; malnutrition and starvation; poor health care; physical, emotional and sexual abuse; neglect; and their languages and cultures were deliberately suppressed. Thousands of children died while attending residential schools, and the burial sites of many children remain unknown.[499] In 2021, many unmarked graves were found at former residential school sites,[500] providing further evidence of the violence and loss of life in residential schools.

The residential school system “was an integral part of a conscious policy of cultural genocide.”[501] Its real goal was not to provide an education:

The residential school system failed as an education system. It was based on racist assumptions about the intellectual and cultural inferiority of Aboriginal people – the belief that Aboriginal children were incapable of attaining anything more than a rudimentary elementary-level or vocational education. Consequently, for most of the system’s history, the majority of students never progressed beyond elementary school. The government and church officials who operated the residential schools ignored the positive emphasis that the Treaties and many Aboriginal families placed on education. Instead, they created dangerous and frightening institutions that provided little learning.[502]

Between 1890 and 1950, an estimated 60% of residential school students failed to advance beyond Grade 3. In addition to the other harms caused, residential schools’ failure to provide an adequate education has contributed to a legacy of poverty, lower education levels, and ongoing social and economic marginalization for Indigenous peoples.[503]

Some Métis children attended residential schools.[504] However, the federal government thought the provinces and territories should be responsible for educating and assimilating Métis people. Provincial and territorial governments did not make sure there were schools in Métis communities, or Métis children were admitted into the public school system.[505] For a period of time, Métis children were not allowed in federal residential schools or provincial day schools and received no schooling.[506] When they did attend provincial schools, they were often unwelcome and experienced stigma and racism.[507] After the 1950s, many Métis children attended residential schools operated by provincial governments in northern and remote areas. The TRC report noted: “There is no denying that the harm done to the children, their parents, and the Métis community was substantial.”[508]

The TRC report discusses some of the unique elements of residential schooling in northern Canada. Residential schools in the north were established much later than in the south. Inuit students began entering residential schools in the 1950s. The schools contributed to the rapid transformation of traditional, land-based lifestyles and economies in the region.[509]

The more recent history of residential schools in the north means there are many living Survivors today. The TRC report noted that the impacts of these schools is particularly strongly felt in the north and among Inuit:

Inuit students face one of the largest gaps in terms of educational attainment. A disproportionately high number of northern parents are residential school Survivors or intergenerational Survivors and that Inuit students face one of the largest gaps in educational attainment.[510]

Although there were some differences in the northern experience, much of the harm done to Inuit students, families and communities is the same as suffered by other Indigenous peoples in other parts of the country:

While the northern experience was unique in some ways, the broader themes remain constant. Children were taken from their parents, often with little in the way of consultation or consent. They were educated in an alien language and setting. They lived in institutions that were underfunded and understaffed, and were prey to harsh discipline, disease and abuse.[511]

In addition to disrupting the intergenerational transmission of values and skills, northern schools did not provide students with the skills needed for employment.[512]

The residential school system and the racist assimilationist policies it embodied fed into another systematic targeting of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and families: the “Sixties Scoop.” Starting in the 1950s, child welfare authorities removed children from their families and communities in great numbers. Children were sent to be fostered or placed for adoption in mostly non-Indigenous families all over Canada, the United States and even abroad.[513] As residential schools began to close, increasing numbers of Indigenous children were taken into care by child welfare agencies. By the late 1970s, Indigenous children accounted for 44% of the children in care in Alberta, 51% in Saskatchewan, and 60% of the children in care in Manitoba.[514] The significant over-representation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children in child welfare continues in Ontario today. Despite being only 4.1% of the population in Ontario under age 15, First Nations, Métis and Inuit children represent approximately 30% of children in foster care.[515]

These are just two examples of centuries of colonialist policies and practices aimed at undermining cultural identity and assimilating First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.[516] In recent years, the Government of Canada has publicly apologized for these policies.[517] Most recently, in response to the discovery of children’s remains at a residential school in Kamloops, Canada acknowledged:

The mistreatment of Indigenous children is a tragic and shameful part of Canada’s history. Residential schools were part of a colonial policy that removed Indigenous children from their communities. Thousands of children were sent to these schools and never returned to their families. The families were often provided with little to no information on the circumstances of their loved one’s death nor the location of their burial. Children in residential schools were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. The loss of children who attended residential schools is unthinkable and Canada remains resolved to supporting families, Survivors and communities and to memorializing those lost innocent souls.[518]

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Ongoing oppression, racism and disadvantage

Current conditions for First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples are a direct consequence of this history. Today, First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada experience multiple negative social and economic disadvantages. Although the experience of individuals and communities varies, these disadvantages include low levels of education, high levels of unemployment, disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system, extreme levels of poverty, inadequate housing, and physical and mental health disparities.[519]

First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples continue to face high levels of systemic discrimination as well as individual acts of racism.[520] A Coroner’s inquest examining the deaths of Reggie Bushie, Jethro Anderson, Jordan Wabasse, Kyle Morrisseau, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese and Robyn Harper, seven youth from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) who died when attending a First Nations high school in Thunder Bay (the Seven Youth inquest), heard evidence of pervasive racism experienced by First Nations youth:

Racism is often directed against First Nations people when they are off-reserve. Many witnesses spoke of experiences like being called a “stupid savage” or told “Indians go home.” As one witness put it, “They treat me like something, not someone.” Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School students report that they routinely experience verbal abuse and objects thrown at them as they walk on city streets. Serious violence, including assault and murder, are known to have occurred.[521]

First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples are both disproportionately victimized and imprisoned.[522] The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) found that the violence First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, particularly women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA[523] people, have experienced amounts to a race-based genocide of Indigenous peoples.[524]

First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples experience higher rates of mental illness, major depression, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), prescription and illegal drug use, alcoholism and gambling addiction. Indigenous Friendship Centres have reported that undiagnosed mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, FASD and attention deficit disorder have been increasing within urban Indigenous communities in Ontario.[525] The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened pre-existing mental health disparities between Indigenous peoples and others.[526]

Suicide rates are higher among First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples than among other people, although they differ by community, Indigenous group, age and sex.[527] Rates among youth in some NAN communities in northern Ontario are among the highest in the world.[528] These deaths by suicide deeply affect family, friends, peers and Indigenous communities at large. The impact can be especially severe when the deceased is a young person and in smaller communities where many people are related.[529]

Due to intergenerational trauma, social isolation, poverty and food insecurity, as well as inadequate health and community services, First Nations, Métis and Inuit children experience high levels of childhood adversity such as abuse, neglect[530] and household substance abuse.[531] As discussed below, these conditions compound other vulnerabilities. This has implications for students’ instructional needs related to their right to learn to read.

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The experience and effect of trauma

The trauma[532] caused by residential schools, the child welfare system and other experiences of oppression and discrimination, both past and present, has affected generations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. One study on the historical, multigenerational and intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples explains:

Over an extended period of time, the effects of this trauma can reverberate throughout an entire population, resulting in a legacy of physical, psychological, and economic disparities that persist across generations…Not only are individuals and families affected, but their communities are affected as well…[533]

Dr. Amy Bombay, a researcher who is Ojibway (Rainy River First Nation), has studied how trauma is transmitted across generations and the enduring effects of residential schools and other trauma on Indigenous health. Chronic exposure to trauma results in individual effects such as anxiety, depression, addiction (as a coping mechanism), low self-esteem, anger, self-destructive behaviours, and high rates of death by suicide.[534] It also affects families and communities including by contributing to a breakdown of family and social structures and relationships. Trauma becomes cyclical and cumulative with new stressors and traumas building on previously existing trauma.[535]

Colonial systems and institutions such as residential schools broke cultural and familial ties, so current institutional systems that ignore the importance of culture and family for First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples can perpetuate, rather than alleviate, intergenerational trauma.[536]

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Under-resourcing of federally funded First Nations schools

In Ontario, Métis and Inuit students generally attend provincially funded schools. First Nations students may attend First Nations schools on reserve or provincially funded schools. Approximately 14,000 First Nations students attend First Nations schools in Ontario.[537]

First Nations schools on reserve receive their funding from the federal government. Historically they have been chronically under-funded and under-resourced.[538] The federal government’s investment in a student in a First Nations school has been significantly less than the provincial government’s investment in a student in a provincially funded school. Comparing per-pupil funding is challenging, because funding formulas are complex, and allocations to provincial boards can vary based on the needs of the board.[539] However, some past estimates for Ontario suggest that First Nations schools received less than half the funding per student than small, rural, provincially funded schools that have high-needs students.[540] This discrepancy is magnified because First Nations schools often have greater educational challenges. Relative to the provincially funded schools being used as comparators, the schools on reserve often have fewer students, are more remote, confront much worse socio-economic conditions and have a particular language and culture.[541]

In addition to per pupil funding differences, First Nations schools historically received no money for things students in provincially funded schools take for granted like libraries, technology, extra-curricular activities and school board services. Also, First Nations schools received no funding for language and culture activities.[542]

Underfunding of special education and related services has been a particular issue in First Nations schools. First Nations schools have received less funding than provincially funded school boards to meet the special education needs of First Nations students. Specialist services such as speech language therapy are often unavailable or very expensive.[543] For First Nations students living in remote northern areas, underfunding of services intersects with inaccessibility, since barriers to a variety of health and community services are a chronic problem.

In 2009, the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation filed a human rights challenge with the Canadian Human Rights Commission alleging unequal and inadequate special education services for First Nations communities. The challenge led to the 2017 First Nations Special Education Review Report,[544] the product of in-depth and collaborative work by First Nations educators and administrators from across the province.

This report showed that particular attention needs to be paid to the intersectional needs of First Nations students with special needs, and made recommendations to Ontario and Canada. The recommendations were incorporated into a Chiefs of Ontario position paper[545] and received the full support of Ontario First Nations leaders at the Chiefs of Ontario’s 2017 All Ontario Chiefs Conference. In Resolution 38/17, the Ontario Chiefs in Assembly declared that they “fully support and accept the recommendations.”[546]

The First Nations Special Education Review Report described serious inequities in First Nations special education. These include underfunding; lack of access to special education staff and specialists; lack of comprehensive early childhood education programs; and inadequate facilities, among others. It noted the unique needs and costs in northern and isolated First Nations, and the need for additional funding to address those challenges.[547]

Underfunding and remoteness have also made it hard for First Nations schools to attract and retain qualified teachers and support staff. Teachers at First Nations schools are paid less than their provincially funded school counterparts, work in more challenging conditions (for example, in schools that are in disrepair), have little or no opportunities for professional development, and may have limited access to housing.[548] This has a negative impact on the quality of education in First Nations schools.

In 2019, the federal government and Assembly of First Nations (AFN) announced a new co-developed approach to funding First Nations schools.[549] The goal of the new approach is to make sure on-reserve schools have access to more predictable and sustainable funding based on real needs and real costs.[550] The OHRC hopes this new approach will help address some of the issues affecting First Nations schools that have persisted for years. In the meantime, many First Nations students who start off attending First Nations schools face many challenges entering the provincially funded school system. They may be many years behind in their education, including with their reading.

First Nations schools in Ontario often follow the provincial curriculum. Their teachers receive the same training as all other teachers who complete a teacher education program in an Ontario faculty of education. Therefore, this report’s recommendations on Ontario’s curriculum and teacher preparation are relevant to and will directly affect reading instruction in First Nations schools.

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Efforts to promote First Nations, Métis and Inuit children’s substantive equality

In recent years, there is a growing recognition that to have substantive equality, First Nations, Métis and Inuit children must have timely access to the same level of services other children receive. They may also need extra measures to address their unique needs.

First Nations children can seek access to products, services and supports they need through federal Jordan’s Principle funding, and Inuit children through the federal Inuit Child First Initiative. The Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) is a Métis-specific governance structure in Ontario that supports its Métis citizens. In recent years, the MNO launched an Education Support Advocacy program in Ontario schools to help its citizens navigate the public education system and connect with services such as tutoring supports, psychological assessments and speech-language therapists.

It is not clear if school boards know about these supports for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, or whether they are proactively identifying situations where they could be accessed.

 

Jordan’s Principle

Jordan's Principle is a legally binding child-first principle that any public service ordinarily available to all other children must be made available to First Nations children without delay or denial. It is named in memory of Jordan River Anderson, a First Nations child from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba. Jordan had complex medical needs and spent more than two years in hospital unnecessarily because the Province of Manitoba and the federal government could not agree on who should pay for at home care. Jordan died in the hospital at the age of five without ever having spent a day in his family home.

Jordan’s Principle is a child-focused legal principle that confirms First Nations children should not experience gaps in levels of service, including in education, due to jurisdictional or funding disputes between the provincial and federal governments or among government departments. It aims to ensure substantive equality for First Nations children, by making sure they can access all public services in a way that reflects their distinct cultural needs and takes full account of historical disadvantage linked to colonization. The goal of the principle is to ensure that children do not experience any service denials, delays or disruptions because they are First Nations.

Jordan’s Principle can be used to access services to support students, such as early childhood services, speech therapy, professional assessments (including speech language and psychoeducational assessments), mental health services, assistive technology and tutoring. First Nations children meeting any one of the following criteria are eligible for consideration under Jordan’s Principle:

  1. A child resident on or off reserve who is registered or eligible to be registered under the Indian Act
  2. A child resident on or off reserve who has one parent/guardian who is registered or eligible to be registered under the Indian Act
  3. A child resident on or off reserve who is recognized by their Nation for the purposes of Jordan’s Principle
  4. A child who is ordinarily resident on reserve.[551]

The inquiry heard examples of First Nations students with learning disabilities receiving services such as assessments through the Jordan’s Principle process. The process for applying for Jordan’s Principle funding is set out in handbooks and resource guides.[552]

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Inuit Child First Initiative

The Inuit Child First Initiative is administered by the federal government.[553] It is similar to Jordan’s Principle as its goal is to address the needs of Inuit children based on principles of substantive equality, cultural appropriateness and the best interests of the child.[554] The types of health, social and educational supports that can be funded include:

  • Cultural services from Elders
  • Mental health counseling
  • Assessments and screenings
  • Therapeutic services (speech therapy, occupational therapy)
  • Tutoring services
  • Educational assistants
  • Specialized school transportation
  • Professional assessments
  • Assistive technologies and electronics.

To be eligible, Inuit children must be recognized by an Inuit land claim organization in Canada and must be under age 18.[555]

 

Métis Nation of Ontario Education Support Advocacy program

Due to a long-identified gap in school supports that negatively affects Métis students’ success in school, the MNO launched an Education Support Advocacy (ESA) program in Ontario schools to help its citizens navigate the public education system and connect with services such as tutoring supports, psychological assessments, speech-language therapists and other services. The program has been so successful it has been expanded and there is now an Early Learning ESA program with a focus on early childhood and early intervention.

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Impact on the ability to learn to read

Whether a First Nations, Métis and Inuit student has a disability or not, the context described above has a significant impact on their experience of learning to read. First Nations, Métis and Inuit students who also have reading difficulties are further disadvantaged. They have also been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.[556]

Students are unlikely to be able to achieve their full educational potential when their needs are not being met. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory that has implications in education. It suggests that students’ learning will be compromised if their following fundamental human needs are not being met:

  1. Physiological needs: food, water, sleep, clothing and warmth
  2. Need for safety: feeling safe and secure at home and in school
  3. Need for belongingness and love: family, friendships, belonging, inclusion
  4. Esteem needs: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect by others
  5. Self-actualization: achieving one’s full potential.

Within Maslow’s theory, needs are hierarchical and some needs are more foundational than others. Maslow described physiological needs and the need for safety as the most basic and important. A student cannot reach their full potential – at the top of the pyramid – when basic needs are not being met.

Maslow’s theory was informed by the time he spent with the Siksika (Blackfoot) Nation in Alberta.[557] Maslow’s theory has been re-framed to better reflect Indigenous relational world views by Native American child welfare expert Terry Cross. Reinterpreting human needs through Indigenous eyes incorporates greater interconnectedness between individual needs and family, community, society and the world.[558]

The Medicine Wheel symbol is used to represent the teachings and beliefs of many First Nations peoples.[559] Traditional medicine wheels (sacred circles) are thousands of years old and were often depicted using stones set out in the form of a wheel. Although the beliefs underlying the Medicine Wheel are widely held among First Nations, the representation and recognition of those beliefs varies.[560] Some Métis and Inuit may also identify with the Medicine Wheel.[561] The model below uses the First Nations Medicine Wheel diagram to show the interconnectedness of needs, which must come into balance for optimal well-being.[562]

 

Figure 1

Cross's worldview principles (2007), using the First Nations Medicine Wheel diagram. Top left (cognitive): Self and community actualization role, identity, service, esteem Top right (physical): Food, water, housing, safety and security Bottom left (spiritual): Spirituality and life purpose Bottom right (emotional): Belonging and relationship.

 

The historic and ongoing disadvantage First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples experience means that students are more likely to:

  • Live in poverty
  • Experience food insecurity
  • Lack access to clean drinking water[563]
  • Live in substandard, overcrowded housing conditions
  • Be at greater risk for abuse and neglect
  • Have experienced trauma
  • Have experienced racism
  • Have experienced or witnessed violence or death of a family or community member
  • Lack a sense of belonging in school
  • Experience eroded cultural identity and spiritual disconnection.

When any or several of these factors are present, it can have a negative effect on a First Nations, Métis or Inuit student’s education, including their experience in learning to read.

A Statistics Canada report[564] looked at factors that are associated with lower perceived school achievement among off-reserve First Nations children. It found several factors have a negative impact on achievement:

  • School attendance, specifically having missed school for two or more weeks in a row during the school year
  • Having a learning disability or ADHD
  • Having parents who attended residential schools.

Conversely, among off-reserve First Nations children, these factors were associated with relatively higher perceived achievement at school:

  • Having good relationships with teachers, or with friends and classmates
  • Having parents who were satisfied with school practices (such as when the school provides information on the child’s academic progress, attendance and behaviour)
  • Reading books every day
  • Playing sports at least once a week, or taking part in art or music activities at least once a week
  • Living in a family in the highest household income quintile (the top 20%).

Many of these findings are consistent with what we heard in the inquiry. In our student/parent survey, we asked respondents whether the student’s Indigenous ancestry had a positive, negative or no impact on their experience in school related to their reading disability. For First Nations students, 18% of respondents reported a positive or somewhat positive impact, 33% reported no impact and 45% said it had a somewhat negative or negative impact.[565] For Métis students, 25% said their ancestry had a positive impact, 60% said it had no impact, and 10% said it had a negative impact. There were no responses about Inuit students.

 

Table 15: Impact of Indigenous ancestry on the student's school experience related to their reading disability[566]

 

Total

First Nations

Métis

Positive

13%

11%

15%

Somewhat positive

9%

7%

10%

No impact

43%

33%

60%

Somewhat negative impact

13%

15%

10%

Negative

17%

30%

0%

Unknown

2%

0%

5%

Not applicable

2%

4%

0%

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Impact of residential schools

Having parents or guardians who attended residential schools is associated with lower success at school. All other factors being equal, First Nations children from these families were less likely to be doing “very well” or “well” at school compared to First Nations children whose parents/guardians had not attended residential schools.[567] The impact of residential schools came up often in our First Nations, Métis and Inuit engagements. For example, one First Nations person said: “Residential schooling is still fresh in our memory. That is a consideration that needs to come up in your inquiry.”

The OHRC heard that low levels of education and low literacy are a challenge for some First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents and grandparents:[568]

I really don’t know how to write. I asked a teacher to help me in Grade 5 but no one was there to help me. So I tried to help myself. I still don’t know how to write. It was really hard, especially after having my kids. I couldn’t help them.

 

Impact of trauma

School board representatives and First Nations, Métis and Inuit participants told the inquiry that intergenerational trauma or trauma related to a death or tragedy in the family or community can affect student learning. First Nations, Métis and Inuit participants noted that schools are not well equipped to use trauma-informed teaching strategies, particularly for Indigenous trauma, and students with trauma and other mental health issues “get passed over” without ever receiving effective assessment, teaching or supports. They can be two to three grades behind their peers.

A First Nations adult with a learning disability stressed the importance of trauma-informed schools for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, especially students with learning disabilities. He talked about how the experience of trauma is shaped by intersections between Indigenous identity and disability. He described the trauma he experienced as an Indigenous person being compounded by the trauma of being singled out in front of the class: “Teachers should be trauma-informed” so they know not to engage in traumatic practices “like when an Indigenous kid who can’t read is asked to read at the front of the class and the rest of the class starts laughing.”

One of the inquiry school boards with a very high First Nations, Métis and Inuit student population, Keewatin-Patricia, has recently announced it is moving towards becoming a trauma-informed board. Alberta is also promoting trauma-informed practices in its schools.[569]

First Nations, Métis and Inuit students who are in foster care face their own unique challenges in school. For example, the inquiry heard that they have additional issues with school attendance. This may be due to having to relocate often, and deal with bureaucracies with different enrollment and registration eligibility for services. There is also a lack of comprehensive system-wide resources to support them.

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Impact of poverty

Poverty and social disadvantage affect school readiness and performance. Poverty undermines the ability of families and children to engage in at-home learning, due to lack of access to books, technology and other resources and supports. One inquiry school board described poverty as one of the biggest barriers to learning for all students, but noted that poverty is deeper and more prevalent among the board’s First Nations families. The board noted that students who experience poverty are often at a disadvantage before they even start school: “When students are living in intergenerational poverty, the environment they are in, through no fault of anything other than poverty, does not have components necessary for pre-school.”

An organization that serves urban Inuit described housing and food insecurity as significant issues affecting Inuit students.

 

School attendance

Irregular school attendance is a significant barrier to Indigenous student achievement[570] and is caused by many of the systemic issues identified in this report. Both parents and educators told the inquiry that some First Nations, Métis and Inuit children miss school for several reasons often related to historical disadvantage, current systemic barriers and discrimination, as well as the other reasons children may miss school.

The legacy of residential schools as well as current negative experiences with racism and marginalization in the education system have resulted in mistrust and anxiety.[571] One First Nations participant at an Indigenous engagement said: “Thunder Bay has an attendance problem. Our people do not trust schools.”

Representatives from an inquiry school board also noted that mistrust affects school engagement: “There is a trust issue with Indigenous children and families due to the residential school system as, historically, their trust has been abused.”

First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples’ experiences with child welfare can intersect with poverty to also have a negative impact on school attendance. The OHRC heard that parents who live in poverty and struggle with food insecurity may not send their children to school if they cannot afford food, fearing that school authorities may view this as parental neglect and alert child welfare authorities.

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Intersectional effects of being First Nations, Métis and Inuit and having a learning disability

Significantly for the inquiry, another factor that has been found to have an impact on Indigenous student achievement is being diagnosed with a learning disability:

Having been diagnosed with a learning disability or with attention deficit disorder was also associated with lower success at school. All other factors being equal, the odds of doing “very well” or “well” at school for off-reserve First Nations children who had been diagnosed with a learning disability were half (0.5) the odds for children who had not. As well, the odds of doing “very well” or “well” for children who had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder were about half (0.6) the odds for children who had not.[572]

Disabilities such as reading disabilities can magnify the unique challenges First Nations, Métis and Inuit students face. For example, the MNO told the inquiry: “Individuals with learning/reading disabilities are marginalized. When they are Métis as well, they are a marginalized group within a marginalized group, which makes their needs even more complex.”

There are longstanding harmful stereotypes of First Nations, Inuit and Métis persons having inferior intelligence and ability to learn. These have serious negative implications for how educators perceive and interact with First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, and the students’ own sense of self-worth. There are also stereotypes about students with learning disabilities being less intelligent or being lazy. One survey respondent described the intersectional effect of stereotypes about First Nations peoples with learning disabilities:

It also appears to us that it is assumed he is not trying hard enough and he just needs to put in more effort – when he has a diagnosed learning disability – and it is hard not to think this does somehow relate to deep rooted stereotypes and perceptions regarding First Nations peoples.

The inquiry heard that Métis students are often discouraged from academic achievement, which affects their engagement with school. When they also have a disability, their needs go unnoticed and they “fall through the cracks” or are pushed ahead even though they are not achieving at grade level.

The inquiry heard that many of the challenges all students and families with reading difficulties face are amplified for First Nations, Métis and Inuit families:

  • Navigating the education system is complex and difficult
  • As in-school supports for students with disabilities tend to be limited, it puts the onus on parents to work with their children at home. This may be more challenging for First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents due to an intergenerational lack of literacy or reluctance towards the traditional school system
  • The parents may themselves have learning disabilities that were never identified or supported
  • First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents may have greater challenges supporting assistive technology accommodations.

As well, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students may face barriers accessing non-stigmatized services, have higher rates of poverty making it impossible to pay for private services, and often live in rural or northern locations that lack access to services due to geography.

For example, the inquiry heard that in parts of northern Ontario, access to holistic services that take language and cultural needs into account are limited due to lack of funding or lack of specialists in that field. It is very common for people to have to travel considerable distances, even out of Ontario (for example, from northwestern Ontario to Manitoba) to access services such as speech-language or psychology services.

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Barriers due to need for parent advocacy

In an education system that often puts the onus on parents to advocate for their children to receive supports and accommodations, students whose parents are not able to do so are at a disadvantage. The inquiry heard that advocacy can be more challenging for First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents and students.

One parent of a First Nations student with dyslexia attending school in a northern board stated that limited resources mean that Indigenous students may fall through the cracks:

There are no resources, what little resources are here are unavailable until a student is a specific age and has already given up AND the family is harassing the school for help. I have seen so many kids without support from family falling through the cracks and they are all Indigenous. Systemic racism.

The OHRC heard that due to the trauma from the residential school system, some parents fear “setting foot” in their children’s school. The MNO told the inquiry that residential and day schools have affected Métis parents and grandparents, making them feel their way of communication and interaction is unacceptable. They also said that when a school board denies an initial request, a Métis parent may see that as a “stopping point” and not feel they can continue to advocate, which is often necessary to gain access to a program, service or support.

A worker at an Indigenous Friendship Centre told us: “A lot of parents in the Indigenous community don’t get involved in their child’s education because they don’t feel like they have a right to or they feel intimidated by the school system.” Like other parents, First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents are reluctant to advocate for supports or accommodations for their child due to worries that “it’s going to come back to your child if you don’t shut up.”

First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents described fears that they would be judged by educators:

The system can be very intimidating. I’m not even visibly Indigenous but it didn’t make any difference for me going into the school system with my three kids. I had my children very young. You have young parents having children and made to feel like you’re just another young parent having kids out of wedlock.

Parents described feeling like they were being “talked down to” and said that students feel the same way.

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Lack of belonging and experiencing discrimination

We heard that First Nations, Métis and Inuit parents do not feel a sense of belonging in the schools:

When there’s a group of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, the Indigenous people don’t speak up because they might feel like they don’t belong or they could say something wrong or they aren’t educated. If the parent themselves has a learning disability or English is not their first language it is even more difficult.

First Nations, Métis and Inuit students also feel a lack of belonging when they experience racism and discrimination. The OHRC heard that this is an all-too-common experience. One parent described the impact of racism on her First Nations son with a reading disability:

[My son] has experienced discrimination at school from his peers with respect to being First Nations and has been teased for his last name. This has impacted his self-esteem and self-confidence and his schoolwork more broadly.

Another person talked of stereotyping:

People have an assumption that Native people are just lazy and they don’t want to work. That’s not true. We’re healing from a lot of intergenerational trauma. There’s a lot happening with our families that people just don’t understand.

A parent who completed a survey said her First Nations son has experienced “a lot of racism” and has brought books from the “school library and a social studies assignment with racist views.”

One parent of a racialized, First Nations student noted that “colonization and colonial stereotypes” had a negative impact on her son’s experience at school because of their intergenerational impacts:

If my son felt excited about going to school, if he excelled in reading and was respected by the education system for his diverse cultural background (and given reading material that reflected this diversity), and was taught structured literacy approaches based on reading science, I would not have to even think of writing this survey. I expect more than "lowered expectations" from teachers and the education system…My son's ethnicity, Indigeneity, and gender are things to be proud of and bring strength to him daily. 

The MNO described systemic racist beliefs, attitudes and stigma that start in the early years of schooling and have an impact throughout a student’s education.

The Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres (OFIFC) states:

In school, Indigenous students continue to face racism and a general ignorance of their cultures among education staff and students. Anxiety, alienation, distrust, low self-confidence, and culture shock are just a few of the symptom[s] that can occur when Indigenous students are placed in an education system that has been slow to respond to their needs and where they may struggle to see themselves and their values reflected in the pedagogy, curriculum, and in the overall structure of Ontario’s education system. These conditions make learning a difficult, even painful experience, which can cause students to disengage.[573]

The OHRC also heard that teachers’ lack of cultural competency has led to stereotyping students. An example is assuming First Nations, Métis and Inuit students are lazy if they are not comfortable speaking up in class or are tired after being up late the previous night doing cultural activities like ice fishing.

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Importance of languages, culture and mentoring

Parents talked about the importance of exposure to First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages and cultural programming in schools for student engagement: “There’s a hole in them. They are missing that culture piece. They have this need.” An organization that serves urban Inuit talked of the importance of Inuit students learning to read and write Inuktitut.

Reports have confirmed the importance of exposure to Indigenous languages, cultures, histories, perspectives and contributions to the success of Indigenous students, including through the core curriculum and experiences that all students receive.[574]

Ontario’s Indigenous Education strategy includes this commitment.[575]

The MMIWG report found this is still not happening in schools:

Indigenous children and youth experience challenges and barriers in accessing education, particularly culturally relevant knowledge. Indigenous children and youth have the right to an education and to be educated in their culture and language. Most Indigenous children continue to be educated in mainstream education systems that exclude their Indigenous culture, language, history, and contemporary realities. A high-quality, culturally appropriate, and relevant education is the key to breaking cycles of trauma, violence, and abuse.[576]

The OHRC’s 2018 report, To dream together: Indigenous peoples and human rights dialogue report also identifies the importance of making education about First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and their languages, cultures and world views a priority in the education system.[577]

First Nations, Métis and Inuit self-determination in education leads to better outcomes.[578] For example, 20 years ago, the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq First Nation took control of their education system when only 30% of their students were graduating from secondary school. Now over 90% of their students are graduating.[579] Alternative secondary school programs operated by Friendship Centres in Ontario are another example of the success of Indigenous-led education.[580]

The inquiry heard that mentoring and exposure to positive role models is vital: “We need older students to mentor. We also need mentoring from more Indigenous teachers.” A Government of Canada survey on First Nations education also found supportive relationships are critical, particularly for students transitioning from on-reserve First Nations schools to provincially funded schools:

Participants suggested that First Nation[s] students need a supportive person or persons at the off-reserve school to provide guidance and support. This could be a mentor or buddy arranged through a buddy program, or it could be a counsellor, community liaison worker, or teacher. These persons or groups could help students deal with racism, bullying, or other challenges.[581]

Elders also provide a vital role as knowledge keepers, in transmitting cultural knowledge to the younger generation, and in building stronger, healthier and more resilient young people, families and communities.[582]

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Lack of representation

First Nations, Métis and Inuit students need to see themselves reflected in the education system, in what is taught and how it is taught and in educator, school and board leadership.[583] One inquiry participant said:

Students need to see their ethnicity and Indigeneity reflected in their teachers, school staff, principals, trustees, the Ministry of Education, government, etc.

The inquiry heard that lack of representation is an issue. Where there is representation, it may not reflect each of First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. For example, even where there are many Métis students in a school board, the board may have First Nations but not Métis representation. This lack of distinction alienates Métis students. The inquiry heard that an approach that recognizes the unique identities of and distinctions between First Nations, Métis and Inuit students and communities is very important.

 

Challenges with transitions

First Nations inquiry participants and school board representatives discussed the challenges associated with transitions between First Nations schools and provincially funded schools. Many students who attend First Nations schools will at some point transition to a school in the provincial system.[584] Most reserves do not have high schools.[585] Youth who grow up in remote and fly-in First Nations communities must often leave their community to attend high school in northern Ontario cities like Thunder Bay, Kenora, Dryden and Sioux Lookout.[586] A First Nations student who lives on-reserve may attend a provincially funded school anywhere in Ontario, subject to space availability and payment of tuition by the First Nation to the local school board. In some cases, families move off-reserve so their children can attend provincially funded schools.

First Nations students who transition from their community schools to provincially funded schools and Inuit students who come from Northern communities experience many new challenges as they adapt to new situations, friends, cultures and environments.[587]

The inquiry heard about “culture shock” when students leave their communities.[588] The Seven Youth inquest also heard significant evidence about the serious and sometimes grave challenges that youth from remote NAN communities face when they must leave their communities to attend high school in cities such as Thunder Bay.[589]

Many inquiry participants noted that underfunding of First Nations schools, shortage of teachers, teacher inexperience and teacher turnover affect the quality of education that students received before entering the provincial system: “Teachers fly into our communities for a year or less and then they leave.”

Another participant said: “We find that kids are three to four grades behind when they come from reserve schools to Ontario public schools.”

Several inquiry participants noted that students entering provincially funded schools are sometimes identified as having a learning disability for the first time. However, it is not clear if the disability was not flagged in the First Nations school, or they do not have a learning disability but are behind due to the quality of teaching in the First Nations school:

The ones that really struggle are the ones that attend reserve school then go into public education system. Is it really a learning disability or is it that they were not taught properly?

For Inuit students, there can also be delays in receiving records from Inuit Nunangat[590] schools.[591]

The evidence in the Seven Youth inquest was that students entering high school after elementary education on-reserve often need to catch up to peers academically, and are dealing with other challenges. Schools in the provincial system must be prepared to identify and respond to this reality.[592]

A Chiefs of Ontario position paper on special education also emphasizes the importance of making sure transitions to and from provincial boards and schools do not detract from student success. The paper recommends that the provincial government provide better overall support for First Nations children with special needs attending provincially funded schools; public school boards be culturally responsive to better meet the needs of First Nations learners; and improvements be made in communication between schools, school boards and First Nations.[593]

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Overcoming barriers

Despite these significant barriers, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students and parents are working hard to find success in education.[594] Parents are doing as much as they can to support their children, including children with reading difficulties. Many talked about taking their children out of an on-reserve school in the hopes they would receive better supports in the provincial system. They described trying to find and pay for tutoring and other supports to address their children’s needs. A single mother of three talked about her efforts to balance her work, keep her children busy and out of trouble through afterschool activities like hockey and gymnastics, and provide homework support. Another mother said she did everything she could to help her child with schoolwork despite never receiving a proper education herself.

A First Nations man with a learning disability described how he overcame trauma and poverty, including coming to school hungry, to learn how to read. Now he is pursuing a master’s degree, while also having a job. He described how hard he must work to keep up with the volume of reading and writing in his graduate program.

First Nations, Métis and Inuit governments and organizations are also stepping in to fill the gaps the system has left. For example, the MNO’s Education Support Advocacy program helps its Métis citizens navigate the public education system, connects them with tutoring supports, psychological assessments and speech-language services, and provides other services that meet the needs of Métis learners. However, the provincial government does not fund the MNO to deliver these education services. The MNO has made this work a priority using resources from other areas.

Indigenous Friendship Centres also have education services and supports for urban Indigenous communities. They offer an Alternative Secondary School Program that combines the Ontario curriculum with cultural programming and an Indigenous pedagogical model. 

Tungasuvvingat Inuit also has a focus on education for urban Inuit. It provides education policy advocacy and education supports for Inuit living outside of Inuit Nunangat.

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Achievement gap

Given the systemic challenges, it is not surprising that there is an achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in Ontario schools. Some gains have been made in recent years. However, using EQAO scores, credit accumulation rates and graduation rates as measures,[595] students who have voluntarily identified as First Nations, Métis or Inuit are still behind other Ontario students.[596]

Ontario has an Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework, 2007 (the Framework) to improve achievement among Indigenous students, and reports on progress every three years. The most recent report is from May 2018: Strengthening Our Learning Journey: Third Progress Report on the Implementation of the Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework. Using EQAO data from 2015–16 it reports:

  • 47% of First Nations, 39% of Métis and 52% of Inuit students in the English-language system did not meet the provincial standard on the Grade 3 reading assessment, compared to 28% of all English students[597]
  • 21% of First Nations and 23% of Métis students[598] in the French-language system did not meet the provincial standard on the Grade 3 reading assessment, compared to 18% of all French students[599]
  • 38% of First Nations, 30% of Métis and 45% of Inuit students in the English-language system did not meet the provincial standard on the Grade 6 reading assessment, compared to 19% of all English students[600]
  • 22% of First Nations and 10% of Métis students[601] in the French-language system did not meet the provincial standard on the Grade 6 reading assessment, compared to 9% of all French students[602]
  • The percentage of fully participating, first-time eligible students who were successful on the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) in the English-language system was 59% for First Nations, 71% for Métis and 63% for Inuit students, compared to 81% of all students[603]
  • The percentage of fully participating, first-time eligible students who were successful on the OSSLT in the French-language system was 92% for First Nations and 93% for Métis students, compared to 91% of all students.[604]

Five-year graduation rates for self-identified First Nations, Métis and Inuit students in provincially funded schools are lower than provincial rates for all students.[605]

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Voluntary self-identification and analysis of student data

The Ministry has encouraged all Ontario school boards to develop policies to have First Nations, Métis and Inuit students voluntarily self-identify. Among other things, this data should be collected to better support these students with literacy and numeracy (including better outcomes on EQAO reading, writing and mathematics assessments); improve graduation rates; and support advancement to post-secondary studies.[606]

There are challenges with getting students to self-identify. Many First Nations, Inuit and Métis persons continue to view data collection with suspicion or concern. We heard they may feel they have been “researched to death,” often by colonial institutions that have not used culturally safe research practices. They may not want to self-identify because of historic mistreatment, past misuse of data, and mistrust of the education system due to the legacy of residential schools, among other reasons. They may be afraid that data will be used to portray them negatively or not used in a respectful way.[607] We heard that they may be afraid that if they identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, their child may be more likely to be taken into the child welfare system. We also heard that they may not know whether and how self-identification is being used for the benefit of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. Therefore, provincial and school board data may not include all First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. More effort is needed to consider and incorporate Indigenous research methodologies[608] and create a safe environment for voluntary self-identification.

The OHRC requested information from the eight inquiry school boards to learn more about First Nations, Métis and Inuit students with reading disabilities. As each school board has a self-identification policy, they were able to provide more information about First Nations, Métis and Inuit students than other student groups. However, there was still inconsistency in the quality of the data. For example, one board reported it does not break down data by First Nation, Inuit and Métis identification, and does not collect data on achievement (such as on course completion or graduation rates) for students who have self-identified. Several boards did not provide data on credit accumulation, whether First Nations, Métis and Inuit students have IEPs or have been identified with an LD exceptionality, or graduation rates.[609]

Only one board, Ottawa-Carleton, provided an Annual Achievement Report, which shows that it proactively monitors achievement data for students who self-identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. Another board, Thames Valley, said it produces a similar report. The Ministry said there is an Indigenous Education Analytical Profile Tool which supports school boards and the ministry to conduct in-depth analysis of Indigenous education data.

The inquiry school boards were able to provide some data about EQAO scores for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. The data presented in Table 16 includes participating and non-participating students. Although school boards should break down and analyze data by First Nations, Métis and Inuit identification for their own purposes, and should provide targeted responses to any issues they identify for each group, this report does not break down the school board data by First Nations, Métis and Inuit identification due to the small sample sizes and risk of compromising individual student identities.

 

Table 16: Percentage of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students who met the provincial standard in the 2018–19 EQAO reading assessment[610]

 

Percentage of students who have self-identified as Indigenous

Overall met the standard Grade 3 EQAO

Indigenous met the standard Grade 3 EQAO

Overall met the standard Grade 6 EQAO

Indigenous met the standard Grade 6 EQAO

Hamilton-Wentworth

0.1

67

67

73

68

Keewatin-Patricia

52

59

39

72

51

Lakehead

21

71

53

75

57

London Catholic

0.5

72

N/A

78

N/A

Ottawa-Carleton

2

76

63

82

61

Peel

0.1

75

Not provided

81

Not provided

Simcoe Muskoka

Catholic

1.5

67

69

79

89

Thames Valley

2.5

63

45

73

48

Consistent with provincial EQAO data, with a few exceptions,[611] students who have self-identified as First Nations, Métis and Inuit in the eight inquiry school boards were less likely to meet the provincial reading standard.[612]

The inquiry heard concerns that EQAO data is not shared with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities, so they are not aware of any issues and cannot respond to them. For example, EQAO data about Métis students is not shared with the MNO. The MNO said it needs this data to act for the benefit of its Métis citizens.

Board Action Plans on First Nations, Métis and Inuit Education are supposed to be developed in partnership with Indigenous communities. The inquiry heard that in practice not all First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities that are represented among students in the board are always consulted. For example, Métis communities can be overlooked in developing these plans.

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Teaching reading to First Nations, Métis and Inuit students

Although there are additional considerations to adequately meet the instructional needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children, there is evidence that “First Nations children who are failing to read tend to be more similar than different when compared with children from non–First Nations cultures that are also failing to read.”[613] One paper noted that as with other children:

[P]honological awareness variables and rapid naming were the strongest predictors of reading achievement for First Nations children. This supports what has been repeatedly found in reading literature that suggests that phonological ability is core to reading and specific learning disabilities…[614]

Similarly, another study concluded:

As far as the present study is concerned, we showed that the relationship between cognitive processes and reading that is found in the general population is replicable irrespective of the children's membership in the FN community…”[615]

Like all students, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students require the same foundational skills in phonological awareness to learn to read:

There is extensive correlational and experimental evidence that oral language and phonological awareness are key to success in learning to read in English… This finding has been corroborated in all other languages studied…and holds even when age, language ability, IQ, social class, and…memory are controlled…For these reasons, identifying the most effective methods for teaching reading to Aboriginal children may have the strongest long-term results when directed at the beginning steps to reading.[616] [Emphasis added.]

Direct instruction in foundational reading skills for word-level reading is just as important for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students as for other students. Overall, the studies found lower word reading skills among First Nations students,[617] making direct instruction in foundational skills extremely important to help narrow literacy gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. For example, studies of the literacy gap seen in Indigenous children in Australia discuss the importance of using science-based approaches for developing the building blocks for early reading skills, including phonological skills, for Indigenous student success.[618]

Similarly, interventions that target phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondence knowledge and decoding are just as effective, if not more effective, for Indigenous students. One study looked at ABRACADABRA, a web-based reading tool, and found:

Indigenous students [in Australia] gained significantly more per hour of instruction than non-Indigenous students in phonological awareness and early literacy skills. Results suggest that ABRACADABRA prevents lags in foundational literacy experienced by poor readers including Indigenous students.[619]

A school board in Fort Nelson, a small rural town in the northeast corner of British Columbia, reported positive outcomes for all students, particularly Indigenous students, after implementing a framework for addressing reading difficulties. As well as daily reading instruction, all students were screened with phonological awareness measures in Kindergarten and Grade 1. Students identified as requiring additional support received supplemental instruction in phonological awareness, decoding and reading fluency. As a result, student literacy scores increased in each of the four years of implementation:

[S]tudents’ scores on the Grade 4 provincial reading comprehension assessment were far above the provincial average for all students, with 92% meeting or exceeding expectations (compared with 68% provincially), and Aboriginal students, with 94% meeting or exceeding expectations (compared with 51% provincially). These outcomes have been realized despite high vulnerability in a provincial measure of child development, including ranking in the top five most vulnerable districts in the province in terms of social competence and emotional, maturity.[620] [Emphasis added.]

The Model Schools Literacy Project (MSLP), a partnership between First Nations schools and the Martin Family Initiative, has shown the potential of evidence-based literacy programs in Kindergarten to Grade 3 to improve early literacy achievement for First Nations students.

The MSLP emphasizes professional learning for teachers and school leaders because research shows that teaching is the most influential school-based factor in children’s reading achievement, and because teacher education programs in Canada do not cover the specific skills needed to teach reading and writing to young children.[621] In addition to supporting teachers, the project focuses on formative assessment to guide literacy instruction; teaching, including direct instruction in all core reading and writing skills; and contexts for learning (such as parental involvement and community engagement).[622]

The report on the initiative stated:

The plan’s effectiveness was demonstrated in the earlier pilot program (2010–2014). Before the pilot began, 13% of Grade 3 children were reading at grade level on the Ontario provincial assessment; when it ended, 81% reached or exceeded that level, and the percentage of children identified for speech and language support decreased from 45% to 19%.[623]

Although the MSLP is an English-language literacy project, in each school, the community’s Indigenous language and culture are taught. The project values both languages in the school equally and recognizes that gaining skills in one language strengthens learning skills in other languages.[624] The report stated:

…multiple cognitive, social and cultural benefits accrue to children with proficiency in their own Indigenous language and English. To strengthen that interdependence, classroom teachers in the MSLP are encouraged and supported to incorporate language, history and culture into children’s reading and writing activities.[625]

Some studies also suggest that Indigenous students respond well to teaching methods that use elements of Indigenous culture.[626] Teaching early foundational skills should incorporate First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture (for example, through words, music and movement) for teaching phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondences and word reading.[627] As with all students, foundational word-reading skills need to be developed within the overall context of a full literacy program for Indigenous students.

Along with high-quality, evidence-based instruction on early foundational reading skills, First Nations, Métis and Inuit students need holistic approaches to learning and high-quality learning environments that are consistent with Indigenous world views.[628] Educators need to connect with local First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities to find ways to incorporate their experiences and values throughout classroom content.[629] These elements are additions to rather than substitutes for direct and systematic instruction in foundational reading skills. Families reported wanting their children to experience and learn about their culture and to have the instruction they need to be successful across the school curriculum and beyond. The MSLP report noted:

First Nations want their children to know their own language and culture, be proud of their identity and have the literacy skills necessary to pursue unlimited options and opportunities for their lifetime.[630]

The recommendations relating to curriculum, instruction, early screening, accommodation and professional assessments later in this report will benefit First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. Also, the recommendations below address some of the unique needs of these students in Ontario schools.

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Recommendations

The OHRC makes the following recommendations:

 

Recognize distinctions

1. The Ministry of Education (Ministry), school boards and others should use “First Nations, Métis and Inuit” when possible and appropriate. Recognizing and distinguishing between First Nations, Métis and Inuit makes sure that all First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and youth see themselves in the school system, feel represented, and have trust that their unique needs are understood and being met.

 

2. The recommendations in this report should also be interpreted and implemented in a way that addresses the unique needs of distinct Indigenous peoples. First Nations, Métis and Inuit self-identification in terms of community and Nation as well as geographic or region-specific distinctions should be taken into account.[631] Local decision-makers such as school boards should learn about and consult local Indigenous communities.

 

Follow existing recommendations for supporting First Nations, Métis and Inuit students

 

3. Many reports have made recommendations to improve First Nations, Métis and Inuit students’ learning, experiences and well-being in school. Recommendations have included improving access to First Nations, Michif and Inuktut language instruction, First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture, knowledge and perspectives for all students; providing professional development for educators and board professional staff; easing transitions for students; and taking steps to address racism and systemic discrimination. The Ontario Ministry of Education and every Ontario school board should implement all existing recommendations for supporting First Nations, Métis and Inuit students including:

  1. The May 2017 First Nations Special Education Review Report and the 2017 Chiefs of Ontario Position Paper recommendations that relate to Ontario’s role in First Nations special education[632]
  2. The Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres’ recommendations on how to address the accessibility needs of urban Indigenous students, in its July 2017 Response to the Development of an Accessibility Standard for Education[633]
  3. The recommendations to Ontario from the Seven Youth inquest[634]
  4. The Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action, particularly those related to education and updating all provincial curriculum to include Indigenous perspectives and content[635]
  5. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ Calls for Justice, particularly those related to education.[636]
  6. The Council of Ontario Directors of Education Listening Stone Project Reports[637]
  7. The OHRC’s recommendations in To Dream Together: Indigenous peoples and human rights dialogue report.[638]

When implementing recommendations in these reports related to Indigenous content in curriculum and culturally appropriate resources for First Nations, Métis and Inuit learners, the Ministry and school boards should make sure First Nations, Métis and Inuit are each reflected and children from these communities see their own identities positively reflected in the materials. This will give them a sense of belonging and pride.

 

4. The Ontario Ministry of Education and all Ontario school boards should review and, where necessary, revise the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Policy Framework and Indigenous Education Strategy, to make sure it reflects these recommendations.

 

5. The Ontario Ministry of Education, and all Ontario school boards, should make sure boards have an Indigenous Education Advisory Council as required under the Ontario First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework Implementation Plan.[639] School boards should make sure the Councils, and any other places where First Nations, Métis and Inuit students are discussed, are representative of each of the Indigenous communities that are represented in the school board, to ensure that distinct needs and perspectives of students and families are addressed.

 

6. The Ontario Ministry of Education and all Ontario school boards should use the UN Declaration as a framework for implementing these recommendations.[640] The UN Declaration should be interpreted in conjunction with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Articles 7 and 24) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 28).[641]

 

Treat First Nations schools equitably

7. The federal government should implement the recommendations for federally funded First Nations schools in reports referenced in Recommendation 3.

 

8. First Nations schools should receive funding that is equitable compared to provincially funded schools, and any additional funding needed to ensure substantive equality, considering the unique circumstances of students attending First Nations schools.

 

9. The recommendations in this report should be implemented in First Nations schools, as applicable.

 

Use trauma-informed and culturally sensitive approaches

10. The Ministry of Education should encourage all school boards and schools to adopt trauma-informed and culturally safe approaches including by providing guidance, resources and supports.

 

11. All school boards and schools should create trauma-informed and culturally safe school environments and provide comprehensive, sustained and job-embedded training to educators on trauma-informed and culturally safe practices.

 

Identify Indigenous students and provide access to supports

12. School boards should not delay or fail to identify Indigenous students with learning difficulties based on culturally biased practices/assessments or assumptions related to their Indigenous identity.

 

13. Ontario should publicize, adopt and implement a broad approach to Jordan’s Principle and Inuit Child First Initiative funding, consistent with the purpose of ensuring substantive equality, that recognizes that federal funding is available for any government service that is provided to children including health, social and education services such as professional assessments, tutoring and assistive technology.

 

14. Ontario school boards and community service providers should know the criteria and process for applying for federal Jordan’s Principle or Inuit Child First Initiative funding, and promote the use of this funding to access supports to address any needs of First Nations and Inuit students.

 

15. School boards and schools should recognize the role of Friendship Centres and urban Inuit organizations in coordinating holistic, culture-based supports for urban First Nations and Inuit students and their families.

 

16. Ontario school boards and community service providers should understand the role of the MNO in representing and providing wrap-around services to its Métis citizens. The Ministry and school boards should work as partners with the MNO and Métis communities in the school board’s area. School boards should foster the relationship between schools and the MNO’s Education Support Advocacy program. Financial contributions from the province to the MNO’s Education Support Advocacy program would allow for enhanced supports to be provided to Métis learners in a predictable way every year.

 

17. Provincial and federal funding for supports for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students should provide for additional costs associated with northern, remote or isolated circumstances, and should include the cost of travel to receive services, where necessary.

 

18. School boards and schools should recognize First Nations, Métis and Inuit Elders as knowledge keepers and educators, and recognize their role in transmitting cultural knowledge to the younger generation and building stronger, healthier and more resilient young people, families and communities. School boards and schools should increase access to Elders and guest speakers in schools and make sure Elders/guest speakers are representative of all First Nations, Métis and Inuit students represented in the board.

 

19. School boards’ acknowledgements of Indigenous peoples and territories should recognize each of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and territories as appropriate. They should also recognize significant events and days, such as Treaties Recognition Week,[642] National Indigenous Peoples Day, Powley Day[643] and Louis Riel Day.[644]

 

Use instruction and intervention approaches that are effective and inclusive

20. The Ontario Ministry of Education and all school boards should provide evidence-based curriculum and classroom instruction in foundational reading skills in a way that is inclusive to all students, including First Nations, Métis and Inuit students. They should find ways to also incorporate Indigenous experiences, culture and values throughout classroom content.

 

21. Educators should not promote the English or French languages of instruction at the expense of Indigenous languages. They should encourage proficiency in Indigenous languages, recognize the benefits for children when they have proficiency in their own Indigenous language and the language of instruction (English or French), and never discourage students from using or learning their language.

 

22. For First Nations, Métis and Inuit students with or at risk for word reading disabilities, school boards should provide immediate intervention with evidence-based programs. Delays in providing interventions or using interventions that are not rooted in strong evidence with a focus on foundational reading skills will further disadvantage these students.

 

Improve approaches to self-Identification and data

23. School boards should work with First Nations, Métis and Inuit governments (local First Nations governments and the MNO) and local organizations (such as Friendship Centres, Tungasuvvingat Inuit) to understand and respond to any concerns with self-identification. They should clearly communicate how self-identification benefits First Nations, Métis and Inuit students and how self-identification data will be kept confidential and used. They should never use self-identification data to portray First Nations, Métis or Inuit students in a negative or disrespectful way.

 

24. School boards should make sure they have data on the percentage of students who self-identify as First Nations, Métis and Inuit overall, and broken down by First Nation, Métis and Inuit.

 

25. School boards should collect and analyze data on achievement and outcomes (such as EQAO results, course completion and graduation rates) for students who have self-identified as First Nations, Métis and Inuit. They should track whether First Nations, Métis and Inuit students have IEPs or have been identified with an LD exceptionality (see also recommendations related to data collection in section 13, Systemic issues). They should respond to any equity gaps identified in the data.

 

26. School boards should share this data with First Nations, Métis and Inuit governments (local First Nations governments and the MNO) and local organizations (such as Friendship Centres, Tungasuvvingat Inuit) on a regular basis. They should work as partners with these governments and organizations to make sure culturally appropriate supports can be provided to improve First Nations, Métis and Inuit students’ outcomes.
 


 

[483] Ontario, Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey: Technical Appendix, supra note 322 at 6; A Solid Foundation: Second Progress Report on the Implementation of the Ontario First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework (2013) at 11, online (pdf): Ontario Ministry of Education files.ontario.ca/edu-solid-foundation-second-progress-report-2013-first-nation-metis-inuit-education-policy-framework-en-2021-10-21.pdf [Ontario Ministry of Education, A Solid Foundation].

[484] First Nations children attending federally funded on reserve schools have rights under the Canadian Human Rights Act, RSC, 1985, c H-6 [Canadian Human Rights Act].

[485] Ontario First Nation Special Education Working Group, Review Report, supra note 310 at 13, online (pdf): Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation firstnationsspecialeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Ontario-First-Nations-Special-Education-Review-Report-May-2017-2.pdf; Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciliation for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015) at 145, online (pdf): National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf [Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Summary of the Final Report].

[486] Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) Volume 1a at 59, online (pdf): National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Final_Report_Vol_1a-1.pdf [National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Final Report Volume 1a].

[487] See First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada v Attorney General of Canada (for the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada), 2016 CHRT 2; 2016 CHRT 10; 2016 CHRT 16; 2017 CHRT 14; 2017 CHRT 35; 2019 CHRT 7; 2019 CHRT 39; 2020 CHRT 20. See also discussion of Jordan’s Principle below.

[488] Ontario is home to six Indigenous language families – Anishinaabek, Onkwehonwe, Mushkegowuk, Lunaape, Inuktitut and Michif, which include over 18 unique languages and dialects: “Ontario Investing in Indigenous Language Revitalization” (9 March 2018), online: Government of Ontario https://news.ontario.ca/en/release/48527/ontario-marking-ten-years-of-collaboration-on-indigenous-education. There are over 70 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada: Census in Brief 2016: The Aboriginal languages of First Nations people, Metis and Inuit, Catalogue No 98-200-X2016022 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2017), online: Statistics Canada www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/as-sa/98-200-x/2016022/98-200-x2016022-eng.cfm [Statistics Canada, Census in Brief 2016: The Aboriginal languages of First Nations people, Metis and Inuit].

[489] Statistics Canada, Census in Brief 2016: The Aboriginal languages of First Nations peoples, Metis and Inuit, supra note 488 at preamble.

[490] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Summary of the Final Report, supra note 485 at 80–85; “The Indian Residential Schools system is officially established: 1880” (last viewed 14 January 2022), online: Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages www.clo-ocol.gc.ca/en/timeline-event/indian-residential-schools-system-officially-established [Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “The Indian Residential Schools system is officially established: 1880”].

[491] Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, “The Indian Residential Schools system is officially established: 1880,” supra note 490.

[492] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action (2015), at Calls to Action 10, 13–17, online (pdf):  National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf [Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Calls to Action].

[493] The Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), c 11, s35. Note that that the Constitution Act uses the term Aboriginal.

[494] Indigenous Languages Act, SC 2019, c 23, s 6.

[495] It has been noted that Indigenous communities want their children to know their own culture, speak an Indigenous language, and also learn the required skills to succeed in the non-lndigenous world: Patrick Walton & Gloria Ramirez, “Reading Acquisition in Young Aboriginal Children” (2012) Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development 1 at 1, online: Research Gate researchgate.net/publication/236154074_Reading_Acquisition_in_Young_Aboriginal_Children [Walton & Ramirez, “Reading Acquisition in Young Aboriginal Children”].

[496] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Reclaiming Power and Place: Executive summary of the Final Report (2019) at 4. online (pdf): National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Executive_Summary.pdf [National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Executive Summary].

[497] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Summary of the Final Report, supra note 485 at 370.

[498] Ibid at 61.

[499] Parks Canada, The Residential School System Backgrounder, online: Government of Canada   canada.ca/en/parks-canada/news/2020/09/the-residential-school-system.html. The odds of dying for children in residential schools was one in 25, a higher mortality rate than for Canadians serving in World War II: Daniel Schwartz, “Truth and Reconciliation Commission: By the numbers” CBC News (2 June 2015), online: CBC News cbc.ca/news/indigenous/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-by-the-numbers-1.3096185.

[500] For example, a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children, some as young as three years, was found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia: Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc, Statement of the Office of the Chief (27 May 2021), online (pdf): Tk’emlúps tkemlups.ca/wp-content/uploads/05-May-27-2021-TteS-MEDIA-RELEASE.pdf; as many as 751 unmarked graves were found at the site of the former Marieval Residential School in Saskatchewan; “Sask First Nation announces hundreds of unmarked graves found at former residential school site” (23 June 2021), online: CBC News cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/cowessess-graves-unmarked-residential-school-marieval-1.6077797; and 182 unmarked graves were found near the site of the former St. Eugene Mission School in British Columbia: Alex Migdal, “182 unmarked graves discovered near residential school in B.C.’s interior, First Nation says” (30 June 2021), online: CBC News cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-remains-residential-school-interior-1.6085990. Many more unmarked graves are likely to be found.

[501] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Summary of the Final Report, supra note 485 at 55. According to the TRC:

Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next. In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.

[502] Ibid at 144.

[503] William Aguiar & Regine Halseth, Aboriginal Peoples and Historic Trauma: the process of intergenerational transmission (Prince George, BC: National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, 2015) at 19, online (pdf): National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health ccnsa-nccah.ca/docs/context/RPT-HistoricTrauma-IntergenTransmission-Aguiar-Halseth-EN.pdf [Aguiar & Halseth].

[504] According to the TRC: “Existing records make it impossible to say how many Métis children attended residential school. But they did attend almost every residential school discussed in this report at some point. They would have undergone the same experiences – the high death rates, limited diets, crowded and unsanitary housing, harsh discipline, heavy workloads, neglect, and abuse – described in the other volumes of this history.” Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada’s Residential Schools: The Métis Experience, The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Volume 3, (2015) at 4, online (pdf): Truth and Reconciliation Commission trc.ca/assets/pdf/Volume_3_Metis_English_Web.pdf [Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Final Report Volume 3].

[505] Ibid at 4, 55.

[506] “From the early 1920s until the 1940s, Métis parents faced numerous barriers if they wanted to provide their children with a formal education. Once again, the federal government had started to dismiss Métis students from residential schools, while the provinces, for cost reasons, were reluctant to ensure that they were admitted to public schools.” Ibid at 26, 29.

[507] Ibid at 41.

[508] Ibid at 55.

[509] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada’s Residential Schools: The Inuit and Northern Experience: The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Volume 2, (2015) at 4, online (pdf): ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Volume_2_Inuit_and_Northern_English_Web.pdf. [Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Final Report Volume 2].

[510] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Summary of the Final Report, supra note 485 at 150.

[511] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Final Report Volume 2, supra note 509 at 4.

[512]  Ibid.

[513] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Summary of the Final Report, supra note 485 at 8.

[514] Ibid at 69.

[515] Interrupted Childhoods: Over-representation of Indigenous and Black children in Ontario child welfare, (2018) at s 4.1, online: Ontario Human Rights Commission www.ohrc.on.ca/en/interrupted-childhoods; Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Summary of the Final Report, supra note 485 at 135–36. A 2016 Statistics Canada study found that First Nations children (aged 14 and under) made up 82% of the Indigenous children in foster care in Canada, while Métis children made up 13%, and Inuit children made up 4%; see: Annie Turner, Living Arrangements of Aboriginal children aged 14 and under, Catalogue No 75-006-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 13 April 2016), online (pdf): Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal https://cwrp.ca/sites/default/files/publications/en/nhs_aboriginal_children_living_conditions_2016.pdf [Turner, Living Arrangements of Aboriginal children aged 14 and under].

[516] Aguiar & Halseth, supra note 503 at 7.

[517] Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools” (11 June 2008), online: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100015644/1571589171655. See also The Honourable Jane Stewart, “Address by the Honourable Jane Stewart Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development on the occasion of the unveiling of Gathering Strength – Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan” (7 January 1998), Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100015725/1571590271585.

[518] Statement on the Discovery Around Kamloops Indian Residential School (28 May 2021), online: Government of Canada www.canada.ca/en/crown-indigenous-relations-northern-affairs/news/2021/05/statement-on-the-discovery-around-kamloops-indian-residential-school.html.

[519] Melisa Brittain & Cindy Blackstock, First Nations Child Poverty: A Literature Review and Analysis (Ottawa: First Nations Children’s Action Research and Education Service, 2015) at 81––102, online (pdf): First Nations Child and Family Caring Society fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/First%20Nations%20Child%20Poverty%20-%20A%20Literature%20Review%20and%20Analysis%202015-3.pdf.

[520] “Under Suspicion: Issues raised by Indigenous Peoples” (2017), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/under-suspicion-issues-raised-indigenous-peoples.

[521] Canada, Chief Coroner’s Office, Inquest into the deaths of Seven First Nations Youths: Jethro Anderson, Reggie Bushie, Robyn Harper. Kyle Morrisseau, Paul Panacheese, Curran Strang, Jordan Wabasse (Thunder Bay: Verdict Explanation, 2016), at 10 [Chief Coroner’s Office: Inquest into the deaths of Seven First Nations Youths]. On December 14, 2020, a Thunder Bay man, Brayden Bushby, was found guilty of manslaughter for intentionally throwing a trailer hitch out of a moving vehicle at an Indigenous woman, Barbara Kentner, who later died, see: R v Brayden Bushby, 2020 ONSC 7780.

[522] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Summary of the Final Report, supra note 485 at 135.

[523] Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual; National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Final Report Volume 1a, supra note 486 at 40.

[524] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Executive Summary, supra note 496 at 5.

[525] “Response to the Development of an Accessibility Standard for Education” (July 2017) at 4, online: Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres https://ofifc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2017-06-21-Increasing-Education-Access-for-Urban-Indigenous-Students.pdf [Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, “Response to the development of an Accessibility Standard for Education”.]

[526] Paula Arriagada et al, Indigenous people and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, Catalogue No 45280001 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada 23 June 2020), online: Statistics Canada www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/45-28-0001/2020001/article/00035-eng.htm.

[527] Mohan B Kumar & Michael Tjepkema , Aboriginal Peoples, Suicide among First Nations, Metis and Inuit (2011-2016): Findings from the 2011 Canadian Census Health and Environment Cohort (CanCHEC), in National Household Survey, Catalogue No 99-011-X2019001, (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 28 June 2019), online: Statistics Canada www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/99-011-x/99-011-x2019001-eng.htm [Kumar & Tjepkema].

[528] Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN) is a political territorial organization representing 49 First Nations communities in northern Ontario.

[529] Kumar & Tjepkema, supra note 527.

[530] Neglect has been characterized as “often a failure to act in the child’s best interest, and carries a risk of cumulative harm over time.” In contrast, child abuse is often “a deliberate, harmful act that carries an immediate risk to the child’s well-being.” Aboriginal Children in Care Working Group, Aboriginal Children in Care: Report to Canada’s Premiers (Ottawa: Council of the Federation Secretariat, 2015) at 10, online (pdf): First Nations Child and Family Caring Society fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/Aboriginal%20Children%20in%20Care%20Report%20%28July%202015%29.pdf.

[531] Aguiar & Halseth, supra note 503 at 8; Chief Coroner’s Office: Inquest into the deaths of Seven First Nations Youths, supra note 521.

[532] “Trauma can be defined as the emotional, psychological, and physiological response from heightened stress that accompanies experiences of threat, violence, and life-challenging events. Both immediate symptoms (shock and denial) and long-term symptoms (unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships etc.) are normal responses to traumatic events that typically follow.” See: Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres: Trauma-Informed Schools, supra note 282.  

[533] Aguiar & Halseth, supra note 503 at 7; Chief Coroner’s Office: Inquest into the deaths of Seven First Nations Youths, supra note 521. 

[534] Aguiar & Halseth, supra note 503 at 7.

[535] See for example Amy Bombay et al, “Intergenerational Trauma: Convergence of Multiple Processes among First Nations peoples in Canada” (2009) 5:3 International Journal of Indigenous Health, online: University of Toronto Libraries | Journal Production Services jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/ijih/article/view/28987/23916; Amy Bombay et al, “The intergenerational effects of Indian Residential Schools: implications for the concept of historical trauma” (2014) 51:3 Transcultural Psychiatry 320, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1363461513503380; and National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Final Report Volume 1a, supra note 486 at 113.

[536] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Final Report Volume 1a, supra note 486 at 338.

[537] Ontario, Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey: Technical Appendix, supra note 322 at 6; Ontario, Ministry of Education, A Solid Foundation, supra note 483 at 11.

[538] “Fact Sheet: First Nations Education Funding” (last viewed 14 January 2022), online (pdf): Assembly of First Nations www.afn.ca/uploads/files/education/fact_sheet_-_fn_education_funding_final.pdf [Assembly of First Nations, “Fact Sheet: First Nations Education Funding”].

[539] Don Drummond & Ellen Kachuck Rosenbluth, “The Debate on First Nations Education Funding: Mind the Gap” (December 2013) Queen’s University Working Paper 49 at 20, online (pdf): Queen’s University qspace.library.queensu.ca/bitstream/handle/1974/14846/Drummond_et_al_2013_Debate_on_First_Nations.pdf?sequence=1. [Drummond & Kachuck Rosenbluth].

[540] See for example ibid.

[541] Ibid at 20.

[542] First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, “First Nations Education Information Sheet #1” (adapted from a pamphlet produced by the Assembly of First Nations, 2010) (last visited 14 January 2022), online (pdf): First Nations Child and Family Caring Society fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/FN-Education-Info-Sheet.pdf; Assembly of First Nations, “Fact Sheet: First Nations Education Funding, supra note 538.

[543] Ontario First Nations Special Education Working Group, Review Report, supra note 310.

[544] Ibid.

[545] Chiefs of Ontario, “Special Education Position Paper” (2017), online (pdf): Chiefs of Ontario education.chiefs-of-ontario.org/download/special-education-position-paper-2017/?wpdmdl=1439&refresh=61e998cc67d211642698956&ind=1608668954309&filename=doc_17-06-02-2017-special-education-position.pdf[Chiefs of Ontario, “Special Education Position Paper.”]

[546] Ibid at 3.

[547] Ibid at 7.

[548] Hill + Knowlton Strategies Canada, Let’s talk on-reserve education: survey report (last modified 18 December 2017), online: Government of Canada sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1509019844067/1531399883352?wbdisable=true; [Hill + Knowlton]; Chiefs of Ontario, “Special Education Position Paper,” supra note 545 at 7.

[549] Press Release, "Government of Canada and Assembly of First Nations announce new policy and funding approach for First Nations K-12 education on reserve” (21 January 2019), online: Assembly of First Nations afn.ca/government-of-canada-and-assembly-of-first-nations-announce-new-policy-and-funding-approach-for-first-nations-k-12-education-on-reserve/.

[550] Indigenous Services Canada, “New Funding and Policy Approach for First Nations Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education, Backgrounder” (2019), online (pdf): Assembly of First Nations afn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/2019.01.21_BG-Word_K-12Education-EN.pdf.

[551] See First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in partnership with the Wabanaki Council on Disability and Mawita’mk Society, Jordan’s Principle and Children with Disabilities and Special Needs: A Resource Guide and Analysis of Canada’s Implementation (March 2021) at 12–13, online (pdf): First Nations Child and Family Caring Society  fncaringsociety.com/sites/default/files/jordans_principle_resource_guide_2021_final.pdf [First Nations Child and Family Caring Society et al, Jordan’s Principle and Children with Disabilities and Special Needs].

[552] Accessing Jordan’s Principle, A Resource for First Nations Parents, Caregivers, Families and Communities (2018), online (pdf): Assembly of First Nations afn.ca/uploads/Social_Development/Jordan%27s%20Principle%20Handbook%202019_en.pdf; First Nations Child and Family Caring Society et al, Jordan’s Principle and Children with Disabilities and Special Needs, supra note 551.

[553] “Supporting Inuit Children” (last modified 29 May 2020), online: Government of Canada sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1536348095773/1536348148664.

[554] “Inuit Child First Initiative” (last visited 14 January 2022), online: Inuvialuit Regional Corporation irc.inuvialuit.com/services/health-and-wellness/inuit-child-first-initiative.

[555] “Child First Initiative” (last visited 14 January 2022), online: Tungasuvvingat Inuit https://tiontario.ca/programs/child-first-initiative.

[556] Memorandum from Stephen Lecce (Minister of Education) & Nancy Naylor (Deputy Minister) to Chairs of District School Boards et al regarding “Planning for the 2021-22 School Year” (4 May 2021) at 12, online (pdf): Government of Ontario efis.fma.csc.gov.on.ca/faab/Memos/B2021/B07_EN.pdf [Memorandum from Minister Lecce & Deputy Minister Naylor]; K Gallagher-Mackay et al, “COVID-19 and education disruption in Ontario: emerging evidence on impacts” (4 June 2021; updated 16 June 2021) Science Briefs of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table 2021;2(34), DOI: https://doi.org/10.47326/ocsat.2021.02.34.1.0; for a discussion of how the pandemic has affected literacy in First Nations schools see J T O’Sullivan, Model Schools Literacy Project: Investing in Children (Montreal: Martin Family Initiative, 2021), online: The Martin Family Initiative https://themfi.ca/investing-in-children [O’Sullivan, Model Schools Literacy Project].

[557] Cindy Blackstock, “The Emergence of the Breath of Life Theory” (2011) 8:1 Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics at 3, online (pdf): Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics jswve.org/download/2011-1/spr11-blackstock-Emergence-breath-of-life-theory.pdf.

[558] Ibid at 3–5.

[559] Ontario Native Literacy Coalition, Teachings of the Medicine Wheel, Basic Level Teachings Unit 2: Student Manual (2010), online (pdf): Ontario Native Literacy Coalition onlc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Medicine-Wheel-Student-Manual1.pdf; “The Medicine Wheel Teachings” (last visited 14 January 2022), online: Open Library ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/movementtowardsreconciliation/chapter/the-medicine-wheel-teachings/. [ “The Medicine Wheel Teachings.”]  

[560] Ibid.   

[561] “Walking Together: First Nations, Metis and Inuit Perspectives in Curriculum: Well-being, Cycles of Life,” excerpt ©Nelson Education Ltd. Aboriginal Perspectives, Toronto, ON, 2004, pp. 86–90 (last viewed 14 January 2022), online (pdf): Government of Alberta learnalberta.ca/content/aswt/well_being/documents/cycles_of_life.pdf [Government of Alberta, “Walking Together”]; Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, Full Circle: First Nations, Metis, Inuit Ways of Knowing, (2012), online (pdf): Ontario Institute for Studies in Education oise.utoronto.ca/deepeningknowledge/UserFiles/File/UploadedAmina_/full-circle-first-nations-metis-and-inuit-ways-of-knowing.pdf; Nicole Bell, “Teaching by the Medicine Wheel” (9 June 2014), online: EdCan Network edcan.ca/articles/teaching-by-the-medicine-wheel/.

[562] Government of Alberta, “Walking Together,” supra note 561.

[563] Independent Auditor’s Report 2021: Report 3 – Access to Safe Drinking Water in First Nations Communities – Indigenous Services Canada (25 February 2021), online (pdf): Office of the Auditor General of Canada oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/att__e_43754.html.

[564] Statistics Canada, “Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2006: School Experiences of Off-Reserve First Nations Children Aged 6 to 14” by Evelyn Bougie, Catalogue No 89-637-X – No. 001 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2009), online (pdf): Statistics Canada www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-637-x/89-637-x2009001-eng.pdf [Statistics Canada, “Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2006”].

[565] 3.7% selected “not applicable.”

[566] Rounded to the nearest whole percent. Sample size was 27 for First Nations students, 20 for Métis students, and 46 for all Indigenous students.

[567] Statistics Canada, “Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2006”, supra note 564 at 31.

[568] Indigenous children are twice as likely as non-Indigenous children to live with their grandparents: Turner, Living Arrangements of Aboriginal children aged 14 and under, supra note 515.   

[569] “Trauma-informed practice” (last visited 14 January 2022), online: Government of Alberta alberta.ca/trauma-informed-practice.aspx.

[570] Education Connections, Strengthening Attendance and Retention of Indigenous Youth in Elementary and Secondary Schools in Canada and Beyond (Fredericton, NB: Education Connections, 2017) at 21, online (pdf): Assembly of First Nations afn.ca/event_download/478e1939-2d72-47c0-83ef-05440aae1381/40754b7b-4569-43fc-82e5-6aa212f01b21/544475d1-9b73-4a1d-9a39-559dce3bf3fb/D5.%20FNEII%20-%20Attendance%20Environmental%20Scan.pdf; [Education Connections, Strengthening Attendance and Retention];  Statistics Canada, “Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2006”, supra note 564 at 31.

[571] Education Connections, Strengthening Attendance and Retention, supra note 570 at 21. This was confirmed in the lived experience accounts we received.

[572] Statistics Canada, “Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2006”, supra note 564 at 31.

[573] Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, “Response to the Development of an Accessibility Standard for Education,” supra note 525 at 3.

[574] For example: Chiefs of Ontario, “Special Education Position Paper,” supra note 545;  Ontario First Nations Special Education Working Group, Review Report, supra note 310; Kelly Gallagher-Mackay et al, “First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Education: Overcoming gaps in provincially funded schools” (Toronto, ON: People for Education, 2013), online (pdf): People for Education peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Indigenous-Education-2013.pdf.

[575] “Indigenous Education in Ontario” (last modified 7 December 2021), online: Ministry of Education edu.gov.on.ca/eng/aboriginal/supporting.html.

[576] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Final Report Volume 1a, supra note 486 at 409. 

[577] To dream together: Indigenous peoples and human rights dialogue report (September 2018), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/dream-together-indigenous-peoples-and-human-rights-dialogue-report [OHRC, To dream together].

[578] See for example, the success of alternative secondary school programs operated by Indigenous Friendship Centres: “Alternative Secondary School Program” (last visited 14 January 2022), online: Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres ofifc.org/program/alternative-secondary-school-program/ [Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, “Alternative Secondary School Program”];  “OFIFC’s Response to the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel” (2016), online (pdf): Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres https://ofifc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2016-02-22-Response-to-the-Highly-Skilled-Workforce-Expert-Panel.pdf and the creation of the Mi’kmaq education authority. Twenty years ago, the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq First Nation took control of their education system and increased graduation rates from 30% to 90%, the highest on-reserve graduation rate in Canada: Michael MacDonald, “Carolyn Bennett lauds ‘amazing’ Mi’kmaq graduation rate in NS, signs new $600-million agreement” Global News (14 March 2019), online: Global News globalnews.ca/news/5056368/mikmaq-education-authority-ns/ [MacDonald.]

[579] MacDonald, supra note 578.

[580] Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, “Alternative Secondary School Program,” supra note 578.

[581] Hill + Knowlton, supra note 548; see also Ontario Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey, Executive Summary to the Third Progress Report on the Implementation of the Ontario First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework (2018) at 3, online (pdf): Government of Ontario https://www.ontario.ca/page/strengthening-our-learning-journey-third-progress-report-implementation-ontario-first-nation [Ontario Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey - Executive Summary] for a discussion of the importance of Indigenous counsellors and support workers to assist students with transitions, and also to engage and retain students at risk of leaving school early.

[582] OHRC, To dream together, supra note 577.

[583] Ontario, Ministry of Education, “Ontario, First Nation, Metis, and Inuit Education Policy Framework” (2007) at 6, online (pdf): Government of Ontario ontario.ca/page/ontario-first-nation-metis-and-inuit-education-policy-framework-2007; Moving toward reconciliation in Ontario’s publicly funded schools (2016) at 2, online (pdf): People for Education https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/P4E-Indigenous-Education-2016.pdf; Tanya C Leary, “First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Education 101” (2014), online: EFTO Voice https://etfovoice.ca/node/586; Daniel Schwartz, “First Nations education needs fresh ideas, leaders say” CBC News (4 November 2013), online: CBC cbc.ca/news/canada/first-nations-education-needs-fresh-ideas-leaders-say-1.2255180; Brittany Hobson, “New report highlights underrepresentation of Indigenous school teachers in Winnipeg” APTN National News (9 October 2020), online: APTN News https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/new-report-highlights-underrepresentation-of-indigenous-school-teachers-in-winnipeg/.

[584] Chiefs of Ontario, “Special Education Position Paper,” supra note 545 at 6.

[585] Chief Coroner’s Office, Inquest into the deaths of Seven First Nations Youths, supra note 521 at 12.

[586] The Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) operates two First Nations high schools in Thunder Bay and near Sioux Lookout for NAN on-reserve students; Ibid at 13.

[587] Ontario, Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey - Executive Summary supra note 581 at 3.

[588] A Coroner’s inquest (the Seven Youth inquest) examined the deaths of Reggie Bushie, Jethro Anderson, Jordan Wabasse, Kyle Morrisseau, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese and Robyn Harper, seven youth from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation who died when attending a First Nations high school in Thunder Bay. The inquest identified recommendations for improving Indigenous education and better supporting student transitions. See: Chief Coroner’s Office, Inquest into the deaths of Seven First Nations Youths, supra note 521.

[589] The seven youth from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation were attending a First Nations high school in Thunder Bay.

[590] A term used to describe the Inuit homeland in Canada, encompassing the land claims regions of Nunavut, Nunavik in Northern Quebec, Nunatsiavut in Northern Labrador and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of the Northwest Territories; see “Inuit Nunangat Map” (last visited 14 January 2022) online: Inuit Tapirit Kanatami itk.ca/inuit-nunangat-map/.

[591] Jim Bell, “Tungasuvvingat Inuit signs five-year education pact with Ontario,” Nunatsiaq News (4 December 2017), online: Nunatsiaq News nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/65674tungasuvvingat_inuit_signs_five-year_education_pact_with_ontario/.

[592] Chief Coroner’s Office, Inquest into the deaths of Seven First Nations Youths, supra note 521. 

[593] Chiefs of Ontario, “Special Education Position Paper,” supra note 545 at 6.

[594] The TRC report also discusses the strength and contributions of residential school survivors:

Survivors are more than just victims of violence. They are also holders of Treaty, constitutional and human rights. They are women and men who have resilience, courage and vision. Many have become Elders, community leaders, educators, lawyers, and political activists who are dedicated to revitalizing their cultures, languages, Treaties, laws and governance systems. Through lived experience, they have gained deep insights into what victims of violence require to heal. Equally important, they have provided wise counsel to political leaders, legislators, policymakers, and all citizens about how to prevent such violence from happening again.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Summary of the Final Report, supra note 485 at 207. 

[595] The OHRC recognizes that there are issues with evaluating Indigenous students’ achievement using these measures, in particular standardized testing which has been described as Eurocentric and biased towards Indigenous students among others. 

[596] Ontario Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey Executive Summary supra note 581.

[597] Ontario, Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey: Technical Appendix, supra note 322 at 9.

[598] Results for self-identified Inuit students in the French-language system were not reported because of the small number of self-identified Inuit students (less than 10).

[599] Ontario Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey: Technical Appendix, supra note 322 at 10.

[600] Ibid at 18.

[601] Due to low numbers (fewer than 10), data for Inuit students in the French system is not provided.

[602] Ontario Ministry of Education, Strengthening Our Learning Journey: Technical Appendix, supra note 322 at 19.

[603] Ibid at 32.

[604] Ibid at 33.

[605] Ibid at 40.

[606] Building Bridges to Success for First Nation, Métis and Inuit Students – Developing Policies for Voluntary, Confidential Aboriginal Student Self-Identification: Successful Practices for Ontario School Boards (2007) at 6, online (pdf): Ontario, Ministry of Education https://files.ontario.ca/edu-building-bridges-to-success-first-nation-metis-inuit-students-en-2021-10-21.pdf [Ontario Ministry of Education, Building Bridges to Success for First Nation, Métis and Inuit Students].

[607] Aboriginal Self-Identification Project Final Report (May 2013) at 17–18, online (pdf): Council of Ontario Universities cou.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/COU-Aboriginal-Self-Identification-Project.pdf; Ontario Ministry of Education, Building Bridges to Success for First Nation, Métis and Inuit Students, supra note 606 at 13.  

[608] For resources on Indigenous research methodologies see “Indigenous Methodologies: Xwi7xwa Library” (last visited 29 January 2022), online: The University of British Columbia Library https://guides.library.ubc.ca/ld.php?content_id=35791473.

[609] The Ministry of Education advised that all school boards have had access to their own self-identification data as well as regional and provincial aggregate data for several years (including breakdowns of self-identification data and achievement data) through the Indigenous Education Analytical Profile Tool.

[610] Total number of self-identified Indigenous students in grades 3 and 6:

 

Grade 3

Grade 6

Hamilton-Wentworth

27

28

Keewatin-Patricia

152

166

Lakehead

116

107

London Catholic

N/A*

N/A*

Ottawa-Carleton

N/D

N/D

Peel

N/A*

N/A*

Simcoe Muskoka Catholic

16

19

Thames Valley

116

156

N/A*: London Catholic provided the data but it is not reported due to the very small sample size and risk of compromising individual student identities.

N/D: Ottawa-Carleton did not provide the number of students in the sample

[611] Hamilton-Wentworth in Grade 3, London Catholic in Grade 3, Simcoe-Muskoka Catholic in Grades 3 and 6.

[612] We could not assess Indigenous student achievement in the eighth board, Peel, as it did not provide the data citing student confidentiality concerns.

[613] T M Janzen et al, “Cognitive and reading profiles of two samples of Canadian First Nations children: Comparing two models for identifying reading disability” (2013) 28:4 Canadian Journal of School Psychology 323 at 327, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0829573513507419 [Janzen et al, “Cognitive and reading profiles of two samples of Canadian First Nations children”]. See also J P Das et al, “Influence of distal and proximal cognitive processes on word reading” (2008)29:4, Reading Psychology 366–393, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02702710802153412 [Das et al, “Influence of distal and proximal cognitive processes on word reading.”]

[614] Janzen et al, “Cognitive and reading profiles of two samples of Canadian First Nations children,” supra note 613 at 340.

[615] J P Das et al, “Correlates of Canadian native children's reading performance: From cognitive styles to cognitive processes” (2007) 45:6, Journal of School Psychology 589 at 600, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2007.06.004 [Das et al, “Correlates of Canadian native children’s reading performance”].

[616] Walton & Ramirez, “Reading Acquisition in Young Aboriginal Children,” supra note 495 at 3; Patrick Walton, “Using Songs and Movement to Teach Reading to Aboriginal Children” (2010)), Canadian Council of Learning, online: Research Gate www.researchgate.net/publication/228998127_Using_songs_and_movement_to_teach_reading_to_Aboriginal_children [Walton, “Using Songs and Movement to Teach Reading to Aboriginal Children.”]

[617] Das et al, “Correlates of Canadian native children’s reading performance,” supra 615 at 600. See also: Das et al, “Influence of distal and proximal cognitive processes on word reading,” supra 613.

[618] M Williams, “Phonemic Awareness and Early Spelling Skills in Urban Australian Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Children” (2010) 12:6 International journal of speech language pathology 497, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3109/17549507.2011.481798; Margot Prior, “Language and literacy challenges for Indigenous children in Australia” (2013) 18:2, Australian J of Learn Difficulties 123, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/19404158.2013.840901.

[619] Jennifer R Wolgemuth et al, “ABRACADABRA aids Indigenous and non-Indigenous early literacy in Australia: Evidence from a multisite randomized controlled trial” (2013) 67 Computers and Education 250, DOI: https://doi.org.10.1016/j.compedu.2013.04.002.

[620] K McIntosh et al, “Response to intervention in Canada: Definitions, the evidence base, and future directions” (2011), 26:1 Canadian Journal of School Psychology 18, at 32, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0829573511400857.

[621] O’Sullivan, Model Schools Literacy Project, supra note 556 at 12.

[622] Ibid at 12-13.

[623] Ibid at 13.

[624] Ibid at 9.

[625] Ibid.

[626] Walton & Ramirez, “Reading Acquisition in Young Aboriginal Children,” supra note 495 at 1; Walton, “Using Songs and Movement to Teach Reading to Aboriginal Children,” supra note 616.

[627] Ibid.

[628] Pamela Rose Toulouse, “What matters in Indigenous Education: Implementing a Vision Committed to Holism, Diversity and Engagement” (Toronto, ON: People for Education, 2016), online (pdf): People for Education peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/MWM-What-Matters-in-Indigenous-Education.pdf.

[629] Ibid.

[630] O’Sullivan, Model Schools Literacy Project, supra note 556 at 9.

[631] See also: Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) Volume 1b at 167–218 (“Calls for Justice”), online (pdf): National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls mmiwg-ffada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Final_Report_Vol_1b.pdf [National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Final Report Volume 1b].

[632] Ontario First Nations Special Education Working Group, Review Report, supra note 310 at 13. See also letter from Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane to Minister Mitzie Hunter regarding “Implementing Recommendations on First Nations Special Education” (20 November 2017), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission ohrc.on.ca/en/re-implementing-recommendations-first-nations-special-education.

[633] Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres, “Response to the development of an Accessibility Standard for Education,” supra note 525.

[634] Chief Coroner’s Office: Inquest into the deaths of Seven First Nations Youths, supra note 521. 

[635] Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Calls to Action, supra note 492.

[636] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Final Report Volume 1b, supra note 631 at 167-218 (“Calls for Justice”). 

[637] See project year one to four reports here: “CODE Current projects” (last visited 17 January 2022), online: Council of Ontario Directors of Education ontariodirectors.ca/projects-current.html.

[638] OHRC, To dream together, supra note 577.

[639] “Indigenous education in Ontario” (last modified 7 December 2021), online: Government of Ontario ontario.ca/page/indigenous-education-ontario.

[640] UN Declaration, supra note 291.

[641] CRPD, supra note 8. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNGAOR, 61st Sess, Supp No 49, UN Doc A/RES/61/106 (2007), arts 7 and 24; Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, UNTS 1577, art 28 (entered into force on 2 September 1990).

[642] In 2016, Ontario passed legislation declaring the first week of November as Treaties Recognition Week. This annual event honours the importance of treaties and helps students and residents of Ontario learn more about treaty rights and relationships; “Treaties” (last modified 16 November 2021), online: Government of Ontario ontario.ca/page/treaties#:~:text=In%202016%2C%20Ontario%20passed%20legislation,about%20treaty%20rights%20and%20relationships.

[643] September 19th celebrates the anniversary of a landmark Métis rights victory at the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Powley. The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously recognized Métis rights in Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution; see “A Powley Day message from MNO President Margaret Froh” (19 September 2020), online: Metis Nation of Ontario metisnation.org/news/powley-day-2020/#:~:text=Now%20known%20as%20%E2%80%9CPowley%20Day,Canada%20in%20R%20v%20Powley.

[644] November 16, the anniversary of Riel’s execution in 1885. MNO citizens, MNO Chartered Community Councils and communities hold events across Ontario to celebrate Métis culture, recognize the many contributions of the Métis to Canada, and highlight the struggles Métis continue to face; “Louis Riel Day Information” (last modified 20 November 2020), online: Metis Nation of Ontario metisnation.org/culture-heritage/louis-riel-day-info/.

8. Curriculum and instruction

Introduction

Children with unaddressed reading difficulties have not failed the system; the system has failed them. We now know that this is not inevitable, even for children who face significant challenges.

- Ontario 2003 Expert Panel on Early Reading Report at p 7

Science has shown that there are effective and ineffective ways to teach word reading. Reading scientists have studied how young children learn to read for decades. This body of scientific research, also known as the science of reading, has outlined how reading develops, why many students have difficulties learning to read, and how to teach early reading to prevent reading failure, among other things.

The science of reading

This report uses terms like the “science of reading,” “reading science,” “research-based,” “evidence-based” and “science-based” to refer to the vast body of scientific research that has studied how reading skills develop and how to ensure the highest degree of success in teaching all children to read. The science of reading includes results from thousands of peer-reviewed studies and meta-analyses that use rigorous scientific methods. The science of reading is based on expertise from many fields including education, special education, developmental psychology, educational psychology, cognitive science and more.

Although some approaches to reading are promoted as “research-based,” this research does not always follow good scientific methods.[645] Many approaches are based on theories or philosophies with no scientific evidence to support them. In contrast, the science of reading includes results from thousands of peer-reviewed studies that use rigorous scientific methods.[646]

Learning to read is a complex process. For most children, learning to read words does not come easily or naturally from exposure to language or reading. Reading is a skill that must be taught.[647] Ontario’s 2003 Expert Panel on Early Reading noted: “Children must be taught to understand, interpret, and manipulate the printed symbols of written language. This is an essential task of the first few years of school.”[648] These experts also noted that there is a critical window of opportunity, and age four to seven is the best time to teach children to read.[649]

Written language is a code that represents our spoken language. The goal of reading is to understand what we read. One important part of this is learning to decipher or “crack the code” – to become accurate and efficient at reading written words. To do this, students need direct and systematic instruction in the code of a written language (also called the orthography). Teaching the foundational skills of decoding and spelling written words in a direct and systematic way is also known as structured literacy. Structured literacy incorporates the findings from science on how to best teach foundational word-reading skills in the classroom, so that all children learn to read.

Reading science does not support approaches that rely on teaching children to read words using discovery and inquiry-based learning such as cueing systems. Many children fail to learn to read when these approaches are used in classrooms. These are consistent with a whole language philosophy, and are used in the current Ontario Curriculum, Language, Grades 1–8, 2006 (Ontario Language curriculum) and the balanced literacy or comprehensive balanced literacy approaches practiced in Ontario school boards.

The three-cueing instructional approach outlined in the Ontario Language curriculum teaches students to use strategies to predict words based on context cues from pictures and text meaning, sentences and letters. As well, balanced literacy proposes that immersing students in spoken and written language will build foundational reading skills – but significant research has not shown this to be effective for learning to read words accurately and efficiently. In these approaches, teachers “gradually release responsibility” from modelling reading texts or books, to shared reading with students, to guiding students’ text reading, to students’ independent text reading. These approaches are not consistent with effective instruction as outlined in the scientific research on reading instruction.

The inquiry examined whether the current Ontario curriculum and school board approaches to teaching reading reflect evidence-based approaches and are supported by rigorous scientific research. It found that overall, the way that early reading is taught in Ontario is not consistent with the science of reading. Although a few boards have made some attempts to incorporate isolated aspects of effective early word reading instruction, these approaches are piecemeal and do not meet the criteria supported by the science of reading.

The Ontario curriculum is based on the ineffective three-cueing ideology and instructional approach. Balanced and comprehensive balanced literacy are pedagogical approaches that are aligned with a whole language approach to teaching reading. These methods are ineffective for a significant proportion of students, many of whom are members of Code-protected groups, and may harm students who are at risk for failing to learn how to read.

The inquiry also reviewed the training teachers receive through Ontario’s 13 English-language public faculties of education (faculties). It found that teacher education programs for future teachers (also known as pre-service teachers or teacher candidates) and Additional Qualification (AQ) professional development courses for current teachers (also known as in-service teachers) do not prepare teachers to use approaches to teaching word-reading skills supported by scientific research on effective classroom instruction.

Future and current teachers looking to upgrade their qualifications by taking AQ courses offered by faculties in reading and special education receive little exposure to or learning about direct and systematic instruction in foundational reading skills (also called structured literacy). They are generally not taught how skilled reading develops, including the importance of strong early word-reading skills for future reading fluency and reading comprehension. They do not adequately learn how to provide instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, word-reading efficiency and morphology. Instead, they mostly learn about the ineffective approaches for teaching reading skills in the Ontario Language curriculum. It is not surprising then that many teachers told the inquiry they do not feel prepared to teach reading, particularly to students who do not catch on to reading quickly or have reading difficulties.

Ontario’s high rates of reading failure are well beyond the number of students who could be expected to have reading disabilities, and show that prevalent approaches to teaching reading are not working for far too many students. Ontario’s failure to use science-based approaches to teach reading and respond to reading difficulties are causing far too many children to not learn this critical life skill. This puts these students at risk for lifelong hardships associated with not being able to read. It can result in discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Despite the overwhelming body of evidence, reading experts have noted there has been strong, deeply rooted resistance to change in the education field.[650] The inquiry found there is strong resistance in Ontario as well.

Most of the inquiry boards are not aware they are using many ineffective approaches to teach reading. Even where boards recognize the need for more science-based instruction, their ability to implement it is hampered in several important respects. For example:

  • With a few small exceptions, teachers educated in Ontario English-language public faculties have not been taught evidence-based approaches to teach early reading
  • Teachers are required to follow the Ontario curriculum, which is inconsistent with evidence-based approaches. Teachers cannot reconcile two irreconcilable approaches to teaching reading
  • Boards and teachers have not been given sufficient guidance on how to implement evidence-based instruction in the classroom. They must determine on their own what programs, approaches and materials are best and how they can implement them
  • Boards must do their own research and find the funds necessary to implement these programs
  • There is strong resistance to change and strongly held beliefs supporting whole language philosophies in parts of the education sector
  • Boards are finding it challenging to conduct the necessary professional development related to literacy instruction. This expertise is often not found within a board.

The basic components of effective reading instruction are the same whether the language of instruction is English or French.[651] However, depending on the community they live in, students learning to read in French may have limited exposure to the French language outside of the classroom. School may be the only place they are exposed to French in a meaningful and consistent way. It is also a challenge to find French reading resources and private supports.[652] It is critically important that schools deliver effective reading instruction in French, both to ensure students learning in French can learn to read and to support Francophone students’ French-language education rights under section 23 of the Charter.

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The science of reading: evidence-based curriculum and instruction

Several key reports synthesize the large body of scientific research on how children learn to read and the most effective instructional approaches: the National Reading Panel Report in the United States; the Ontario Expert Panel Report on Early Reading; the Rose Reports in England; and the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network Report. These influential reports all endorse systematically teaching the foundational skills that will lead to efficient word reading: phonemic awareness, phonics to teach grapheme to phoneme relationships[653] and using these to decode and spell words and meaningful parts of words (morphemes), and practice with reading words in stories to build word-reading accuracy and speed.

 

National Reading Panel

In 1997, the United States Congress asked the Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to work with the U.S. Department of Education to create a National Reading Panel.[654] The panel included 14 people of different backgrounds, including leading scientists in reading research, representatives of faculties of education, reading teachers, educational administrators and parents.[655] The panel was asked to review all available research on how children learn to read and reading instruction (over 100,000 reading studies) and determine the most effective, evidence-based methods for teaching children to read. The panel also held public hearings.[656]

The panel released a report in 2000, Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.[657] This report identified these key aspects of effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension. It also stressed the importance of teacher preparation and using computer technology.

The panel’s analysis made it clear that the best approach to reading instruction incorporates:[658]

  1. Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words. There are about 44 phonemes in the English language and 36 phonemes in French. Phonemic awareness is a foundation that supports children learning to read and spell. The panel found that children who learned to read through instruction that included focused phonemic awareness instruction improved their reading skills more than children who learned without attention to phonemic awareness. The panel also found that approaches were most effective for teaching reading and spelling when they moved quickly from oral phonemic awareness into teaching children to blend sounds and segment words while using the corresponding letters.
  2. Explicit and systematic phonics instruction. Phonics encompasses teaching the relationships between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (the printed letter(s) that represent a sound), and how to use these to read and spell words (for example, blending to “sound out” and read words, and segmenting words to spell out each sound in a word). Systematic instruction starts with the easiest grapheme-phoneme associations and teaches using these to read words (to link the written form of the work with its pronunciation and meaning), and progresses to more complex orthographic patterns in words. Most phonics approaches include teaching simple and frequent affixes (a set of letters generally added to the beginning or end of a root word to modify its meaning, such as a prefix or suffix) relatively early in the process (for example, ed, s/es, ing). The panel found that explicit phonics instruction, starting in Kindergarten, results in significant benefits for young students and for older students who have not developed efficient word-reading skills.
  3. Teaching methods to improve fluency. Fluency is reading texts accurately and at a good rate compared to same-age peers, as well as with appropriate expression when reading aloud. Word reading efficiency is an important part of fluency. The panel concluded that along with effective word reading instruction, repeated oral reading of texts, with corrective feedback, increased students’ reading fluency.
  4. Teaching vocabulary. Vocabulary refers to knowing what individual words mean. The panel found that intentional vocabulary instruction and supported opportunities to use and understand the new vocabulary in the classroom are important.
  5. Teaching strategies for reading comprehension. Reading comprehension strategies are cognitive procedures that a reader uses to increase their understanding of a text. The panel found teaching cognitive strategies to be an effective component of reading comprehension instruction.

These elements have been termed the Five Big Ideas in Beginning Reading or The Five Pillars of Reading Instruction.[659]

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Expert panel on early reading in Ontario

In June 2002, the Ontario Ministry of Education (Ministry) convened an expert panel to study reading in Ontario. The panel’s goal was to identify ways to raise the level of reading achievement in Ontario classrooms.[660]

Then-Minister of Education and Deputy Premier Elizabeth Witmer said that the government at that time had established this panel of education experts to determine the core knowledge and teaching practices that are required to teach reading and specifically referenced research-informed instructional practices and phonemic awareness:

Teachers and principals will soon gain the benefit of additional tools and strategies. For example, as part of the implementation of the early reading strategy and the early math strategy, teachers will receive resources and training in a wide range of research-informed instructional techniques. This will include how to create and enhance children's [phonemic] awareness.[661] [Emphasis added.]

The expert panel was made up of teachers, consultants, principals, school board administrators, academics and researchers from English, French, and First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. In 2003, the panel released its report, Early Reading Strategy: The Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario (the Ontario Expert Panel Report).

The Ontario Expert Panel Report contains a comprehensive discussion of the important elements of reading instruction that are necessary for all students, regardless of their gender, background or special learning needs.[662] It noted that reading instruction must be evidence-based and that there is a clear consensus in the scientific community about how to teach reading in a way that prevents reading failure:

Despite the widely different conclusions and practices advocated by individual research papers or particular programs, there is an important consensus in the scientific community about the teaching of reading. Good research informs educators about the components of an effective reading program. The research is clear in showing that effective reading instruction compensates for risk factors that might otherwise prevent children from becoming successful readers.[663] [Emphasis added.]

The panel also addressed common myths associated with learning to read, including some ideas that are prevalent in whole language approaches:

Although some children learn to read at an early age with little formal instruction, it is a fallacy to assume that this happens simply because they have been exposed to “good quality” books. Most children require explicit, planned instruction – as well as plenty of exposure to suitable books – to crack the complex code of written language and become as fluent in reading as in speaking.

Consistent with the evidence, the expert panel confirmed the importance of teaching phonemic awareness and letter sound knowledge as foundational reading skills. It stated: “The evidence also shows that phonemic awareness can be taught and that the teacher’s role in the development of phonemic awareness is essential for most children.”[664]

The expert panel also addressed the importance of teaching letter-sound relationships and phonics:

…it is important that children receive systematic and explicit instruction about correspondences between the speech sounds and individual letters and groups of letters. Phonics instruction teaches children the relationships between the letters (graphemes) of written language and the individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language. Research has shown that systematic and explicit phonics instruction is the most effective way to develop children’s ability to identify words in print.[665] [Emphasis added.]

The Ontario Expert Panel Report stated that teachers’ instruction in letter-sound relationships and how to use these to read words should be planned and sequential so that children have time to learn, practice and master them.[666]

The expert panel also identified other important skills needed for reading, including oral language skills, enhancing vocabulary, and understanding the meaning of phrases and sentences. Efficient word-reading is one critical aspect of reading skill.

Ontario’s own expert panel did not promote the use of cueing systems or balanced literacy approaches to teach word-reading skills. As discussed later, the panel’s recommendations were not incorporated into Ontario’s 2006 Language curriculum or the Ministry’s Guide to Effective Reading Instruction: Kindergarten to Grade 3 (2003).

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Rose Reports

In 2005, the Secretary of State for Education in the United Kingdom (U.K.) commissioned Sir Jim Rose to conduct an independent review of best practices for teaching early reading and meeting the needs of children with literacy difficulties (especially dyslexia). The 2006 Independent Review of Teaching Early Reading interim report and final report in 2009, also known as the Rose Reports, state that the Simple View of Reading is a good framework for considering the necessary component skills to target in reading instruction. The Simple View of Reading is a model of reading that has been supported and validated by many research studies. It says that reading comprehension has two components: word recognition (decoding) and language comprehension. Together, skills in these two components are “essential for learning to read and for understanding what is read.”[667]

The Simple View of Reading and the research that has supported it emphasize that strong reading comprehension requires the ability to read words accurately and quickly. Decoding includes being able to sound out words using phonics knowledge, and to recognize familiar words quickly.

In reading acquisition, early decoding based on letter-sound associations leads to fast and accurate reading of familiar and unfamiliar words, whether they are presented in context or in isolation. For example, a student with strong decoding skills can read familiar words quickly, can sound out unfamiliar words in a list of unrelated words, and can even sound out non-words (such as lund or pimet). This decoding process leads to building up immediate recognition for most words students encounter in texts. Conversely, not being able to decode negatively affects a student’s ability to read printed words accurately and to build up rapid recognition for most words. This in turn impairs a student’s reading comprehension.

Dr. Louisa Moats, an expert on science-based reading instruction and teacher education, explains:

…reading and language arts instruction must include deliberate, systematic, and explicit teaching of [written] word recognition and must develop students’ subject-matter knowledge, vocabulary, sentence comprehension, and familiarity with the language in written texts.[668]

Although the full range of skills, knowledge and pedagogical approaches that are encompassed within a complete language curriculum are beyond the scope of this report, the importance of critical instruction to build word-reading skills cannot be overemphasized.

The Rose Reports recommended that England replace the “searchlight” model of teaching reading, a model based on cueing strategies like Ontario’s current Language curriculum, with high-quality, direct and systematic phonics instruction starting by age five. The reports said that pre-reading activities should be introduced earlier to prepare students for phonics instruction. High-quality, systematic phonics work means teaching beginner readers:

  • Grapheme/phoneme (letter/sound) correspondences (the alphabetic principle) in a clearly defined, incremental sequence
  • To apply the skill of blending (synthesising) phonemes in order as they sound out each grapheme
  • To segment words into their constituent phonemes to spell out the graphemes that represent those phonemes.[669]

The Rose Reports concluded that high-quality phonics work should be the primary instructional approach for teaching children to read and write words. High-quality phonics teaching allows students to learn the crucial skills of word reading. Once they master this, they can read fluently and automatically, which allows them to focus on the meaning of the text.

The Rose Reports offer many strategies for phonics instruction, such as incorporating writing the letters and spelling in phonics work, and manipulating letters and their corresponding phonemes within words. The reports also provide advice on the sequence of teaching phonics skills, and the pace of instruction.

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Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network Report

In 2008, the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network produced a report, Foundations for Literacy: An Evidence-based Toolkit for the Effective Reading and Writing Teacher.[670] The components of the report focused on science-based information for teachers on language and reading acquisition, and on science-based instructional methods for critical components of reading and writing. The report identified these essential components:

For reading:

  • Print awareness: understanding that print represents words that have meaning and are related to spoken language
  • Phonological and phonemic awareness
  • Alphabetic knowledge (knowledge of letter names, shapes and letter-sound associations), phonics and word reading
  • Vocabulary
  • Reading comprehension.

For writing:

  • Spelling
  • Handwriting
  • Composition.

This report provided detailed guidance on the important elements of effective instruction, including for “special populations” such as multilingual students who are learning the language of instruction at the same time as they are learning the curriculum (also referred to in the Ontario education system as English language learners or ELL students), learners from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, students in French Immersion and, importantly, students with reading disabilities, particularly in word reading/dyslexia. The report noted that “structured, systematic, and explicit teaching, with structured practice and immediate, corrective feedback is important in teaching all students, and is especially important in teaching students with dyslexia…” The report also said: “regardless of the child’s starting point, all students can benefit from high-quality instruction focused on phonics.”[671]

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Models that help explain how children learn to read

Scarborough’s rope model[672] is a science-based framework that breaks down the two major components in the Simple View of Reading, explaining how word-reading skills and oral language comprehension each contribute to reading comprehension. Dr. Hollis Scarborough, a psychologist, literacy expert and leading researcher in reading acquisition, compared skilled reading to the strands of a rope, with each strand representing a separate skill. The strands are woven together as readers become more skilled. If there is a weakness in any strand or skill, the rope will be weaker. The two major strands are word recognition and language comprehension (the ability to get meaning from words, sentences and texts at a listening level).[673] The sub-strands of word recognition include phonological awareness, decoding and spelling, and recognizing familiar words “by sight” (quickly and effortlessly or automatically). The goal of word-reading instruction is that with increasing skill development, children come to recognize almost all words by sight (the written word becomes linked in memory to its pronunciation and meaning). In this way, knowledge of spoken words and their meanings is linked to learning word forms and supports students’ decoding of words that have not yet become sight words.

 

Figure 2

Open strands of rope: language comprehension – background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, language structures, verbal reasoning, literacy knowledge; word recognition – phonological awareness, decoding (and spelling), sight recognition. Rope woven together, to become increasingly strategic/automatic – skilled reading: fluent execution and coordination of word recognition and text comprehension.  Reading is a multifaceted skill, gradually acquired over years of instruction and practice.

Dr. Linnea Ehri’s Phase Theory of Learning to Read Words[674] is a useful model that explains the developmental process of learning to read words accurately and efficiently, and is supported by an abundance of research. Dr. Ehri, an educational psychologist and leading researcher on reading acquisition processes, identified four phases representing the connections between the written letters that form words and spoken words that developing readers gain as they move from novice to skilled readers:

  1. Pre-alphabetic phase: students read words by memorizing their visual features or guessing words from their context
  2. Partial-alphabetic phase: students recognize some letters of the alphabet and can use them together with context to remember (a few) words by sight
  3. Full-alphabetic phase: readers possess extensive working knowledge of the graphophonemic system, and they can use this knowledge to fully analyze the connections between graphemes and phonemes in words. They can decode unfamiliar words and store fully analyzed sight words in memory
  4. Consolidated-alphabetic phase: students consolidate their knowledge of grapheme-phoneme relationships into larger units that recur in different words.

This model explains how reading proficiency needs to develop. Preschoolers and very young students start off reading some very common words from memory (such as STOP on the stop sign), but then begin to use the grapheme-phoneme knowledge they have learned to decode words, at first letter by letter, but then more efficiently by connecting complete graphemes and phonemes and larger letter patterns (such as rimes and syllables). Students then progress to efficient reading, when they can recognize many words and large chunks of words (orthographic patterns and morphemes) automatically – known as reading words by sight or from memory. Dr. Ehri explains:

The evidence shows that words are read from memory when graphemes are connected to phonemes. This bonds spellings of individual words to their pronunciations along with their meanings in memory. Readers must know grapheme–phoneme relations and have decoding skill to form connections, and must read words in text to associate spellings with meanings.[675]

This model can help teachers understand where their students are starting from, and the types of knowledge and skills students need for their word-reading skills to develop.

In these models, the orthographic representation of a word (in other words, its spelling) becomes integrated in memory with both the word’s pronunciation and meaning. Teaching phonics is integrated with accessing the meanings of the words the students are learning to read from the beginning, and continues through to reading words with more complex orthographic patterns and with more than one syllable and/or morpheme. Researchers have noted: “The Simple View is consistent with Perfetti’s (2007) lexical quality hypothesis, where acquiring and integrating information about both word form and meaning are necessary for on-line reading comprehension.”[676]

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Summary of reports and models

These influential reports and models, which are based on a substantial body of scientific research, all confirm that a critical focus of early reading instruction must be on skills that will lead to efficient word-reading: that is, teaching phonemic awareness skills, the links between phonemes and graphemes, and how to use this knowledge in decoding/reading (and spelling) words (explicit phonics instruction). They all conclude that teaching students these skills in a direct and systematic way is a critical and necessary component of teaching them to read.[677]

The science of reading shows that contrary to whole language beliefs, strong language comprehension does not lead to good reading comprehension without well-developed word-reading skills. Poorly developed word-reading skills act like a bottleneck for comprehension. On the other hand, the better a reader’s word recognition skills, the more attention they can put towards making meaning to understand texts.[678]

There are additional, critical components in a full reading instruction program. For example, effective vocabulary instruction is especially important for students with language disabilities or from less advantaged backgrounds.[679] Research in Canada and the U.S. shows that effective vocabulary instruction in Kindergarten to Grade 6 may be lacking.[680] Research studies have helped identify instructional approaches to support students in gaining the vocabulary knowledge needed to make expected yearly gains in reading comprehension.[681] Similarly, students need explicit instruction in text structures (genres), reading comprehension strategies, and the knowledge base of different domains to support reading comprehension. Also, motivating and culturally responsive instruction and texts need to be incorporated.[682] Although outside of the scope of this report, the body of research known as the science of reading addresses these many components of classroom language and reading instruction. A complete reading program requires evidence-based instruction in each area to more fully address inequities in reading achievement across Kindergarten to Grade 12.

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Universal Design for Learning and Response to Intervention

Experts agree that directly teaching the specific foundational reading skills described above saves most children who come to school at risk for failing to learn to read well:[683]

…classroom teaching itself, when it includes a range of research-based components and practices, can prevent and mitigate reading difficulty…informed classroom instruction…beginning in kindergarten enhances success for all but a very small percentage of students with learning disabilities or severe dyslexia.[684]

Direct and systematic teaching of the skills that are good for all students, and essential for students at risk, is consistent with Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational approach that emphasizes designing curriculum and instruction to make it effective and accessible for all students.[685] The goal of UDL is to give all students an equal opportunity to learn and succeed. By using evidence-based approaches that teach the necessary foundational reading skills in sequence from easiest to most difficult, with simultaneous differentiation for learners who need more focused and highly scaffolded instruction, almost all children can gain the knowledge and skills that are being taught. That is, it allows almost all children to learn to read words in text accurately and efficiently.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Ontario Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists emphasized that students with typical development as well as students with reading disabilities, intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder and hearing disabilities all benefit from instruction that builds skills for decoding words and language comprehension (as set out in the Simple View of Reading).

A tiered approach to instruction, coupled with universal screening or assessment and early intervention also reflects principles of UDL.[686] Response to Intervention (RTI) or Multi-tier Systems of Supports (MTSS) are frameworks for delivering inclusive education that use UDL, and can be effective for addressing the challenges of teaching reading.[687] In an RTI/MTSS framework, students receive increasing levels of support according to their needs, but always using high-quality classroom instruction and interventions consistent with the scientific research. Many such frameworks have three tiers, and critical to each tier is reading instruction based on evidence.

Tier 1 is considered the key component of a tiered approach. At tier 1, all students receive high-quality classroom instruction using an evidence-based, scientifically researched core curriculum. Teachers must have sufficient and ongoing professional development to deliver the tier 1 core instructional program in the way it was designed.[688] An important feature of tier 1 is that all students are screened to see if they are responding to instruction as expected (gaining the required skills and knowledge). This universal early screening means students are identified and receive the programming they need before they start to experience significant difficulties. When evidence-based word-reading instruction is delivered properly, tier 1 meets the needs of most students (estimates are about 80 to 90%).[689]

At tier 2, students whose skills and knowledge are not progressing adequately to meet expectations with only tier 1 science-based instruction, receive additional instruction or intervention in small groups. These are about 15 to 20% of students who are not at the expected levels, as identified through an evidence-based screening/assessment process, and are at risk for failing to learn to read well. While continuing to receive high-quality tier 1 instruction, these students receive tier 2 support in smaller groups with increased intensity (daily instructional time, explicitness and scaffolding of instruction, supported practice and cumulative review). Evidence-based tier 2 interventions in Kindergarten and Grade 1 will be most effective for the most students.

Tier 3 supports are intended for the very small percentage of students whose reading skills do not come into the expected range with tier 1 and tier 2 instruction. These students are at high risk for failing to learn to read, or have already experienced time in the classroom without being able to meet the reading demands. Intervention at this level means smaller groups or individual interventions of increased intensity (more time, more explicit and scaffolded, with ample supported practice to master skills).

The Association of Psychology Leaders in Ontario Schools’ inquiry submission emphasized the importance of strong RTI/MTSS approaches, noting: “a combination of effective classroom instruction and targeted small group instruction has the potential to meet the needs of 98% of struggling readers.”[690]

With appropriate instruction, multilingual students (referred to in the education system as English language learners or ELL students) can learn phonological awareness and decoding skills in English as quickly as students who speak English as a first language.[691] The specific difficulties that English language learners may face are fairly predictable and can be addressed with proactive teaching that focuses on potentially problematic sounds and letter combinations.[692] English language learners will also need instruction in other aspects to fully address reading comprehension and written language.[693]As described by Dr. Esther Geva, an Ontario psychologists with expertise in culturally and linguistically diverse children, and her colleagues:

Instruction for [English language learners] should be comprehensive and include instruction in the core areas of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, word level fluency, accuracy and fluency in text-level reading, and reading comprehension), as well as in oral language (vocabulary, grammar, use of pronouns or conjunctions, use of idioms) and writing. It is often the case that [English language learners] continue to develop oral language and vocabulary skills while building core literacy skills.[694]

Multilingual students, then, need instruction and intervention on the same foundational word reading skills as other students.

This section of the report deals with tier 1 classroom instruction. For more on how school boards are implementing other aspects of RTI/MTSS, see sections 9, Early screening and 10, Reading interventions.

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Ineffective methods for teaching reading

Balanced literacy or comprehensive balanced literacy approaches, cueing systems and other whole language beliefs and practices are not supported by the science of reading for teaching foundational reading skills. They have been found ineffective in many studies, expert reviews and reports for teaching all students to read.[695] The consequences of using these approaches and programs are particularly serious for students with reading disabilities and other risk factors for failing to learn to read. Research does not support that a balanced literacy approach, which focuses on teaching cueing systems for word solving and rejects a structured literacy approach, is as successful as science-based approaches, which include direct and systematic instruction in foundational word reading skills, for teaching children in at-risk groups to read.[696] Despite this, they remain prominent teaching strategies in Ontario.

Balanced literacy, cueing systems and whole language proponents assert that children learn to read naturally, largely through meaningful and authentic literacy experiences and exposure to books and other literacies. They largely reject structured literacy approaches that encompass direct and systematic instruction in the foundational skills supporting word-reading acquisition, and formal reading programs that support teachers to deliver this instruction. Whole language and its offspring, cueing and balanced literacy, emphasize learning whole words in meaningful contexts. In whole language, there is little or no systematic, direct instruction in phonemic awareness. Phonics and decoding and sounding out words are not emphasized.[697] Dr. Moats noted that balanced literacy, cueing systems and whole language approaches are characterized by:

  • Little teaching about speech sounds and their features
  • Not enough instruction in blending and pulling apart or segmenting the sounds in words
  • Confusing phonological awareness and phonics
  • Instructing teachers to avoid breaking words into their parts and teaching the letter-sound relationships
  • Telling students to guess at a word from context and the first letter
  • De-emphasizing “sounding out” the whole word from beginning to end
  • Not systematically presenting sound-symbol relationships and/or practicing decoding words
  • Using leveled books instead of decodable texts.[698]

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Cueing systems

The three-cueing system follows from a whole language approach and is a central part of balanced literacy. It was first proposed in 1967 by Dr. Ken Goodman, a professor who has been described as the founder of the whole language approach. Dr. Goodman described reading as a “psycholinguistic guessing game.” Dr. Goodman argued that reading is not a precise process that involves sequentially identifying letters, words, spelling patterns and language units. Rather, Dr. Goodman suggested that as people read, they play a guessing game to predict words on the page using cues: semantic cues (what would make sense based on the context); syntactic cues (what kind of word could this be, such as a verb or a noun); and graphophonic cues (what do the letters suggest the word might be). Dr. Goodman’s theory, which was based on how he thought fluent adult readers read, became the basis for the three-cueing approach for teaching young children to read.

Dr. Goodman’s theory of skilled reading and the cueing systems approach were not validated by later scientific studies of skilled reading or how to teach developing readers. One educational psychologist explained:

The three-cueing system is well-known to most teachers. What is less well known is that it arose not as a result of advances in knowledge concerning reading development, but rather in response to an unfounded but passionate held belief. Despite its largely uncritical acceptance by many within the education field, it has never been shown to have utility, and in fact, it is predicated upon notions of reading development that have been demonstrated to be false. Thus, as a basis for decisions about reading instruction it is likely to mislead teachers and hinder students’ progress.[699]

Dr. Goodman also identified miscue analysis as a way to assess students’ use of cueing systems. A miscue analysis is an observational method where the teacher listens to a student read a passage of unfamiliar text that is at least one level higher than their current reading level within a leveled reading system. The teacher observes the student’s mistakes, or miscues, to assess how the student approaches the process of reading, which cueing strategies they need to work on, and their overall comprehension of the passage. A running record is a similar observational tool that teachers use to assess a student’s oral reading behaviours.

In a 2020 article “What Constitutes a Science of Reading Instruction?” Dr. Timothy Shanahan, an internationally recognized educator, researcher and education policy-maker focused on literacy education, confirmed that “no research has shown that learning benefits from teaching cueing systems.”[700] In another recent study, seven independent reading researchers reviewed Dr. Lucy Calkin’s program which is based on the three-cueing system and widely used in the U.S. They concluded:

The program…strongly recommends use of the three-cueing system…as a valid procedure for assessing and diagnosing a student's reading needs. This is in direct opposition to an enormous body of settled research…[701]

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Balanced literacy

Balanced literacy has not been scientifically validated. According to Dr. Irene Fountas and Dr. Gay Su Pinnell (Fountas and Pinnell), who have developed materials that are heavily relied on in Ministry resources and used in Ontario schools, balanced literacy is a “philosophical orientation that assumes that reading and writing achievement are developed through instruction and support in multiple environments using various approaches that differ by level of teacher support and child control.”[702] [Emphasis added]

Another author explains:

[A] Balanced Literacy approach recognizes that students need to use a variety of strategies to become proficient readers and writers. It encourages the development of skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening for all students.[703]

She writes that a balanced literacy program should include (with suggested time targets for reading and writing):

Suggested targets for reading:

  • Modeled reading (10 min/day)
  • Shared reading (15–20 min/three days in a row for two weeks)
  • Guided reading (one text/group; 15–20 min/week)
  • Independent reading (20 min/day).

Suggested targets for writing:

  • Modeled writing (every other day; 10–15 min)
  • Shared writing (every other day; 10–15 min)
  • Guided writing (2–3 times per week for 40 min)
  • Independent writing (25–30 min per day). Create a body of work for reflection, assessment and growth.

A report titled Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of “Balanced” Reading Instruction, shows how the term “balanced literacy” was adopted to conceal the true nature of whole language programs.[704] Even though balanced literacy proponents often argue it uses scientific approaches, balanced literacy fails to incorporate the content and instructional methods proven to work best for students learning to read. This is particularly harmful for at-risk students, including students with dyslexia and many others who come to school with few pre-reading skills for different reasons. Balanced literacy relies on teaching cueing systems to guess at words in text, rather than direct, systematic instruction to build students’ decoding and word-reading skills.

One expert concludes:

In summary, whole-language derivatives are still popular, but they continue to fail the students who most need to benefit from the findings of reading research. Approaches such as…balanced literacy do not complement text reading and writing with strong, systematic, skills-based instruction, in spite of their claims. Only programs that teach all components of reading, as well as writing and oral language, will be able to prevent and ameliorate reading problems in the large number of children at risk.[705]

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Ontario’s approach to teaching reading: the Ontario Kindergarten Program, Grades 1–8 Language curriculum and related resources

Ontario’s Kindergarten Program

Ontario’s Kindergarten Program, 2016[706] sets out what four- and five-year-olds across the province learn “through play and inquiry.”[707]

Kindergarten is a critical time in a child’s reading development, where they must develop some core early reading skills. Students who do not have these skills by the time they enter Grade 1 or 2 are often considered at risk for difficulties learning to read.[708]

Empirical studies have shown significant variation in pre-reading skills and oral language abilities among children entering school.[709] Research has also clearly established that children entering school with less-developed pre-reading skills and oral language abilities are at a greater risk for later reading difficulties.[710]

Kindergarten programs that target reading and oral language skills using age-appropriate approaches have been found to close gaps and promote later reading success, in ways that programs that do not have this focus do not.[711]

Research also suggests that current approaches, similar to those in Ontario’s Kindergarten Program, are not enough to change young students’ developmental trajectories related to later word-reading skills, or to provide the critical vocabulary and background knowledge needed for later reading comprehension.[712]

Although the focus of this report is on word reading, the science of reading addresses other areas such as the importance of early vocabulary instruction.[713] Observational studies have shown an “overwhelming lack of attention” to vocabulary instruction, even in the earliest school years.[714] In a U.S. study examining classroom approaches like those in Ontario’s Kindergarten Program, planned vocabulary instruction was largely absent across 55 Kindergarten classrooms, and impromptu instruction about words occurred for only about eight minutes per day[715] (see similar Canadian research for older grades).[716] In classrooms with students from largely lower socioeconomic backgrounds, even fewer words were introduced per day, and fewer of these were more challenging words.[717] These findings highlight critical inequities in early literacy learning opportunities.[718]

The OHRC examined the literacy component of Ontario’s Kindergarten Program[719] as it relates to children’s skills related to decoding and word-reading development. The Kindergarten Program is deficient in several key ways.

The program does not pay enough attention to the importance of phonemic awareness skills and how to teach these in the classroom. While there are references to phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics in several specific expectations, there is little discussion of the importance of these skills. There are no clear sets of reading skills that teachers are expected to teach and students are expected to learn.

There is also insufficient information on instruction for alphabetic knowledge and decoding skills, including no mention of daily phonics instruction in the Kindergarten classroom. Also, the program does not discuss the importance of monitoring students’ skills in these areas, or supporting students who are struggling in developing these reading skills.

An “Educator Reflection” in the Kindergarten Program document states: “We noticed that, when we taught a whole class about phonological and phonemic awareness, we were not really meeting anyone’s needs.” This negative anecdotal statement about class-wide instruction in phonological and phonemic awareness is inconsistent with decades of research showing that all students benefit from this form of instruction. It feeds into a myth that only some students need this explicit instruction, and discourages class-wide instruction with sounds and letters to build these foundational skills.

One Kindergarten teacher who is teaching foundational skills in a direct and explicit way in her classroom told the inquiry: “Every [student] is benefitting. My [students] are fantastic spellers, and they love it [referring to the structured literacy instruction].” She also expressed concern that Ontario’s play and discovery-based Kindergarten Program does not provide enough guidance on how Kindergarten teachers should teach foundational word-reading skills, putting students at a disadvantage when they enter Grade 1:

In Ontario, the play-based [K]indergarten [P]rogram is interpreted by some (many?) to mean play all day and no direct explicit instruction. Teachers placing a bunch of magnetic letters in the rice table is not going to teach children how to read, nor is it going to catch early strugglers. There needs to be clearer guidelines for the teaching of reading or pre-reading in kindergarten, in direct response to early screening – using a fun and playful structured literacy program.

The evidence is clear that instruction in phonological awareness, letter knowledge and sounds, and simple decoding should be included in daily instruction for all Kindergarten students. Approaches for phonological awareness start with easier, oral language activities in Kindergarten Year 1 (formerly referred to as Junior Kindergarten), such as singing and learning nursery rhymes, learning to recognize and produce rhyming words, and playing with the chunks of sound that make up words, like syllables and beginning sounds. In Kindergarten Year 2 (formerly known as Senior Kindergarten), students need to develop the critical phonemic awareness skills of identifying phonemes in the beginning, end and middle of words, and then blending and segmenting individual phonemes in words.

At the same time, Kindergarten Year 1 and Year 2 students should be taught, using engaging and age-appropriate methods, letter names and letter-sound associations, and how to use these to read simple words. Through Year 2, students should master (be both accurate and quick) the most common letters representing the roughly 44 English sounds and 36 French sounds (grapheme-phoneme associations) through explicit teaching and practice using these to read simple words, sentences and stories that are made up mostly of words students are able to decode with the associations they have already learned. Writing is an important activity in Kindergarten, and students should develop and reinforce these skills through instructional writing activities, as they learn to segment sounds in words and represent these with letters.[720]

Several inquiry school boards were concerned that a proportion of their students start school at a disadvantage. They clearly recognize that many of these students will remain at a disadvantage unless something is done. However, what was less clear was their understanding that schools can provide instruction that will help these students close the gap with peers who start school with more developed skills. The boards suggested that access to better pre-school programs and services were the solution. Although better pre-school supports could help, science-based Kindergarten classroom programming can address many of these disadvantages, such as those related to phonemic awareness and word reading.

Unfortunately, the current Kindergarten Program in Ontario maintains, and does not alleviate, literacy disadvantages for the large numbers of students who start school with less-developed formal pre-reading and reading skills. This includes children who may have a biological predisposition to reading disabilities/dyslexia. Complete literacy programs must include instruction in word-reading skills, as well as the many other components that help develop strong and motivated readers. Emphasis on word-reading skills is essential but is largely absent in Ontario’s Kindergarten Program. This is a significant obstacle limiting the reading and literacy development of far too many Ontario children.[721]

The Association of Psychology Leaders in Ontario Schools[722] stressed the importance of introducing these skills in Kindergarten, in the context of play-based learning:

Foundational reading skills can be incorporated into regular classroom instruction in the early years and in ways that maintain the integrity of the play-based philosophy. Purposeful play is play nevertheless. There exists an opportunity for boards to implement programs that teach foundational reading skills in the early years, and emphasize the oral language and phonological awareness skills that are critical for reading development. Not doing so would be to the detriment of our children.

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Ontario’s Grades 1–8 Language curriculum

Curriculum is set by the Ministry.[723] Of note, the Ontario Language curriculum is the oldest elementary curriculum in use in Ontario,[724] and one of the oldest elementary language curricula in Canada.[725] The Ontario Language curriculum was last updated over 15 years ago, in 2006. According to the Ministry, curriculum has a shelf-life of 10 to 15 years.[726] Based on its age alone, this curriculum is due for an update.

The Ontario Language curriculum outlines the knowledge and skills students are expected to achieve by the end of each grade. It sets out mandatory learning expectations, and what is taught in each grade must be developed based on these learning expectations. Teachers use their professional judgment to decide how to teach the curriculum.

The Ontario Language curriculum focuses on the use of the three-cueing system as the primary approach students will be taught to read words. The Ontario Language curriculum makes it clear that this involves looking for clues to predict or guess words based on context and prior knowledge. It defines cueing systems as:

Cues or clues that effective readers use in combination to read unfamiliar words, phrases, and sentences and construct meaning from print. Semantic (meaning) cues help readers guess or predict the meaning of words, phrases, or sentences on the basis of context and prior knowledge. Semantic cues may include visuals. Syntactic (structural) cues help readers make sense of text using knowledge of the patterned ways in which words in a language are combined into phrases, clauses, and sentences. Graphophonic (phonological and graphic) cues help readers to decode unknown words using knowledge of letter or sound relationships, word patterns, and words recognized by sight. [Emphasis added.]

As explained by the validated models of skilled reading presented earlier, effective readers recognize words accurately and quickly. They do not need to use their attention to guess at words based on cueing systems. Context can help with recognizing the rare word whose orthography is unfamiliar and not easily pronounced. It should not be a primary or frequent strategy for reading words.

For young children learning to read, the written form of almost all words is “unfamiliar.” Starting to learn to read by integrating these cueing systems in texts is not effective for most children, and not efficient for any child.

In the current Ontario Language curriculum, one of the overall expectations for each grade is that students will be able to “use knowledge of words and cueing systems to read fluently.” As discussed below, Ontario’s teaching guides also emphasize cueing systems as the primary approach for students to learn the written code of spoken language. Therefore, the curriculum emphasizes teaching cueing systems for word reading rather than directly and systematically teaching students the written code of spoken language. With this cueing system approach, many students fail to build accurate and efficient word-reading skills, which are the “hallmark of skilled word reading.”[727] Indeed, failing to directly teach skills and knowledge needed for accurate and efficient reading in the earliest grades can start the Matthew Effect in reading (described in section 4, Context for the inquiry), where students with poor early word-reading skills get further and further behind in all aspects of reading and the positive consequences of reading, such as building vocabulary and knowledge of the world.[728]

The Ontario Language curriculum defines phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and phonics but it does not require these be taught or provide guidance on how these should be taught.

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The Ministry’s Guide to Effective Instruction in Reading

The Ministry also develops resources to support instruction. One significant resource related to early reading instruction is the Ministry’s A Guide to Effective Instruction in Reading, Kindergarten to Grade 3, 2003 (the Guide). School boards reported that they rely on the Guide in delivering the Language curriculum.

The Guide emphasizes the role of the three-cueing system and related balanced literacy approaches for teaching students to read words. For example, it outlines the following word guessing skills in a table entitled “The Behaviours of Proficient Readers.”

Word-solving skills

Proficient readers:

Use semantic (meaning) cues:

  • use illustrations from the text to predict words
  • use their prior knowledge as an aid in reading
  • use the context and common sense to predict unfamiliar words

Use syntactic (structural) cues:

  • use their knowledge of how English[729] works to predict and read some words
  • use the structure of the sentence to predict words

Use graphophonic (visual) cues:

  • analyze words from left to right
  • use their existing knowledge of words to read unknown words
  • notice letter patterns and parts of words;
  • sound out words by individual letter or by letter cluster

Use base or root words to analyze parts of a word and to read whole words

Integrate the cueing systems to cross-check their comprehension of words:

  • combine semantic (meaning) and syntactic (structural) cues to verify their predictions
  • cross-check their sense of the meaning (semantic cues) with their knowledge of letter-sound relationships and word parts (graphophonic cues).

Although the description of graphophonic (visual) cues appears to suggest that the sounds and letter patterns in words are part of the three-cueing system, this is at best a passing reference to a few of the fundamental skills needed to read words. Instructions on how to use graphophonic clues often promote looking at the first letter/sound in the word and then guessing what might fit for the whole word in the context of the sentence. For example, in a section called Sample Questions and Prompts to Promote Students’ Use of the Three Cueing Systems, the Guide suggests the following questions to help students use graphophonic cues:

  • What were the rhyming words in this story?
  • What word do you see within that bigger word? (Prompt students to look for the root word in a word with a prefix or suffix, or for the two words that make up a compound word)
  • What is the first letter (or last letter) of the word?
  • What sound does that letter (or combination of letters) make?
  • What other words start with that letter and would fit into this sentence?[730]

These examples of how to process the letters within words are time- and attention-consuming – the exact opposite of skill acquisition where words become recognized more and more automatically. The National Reading Panel Report noted that some instruction in phonics as one part of graphophonic prompts is not sufficient:

Whole language teachers typically provide some instruction in phonics, usually as part of invented spelling activities or through the use of [graphophonic] prompts during reading (Routman, 1996). However, their approach is to teach it unsystematically and incidentally in context as the need arises.

Although some phonics is included in whole language instruction, important differences have been observed distinguishing this approach from systematic phonics approaches.[731]

The Guide has a later section on phonemic awareness, phonics and word study. However, the three-cueing system is presented throughout as the primary instructional approach to reading words in text. Even within the discussion of phonemic awareness, phonics and word study, guessing strategies are promoted. For example, in a section on word-solving and word study, teachers are once again encouraged to have students predict words, think about what word would make sense in context and look at the pictures for clues.[732] Decoding or sounding out words is often presented as one of the last strategies for word analysis when it should be the first[733] and based on effective classroom instruction on how to decode words.

Combining cueing systems with decoding strategies is not an effective approach to reading instruction and results in confusion for students. The U.K.’s Primary Framework for Literacy and Mathematics noted:

…attention should be focused on decoding words rather than the use of unreliable strategies such as looking at the illustrations, rereading the sentence, saying the first sound or guessing what might “fit.” Although these strategies might result in intelligent guesses, none of them is sufficiently reliable and they can hinder the acquisition and application of phonic knowledge and skills, prolonging the word recognition process and lessening children’s overall understanding. Children who routinely adopt alternative cues for reading unknown words, instead of learning to decode them, later find themselves stranded when texts become more demanding and meanings less predictable. The best route for children to become fluent and independent readers lies in securing phonics as the prime approach to decoding unfamiliar words.[734] [Emphasis added.]

For children learning to read, almost all words are unfamiliar words.

Another recent report by leading reading researchers confirms that three-cueing as the way of teaching students to read and as a first strategy for students reading unfamiliar words is problematic and inconsistent with the scientific evidence:

Th[e] endorsement of the three-cueing system gives teachers explicit permission to center instruction on the three-cueing system rather than the more productive and research-based incorporation of phonics instruction. The best and overwhelming body of research strongly supports that letter-to-sound decoding is the primary system used by proficient readers to read text while it is only poor readers who rely on use of partial visual cues to guess at words…. The promotion of the three-cueing system…will dilute the work of the phonics materials by prompting teachers to focus on analyzing running records for errors based on meaning and syntax rather than leveraging taught foundational skills.[735]

 

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Other Ministry resources

The Ministry of Education publishes several resources on early literacy and special education. It states that these resources support instruction, and educators may choose to use these resources if they find them useful.

The inquiry reviewed these resources and found that they also fail to promote an effective and systematic evidence-based approach to teaching students how to read. This is not surprising, given that the Ontario Language curriculum and the Guide are the primary resources for teachers, and any additional Ministry resources follow the curriculum.

Consistent with the Ontario Language curriculum and Guide, these resources promote whole language approaches. For example, a Ministry guide to support boys’ success in literacy, Me Read? No Way! A Practical Guide to Improving Boys’ Literacy Skills, 2004 acknowledges that gender is a significant factor in reading achievement and that boys score lower on reading tests, are more likely to be placed in special education classrooms, have higher dropout rates and are less likely than girls to go to university.[736]

This resource identifies 13 “strategies for success” for improving boys’ reading. None of the strategies reference teaching early foundational reading skills effectively to improve word reading, including teaching phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding. All the strategies suggest that if boys find reading more interesting, relevant and fun, they will be better readers. This guide promotes the problematic balanced literacy approach as a best practice.[737]

Focusing only on a lack of student engagement to explain why students do not read well perpetuates stereotypes about students who do not learn to read without instruction and students with reading difficulties. It suggests that if students simply find something they are interested in and apply themselves, they can improve their reading. It fails to recognize that if students are not able to read the words in texts, it limits their reading comprehension, does not increase reading skills, and has a negative impact on their desire to engage in reading. The notion that some students, especially boys, are not motivated to learn is constructed on negative and gendered stereotypes.

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The Ministry’s basis for adopting the three-cueing system

The three-cueing system and balanced literacy models in the Ontario Language curriculum, the Guide and other Ministry resources were not recommended for developing early word-reading skills by the Kindergarten to Grade 3 expert panel in the Early Reading Strategy: Report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario.

The OHRC asked the Ministry why it decided to adopt the three-cueing system, and what scientific support it had for the three-cueing system. The Ministry advised that cueing systems were referenced in Literacy for Learning: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy in Grades 4 to 6 in Ontario (2004).[738] This Grade 4 to 6 expert report states that it builds on the foundations for literacy that are laid in a child’s early years. It also says that it builds on the earlier work of the Kindergarten to Grade 3 expert panel. However, this panel did not recommend three-cueing or balanced literacy approaches for word reading.

The Grade 4 to 6 expert report appropriately suggests that cueing systems can be used by students in Grades 4 to 6 to “make meaning from increasingly complex texts.” It does not suggest that cueing systems be used to teach foundational word reading skills to students in Kindergarten through Grade 3. The research shows that context is important to reading comprehension or making meaning from text after words have been decoded.[739] However, using context is not useful as a primary word decoding strategy. When children encounter a word they have not seen before, their first approach should be to use decoding skills to sound it out.[740]

Therefore, the evidence gathered in the inquiry shows that the Ontario Language curriculum, the Guide and related resources were not developed in response to the expert or scientific evidence available at the time. There was not, and still is not, a sufficient basis to support the use of the three-cueing system and balanced literacy for teaching early word reading in Ontario.

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School board approaches to teaching reading

Given the prevalence of three-cueing and balanced literacy in the Ontario Language curriculum, the Guide and other resources, it is not surprising that the eight inquiry school boards all reported using these ineffective approaches to word-reading instruction in their schools.

The OHRC asked the boards to provide documents, data or information explaining their approach to teaching reading. The OHRC also asked questions in its meetings with each board to better understand if they are teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding and word-reading, and their views on whether current approaches are consistent with the science of reading.

 

Emphasis on three-cueing and balanced literacy

All boards reported following the Ontario Language curriculum as required, as well as relying on the Guide and other Ministry resources. The boards said that in addition to cueing systems, they use either a balanced literacy or comprehensive (balanced) literacy approach to teaching reading. The key elements that appear to distinguish comprehensive balanced literacy from balanced literacy are an emphasis on oral language, reading, writing and media literacy, as well as teachers having flexibility to divide time among the four primary teaching strategies (modelled, shared, guided and independent reading) in response to the perceived needs of their students.[741] The majority (59%) of educators[742] who responded to the OHRC’s educator survey also identified balanced literacy as the predominant approach to teaching reading in Ontario.

The inquiry school boards also reported relying heavily on resources from whole language and balanced literacy proponents such as Drs. Fountas and Pinnell, Dr. Brian Cambourne, Dr. Marie Clay, and Dr. Lucy Calkins for instruction, assessment and intervention. These include PM Benchmarks, Running Records, Observational Survey of Literacy Achievement and Miscue Analysis for assessment as well as Levelled Literacy Intervention (LLI) and Reading Recovery® for interventions (for a detailed discussion of assessment and intervention, see sections 9, Early screening and 10, Reading interventions).

One school board described its understanding of literacy development, based on Cambourne’s Conditions of Learning:

…educators must understand that: literacy is developmental; not all children reach the same developmental phase at the same time; attitude can play a large part in the success of the student; reading and writing tasks must be linked to prior knowledge and experience; and learning language requires much social interaction and collaboration. [Emphasis added.]

Unfortunately, these types of misconceptions can lead educators to believe that students who are not learning to read are not developmentally ready or are not trying hard enough. Many students and parents reported being told that delays in learning to read are normal, or that students are not learning to read because of a lack of effort. However, these delays were later recognized as early signs of failing to learn to read due to the lack of direct and systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills. These reported observations are consistent with findings from research.[743]

The boards were asked if they believe they are following a whole language or structured literacy approach to teaching reading. Two boards acknowledged that their literacy programs follow a whole language approach. One board reported following a structured literacy approach. Other boards felt their approach incorporated elements of both. However, the overall approaches of all the school boards, with a few possible exceptions (described below), do reflect a whole language philosophy.

School board leaders opined that a whole language approach is not at odds with teaching phonological awareness or that whole language and direct instruction/structured literacy approaches can be combined. In fact, whole language approaches do preclude systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, because a central belief of whole language is that individual reading skills are not taught outside of “authentic” or real-world reading activities. Further, the three-cueing system that is the primary approach to word-reading instruction within this framework is directly opposed to direct and systematic teaching of decoding skills.[744]

Board representatives were asked if they believe the current Ontario Language curriculum and their approaches to reading instruction are working well or should be changed. It was apparent that many board leaders were not familiar with the overwhelming evidence that cueing systems and balanced literacy are far less effective approaches for teaching early reading skills and leave many vulnerable students at risk for not learning these skills. Boards described balanced literacy as “very highly regarded as the way to teach reading,” as it is “still taught in faculties of education” and believed balanced literacy researchers “are still at the forefront.” One board said it felt “confident” that balanced literacy is the way to teach students to read and to get most students reading at grade level, even though a significant proportion of this board’s students, particularly students with learning disabilities and special education needs, are not meeting provincial standards on EQAO testing.

Boards that recognized the need to improve literacy outcomes for more students could not always identify how their current approaches to teaching reading are not working for these students. It was unclear how these boards expected to increase student success in reading without fundamentally changing how students are taught to read. They did not appear to know about the scientific evidence on effective instruction in early reading skills.

Several boards suggested that the current approach simply needs minor adjustment to provide a bit more guidance on how to approach phonological awareness and “word work,” or clearer expectations for what should be taught and learned in each grade. One board noted that teachers are more comfortable with using cueing systems than with delivering direct and systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills, and could use “some additional guidance” on the latter. Several boards commented that the Ontario Language curriculum provides little guidance on what the expectations are for each grade, so they are left to interpret the curriculum to decide what to focus on in each grade. These boards suggested that clearer guidance on what should be taught in each grade could be helpful and promote greater consistency across Ontario.

One board clearly acknowledged that the current Ontario Language curriculum and approaches to teaching reading are not consistent with the science of reading. This board said that their speech-language pathologists and psychologists have informed them that the current curriculum does not support direct, systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills or structured literacy. The board noted that teachers must follow the curriculum, which is not consistent with the science of reading. The board reported being concerned about how to “honour the Ontario curriculum as required while also adapting to what the science of reading is telling them.”

Several school boards explicitly said they believed that they sufficiently address “word work” or “word study” within their current approaches. For example, one board reported allotting 2–3 minutes each day for letter or word work in their guided reading block, which they felt was enough to help students “become quick and flexible at using principles that are important in solving words at this level.”[745] Other boards were not able to provide any specifics on how much time is spent on “word work” or “word study,” indicating that this is left to each teacher’s judgment with no means to monitor whether any direct and systematic instruction of foundational word-reading skills is taking place.

When asked if teachers are required to teach phonological awareness and phonics, one board said that “required is a strong word” and suggested teachers may spend some time working on phonological awareness with the whole class as “an exposure ideal,” but would more likely do so with smaller groups of students. This was consistent with the inquiry’s finding that if these skills are addressed at all, it is through “mini lessons” with small groups of students at the teacher’s discretion. This is not the systematic instruction in the written code that is supported by decades of research.

As well as asking the boards about their approach to reading instruction, the OHRC, with the help of its experts, reviewed the documentation the boards provided. With a few exceptions, the OHRC found little information in the documentation or outlined classroom materials showing that boards include a direct and systematic approach to phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding and word reading fluency (and word structure or morphology in more advanced lessons). Further, the instructional cycle of focusing on books through modelled, shared, guided and independent reading leaves little room for any emphasis on direct instruction to teach children the code of written language.

Lessons most often take the form of short “mini lessons” that appear to be based on what teachers notice the students need, such as an aspect of reading comprehension, vocabulary or graphophonic information. This model of ad hoc instruction does not incorporate and is inconsistent with direct and systematic whole-class instruction in the foundational skills of word reading that aims to increase all students’ decoding skills.[746] Indeed, the reported approaches are inconsistent with Universal Design for Learning and RTI/MTSS frameworks for inclusive education.

The inquiry found that school boards are relying on Ministry documents either as their primary teaching resources or by largely reproducing the contents of these Ministry documents in their own board-specific, teacher-related documents. In some boards, brief summary sheets contain more variety of information, but there is a lack of detail for how these briefly mentioned practices might be integrated into an effective approach to early reading instruction.

As discussed earlier, the Ministry Guide has a section on “Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, and Word Study.” When these are incorporated into school board documentation, boards focus primarily on the “word study” component – largely referring to learning high-frequency words and using word walls. One board has defined “word study” on its teacher planning sheet as “high-frequency words, word families, chunking, word structure and meaning, letter/sound, phonemic awareness.” Word study is one of 11 literacy areas listed in the teacher planning sheet. While this was one of the only examples of a board specifically referencing letter/sound relationships and phonemic awareness in its written materials, these important skills are presented as one among many strategies to problem-solve words. No guidance is given on how to teach these necessary foundational skills from simplest to most difficult (in other words, systematically), with sufficient practice reading words and cumulative review to build up skilled word reading.

Overall, with a few small exceptions, the inquiry found little evidence of boards using consistent and effective early literacy instruction in the materials provided. Hamilton-Wentworth appears to be making a concerted effort to address early literacy, and has appropriately recognized the Five Big Ideas in Early Reading as a science-based framework (for more details, see discussion below). Even so, not all components of effective early decoding instruction have been considered and adequately addressed in recommended teacher approaches and materials. Without a complete program based on explicit and systematic instruction in learning the code, it is unclear if the approaches will be effective. A few other boards reference phonological awareness and phonemic awareness but without specific detail, and phonics and decoding are left out in these references. This falls far short of the explicit and systematic approach called for by scientific studies of reading instruction.

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Spending on unscientific resources and supports

The Ministry provides funding for purchasing all learning and teaching resources and for specific programs. However, school boards and schools decide which resources to select, buy and use. Several inquiry school boards confirmed that the choice of materials is often a school-level decision. The Auditor General has noted that the Ministry does not track which resources schools select or use, or how much funding is spent on these resources.[747] School boards also do not track the use of resources within schools.[748]

Various boards reported purchasing resources to support delivering the curriculum that are not consistent with the science of reading. These include expensive programs, kits, books, readers, assessment tools and intervention programs. Several sources told the inquiry that boards buy programs and resources, sometimes for millions of dollars, because someone at the board is familiar with or likes the product, and not because the board considered whether there is research into its efficacy.

Boards could not show that they made sure there was research or literature to support the scientific validity of these programs and materials before selecting them. Several boards reported that they did not have the capacity to undertake this kind of review to confirm that a resource was scientifically validated. They said that they would find it helpful if the Ministry would do this analysis and tell them which resources are evidence-based.

School boards receive special funding from the Ministry for specific purposes, yet it appears that the Ministry does little to make sure they are spending it on materials or programs supported by research science.[749] The Ministry told the inquiry about funds to support students in the area of literacy. For example, from the 2008–09 school year to the 2018–19 school year, funding was provided to school boards to design and facilitate professional learning and capacity-building projects to support educators working in collaborative teams to assess and respond to the literacy learning needs of targeted groups of students who need extra support with literacy.

The Ministry reported that a large emphasis of the program was identifying students based on data analysis and reporting on student and educator outcomes, as well as on how funding was spent. However, it does not appear that the Ministry set criteria to make sure funding was used to provide extra support in literacy using approaches consistent with the research science, or that follow-up was done to ensure that proper data analysis (for example, to measure student outcomes) occurred. Given the Ontario Language curriculum and the inquiry’s findings, these funds may not have been used for evidence-based programs or resources.

Another example of special funding is the money the Ministry provides to boards for summer learning programs. These programs are intended to reduce summer learning loss and improve literacy and numeracy skills through a mix of high-quality instruction and recreation programming for vulnerable students who face academic and socioeconomic challenges in learning.[750]

The inquiry heard that not all boards use these funds to offer summer programming for struggling readers. When the money is used to support literacy, the programs they use may not be adequate to help students catch up. One school board told us about their three-week summer camp program targeted to students who need extra support with reading. Based on the description provided, this program appeared to largely follow the approaches used in regular classroom instruction. Although boards have good intentions, spending money on programs based on ineffective approaches will do little to advance the reading skills of at-risk and struggling students.

The Ministry of Education must provide enough dedicated funds to implement the recommendations in this report. The province has invested significantly in improving student performance in math.[751] The findings in this report show the Ministry must also provide significant funding for literacy. However, steps are also needed to make sure boards spend these funds on resources that are supported by the science of reading. As indicated by the boards, since they lack capacity to do the necessary research, it is vital that the Ministry identify evidence-based resources and provide an approved list.

The Ministry currently maintains the Trillium List, a list of textbooks approved by the Minister of Education, after “rigorous evaluation,”[752] for use in Ontario schools. The Ministry should do the same for programs, kits, books, readers, screening and assessment tools and intervention programs – and the evaluation must include alignment with explicit and systematic instruction in the foundational reading skills, including word-reading. Experts in structured literacy approaches should be consulted in composing this list. This list must be reviewed often and kept up-to-date based on the latest research.[753] As the Auditor General noted, this could also allow school boards and schools to take advantage of bulk purchasing to buy resources at a lower cost.[754]

Further, Ministry funding for literacy should address the need for adequate professional development and ongoing coaching and support. That way, funds will be well spent, there will be greater consistency between schools and school boards, and students will be better served.

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Piecemeal attempts to incorporate the science of reading

The inquiry found that some boards are trying to incorporate some elements of science-based approaches. This appears to often stem from advice from board professionals, in particular speech-language pathologists and psychologists. The primary focus tends to be on one aspect of science-based approaches: phonological awareness. This is an important early skill, and efforts to incorporate it systematically in Kindergarten are a good start. However, a prolonged and overly heavy focus on phonological awareness can shortchange other areas such as phonics and decoding instruction. The purpose of instruction in phonemic awareness is to facilitate gaining word decoding skills, rather than as an end in itself. Focusing on phonological awareness alone will not be enough to teach most students to read words proficiently. Phonological awareness skills must be combined and integrated with instruction in phonics and decoding skills.

One school board, Hamilton-Wentworth, said it follows a structured literacy approach and has a documented Early Literacy Strategy. The goal of this strategy is to have 75% of Grade 1 students reach a minimum grade of B- in reading. The board provided documentation stating that phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension are required elements to achieve this goal.

To this end, Hamilton-Wentworth does have some aspects of programming that are supported by evidence-based approaches. The board has also identified “high-priority” schools, and has provided dedicated resources to improve reading outcomes in those schools. The board is taking steps to collect student report card data to analyze progress towards achieving its reading achievement goals. However, it is not clear how a grade of B- relates to assessing foundational word-reading skills, or whether Grade 1 report card grades are a good measure of the board’s reading achievement goals.

Even with some understanding of the science of reading and more concerted efforts to implement components in the classroom, elements appear to be missing. For example, the Kindergarten Literacy and Language in the Classroom program (KLLIC) does have phonological awareness as one focus, but then links appear to be provided to other documents (such as Fountas and Pinnell resources) that are not part of a beginning reading program supported by research. It does not appear that a systematic phonics approach is being consistently recommended or used.

Further, these aspects of the science of reading are presented in the context of documents that emphasize ideas in education that are not supported by research, such as teachers and students completing “Multiple Intelligence Profiles” or teaching approaches based on students’ learning styles.[755] There seem to be good efforts and some consideration of the research, but not all components of effective early decoding instruction have been adequately incorporated within recommended teacher approaches and materials. More guidance, support and resources could help boards that have begun the important work of moving towards structured literacy, to implement it in a systematic and effective way.

London Catholic also told us about some recent efforts to supplement the Ontario Language curriculum with approaches that are consistent with evidence. The board told us about a pilot program they implemented in 12 schools in 2019. Kindergarten teams were given professional development on the Five Big Ideas in Early Reading, and follow-up support was provided by speech-language pathologists. The pilot included early literacy assessment using an Early Literacy Assessment tool. Training was provided on the importance of the skills being assessed, how to teach those skills within the classroom, and how to support students within the classroom who have been identified as not meeting learning benchmarks. Unfortunately, no documentation was available on the details or evaluation of this pilot program so it was difficult to assess. It is also unclear whether this program will be offered across the board and if steps will be taken to implement the Five Big Ideas in Early Reading beyond Kindergarten and in an adequately comprehensive way.

Some boards have purchased online resources to support classroom instruction. For example, London Catholic reported that it piloted purchasing Learning A-Z Headsprout licenses as a resource for early reading, with year 1 ending on November 30, 2020. Teachers were told that the resource was available, and they could use their professional judgment to determine when and how to use it. London Catholic explained that with the onset of teacher-led distance learning due to COVID-19, they received extra licenses and all primary teachers (Year 1–Grade 3) are actively using this resource. London Catholic hopes to continue to buy yearly classroom licenses for the Early Reading Component of Headsprout targeted at Kindergarten to Grade 2. The plan is to have this as their universal tool/resource for learning to read. The effectiveness of this online tool as currently used should be evaluated to inform this larger roll-out.

Several boards mentioned that phonological awareness and phonics programs (such as Jolly Phonics or Class Act Phonological Awareness Program) are available as an optional resource individual teachers can choose to use. However, they also reported that teachers are not required to use the programs, and no data is collected on whether teachers are using them. Therefore, beyond saying the programs are available, boards could not report on their use. Having access to these optional programs is a token attempt to include phonics and some other isolated elements of a science-based approach.

Overall, the inquiry found that a few boards have identified the need for more science-based early reading instruction. These boards have tried to incorporate more explicit instruction in some foundational skills within the context of a curriculum and balanced literacy model that de-emphasizes instruction in these skills. While the OHRC applauds these boards for their efforts, this type of localized, piecemeal and incomplete approach is not likely to effect large changes in students’ achievement, and falls short of the explicit, systematic approach needed to make sure all Ontario students learn to read.

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Challenges for educators and other professionals trying to promote the science of reading

The inquiry learned that there are educators and other professionals, including many who work in school boards, who are trying to address deficiencies in current approaches to teaching reading to all students. However, they are encountering significant challenges, and at times, active resistance to making changes that conform with the evidence.

People who work within school boards described a lack of consistency in approaches to teaching reading at an individual school or classroom level. They said that what happens at specific schools often comes down to the knowledge of individual teachers and school principals.

The inquiry discovered there are “silos” between the people responsible for curriculum and instruction and people responsible for special education, with a lack of understanding about how the two areas are connected. The inquiry also heard reports of board “politics” standing in the way of doing what is best for students.

Board literacy specialists are often called on to support other teachers in reading instruction and students who are struggling with reading, and to provide professional learning to their colleagues. However, the inquiry learned that they are often trained in approaches and programs like Reading Recovery® and Leveled Literacy Intervention that do not align with the scientific studies of reading instruction. Job descriptions for literacy positions often state that training in and experience with these largely ineffective programs is required or an asset. Several senior board administrators the OHRC met with were also trained in such programs. People who work within school boards told the inquiry that when senior board leaders or board staff who are considered to have the greatest expertise in reading are invested in approaches derived from whole language, it is even harder to promote the science of reading within the board.

The OHRC heard about disagreements between staff who support continued use of three-cueing and balanced literacy approaches to early reading instruction, and staff who advocate for science-based approaches. This tension was even apparent during OHRC interviews with some boards, where board staff appeared to have differing views on the best approach to teaching reading. This was also apparent in the responses in the OHRC educator survey, and in interviews conducted with school board staff from across Ontario who came forward to share their experiences.

We received 1,086 survey responses from Ontario-educated teachers. When asked which approach to teaching reading should be used in primary grades, 39% chose structured literacy and 35% chose balanced literacy. This suggests that educators who responded are roughly equally divided in their preference, with a slight preference for structured literacy. The OHRC received 220 survey responses from Ontario professionals (such as speech-language pathologists and psychologists). When asked which approach to teaching reading should be used in primary grades, 80% chose structured literacy and only 9% chose balanced literacy.

Educators and other professionals who work within various Ontario boards approached the OHRC on a confidential basis to describe the challenges they have faced trying to advocate for or implement change in their boards. These knowledgeable professionals described being ignored, or worse, being told to stop advocating for science-based approaches or risk facing career repercussions. This included being “told to find other jobs if [they] don’t get on board” with prevalent whole language and balanced literacy philosophies. They talked about seeing colleagues involuntarily reassigned to different positions after advocating for approaches consistent with the science of reading. This “culture of retribution” has contributed to a “culture of fear” around raising concerns about ineffective approaches to teaching reading and other issues of concern to students with disabilities. This type of dysfunctional school board culture has been found in other reviews, for example in the 2020 Review of the Peel District School Board.[756]

These individuals said “the teaching profession is a closed culture and teachers need to be educated by people outside their own profession.” They reported trying to show board leaders the data and evidence supporting science-based approaches and being rebuffed. They also described a concerning tendency of boards to subvert human rights and equity principles to prevent use of science-based approaches to learning to read that would promote greater equity for students. For example, they said that they are not permitted to talk about “at-risk” students from certain Code-protected groups as this is considered racially biased. They also described boards’ exclusive focus on socio-cultural approaches to teaching reaching and culturally responsive pedagogy to the exclusion of all else, including instruction in foundational reading skills (for more details, see discussion below).

We also heard about fear and intimidation in the surveys we received:

Somehow, INTIMIDATION needs to be eliminated from the field of beginning reading instruction. The intimidation that some teachers have experienced (me, included for most of my career) is FEROCIOUS. We need permission to say that structured literacy is okay. We need permission to say that direct instruction is okay. We need permission to say that systematic and explicit phonics is okay. We need permission to say that the science of reading is okay. We need permission to explore and be enthusiastic about it and not fear the Reading Recovery® teachers/teacher-trainers, and balanced literacy gurus, and school board literacy consultants. We need permission in writing so that we have backing. We need to be backed. We need respectful discussion.

Even teachers who are not trying to advocate for board-wide change but who just want to use direct instruction in their classrooms reported being prevented from doing so. They described feeling they are not “allowed” to teach “anything directly and explicitly” or if they do, they must keep it secret. These efforts to teach students using effective approaches must be supported rather than punished.

The Code’s protections against reprisal include protecting individuals who refuse to infringe the human rights of another person. The OHRC’s position is that educators who advocate for the rights of students with disabilities or other Code-protected characteristics, including by advocating for science-based approaches to reading instruction, screening and intervention, are protected under the Code from employment-related consequences for doing so.[757]

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Problems with professional development

Several school boards told the inquiry about challenges with professional development around reading and literacy. They said that new teachers are not graduating from faculties of education prepared to teach reading or with enough information about special education. As a result, boards must conduct significant in-service training for new teachers through the New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP) and other in-service professional learning initiatives.

Several boards said there are ways the Ministry can better support professional development in reading and literacy. They advised that over the past few years the Ministry has required them to focus on professional development for math, making it more challenging to provide professional development in other areas, including literacy. They reported difficulty with providing large-scale training to primary teachers on reading. For example, one board reported they have not been able to provide comprehensive training for all staff on reading instruction since the early to mid-2000s. However, other boards said they did not find the provincial focus on math to be an issue.

Boards described professional learning opportunities that are no longer available or harder to implement because they are unable to provide release time for teachers to take part. Boards reported that lack of funding from the Ministry has resulted in having to cancel or reduce initiatives that support job-embedded professional learning such as Professional Learning Communities.[758]

Boards also reported having fewer opportunities to collaborate with, learn from and achieve consistency with other boards, including fewer opportunities for regional literacy meetings and provincewide symposia. They said when they can come together with other school boards, due to the province’s focus on numeracy, their discussions often concern math.

The OHRC asked the inquiry school boards for documentation on in-service training or professional development. Boards’ formal training on reading and literacy tended to focus on specific board programs or resources rather than learning about effective reading instruction. Often, the training was on board programs or resources that are inconsistent with the science of reading. For example, one board told us about training they have provided on using running records, guided reading, balanced literacy, Levelled Literacy Intervention and Reading Recovery®. The OHRC acknowledges the challenges boards described with professional development related to reading, but also notes that when training has been provided it has mostly been on ineffective approaches and programs boards are currently using.

Two boards, London Catholic and Hamilton-Wentworth, described professional development more aligned with the science of reading, such as the Five Big Ideas in Early Reading, including phonological awareness and phonics. Hamilton-Wentworth in particular appears to have considered the need for systematic and comprehensive professional development to support its Early Literacy Strategy. Broadening the scope of professional development and supporting all Kindergarten to Grade 3 classroom teachers in explicit and systematic instruction in foundational word-reading skills will be a large undertaking for these and other school boards.

Boards also said that rather than investing in professional development events, they are using “at the elbow” training where a teacher works with a colleague to implement a teaching practice (such as through team teaching, coaching, modelling). The OHRC acknowledges the importance of mentoring and learning from colleagues, but is also concerned that this type of training can result in significant variations in what teachers learn about how to teach students to read. Teachers must learn from colleagues who have been equipped with knowledge about approaches consistent with the research science.

In 2016, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) asked participating teachers about the number of hours they had spent in formal professional development related to reading or teaching reading in the previous two years. In Ontario, 9% of teachers reported spending no time, 33% reported spending fewer than six hours, 27% reported spending six to 15 hours, 15% reported spending between 15 and 35 hours, and 17% reported spending more than 35 hours on reading-related professional development in the previous two years.[759] PIRLS noted that the relationship between teachers’ professional development and students’ reading achievement is not conclusive. However, an interesting finding from PIRLS is that in Ontario, there is a negative relationship between higher levels of teacher professional development and student reading scores.[760] This finding highlights the importance of quality over quantity when it comes to teachers’ professional learning. This may also confirm the inquiry’s finding that professional development in reading has not focused on effective practices that research has shown will improve students’ achievement.

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The role of teachers in meeting the right to read

Teachers play a critical role in determining whether students will learn to read well and in preventing reading difficulties. Faculties of education in Ontario universities have significant responsibility to prepare teachers to do this.

The effect of teachers on students’ reading achievement has long been recognized. Reports such as the National Reading Panel Report, Rose Reports and the Ontario Expert Panel Report have emphasized that teachers must have the skills and knowledge to deliver science-based reading instruction:

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.[761]

Prominent researchers have noted:

It is now widely acknowledged that many students currently identified as learning disabled would not have been identified if instruction had been appropriately targeted and responsive.[762]

Several Canadian studies have shown the potential of good reading instruction. In a 2003 longitudinal study out of North Vancouver by Dr. Linda Siegel, an international authority on reading disabilities, and her colleagues, classroom Kindergarten teachers across 30 schools, teaching about 1,000 students, implemented a whole-class program that targeted phonological awareness, grapheme-phoneme connections and using these to read words, as well as components of oral language (syntax). Initially, 24% of English first-language and 37% of English second-language Kindergarten students were found to be low enough on measures of phonological and alphabetic knowledge that they were at risk for future reading difficulties or a diagnosis of dyslexia. However, when followed through Grades 2, 4 and 7, only 2–6% of students qualified as having dyslexia.[763] Remarkably, differences in reading achievement typically associated with socioeconomic disparities were no longer apparent by Grade 3.[764]

In a second 2018 Canadian study, Drs. Robert Savage and George Georgiou, researchers in reading development and dyslexia, and their colleagues delivered an effective early intervention. This intervention included teaching students phonics and an explicit strategy for dealing with variable vowel pronunciations in written words, and included text-reading practice. Dr. Georgiou summarized the findings for the Edmonton site of the larger study, which included students in mid-Grade 1 from 11 Edmonton schools who were below expectations in word reading.[765] With the early intervention of 30 minutes, three times a week for 10 weeks, the number of children experiencing reading difficulties went from 290 down to seven. Dr. Georgiou noted:

This tells you that with early identification, with training the classroom teachers on evidence-based practices, and with intensive intervention for the kids who continue to struggle, you can make miracles.”[766]

The Model Schools Literacy Project, a partnership between First Nations schools and communities across Canada and the Martin Family Initiative, also shows the importance of professional learning and support for teachers. This initiative to improve early literacy achievement for First Nations students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 focuses on professional learning for teachers and school leaders because:

…as research clearly shows, teaching is the most influential school-based factor in children’s reading achievement. Teachers in the partner schools are fully qualified. However, while teacher education programs in Canada and other developed countries prepare teachers with general pedagogical skills, they do not cover the specific skills needed to teach reading and writing to young children. In a recent international survey, up to 65% of teachers (including from Canada) reported they were not adequately prepared to teach early literacy effectively, especially to children who struggle.[767]

This project, which also includes formative assessment to guide literacy instruction and direct instruction in all core reading and writing skills, has been effective in increasing First Nations students’ early literacy achievement:

The plan’s effectiveness was demonstrated in the earlier pilot program (2010–2014). Before the pilot began, 13% of Grade 3 children were reading at grade level on the Ontario provincial assessment; when it ended, 81% reached or exceeded that level, and the percentage of children identified for speech and language support decreased from 45% to 19%.

In 2019, the EQAO conducted a literature review in response to Ontario introducing a mathematics proficiency test for teacher candidates.[768] The EQAO concluded:

  • Increasing the quality and quantity of required mathematics courses at the pre-service teacher education level was one of the most helpful steps toward improving student outcomes
  • Research from Quebec, where student math test scores are high relative to the rest of Canada, attributes that province’s student achievement to “a uniquely strong emphasis on requiring trainee teachers to undertake more courses in both mathematics methodology and mathematics content.”[769]

The EQAO also relies on studies about early reading to support its conclusions that teachers’ understanding of how to teach the subject matter effectively is “almost uniformly positive[ly]” correlated with student outcomes.[770]

Teachers have the power to be proactive and influential in their students’ reading success, starting in Kindergarten. To meet this mandate, teachers need a science-based curriculum and teaching guidelines to follow, robust pre-service and in-service preparation in science-based teaching of foundational word-reading skills, evidence-based approaches and programs with a clear scope and sequence, and lesson plans to support them.

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Empowering teachers with the science of reading

In 2020, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), working with the Center for Development and Learning, updated and republished a report by Dr. Moats, Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, 2020: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do (Teaching Reading is Rocket Science).[771] The AFT is a union of professionals that includes pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12 teachers, paraprofessionals and other school-related personal, higher education faculty and professional staff among others.[772] The Center for Development and Learning is a non-profit that specializes in using leading-edge scientific research, knowledge and best practices to reinforce teacher capacity and build teacher effectiveness.[773] Dr. Moats is a teacher, psychologist, researcher and professor who has been at the forefront of science-based reading instruction for five decades.[774]

In a preamble to Teachi