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Letter: Praise for the First Nation School Board

Thank you to the First Nation School Board.

Thank you to the First Nation School Board.

First: My husband, Dave, and I give heartfelt congratulations to the Yukon First Nation School Board, under Melanie Bennett, former teacher and principal, for finally implementing what is known as ‘research-based reading.’

In the words of Megan Norris, the board’s literacy coach, they are ‘aligning with the science of reading’. It is long, long overdue. I was pleased to see recently that the Nelnah Bessie John School in Beaver Creek will participate in professional development instruction, which will focus on a structured approach to literacy that emphasizes phonetic (sound) awareness. This will help kids learn to decode words. What is reading but sound?

I retired 24 years ago as a reading teacher and learning assistant. Shortly after I began teaching in the early ‘70s, I studied internationally in order to better help my students and introduced the Wilson Multisensory Reading Program to Whitehorse. I have to thank the Learning Disabilities Association of the Yukon and teacher Beverly Avano, who were my only allies at first.

Gradually, quite a few other teachers joined (a bit under the radar). At that time, Balanced Literacy and Reading Recovery were the only reading approached backed by the department of Education. I remember a department representative attending a learning disabilities presentation by a Wilson expert who told us what the science of reading tells us about instruction. Reading is rocket science. When asked if the department would consider changing its approach, the answer was sort of ‘how do you turn around an ocean liner’?

Many years of entrenched thinking? Lack of interest in research?

Dyslexia is defined as a neurodevelopmental condition that mainly affects the ease with which a person reads, writes and spells, and is typically recognized as a specific learning disorder in children. It affects about 15 per cent of the population. In every classroom, there are likely four to five students who have difficulty reading and writing. It is not due to either lack of intelligence or desire to learn.

The structured literacy approach emphasizes that the five biggies in reading instruction need to be directly taught: phonological (sound) awareness, phonics (letter sound connection), fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. It benefits all students to learn to proficiently read.

Special teaching materials are available and used in tutoring dyslexics. But it is not dyslexia alone that caused two Auditor General’s reports (2009 and 2019) to find the Yukon, particularly First Nations and rural students, not meeting very basic reading goals. Further, the department of Education was not making progress in addressing the problem.

Interesting that the move to a structured literacy approach happened after a landmark Right to Read report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission recommended a dramatic overhaul of Ontario’s literacy curriculum. And other provinces are following suit.

I gave up tutoring a year ago, but I would like to recommend two meaningful readings—one about reading and the other a quote from Martin Luther King. They are very critical in today’s challenging world.

The Key is written by J. Bunkhill-Davis: “My boy sits curled over the book, holding it too tightly with a thin hand and tense in his uncertainty.

My boy looks seeing black symbols and something close to loathing saps his concentration.

To me the words unlock a store of vast delight but my boy does not have a key.”

King said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Second: Another thought on the available literacy resources in the Yukon.

In my experience Whitehorse Public Library offers excellent resources and personal interest in our reading. When I moved here in 1965, the little library on Wood Street was my first stop. Today the apps Libby and Hoopla offer access to many books in print and audio. If staff don’t have the book you request they go to great lengths to get it here through an inter-library loan.

Just as the movie Oppenheimer was announced I asked for the 1966 book American Prometheus and in very few days it came from the BCIT Library in Vancouver.

The Whitehorse library offers wonderful programming for kids of all ages, collections for book clubs, large print and video collections, free computer use and an Indigenous Book Club often with the guest writer present. They also offer talks by prominent authors who are in town.

Literacy is alive and well in the Yukon.

Irene Brekke