The First Nation School Board is changing the way it teaches reading.
Beginning next year, schools managed by the new board will move away from the literacy programming it inherited from the Education department.
The new system — called “the science of reading” — relies on phonemics, teaching kids to decode new words by sounding them out.
This will replace the traditional “balanced” learning approach, which combines reading, writing and listening, in solitude and in groups, under the assumption that students will naturally develop literacy skills with exposure.
The switch will also eliminate the tier system, which separates students into tiers of advancement and assigns progressively challenging books as kids level up.
There’s substantial evidence to show the current method isn’t working, as parents report discouraged kids who aren’t levelling up with their peers in combination with low student outcomes, according to Dana Tizya-Tramm, chair of the First Nation School Board trustees.
“We do know there are literacy problems in the Yukon, and we can do a better job,” Tizya-Tramm told the News on Feb. 14.
Kids are falling through the cracks, he continued, to the extent that students in their early teenage years are moving into upper grades despite “serious reading issues.”
“In my experience through school, I didn’t really know anyone who couldn’t read or had issues reading, but that is the place we find ourselves in today,” said Tizya-Tramm, who attended grade school in Old Crow.
In 2009, an auditor general’s report flagged alarmingly low literacy rates among rural Yukon schools. A second report in 2019 found little improvement, condemning the Education department’s lack of progress.
Those reports made literacy a priority for the new school board, which launched in 2022 with eight schools under its wing and another four currently polling on the change.
Megan Norris, a speech-language pathologist, became the board’s lead literacy coach and conducted assessments in every K-3 classroom over the first half of the year. Norris and Melissa Flynn, the interim executive director, agreed there was a “real issue” in need of substantive change, according to Tizya-Tramm.
“Megan came to the board and peeled back the actual science of how the brain learns and how it interacts with language,” Tizya-Tramm said, explaining that there’s little evidence in favour of the balanced method beyond its appeal to common sense that we learn to read by reading.
The change dovetails with other education reforms taking place in Ontario and eastern Canada, as balanced literacy rapidly loses popularity among experts.
Last year, the Ontario Human Rights Commission reported that children were being denied their “right to read” by the school system’s ineffective instruction, finding it responsible for the huge demand in disability assessments and reporting one-third of students graduate lacking the literacy levels required to perform in the professional world.
It blamed balanced literacy and its hands-off approach for the systemic failure, urging the province to pick up “evidence-based” phonemic instruction.
New Brunswick’s Education minister called it the “biggest education scandal of the last 50 years” as both provinces pledged an overhaul.
The First Nation School Board will follow suit in the fall, with plans to hire and train a staff of literacy coaches this summer. Reading recovery teachers, who worked with students one-on-one under the old system, will be retrained as “literacy teachers” and supported by the coaches and learning assistance teachers.
There are plans to involve families, elders and knowledge-keepers to build a community-supported system, Tizya-Tramm said.
“We’ve gone down this road of balanced reading, and now we’ve walked all the way back to this fork in the road … and we looked at it, and we chose a different route.”
Contact Gabrielle Plonka at firstname.lastname@example.org