By Gary Mar and Janet Lane
Published in the Calgary Herald
September 20, 2023
Now that the novelty of being back at school with old friends and new teachers has settled into routine, the hard work of learning has begun. For many young children, learning is fun and progresses naturally, but for too many children, learning is hard.
For the first four years — kindergarten to Grade 3 — children learn to read. But by the time they reach Grade 4, children are expected to be able to read well enough that they can read to learn.
However, even in Calgary as many as 40 per cent of children who enter kindergarten are not developmentally ready to begin to learn to read. What’s more, a third of children leaving Grade 3 do not yet read well enough to learn from their reading as they progress through school.
That’s the bad news.
Fortunately, there’s some good news, too. The more rigorous curriculum and more science-based assessment program, introduced in 2022 across the province, will help identify children who struggle to learn to read and pinpoint the specific extra help they need to become successful.
Meanwhile, the new curriculum with its emphasis on the basic building blocks of reading, along with the provision of more resources in classrooms, will benefit all children. Over the past couple of years, in-service teachers have also received the professional development they need to use the new assessment tools and to teach the new curriculum.
This is important because with the right instruction, virtually every child can learn to read. Over the next few years, fewer children will enter Grade 4 with reading difficulties.
If a child is not reading well by Grade 4 and reading is a chore, it becomes harder to succeed in school. As reported recently by Canada West Foundation in The Case for Literacy in Alberta, in the last international assessment of the reading skills of 15-year-olds, one in four Canadian students reported that reading is a waste of time and almost half said they read only when they must.
Given the changing nature of work, where learning through reading is necessary to stay up to date in virtually every job, this statistic causes real concern. Being able to read well and understand what you are reading and apply it to solve problems is a critical skill.
While it would be easy to say it’s up to teachers and schools to solve reading problems, parents, family members and all members of society have important parts to play.
Reading starts with language — for parents and caregivers the most important way to build language is to talk to and play with the children in their lives. Reading to a child from birth will instil those pre-reading skills that make learning in those first few years of school much more fun.
Daycare workers and other caregivers spend many waking hours with young children and it is important that they also include reading and other literacy-building activities into daily schedules. A recent study showed that about half of preschool aged children attend daycares in Canada, but only half of daycare workers include literacy activities in their daily work.
Everyone can play a role helping children learn to read. People can support children to read by being role models; young children learn best from example. There are community organizations that can help to support individuals and families to build their reading skills — and the Calgary Public Library’s 21 branches are there to help.
And when you’re finished with the books you buy you can donate them to The Rotary Club of Calgary’s Big Book Sale. Proceeds from the sale go to support early literacy programs across the city.
First you learn to read, then you read to learn — for the rest of your life. As students settle into the new school year, everyone can help to make sure Calgary’s youngest learners get off to their best start.
Gary Mar is president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation and Janet Lane is director of the foundation’s Human Capital Centre.