By Bruce Rodrigues, Chief Executive Officer, EQAO
"I don't understand."
Those three little words can be so devastating to our present and our future.
Chances are, if you're reading this article you're probably not one of the thousands of Ontarians who struggle to draw meaning from the important texts that are everywhere around you. Sadly, though, for too many in Ontario—children, adolescents and adults alike—the written word is more of a wall than a gateway to new thoughts, facts and ideas.
September 8 marks the United Nations' International Literacy Day, a day observed around the globe to acknowledge the fundamental importance of literacy for personal and social development. As the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states,
"Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy."
In Ontario, we've taken that belief to heart. This province has done an excellent job of tracking and improving literacy development in our school system. The most recent results from EQAO's province-wide student testing are encouraging. They reveal that our elementary schools are indeed getting better and better at helping students become good readers. More than two-thirds (68%) of Grade 3 students and over three-quarters (77%) of Grade 6 students are now meeting or exceeding the provincial reading standard, which is equivalent to an achievement level in the B- to B+ range. Even the reading skills of students whose first language is not English are quickly catching up to those of the general population. Beyond our borders as well, Ontario students are consistently performing among the best in the world on international reading assessments. Of some concern, though, is the Grade 10 student success rate on the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. Although still high at over 80%, it has hit a plateau and has even started a slow decline over the past five years.
A key observation gained from examining student responses on provincial tests is that many students struggle with the skill of making relevant and specific connections between what they read and their own ideas. This is the skill that allows students to interpret, analyze, evaluate and internalize what they've read. It's important for unlocking full reading comprehension and is absolutely essential in the development of truly critical thinking. Critical thinking has been consistently identified by the Conference Board of Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and other groups as one of the key 21st-century skills we definitely must develop in our young people.
It's often said that the definition of literacy should be broadened to recognize the many new forms of communication in the modern age. This is absolutely true as long as we don't lose sight of the fundamentals. Foundational reading skills, such as the ability to make relevant, personal connections with a text, are by no means outdated in the digital world. In fact, the opposite is true. Our children are growing up in an era of virtually unlimited information sources—some legitimate, some far less so. The ability to truly and deeply understand the texts they read, to internalize and think critically about them, has perhaps never been a more important skill to master. And like any other skill, there is only one way to develop it—by doing it often. It's the only way to get from "I don't understand” to “Now I understand."
Bruce Rodrigues is Chief Executive Officer of Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office.
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