As a teacher of English Language Arts in high school, by the time I meet my students, they’re at the tail-end of their mandatory schooling. I’ve encountered a number of students who are allowed special accommodations in the classroom and for exams due to the fact that they struggle with reading. In the previous post on this topic, I outlined that some of these students are even allowed to have reading comprehension tests read to them, either through a recorded audio version of the exam, or by an educational assistant who reads the exam to the student in person. I very much struggle with the validity of a test that’s meant to measure reading and comprehension that does not require a student to read the test on his own. In my experience, it seems that the incidence of students who are allowed such accommodations has increased, so I investigated whether or not there was a statistical record to support my suspicions. I found that, indeed, the number of students with exceptional needs seems to have increased, at least according to The Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta, published September 2014:
In addition to changes in policies and practices in inclusive education, the panel also reviewed data that revealed that the classroom itself has increased dramatically in complexity over the last number of years. Although exactitude is difficult, examining some of the available statistics supports anecdotal evidence that there are more students with exceptional needs in classrooms than ever before. Source: The Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta
Currently, the average number of students identified as having special educational needs across grade levels is reportedly 25 per cent:Source: The State of Inclusion in Alberta Schools
Having recently read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse and E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit, I think, at least in the English Language Arts classroom, this trend can be, in part, attributed to the following two factors:
- In Alberta, students are taught to read in Grade One through a balanced literacy approach, a methodology that is continued through the primary years as students build reading competency.
With respect to this first point, students do not receive sole and explicit phonics instruction when learning to read. In Alberta, a “balanced” approach is taken, which means that phonics is simply one of a number of reading “strategies,” including the memorization of high-frequency words and the use of picture cues, among others. In Progressively Worse, Robert Peal comprehensively tracks the history of what he calls The Reading Wars in the U.K., a history that parallels much of what has occurred in Alberta. After much research into the many factors powering the tug-of-war between the whole language and systematic phonics approaches to teaching reading, and after citing numerous studies into the effectiveness of both methodologies, Peal reasonably concludes that systematic phonics is the superior methodology and that “for the effects of the phonics method to be beneficial, it must be taught ‘first, fast, and only’” (Peal 169). This is not what’s happening in Alberta. Why does that matter to a high school English teacher whose students all know how to read, if not fully comprehend? Peal cites several significant studies that determined that the early advantage of having learned to read using phonics is compounded for these pupils (Peal 171), meaning that students who were taught to read using a systematic phonics program in their first year of school were, on average, three years ahead of their chronological age in reading by grade seven. Conversely, students who were taught using a “balanced” approach did not experience near the same gains.
Many proponents of balanced literacy argue that they DO teach using phonics, but as Peal’s investigation reveals, its benefits are subverted if this method is confused with other strategies, something that is absolutely happening in Alberta. What’s just as disheartening is that primary teachers in Alberta are not, by any reasonable measure, reading specialists. In fact, teachers are often given assignments in grade one, without having had any training in teaching reading at all. It’s no wonder that by the time I see these students in high school, many have been diagnosed with a learning disability that manifests as poor reading comprehension. What am I to do so late in the game?
- In Alberta, an outcome-based curriculum promotes a focus on vague competencies rather than on building broad knowledge.
This is an example of the broad program of studies for ELA K-9:
Source: ELA Program of Studies K-9
With respect to this second point, over the years Alberta has moved increasingly toward a competency-based model of education. My opinion of this has evolved over the past couple of years, as I’ve now come to understand the harmful nature of this kind of system. In The Knowledge Deficit, E.D. Hirsch argues that a focus on core knowledge through the explicit teaching of content has come to be seen as a dictatorial approach that perpetuates the traditional hegemony of dead white men. The result, he asserts, is the adoption of an anti-intellectualism that posits that skills can be learned in the absence of knowledge. As it relates to reading comprehension, a task that becomes increasingly interpretive by the time I see students in high school, it becomes clear that domain-specific knowledge has been sacrificed in favour of extended projects and presentations that were meant to develop abstract skills – but didn’t. Hirsch reminds us that even “cognitive scientists agree that reading comprehension requires ‘domain-specific’ knowledge about the things that a text refers to, and that understanding the text consists of integrating this prior knowledge” (Hirsch 17). The problem is that Alberta students have been robbed, in many instances, of this prior knowledge because they’ve been encouraged to make posters describing their feelings about a book of their choosing rather than reading a classic piece of literature and writing a thoughtful exposition of its value. Hirsch demonstrates that “since relevant, domain-specific knowledge is an absolute requirement for reading comprehension, there is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading” (Hirsch 39). Again, the school system in Alberta is not providing common, broad, knowledge-based curricula; in fact, it’s increasingly moving away from this, and the results are damning – many students do not have the fundamental knowledge to succeed independently in school. By the time I see these students in high school, I simply don’t have the time to catch them up on what they’ve missed, despite my best efforts.
The solution to dealing with struggling students appears to have been more readily diagnosing learning disabilities rather than getting at the core of the problem, which is a flawed curriculum and an ideologically-driven methodology. No amount of support and assistance with reading and writing can replace the absence of foundational knowledge in grammar, mechanics, and great, challenging literature.