Summer is crucial to bridging student literacy gaps

The main backdrop for the award-winning film “Scarborough” is a drop-in reading program at the neighbourhood school for low-income students and their caregivers.

While never made explicit, that setting is an important reminder that literacy has a direct impact on whether children and young adults will be able to break out of a cycle of poverty. Families are an integral part of that.

Summertime is a crucial opportunity to bridge literacy gaps, as well as prevent further lapses in reading skills that could significantly hold children back from achieving their full potential and contributing to overall community well-being as adults.

In a 2016 analysis on skills and income released by Statistics Canada, the public agency demonstrated that “literacy skill level and household income are positively related,” with a difference of up to $35,000 between those with lower literacy skills and those who achieve higher levels.

Yet, when students themselves grow up in low-income homes, their chances at literacy achievements are meaningfully reduced. A study from the Toronto District School Board showed that only 47 per cent of students whose parents earned less than $30,000 a year were meeting provincial standards, as compared with 66 per cent of students whose parents earned $100,000 a year or more, according to a discussion paper from Frontier College, a national literacy organization based in Ottawa.

The COVID-19 “learning slide” has made things worse, with students in Grades 1 to 12 potentially expecting lower income over their lifetimes and diminished health outcomes, according to a 2020 report from Deloitte on children’s literacy.

Children who are Indigenous, living with learning disabilities, living in single-parent households, recent immigrants, or members of racialized and Black communities could face additional barriers to success.

This past winter, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released a comprehensive report titled, “Right to Read: Public inquiry into human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities.” Not only were the results “concerning,” but the report noted that “the outcomes for students with special education needs (excluding gifted), learning disabilities, boys, Black and other racialized students, multilingual students, students from low-income backgrounds, and Indigenous students are even more troubling.”

Summer learning programs offer students the chance at making literacy gains — if they are accessible and successfully promoted to their families. Otherwise, students can regress during the summer because they simply aren’t practising their reading. This is again more often the case for children who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and children with reading disabilities.

Furthermore, as academics Susan M. Holloway and Shelley Stagg Peterson wrote in a recent article for the Conversation website on the “Right to Read” inquiry, educators must have tools to provide “culturally responsive teaching” that engages “socially and historically marginalized students, including racialized Black students and students who speak languages other than English at home,” a point they said was missing in the commission’s 157 recommendations.

Ontario’s government recently committed $15 million toward summer learning. This is good news but parent and education advocates have argued that communities must also be more fully integrated in literacy efforts.

“[ …] there seems to be an aversion by school boards to actually value education-based solutions coming from community,” pointed out Camesha Cox, founding director of the Reading Partnership, during an online panel discussion earlier this year hosted by the International Dyslexia Association of Ontario Branch, titled “Race, Class, and Reading: Disrupting the Pedagogy of Low Expectations.”

“School boards need to be more open to partnering with community and to looking to community for solutions to some of the challenges that we’re seeing in schools,” said Cox.

Black elementary students in the TDSB actually showed considerable reading improvement during the first year of the pandemic when they were learning from home. Families and communities clearly have a role to play — all year round.

Amira Elghawaby is an Ottawa-based human rights advocate and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star.

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