Students Aren’t Being Taught Crucial Reading and Writing Skills

By Robert Green

A slightly edited version of this op-ed appeared in the Montreal Gazette April 14, 2011

The English Language Arts (ELA) program has long been considered a ‘core’ academic subject for students in Quebec’s English School Boards. This is for very good reason. Strong literacy skills are recognized as key to improving students’ future employment prospects as well their ability to engage with their world creatively and participate fully in our society’s democratic institutions. The lowering of standards in the ELA program therefore has grave implications not only for individual students but also for society as a whole.  Sadly after five years in the teaching profession, I am firmly of the opinion that such a lowering of standards is occurring in Quebec’s English schools and that the Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sports (MELS) is entirely to blame.

Initially the infamous ‘reform’ to Quebec’s curriculum was presented as a move away from the rote learning that had occurred in the past and a move towards a more constructivist methodology that recognizes that learning is a much more active and dynamic process than the simple memorization of facts. When I first heard this as a student at McGill, this was music to my ears; however, upon entering the profession I soon began to lose this enthusiasm.

During my first few years I taught mainly at the junior level in High School. I will never forget looking over the first writing assignment that I had given to my Grade 7 class. It wasn’t just the sheer volume of errors that worried me; it was the type of errors. Clearly much of my class had arrived in Grade 7 without having internalized the most basic rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation. My initial thought was that perhaps they had not been instructed properly at the elementary level. However, I soon recognized that this was not about their previous teachers; this was about a provincial ELA curriculum that reduces reading and writing skills to only 50% of the program’s intended content. The other 50% involves evaluating their competency in using “talk/language to communicate” and in expressing themselves “using different media”. So despite the fact that most students arrived in my class sorely lacking in terms of their reading and writing skills and quite able to talk and use digital media, I was being instructed by the provincial curriculum to weight these competencies equally. Being obliged to spend so much time evaluating the talk and media competencies denied me the opportunity to teach the reading and writing skills my students so badly needed. I’m sure my colleagues at the elementary level have grappled with this same frustration.

Although the media competency disappears in Grade 9, senior level ELA teachers have different reasons to be exasperated with MELS. For senior teachers the issue is the final Grade 11 ELA exam prepared by MELS. For the last five years Grade 11 ELA teachers have organized their courses based on the writing forms of the previous year’s exam. Then, usually sometime in the spring, teachers have received a document informing them that the writing forms from the previous year have been changed, thereby rendering much of what they have been teaching significantly less useful in terms of preparing students for this high stakes exam.

Five years ago students had a choice of several writing forms with very clear structures. These included short story, persuasive essay, literary essay, and editorial. Mastering such forms would have continued to serve students in CEGEP and university. Unfortunately, all of these forms have been gradually eliminated as the reform has reached Grade 11. In their place are writing forms whose structures are extremely vague: feature article, opinion column and something called “comment/analysis”. The latest MELS document concerning the upcoming final exams describes the structure of an opinion column as follows: an opinion column has “a clear beginning, middle, and end”. This is what teachers are being given to prepare students for an exam worth 50% of their year-end grade! To further confuse both students and teachers alike, the exam requires students to compose their piece for an “internet audience” – whatever that means. Perhaps we are now supposed to deem their incessant use of ‘lol’ as being acceptable English.

At a recent EMSB training session where all of this was explained, I saw a room full of some of our school board’s best English teachers raise legitimate questions and concerns about all this without receiving a satisfactory response. No wonder so many left looking utterly demoralized. We feel abandoned. Neither the school boards nor the teachers’ unions seem to have the political will to challenge MELS in its nonsensical implementation of this reform. MELS needs to stop reinventing the wheel every single year and focus the ELA program on actually addressing the real needs of students: raising literacy skills instead of lowering literacy standards.

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