He was in Grade 9, but he read at a Grade 7 level. He could de-code words, but the overall meaning didn’t sink in. Books were boring, he said. He had no confidence in class. Reading felt like punishment.
So how on earth would this struggling reader – let’s call him Dwayne – possibly manage under the Toronto District School Board’s plan to stop offering Applied courses and have everyone study at the university-bound Academic level?
Luckily, the TDSB plans to keep any teen from falling through the cracks when Grade 9 English classes shift to Academic level only. The whole point of having all students take Academic is to widen opportunities for all; to make the system more equitable, particularly for the many marginalized students who had become trapped in Applied.And Runnymede Collegiate, where Dwayne goes, has been one of the first to design a safety net to catch these reluctant readers as Grade 9 English changes. The west-end school scrapped Applied English classes two years ago as early adopters of the TDSB’s move to make Grade 9 more equitable.
So Runnymede has had a head start re-thinking literacy for an Academic-only system, and its approach is working so well, other schools are taking notice. Dwayne was one of 16 struggling Grade 9 readers who were offered a new kind of one-on-one literacy session last fall with teacher Gita Madan to help boost their confidence and skills so they could take part in the Academic class.
In a series of 30- to 60-minute meetings several times a week over two months, Madan analyzed Dwayne’s reading skills and pinpointed exactly what things he did well and encouraged him to build on those. Educators call this a “strength-based” approach, because it focusses on a student’s strengths rather than their weakness or “deficit,” and bolsters their self-confidence.
But she also gave him specific strategies for areas where he was weak – techniques for making connections between the text and the wider world, for example, and using evidence to back up his arguments.
Most importantly, she got to know him and earned his trust – and soon discovered he’s fascinated with black history and issues of racism. Madan chose books for him about these topics, including one on the late American Black activist Marcus Garvey. It sparked his interest, and for the first time, he experienced the joy of reading.
“When I’m interested in what I’m reading, my attitude changes,” he told Madan at the end of the program, called Right to Read. “It gives you more confidence to do the work, because I understand it. Now I feel like I could participate in class.”
He wasn’t alone. Most Right to Read participants saw their reading skills grow, some by as much as four grade levels. In many cases, Madan found “culturally responsive” books that spoke to their background and passions.
Right to Read is part of the school’s broader move to make literacy more equitable. There are deep, system-wide barriers that can keep students from achieving their full potential in literacy, says Madan, now a TDSB Student Equity Program Advisor. Too many students who fail the Grade 10 literacy test come from low-income families and Black, Indigenous and Latino backgrounds – usually boys – or are young people who identify as LGBTQ, she notes.
Without books that reflect their community and interests, or the encouragement they need to feel confident, many students fall behind, she says, and eventually believe they can’t do better.
“If a Grade 9 student is reading below grade-level, they may have internalized low expectations of themselves,” she says. “It’s too easy to say they’re just lazy or not smart. The real question is, why have we failed the students?”
So Runnymede overhauled the way it teaches English in general, to offer a choice of readings that reflect students’ diverse cultural backgrounds – and to get all teens into the habit of reading for pleasure.
“Everyone starts with a love of literacy,” says teacher Sean Henderson, “but somewhere along the line, some lose it, and it becomes like math phobia; a source of anxiety. It’s a global pattern, not just at Runnymede. Teens in general read less as they get older. At 16, we read less than at any other age.”
By giving them more diversity in what they read, and time in every class to read silently for pleasure, Runnymede students are reading “double the number of books in one-third the time, compared to what they did before,” says Henderson. The school’s new approach is called “JETS,” for Joy, Empathy and Thinking with the use of reading Strategies, and dozens of TDSB teachers have shown interest in learning this approach.
Also, Runnymede’s Academic English courses start with graphic novels, says Henderson; another way to offer a level playing field to students of all reading levels. Students progress to regular books when they’re able. For the small number who can’t, there’s now Right to Read.
“Literacy is not just about skills; there’s also a socio-emotional element,” says Madan. “Sometimes something other than skill is creating a barrier to literacy achievement; a belief in yourself, internalized low expectations, how you’ve been treated by teachers in class.” So the first step is to create “a trusting space that supports risk-taking and makes every student feel valued.”