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Creating a Culture of Reading at Emily Carr PS

Image of students with teachers

Creating a Culture of Reading at Emily Carr PS

By Louise Brown -- November 2018

How does a school pull its Grade 3 writing scores up to 100 per cent, from 59 per cent – in just one year?  That means every student who wrote the test this time earned at least a B, or “Level 3,” in writing, when only 12 months earlier, fewer than two-thirds did that well.

It’s worth asking the folks at Emily Carr Public School in Scarborough, because they did it. They hiked their EQAO Grade 3 scores to 100 in reading too, from 70 per cent the year before. Grade 6 results were also stunning: 92 per cent in writing, up from 67 the year before.

What they did was a total reboot of how they approach literacy, from how the teachers teach (less reading to the class, more reading by the kids) to making library a weekly subject and creating rich Home Reading Booklets for families.

And they gave children tips to help them think about what they read and explain what they think, even under the pressure of a test. The Five-Finger Rule. The multiple-choice secret. The voice in your head. Memory tricks that read like alphabet soup: ASC, AFP, EIP. There’s a gold mine of ideas here for how to create thoughtful readers.

The school’s success is a case study in the spirit of equity at the Toronto District School Board, because they changed how they teach all students, rather than throwing a lifeline to just those who struggle. It’s also timely with the TDSB’s commitment of all students reading by the end of Grade 1.

And both children and staff at this diverse school near Sheppard Ave. and Morningside Dr. – a neighbourhood with some of the highest economic need in the city – say there’s even a more cheery, welcoming vibe in the halls these days, as pride grows in their strong new skills.

So how did they pull this off?

If you ask the students, they’ll tell you it’s about candy, a treasure chest, and getting the hang of “metacognition.” That really is their word; even 8-year-olds use it with ease.

Candy? It seems Principal Farzana Abdulla, who arrived at the school last fall, handed out gum in May as the Grade 3 and 6 students wrote the EQAO assessments over five weekday mornings. Young Fadil Moneer believes it helped; “it made us feel more awake.” Young test-writers were also taught deep-breathing exercises to use if they felt stressed, which 12-year-old Luxsha Kumaramoorthy reports really did ease her anxiety.

Image of students and teachers with prizes

The treasure chest of prizes – puzzles, yo-yos, model planes – is something Abdulla set up in the main office last year for students up to Grade 4 to raid each time they finished reading 20 books or improved in their reading levels or reached their reading goals.

The former literacy coach wanted to send a message that students’ reading is important to the whole school, not just their classroom teachers.

“The office staff and I do a Happy Dance with the kids when they come down for their prize,” she says. Older students from Grades 5 to 8 who have read at home for 20 nights or met their reading goal also get to claim a prize from the new book bank Abdulla has created out of an old store room, now jammed floor- to-ceiling with titles donated by a literacy charity.

Having a principal show such spirit about individual children’s reading “shows them reading is such a big deal, adults get excited about it,” says her superintendent Sheryl Robinson Petrazzini. “It’s a very intentional way to spread enthusiasm.”

But beyond prizes and candy, the true sweet spot in this learning turnaround is the new way Abdulla and her staff have the children think about reading, which is that reading involves thinking, and even thinking about your thinking. Treasure chests aside, it’s not just about how fast budding readers can whip through books. It’s crucial to slow down to think more deeply and get more out of it.

“That’s called metacognition,” explains Grade 3 student Tyson Newman Modeste. “It’s the little voice in your head that makes the gears in your brain move faster and helps you read. Any time you have trouble with a word, that voice whispers tips in your ear: Break down the word into smaller parts. Or look at the picture for clues, or look at the first letter.”

But students learn that voice in their head can do more than just solve mystery words. It can help them analyze what they read – and express these ideas – in ways that will help them for the rest of their lives. How to figure out what’s important. How to summarize. How to answer a question clearly and back it up - (think ASC – Answer, Support, Conclude) – a skill that will serve them well in the adult world. How to figure out the intended purpose of a text (EIP - Entertain? Instruct? Persuade?) – the heart of media literacy. Even how to cope with the stress of a taking a test.

To do all this, teachers had to change how they taught. They spent less time reading to the students, and more time sharing their metacognitive thinking with students and giving them strategies for reading and then letting them practice. They beefed up how closely they track each child’s progress, listen to students read more frequently and set monthly improvement targets.

“It’s like swimming,” says Abdulla. “You can’t just be told how to do it, and then expect to jump in and swim. You need to be shown first and then time to practice it every day, not just listen to a lesson.”

Image of students

The goal, she says, is to drive a passion for reading overall, but also teach the nuts and bolts of how to think about what you read, and to explain those thoughts to others.

None of this is “teaching to the test,” says Leah Bush, who teaches Grades 4/5 in the school’s French immersion stream. It’s helping students organize their thoughts and express themselves clearly, which is giving them tools for life.

“I have taught Grade 4 every year, and this year, in assessing where these kids are at, I have never in 20 years seen a group of kids come to me with these skills. When you ask for an answer, they all have evidence to back it up. And they’re using those strategies in French too. It can work in any subject.

“This has absolutely nothing to do with ‘teaching to the test.’ We’re creating a culture of reading.”


Here are some of the ideas they used. Try some of these at home.

Picking a “Just Right” Book:

Students in Grades 3 and up learn the Five-Finger rule to decide which book is just right for their level of ability. Open a book at any page. Start reading. When you hit a word you don’t understand, put up a finger. If you have two to three fingers up by the end of the page, the book is just right. More than three fingers? It will be too frustrating. No fingers up? It will be too easy.

Updating the Book Shelf:

Class libraries needed a do-over, so they got more books, and streamlined the system of “levelled” reading books across all grades, which kindergarten teacher Andrea Parish says “lets students always know what level they’re at.” They brought in more culturally relevant books that Grade 5/6 teacher Remonda Ibrahim calls “more applicable to our students,” who come from such places as South Asia, Guyana, India, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and Spanish-speaking countries. “We understand we’re all responsible for (EQAO success in) Grade 3 and 6; these are our students and we can all make a difference.”

Tracking Progress:

Teachers received fresh training, usually from a learning coach right in their own class, so they would all approach literacy with the same strategies. Abdulla says part of the goal was to slow teachers down so they’re more explicit in their teaching. They also hold more one-on-one reading conferences now to track each student’s evolving skill level with what Abdulla calls “laser precision,” with the help of a fresh array of assessment tools.

New Life to the Library:

The school hired a full-time teacher librarian, Jackie Dixon, who got help from the school board’s library technical services department to revamp the library. In a three-day blitz, the team weeded out old, damaged books and added ones with broader cultural representation and more global topics. They moved the shelves away from the windows to let the light in and arranged them in a way that was more welcoming and easy to navigate.

The school assigned all classes to one library period every week. Dixon started a book exchange, where children brought favourite titles from home to swap – and they showed up with nearly 400 books. She had students enter reading contests over their lunch periods, such as the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch and Red Maple programs, and she took the Grade 7 and 8s to the awards ceremony at Harbourfront to see the authors. Says Dixon: “The kids are excited about reading.”

The Home Front:

They started a school-wide Home Reading Program for students right up to Grade 8. Each family gets a folder that explains the strategies the school is using to teach literacy and gives the parents the same sort of questions to ask when reading with their child, as the children would hear at school. The booklets include charts where families keep track of which books their child reads at home. Beloved community volunteer Barb Burger, known by all as “Mrs. Barb,” assembled all 300 folders as a labour of love.

Prep for the Test:

The Grade 6 students had never written an EQAO test, because a labour dispute cancelled it when they were in Grade 3. Anxiety was high, so Abdulla with Ms. Eleni the Educational Assistant met with Grade 3s at lunchtime four times a week from March through May to let them try practice tests and see where they needed help. Students saw how they did in each area, from poetry to understanding an instruction manual, and could brush up on areas where they were weak. She also held a special Saturday EQAO session with Mrs. Ibrahim and Ms. Eleni to offer extra help in reading and math – as well as pizza and freezies. To demystify the test for parents, the school held an information night about EQAO, and gave parents a practice test to try. Who explained the test to them? The students. Says Abdulla: “It was a great boost for their confidence.”

Test Tips for EQAO and Beyond:

  • As you read through the material, jot down main points in the margin. Look for the “signal words” or “5 Ws; Who, What, Where, When and Why – and How.”
  • Always read each question twice.
  • If the question includes the word How, remember you must also know the What that it’s asking about.
  • If the question includes the word Why, remember it’s asking for a reason.
  • Think about the APF of what you’re reading
  • who’s the intended Audience? What’s the Purpose? What Form is this? Narrative? Graphic? Poetry? Informational? It all helps you think about what you’re reading, says Luxsha Kumaramoorthy.
  • When answering a question about something you’ve read, get to the point, back it up with an example from the reading, then wrap it up with a conclusion. Says Grade 7 student Harshini Ramkumar: “Before, I wasn’t as good at open-ended questions. We only have about five lines to write our answer on EQAO, and I would just make it too long, but once we learned ASC – Answer, Support, Conclusion - I learned to write my answer first, then support it with an example, then finish with the conclusion. It was easy once she taught us.”
  • Don’t panic over multiple-choice questions, says Grade 7 student Kobikan Sivaharan. “Two of the answers are always ridiculous, so you can rule them out right away. Before, I never understood that, but now I know. Then you go back and re-read the text and figure out which of the answers left looks like the right one.”
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