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.
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.”
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.”