|EMSB FOCUSES ON ENHANCING LITERACY AT ALL LEVELS|
MONTREAL, JANUARY 22, 2016 – On the eve of Kindergarten Registration Week, which takes place February 1 to 5, the English Montreal School Board formally launched a campaign highlighting its successful balanced literacy initiative.
In order to emphasize the importance of reading, the EMSB welcomed a number of well-known personalities to Dante Elementary School in St. Léonard to read to the Pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten and Grade 1 students.
EMSB Chairman Angela Mancini notes that literacy rates continue to climb six years after a considerable investment was made in an effort to ensure that 90 percent of students would be reading at level by the time they graduate from elementary school. Ms. Mancini announced that this program will now be expanded to certain high schools as a pilot project.
Close to $2 million has been dedicated to the balanced literacy initiative in both English and French since 2009-2010. Results from standardized testing done last spring of the second cohort of students—those who were in Kindergarten when the balanced literacy plan was launched and who are now in Grade 6—showed a 19 percent increase in the number of students reading at level. The goal of 90 percent of the cohort (1,500 students) reading at or above level was attained by the end of Grade 5. To gain an appreciation of the strength of these results, it is important to note that the average percentage of students at level across the country at any given grade is approximately 78 percent.
For this campaign the EMSB has adopted the slogan proclaimed more than a century ago by Margaret Fuller, an American journalist and the first woman allowed use of the Harvard College Library: “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”
REACHING OUT TO PARENTS
In an effort to build a healthy partnership between home and school, the EMSB continues to reach out to parents in order to communicate how important it is to read to children from a young age and to give them some of the tools to do so.
“In some cases children are spending more time with their smartphones or other electronic devices,” said Ms. Mancini. “In homes with working parents, it is not always easy to read to your child every night.”
KINDERGARTEN’S LITERACY RICH ENVIRONMENT
The EMSB is particularly proud of the way in which Kindergarten and Pre-Kindergarten teachers have been promoting early literacy and reading readiness within the context of a literacy-rich environment. The pre-school teachers attend to the learning competencies outlined in the Quebec curriculum through an approach that is largely play-based and non-academic, and which concentrates on social development. Students at this level have frequent opportunities for engagement in conversation, in reading, and pretend writing in a non-threatening environment that fuels self-confidence and promotes the groundwork for future language development.
Nancy Omobono, a kindergarten teacher at Honoré-Mercier Elementary School in St. Léonard, says she begins exposing her students to different literacy-based activities as soon as they arrive in September, and by June, children begin to "crack the code," with some beginning to blend letter sounds or read short words while others read sentences. “Each child works at their own pace; our job is to expose them to the necessary tools and experiences so that they are ready for Grade 1,” she says. “The most important thing for you to remember is that reading is much more that sounding out words. While it may seem obvious to adults, reading is the result of many small skills that build one upon the other. Knowing what these emerging reading skills are and helping the students learn and practice these skills is part of our daily routine.” Creating a literacy environment means many things: it involves setting up a classroom in which students are exposed to interesting literacy experiences based on, authentic use of spoken and written language every day. Within this context students explore a wide variety of interesting, purposeful activities that range from playing with letters and sounds or recognizing a few repeated words in a morning message, to participating in shared songs and stories.”
REACHING MORE STUDENTS THROUGH BALANCED LITERACY
Several specific actions were taken to support these goals. A critical element of the plan was the part-time release of one teacher in each of the EMSB elementary schools to work as a literacy facilitator. These individuals worked in collaboration with their colleagues in the process of implementing a balanced literacy approach to the teaching of reading and writing. Their work included everything from acting as in-house experts to becoming collaborative partners. Another aspect of the plan included developing a partnership with the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance at Concordia University, which has conducted a survey of all involved teachers, administrators and consultants each year to monitor the process of implementation.
Schools also received a comprehensive set of books to support guided reading, focused, small-group instruction aimed at the individual needs of each student. To put practices such as these into place, the balanced literacy plan involved a significant amount of professional development for facilitators over several years. It also meant the language and literacy consultants from the school board became regular visitors and collaborators in schools where they were able to support teachers individually or as entire school teams. Another vital element in the plan was the orchestration of inter-school visits in which classroom teachers and literacy facilitators visited classrooms in other schools on several occasions over a three-year period. According to Alessandra Furfaro, Director of Educational and Technology Services, “this inter-school sharing has been a very positive addition to the professional development of teachers, and the school change process at many of our schools.”
Buoyed by the strong indicators of improvement, literacy instructional practices and ongoing teacher learning, remain a central focus at the EMSB. Work in schools, and sharing between schools, continues in an ongoing effort to bring pedagogical best-practices to classrooms so that student learning continues to grow.
In 2014-15 the EMSB shifted the role of literacy facilitators to resource teachers, whose roles were redefined as resource-literacy teachers. This new blended responsibility involved the creation of two close partnerships: one between Education and Technology Services and Student Services, and another between resource literacy teachers and classroom teachers. Resource teachers have always specialized in working with students who have special needs, making them valuable, collaborative teaching partners who bring added expertise to classrooms with a diversity of learning needs.
Michael J. Cohen