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The chair of the NRC, Patsy Aldana, on the alarming decline in students’ enjoyment of reading.

The British Columbia government has taken a bold step in promoting the importance of the love of reading among the thousands of children enrolled in that province’s schools.

Love of reading? Aren’t our schools supposed to be doing that already?

After all, anyone who pays attention to education policy knows that education ministries and school boards talk at length about the need to boost literacy and take other functional steps to ensure that children know how to read.

But our educational institutions too often stop there, reckoning they’ve done their jobs if they’ve taught students how to use the tools.

Indeed, despite millions spent on school-based literacy programs in recent years, reading enjoyment appears to have plunged. A 2011 study by People for Education found that the proportion of Grade 3 Ontario students who say they actually enjoy reading dropped from 76% in 1998/99 to 50% in 2010/2011; with Grade 6 students, two-thirds reported that they liked reading in 1998/99; a decade later, only 50% did.   For some reason, following all the attention in Ontario, this question was dropped from the EQAO tests in Ontario in 2012.

What’s going on here? Most outsiders would look at such statistics and quickly conclude that the status quo teaching methods aren’t working. In fact, the National Reading Campaign — a four-year-old coalition of parents, educators, writers, publishers and librarians — takes the view that Canada’s prevailing test-oriented approach, adopted by so many educators and policy-makers, has gravely missed the mark with its utilitarian focus. It’s akin to serving the ingredients of a great meal instead of actually cooking them. Reading, we believe, is about so much more than just the technical act.

Yet in B.C., the government has shown an encouraging willingness to turn the page and explore new ways of thinking that place the love of reading at the core of the educators’ objectives. The province has appointed a “superintendent of early reading,” veteran educator Maureen Dockendorf, and has given  her a mandate to find better ways to transform reluctant readers – estimated to be about a third of B.C.’s elementary students — into enthusiasts.

As she told The Vancouver Sun this fall, Dockendorf (who sits on our board) has assembled a kind of SWAT team of skilled educators who will work with boards, teachers, literacy coordinators and administrators to share research-backed reading strategies designed to instill a love of reading rather than merely the ability to read.

We believe this distinction is crucial, yet all too frequently overlooked; in fact, conventional literacy instruction often seems to deliver a perverse result, turning children off an activity that is about so much more than understanding forms and instruction manuals.

The National Reading Campaign has been promoting precisely this message since 2008 through a series of summits designed to develop a national reading strategy. Some governments seem to be listening. In 2012, just months after our third conference in Vancouver, we were pleased to see that the B.C. government appointed Ms. Dockendorf.

In our view, every other province should follow B.C.’s ambitious goal. Indeed, this is a key part of the message we want to spread in our national conversation about the critical importance of reading.

As a society, we have allowed ourselves to systematically de-value the importance of reading through a misguided emphasis on utilitarian literacy instruction, test-oriented pedagogy, and relentless cuts to school and public libraries. More troublingly, children in growing up in Aboriginal and newcomer communities are unable to access stories written in their own languages.

Our goal is to build engagement and improve access to all sorts of reading materials so children can grow into competent and joyful lifelong readers. We are also pursuing specific policy changes, such as those made in B.C., which build on research into the best current practices for reading promotion, and use these proposals to build on approaches that have achieved success, such as the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading program. We want to see re-investment in school libraries, support for e-book formats and teacher training at all levels.

To be literate is necessary, but not sufficient. Our conviction is that reading should be viewed as an inspirational, life-long activity that provides sustenance for both the soul and for our democracy. Reading is inclusive and inspirational because the act of sharing narratives, conveyed in any medium, offers a powerful means of weaving together a diverse, dispersed and complex society. Becoming a reader, in our view, is at the very heart of responsible citizenship.

We believe that our natural allies in this undertaking are teachers, parents and librarians across Canada.  They are the people who are preparing our children to face a difficult and complex future.  Let’s work together to make sure that they are not only competent readers but also joyful ones.

Patricia Aldana