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Ontario kids can read well, but they don't have to like it

A boy is shown reading a school assignment on an iPad.

Sheila Boardman/CP/Sheila Boardman/CP

Students in Ontario are among the most proficient readers in the world, but those bragging rights may have come at a cost: The joy of reading.

A new report released Monday by education advocacy group People for Education finds that while literacy and standardized test scores have climbed over the past decade, the number of students who report that they like to read has dropped, from 76 per cent of Grade 3 students in 1999 to 50 per cent in 2011.

"There's a concern that schools have turned reading into work," said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education. "It may seem like a little thing, but it actually permeates everything else in school life."

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Canadian 15-year-olds rank fifth in the world on international tests in reading, and Ontario students top the rest of the country.

Proficiency is important, but a positive attitude toward reading has been linked to academic achievement in other areas, social and civic engagement and a lifelong love of learning.

Tests administered by Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office suggest that schools are doing a good job of teaching the mechanics of reading, including how letters and sounds correspond, as well as comprehension and analysis.

But reading at home may have come to feel like an extension of schoolwork for some students, who aren't being taught to read for pleasure.

Teachers may be to blame for not picking out engaging books for students, and parents can also help by reading at home with their children.

The report also points to other factors, including declining numbers of teacher librarians in schools – only 56 per cent of Ontario schools have a teacher librarian now, compared to 76 per cent in 1999 – and the rise of new distractive technologies, including social media.

Doretta Wilson, executive director of the Society for Quality Education, who hadn't read the report, found these factors were more likely to blame than the push for better literacy scores.

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"I don't think schools are turning students off reading, I just think there are a lot more distractions than there were a generation ago," she said.

Teenagers are in fact likely reading more than they ever have before. They spend their free time online, posting to Facebook and Twitter, and texting friends. International surveys by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development have found that these behaviours are positively linked to reading proficiency.

But teachers and students have been slow to broaden their definition of reading material.

It's an area where school librarians can help, according to Roger Nevin, president of the Ontario School Librarians Association.

Mr. Nevin is the librarian at Adam Scott CVI, a high school in Peterborough, Ont. He has spent the past five years bolstering the school's book collection with Japanese comic books known as Manga.

The comics have become the most commonly checked out books in his collection.

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"They start the kids reading, and enjoying it," he said. "A lot don't have parents at home who read to them, and that's where it's the teacher librarian's job to step in."

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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