Several weeks ago, The Reckoner published an opinion editorial examining low literacy scores at MGCI. The author summarized our school’s literacy statistics, and briefly analyzed the cross-curricular assignments in place for the sake of improving literacy. Following that article, we sat down for an interview with Mr. White, head of the literacy curriculum at MGCI, to try to shed some further light on how the school was tackling the literacy problem, as well as the purpose of the cross-curricular assignments.

Literacy initiatives currently in place at the school are diagnostic tests, after-school literacy classes, cross-curricular assignments, and the Ontario Literacy Course (OLC) for students who have written the test either once or twice without passing.

Students first write the Canadian Achievement Test 4 (CAT 4) in Grade 9, then a diagnostic for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) consisting of OSSLT-type multiple choice questions in Grade 10, and based on these assessments, students in need of assistance in preparing for the OSSLT are identified. In the past, a second diagnostic was administered in February to Grade 10s, consisting of a newspaper report or essay. However, marking all 400 essays or news reports proved difficult. The task was handled by the literacy head, teacher volunteers, and a supply teacher hired by Ms. Goldenberg, making the diagnostic both costly and taxing on teacher volunteers.

“What they failed to recognize is that cross curricular exercises are the way to go,” commented Mr. White, as he explained why the second OSSLT diagnostic was replaced by cross-curricular assignments this year.  “Cross-curricular literacy is mandated by the Ministry of Education for all District School Boards to implement. The idea is that literacy is a part of every course, every grade. The Toronto District School Board has also mandated it; as such, as employees of the TDSB, we have to follow that through.”

Regarding complaints from students about having to write cross-curricular assignments despite having passed the literacy test, Mr. White  explained that the assignments are being administered because the OSSLT only tests students on literacy up to the Grade 9 level. The literacy assignments are therefore also meant to continue exercising the literacy skills of students past the Grade 9 level.

“We have literacy problems in our Grade 10s, Grade 11s, and Grade 12s as well. From what I understand our principal has said this year, ‘Listen, we’ve got such a problem in all grades and we also hear feedback from the universities that students graduating Grade  12 and entering university don’t have the skills they feel that they should have for university.’ The kind of opinion paragraph you write in Grade 12 doesn’t have to be as simplistic as the one I would have my Grade 9s and 10s write.

Following the diagnostics, students in need of assistance are invited to attend after-school literacy classes to help prepare them for the OSSLT. One class is run Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday for Grade 9s and 10s, and another on Tuesdays after school for Grade 11s and 12s.

“It’s been a great success in many respects in that we always have a full classroom. However, we also have a lot of kids who aren’t showing up that should be. I can’t reach those kids, so another way of doing that is through cross-curricular literacy.”

Regarding students who did attend the after-school literacy classes, however, Mr. White felt that they experienced a great improvement. “Last year we did see a big improvement, a lot of kids passed. Not all of them did, but a lot of them, particularly the ones that came on a regular basis. Last year, the week before the test, all of a sudden, tons of kids show up, like they were going to learn it in two days. And we can’t start to teach what you’re going to have to do over a two and a half hour period, over a couple of days.”

In late March, all eligible Grade 10 students as well as Grade 11s and Grade 12s who have not previously passed the literacy test write the OSSLT. In the past, students who seemed too unprepared for the literacy test were deferred, which boosted the school’s literacy scores significantly, with a high of 90% in 2006. Currently however, only students who have not yet passed ESL D, or who have special needs, are deferred. The decision to defer students is made by the principal and the special education department.

“This changed when Ms. Goldenberg arrived. She has a different philosophy. I can’t speak for her, but from what I’ve heard, her view is ‘Let’s get everybody writing. Everybody who is eligible should write. We don’t want to hot-mask our numbers.’ For the most part, students are included and if they need extra time they’re given extra time and if they need assisted technology they’re given it. The goal is for everyone who should be writing to be writing.”

Students who fail to pass the literacy test the first time they write it are eligible to take the OLC, which is an open literacy course, instead; one of the two must be completed in order for students to graduate. In the past, students had to have taken the OSSLT twice and failed both times before being eligible to take the OLC. Although this policy has now been changed, Mr. White encourages students to write the OSSLT twice if they can.

“We prefer that they take it a second time, because they’re going to get better at it. It’s also to get that credit in two and a half hours rather than five months, or spending an entire summer, five days a week.”

Mr. White acknowledged that Marc Garneau CI, as a school in a community primarily composed of new immigrants, inherently encounters a greater challenge when it comes to literacy. But he noted that the scores of Grade 9 and 10 students have been improving in recent years, and attributed part of this success to the instruction received by students at the middle school level.

While cross-curricular assignments sound like a good way to bolster literacy skills, attending after-school literacy classes seems to be the most effective way of improving student literacy. Practice and repetition are important, however equally valuable is specific guidance and feedback from teachers, which only the after-school course can provide. Mr. White brings up a good point; attending an after-school session a few times a week and writing a two and a half hour long exam seems much more appealing than spending an entire semester or an entire summer in a literacy course. The benefit of saving valuable time and effort should be more emphasized to students, especially as the surge of after-school literacy class students nearing the OSSLT exam date suggests that students do care about passing the exam. With an issue so broad, it’s difficult to distill the solution down to one simple approach. However, while looking at alternative routes, we shouldn’t give up on the promising tools already at our disposal.