Monday, 23 August 2021


Guest Post by Catherine Penney

Improving Literacy in Newfoundland and Labrador

The Greene (PERT) Report includes a statement that “K-6 classroom teachers no longer graduate from Memorial with adequate skills to reach these subjects”, the subjects being reading and mathematics. According to the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program in the years 2007, 2010, and 2013, reading achievement in Newfoundland was significantly below the Canadian average. According to the more recent Southam survey, Newfoundland has the highest rate of illiteracy of any province in Canada. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 44% of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador cannot read. 

If Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are to have good jobs, they must be able to use the complex technology now available and also future technology. To keep up, workers must be highly literate.

Despite the comment in the Greene Report, we do have good schools and good teachers in Newfoundland. So why are so many people unable to learn to read? For over 20 years I studied the research literature on reading and dyslexia, and also worked with children and adults with reading difficulty. The reading problem is complicated, and I hope to clarify why learning to read is difficult. Three issues are discussed here, and ways to improve reading and writing skills will be suggested.

Photo Credit: CBC
It Starts with Spelling and Reading

Every week, young children are assigned a set of spelling words to learn, and they also have to do some reading. However, the words children are learning to read and the words they are learning to spell are the same. To learn to read and write, children have to learn the “code”, the information about how letters represent pronunciation.  Many children fail to learn the “code” and this is why they do not become readers. 

The difference between reading and spelling is the way information is retrieved from the knowledge in the “code”. In reading, the reader sees letters and has to retrieve the pronunciation represented by the letters. However, with spelling and writing the direction is reversed and children hear the word and have to retrieve the spelling. It makes sense that learning the “code” should include both reading and writing by having children hear, say, spell, and write the words. Spelling words aloud focuses attention on the sounds in letter names and thereby offer hints for decoding letters in words.    

Some Canadian researchers have been examining the relationship between reading and spelling, and they have found that teaching spelling is a very good way to teach reading. Spelling forces the child to focus attention on the letters and their order in words but some children look at print the same way as they look at an object or picture. The viewer’s eyes focus randomly on whatever catches the viewer’s eye. Everyone’s path will be different. However, the reader must look at both letters and words in the correct order. Teaching spelling corrects the haphazard viewing of the letters, and forces the child to look at the letters in their correct order. Only then can children start making connections between letters and the pronunciations of words.  

Many years ago I did a research project (Penney, C. G., 2002) in which high-school students with reading difficulty were given tutoring by having the students spell the words they couldn't read. In each lesson, the student read a short passage aloud and the tutor recorded the difficult words. The student then had to spell and say each word the student couldn’t read quickly. After doing the lessons, there was a noticeable improvement in the their reading. The reading improvement between students who did the spelling was significantly larger for the students who did the spelling than the control students. This spell-to-read method works with people of different ages including people who are dyslexic.   

Human Variability

Every person is different with different interests, abilities and experience. Some children entering kindergarten have been taught letter names and may be able to read several words while other children don’t know any letter names. The aptitude for learning to read varies widely. Some children learn to read quickly with little instruction while others don’t learn to read even when they are taught by the best teachers using the most effective teaching methods.  

In one of my research projects, I tested children in grade eight on their reading and memory. Some children in the class were reading at the level of average third-grade students and were not able to read the grade-eight material, while other children were reading at the level of third-year university students. The poor readers struggle desperately, while the top students are bored and not learning anything new. Only the “average” students are getting appropriate instruction. 

The ideal situation would be to have a broad range of reading material that varies in genre, content and difficulty. Slower readers should not be pushed into reading material above their ability but should move ahead to harder material only when they are ready, not when the curriculum prescribes. The better readers should move ahead to more difficult reading material. However, introducing individual curricula for each child would require hiring more teachers and purchasing extra reading material for each class. The costs would be too high. 

Reading, Writing and Language

The goal of reading and writing is to communicate. When trying to communicate a difficult or complex idea, most people will write some notes before trying to organize their ideas. For an oral presentation even experienced speakers may use the notes to help them remember everything they want to say. Some speakers will read the message rather than simply use their notes if the exact wording is important.  

Writing enables people to communicate a more organized and polished message than would the message if given in a speech. Complex ideas cannot be communicated in a few simple words or sentences. The structure of long complex documents are usually outlined before the writer begins to write because because revision and reorganization are usually required. Preliminary notes help keep the writer on track and, if necessary, to reorganize.

Communicating complex ideas effectively requires complex sentences, and to compose good sentences the writer must know the meanings of words and how words are used. The writer must understand how to structure sentences that communicate the exact meaning of the writer’s idea. Sentences should also be organized so that each sentence develops the point of the paragraph, and paragraphs must be organized so that each paragraph helps develop the argument or message of the essay.

Good readers are often good writers, but just reading a lot does not always teach all the grammar and syntax needed to be a good writer. Having read disorganized and incoherent essays written by some university students, my view is   that teaching grammar and composition should be part of both reading and writing.   

Reading, vocabulary, spelling, penmanship (writing by hand), writing prose, grammar, composition, etc., should not be taught as separate subjects, but should be included in language. Language should be taught throughout high school. When reading students’ essays, teachers should not only identify errors but should also show students how to improve their essays. Based on the teacher’s suggestions and corrections, the students should then rewrite their essay to see the improvement and learn different ways to phrase sentences. 

When I first worked as professor at Memorial University, the quality of students’ preparation for university studies was good, but when I retired many years later, I found that some students, including fourth-year and graduate students, were very poor writers. Those students were intelligent, motivated and interested in their studies, but some did not write good prose. Newfoundland students have the ability to become good writers if they are taught language and if they practice their writing skills. 

Failings of Teaching Methods for Reading

Look-say Method: In the look-say method, the child looks at the word and pronounces the name. The theory is that the child will associate the appearance of word with the pronunciation of the name, but the theory doesn’t work unless the child knows letter names. The letter names usually contain one of the sounds represented by the letter thus giving the child hints about the pronunciation.

Children who can’t recall letter names instantly don’t extract the sound information from the letters and can’t learn to read. 

Using Illustrations as Hints:   Another method of teaching reading is to have children read text that has illustrations to help them guess the words. However, guessing “steps” by seeing a picture of a staircase and saying  “stairs” enables the child to get the meaning of the word, but this will not help learning to read the word “steps”.  

Phonics: The problem with phonics lies with the alphabet. With a phonics method (the method recommended by reading experts), children are taught letter-sound associations (e.g. A is for “ah” and B is for “buh”). Then the children try to say the sound for each letter and “blend” the sounds together. However letters represent different sounds in different words, ( C in “cat” and “cent” or E in “edge”, “even”, “ear” and “Eric”.) There are pairs of words with the same pronunciation but different meanings (e.g. “deer” and “dear”, and “flower” and “flour”). To add even more difficulty some words have letters that represent no sounds at all (e.g. “caught”, “phlegm” “though”). 

Sounding and Blending Letters: Sounding and blending doesn’t work because of the many sounds that letters represent. A bright child trying to decode the word "ginger" by sounding and blending letters knew that the letters G and I both represented two sounds (as in "ginger" and "guide") and could pronounce the four possible blends for the first “gi” in "ginger", but when he tried to blend three letters , his memory was overwhelmed.

Spelling Rules: Marilyn J. Adams summarized the existing research on reading, and her book “Beginning to Read” still is very useful today. In one chapter, she discussed the examined rules for pronouncing vowels and found that rules were frequently violated. The few spelling rules that were highly consistent may be useful, but teaching a lot of rules is not likely to be useful.

 How to Improve Students’ Reading and Writing Skills    

 Ensuring that all children learn to read and write well can be achieved. The critical step is to ensure that children learn to decode words quickly and easily as early as possible. The best way to teach reading is to teach reading by having children learn to spell and write words. After learning to print letters and know letter names, children can start reading very short stories or poems containing easy words and simple phrases or sentences. Before trying to read a new passage, children must practice spelling aloud each new word and writing it. Letters must be formed properly and neatly. Punctuation must also be correct.

The method for teaching reading that was used in the study with the grade high-school students is simple and mechanical and it could be delivered through technology. The teaching method works with children, adults, and people with dyslexia can also learn from the “spell-to-read” method. Teaching children to learn letter names, to print and write letters, and to learn how letters represent pronunciation could be taught using technology to deliver the “spell-to-read” method. Children who need a lot of practice could repeat difficult lessons and read more material at their level. Children should move to harder material when they have to skill to do so, not when the curriculum requires. 

The solution to improving reading skills is to implement the recommendations described teaching language as one subject that includes all the skills. Teaching the spell-to-read method to teach the “code” could could be taught through technology. The method is simple and could be coded with existing technology.

Catherine Penney

Aug 16, 2021 

Penney, C. G. (2002), Journal of Literacy Research, 34 99-118.


Editor's Note: Catherine Penney has a B.A. (Honours) from McGill University in psychology; M.Sc. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Toronto. A retired Professor, she worked as in the Psychology Department at Memorial University for 43 years. Penney is the author of 24 publications in academic journals. Catherine lives in St. John's.