Young learners are falling behind on literacy rates, say First Nations educators

Some First Nations educators in Atlantic Canada say reading ability among young learners in their schools has decreased but due to inconsistent data tracking, it is unknown how the situation compares to provincial literacy rates.

Darren Googoo, director of education for Membership First Nation in Cape Breton/Unama’ki, said his community has seen a decline in literacy rates for primary, Grade 1 and Grade 2 students.

Googoo, who has worked in education for almost 30 years, said students from primary to Grade 3 learn to read and after that, they read to learn.

“Early literacy forms the basis for later learning,” said Googoo.

“The ability to go from an emerging reader to a fluent reader is vitally important to ensure the educational needs are met.”

He said students have been affected by the disruption to in-class learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Googoo said the province of Nova Scotia works with Mi’kmaw education lead Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey to track numeracy and literacy rates but largely the communities are in control of their own numbers and the data informs how the school develops its lesson plans.

“I think it’s important for every teacher to know exactly where each child is in terms of reading levels,” said Googoo.

“This allows them to assign work that’s appropriate.”

Darren Googoo, director of education for Membership First Nation in NS, says the schools’ assessments show a decline in literacy for primary to Grade 2 students. (Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board)

He said his school has implemented a “100 literacy minutes a day” plan to increase reading rates. Googoo also said they’ve added more human resources and increased one-on-one learning.

“We want to make sure our students are tracking to be fully fluent readers by Grade 3,” said Googoo.

tracking data

While First Nations in Nova Scotia work with the province to track literacy data, that is not the case in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and PEI

Indigenous Services Canada said in an emailed statement that it collects data to support performance, program planning and operational requirements but data specific to literacy rates is not currently collected by the department for First Nation-administered schools.

According to an Indigenous Services Canada report, literacy rates for Indigenous learners in Atlantic Canada were 63 per cent for female learners and 55 per cent for male learners in 2016-17.

2016-17 literacy rates of Indigenous learners by region (excluding Saskatchewan) and by gender. (Indigenous Services Canada)

CBC News also reached out to several First Nations organizations to see if they were tracking literacy rates for Indigenous students but those questions went unanswered.

Earlier this month, a report from New Brunswick’s Child and Youth Advocate said the rate of Grade 2 students who met the standard for reading within anglophone schools had declined 29 per cent between 2009-2010 and 2021-2022.

Educators in Elsipogtog First Nation, 56 kilometers north of Moncton, say they’ve seen similar trends.

Melissa Googoo-Dedam, principal of the community’s school, said their assessments show one-third of Grade 1 and Grade 2 students are behind in their reading levels, where Grade 3 to 8 students are mostly hitting their benchmarks.

Melissa Googoo Dedam, principal of Elsipogtog First Nation Community School, stands smiling in the school auditorium in front of a stage and podium that says Elsipogtog School.
Melissa Googoo-Dedam says they’ve added resources, aiming to increase the literacy rate for students in her school. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

She said her school does assessment testing three times in an academic calendar, in the beginning, middle and end.

Googoo-Dedam said they’ve brought in more resource assistance and have targeted increasing the literacy rates.

She said consistent attendance and at-home reading materials can help struggling students.

“We just need to continue working together as a team, for the best interests of all our kids,” said Googoo-Dedam.