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The chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Renu Mandhane, is seen in Vaughan, Ont., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel

TORONTO -- Troubling statistics around literacy rates among Ontario elementary school students have prompted a public inquiry into issues affecting those with reading disabilities, the province's human rights watchdog announced Thursday.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission said data from the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office suggest an alarming number of students are falling short of reading standards in elementary school, setting them up for lifelong struggles.

The Commission said Ontario's curriculum is based on outdated science and fails to properly support disabled students, which in turn deprives them of a fundamental skill.

"Learning to read is not a frill, it is not a privilege," chief commissioner Renu Mandhane said at a news conference. "It is a basic and essential skill. Learning to read is a human right."

Ontario Ministry of Education spokeswoman Alexandra Adamo said the government would review the inquiry's recommendations thoroughly, but did not respond to the commission's comments on the state of the provincial curriculum.

Mandhane said the most recent data from the EQAO indicate 25 per cent of Ontario's Grade 3 students were falling short of provincial reading standards. For students with disabilities, the number soared to 53 per cent. EQAO data indicate those numbers have been relatively static since 2016.

Students struggling to read are more likely to fall behind academically, fail to graduate or drop out altogether, Mandhane said. She said those with reading disabilities are also over-represented in the homeless population and the justice system.

Mandhane said the "Right to Read" inquiry will involve feedback from educators, parents and students across the province.

While individuals are encouraged to share their experiences, the commission is looking specifically at eight English-language school boards it says will offer a representative sample of educational experiences in Ontario.

With help from former University of British Columbia education researcher Linda Siegel, the commission will assess those boards against five benchmarks. They include whether the boards offer mandatory early screening for reading struggles, reading intervention programs and effective student accommodations.

Those early supports can make all the difference for students struggling with reading, according to the incoming president of the International Dyslexia Association's Ontario chapter.

Alicia Smith says she struggled through school in the 1980s and 1990s, and was eventually identified as dyslexic in high school.

Her ongoing struggles, and the sense of shame she felt about them, prompted her to withdraw from university after one year and pursue a culinary career that didn't rely on literacy skills, she said.

She's since watched the cycle repeat with her son Marcus, who penned a letter to a provincial lawmaker starkly laying out the emotional impact of his own difficulties in school.

"I felt like a complete and total idiot," the letter reads. "Sometimes I wished I would just die so I could stop feeling so stupid."

Smith said Ontario bucked international trends in reading education when it revised its curriculum in 2006, doubling down on approaches that were being abandoned in countries including the United Kingdom, United States and Ireland. That included moving away from teaching skills such as printing, handwriting and phonics, she said -- tools that helped her during her own time in the education system, but were not available to her son.

She said she hopes the commission's inquiry will pave the way for changes in the way reading is taught throughout the province.

"Ultimately I'd just like the curriculum to be aligned with the science," she said. "By adopting a curriculum that supports the children that struggle, it actually helps everyone."

Mandhane said the commission hopes to release the results of its inquiry in 2020.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 3, 2019.