03/25/2013 05:43 EDT | Updated 05/25/2013 05:12 EDT

How Poor Teaching Leads to Illiteracy

A girl struggling through her homework

Jacob is only 10 years old, and already he has a big problem. He can't read. And that's not all. Jacob has recently become very disruptive in class. Yesterday his teacher decided to send him for testing.

Two years ago, Jacob was referred to an optometrist because his teacher thought he wasn't picking up reading due to vision problems. The optometrist found Jacob had perfect vision.

Last year, Jacob was referred to a pediatrician because his teacher suspected he was hyperactive. Once again, everything was fine.

Jacob is running out of options.

I can't introduce you to Jacob because he is a composite of the children I meet during the course of gut-wrenching calls from their mothers. I get many such calls. Sometimes, the mothers cry on the phone.

I do the best I can for them. I tell them about private schools and tutors and/or I give them a list of materials which they can use to teach their children at home. Sometimes, I even feel that I have helped.

But sometimes Jacob's mother is single, uneducated and poor. I worry that Jacob is not going to make it. He is in terrible danger of developing worse behaviour problems, using drugs, dropping out of school and going on welfare or turning to crime.

It's a tragedy, really, because Jacob was such a great kid in grade 1 -- bright and curious and friendly and really excited about learning to read.

Jonathan is a flesh and blood casualty of poor teaching. For the last 60 years or so, public education in Ontario -- by and large -- has not used an effective method to teach basic reading skills.

In the 50s, educators adopted the "look-say" method. When look-say proved to be a dismal failure, educators switched to "language experience" (late 60s and 70s). Language experience having failed too, educators substituted "whole language" (80s and 90s). And then whole language was forced by public outcry to yield to the current "balanced literacy."

Unfortunately, the same discredited assumptions underpin all four approaches -- the notion that all teachers have to do is create an environment that encourages reading and writing -- provide lots of books and paper and a little instruction, mix in a lot of encouragement, and stand back.

Of course, some children do learn to read with this approach -- these children would probably learn under any circumstances. Some children are taught at home or by tutors. Some get old-fashioned teachers who close their doors and teach the children the alphabet, the letter sounds, and how to blend those sounds to make words. They are the lucky children.

And then there are the Jacobs. There are a lot of them. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 42 per cent of Canadian adults do not read well enough to cope with everyday tasks.

Sub-par reading instruction is having a dramatic effect on our society. How can we compete internationally when more than two out of five of our citizens can't read well enough to do most jobs? How can our citizens live harmoniously together when so many of them are condemned to a marginal existence on the fringes of our rich society? How can we maintain our democracy when so many of the electorate cannot read newspapers or campaign material?

The parents who believe they are adequately safeguarding their own children -- by means of private schools, home schooling, private tutors or whatever - are fooling themselves. Like it or not, their children as adults are going to be profoundly affected by the illiterates all around them.

John Donne said, "No man is an island, entire of itself....Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."