It's vital to raise level of reading

The details are sketchy, but Education Minister George Abbott's effort to involve teachers in improving children's reading is a positive step. Abbott sent a mass email to teachers to launch

an initiative making reading skills for students in kindergarten to Grade 3 a provincial priority. He struck a the right tone, noting he has visited 100 schools since becoming education minister last year and praising teachers' commitment.

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And he invited them to offer ideas on a ministry website. It's a good start. If the government is going to target one educational issue, reading is a good choice.

First, because it is a critical skill for lifelong learning. Students who can read well can guide their own education, discover worlds they might never have known existed and benefit in every aspect of their lives. It's a foundation.

And second, because the province is not doing well enough. The 2012 FSA tests found 30 per cent of Grade 4 students and 36 per cent of Grade 7 students were not reading at the expected level. (A finding that suggests the initial focus on the first four years of school might have to be expanded.)

Those students are simply not getting the chance to make the most of their lives, or to contribute fully to the community. Many children who don't develop reading skills in the early years struggle throughout their time in school.

But while Abbott's initial efforts are welcome, a lot more needs to be done. The effort is to be funded with a $10.7-million one-time commitment announced in March. But there is no indication how the money - which has already been distributed to school districts - will be used. While it sounds a lot, the money works to about $10,300 per elementary school, if it is simply doled out across the board.

We hope it isn't. Far better to target the money on experiments in different types of schools - rural and urban, low-income and affluent - and monitor results and learn from successes and failures.

Why not ask for proposals and fund the most promising? There are many aspects that could be explored - how to help students without stigmatizing them, exploration of personalized programs based on learning styles, use of different reading materials, from comic books to websites. How to instil not just skills, but a love of reading. Perhaps the greatest gains could be made outside schools, through summer programs and support for poor families so children arrive at school ready to learn.

The initial effort to involve teachers and the public also needs work. Abbott referred those interested to the ministry's discussion paper, "A New Focus on Reading." It's a disappointing document - general to the point of vagueness and without a review of specific successes in B.C. that could bring focus to the discussion.

The risk is that the consultation will not be effective and that this will be a top-down ministry project, rather than an exciting chance to test different approaches and do the best for students.

Based on his message to teachers, that's not what Abbott wants. But given the tight timelines - the money must be spent by March 31 - there is a danger that this will become another one-size-fits-all, ministry-directed initiative.

Still, Abbott's message is an encouraging start on an issue that's important for the province, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people.

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