The Building Blocks of Literacy

 Show Transcript

Welcome to Beyond the Bell podcast, where you will get an inside look into school life. We cover school-related topics that support your child's education and well-being. As you listen along, we hope you'll gain insights for navigating school with your child and leave with a deeper sense of connection between school and home. Here's your host, Chantelle Quesnelle.

Chantelle: Welcome Simcoe Muskoka Catholic Families to another episode of Beyond The Bell. Today we have Jonathan Rajalingum and we're gonna be talking about the changes to the Ontario grade 1 to 8 curriculum, specifically the language curriculum that came into effect for September 2023.

Parents, report cards are gonna look different and we want you to have the information you need to understand those changes. So, our guest today is Jonathan Rajalingum who's been at the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board for about 20 years after immigrating to Canada from the United Kingdom.

He's an elementary program coordinator here at Simcoe Muskoka Catholic, which means in the role he has, Jonathan supports a team of consultants, coaches and itinerant teachers who provide support to schools in the area of curriculum understanding, implementing, teaching and learning policies from the Ministry of Education and professional learning for educators.

Jonathan loves tea, cricket, and mountains and despite struggling to learn to read as a young child, he is now an avid reader of science fiction books about math, geography, and science. Welcome, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Thanks for having me, Chantelle. I'm so happy to be here. 

Chantelle: Yes. Um So we're talking about language and language curriculum. Can you help our listeners kind of understand exactly what we're talking about? What about language versus literacy? How are those the same or different? 

Jonathan: There are technical differences between language and literacy. Um Language is the subject we're studying or an academic discipline that looks at how the language, in this case, English works; how it's put together how the sounds and letters relate to each other and how we build words and sentences and then how that creates meaning. And then from that meaning, from understanding what we're reading, how that makes um sense of text, how we understand text. And when we talk about text, we mean any kind of um input, whether that's videos or posters or poems or charts or signs. We often talk about the first word that young children learn to read is McDonald's because they recognize the “golden arches”. And so that's a text because that gives you input, and you understand that input, and you have a reaction to it. And so that's the study of the study of language, how its components put together and the things we can do with it. 

Chantelle: OK

Jonathan: And so then literacy is um more about how we're learning with those skills. So literacy exists in all subjects as we take on information and comprehend that information and then do something with it. It… literacy exists when we sit at home and curl up with a book as we read a book and try and go to other places and uh and escape our everyday life in, in that book. This is why, um we can assess and evaluate language because there, there, there are techniques to it and a discipline to it and literacy is harder to assess and evaluate because it's a very personal response about learning and about experiencing the world. 

Chantelle: Right. And so there's changes, when we think about it, to the language curriculum. 

Jonathan: Yeah, it's nothing special. Um All curriculum goes through a development, changing process. The, the old language curriculum was particularly old. Um, It was first introduced in 2006. That, that's a long time to be with- like the world changes a lot - 

Chantelle: Sure! 

Jonathan: - from 2006 to 2023. And so it's a long time to be with the same curriculum. And so it's, it's not that the curriculum then goes through radical changes. It develops as we learn more about how students learn, and we understand more about what we want the language to do for us.

Then we develop new curriculum and the ministry did that to implement this year, a new grade 1 to 8 curriculum and a new grade nine English curriculum as well. Um, because they're done together the journey from grade one to grade nine, the transition from 8 to 9 in, in language English is- should now be much smoother because we have the same structures within the curriculum now. 

Chantelle: Right. And so, um, well, we're going to get to the report card um in a second here, Jonathan. But as we're talking about um changes to curriculum, what are some things that parents might notice or students might notice as, as they're learning, or going about their year? 

Jonathan: You might not notice too much. The language curriculum is still about reading, writing, speaking, listening, um doing that for enjoyment and for learning purposes. So those things haven't changed, that - that's still the main function of a language curriculum: to understand how the language works, to do those things, to be able to rewrite, talk to each other for different reasons. Um, but it has been modernized. Uh like, as we said, it's, the previous curriculum is quite old. It's been modernized. And so now we have a new focus on um the way we go about the foundational building blocks of the language. So how the sounds create - sounds and letters work together to create words we understand. So we got some new ideas about how we might teach that. There's a strong focus on transferable skills. It's that connection to literacy, “So, how do we apply what we're learning?”. Um Again, part of the ministry's um modernization of all curriculum to prepare all of us for future workforce, future work. Um perhaps really importantly is the, the area of digital media literacy has been, has a much more uh important role in the curriculum.

And it's much more up to date than it, than it was as we tackle the online world, we also live in at the same time and, and language has a lot to say about that. And another crucial component, new component, that you -where you may notice some change, especially students may notice this change in the classroom, is we have a section that's devoted to connections and contributions. So, so we're really focusing on the contributions to language and literature made by a diverse range of people, especially first nation, Métis and Inuit people.

Chantelle: Hm. Ok. So all of that's really helpful to, to understand, I wonder if you um can make it a little bit more concrete for us in terms of even thinking about digital media literacy if we kind of go with that area. Um, what are some examples of the curriculum? 

Jonathan: The old curriculum was divided into speaking and listening, reading, writing and media studies and our new curriculum. And, and within each of those sections, you would have looked at skills and examples almost as four different subjects and then tried to connect them.

So our new curriculum has reorganized itself into um application, the foundational piece and two big parts, two big sections we - like in the education world, we call them strands, but they're just bits of learning. Um one on comprehension and one on composing. And so we, we're thinking about so here are the building blocks of speaking and listening and reading and writing. Here is our area where we try and understand media and text. And here is our area where we try and create media and text. And so rather than separate all these skills out, separate, we've brought them to, we've brought them together.

So in terms of digital media literacy, that now isn't a separate thing you look at, it's integrated, it may be that we read a novel in grade six and then we watch a short video clip of a section of that novel, and we start discussing, “so what's the difference in your experience of that book from watching someone else's interpretation to reading and getting your own interpretation?”. And then as we move to composing, we uh, we might ask students to “so can you create your own interpretation of that text?”.

And so the language curriculum is driving a critical thinking or deep thinking skills and not just repli-, not just reading and replicating. So you may see much more um open product being created by students. 

Chantelle: I love that critical thinking component and just thinking about those conversations at homes, in homes between the difference between a movie and a book or even an advertisement and then what you actually experienced when you got it. Um And I think those really make for some rich, you know, dinner time conversations as well. And so it's, it's, it's important to think about language and literacy that way.

Jonathan:  …And founded on the skills section. And so the reason we took the skills separately, is that the skills of the language block. So, you know, we- you might hear things like phonics or explicit instruction, um evidence-based strategies, decodable texts, all these new buzzwords that you might be hearing…

Chantelle: We have lots of bud-words… buzz words here, hey? In education!

Jonathan: We love those things!

Chantelle: We do!

Jonathan: Not that we worry about those phrases with students, but those are the skills we build, so you can read and communicate effectively.

But we always want to push it to, “here's what other people understand,” and then always ask the question, “and how do you understand that?”.

So the advertising pieces are really interesting. Um, “‘K so, how can you use your reading skills to persuade people to do things,” which we've always done persuasive writing, that's a classic teacher thing to do to create persuasive essays. But it thinking of new media and digital literacy, we shi- like we shift that to, “So now you know the techniques the advertising company is using to convince you because you understand the pieces of the language they're using. And so rising music and uh an emotional soundtrack in the background that's tugging at your heartstrings so you desperately want that new toy, and you can't live without it. And then our kids get really persuasive, and they use it against us. 

Chantelle: Yeah. Just thinking about how those skills translate into being a, a conscious consumer, or like an engaged citizen in so many ways as well. 

Jonathan: So we use language to understand ourselves as well and our reaction to things which is good for our mental health literacy, and our spirituality. And so we try and - so language is not separate from all of that work as well as, as language is the way we interact with each other in the world. And so it's uh it is important, and I'm glad the curriculum's been updated, and we can give students that opportunity to - really young students, that opportunity to think really deeply about the book. So for young students, it might just be the books you love and why you love them. 

Chantelle: I'm wondering before we, we kind of jump um to our next topic and talking about how this might map onto the report card, I wonder if, if you might be able to give our, our families our listeners uh um an inside take on, what it's like as an educator um adjusting to new curriculum when it's released. Um, and any kind of highlights that you might want to provide about the experience of teachers around the - this new language curriculum. 

Jonathan: This becomes new for all of us at the same time. 

Chantelle: Yeah.

Jonathan: So teachers, educators in the classroom, don't receive the curriculum a year in advance of when it gets introduced. So this new curriculum we first saw, um just before the summer, um to implement in September. So we're implementing it as we learn it. So as, as we're going through it, and we're understanding the change what's new and what's changed and what's been left out. Um which is why sometimes as families, as parents, we might not see these changes because the changes happen over time as teachers look at their resources, look at past activities and lessons. And then, and think, “so how do these work now with these new ideas?” Um, because language is still about reading and writing, speaking and listening, lots, lots of those activities remain the same from the student experience.

Chantelle: Sure.

Jonathan: But the assessment experience as we, as we look at um, “So what does that say about what students are learning that changes for the for the teacher?”.  I mean, there's some technical pieces we've always done phonics work in the past curriculum, but it's much more specific now. So as teachers, we, we have to find new resources um and new techniques because we've got more explici- So this speaks to students who might be in grade one and two, we have a new um call it a scope and sequence. It's just the order that we teach, the sounds of the language in and that kind of thing is new for us. So, so we're learning that, and taking that on board, and figuring all that out at the same time that we're now delivering that to students as well because we don't get the curriculum in advance of having to deliver it. 

Chantelle: Yeah, I think, you know how, how important it is for us when we're thinking about the world of education to remind ourselves that learning happens all the time, right? Educators are in that state of learning as there's new resources, as there's new curriculum. Um, and really as there's new classrooms and new experiences within their role. And so at some point, we're all learners together.

Jonathan: …and we talk about being lifelong learners-

Chantelle: Yeah!

Jonathan: -and as teachers and educators. Um and like this “educator” is a really- can be a really broad group because that includes, like ah, as an educator that includes me as a parent. We're always learning our students and learning the curriculum and learning how we're going to teach them together, whether the curriculum is new or not because new students bring their unique selves to us, and we respond, we respond to the student not to the curriculum. So we do, we, we use the curriculum to teach students, we don't teach the curriculum.

Chantelle: Such a, it's such a dynamic process and job. 

Jonathan: Oh yeah, yeah.

Chantelle:  And I think that also provides a really nice segue into um, you were, you were talking about how that changes, how we're um reporting that, that learning right?  For, for, as educators um, looking at the report card and what that maps onto or what those changes are. So, thinking about those report cards going home in February, Jonathan, um what are those changes? What are the, what's the report card gonna look like now? 

Jonathan: So most of the report cards going to stay the same. Thankfully, it'll be, it'll be there you and the big change that's going to be noticeable on the grade 1 to 8 report card is in the language section. Because the new curriculum takes this integrated approach where we're not separating the strands or the sections of the curriculum into different things that we do independently of each other, th-e they're integrated together. So we look at the foundations so that we can comprehend text and create text so we can apply it to different situations.

And so the government has made the decision to move to one grade in language. So previously on the report card, you will have been used to seeing four grades in the language block for oral communication, reading, writing and media. And now you're just going to see one grade, which is just for language. So it's still based on the assessment of all the learning your student, your child has been doing in language this term, but instead of separating into four marks, we're just going to provide one mark for that.

And so, so that's the main change I think will be noticed on the report card.

Chantelle:  you know, as you've been navigating these changes and having these conversations and, and, and helping with the implementation of the new curriculum, are there any um challenges or concerns or questions, themes that are coming up, um, as educators are, are, are going through that evaluation process or as you're anticipating parents and, and caregivers reading the report cards? Um, any kind of Q and A type-things that you might want to address here? 

Jonathan: Yeah. So I think, I think we've been used to uh, so I've been used to as a parent, um and as a teacher seeing areas of strength within language because I had four grades. And so there were some areas where I could say. “So you're stronger here, and you're weaker here,” and the grades can reflect that. So we're not going to have that anymore, that glance. What you'll notice is in the comments. That you can, you'll still see the different strengths and the different needs in the comments.

So when we, so on our report card, you'll notice that there are boxes with grades, and then there are boxes with comments in them. But it, I think it's important to remember, the comments are just a snapshot. So the box is the box we get to write in is not big enough to describe everything your child has learned this term. So a teacher is going to grab one or two strengths, or one growth in learning, but indicate the whole subject line ‘cos we can't comment on it all.

So that's where we're gonna see the different strengths, and they'll also, there'll also be a next step. So, because we, because this is continual learning, there's always a next step. So we put that in as well. So it's the grade that will show you the relative strength of that learning. Whether that's for grade 1 to 6, you may get it in the D's or the C's or the Bs or the A's. Um So that shows you the depth of the learning, and then your comment will show you the the individual strengths within the language subject.

Chantelle: You know, as a parent myself, I'm imagining looking at that report card and as you indicated, used to seeing a language kind of box in several different strands or areas with grades that might have, um areas of, of strength, and areas that maybe are a little bit weaker and comments. And then what you're sharing now as, as, as that report card comes home, we're going to see one grade, but those comments are still going to be reflective of the learning across the, the scope of that language curriculum. 

Jonathan: On the last page of the report card, there's a chart that shows you the grade compared to the level of achievement. So, so as educators, we think of levels of achievement, and so if you're awarded in the Bs or the seventies, it's called provincial standard. But I think it's important to realize that's not a pass or fail line, that if you get Level One, Two, Three or Four, that demonstrates learning within the grade range, and the Level One is less effective, less strong learning right up to Level Four, which is very effective or very strong learning.

Chantelle: Sure.

Jonathan: But it's all within the grade, it's all within the grade range and that if you have questions about what the comment means, what the grade means, how you can help at home, that um you can always contact your school, your child's teacher and they'll be more than happy to help you understand what that report card means, help you to understand what those comments might mean in practical terms and, and how we work together for the betterment of your child's learning. 

Chantelle: It's very helpful to kind of have that, that framing and understanding and that reminder to, to reach out. It really is about the relationship between home and school and to sort of ask, ask those questions if you, if you have them, um parents and caregivers. And then I'm thinking about students who are supported by an IEP, an individual education plan. And so, um how might that impact or show up on the report card in the language, um area now that there's one, um grade, um versus multiple? 

Jonathan: It's absolutely a concern and teachers share the same concern. We, we spend a lot of time talking about that and how we're supporting, uh, like our most striving students. You may have been used to, in the past, where some of the grades might be impacted by the goals on the IEP and some grades not - that will still happen. The grade may or may not be impacted by the goals on the IEP because it depends how much of the curriculum is being changed or altered or modified um to provide support for your child's learning. And, but what you will notice is if that grade is being affected by the IEP, there will be a clear line in the comment that says that the grade represents learning that's not at the grade level. And so it's still, it's still just the one grade, but the s- the student’s strengths will still be written in that comment box. So we would still be commenting on what learning we have seen, the growth in learning we have seen, or the strength that student is showing and that may be connected to the IEP.

It might be connected to the curriculum, depending it all depends on how your child's individual education plan is created and, and written. But again, that comment box is where the educator gets to help, make sense, make sense of the grade for the family. 

Chantelle: And so just recognizing that those students who are supported by an IEP continue to get supported um by that IEP with the strategies with accommodations that, that are helpful for their learning and in some cases, modifications and, and all of that would continue to be reflected in, in, in their, in their learning regarding language and, and those are conversations to continue to have uh with the classroom teacher and the special education resource teacher that supports your child if there are questions there. 

Jonathan: Absolutely. That the, the shift in grading on the report card hasn't changed the work we do with students on an individual basis to support their access to the curriculum, to support their, to support their learning. Uh Just we, we no longer have the ability with grades to demonstrate different areas of strength based on the grade because we only have one grade. But, but that has not altered the amount of work we're putting in together school and family together to support your child in their learning. If, if they're supported with an individual education plan.

Chantelle:  I want to come back to um any other kind of Q and A-type questions that have, that have come up for you as, as you've explored this with your colleagues um and are supporting, it's the implementation of the new curriculum. Any other kind of tips or highlights or questions that are coming up that you think would be helpful to uh explore in this podcast for our listeners? 

Jonathan: The question that comes up all the time is how do I support that learning at home? 

Chantelle: Yeah.

Jonathan: …and, and as a Catholic education is a partnership between home school and parish, and in terms of language, that connection between home and school is vital. Um Learning doesn't finish when the bell goes and the child goes home. There are many things that you can do at home to support lang- the language learning for your child.

And I would say the the main support is to be interested and ask the question, “what have you learned today?” and ask it multiple times, ‘cos I have to ask mine many, many times what he learned before he'll tell me, ‘cos he begins with, “oh, nothing”. And so just be persistent and ask and, and you can always, and you can ask your child's teacher what learning has been going on and, and how you can support and know that you don't have to, um, go and get your degree in education and your teaching qualification to educate your child with reading. There are many foundational pieces that um, are evidenced that support learning. So the most important, read and write in front of your child, like show them that reading and reading and writing provides you enjoyment and helps you get stuff done. It can be anything, it doesn't have to be, you don't have to sit with a big novel, “so I'm reading properly,” whatever that means. It can be, um, writing emails, or writing grocery lists or reading newspapers. Uh, I do a lot of online reading of sports pages to find out the cricket scores and, and so this is all reading. And if, and we demonstrate to our Children that there's purpose and enjoyment in reading when it might, when the learning in school might get difficult, it's the end goal of, “but when I, when I do read, I really enjoy it. It takes me to a new place,” or “when I do read, I learn something new, whether that's a new cheat on Minecraft or for me, I'm reading a fascinating book about, uh, the meaning of zero and nothing. And so I'm learning a lot about what zero means because we're all interested in different things, and it doesn't have to be the same thing.

Chantelle: Ya, I think that's so important. I just want to pick up on, on that because I know I have, uh, two kids at home who love, like comic books and graphic novels and that was never my thing. I have a hard time reading those to them. Um, just because of how they're, they're structured but they love them and they love reading them. And, um, I think it's been really important for us as a family to like, embrace that and get curious about that. And if you have them read them to us because they kind of can get the flow of the story better than, better than I can. Um, and then certainly finding recipes, uh, together online and like reading the instructions and the ingredients and all of those things. And um yeah, really celebrating all those opportunities to, to learn and, and interact with the world together, right? 

Jonathan: Yeah. Play board games and card games, which may not seem like literacy instruction or language instruction, but that's um, as you argue the rules of a board game, you're learning to comprehend and compose your argument. These are, these are really important skills, uh joining the library and going together and choosing books and choosing books together and challenging each, like you said with comic books and challenging yourself with this new genre.

We talk about the importance of um cuddling up and reading together as a, as a family. Not only it brings you together as a family, it has this benefit of um learning additional literacy skills. You don't need to go out. I mean, you're free to go out and buy workbooks and work through phonics and stuff as well, but you don't need to do that time spent playing games, reading together, writing together, cooking together, builds literacy skills, builds communication.

Chantelle: … and then as always, it needs to be fun. 

Jonathan: Uh, ah, yeah. Um, well, sometimes we might make it hard enough in school as we learn new things and new parts of a language, and it's new, and it's difficult, doesn't need to be difficult at home as well. It can be, “at home I get to practice that. I get to show you this is what we did today,” and, “look at this new comic book I found,” or, “look at this new way of looking at the schools I found online,” or a new poem, or a song. There's so much, so much is literature.

Chantelle: I love that. And I think that's an important reminder that, yeah, maybe some parts of the evening are, are, are for homework, or kind of the continuation of what might have happened in the school day. But that um the literacy and language engagement spans so much further beyond that. And um importantly, provides a lot of opportunity for relationship and connection.

Jonathan:  …and it is crucial in the learning process. It's not something that children can do without in, in the learning process of language. 

Chantelle: Right. Well, Jonathan, I, I really hope that our, our listeners um have an understanding of, of what to expect on the report card, um that's coming home in February, um and have uh an inside look at some of those curriculum changes to the the language curriculum for uh that started this year. Um And uh maybe a little bit of a deeper dive into understanding what language curriculum is. Um and some possibilities, uh and awareness of how it's already happening. There's, there's learning already happening at home and the multiple ways that we can, can engage in, in literacy and language together. But um any kind of final thoughts before we wrap up today. 

Jonathan: I think that sums up really nicely. And again, I, I if you're interested in the, in the curriculum, then you just need to go online and search Ontario language curriculum and you'll find it there. Um, if it looks overwhelming, just find the parent support page and it's given in nice friendly language, the kind of things your child will be learning at different grades through school, and keep connecting with your teacher in your school as we do this work together. 

Chantelle: Yeah, thanks for that. Well, we hope everybody listening um found this podcast episode helpful, and that it's given you an inside look at those changes to the language curriculum um and what to expect on the upcoming report cards. So, thank you so much, Jonathan for being here with us today. 

Jonathan: Thank you, Chantelle anytime. 

Chantelle: Ok. Everybody. Well, stay tuned for our following episodes of Beyond The Bell and don't forget to check out our online article at

Thanks for listening to Beyond The Bell podcast. We hope you found today's episode helpful. 

Beyond the Bell is brought to you by the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and our Catholic Parent Involvement Committee. It's hosted by Chantelle Quesnelle. Pauline Stevenson is our executive producer. Episodes are produced and edited by Portage Creative. You can find our show notes and previous episodes on our podcast website, 

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