In a school where 83.4 percent of students have English as their second language, and over one hundred and fifty dialects are spoken, having adequate English literacy skills has become an issue at Garneau.

The administration at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute has attempted to tackle the issue regarding literacy in the school by mandating monthly cross-curricular literacy assignments.  These assignments were put into place last year, and have shown to be useful for the students; the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test scores for Marc Garneau have jumped eleven percent since the implementation of literacy assignments.[1]

Currently, the literacy assignments consist of opinion paragraphs and news articles. While opinion paragraphs require students to build an argument backed by reasoning and evidence, and can be made relevant to any course, news articles ask students to make up facts and quotes, actions that would never be required in the real world. While news article assignments are tailored to the needs of the OSSLT, they do not improve literacy skills such as critical thinking and analysis. The literacy assignments are meant to exercise students’ literacy skills even past the Grade 9 level required to pass the OSSLT, making it even more important that the assignments be applicable to the classes they are being completed in.

The formulaic assignments being mandated throughout the school are adequate for preparing students for the literacy test. However, the assignments do nothing to build the literacy skills of older students who have already passed the literacy test. The school should provide general guidelines, rather than a single assignment and rubric, which teachers can adjust to the needs of their class. As teachers already know where their students are at in terms of literacy, they should be free to create relevant assignments with this information in mind. Students that take applied English courses will have different expectations and understandings than students who are in the academic English course. Asking both these groups to do the same assignments is ridiculous, and doesn’t address the development of literacy and English skills of either group appropriately.

Literacy assignments should also be relevant towards each course, in an ideal blend of literacy practice and practical application of course content or research. Currently, literacy assignments are largely viewed as detached and separate from the course. In a perfect scenario, literacy assignments should be invisible to the student, in terms of its fluid implementation with regular coursework. Lab reports, reflective essays, and news articles related to the course topic are all examples of practical literacy in the curriculum already. Ideally, these assignments should be presented in a manner such that students are aware of a literacy component, yet do not strictly view the assignment as literacy practice.

Students who have had customized literacy assignments that are relevant to the course have noticed a substantial difference. Many teachers have incorporated literacy skill development into their courses, but in a way such that students will be able to practice their literacy skills while reviewing or expanding on course material. Doing so makes these assignments dynamic to the students, who are in return more receptive.

Literacy test results have seen a noticeable improvement since the implementation of the literacy assignments, however their function beyond improving OSSLT scores should not be neglected. If all students must write them, all students should benefit.


Illustration: Jeffrey Liu