The Ontario government thinks kindergarten needs to get “back to basics.”

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced Tuesday that the kindergarten curriculum would be refocused around foundational literacy, vocabulary, and math skills.

The plan, which will be implemented by 2025, overhauls the kindergarten curriculum so that teachers provide “explicit direct instruction” on fundamental skills through play in the classroom rather than the current philosophy of inquiry-based learning.

The current kindergarten curriculum involves word reading and image recognition rather than direct instruction in phonics or learning the relationship between letters and sounds. It’s considered a student-led approach, which includes discovery mathematics.

The current approach emphasizes real-life examples of learning and students finding their own ways to discover the answers to math problems.

Ontario’s plan responds to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s “Right to Read” inquiry, which focuses on effective reading instruction in schools. The report calls for more evidence-based learning.

The “new” approach will be to emphasize the importance of phonics. Students will be able to practice and memorize what those sounds are and recognize them so that when they encounter new words, they can decode them.

To build foundational math skills, “students might share shapes or objects with other classmates to understand fractions,” Lecce said at a press conference at Toronto’s Glen Park Public School.

Paige MacPherson, the associate director of education policy for the Fraser Institute, called the move towards evidence-based methods “very positive.”

This news comes as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, a globally recognized standardized test for 15-year-olds, have declined steadily over the last twenty years in Canada.

“The PISA tests are the international gold standard for student testing,” MacPherson said.

Canada’s math scores have declined by 35 points from the latest results in 2022 when compared with the scores from 2003.

MacPherson added that Ontario’s scores have declined at the same rate. PISA considers a 20-point drop to be a full year of lost learning.

“So that’s nearly two full years of lost learning,” she said. “15-year-olds in Ontario in 2003 were nearly two years ahead of where 15-year-olds are today.”

She cited the government’s response to the pandemic as one factor that worsened the existing downward trend in scores. The minimum 27-week school closures “created some learning loss and worsened student achievement.

Ontario closed schools province-wide longer than any other province in the country, but student achievement was already on the decline. 

MacPherson said currently, in kindergarten, students are taught vocabulary by being allowed to look at a picture, identify what they see, and try to tie the picture to the words on the page.

With the “back-to-basics” approach, students will “likely” not be able to read in kindergarten but will have the foundations they need by the time they graduate to the third grade.

“By grade three, we know that it’s critical for students to be able to read because that is when the curriculum will shift from learning to read to reading to learn,” MacPherson said.

This, she added, will help establish the skills they will need for all the other subjects in school.

“The phonics approach can really just set students up for success in their future educational years,” she said. 

MacPherson is optimistic that the Ontario government is moving in the right direction with this change to educational policy, but said, “the proof is in the pudding.”