This fall, schools across Nunavut will welcome a new staff member who specializes in helping teachers improve literacy instruction in all three official languages.

Forty-three brand new "literacy coaches," supported by six co-ordinators, will also help students with skills like reading, writing, speaking and listening.

The focus on literacy comes after a history of low literacy rates, high dropout rates and disappointment from parents, teachers and departmental staff, according to the department. Education officials also say they expect to see a ripple effect. 

"Those students who are not able to read and write, not able to engage in course material at any level, that's where behavioural issues will come," says John MacDonald, Nunavut's assistant deputy minister of education.

"As time goes on, that gap increases between where they are academically and where they need to be in order to maintain pace with their peers. And the consequences tend to be they're dropping out or there's other issues.

"We really are convinced that literacy is one of the most effective ways of combating a lot of those issues."

Employment skills

MacDonald says literacy skills don't just help with success in school, but also in employment. He says the department has heard from employers.

John MacDonald

'We really are convinced that literacy is one of the most effective ways of combating a lot of those issues,' says John MacDonald, assistant deputy minister of Education. (CBC)

"They've told us repeatedly that they need high school graduates with their essential employability skills so that they can train them into the positions that they're working in."

The coaching positions are based on similar positions in southern Canada, such as the York Regional School Board in Toronto, MacDonald says. The idea is to provide focused skills to teachers who have a range of specializations. 

The coaches will also help implement a new literacy program set to launch this fall. 

"If we want to implement a framework for instruction of how literacy is taught in our schools, we need to support our teachers," says MacDonald. "This is one of the ways we see that occuring."

Coaching techniques

The learning coaches will help their fellow teachers with literacy techniques the Nunavut government wants to see used from kindergarten to Grade 12. For younger students, techniques include reading aloud from a large picture book and pointing to words as they read from left to right. For older students, it could mean asking what might happen next in a story.

The new literacy program includes an evaluation system, MacDonald says, adding the department is still exploring other ways to measure student literacy, including standardized testing.

The department plans to post wanted ads soon to fill the 43 positions, but MacDonald admits it may be difficult, especially given the challenge of securing housing for new staff. 

In all, the department is adding 10 and a half new teaching positions this fall, though several positions have been cut due to lower enrolment. 

Money for the literacy coaches comes from $15 million in this year's territorial budget "to support instruction, school operations and teacher development."