Inuktitut literacy: Iqaluit students flunk simple test

More than 60 per cent considered illiterate or semi-literate in Inuktitut

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

PATRICIA D’SOUZA

More than 60 per cent of students at Iqaluit’s Inuksuk High School who completed a basic Inuktitut literacy test this past spring couldn’t answer simple questions based on a short Inuktitut reading exercise.

The test was administered in April by 16 second-year students from the language and culture, and teacher education programs at Arctic College, as part of a course on research methods.

The results show that of 180 students tested, only 82 felt comfortable taking a test that required basic reading comprehension. The remaining students took an oral test.

Of the 82 students who took the written test, 51, or 62 per cent, were considered illiterate or semi-literate by the test administrators.

Twenty-seven students scored less than 50 per cent on the test, which was composed of a short paragraph written in syllabics, and five simple questions based on the reading exercise.

Twenty-four students scored between 50 per cent and 70 per cent. Only 31 students, or 38 per cent of those who took the written test, scored higher than 70 per cent.

“I think the results are worrisome,” Susan Sammons, a senior instructor with the language and culture program at Arctic College, told school principals and members of the Iqaluit District Education Authority gathered at an IDEA meeting on Sept. 23.

“I don’t think you would see this result in any other community,” said Kathy Smith, chair of the IDEA.

“The fact is,” Sammons said, “we don’t know.”

Not only does Iqaluit have a large population of qallunaat, the education system in the capital city is broken down into Inuktitut and English streams. The ratio between the two streams is roughly 50-50, Smith said.

But most Inuktitut-language instruction ends in Grade 3, when students in the Inuktitut stream enter a Grade 4 “transition year” into the predominant English stream.

The focus on Inuktitut begins to weaken as students enter higher grades, educators say.

Alexina Kublu, an instructor in the language and culture program at Arctic College who co-administered the test with Sammons, said the gap in Inuktitut-language instruction is playing a large part in the decline of the language.

At the IDEA meeting, she described a conversation she had with a student at Arctic College. “The student said, ‘I learned to read and write Inuktitut in Grade 3, but by the time I got to college, I had forgotten it along the way.’ Somewhere he lost it.”

Sixty-one students at Arctic College took the same test the high school students took. They fared somewhat better than their teenage counterparts.

Forty-four Arctic College students, or 72 per cent, scored higher than 70 per cent. All of the students in the teacher education and nursing programs scored above 70 per cent, Sammons’ threshold for literacy.

Students in the language and culture, arts and crafts, management, environmental technology, academic studies and trades programs all showed mixed scores.

In total, eight students out of 61, or 13 per cent, scored lower than 50 per cent and four students scored less than 70 per cent.

Five students said their Inuktitut reading skills were too weak for the written test and took the oral test instead.

The results show a lack of basic literacy skills, regardless of language, Sammons said. “I don’t think it’s just Inuktitut that’s a problem.”

This past April, the same month the literacy test was administered, the results of a national mathematics test were released. Thirteen- and 16-year-olds from across Canada were tested.

However, just eight per cent of 13-year-olds in Nunavut met or exceeded Level 2 — the minimum acceptable level of difficulty.

Only 27.8 per cent of 13-year-old Nunavut students could reach even Level 1 — the lowest of five levels of difficulty.

At the time, Tom Rich, Nunavut’s deputy minister of education said many students in Nunavut, especially in the Baffin region, didn’t know enough English to comprehend many questions on the test, especially word problems.

He said that if the test had been administered in Inuktitut, Nunavut students would have fared better.

“I have no doubt about that,” Rich told Nunatsiaq News.

But the results of the Arctic College literacy test suggest that Nunavut students may not have done any better in Inuktitut.

“What is their language?” Kublu asked, throwing up her hands.

To find out, the group decided, more testing is needed. But a more comprehensive literacy test would require the input and funding of the department of education.

“There are some problems here and I don’t think you can fix them without finding out what’s wrong and where it’s going wrong,” Sammons said.

One way to start finding out what’s wrong, she suggested, is to teach students not by age or grade level, but by fluency.

“If you’re short of staff anyway, and you have one teacher trying to meet all of those needs of students at different fluency levels, how many minutes do they have for each student?” she asked.

“But that’s true of any subject area,” said Terry Young, principal of Inuksuk High School.

Sammons wasn’t hopeful. “Unless there were an awful lot of changes in the funding formula,” she said, “so that it was by subject, I don’t see much changing.”

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