One day after the Ontario government announced a revamp of its kindergarten school curriculum, experts remain split—some argue a “back-to-basics” philosophy may interfere with inquisitive play while others say the changes are an opportunity to “re-engage” with learning at an early age.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce made the announcement Tuesday morning. The new curriculum, he said, would combine hands-on and play-based learning with a focus on reading, writing and math.

For reading, students would gain an understanding of sound-letter relationships, develop phonics knowledge and use specific vocabulary. Math instruction would include learning about fractions, coding and patterns.

The idea, Lecce said, would be to match up what is now being taught in the rest of elementary and secondary school.

“It’s exciting,” Todd Todd Cunningham, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, told CTV News Toronto.

“The research is very clear. Someone who is struggling with reading, if we can intervene by the end of Grade 1, there's like an 80 per cent chance that we can make them a typical reader. But if we wait just to Grade 2, that drops to 50 per cent.”

“Early is key,” Cunningham added.

The province still needs to release the official curriculum, so there are a lot of unanswered questions about how the new mandated learning will be taught and assessed. The government has said it will consult with teachers, education experts and other stakeholders over the next few months.

Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, said that while curriculums have to evolve, she is concerned about “going back to anything.”

“It's 2024. The world is changing fast,” she said.

“Ontario has a world-renowned kindergarten program, and what we have to be careful of is, if you start adding things, adding mandatory expectations to anything, something has to be taken away.”

The current curriculum, Kidder argues, is focused on foundational life skills that prepare kids to learn, problem-solve, collaborate and communicate.

“It’s important that we don't leave any of those skills out,” she said.

“One of the complaints about curriculums all the way through school has been that it's too crammed. There are too many expectations.”

What’s changing in the curriculum?

The announcement gave educators the impression there will be intentional time set aside each day for students to work on literacy and math skills. It also comes after the government directed teachers to conduct early reading screening for students from Year 2 of Kindergarten to Grade 2 in order to assist with early identification of students who require further support.

Cunningham argues the new curriculum is not about going backwards—rather, it’s about “re-engaging with the science that's out there and bringing that back.”

He told CTV News Toronto he hopes to see activities that promote phonemic awareness, such as rhymes and singing, that allow students to identify and manipulate sounds. He also expects there to be expectations around connecting those sounds to symbols.

“There are elements of that within the current kindergarten program, but my hope is that there's going to be much more explicit expectations … that we’re ensuring those students are making those early developmental processes, progresses along the way,” he said.

Examples of phonemic awareness include jumping on a lily pad with a letter on it when a teacher yells out a certain sound.

The current curriculum, Cunningham noted, is based on a system that uses visual and semantic cues to determine what a word is—similar to a guessing game.

“There's our ability to see and know what the word is, we'll call orthographic recognition, and then our ability to decode a word to be able to break it down into its pieces and then put it back together,” he said.

“The research has shown you have to first develop decoding before you can develop orthographic systems.”

Kate Winn, a kindergarten teacher in Downeyville, Ont., north of Oshawa, told CTV News Toronto that while some educators have adjusted their teaching to align with recommendations made in the 2022 Ontario Human Rights Commission Right to Read report, instruction has been inconsistent, with some boards options to hold off for provincial instruction.

“It's a real human rights issue, as early instruction and intervention are key for reading success, and it's the most at-risk kids who will continue to be at a disadvantage with the current program in place,” she said.

Winn has been part of the provincial right to read and early reading screening advocacy meetings, and was present when the minister made the curriculum announcement Tuesday. She told CTV News Toronto that while kids need to spend a lot of time each day playing and working on social skills, they also need explicit instruction in key academic areas.

“It's not an either/or - as I see every day, these components can complement each other and lead to a really rich learning environment for our youngest students. We still want kids to be kids - it's our job to set them up for success as they grow.”

What supports are needed?

Karen Brown, the president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), told CTV News Toronto that neither she nor her members were informed of the curriculum changes before the announcement had been made.

According to Brown, play-based learning in kindergarten is highly based on inquiry and the child’s interest. Learning “naturally occurs,” she said, and the educator’s role is to ask questions and facilitate curiosity.

“What we're hearing is that, there's going to be a much more formal, deliberate in regards to these are the outcomes that we specifically want to see, which sort of shifts the play-based model itself,” she said, adding that she doesn’t understand the push for the curriculum to go “back to basics.”

“We're talking about kindergarten. It couldn’t be any more basic than that,” she said.

“To say the foundations aren’t happening, it is. I think parents want to ensure that there is a balance where children are entering into this system and exploring and developing concepts.”

She said it was disappointing that a curriculum change would be announced prior to consultations with key stakeholders. ETFO members will require professional development and training, Brown added, as well as instruction on what occurs after an assessment or screening finds a student requires more support.

The curriculum is expected to launch in the fall of 2025.