canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Teaching Canadian literature: IT SUCKS!

by Michael Bryson  

In April 2002, the Canada Council for the Arts published a research report it had commissioned on the state of English-language Canadian literature in high schools. The results were not encouraging. 

Read responses to this report

Read what's new as of January 29, 2003

(You can read the executive summary of the report on the Canada Council web site. The full report is more than 100 pages. It is available from the Canada Council for the Arts and Writers’ Trust of Canada.)

Prepared by The Writers' Trust of Canada, the report concluded:

  • fewer than one-third of high schools in Canada offer students a course on Canadian literature;
  • most students read fewer than six Canadian books during their secondary education;
  • few students can identify 10 Canadian writers;
  • the number of Canadian literature courses has declined over the last few years and will continue to decline, in some provinces;
  • teen literature programs at public libraries receive staggeringly fewer resources than children's programming;
  • there is an attitude within the high school system that Canadian literature is substandard and doesn't merit being taught in schools; and
  • community standards and fear of reprisal has a large impact on the materials teachers choose to use in the classroom.

The Writers' Trust sent a survey to high schools across Canada. The survey allowed teachers and school librarians to discuss issues related to teaching Canadian literature. The research also included a survey for students

Results of the teacher survey

Only 31% of teachers reported that their school had a Canadian literature course. The results of the teacher survey also found that the majority of literature taught in Canadian high schools is written by Americans.

Many teachers used the survey to express their high level of frustration with the current education environment. Teachers reported that there is not much validation for creative writing and it has little emphasis on curricula. Literature, reading and writing have become distinct things rather than integrated. Novel studies courses are no longer the norm. Few schools participate in off-campus literary events or reading festivals.

Teachers reported that their schools spend the bulk of the book budget on anthologies, which have significant Canadian content from various genres and time periods. Some teachers like the anthologies, while others say students don’t respond to them.

At the same time, because schools are spending their budgets buying anthologies, there is little money left for new Canadian literary titles. New books are introduced to the classroom at a slow rate and in small numbers. Provincial curricula also often require schools to purchase new textbooks. Budgets of school libraries have also been cut.

Some teachers say there may be more Canadian literature taught in schools, but fewer Canadian literature courses. In some high schools, there has been an increase in the amount of Canadian literature; in some there has been a decrease; and in others there has been no noticeable difference.

The biggest in-class challenges reported by teachers:

  • encouraging students to read;
  • weak literacy skills of students;
  • finding material that students will find interesting, fit varying reading levels, and not offend the community;
  • funding for books and support resources;
  • finding appropriate resources; and
  • time.

The most effective methods of teaching Canadian literature reported by teachers:

  • teaching more prominent authors;
  • teaching prize-winning books;
  • writers-in-schools programs;
  • the enthusiasm of individual teachers for Canadian literature;
  • film adaptations of Canadian novels;
  • literature that has ties to the lives of students;
  • short works;
  • silent reading time;
  • class study of novels; and
  • supplementary material, such as magazine articles.

Teachers who regularly invite writers to their classrooms say such programs are what gets their students most excited about Canadian literature.

Results of the student survey

High school students reported that they are reading a diverse cross-section of books, everything from philosophy and history to science fiction and poetry. Some of the more popular titles include: the Chicken Soup series, horror books, and fantasies.The students reported that they have a high level of political awareness about books. They said they are concerned about lack of relevant resources in their schools.

Many students, however, reported that they associate reading with work, almost punishment. These students see reading as something that takes time and effort rather; it does not provide enjoyment. Students reported they are more inclined to get books from bookstores than school libraries. Few read book reviews. Instead, students reported they rely on recommendations from friends and family.

The students reported that they read a lot of magazines and also often use the Internet. A majority (57%) said they write creatively. (Teachers, however, reported that few students are writing creatively.)

Why has it come to this?

In the 1970s, The Writers' Development Trust (as The Writers' Trust of Canada was formerly named) produced a series of teachers' guides about Canadian literature. One of the reasons the Canada Council commissioned this study was to determine if it might it be time to produce another series of guides. The report was commissioned to look at some of the fundamental issues, changes and challenges affecting the teaching of English Canadian literature in high schools.

The report concluded that many of challenges to teaching Canadian literature in high schools remain. In fact, they have grown more complex. Many teachers and organizations that try to support Canadian literature operate in isolation. One of the biggest challenges identified by this project is the lack of a network to promote Canadian literature in high schools.

Although all provinces say they want to include work written by Canadians in high school courses, there are huge variations in policy across the country. Provincial guidelines have a new emphasis on technology and methods of communication other than print. There is a strong focus on outcomes, student testing, and skills development.

English literature courses have been replaced by English Language Arts classes, and teachers must use many strategies with many genres including art prints, CDs, videos, newspapers, journals, etc. The new definition of "text," while exciting to many educators, in practical terms means that students are reading less print texts of sustained length, specifically novels.

Some teachers feel that literature has been lost in a system that increasingly puts lower values on the humanities. They believe that Ministries of Education have placed too much emphasis on theory and pedagogy. While teachers struggle to engage students, provincial guidelines remind them, as one teacher said, that the "ultimate political goal is to ensure that the students pass the tests."

Attitudes about Canadian literature

So-called "community standards" is a huge issue, according to the reports from teachers. The results of the survey indicated that teachers allow their fear of repercussions from parents and the community over "community standards" to influence the selection of material they bring into the classroom.

Despite a publishing industry that boasts an international reputation, many teachers say their colleagues have "disdain" for Canadian literature. Some teachers suggest that Canadian literature is limited in scope and lacking in universal themes and "moral fibre."

The results of the survey highlighted two opposing views about the "legitimacy" of teaching Canadian literature to high school students:

  1. One group believes that teaching Canadian literature is part of a good education and "good citizenship." This view is illustrated by the comment: Canada must be the "only country in the world that doesn't teach its own literature in its schools."
  2. Others maintain that the nationality of the author is not important. This view is illustrated by the comment: "Nationalism and the cultural value of literature are mutually exclusive."

Teachers who want to teach Canadian literature courses are frustrated by lack of support from colleagues and administration. The majority of teachers who responded to the survey said that they would like to increase the amount of Canadian literature taught in schools, but in order for that to happen there needs to be support, funding, resources, and clear mandates from provincial ministries.

Conclusions of the survey

The report concluded:

  • teachers and students are not adequately encouraged to read Canadian literature;
  • teachers need more and better access to resource material about Canadian literature;
  • there is limited knowledge within the high school educational system about Canadian writers and the Canadian publishing scene even among teachers who are supportive of CanLit;
  • there is an attitude within the high school educational system that Canadian literature is substandard and doesn't merit being taught in schools;
  • teachers have challenges with the new curriculum and approaches to literature studies that impact the amount of Canadian literature being taught;
  • there is significant competition from American and British literature;
  • funding is a problem-not enough money for books, for resources, for writers-in-schools programs or for professional development;
  • decline in librarians has impacted access and depleted collections in school libraries;
  • there is little research in the area of Canadian literature in high schools to provide support material for curriculum designers;
  • community standards and fear of reprisal has a large impact on classroom teachers' selection of materials;
  • the Internet and new technology have not been fully exploited for CanLit studies.


The report includes nine specific recommendations. You can read them, along with the executive summary of the report, on the Canada Council web site. The full report is more than 100 pages. It is available from the Canada Council for the Arts and Writers’ Trust of Canada.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.






TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.