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Volume 20, Number 5
September/October 2004

Adolescent Literacy

Are we overlooking the struggling teenage reader?


Beginning this fall, students entering ninth grade in Worcester, Mass., can take a new course. Called Academic Literacy, the course uses a variety of texts—from Malcolm X essays to mathematics books—to engage students who have low grades and test scores and teach them strategies to enhance their reading skills.

Although the district has, on average, demonstrated relatively high performance on state tests, school leaders recognized that they needed to do more to help all students reach proficiency, according to Lisa Dyer, a teacher and district literacy coach in the Worcester Public Schools. Dyer and others also agreed that a course to help struggling readers improve their skills would enable the lowest-performing students to do better in all their classes.

"The rationale is to help kids master a rigorous high school curriculum," Dyer says. "[The students in the course] need extra help to read content-area texts."

The new course is just one of a number of initiatives Worcester is undertaking to help improve literacy skills among the city's middle and high school students. The district also has established a summer program of intensive instruction for struggling readers and placed literacy coaches in each high school. These coaches work with teachers in all subject areas to help them incorporate instruction that district leaders hope will ultimately raise achievement across the ­curriculum.

Rethinking the First "R"

Worcester's recent attention to literacy at the middle and high school levels runs somewhat counter to the model of reading instruction that has prevailed in most of the country. Reading, the first "R," has long been viewed as a primary focus—if not the primary focus—of American schooling, but the emphasis has traditionally been on young children. The long-running, heated battle between advocates of phonics and whole language, for example, is a debate about the best way to teach beginning readers.

Historically, most literacy programs at the federal, state, and local levels have also focused on beginning readers, apparently based on the notion that if students can read by age nine, they will be fine. In 2001, the federal government launched Reading First, an initiative that provides $1 billion in grants to states for programs aimed at ensuring that all students can read by the end of third grade.

Evidence from international and national assessments, however, suggests that this emphasis on beginning readers may not be enough. In a 35-nation study of reading literacy conducted in 2001, U.S. fourth graders outperformed those from almost every other nation, and two-thirds performed above the international average. Yet on a separate, 27-nation study of reading literacy among 15-year-olds in 2000, only half of U.S. students performed above the international average. Moreover, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that while the reading performance of elementary students is improving, that of high school students is declining. Only about a third of twelfth graders performed at the proficient level in reading in 2002, compared with 40 percent in 1992; moreover, the proportion of high school seniors who performed below the basic level in reading climbed from 20 to 25 percent during that period.

"It's imperative that we focus on adolescent literacy," says Iris Bond, a policy associate for the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has launched a campaign for a federal adolescent literacy initiative on the same scale as Reading First. "Historically, we've said if you teach students early, the problem is fixed, but that's not the case. It is important to have students read early, but you can't stop there. Kids fall off the bandwagon when they're not given the skills."

How Readers Struggle

One factor that seems to have prevented educators from focusing more on the literacy needs of adolescent learners is a lack of understanding about precisely what those needs are. By most estimates, about 10 to 15 percent of students in the middle to upper grades are seriously behind grade level in their reading abilities; these students tend to lack the basic reading skills that most students acquire in the primary grades. A far higher proportion can make out words but fail to draw much meaning from them. These students, researchers say, have a difficult time understanding the material in their classes.

Carol D. Lee, an associate professor and researcher at Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy, who has studied and developed interventions to improve adolescent literacy, notes that most high school educators are trained in their subject-area disciplines, but they are not trained to understand or teach reading. As a result, many teachers misdiagnose the problems struggling readers face and thus fail to address them. As Lee notes in a recent article in the journal Voices in Urban Education (VUE), "[High school educators] often view a kind of generic reading competence (something they assume students acquire in elementary and middle school) as a prerequisite to including challenging disciplinary texts (beyond the textbook) as part of their instruction."

Rather than just "generic" reading ability, however, Lee says high school students need to acquire "disciplinary literacy," or "the ability to understand, critique, and use knowledge from texts in a number of different academic content areas." She writes, "The work of the discipline of history, for example, . . . requires the careful and principled examination of a variety of primary source documents, and the ability to both understand and critique the unexamined assumptions found in historical summaries such as those found in history textbooks."

Other reading experts agree that the nature of the material students are asked to read in the upper grades changes—often just as the direct reading instruction they receive begins to taper off. As early as fourth grade, the balance of children's schoolwork tends to shift from narrative fiction and nonfiction stories, which young children read a lot of from kindergarten through early elementary school, to expository texts, the kinds of materials used in science, social studies, and other disciplines.

In addition to negotiating these genre shifts, middle and high school readers are required to draw more on background knowledge and vocabulary than they did in elementary school. This requirement can challenge all students, but it can make reading especially difficult for students who may lack the "cultural capital" to pick up such knowledge in their social environments. Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education whose research focuses on language and literacy development in children, believes that many of the current approaches to reading instruction, which emphasize word recognition rather than comprehension, particularly disadvantage immigrant and low-income children. "Low-income kids and non-English-speaking kids are most likely to suffer in a regime of reading as code-breaking," Snow says. "They have big deficits in the domains of vocabulary and world knowledge in English."
Building Motivation and Confidence

Of course, for adolescents to develop their reading skills, the first thing they must do is read. Yet, as virtually any teacher or parent of an adolescent knows, many resist reading—especially the reading they are required to do for classes—amid a host of other distractions that compete for a teenager's time and attention. This makes it even more difficult for middle and high school educators to place the kind of focused attention on reading one frequently sees in elementary school classrooms.

"In the early grades, you can count on [motivation] being there," says Snow. "They all want to learn to read. Motivation is more important to attend to in the instructional process for older kids."

Sheila Whitford, a literacy coach at Furr High School in Houston, says that efforts to improve adolescent literacy are complicated by the fact that many adolescents are what she calls "have-to readers"—they can read words and comprehend books and magazines that they read at home on a basic level, but they do not enjoy reading at school and read only when they are told to do so. As a result, Whitford says, these students do not develop enough fluency in their middle and high school years to learn how to enjoy what they read or to get much out of it.

One strategy Whitford recommends to enhance students' motivation and skill is to provide as many opportunities as possible for students to choose their own books, which she says increases the likelihood that they will eventually also gravitate toward the books that are assigned. "To motivate students to read, we have to establish an environment where everybody is reading, reading something they selected themselves, something they are interested in," says Whitford. "When kids find topics they are interested in reading, they are more willing to attempt more difficult reading."

Similarly, Lee of Northwestern has designed an approach she calls "cultural modeling," whereby teachers use rap lyrics and other unconventional works to draw out the comprehension skills—such as understanding irony and satire—that students already possess. She then turns to books in the literary canon and asks students to use similar techniques to develop their comprehension of these assigned texts.

For example, students might analyze a song lyric for the use of symbolism, then consider a similar use of symbolism in a novel like Toni Morrison's Beloved. In the VUE article, Lee explains that cultural modeling enables adolescents to use knowledge they already have to demonstrate an understanding of challenging texts that might otherwise seem forbidding to them. "What cultural modeling does is make the academic game explicit for students," Lee writes. "We have found [by using this approach] that students with histories of low achievement in reading become intensely engaged in literary analysis."

Teachers successfully addressing literacy in middle and high schools also begin by assigning books that are easier to read so that students begin to feel more comfortable with vocabulary and syntax. In this way, students can develop fluency and confidence, which will in turn encourage them to keep reading. Deanna Joseph, a Houston high school literacy coach, recalls that this approach helped one student improve his performance in all classes. "When we first started working with him he held his head down and seemed really embarrassed at making mistakes," notes Joseph in a publication of the Houston A+ Challenge, an organization that works with the district on high school reform. "Now, he's gained enough confidence in his reading skills that he will correct himself without getting embarrassed, and he's even starting to ask questions in class. That's real progress."

Other teachers of adolescents address literacy by explicitly teaching reading strategies, rather than assuming that their students already have these skills. Drawing on research that outlines the techniques skillful readers use, Dyer notes that teachers can give students exercises that require them to ask questions as they read, make predictions, draw conclusions, or use other techniques. By making the process of reading comprehension "transparent" in this way, Dyer says, "We're trying to help them establish skills proficient readers use on a subconscious level."

Changes in Schools

Of course, in order for students to learn new literacy strategies, teachers have to be given the time and training to learn how to employ them. One increasingly common form of professional development used to increase teachers' capacity in this regard is the use of school-based literacy coaches. Under this strategy, schools designate highly skilled teachers (or, in some cases, former teachers) who work with other teachers to help them learn new methods.

Whitford, the Houston literacy coach, says literacy coaching works because teachers are willing to listen to and learn from their colleagues. "I am a teacher," she says. "I have my lesson plans, my overcrowded class, my kids who have to work on behavior management, like any teacher. That helps." (For more information on school-based coaching, see our cover article by Alexander Russo in the July/August 2004 issue of the Harvard Education Letter.)

Some districts are also restructuring the school day so that teachers can learn and develop literacy strategies together. In Worcester, for example, teachers gather as "professional learning communities" twice a month to discuss literacy strategies and "share successes and struggles," says Dyer. Working on a similar path, Houston has organized the school day to enable teachers to meet together during common planning time. In this way, teachers can discover if a student is struggling with reading in multiple classes and discuss potential joint strategies.

Adolescent literacy initiatives sometimes meet with resistance from teachers who are reluctant to take part because they see themselves as content-area specialists, not reading teachers. In addition, some efforts have faced budget cutbacks where decisionmakers have lacked a sense of urgency about the needs of adolescent readers. In Alabama, for example, the state reading initiative, which includes training for 130 middle and high schools, has had to stop taking on new schools because state funding dried up, and—as is the case with many other literacy initiatives—the state directed that all new funds for reading go to the primary grades. But Katherine Mitchell, director of the Alabama Reading Initiative, notes that dozens of schools have since used their own funds to pay for teacher training and literacy coaching because they recognize the value of these approaches.

Finally, there are indications that policymakers may be getting the message. In July, the House Appropriations Committee approved $100 million for a federal adolescent literacy program called Striving Readers, which would fund the development and implementation of research-based approaches to improving adolescent literacy.

Robert Rothman is the editor of
Voices in Urban Education (VUE), published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

For Further Information

For Further Information

Houston A+ Challenge. "Improving Literacy Central to High School Redesign." SchoolWorks 14 (Summer 2004).

M. Kamil. Adolescents and Literacy: Reading for the 21st Century. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2003.

C.D. Lee. "Literacy in the Academic Disciplines and the Needs of Adolescent Struggling Readers." Voices in Urban Education, no. 3 (Winter/Spring 2004): 14-25.

RAND Reading Study Group. Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: Author, 2002.