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Volume 24, Number 2
March/April 2008

Hot Topics and Key Words

Pilot project brings teachers together to tackle middle school literacy


Six years ago, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Catherine Snow and then–Boston Public Schools superintendent Thomas Payzant served together on a National Research Council committee that envisioned a new model for education research: Researchers would partner with school districts to identify “problems of practice” and commit to a long-term collaboration to solve them. The committee’s work resulted in the birth of the Strategic Education Research Partnership Institute, or SERP (see “Can Researchers and Educators Really Work Together to Improve Learning?” HEL, November/December 2003). In 2005, SERP established its first field site in the Boston Public Schools, where Snow and a team of colleagues were invited to focus on improving middle school literacy. Snow recently talked with the Harvard Education Letter about the Word Generation program, a vocabulary-building curriculum for middle schoolers that grew out of this collaboration.

With all the progress made in reading, why is adolescent literacy still a problem?

Most of the progress, and 85 percent of the research that’s been done, has been on getting kids to read well by third grade. That research has been enormously valuable and the quality of the instruction that goes on in early elementary classrooms has benefited. But it is a mistake to think that students who read at a third grade level can, without scaffolding and additional instruction, tackle more complex texts. For the majority, the challenges are just too great. If they don’t have strong oral language skills, if they are just managing with the reading but their exposure to oral English is limited, or if they come from homes where they are spending all of their time watching television and none of their time talking to adults and reading books, then they have not developed the capacities that they are going to need for comprehension.

If a student is reading a year below grade level by sixth grade, he’s going to slip farther and farther behind. A student who is three or four years below grade level will get put in special ed. But if he or she is just a little bit below, there’s no safety net for continuing to ramp up. These are the kids who are really in danger. So what you have by entry to high school is a much broader range of skills in a classroom.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

Academic Word List.

M.S. Donovan, A.K. Wigdor, and C.E. Snow, eds. Strategic Education Research Partnership. Washington, DC: Committee on a Strategic Education Research Partnership, National Research Council, 2003.

Strategic Education Research Partnership.

J. Ippolito, J.L. Steele, and J.F. Samson, eds. Adolescent Literacy. Harvard Educational Review, vol. 78, no. 1 (Spring 2008).