All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button
Text Size: A A A  
AdLit 101...


About fluency

Ideally, by the time students reach the upper grades, they will already have seen hundreds of common words in print many times over, and those words will have become so familiar that they can recognize them instantly, in one glance. For instance, instead of decoding "Mon…" and then "…day," they will register the whole word , "Monday," all at once and quickly move ahead with the rest of the sentence.

If students haven't developed this kind of "automaticity" when reading, then they may be able to sound out individual words with little trouble, but they will read them in such halting fashion that they cannot pay full attention to the meaning of the text.

Similarly, if they haven't learned to read with expression, giving the text appropriate intonation (whether out loud or in their own heads), then they might get through sentences quickly yet not really understand them.

Experts don't know precisely how many American adolescents struggle to read with fluency, but the number is probably quite large. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education did a study of 4th graders' oral reading, using a passage from a simple storybook. The researchers found that while about 80 percent could read quickly enough to follow the text, and while roughly 75 percent read most words accurately, only 61 percent read with more or less appropriate expression and tone.

Nonetheless, few secondary schools make a concerted effort either to assess students' fluency or to help them practice and improve it.

If assessments show that particular students are having trouble reading fluently (and if problems such as poor eyesight and concentration have been ruled out), then what can teachers do to help them? Visit the Reading Fluency section for more information.

Back to Top

Next steps

  • Read aloud to students.

    On occasion, teachers should model their own fluent reading and explain to students how they adapt their voices to the specific kind of text (using a fairly flat, steady tone when reading a math textbook, using different character-voices when reading a story, and so on). It can be particularly helpful to do this when students are getting started on a new reading assignment — by reading the beginning of the text aloud in class, teachers can send students home with the sound of the language in their heads.

  • Show students how to read expressively.

    Many students need to be shown, explicitly, how to use commas, periods, question marks, and other punctuation to guide them as they read, cueing them to pause, stop, use a rising tone, and so on. Further, students may need to learn that small shifts in rhythm, tone, and emphasis can change the meaning of what they read. For instance, "Do you like it?" means something very different from "Do you like it?"

  • Have students practice reading aloud.

    Have them read either to the teacher or to one another, in pairs. Choose short texts that students have read before, and which they understand fully, so that they can focus on fluency rather than decoding and comprehension. Coach them as they go, helping them get through difficult passages, and have them repeat the activity 1-3 times. And if students make gains in their speed and expression, make sure to give them some positive reinforcement, pointing out exactly how they've improved.

  • Have students keep track of their own progress.

    Time students when they do repeated readings of a text, and make note of how many words they stumble over, so that they can graph their speed and accuracy and see when they improve. (For guidance on how to assess and graph fluency, read Assessing Reading Fluency, by leading researcher Timothy Rasinski.)

  • Have students read a wide variety of texts out loud.

    It can be very useful for students to read the same text repeatedly, so that they can see their own improvement. But it's also important to practice reading various kinds of texts (science articles, newspaper articles, letters, and so on) in order to become aware of their differences.

    Further, researchers recommend that students practice reading texts out loud, while teachers listen and provide feedback.

Back to Top

Back to Top



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

ACT (2006). Reading between the lines: What the ACT reveals about college readiness in reading. Ames, IA: Author.

Bates, L., Breslow, N., and Hupert, N. (2009). Five states’ efforts to improve adolescent literacy (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2009–No. 067). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands.

Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C. (2006). Reading next: A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy: A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Graham, S. and Perin, D. (2007). Writing next. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Haynes, M. (2005). Reading at risk: How states can respond to the crisis in adolescent literacy. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Boards of Education.

Heller, R. and Greenleaf, C.L. (2007, June). Literacy instruction in the content areas: getting to the core of middle and high school improvement. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2005). Creating a culture of literacy: A guide for middle and high school principals. Reston, VA: Author.

National Association of State Boards of Education.(2009). State Actions to Improve Adolescent Literacy: Results from NASBE's State Adolescent Literacy Network. Arlington, VA: Author.

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). (2004). On Reading, Learning to Read, and Effective Reading Instruction: An Overview of What We Know and How We Know It. (NCTE Guidelines by the Commission on Reading). Urbana, IL: Author.

National Governors Association. (2005). Reading to achieve: A governor’s guide to adolescent literacy. Washington, DC: National Governors Association, Center for Best Practices.

Short, D. J., & Fitzsimmons, S. (2007). Double the work: Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for adolescent English language learners: A report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Southern Regional Education Board (2009). A critical mission: Making adolescent reading an immediate priority. Atlanta. GA: Author.

Torgesen, J. K., Houston, D. D., Rissman, L. M., Decker, S. M., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J. Francis, D. J, Rivera, M. O., Lesaux, N. (2007). Academic literacy instruction for adolescents: A guidance document from the Center on Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Boardman, A. G., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Murray, C. S., & Kosanovich, M. (2008). Effective instruction for adolescent struggling readers: A practice brief. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Boardman, A. G., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Wexler, J., Murray, C. S., & Kosanovich, M. (2008). Effective instruction for adolescent struggling readers: A practice brief. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

Hart, T., & Risley, B. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
Biemiller, A. (2006). Vocabulary development and instruction: A prerequisite for school learning. In S. Neuman and D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of Early Literacy Research (Vol 2) (41-51). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Moje, E. B., et al. (2008). The complex world of adolescent literacy: Myths, motivations, and mysteries. Harvard Educational Review 78:107-154.
Wade, S. E., & Moje, E. B. (2000). The role of text in classroom learning. In Kamil, M., Mosenthal, P., Barr, R., & Pearson, P. D. (Eds.), The handbook of research on reading. (Volume III, pp. 609-627). Mahwah , NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Applebee, A., & Langer, J. (2006). The state of writing instruction in America’s schools: What existing data tell us. Albany, NY: Center on English Learning and Achievement.