All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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AdLit 101...

Give Struggling Readers the Specific Kinds of Support They Need

Older students who struggle

In its well-known 2000 report, the National Reading Panel described five key "building blocks" of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Over the last several years, these building blocks have achieved a kind of celebrity status in the education world. Nowadays, many teachers take it for granted that any decent reading program should touch on all five.

Actually, though, the NRP had young students in mind when it came up with those building blocks. For, struggling adolescent readers, the priorities are somewhat different.

For one thing, phonemic awareness and phonics shouldn't really be defined as "essential components" of literacy instruction in the upper grades. Nearly all adolescents, even those who read at a very low level, have at least some ability to sound out words. If they need any help at all with the basic mechanics of reading, they tend to be better served by what's known as "word study," which is slightly more advanced than phonics instruction.1

Second, researchers have found that struggling adolescent readers tend to be easily frustrated by reading assignments and extremely disengaged from their schoolwork. In fact, disengagement is such a common problem, and addressing it is so critical to literacy development, that motivation has to be treated as one of the field's central concerns.

In short, and as the Center on Instruction suggests in the 2008 publication, Effective Instruction for Adolescent Struggling Readers, when it comes to struggling adolescent readers, the NRP's five "building blocks" of literacy should be updated as follows:

Grades K-3   Grades 4-12
Phonemic Awareness Arrow pointing to the right Word Study
Phonics Fluency
Fluency Vocabulary
Vocabulary Comprehension
Comprehension Motivation

Which of these elements should you emphasize in your school or classroom?

That depends on what you find out when you assess your students' reading skills. For instance, you might discover that some of your students need help in all five areas, others struggle mainly with motivation, others read fluently without comprehending what they're reading, and others would be served best by an extra emphasis on vocabulary.

Struggling readers shouldn't be lumped together in a single, catch-all remedial class. Instead, figure out exactly what kinds of support students need and, to the extent possible, treat them as individuals. When planning special reading classes, tutoring services, after-school programs, or other assistance, be flexible, and resist the temptation to assemble these elements into a rigid formula or a one-size-fits-all reading intervention.

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Word study: For adolescents who read at a very low level

Relatively little research has been conducted on the teaching of very basic skills to students in the middle and high school grades. In providing advice to educators serving adolescents who read at a very low level, experts tend to be cautious, pointing to the need for more evidence.

However, members of the National Reading Panel have stated clearly that the existing research does not support giving adolescents the same kinds of phonics instruction that one would give to much younger students.

Typically, adolescents who read at a very low level struggle not with simple phonics but with the slightly more difficult work of decoding multi-syllabic and/or unusual words, recognizing common words by sight, reading and writing words that have irregular spellings, and identifying families of words that share common roots.2

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Next steps

  • Show students how to break multi-syllabic words into recognizable parts.

    Often, when confronted by a long and unfamiliar word, students will sound out one syllable and then guess the rest. Coming across the word "transition," for example, they might read "trans"… "um, trans-lation." Encourage them to slow down when reading such words, and model your own reading strategies, showing them how you sound out each part of the word and then blend them together.

  • Give students lots of practice reading and writing commonly-used words that defy regular spelling patterns.

    For example, words such as were, where, have, give, said, could, again, and been. Don't just have students memorize word lists, though — they'll have an easier time learning and remembering words that they see and use regularly. Highlight such words in reading passages and books, assign students to use them in their own writing, and ask them to keep track of the words they've mastered.

  • Teach students common root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

    Students often need to be shown, explicitly, that many of the words they read share common prefixes (such as pre-, pro-, and auto-), suffixes (such as -ology, -ous, and -ism), and roots (such as -ped, used in "pedal" and "pedestrian").

  • Keep it short and sweet.

    While struggling readers may benefit from word study, that doesn't mean you should turn the class into a deadly-dull word study workshop. Rather, while word study should be regular and frequent, it should be limited to relatively brief sessions (closer to ten or fifteen minutes than an hour at a time). And when it comes to learning new words, less is more — teach students 5-10 words at a time, rather than overwhelming them with 20-30.

  • Keep it relevant.

    As much as possible, word study should be linked to course content, so that students have reason to know and use the given words, and it should be treated as just one part of a larger effort to engage students in discussing interesting books and other materials and in writing and expressing their own ideas.

  • Make it fun.

    The goal of word study isn't just to memorize words and word patterns but to help students to develop "word consciousness," a term that experts use to describe a curious and playful attitude toward language. In the long run, kids who learn to enjoy words — having fun with rhymes, puns, word play, and the use of rare and unusual words — will learn far more than those who are forced to memorize word lists and complete dry workbook exercises.

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More resources

  • The ReadWriteThink website (created by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers) has a number of useful resources on this topic, including word lists, classroom activities, and reference materials for teachers and students.

  • The International Reading Association offers various resources in this area, including word study cards (for grades 3-8).

  • has many useful lists, explanations, and background information about common prefixes, suffixes, and root words.

  • has various lists and resources related to irregular words, root words, and more.

  • And here are a few other good sources for lists of common prefixes and suffixes, root words, and frequently used irregular words.

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1Boardman, 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.

2Boardman, 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.



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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.

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