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...

Make It a Priority to Assess Students' Literacy Skills

About assessments

If doctors performed surgery without examining their patients first, they'd be tried for malpractice. Why should it be considered any less scandalous for teachers to provide instruction without first assessing kids' knowledge and skills?

Over the years, most elementary schools have made it a priority to assess students' reading skills and, if students begin to slip behind, to perform a more careful assessment that helps them figure out exactly what's going on, so that they can provide those students with appropriate support.

Middle and high schools have been very slow to catch on, though. At the secondary level, few schools have reading specialists on staff, few teachers have been trained to perform reading assessments, and few administrators have given this issue the urgent attention that it deserves. As a result, while it may be obvious that certain students have weak literacy skills, teachers and staff tend to have no idea why those kids are struggling.

In fact, a whole range of things can cause students to struggle with reading.

For example, students might have reading disabilities that haven't ever been diagnosed or vision problems that haven't been treated. They might never have received decent reading instruction in the early grades. And they might be too distracted or unmotivated to concentrate on their assignments.

Further — and this is true for most adolescents found to be reading far below grade level — they may be able to sound out words and make sense of very basic texts but struggle in other areas, especially reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, every school is required to test students' reading skills at the end of the year in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. (In other words, every school performs what are called "summative assessments," referring to tests designed to see whether kids have learned what was taught).

But every school should also set up an initial screening process to check on student reading skills at the beginning of the semester or year.

And every teacher should continue to check on students' progress throughout the year (doing what's generally called "formative assessment" or "assessment for learning"), in order to see whether those kids need more support or maybe even a different kind of reading instruction altogether.

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Next steps

  • Get together with other teachers and administrators and come up with a specific plan to conduct an initial, general screening of every student's reading skills at the beginning of the upcoming school year.

    The goal is to design a reasonably quick and affordable way to see how many students are reading at grade level, how many are likely to need a little extra support, and how many appear to have serious difficulties, requiring further assessment.

    It may seem like a tall order to screen every student in this way, but it is a high priority to do so — and , in fact, this sort of screening really isn't all that difficult, expensive, or time-consuming.

    First, over the summer, review your students' results from the previous year's state-mandated reading test. That should give you a preliminary snapshot of their reading levels, allowing you to make a ballpark estimate as to the numbers of students likely to require specialized support services.

    Next, schedule and plan a brief all-school reading assessment for one of the first days of the school year. The goal is to get an initial measure of how well students can decode text, how quickly and accurately they read, whether they read with appropriate rhythm and expression, and how well they comprehend the sorts of texts they'll be expected to read in school.

    While some computer-based screening tools are being developed, the most common way to perform this kind of initial assessment is to schedule a day when every student will be asked to read out loud for a few minutes to a teacher or staff member. (Students should be assured that the assessment is meant only to check on their skills and that it will have no impact on their grades.) There's no reason for this to be a huge interruption, though. Depending on how many faculty and staff members help out, it should take only two or three class periods to screen everybody.

    The idea is to have every student read the same text (something non-specialized and more or less at students' grade level) for a specific length of time, and then to retell and summarize what they've read. Usually, a simple scoring system is used to rate students' reading comprehension, rate, and fluency (including how many words per minute they read, how accurately, and with how much expression), allowing teachers to flag those who seem to be struggling with particular skills.

    The Ohio Literacy Alliance offers a step-by-step example of how this is done, what a rating tool looks like, and how to select a reading passage for the screening. Also, keep an eye out for the K-12 reading assessment tools that the Florida Department of Education will make freely available to the public in August, 2009. Developed by the Florida Center for Reading Research and the state's well-respected Just Read, Florida! initiative, these high-quality resources include screening tools, diagnostic assessments, and strategies for monitoring student progress.

  • Depending on the results of the initial screening, some students (perhaps those scoring two or more years below grade level) should then be given a more targeted diagnostic assessment.

    To get a detailed and reliable picture of their strengths and weaknesses. This should let you know precisely what kinds of reading instruction, tutoring, or other support they need, and it should help you decide whether to refer particular students for more specialized testing and services.

  • Throughout the year, continue to check on students' progress in reading and writing.

    Such formative assessments don't have to be fancy to be useful. Every 4-6 weeks, for example, teachers might repeat one or more of the screening tests done at the beginning of the year, in order to gauge students' improvement over time. Or, on a weekly or even daily basis, teachers can assign quick and informal activities that help them to keep track of students' progress. For example, they can give students a short, ungraded quiz before teaching a unit and then repeat the quiz afterwards, to see how well students learned the given vocabulary, skills, or content; they can ask students to write a brief summary of an in-class reading, in order to see whether they followed the argument or understood the main point; or they can ask students to do a "think/pair/share" activity — taking notes on a reading assignment, discussing them with a classmate, and reporting back to the whole class — as a way to check for comprehension.

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More resources

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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