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


About motivation

If adolescents are two, three, or more years behind grade level in reading, they've probably already experienced years of frustration and failure, and they may come across as unmotivated, unengaged, and skeptical of any new literacy class or program. When teaching older students, then, the challenge isn't just to provide systematic instruction but also to help them build trust in their teachers, confidence in their own abilities, and enthusiasm for the work they do in school.

However, teachers shouldn't assume that every unmotivated student has trouble reading and writing.

Over time, students who struggle with decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension do tend to become disengaged. But there are also many students who tune out in the classroom, and who earn failing grades, though they are in fact highly literate.1 They might even be avid readers, poring over the newspaper in the morning and favorite magazines at night. They might have their own web pages and blogs, or write stories and poetry outside of school. And yet, since they might have blown off their reading tests, assessments, and homework, their teachers may believe them to be low-level readers.

Whether students are merely bored or truly struggle with literacy, though, the advice is more or less the same: research strongly suggests that adolescents be given significant freedom in school to read and write about topics of their own choosing; that their teachers help them find interesting and suitable reading materials; that their teachers give them plenty of opportunities to interact with their classmates, especially to discuss what they read; and that their teachers define very specific goals for every reading or writing assignment.

Next steps

  • Encourage students to make their own choices.

    Researchers strongly recommend that literacy instructors give older students plenty of opportunities to choose reading and writing topics that interest them, to choose from a number of possible projects and assignments (e.g., to write a research report, create a Web site, or do a Power Point presentation), and to choose whether to work alone or with specific reading and writing partners.

  • Help students to select their reading materials.

    Students may know what topics interest them, but they don't necessarily know how to pick books that are "just right" for their interests and reading level (i.e., books that are attractive and interesting, and that offer them some challenge but not so much that they'll become frustrated and give up.) It can be difficult to help struggling adolescent readers find the right books, though, since most beginning-level texts are written for much younger children. Fortunately, a number of commercial publishers have begun to create texts that are "high in interest and low in frustration," and new titles are being produced quickly.

  • Make sure that students have sufficient background knowledge.

    If students already know something about a given topic, they tend to feel more confident and motivated to read about it, and they tend to comprehend more of what they read. If the topic is a new one for them, then give them enough background information and vocabulary to get them started successfully.

  • Help students define good reasons to read and write.

    If the goal of an assignment is merely to gather facts for a test, or to check off a course requirement, students aren't likely to put much effort into it. Research backs up the common-sense idea that students try harder and become more engaged in their schoolwork when they have a more compelling purpose in mind, such as to figure out something that they've always wanted to know about a favorite topic, or to become knowledgeable about a topic so that they can make an impressive presentation to their classmates. Also, it's often useful to ask students to help define their own goals for the assignment and to give them feedback along the way, letting them know how much they've accomplished already and how much more work they still have to do to meet their goal.

  • Encourage discussion and other opportunities to work in groups.

    When assigning (or encouraging) students to work in groups, teachers shouldn't assume they can leave those students to their own devices. In order to be productive, discussions and group work have to be planned carefully and supervised over time. But when such interactions go well, they tend to pay off greatly not just in terms of increased comprehension but also in terms of student engagement, confidence, and interest in school work.

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More resources

For lists of recommended books that are "high interest, low frustration" (or "hi-lo") for adolescents, visit:

Over the last several years, the list of publishers that specialize in hi-lo books has grown quickly. Some of the most prominent include:

Writer Jon Scieszka's website, Guys Read, offers many suggestions of books likely to appeal to boys at the secondary level.

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1Moje, E. B., et al. (2008). The complex world of adolescent literacy: Myths, motivations, and mysteries. Harvard Educational Review 78:107-154.



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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.

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.

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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.

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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