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

Teaching Reading and Writing in the Content Areas


The role of content teachers

Currently, few middle or high school educators ever receive more than a token amount of training in literacy instruction, and few see themselves as teachers of reading and writing at all. Instead, at the secondary level, most teachers tend to regard themselves as teachers of subject areas, such as biology, American history, or algebra. Even English teachers — who might be assumed to be responsible for reading and writing instruction — tend to define themselves first and foremost as teachers of literature.

It should come as no surprise, then, that researchers have found that precious little reading or writing goes on in most content area classes.1 Instead of requiring students to read actual scientific papers and historical documents, and instead of assigning students to write and re-write many kinds of essays, reports, and other materials, the vast majority of teachers assign only brief readings (mainly from textbooks) and short, formulaic writing assignments.

If the nation's students are to go beyond the basics of literacy, though, then secondary school teachers must acknowledge that they are more than teachers of facts, figures, dates, and procedures. They must acknowledge that they are more even than teachers of mathematical, historical, scientific, and literary ways of thinking about and seeing the world. They also must teach their students to read and write and communicate like mathematicians, historians, scientists, literary critics, and educated members of society.

Finally, while not every teacher can be expected to do the job of a reading specialist, all teachers should be trained in certain essentials of literacy instruction, and all teachers should be expected to support students' overall literacy development.

Specifically, all teachers should learn how to provide effective vocabulary instruction in their subject areas; all teachers should learn how to provide instruction in reading comprehension strategies that can help students make sense of content-area texts; all teachers should learn how to design reading and writing assignments that are likely to motivate students who lack engagement in school activities; and all teachers should learn how to teach students to read and write in the ways that are distinct to their own content areas.

Next steps

  • Don't assume that the English department takes care of literacy instruction.

    As long as math, science, and history teachers assume that the English department bears responsibility for reading and writing instruction, then they'll see no reason to take on that responsibility themselves.

  • If the school needs reading specialists, then hire reading specialists.

    Math, science, history, and English teachers tend to get nervous when people start talking about literacy instruction in the content areas. "But I don't know anything about teaching reading!" goes the usual reply. "I don't know how to help kids sound out words or read more fluently." They're right. If the school enrols struggling readers, then the school should hire specialists to work with them, leaving content area teachers to focus on the kinds of reading and writing that go on in their disciplines.

  • Meet with colleagues from your department to define the specific kinds of reading and writing that you want students to practice in your classes.

    Within each content area, teachers should have a clear and consistent understanding of what it means for students to read and write proficiently in that domain. Biology teachers shouldn't be in the business of telling history teachers how to guide students in the analysis of early American political tracts, and history teachers shouldn't weigh in on how best to teach the writing of lab reports. If secondary schools are to take seriously the teaching of literacy in the content areas, then they must allow the content areas to develop their own expertise and to exercise their own professional judgement as to the kinds of reading and writing that are most important to teach in their classes.

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More resources

  • Visit our library of essential articles on the teaching literacy in the content areas.

  • Take a close look at the Standards for Middle and High School Literacy Coaches, published in 2006 by the International Reading Association, along with the professional associations for teachers of English, social studies, mathematics, and science. While this document was prepared with literacy coaches in mind, it includes detailed descriptions of the many reading and writing skills that are distinct to each subject area, and it can help get content area teachers started on a discussion about their own priorities for literacy instruction.

  • The Council of Chief State School Officers on-line Adolescent Literacy Toolkit includes sample lesson plans for teaching reading and writing in English, social studies, math, and science, along with interviews with leading experts in each area.

  • The Knowledge Loom website (developed by the Education Alliance at Brown University) has links to various sample lessons and other resources for reading and writing instruction in the content areas.

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Endnotes

1Wade, 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.

References

References

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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.

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.