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...

The Scope of the Adolescent Literacy Crisis

What the data shows

Unfortunately, relatively few of the nation's secondary school students are getting the kind of intensive, ongoing literacy instruction they need, either to catch up in the basics or to move beyond them.

Frustrated and discouraged, hundreds of thousands of those students drop out every year. And even among those students who graduate from high school and make plans for college, roughly half, according to recent research by ACT, lack the reading skills needed to do well in a typical first year college course.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education's 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress known as NAEP, or "the Nation's Report Card", fewer than a third of 8th graders read and write at a proficient level (that is, at a level deemed to be appropriate for their year in school). And for low-income students and students of color, the statistics are even more alarming: just 13 percent of African-American, 17 percent of Hispanic, and 15 percent of low-income 8th graders were found to be proficient in reading.

Since 1971 — when the federal government began tracking student achievement in reading, writing, math, and other subjects — scores have changed very little. In the last several years, 4th grade reading scores have made some encouraging gains, most likely due to recent efforts and investments in literacy instruction at the elementary level. However, for more than three decades now, the majority of the nation's secondary school students have failed to demonstrate the expected competence in reading and writing, and only a handful of students — 3 percent of 8th graders, in 2007 — have been found to read at an advanced level.

A new sense of urgency

The literacy skills of the typical American teenager haven't improved since the 1970s, but the demand for literacy skills has increased dramatically.

Occupational changes during the 20th Century
Chart of the occupational changes during the 20th Century

A generation ago, the economy was a lot more forgiving to young people who couldn't read and write very well, or who left high school without a diploma. Today, it is next to impossible to find a decent entry-level job without at least a two-year college degree. And once they do land a job, workers are finding it increasingly difficult to climb the career ladder unless they have the ability to communicate effectively, both in person and in writing. Even in industries such as manufacturing and transportation, where a strong back used to count for more than a clear memo, employees must be able to read and write with competence.

According to a major 2007 report from the Educational Testing Service, current labor market trends, demographics, and student achievement data are combining to create a "perfect storm" that could inflict lasting damage upon the nation's economy and upon its social fabric, as well. Simply put, if the middle and high schools continue to churn out large numbers of students who lack the ability to read critically, write clearly, and communicate effectively, then the labor market will soon be flooded with young people who have little to offer employers and who cannot handle the jobs that are available.

"[T]here will be tens of millions more adults,' the ETS report concludes, "who lack the education and skills they will need to thrive in the new economy." If that future is to be avoided, the authors argue, the nation's secondary schools will have to begin immediately to help many more students to reach much higher levels of literacy than ever before.

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Gaining momentum

The good news? America's adolescent literacy crisis has finally begun to receive the attention it so urgently deserves. Across the country, momentum is building behind efforts to help all students develop the kinds of advanced literacy skills that the present times demand.

Over the last few years, hundreds of school districts have introduced new programs designed to help struggling adolescent readers. Numerous professional associations and other national organizations have moved adolescent literacy to the top of the school reform agenda. Many of the nation's top education researchers have launched new studies into topics such as how best to teach reading in the academic content areas, how best to teach writing at the high-school level, and how best to support the literacy development of adolescent English language learners.

In short, adolescent literacy has become, after decades of neglect, one of the hottest topics in American education. Just as important, the field has seen none of the rancor that for many years characterized debates over early reading instruction (famous as the scene of longstanding "reading wars" over the relative merits of whole language and phonics instruction in the schools).

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Federal investments

Over the last few years, federal policymakers have begun for the first time to make serious investments in middle and high school literacy instruction. Striving Readers, a federal program supporting several district-wide reform initiatives, was launched in 2004, and in March of 2007, legislation was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to greatly increase its funding, making it closer in size and scope to the federal Reading First initiative, which provided several billion dollars between 2001 and 2009 to support early literacy instruction in the states.

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District- and state-wide reforms

A number of states are currently involved in major, long-term efforts to improve adolescent literacy instruction in their local schools and districts.

Perhaps the best-known of these is the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI). Created in 1998, and directed by the state's department of education, ARI focuses on professional development in reading instruction, offering intensive summer institutes and literacy coaching throughout the year at the school and district-level. While ARI focused initially on elementary-level reading instruction, it has gradually scaled up its work in the middle and high school grades, as well, launching the ARI Project on Adolescent Literacy in 2007. An independent evaluation of ARI's work with secondary schools, completed by the American Institutes for Research in 2006, is available, along with the press release.

Another leading state-wide initiative is Just Read, Florida! (JRF). Created in 2001 under an executive order by then-Governor Jeb Bush, and now funded by the state legislature, JRF offers a wide range of services and resources related to K-12 reading instruction, including professional development programs, literacy coaching, family literacy programs, consulting for schools on reading assessment and curriculum, and more.

In 2006, the federal Striving Readers program awarded eight multi-year grants (totaling $14-25 million each) to support district-wide interventions for struggling adolescent readers, along with rigorous research and evaluation of their impacts. Awards went to the Ohio Department of Youth Services and to public school districts in Chicago, Danville (KY), Newark (NJ), Portland (OR), San Diego, Springfield (MA), and Memphis.

Also in 2006, the National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices awarded $50,000 planning grants to eight states — Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, and North Carolina — to help them design new policies and initiatives to support adolescent literacy instruction. Summaries of the states' project plans are available, along with an NGA issue brief, published in March 2009, describing progress made since 2006.

In 2007, the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) created a State Adolescent Literacy Network, which provides support and technical assistance to reform initiatives underway in Connecticut, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Utah, and West Virginia. In May 2009, NASBE published a status report on those projects.

In May 2009, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) issued a report calling upon its sixteen member states to take specific steps to improve reading instruction in their secondary schools.

And in April 2009, the US Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences published a review of recent adolescent literacy initiatives in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

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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.

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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.