All About Adolescent Literacy

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

Millions of today's adolescents lack the reading skills demanded by today's world. The impending crisis — millions of under-literate young people unable to succeed economically and socially — requires an immediate response. This report outlines 15 key elements of effective adolescent literacy programs and recommends that schools use a mix of these elements, tailoring the combinations to the needs of individual students.

The issue

American youth need strong literacy skills to succeed in school and in life. Students who do not acquire these skills find themselves at a serious disadvantage in social settings, as civil participants, and in the working world.Yet approximately eight million young people between fourth and twelfth grade struggle to read at grade level. Some 70% of older readers require some form of remediation. Very few of these older struggling readers need help to read the words on a page; their most common problem is that they are not able to comprehend what they read. Obviously, the challenge is not a small one.

Meeting the needs of struggling adolescent readers and writers is not simply an altruistic goal.The emotional, social, and public health costs of academic failure have been well documented, and the consequences of the national literary crisis are too serious and far-reaching for us to ignore. Meeting these needs will require expanding the discussion of reading instruction from Reading First — acquiring grade-level reading skills by third grade — to Reading Next — acquiring the reading skills that can serve youth for a lifetime.

Fortunately, a survey of the literacy field shows that educators now have a powerful array of tools at their disposal.We even know with a fair degree of certitude which tools work well for which type of struggling reader. However, we do not yet possess an overall strategy for directing and coordinating remedial tools for the maximum benefit to students at risk of academic failure, nor do we know enough about how current programs and approaches can be most effectively combined.

The approach

To help address this problem, a panel of five nationally known and respected educational researchers met in spring 2004 with representatives of Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Alliance for Excellent Education to draw up a set of recommendations for how to meet the needs of our eight million struggling readers while simultaneously envisioning a way to propel the field forward. The resulting paper was reviewed and augmented by the Adolescent Literacy Funders Forum (ALFF) at its 2004 annual meeting. Although this report originally was targeted to the funding community, it offers information that will also prove invaluable to others, including researchers, policymakers, and educators.

The recommendations

The 15 elements of effective adolescent literacy programs

This report delineates 15 elements aimed at improving middle and high school literacy achievement right now.

  1. Direct, explicit comprehension instruction, which is instruction in the strategies and processes that proficient readers use to understand what they read, including summarizing, keeping track of one's own understanding, and a host of other practices
  2. Effective instructional principles embedded in content, including language arts teachers using content-area texts and content-area teachers providing instruction and practice in reading and writing skills specific to their subject area
  3. Motivation and self-directed learning, which includes building motivation to read and learn and providing students with the instruction and supports needed for independent learning tasks they will face after graduation
  4. Text-based collaborative learning, which involves students interacting with one another around a variety of texts
  5. Strategic tutoring, which provides students with intense individualized reading, writing, and content instruction as needed
  6. Diverse texts, which are texts at a variety of difficulty levels and on a variety of topics
  7. Intensive writing, including instruction connected to the kinds of writing tasks students will have to perform well in high school and beyond
  8. A technology component, which includes technology as a tool for and a topic of literacy instruction
  9. Ongoing formative assessment of students, which is informal, often daily assessment of how students are progressing under current instructional practices
  10. Extended time for literacy, which includes approximately two to four hours of literacy instruction and practice that takes place in language arts and content-area classes
  11. Professional development that is both long term and ongoing
  12. Ongoing summative assessment of students and programs, which is more formal and provides data that are reported for accountability and research purposes
  13. Teacher teams, which are interdisciplinary teams that meet regularly to discuss students and align instruction
  14. Leadership, which can come from principals and teachers who have a solid understanding of how to teach reading and writing to the full array of students present in schools
  15. A comprehensive and coordinated literacy program, which is interdisciplinary and interdepartmental and may even coordinate with out-of-school organizations and the local community

Since implementation of only one or two of these elements is unlikely to improve the achievement of many students, this report recommends that practitioners and program designers flexibly try out various combinations in search of the most effective overall program. Furthermore, any combination should include three specific elements: professional development, formative assessment, and summative assessment. No literacy program targeted at older readers is likely to cause significant improvements without these elements, because of their importance to ensuring instructional effectiveness and measuring effects. However, they should not be seen as sufficient in themselves to address the wide range of problems experienced by older struggling readers; rather, they act as a foundation for instructional innovations.

Balancing purposes

This report also stresses that improving the literacy achievement of today's and tomorrow's youth requires keeping action balanced with research.The report outlines a balanced vision for effecting immediate change for current students and building the literacy field's knowledge base. Stakeholders should select programs and interventions according to the inclusion or exclusion of the fifteen elements — thereby creating a planned variation — and evaluate implementation using a common process to allow for comparisons across programs. In line with this recommendation, outcomes and procedures for evaluation are detailed to promote cross-program comparisons. By collecting data according to the recommended design, public and private funders, districts, and researchers will be able to disaggregate students and describe the different sources of their difficulty and the differentiated effects of programs and program components. Such disaggregation will provide a rich base for experimental research.

The relevance

We believe that if the funding, research, policymaking, and education communities embrace these recommendations, the literacy field will make significant strides toward the goal of meeting the needs of all students in our society, while also strengthening our understanding of exactly what works, when, and for whom. We will thereby strengthen the chances for striving readers to graduate from high school as strong, independent learners prepared to take on the multiple challenges of life in a global economy.

Read the full report

Biancarosa, C., & Snow, C. E. (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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