All About Adolescent Literacy

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Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement

Every content area, from chemistry to history, has unique literacy demands: texts, knowledge, skills. But how are these critical literacies learned, let alone taught?

Over the last several years, a strong coalition of educators, researchers, policymakers, professional associations, and advocacy groups has worked to focus the attention of policymakers and the public on the plight of millions of America's students in grades four through twelve who are unable to read and write well enough to achieve academic success. Already, the efforts of those organizations and individuals have resulted in a wide range of local, state, and federal initiatives designed to help struggling students develop the reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills they need to move beyond the basic mechanics of literacy and move ahead in the secondary school curriculum.

But if students are to be truly prepared for college, work, and citizenship, they cannot settle for a modest level of proficiency in reading and writing. Rather, they will need to develop the advanced literacy skills that are required in order to master the academic content areas- particularly the areas of math, science, English, and history.

Inasmuch as the academic content areas comprise the heart of the secondary school curriculum, content area literacy instruction must be a cornerstone of any movement to build the high-quality secondary schools that young people deserve and on which the nation's social and economic health will depend.

In order to integrate reading and writing instruction successfully into the academic disciplines, district, state, and federal policymakers must ensure that

  1. They define the roles and responsibilities of content area teachers clearly and consistently, stating explicitly that it is not those teachers' job to provide basic reading instruction.
  2. Members of every academic discipline define the literacy skills that are essential to their content area and which they should be responsible for teaching.
  3. All secondary school teachers receive initial and ongoing professional development in teaching the reading and writing skills that are essential to their own content areas.
  4. School and district rules and regulations, education funding mechanisms, and state standards and accountability systems combine to give content area teachers positive incentives and appropriate tools with which to provide reading and writing instruction.

For policymakers, the challenge is no longer just to call attention to the nation's adolescent literacy crisis. Nor is it just to secure new resources to help middle and high school students catch up in reading, although the need for those resources remains critical. The challenge is also to connect the teaching of reading and writing to the rest of the secondary school improvement agenda, treating literacy instruction as a key part of the broader effort to ensure that all students develop the knowledge and skill they need to succeed in life after high school.

Read the report

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.

This article was interesting in that it didn't focus on catching students up in reading. Although it didn't negate fact that the gap in student literacy is a great need, it emphasized supporting teachers in assisting students in each content versus teaching beginning reading skills.
Posted by: Bullockt  |  January 06, 2014 12:25 PM
The article addresses the needs for improvement in literacy throughout schools from middle to high school level. They need to diversify the manner in which we approach literacy is key. We know where the problem is, but with 21st century readers the way we teach and expound their knowledge has changed so much over the last 10 years. The problem lies in the testing of these students. We continue to test the way we did 50 years ago, while we don't teach that way today. To truly gauge proficiency we are going to have to look at how literacy is used today. Like it or not, we do not write, speak, or communicate the way we used to, so as long as we test in that manner we will continue to see a decline in the proficiency level.
Posted by: BH12  |  February 10, 2016 11:47 AM
There will always be a need for literacy improvement. If the students don't get it at the elementary level it becomes increasingly harder to attain. At the secondary level we need to be more aggressive in our effort to have these students keep up to the standards. Some of the reading initiatives have worked some but we need to keep them ongoing for more success in the future
Posted by: DH  |  April 13, 2016 11:08 AM
I do feel that the role of literacy in the content areas should be clearly defined from subject to subject. The word "literacy" can be rather vague to all but those who teach Language Arts. When the concept of literacy is fully understood by teachers of all content areas and literacy responsibilities across the curriculum are clearly defined, we will be better situated to improve literacy across the board.
Posted by: JW  |  May 18, 2016 02:19 PM
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