All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Hot Topics in Adolescent Literacy

School-Wide Reform

Effective school-wide reform efforts require a thoughtful, well-informed, sustained process that includes planning, implementation, and ongoing improvement. The articles below describe school features that support effective adolescent literacy instruction and provide examples of successful school-wide programs.


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Career Academies: Long-Term Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes, Educational Attainment, and Transitions to Adulthood

Kemple, J.J. and Willner, C.J. (2008). Career Academies: Long-Term Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes, Educational Attainment, and Transitions to Adulthood. New York: MDRC.

Career Academies have become a widely used high school reform initiative that aims to keep students engaged in school and prepare them for successful transitions to postsecondary education and employment. Typically serving between 150 and 200 students from grades 9 or 10 through grade 12, Career Academies combine academic and technical curricula around a career theme, and establish partnerships with local employers to provide work-based learning opportunities.

Since 1993, MDRC has been conducting a uniquely rigorous evaluation of the Career Academy approach in a diverse group of nine high schools across the United States. Located in medium- and large-sized school districts, the schools confront many of the educational challenges found in low-income urban settings. This report describes how Career Academies influenced students' labor market prospects and postsecondary educational attainment in the eight years following their expected graduation. The results are based on the experiences of more than 1,400 young people, approximately 85 percent of whom are Hispanic or African-American.

Academic Literacy Instruction for Adolescents

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.

Created by the Center on Instruction to assist literacy specialists in their work, this report makes research-based recommendations for improving academic literacy instruction in 1) content areas, 2) for English language learners, and 3) in classes with struggling readers. The report also includes advice and comments from eight literacy experts.

Adolescent Literacy Resources: Linking Research and Practice

Meltzer, J., Cook Smith, N. and Clark, H. Adolescent Literacy Resources: Linking Research and Practice. Retrieved Oct. 22, 2007, from

This book from the Education Alliance at Brown University reviews relevant research from the past 20 years and describes the implications for instruction, curriculum, school structure, professional development, and assessment.

America's Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation's Future

Kirsch, I., Braun, H., Yamamoto, K., and Sum, A. Copyright ©2007 by Educational Testing Service.

According to America's Perfect Storm, 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 persuasively, and communicate effectively, then the labor market will soon be flooded with young people who have nothing to offer, 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," raising the specter of joblessness and despair on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. 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.

Beating the Odds: How Thirteen NYC Schools Bring Low-Performing Ninth Graders to Timely Graduation and College Enrollment

Ascher, Carol and Maguire, Cindy. (2007). Beating the Odds: How Thirteen NYC Schools Bring Low-Performing Ninth Graders to Timely Graduation and College Enrollment. Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

This report describes a qualitative study, conducted in 2006 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, of a small group of New York City high schools that were "beating the odds" by producing higher than predicted graduation and college-going rates for ninth-graders who entered with far below-average eighth-grade reading and math scores. Institute staff identified four key strategies that helped these students beat the odds: academic rigor, networks of timely supports, college expectations and access, and effective use of data. The report concludes with recommendations for maintaining and scaling up the success of these schools through better distribution of resources, greater school control over enrollment, a stronger system of support and accountability, and a district office of postsecondary education.

Creating a Culture of Literacy: A Guide for Middle and High School Principals

National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)

This report from the National Association of Secondary School Principals identifies five elements necessary to implement an effective building-level adolescent literacy improvement program—commited leadership; balanced formal and informal assessments; ongoing, research-based professional development; highly effective teachers; and strategic interventions—and offers literacy leaders guidance to develop these elements in their schools.

Developing A Positive School Climate

What is meant by “school climate”, and how can you assess the climate at your school? Read on for helpful definitions, assessment ideas, tools, and resources.

Dropping Out is Hard to Do

Recent research shows that some high schools have much lower dropout rates than would be predicted based on the composition of their student bodies. Moreover, requiring students to work harder and complete a tougher academic curriculum might actually improve graduation rates rather than making them plummet, as so many educators fear.

Florida's Middle School Reading Coaches: What Do They Do? Are They Effective?

Marsh, J.A., McCombs, J.S., Lockwood, J.R., et al. Florida's Middle School Reading Coaches (2008). Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation.

This Rand research brief reports the results of a study examining the implementation and effectiveness of a middle school reading coach program in Florida.

Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better

Williams, T., Kirst, M., Haertel, E., et al. (2010). Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better. Mountain View, CA: EdSource.

What district and school policies and practices are linked to higher student performance in the middle grades? To find out, a research team led by EdSource spent 18 months conducting the most extensive study ever of middle grades. The study surveyed more than 4,000 California teachers, principals, and superintendents about a wide range of middle grades practices. To see what higher-performing schools did, the responses were then analyzed against school-level student outcomes on standards-based state tests in English language arts and math, controlling for student background.

High Schools as Launch Pads: How College-Going Culture Improves Graduation Rates in Low-Income Schools

College Summit. (2008).High Schools as Launch Pads: How College-Going Culture Improves Graduation Rates in Low-Income Schools. Washington, DC: Author.

A growing body of research suggests that students who work hard in high school do so because they connect their efforts with college and career rewards after high school. A college-going culture in high school not only increases the likelihood of college degree attainment, but also improves the likelihood that students will graduate from high school college-ready. This white paper provides policy recommendations at the school district, state and federal level to foster these “launch pad” high schools, with a focus on 1) improving the reliability of college participation data by high school; 2) establishing an objective long-term high school success measure; and 3) providing incentives for high schools to invest in building college-going culture.

Improving Literacy Instruction in Middle and High Schools: A Guide for Principals

Torgesen, J., Houston, D., & Rissman, L. (2007). Improving literacy instruction in middle and high schools: A guide for principals. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

When principals are school literacy leaders, reading outcomes improve for middle and high school students. This guide from the Center on Instruction outlines the elements of school-level planning and leadership found in successful schools. It emphasizes three areas: leadership activities, the use of data to guide instruction, and appropriate and effective instructional materials.

Improving Literacy Outcomes for ELLs in High School: Considerations for States and Districts in Developing a Coherent Policy Framework

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.

This overview from the National High School Center examines the roles of states and school districts in supporting English Language Learners. Among the key findings — ELL students who access accelerated and enriching academics rather than remediation, succeed at higher levels, and Latino ELL students are overrepresented in special education. To build the capacity of teachers to appropriately identify which ELL students would benefit from special education services and which would benefit from more inclusive strategies, states must be explicit about what is expected of professional development and teacher preparedness.

Making Progress Toward Graduation: Evidence from the Talent Development High School Model

Kemple, J.J., Herlihy, C.M., and Smith, T.J. (2005). Making Progress Toward Graduation: Evidence from the Talent Development High School Model. New York: MDRC.

An Evaluation of the Talent Development comprehensive school reform model in five Philadelphia high schools. Students participating in the Talent Development model demonstrated substantial gains in attendance, academic course credits earned, and promotion rates. The strong improvement in the first year of high school is consistent with the model's focus on building supportive and personalized learning environments.

Meeting Five Critical Challenges of High School Reform: Lessons from Research on Three Reform Models

Quint, J. (2006). Meeting Five Critical Challenges of High School Reform: Lessons from Research on Three Reform Models. New York: MDRC.

This report highlights three comprehensive high school reform initiatives evaluated by MDRC — Career Academies, First Things First, and Talent Development — and offers research-based lessons on five challenges schools face: creating a personalized and orderly learning environment; assisting students who enter high school with poor academic skills; improving instructional content and practice; preparing students for the world beyond high school, and stimulating change in overstressed high schools.

One Dream, Two Realities: Perspectives of Parents on America's High Schools

Civic Engagement. (2008). One Dream, Two Realities: Perspectives of Parents on America's High Schools. Washington, D.C.: Author.

In this survey, the parents of current and formers high school students in urban, suburban, and rural districts were queried on the frequency and quality of their engagement with their children's schools, as well as perceived barriers to involvement and their suggestions for improving interactions.

Principal as Instructional Leader: Designing a Coaching Program That Fits

Research shows that effective school leaders focus on improving classroom instruction, not just managerial tasks. A natural way for school leaders to take on the role of instructional leader is to serve as a "chief" coach for teachers by designing and supporting strong classroom level instructional coaching. Here's how to selecting a coaching approach that meets the particular needs of a school and how to implement and sustain the effort.

Putting Assessment in the Driver's Seat

Take the lead to improve literacy for all students at your school. Implement regular school-wide monitoring of assessment results and student progress.

Quality Counts 2011: Uncertain Forecast--Education Adjusts to a New Economic Reality

Editorial Projects in Education. (2011). Quality counts 2011: Uncertain forecast--Education adjusts to a new economic reality. Washington, DC: Author.

The report provides a timely, in-depth investigation into persistent concerns over the halting economic recovery and emerging opportunities for innovation, as state and local officials attempt to move forward despite depleted budgets. Among the reports key findings:

  • Funding administered by the U.S. Department of Education has saved or created 337,000 jobs, or 52% of the national total, according to data reported by recipients of stimulus funds.
  • Since the recession began, 29 states have enacted policies that offer local school systems some form of flexibility to meet the challenges posed by the economic crisis.
  • Twenty-one states have broadened the eligible uses of education funds originally intended for a particular purpose. In 11 states, class-size requirements have been loosened; 10 states have offered the option of modifying the length of the school year, week, or day as a way to cut costs.

The Quaity Counts project also includes updates to the Chance-for-Success Index, the K-12 Achievement Index, and national and state grades in education achievement, policy, and finance.

Reading at Risk: The State Response to the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy

NASBE Study Group on Middle and High School Literacy. (2005). Reading at Risk: The State Response to the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Boards of Education.

This report presents a framework to tackle the difficult job of creating a state-wide, full-scale approach to adolescent literacy. Also included is a State Policymakers' Literacy Checklist and brief profiles of the two state programs: Just Read, Florida and The Alabama Reading Initiative.

Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts

Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2004, Achieve, Inc. Retrieved Oct. 17, 2007 from

This report of the America Diploma Project — a partnership of Achieve, Inc., The Education Trust, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation — outlines the English and math skills high school graduates must possess to be successful in college and career, and offers a set of benchmarks to help school systems establish graduation requirements that will ensure that a diploma signifies mastery of these competencies.

Relationships, Rigor and Readiness: Strategies for Improving High Schools

Quint, J., Thompson, S.L. and Bald, M. (2008). Relationships, Rigor and Readiness: Strategies for Improving High Schools. New York, NY: MDRC.

This report offers lessons from the last in a series of three high school reform conferences sponsored by MDRC, the Council of the Great City Schools, and the National High School Alliance and is intended to help identify strategies for improving underperforming high schools. The districts that participated in the conference are at various stages in their school reform efforts, but all face these common challenges:

  • Creating an environment in which students feel that teachers and other adults know them and care about them;
  • Ensuring that classes for students who begin at all levels of academic achievement are supportive, engaging, and demanding; and
  • Giving all students the guidance and assistance they need to plan for their future after high school.

Rethinking High School: Five Profiles of Innovative Models for Student Success

Only 68% of all students entering high school nationwide will earn their diploma. The news for students from historically underserved populations is even worse. These students have slightly more than a 50% chance of graduating from high school. To respond to this crisis, educators and policymakers are focused on developing small high schools which offer students a more personalized setting. But is the effort making a difference? In the absence of available long term data, WestEd examined five new, inner-city high schools across the country and discovered rigorous curricula, racially and socioeconomically diverse student bodies, academic access, engaged students, and supportive learning environments.

Rethinking Schools: An Introduction to New York City's Experience

Only half of New York City's public school students complete high school in four years, one- third of all 9th graders fail, and fewer than 40% of students in large, low-performing schools graduate. To address student needs and thereby increase future student achievement, the district is working with nonprofit organizations and funders to support and develop small high schools. The preliminary results of these efforts are promising.

School Culture: The Hidden Curriculum

Walk into any truly excellent school and you can feel it almost immediately — a calm, orderly atmosphere that hums with an exciting, vibrant sense of purposefulness. This is a positive school culture, the kind that improves educational outcomes.

School Literacy Team Planning Guide

Teaching strong literacy skills to the diverse learners in a secondary school requires teamwork, professional development, planning and progress monitoring. Find out what key elements will put your team and students on the path to success.

School Profile: J.E.B. Stuart High School

Learn how teachers at this once low-performing school dramatically improved academic performance by focusing on student attendance and literacy.

Schools in Which All Kinds of Minds Can Grow

As we discover more about how students learn and how different minds learn differently, our schools have a golden opportunity to increase the percentage of their students who experience true academic success.

Still At Risk: What Students Don't Know, Even Now

(2008) ©Common Core. All rights reserved.

This report reveals some damning statistics about U.S. teens' lack of knowledge of history and culture. For example, one-third do not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom of speech and religion and forty-four percent think The Scarlet Letter was either about a witch trial or a piece of correspondence.

The authors' attribute much of this ignorance to a curriculum focused on basic reading and math skills and preparation for high-stakes testing, but parental educational also has an impact on student knowledge-students with a college-educated parent scored significantly better than those without.

Strategies to Improve High Schools

Research suggests six reform strategies that may help high schools better prepare students for college-level work and the workforce: planning at the state and district levels; rigorous curricula; real-world relevant curricula; improving student relationships and personalization; improving transitions to 9th grade, college, and work; and data-driven decision-making. This article lists key actions and offers practical examples and additional resources.

Supporting a School-Wide Reading Initiative with Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment

How can school leaders support school-wide reading initiatives? Here are keys to leading the way in the areas of reading curriculum, instruction, assessment, and motivation.

Sustaining Focus on Secondary School Reading: Lessons and Recommendations from the Alabama Reading Initiative

Alabama is unique in including an adolescent literacy focus in its statewide reading improvement efforts. This report from the National High School Center looks at the Alabama Reading Initiative and synopsizes 10 lessons learned in creating a K-12 continuum of reading instruction.

Teach to the Test? Just Say No

It is possible for educators to make better choices about how and when to teach to the test than the alarmist newspaper articles and editorials would seem to suggest. This article from the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement aims to help readers think beyond simple compliance with federal law or basic implementation of programs.

The Challenge of Scaling Up Educational Reform: Findings and Lessons from First Things First

Quint, J., Bloom, H.S., Black, A.R., Stephens, L. and Akey, T.M. (2006). The Challenge of Scaling Up Educational Reform: Findings and Lessons from First Things First. New York: MDRC.

This MDRC report looks at the results of the comprehensive school reform model First Things First (FTF). FTF is characterized by smaller learning communities, a family advocate system in which a school staff member is paired with the student, and organized instructional improvement efforts to make classes more engaging and rigorous. The model was launched in Kansas City, Kansas, and later tested in 12 middle and high schools in four additional districts. While academic outcomes improved substantially in Kansas City, the results in the other four districts were less consistent.

The Content Literacy Continuum: A Framework for Improving Adolescent Literacy

The Content Literacy Continuum (CLC) is a tool for enabling teachers and administrators to evaluate literacy instruction/services offered within a school and to formulate a plan for improving the quality of those services. This article describes the CLC's five levels of service, along with practice examples and the teacher's role at each level.

The Literacy Coach: A Key to Improving Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools

Sturvent, E.G. (2003). The Literacy Coach: A Key to Improving Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

A literacy coach is a master teacher who provides essential leadership for a school’s overall literacy program. This report, from the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, examines the role of the literacy coach and demonstrates why more of these coaches are needed in secondary schools to provide leadership for school-wide reading efforts. Leadership areas for coaches include attending meetings and professional development sessions to bring information and ideas back to their school; providing guidance to content-area teachers in teaching literacy; provide expertise to reading teachers; developing and administrating quality assessment systems; and liaising with stakeholders (school administrators, teachers, policymakers, university experts, community members) to help them understand the school’s literacy program and brainstorm solutions to problems. The report provides program examples, and looks at some pathways for becoming a school-based literacy specialist.

The Nation's Report Card: Trial Urban District Assessment Reading 2007

Lutkus, A., Grigg, W., and Donahue, P. (2007). The Nation's Reprot Card: Trial Urban District Assessment Reading 2007 (NCES 2008-455). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

Based on longitudinal testing data from fourth and eighth grade NAEP exams, this report summarizes results from Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and other urban districts. The researchers compare proficiencies across districts, but also note lower profile results, such as districts showing a steadily rising percentage of students who have improved from below basic to basic proficiencies.

Using Student Engagement to Improve Adolescent Literacy

For struggling adolescent readers, creating student interest is as vital as teaching language skills.

What Does the Research Tell Us About Teacher Leadership?

This research brief from the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement examines the research on teacher leadership and what it says about drawing on the skills of experienced teachers to facilitate school improvement.

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