All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Policy/Legislation/Initiatives

It's important to be aware of and understand the policies and general trends that affect schools and students. This section contains literacy-related research from the federal government, as well as research and position papers published by education associations and think tanks.


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The Federal Role in Confronting the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy

Alliance for Excellent Education. (2010). The federal role in confronting the crisis in adolescent literacy. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Results from national reading assessments reveal that millions of young people leave high school without the advanced reading and writing skills required for career and college success. Young adults who lack reading and writing proficiency will likely be relegated to the ranks of unskilled workers in a world where literacy is an absolute precondition for success. The disastrous outcomes for portions of the student population by race, ethnicity, and income level reverberate through the nation’s educational system. Unless the nation makes a consistent investment toward delivering comprehensive reading and writing instruction throughout the pre-K–12 grade span, a large proportion of low-income students and students of color will remain sidelined from full participation in the modern workplace. While federal and state strategies have begun to focus on the adolescent literacy crisis, more than ever it is time to build upon these initial efforts. This policy brief describes the role that the federal government can play to advocate for a comprehensive, national, and schoolwide focus on K–12 literacy.

Promoting Quality: State Strategies for Overseeing Dual Enrollment Programs

Lowe, A.I. (2010). Promoting quality: State strategies for Overseeing dual enrollment programs. Chapel Hill, NC: National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships.

This report documents the strategies that six states employ to ensure that college courses offered to high school students are of the same high quality and rigor as courses offered to matriculated college students. The report also highlights the main approaches used by these states to encourage colleges and universities to align their dual enrollment programs with state and national quality standards.

Now What? Imperatives & Options for "Common Core" Implementation & Governanace

Finn, C.E. & Petrilli, M.J. Now what? imperatives & options for Common Core" implementation & governance. (2010). Washington: D.C.: Fordham Foundation.

This Fordham Institute publication — co-authored by President Chester E. Finn Jr. and VP Michael J. Petrilli — examines what comes next in the journey to common education standards and tests and recommends a step-by-step approach to coordinate implementation of the Common Core.

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.

College-Ready Students, Student-Ready Colleges: An Agenda to Improve Degree Completion

Soares, L. & Mazzeo, C. (2008). College-ready students, student-ready colleges: an agenda for improving degree completion in postsecondary education.

Students, whether because of a lack of academic preparation in high school; a lack of flexible financial tools to meet their education/work/life needs; or a lack of reliable information and support in making wise college decisions, are not ready for college, and wide disparities in readiness exist along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.

Barriers to College Attainment: Lessons from Chicago

Nagoka, J., Roderick, M. & Coca, V. (2009). Barriers to college attainment: lessons from Chicago. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress

Several barriers face students as they attempt to bridge the gap between their educational aspirations and college degree attainment: poor academic preparation that undermines minority and low-income students’ access to and performance in college, students’ difficulties in navigating the college enrollment process, and the declining real value of financial aid combined with rising college costs. This paper draws on the findings from a multi-year research project at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, or CCSR, at the University of Chicago that is studying the college qualifications, enrollment, and graduation patterns of Chicago graduates and examining the relationships among high school preparation, support, college choice, and postsecondary outcomes.

Improving Academic Preparation for College: What We Know and How State and Federal Policy Can Help

Chait, Robin and Andrea Venezia. (2009). Improving Academic Preparation for College: What We Know and How State and Federal Policy Can Help. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress.

This article discusses students' academic performance during high school to prepare them for college. This article supports current survey results that show that students are interested in pursuing a college degree; however, the transition can be difficult due to their poor academic preparation. In the article, the authors discuss what it has been done now to improve academic preparation and the role of the federal and state policymakers to make a different in students' lives as prospect college students.

An Inequitable Invitation to Citizenship: Non-College-Bound Youth and Civic Engagement

Zaff, J., Youniss, J., & Gibson, C. (2009). An inequitable invitation to citizenship: non-college-bound youth and civic engagement. Washington, DC: Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE).

In a range of measures of involvement —volunteering, voting patterns, and access to quality civic education —a participation gap has emerged. This report explains the roots of this disengagement and offers solutions for encouraging participation.

Prioritizing the Nation's Dropout Factories

With the nation in the midst of a dropout crisis that costs more than $335 billion in lost wages for each class of dropouts, a brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education calls on federal policymakers to perform “legislative triage” by devoting attention to the lowest-performing high schools and immediately improving or replacing the most severely “injured” schools.

The brief, Prioritizing the Nation’s Dropout Factories: The Need for Federal Policy That Targets the Lowest-Performing High Schools, includes a state-by-state breakdown of dropout factories and the percent of high schools students who attend them.

Informing Adolescent Literacy Policy and Practice

The Alliance for Excellent Education has released a policy brief, Informing Adolescent Literacy Policy and Practice: Lessons: Learned from the Striving Readers Program that highlights lessons learned from the experiences of previous Striving Readers grantees. In developing the brief, the Alliance convened representatives from seven of the eight Striving Readers grantees, as well as other experts in adolescent literacy research, to guide efforts to expand adolescent literacy instruction at the federal, state, and district levels.

A Critical Mission: Making Adolescent Reading an Immediate Priority in SREB States

Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). (2009). A critical mission: making adolescent reading an immediate priority in SREB states. Atlanta, GA: Author.

This report from the nonprofit Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) urges states to develop comprehensive adolescent literacy policies that establish improvement in middle grades and high school reading and writing as the most immediate critical priority for public schools.

The SREB calls for states to:

  • Identify the specific reading skills students need to improve their achievement in key academic subjects.
  • Change the curricula to include the reading skills identified as crucial for students in each subject.
  • Help teachers share subject-specific reading strategies with students.
  • Assist struggling readers so that those who are behind can catch up before they become likely high school dropouts.
  • Call for state education agencies to work with local school systems to make sure these changes begin to take place and that every educator knows higher reading skills are the top priority in public education.

State Actions to Improve Adolescent Literacy: Results from NASBE's State Adolescent Literacy Network

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.

The National Association of State Boards of Education has released a policy report — State Actions to Improve Adolescent Literacy: Results from NASBE's State Adolescent Literacy Network—that outlines the work of five states (Connecticut, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Utah, and West Virginia) where leaders have produced real changes in state focus and policies as part of a comprehensive literacy plan. These states took up the serious challenge of low literacy levels and made quality literacy instruction in secondary schools a priority.

Five States' Efforts to Improve Adolescent Literacy

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. Retrieved from http://ies. ed.gov/ncee/edlabs.

This report describes efforts by five states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — to improve adolescent literacy. Highlighting common challenges and lessons, the report examines how each state has engaged key stakeholders, set rigorous goals and standards, aligned resources to support adolescent literacy goals, built educator capacity, and used data to measure progress.

Developing Early Warning Systems to Identify Potential High School Dropouts

Hepper, J. and Therriault, S.B. (2008). Developing Early Warning Systems to Identify Potential High School Dropouts. Washington, D.C.: National High School Center.

The implementation of an early warning system that collects data on key indicators of potential drop outs allows schools and districts to target interventions and monitor the effectiveness of dropout prevention programs.

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.

Making College and Career Readiness the Mission for High Schools: A Guide for State Policymakers

Achieve & The Education Trust. (2008). Making College and Career Readiness the Mission for High Schools: A Guide for State Policymakers. Washington, DC: Author.

This guide outlines "a new set of basics" for states to improve at the high-school level in order to prepare students for college and career: standards, course requirements, curriculum and teacher support materials, aligned assessments, and data/accountability systems.

Raising Graduation Rates in an Era of High Standards

Steinberg, Adria, and Almeida, Cheryl A., (2008). Raising Graduation Rates in an Era of High Standards. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

This report from Jobs for the Future suggests five reforms that state-level policymakers should implement to improve high school graduation rates and to align graduation standards with the demands of college and career.

Reading First Impact Study: Interim Report

Gamse, B.C., Bloom, H.S., Kemple, J.J., Jacob, R.T., (2008). Reading First Impact Study: Interim Report (NCEE 2008-4016). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

This report sheds some light on the impact of the federal Reading First program. The evaluation, completed by the National Center for Education Evaluation (NCEE), suggests that as a result of Reading First, more class time is spent on the five components of reading, but, on average across the 18 study sites, Reading First did not have statistically significant impacts on student reading comprehension test scores in grades 1-3.

From State Policy to Classroom Practice: Improving Literacy Instruction for All Students

Haynes, M. From State Policy to Classroom Practice: Improving Literacy Instruction for All Students. Washington, D.C.: National Association of State Boards of Education

This paper offers recommendations for state- and district-level action to support improved adolescent literacy instruction. Recommendations are organized around five key aspects of program improvement: planning, quality of teaching, use of data, instructional infrastructure, and accountability.

Cities in Crisis 2009: Closing the Graduation Gap

Swanson, Christopher B. Copyright © 2009 by Editorial Projects in Education Inc. All rights reserved.

According to Cities in Crisis, the graduation rate for U.S. urban school districts is 61% and the rate for students in the 50 largest cities in the U.S. is only 53%. The gap between suburban and urban districts is more than 14 percentage points. While the 50 largest schools districts educate roughly 13% of public high students in the country, these districts account for about 25% of students failing to graduate with a diploma each year.

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

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.

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

  • 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.
  • Members of every academic discipline define the literacy skills that are essential to their content area and which they should be responsible for teaching.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

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.

To Read or Not To Read

National Endowment for the Arts. (2007). To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence. Washington, DC: Author.

The National Endowment for the Arts assembled data on reading trends from more than 40 sources— federal agencies, universities, foundations, associations— to present an overview of American reading. Among the negative trends revealed: Americans are reading less and less well, and the progress in reading ability made at the elementary school level disappears when children become teens.

The Proficiency Illusion

Cronin,J., Dahlin, M., Adkins, D., Kingsbury, G.G. (2007). The Proficiency Illusion. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires all students to be "proficient" in reading and mathematics by 2014, but each state determines its own measure and definition of "proficiency." This Thomas B. Fordham Foundation report examines the relative rigor of states’ tests and whether tests have been getting harder or easier to pass. The report found that "proficiency" varies wildly from state to state, and that only a handful of states peg proficiency expectations consistently across subjects and grades. In fact, the majority set the bar low in elementary school and much higher in middle school, which sets up thousands of middle and high school students for failure.

Rigor at Risk: Reaffirming Quality in the High School Core Curriculum

ACT. (2007). Rigor at Risk: Reaffirming Quality in the High School Core Curriculum. Retrieved Nov. 5. 2007, from http://www.act.org/path/policy/pdf/rigor_report.pdf.

While more students are taking a rigorous core curriculum, too many still find themselves ill-prepared to handle college. ACT scores have consistently shown that students who take a core curriculum of four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies are much more likely than those who don't to be prepared for college. This report examines whether additional courses may be necessary and finds that schools should not simply add more courses, but improve the quality and rigor of the existing core course offerings. The also report contains "action steps" that states and schools can take to improve the core high school courses.

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.

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.

Reading to Achieve: A Governor's Guide to Adolescent Literacy

National Governor's Association. (2005). Reading to Achieve: A governor's guide to adolescent literacy. Washington, DC: National Governor's Association, Center for Best Practices.

Governors may not be the first people that leap to mind as effective advocates for adolescent literacy, but they are positioned to be influential literacy leaders, raising awareness of and improving adolescent literacy performance statewide. With five strategies, including raising literacy expectations and measuring progress at school, district, and state levels, governors can establish adolescent literacy as a critical part of a 21st century educational system.

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.

Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts

Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2004, Achieve, Inc. Retrieved Oct. 17, 2007 from http://www.achieve.org/node/552.

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.

Reading Next

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, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Millions of today's adolescents lack the reading skills demanded by today's world. The impending crisis — how will millions of under-literate young people participate 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.

Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension

Snow, C.E. (2002). Reading for understanding: toward a research and development program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica: RAND.

This RAND Corporation report, undertaken at the request of the Education Department, suggests a national research agenda addressing the most pressing issues in literacy over the next 10 years. High on the list of priorities is research into instruction, teacher preparation, 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.

Double the Work: Challenges and Solutions to Acquiring Language and Academic Literacy for Adolescent English Language Learners

Short, D., & Fitzsimmons, S. (2007). Double the Work: Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for adolescent English language learners– A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Adolescent English Language Learners (ELLs), who must simultaneously learn English and age–appropriate subject material, perform double the work of their native language peers because they are held to the same grade-level standards for academic literacy. Moreover, the ELL population is comprised of a diverse range of learners who vary dramatically in their existing literacy levels, native languages, and cultural and educational backgrounds. This report is the effort of a panel of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to address six main challenges to improving academic literacy among ELLs, as well as proposed solutions and policy implications.


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