All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Curriculum & Instruction

We now know a lot about effective adolescent literacy instruction, including how to identify at-risk children and how to intervene effectively. The articles in this section offer information on what effective instruction looks like — in the classroom, throughout a school, and district-wide.

See additional sources of reading research.

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A Cognitive Strategies Approach to Reading and Writing Instruction for English Language Learners in Secondary School

Copyright 2007 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Used with permission. Olson, C.B. and Land, R. (2007). A Cognitive Strategies Approach to Reading and Writing Instruction for English Language Learners in Secondary School. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(3),

Cognitive strategies, such as predicting, summarizing, and reflecting — strategies used by experienced readers and writers — are vital to the development of academic literacy, but these strategies are too rarely taught explicitly, especially to English Language Learners (ELLs). This study reports the results of a California Writing Project study in which 55 teachers implemented a cognitive-strategies approach to reading and writing instruction for their ELL secondary students over an eight-year period and includes a detailed description of a teacher's cognitive strategies "tool kit."

A Description of Foundation Skills Interventions for Struggling Middle-Grade Readers in Four Urban Northeast and Islands Region School Districts

Zorfass, J., & Urbano, C. (2008). A description of foundation skills interventions for struggling middle-grade readers in four urban Northeast and Islands Region school districts (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2008-No. 042). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands. Retrieved from

This study, conducted during the 2006-07 academic year, describes how four mid-size urban school districts in the Northeast and Islands Region—Worcester, Massachusetts; Nashua, New Hampshire; Yonkers, New York; and Providence, Rhode Island, conducted foundation skills assessments and provided foundation skills programs to struggling middle-grade readers.

The study identifies six factors that, according to the district representatives interviewed, can promote or hinder program implementation:

  1. Building on the federal Reading First initiative by expanding selected aspects of the program to upper elementary and middle grades,
  2. Using Response-to-Intervention and three-tier reading models,
  3. Fostering collaboration among relevant departments and programs,
  4. Recruiting highly qualified teachers in relevant areas,
  5. Solving problems of time and scheduling, and
  6. Ensuring that programs are carried out as designed.

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.

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.

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.

Effective Instruction for Adolescent Struggling Readers: A Practice Brief

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.

The Center on Instruction created this practice brief to provide schools, districts, and states with background knowledge about best practices for older students who struggle to read. It focuses on the reading skills that adolescents need to more fully access content-area curricula and, in turn, secure a productive future.

Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents

Alvermann, D.E. (2001). Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents. Oak Creek, WI: National Reading Conference.

Literacy must be redefined for the Net Generation. Strict print literacy in a subject area does not prepare students to respond to today's increasingly complex communications. Instead, literacy must be considered multi-faceted, and include hypertext and visual. Furthermore, the framework of literacy instruction must be reconsidered: what does struggling mean, how can digital literacy be transformed into academic literacy and the reverse. For today's adolescents, literacy instruction must be sensitive to multiple interrelated factors, including motivations and self-perception, and it must be embedded in the subject matter.

How High Schools Become Exemplary: Ways that Leadership Raises and Narrows Gaps by Improving Instruction in 15 Public High Schools

Ronald F. Ferguson, Sandra Hackman, Robert Hanna, and Ann Ballantine, June 2010. How High Schools Become Exemplary: Ways that Leadership Raises Achievement and Narrows Gaps by Improving Instruction in 15 Public High Schools. Report on the 2009 Annual Conference of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University. Available for download at

This report from the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard University looks at 15 outstanding public high schools from Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, Texas, and Washington, D.C. These high schools were featured at the fifth annual conference of the AGI in June 2009, where teams from each school made presentations and then faced questioning from experts about the methods by which they had achieved progress, such as high value-added test score gains on statewide assessment tests and narrowing test-score achievement gaps. The main lesson from the presentations was that student achievement rose when leadership teams focused on improving instruction. Leaders took public responsibility for raising achievement, and stakeholders drafted mission statements to help schools stay on track. Schools carefully organized learning experiences for teachers, and clearly defined criteria for high-quality teaching and student work in ways that engaged entire faculties. As leaders implemented plans, schools monitored student and teacher work to continuously refine approaches. Leadership teams demonstrated commitment through hard work and long hours, studying research-based literature to expand knowledge and competence, and found ways to remain respectful of peers, even when asking them to improve their performance. In these ways, leadership teams earned the respect of their colleagues and gained authority to push people outside their comfort zones.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Summary of 20 years of research on the effectiveness of adolescent literacy programs and practices

Herrera, S., Truckenmiller, A. J., and Foorman, B. R. (2016). Summary of 20 years of research on the effectiveness of adolescent literacy programs and practices (R EL 2016–178). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast.

This literature review searched the peer-reviewed studies of reading comprehension instructional practices conducted and published between 1994 and 2014 and summarizes the instructional practices that have demonstrated positive or potentially positive effects in scientifically rigorous studies employing experimental designs. Each study was rated by the review team utilizing the What Works Clearinghouse standards. The review of the literature resulted in the identification of 7,144 studies. Of these studies, only 111 met eligibility for review. Thirty-three of these studies were determined by the study team to have met What Works Clearinghouse standards. The 33 studies represented 29 different interventions or classroom practices. Twelve of these studies demonstrated positive or potentially positive effects. These 12 studies are described and the commonalities among the studies are summarized.

Teaching Adolescents to Read: It's Not Too Late

Moats, Louisa C. (2015) Teaching Adolescents to Read: It's Not Too Late.Voyager Sopris Learning.

Older struggling readers may need instruction in skills they missed in the early grades, but in many other ways they present unique challenges that set them apart from their younger selves. Discover teaching strategies and tools to help middle school students become better readers.

The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Final Report: The Impact of Supplemental Literacy Courses for Struggling Ninth Graders

Somers, M.A., Corrin, W., Sepanik, S., Salinger T., Levin, J., and Zmach, C. (2010). The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Final Report: The Impact of Supplemental Literacy Courses for Struggling Ninth-Grade Readers Executive Summary (NCEE 2010-4022). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

The Enhanced Reading Opportunities (ERO) demonstration evaluated two supplemental literacy programs — Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy (RAAL) and Xtreme Reading (XR) — targeted to ninth grade students whose reading skills were at least two years below grade level. Over two years, about 6,000 eligible students in 34 high schools from 10 districts were randomly assigned to enroll in the year-long ERO class or remain in a regularly scheduled elective class (non-ERO group). At the end of 9th grade, both groups were assessed using a standardized, nationally normed reading test, and participated in surveys about their reading activities and behaviors. School records were used to examine the effect of the literacy programs on academic performance during the program year (9th grade) and a year afterwards.

The study found:

  • Taken together, the ERO supplemental literacy programs improved students' reading comprehension skills during the 9th grade, corresponding to an improvement from the 23rd to the 25th percentile. However, 77% of students assigned to the ERO class were still reading 2 or more years behind grade level at the end of the 9th grade.
  • During the 9th grade, the ERO program also had a positive impact on students' academic performance in core subject areas, including their grades and credit accumulation. Students in the ERO group scored higher on their states' English/Language Arts and mathematics assessment than did those in the non-ERO group.
  • The ERO program effects did not continue beyond the program year. While there were statistically significant and positive impacts on students' GPA, credit accumulation and state test scores in 9th grade, the impacts were not significant the following school year. When analyzed separately, the RAAL program significantly improved students' reading comprehension during the 9th grade year while the XR program did not have a statistically significant impact on reading comprehension. Impacts on other outcomes were similar for the two programs.

The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study: Early Impact and Implementation Findings

Kemple, J., Corrin, W., Nelson, E., Salinger, T., Herrmann, S., and Drummond, K. (2008). The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study: Early Impact and Implementation Findings (NCEE 2008-4015). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

While much has been learned about literacy in the elementary grades, less is known about programmatic approaches that help struggling adolescent readers acquire the skills they need to succeed in high school. The Enhanced Reading Opportunities Study tests the effectiveness of two supplemental literacy interventions targeted to ninth-grade readers with reading comprehension skills that are two to four years below grade level. The interventions studied are (1) Reading Apprenticeship for Academic Literacy from WestEd and (2) Xtreme Reading from the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning.

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.

Writing Next

Graham, S. and Perin, D. (2007). Writing Next. New York: Carnegie Corporation.

Writing well is not just an option for young people — it is a necessity. Along with reading comprehension, writing skill is a predictor of academic success and a basic requirement for participation in civic life and in the global economy. Yet every year in the United States large numbers of adolescents graduate from high school unable to write at the basic levels required by colleges or employers. In addition, every school day, 7,000 young people drop out of high school, many of them because they lack the basic literacy skills to meet the growing demands of the high school curriculum. Because the definition of literacy includes both reading and writing skills, poor writing proficiency should be recognized as an intrinsic part of this national literacy crisis. This report offers a number of specific teaching techniques that research suggests will help 4th- to 12th-grade students in our nation's schools.

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