All About Adolescent Literacy

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

Featuring Dr. Don Deshler, Dr. Mel Riddile, and Christina Gutierrez in a discussion on school-level literacy reform.

Our expert panel discusses what research says about good practice and how building-level leaders and classroom teachers can support struggling readers and writers.

Program Description

What can schools do to improve the reading and writing skills of adolescent students? Our panel of experts discusses ways to implement school-level literacy reforms without increasing staff or budgets. Learn how to use assessments to inform reform efforts; the importance of school literacy councils; the distinct role of school principals, reading specialists, and content-area teachers in literacy leadership; as well how to create a school culture that fosters achievement.


Don Deshler, Ph.D

Don Deshler, Ph.D. is the director of the Center for Research on Learning (CRL) and a professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. Dr. Deshler's work addresses ways to close the large "achievement gap" and to reduce the escalating drop-out rate for struggling adolescent learners. His work focuses on designing instructional routines that can be used by secondary teachers to help them more effectively teach subject-matter content to academically diverse classes in secondary schools.

Mel Riddile, Ed.D.

Mel Riddile, Ed.D. is the Associate Director for High School Services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. He previously served as T.C. Williams High School and J.E.B. Stuart High School in Northern Virginia. Dr. Riddile's areas of expertise include restructuring and reinventing high schools, adolescent literacy, ninth grade transition, school-based central office experience and consulting.

Chris Gutierrez

Chris Gutierrez is a Reading Specialist at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. She develops the school's in-house professional development program.

Part 1: The Adolescent Literacy Crisis

Doris McMillan: If a kid can't read by the time he reaches high school, it takes more than a reading teacher to turn things around. How can schools help struggling teen readers? Hi, I'm Doris McMillan. Please join me for the webcast, Making Room for Adolescent Literacy.

Hello, I'm Doris McMillan. Welcome to the webcast, Making Room for Adolescent Literacy. In this segment of our four part series, we'll be focusing on how middle and high schools can make time to help their struggling readers. Joining me are three experts.

Dr. Don Deshler is from the University of Kansas. He's a professor in the department of special education and director of the Center for Research on Learning. Dr. Mel Riddile is a former high school principal who is now the associate director of High School Services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

And Miss Chris Gutierrez She's a reading specialist at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. And I wanna say thank you all for joining us. Dr. Riddile, why don't you kick us off by talking about what are some… what some are calling the adolescent literacy crisis. Is this a new problem?

Mel Riddile: It's a problem that's been going on for… for a while. In my experience in two diverse, high poverty schools, high schools, we found the significant percentage of our students who were functionally… could read functionally, but could not read academically.

They were reading in an elementary level. They could read words, but they couldn't comprehend their textbooks.

Doris McMillan: Dr. Deshler, how many students are we talking about here? I mean, are we really facing a crisis?

Don Deshler: It is a crisis. It's a crisis in terms of numbers. At least 30 and depending on the study percent of students are reading below proficiency. And that just in terms of graduate… future graduation, in terms of employment implications, the productivity of our country and so forth, it's enormous.

However, on the personal level, for each student that is not at grade level or above, it's a personal crisis that I don't think any of us can fully appreciate unless we personally have experienced that.

Doris McMillan: Dr. Riddile, what are the consequences of not addressing this situation?

Mel Riddile: Well, essentially, anyone that doesn't have the skill… these skills, these literacy skills, really is sentenced to a lifetime of marginal employment and second class citizenship. They really can't participate in what we call the American Dream.

Doris McMillan: So they can't get the good job?

Mel Riddile: They can't get a job that will feed a family of four.

Doris McMillan: So, what do they do?

Mel Riddile: Well, they work a series of jobs. They work two or three jobs. It's… it's very difficult. They're shut out from the mainstream of American life.

Doris McMillan: So how does a child get to that point?

Mel Riddile: Well, it's often not the child, it's us as adults. We… many places around the country stop teaching reading at the end of third grade. They stop when they learn to read. But they have to, for the rest of their time in school, read to learn. And it's a different set of skills and tasks that we have to teach.

Doris McMillan: So when you identify a child with a problem like that, what's the next step?

Mel Riddile: Well, the longer we wait, the harder it is to solve it. So if we wait to high school to identify a problem and try to resolve it, it's expensive, and our success rate is not what we'd like it to be sometimes.

Doris McMillan: You know, does talking about consequences bring to mind a particular students?

Mel Riddile: Well, I think of a… whole groups of students, walking to one school and us doing our first literacy assessment and finding that 74% of our kids were more than two years below grade level and another school where a third of our students were more than three years below grade level.

Many… so many students couldn't read their textbook. We couldn't treat all the patients. You know, a child that really has a reading diff… a problem is equivalent to someone that's critically ill in a hospital. If we don't do something for them, from an educational standpoint, they're not gonna make it.

Doris McMillan: So what's it like for these kids?

Mel Riddile: Well, I always said kids would rather be bad than be embarrassed. And many times, these kids act out. They don't come to school or when they are at school they have behavior problems. They can't get recognition in their classrooms. They think about the… going to work every day and not being able to do what you're being asked to do every day and by law, being required to be there.

Doris McMillan: Wow, Chris, let me come to you. You're… you're our representative from the front lines. I think I worry that some teachers may think that a 16 year old who can't read will never read. You know, what have you seen?

Chris Gutierrez: I would refute that statement. What we see at the high school is kids who perhaps weren't ready to be taught to read at the level of seven or eight year… or six or seven years old. And that keeps getting pushed down. And so they get early frustration and feel that they can't be good readers.

But I find at the high school level, if we can dip into what the student is interested in and get them hooked on a topic, and most of that is non-fiction that we find, that the kids can start seeing a glimmer of hope. And one of the frustrating things with teaching is you never really see your end product. So it's when those kids come back, and one kid came back to me and said "Miss Gutierrez, I just finished medical school." You could have pushed me over with a feather because I thought his occupation would be snatching handbags, okay, because it was just amazing. And that's not every kid.

But it's seeing kids like that come back and saying, you know, a light went on in my brain when I was 15 or 16, and thank you a lot.

Doris McMillan: What are some of the reasonable goals for kids like this?

Chris Gutierrez: I'm happy if a student progresses a year within… with a reading program, you know, just a growth of a year. But we've seen, with some of the programs that we put into practice, a growth of two or three years in one year. So that pleases us a lot…

Doris McMillan: I would imagine so.

Kris Gutierrez: …in sustaining that growth, right.

Doris McMillan: Absolutely. Dr. Deshler, what does the… what do the researchers say about the effectiveness of high school litery [sic]… literacy programs?

Don Deshler: Well, just building on the point Kris made of sometimes seeing two to three years of gain with some students, that is interestingly on the kind of trajectory we need to be on. If we take a typical ninth grade student who has a literacy problem, and let's say he or she is reading at about the fifth grade level.

Now, if we want that student to be at grade level upon graduation so they can compete and so forth as Mel described, we need to make about two and a half years of progress per year. Now, we can do that. We know so much more today than we did ten years ago, 15, certainly 30 years ago.

And if we fully leverage the things we know about high quality, instructional principles, there's some marvelous instructional programs that are now available. And if we optimally group students as we know that we can do for great outcomes, we can see some remarkable gains.

Doris McMillan: Dr. Riddile, you've been closely involved with high school students, working with high schools that are working to improve literacy. What is your experience? Tell us about the impact of sustained, school-wide efforts. And I know you've got some great statistics for us.

Mel Riddile: Well, literally, schools that are failing can be transformed. It takes several years to do that, but with… with literacy focus, students can, because it is the gateway skill, and I call it the gateway skill, improving literacy improves their performance in every subject area including math.

With a school-wide focused effort as Dr. Deshler is talking about, it has to be school-wide, and it has to be… the student has to be immersed in every class with literacy, good literacy strategies. That's an integral part of the instruction. With that, a school can literally turn around.

Those students, for example, in eighth grade where we had a group… we looked at our eleventh graders compared to our eighth graders. In the eighth grade, they were below 60% proficiency on the state exam and over 95% proficiency by grade eleven. So it literally can turn a school around.

Doris McMillan: Now what does school-wide focus mean?

Mel Riddile: That means every teacher has a role. Every person in that school, including the principal, has a role. Now, the roles are different. We have a literacy coach, we have reading teachers, you have social studies, science, math teachers. They all have a role.

And their role is really to teach the language of their content area, not to be reading teachers but teach the language of their content area.

Doris McMillan: Okay, and when you do that and they succeed, it's a win-win for everybody.

Mel Riddile: The school wins, the students win, and you literally see a wave of achievement and positivity going through the school.

Doris McMillan: And you see less disciplinary problems.

Mel Riddile: That's right. The… the suspensions and discipline incidents decline significantly and sometimes more rapidly than one would expect.

Doris McMillan: Okay. Dr. Deshler, let me turn to you. How replicable do you think Dr. Riddile's efforts are?

Don Deshler: Well, Mel is a very special leader, and if we could just clone him, it would simplify our problems. However, what… I think the reason that Mel has been as successful as he has been and Chris as successful as she has been is because they have built their practice upon some known principles.

And if you go into their school and look at what is practiced on a day-to-day-to-day basis, it is following some of the things we know best about good educational practice. And if we will capture those particular principles and understand what's unique about our school where we're going to be adopting this because every school has its unique needs and unique personality, we can make some changes.

However, change takes time. Mel made that point. And we really do set ourselves, teachers, and students up for failure if we try to rush that process in short-term… and shortchange the… the planning.

Doris McMillan: Okay, well I wanna thank you all. And we'll be talking with you a little bit more. But that marks the end of this segment but not this discussion. Please join us for part two of this webcast when we'll be discussing building momentum for school-wide literacy initiatives.

You can learn more about adolescent literacy and watch the other segments of this webcast at

Narrator: Funding for this webcast is generously provided by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Part 2: Laying a Foundation for School-Level Literacy Reforms

Doris McMillan: How can teachers and principals create a sense of urgency about literacy instruction in their schools? Hi, I'm Doris McMillan. Please join me for Laying a Foundation for School Level Literacy Reforms, part two of the webcast, Making Room for Adolescent Literacy.

Hello everyone, I'm Doris McMillan, and welcome to the webcast, Making Room for Adolescent Literacy. In part one we discussed the scope of the adolescent literacy crisis. Now we're going to talk about developing support for a school-wide literacy initiative. I want to thank Dr. Deshler, Dr. Riddile, and Miss Gutierrez for joining me today.

Dr. Riddile, there are so many challenges facing principals. How can they make room for literacy in their schools?

Mel Riddile: Well, the first thing they have to ask themselves if your chil… if your students can't read, what can they do? There are certain things you have to do.

Doris McMillan: Okay, where do they start?

Mel Riddile: Well, the first thing to do it we can't run schools… is to understand we can't run schools by intuition anymore, so we need data. And we need to do a diagnostic assessment to find out if our chi… if our students really have a problem and what the nature of the problem is.

And then we need to use the data to drive what we do from there on. Rather than it be the principal's opinion or the curriculum specialist's opinion, it has to be based on real data but about… the teacher's have to know what their students are doing. It has to be personalized.

So when they pull up their grade book, they see their student in their class, and they see their reading levels. And they're constantly reminded about that.

Chris Gutierrez: And it also… it's everybody in the school's responsibility. You don't send them off to a reading class. Every teacher in every curriculum in the school needs to take responsibility. And it's not really finding extra time in the day, it's infusing strategies that we know work in whatever it is you're teaching be it science, math, social studies, chemistry, whatever.

Doris McMillan: So it's important to work with a… with a reading specialist. True?

Chris Gutierrez: I think so since I'm a reading specialist, absolutely.

Mel Riddile: But Chris as a reading specialist is really a peer coach because good literacy instruction is good instruction. And when she worked with teachers, she taught work with them on good instruction. Teachers don't stop their classes and say "Okay, we're gonna do a literacy strategy."

It's a… it has to be seamless part of everything that they do.

Don Deshler: And I was just gonna jump in. I agree with that. However, there are students within every school who need intensive instruction because they lack so many of the basic skills that is beyond what a content teacher can do in his or her content class.

Mel Riddile: And not only do they need… that's like the critical care ward. Not only do they need that, but we need multiple levels. So one intervention isn't usually sufficient in a high school. You have to have multiple levels. And Chris really could address that.

Chris Gutierrez: Yeah, as Dr. Riddile says, our intensive care section, we're still working with phonetics. You know, how do you pronounce the words? How do you increase vocabulary? How do you become a smooth reader, a fluid reader? And at another level, we're working with higher level comprehension skills.

You know, how can you read this book and get out the meat of it?

Doris McMillan: Okay, how important is it to develop a literacy council to represent the content area teachers?

Mel Riddle: Well, the first thing when you collect the data, to get people focused. We need input from everyone. One person today doesn't know enough to be able to make reforms go in a school. It takes a team effort. And so it's about putting together a team. Certainly you have a principal and a literacy coach.

But how do you get other people involved, and how do you get them to buy in? And they have to be part of the planning process. And that means putting a literacy council, getting volunteers who wanna be a part of that. And I've never had a problem finding people that wanted to… wanted to volunteer for that.

Doris McMillan: Okay, so how do you partner with a reading specialist?

Mel Riddile: Well…

Doris McMillan: As a principal.

Mel Riddile: It used to be about principals finding the right people, putting them on the right seat on the bus, and then letting them go. That doesn't work anymore. It means a partnership. The literacy coach, Kris, in the case, would teach me about what I needed to know about literacy.

I would work with her about how to get things done in the school. So we're a partnership. And that meant I was a co-pilot. I was with her all… when she… we had a literacy council meeting or a planning meeting, she would be able to have access to me on a frequent basis.

Doris McMillan: An important strategic alliance. Chris, let me ask you, Dr. Riddile describes the reading specialist as a co-leader of the literacy initiative. If you would explain the give and take between the principal and the reading specialist and then what was it like to work with Dr. Riddile?

Chris Gutierrez: It was really refreshing because he understood literacy, and so I didn't have to do a lot of education. He ha… he came with it. But basically, I… we'd give the overview, we'd look at the data. I knew the faculty, and I said these are where our gaps are. What do you think about this idea, this idea?

And we'd float it before the literacy council. And that's how we set up our staff development strands based… it was from the grassroots up with the support of the administration. So the teachers really had a buy in in terms of what we were offering in terms of our planning period staff development that we set up.

Mel Riddile: Those closest to the problem are the best to find the solutions to it. Rather than us tell them what they needed to do, we put the information there, and we all collectively looked at it and brainstormed solutions. And that's the way you get buy in. There has to be buy in here in shared responsibility.

It can't be, you know… We had a faculty meeting, one of the first faculty meetings, and I said, "English department, raise your hand and stand up." That's the last time we're gonna look at the English teachers when we talk about literacy. It's everybody including me, my job.

Doris McMillan: Okay. Chris, if you would, tell us more about the school literacy council. Why does it function and why is it so important?

Kris Gutierrez: Well, I think it's like probably in any job, but particularly in education, you know, the principal comes down and says "Thou shalt…" And you go, "Yeah, when's the last time you were in a classroom?" So when it comes actually from the classroom teachers saying we're having these problems, one of the first workshops that we did was to give the teachers the lexile levels of all their students so they knew the reading level.

And then I had lexiled all their textbooks. And I said "Okay, here's your textbook, an 1100, eleventh grade lexile. What are the reading level of the students that are attempting that book. And I just looked at the faces in the room. And they were like, "Oh my god, no wonder they don't do their homework." They can't read the book." And so then you start talking about how can you help these students attack that information.

Doris McMillan: So you take the lead in this?

Chris Gutierrez: In a lot of it. But then gradual release where, as a matter of fact, this afternoon we're having a literacy council meeting, and we're talking about next year. We're gonna do a survey of the faculty, what worked for staff development this year, what didn't work, and what more do you wanna see?

And we've gotten some feedback already. And then that will be the basis for what we do next year.

Mel Riddile: Now here's one thing the principal can help the literacy council with is lear… I learned from experience that if your focus is too broad, nothing gets done. If you have twenty literacy strategies, that's not gonna work. The staff needs to decide on three, maybe four.

But when you have too much, nothing really gets done. So that's one thing I did help with.

Doris McMillan: Okay, cause I think it's almost like a math equation. This is not bad math. It's bad math. Three times three equals one. At least you'll get one of those points through, right? Nine times one equals zero. Okay. Dr. Riddile, if you would, how can administrators convince skeptical teachers in the building that it works? And then tell us about a tough customer or two.

Mel Riddile: Well, the first thing is… if you look at this from a long-term basis instead of I have to do this in one year, and we've talked a little bit about that, then work first with the willing. And that's the literacy council. For example, they should be trying some of the things out and coming back to the literacy council and saying this is working for me, this isn't working for me. So you start small and grow a virus in a positive way. In other words, a virus spreads one person to another.

Doris McMillan: Give me an example.

Mel Riddile: Well, one teacher to one student. I told this… teachers at one time, I said, "How are we going to ever get where we need to go?" We had so many students way below grade level. One student at a time, that's how we're gonna do it. Focus on one. Just work with the one you have.

And each… if each person in the building does that… So if we work… one teacher to another teacher. How does the literacy coach work with a whole faculty of 200 people? How do you do that? One teacher at a time. And it spreads because if you're doing good things and you're doing the right thing, word travels.

If it works, people want to be a part of it.

Chris Gutierrez: Right, and they'll say, "Chris, I saw you do this and that in somebody's class. Can you… can you work with me?"

Doris McMillan: And then…

Kris Gutierrez: And then it goes from there.

Doris McMillan: …that's how the virus spreads.

Mel Riddle: So you don't force people. The worst thing the principal can do is go in and start mandating things. Other than the fact that we're gonna start class when the bell rings and we're gonna teach, here are some things you have to. But the reality is, this is a long-term process.

And we want people to buy in to it. Now, people knew when I went to that school that I was about literacy, but I refuse to do anything until we had our lexile scores. The company returned our scores but didn't have the lexile, remember that?

Chris Gutierrez: Right, right.

Mel Riddile: And so I said, because it wasn't gonna be meaningful to the teachers, they couldn't relate the data that they were given to anything in their own lives.

Doris McMillan: Alright. Let's talk about No Child Left Behind and accountability. Do principals and teachers have to choose between improving their students' liter… literacy skills and then complying with No Child Left Behind?

Mel Riddle: If the students don't have the literacy skills, they're never going to have to worry about No Child Left Behind or adequate yearly progress because it's not gonna be a reality. It's a means to an end. It's about literacy for learning, not about literacy as an end in itself.

And so when the teachers understand that, number one, that it's about learning, this is my literacy project that I'm going to write articles about and make a name. That's not what this is about. And number two that it's a long-term process. And that, number three, their role is very simple.

Teach the language of your content area, the vocabulary. The… it's about you teaching science, not about you teaching literacy.

Doris McMillan: Gotcha. Alright, Chris, are there other steps that are necessary to create a school culture that fosters literacy and achievement?

Chris Gutierrez: Well, I think it's the positive attitude that needs to be engendered in the school. So you're saying we can do this, you know, and that the support is here because teachers who maybe will go and try something in their classroom, it's very scary to change your teaching style.

There's a support there for them. And I think we also have to respect that these are adult learners we're talking about. We're not talking about the literacy coach teaching ninth graders. We're teaching adults who are professionals who are well-trained in their subject area.

And I think we have to respect their knowledge. And, in turn, you get the respect back.

Mel Riddile: The other thing I said to teachers, teachers would complain that students aren't ready, they don't know how to take notes, they don't have… I said, our job is to teach our students whatever you need to… they need to know. My job as principal, other than your content area which the state licensed you to teach, my job is to teach you whatever you need to know.

You don't have to know anything about literacy. We're going to teach you everything you need to know. All you have to do is work with us.

Doris McMillan: Okay, well, what I'd like to do now is focus in on instruction. Dr. Deshler, let me turn to you. Many of us have heard that rally and cry every teacher is a reading teacher, and that makes sense at the elementary school level, but is it really true for middle and high school content area instructors?

And then what are their roles in the literacy instruction?

Don Deshler: No, it's not right. Every teacher is not a reading teacher. And if we tout that message, we're gonna get an awful lot of pushback, and understandably so. A science teacher got into education because they love children and they love science, and they wanted to bring those two together.

However, as Mel and Chris have said, if a science teacher looks at his or her book and other literacy demands that they are using and expecting chil… students to meet and then see those demands from the vantage point of the student and say okay, what can I do to make this more learner friendly?

How might I unlock and unpack some of this difficult content? In other words, if we just have content teachers become sensitive to the literacy demands, choose critical content, choose key vocabulary that they should emphasize, and point out to students how their text is organized and how students can navigate it, great progress can be made.

Doris McMillan: Well then how then can content area teachers carve out the time for literacy instruction?

Don Deshler: It becomes a part of. It needs to be woven into their ongoing instruction of the content. It's not either or, it's… it becomes woven into the subject matter. For example, if you're teaching a set of information, can say, hey, let's just push the pause button for a moment and stand back from this.

Here's how I would go about memorizing this information if I had to do so.

Doris McMillan: So you're… go ahead.

Don Deschler: Do you're demonstrating to them how a good learner in science or history or whatever thinks about and attacks that kind of text material.

Doris McMillan: Dr. Riddile.

Mel Riddile: In a factory model school of the 20th Century, it was about covering material. In the customized learning environment of the 21st Century, it's about mastery. And if a teacher is just rushing through material and the students aren't learning it, it's just a waste of time.

And so helping teachers understand that, and helping them, as Dr. Deshler said, identify essential learnings and make sure those students master those essential learnings not just cover everything.

Doris McMillan: Okay, Dr. Deshler, if a school does not have a reading specialist, can the English teachers fill in?

Don Deshler: No. And we should not expect that. They are a subject matter expert as much as the science teacher, history teacher and so forth. It's a big error that we've made and the wrong path we've gone down. As Mel and Chris have said, every teacher in the school has a responsibility for literacy.

But that should not be parked at the doorstep of the English teacher.

Chris Gutierrez: And I was just gonna add, I was a U.S. History teacher, and I went back to school in literacy because my kids couldn't read the textbook, and I didn't have the training to know what to do. And these strategies are most easily applied in history, social studies, and science, yeah.

Doris McMillan: Okay, well, on that note, I wanna thank you all, and we're gonna see you again. There's still more of this discussion to come. Please join us for part three of Making Room for Adolescent Literacy. We'll be discussing the implementation of school level literacy initiatives.

You can learn more about adolescent literacy and watch the other segments of this webcast at

Part 3: Implementing School-Level Literacy Reform

Doris McMillan: What are the key elements of a good literacy program and how can schools measure a program's effectiveness? Hello, I'm Doris McMillan. Please join me for Implementing School Level Literacy Reforms, part three of the webcast, Making Room for Adolescent Literacy.

Hello, I'm Doris McMillan. In the previous segment of Making Room for Adolescent Literacy, we discussed laying a foundation for school level literacy reforms. In this segment, our panelists will discuss how to implement those reforms. I wanna welcome Dr. Deshler, Dr. Riddile, and Miss Gutierrez.

Thank you all for being with us. Dr. Riddile, in previous segments, we've talked about some of the important prerequisites to a successful school literacy program, things like strong leadership, good professional development, and then the creation of a school literacy council.

Describe, if you would for us, how these elements come together to support a strong literacy program.

Mel Riddile: Well, some of the elements that we mentioned would be that this school conducts an annual diagnostic assessment of all students so they know how all their students are doing. And that's the other thing, this… literacy is about every student, not just some students, not students that are struggling.

It's about raising the bar for everyone. You would have participation from teachers in the form of a literacy council. You would have a literacy leader like a literacy coach or a peer coach. You would have multiple interventions for students at different levels.

And you would have an overall program for every student that every teacher was implementing in their own way, in their own classroom. And you would have annual reviews to make sure that you're doing exactly what you said you're doing. What that does to a school, it puts the focus… takes the focus away from adults and the focus is on students.

You hear teachers talking about what students need rather than what they want. You hear… the focus is on learning and how to teach students so that they do learn. You have… another thing you would see is focus on mastery and essential learnings as opposed to covering material.

So those are some things that you would… you would see different… that work differently in a school that had a comprehensive, school-wide literacy program.

Doris McMillan: Okay, Dr. Deshler, how should literacy instruction be adapted to meet the needs of English language learners in a school-based literacy program?

Don Deshler: Good question. And increasingly in many of our schools around the country, we have larger numbers of students, ELL students, and what we have found is that many of the principles that have worked effectively in teaching other… or struggling adolescent readers, work very well with students who have English as a second language.

For example, being very direct in the instruction that is provided, explicit, providing elaborated feedback, scaffold or design the instruction so they take it a step at a time and build up confidence with their practice with the language, and to be very deliberate in the selection of the materials that you're going to give them exposure to.

Select things, and this is true for all kids, select things that light their fire and that attract them to the printed page. And that's one thing, and particularly for these students, that we need to be sensitive to. It's eyes on the page and engagement with the book.

Doris McMillan: And Kris, in your experience, how does an emphasis on literacy and content area classes change the look and the feel of a school?

Chris Gutierrez: Well, I see the school being more student-oriented rather than the teacher standing up in front lecturing…

Doris McMillan: Okay, give us an example.

Chris Gutierrez: …passively taking notes. Well, I see teachers using small group instruction with the kids where they're pulling out the meat and they're going beyond the literal level. They're, you know, doing the what ifs and getting the kids to think ahead about the information and putting it in different contexts so that the information becomes part of them.

Doris McMillan: Okay, how do you do that in a math class?

Chris Gutierrez: Well, you use real world math problems with the class. One of our math teachers, I was fortunate enough just to be doing a walk-through observation one day, and they were doing the profits for a bakery that had just opened up nearby. And they were learning how to do the X and Y axis and plot profit.

And they then invited in the owner of this bakery who was a lawyer who had thrown in the law to go into baking…

Doris McMillan: He wanted to roll in dough. I'm so sorry.

Kris Gutierrez: …and he came to the class and talked to them about the financial side of his bakery business. And the kids were just enthralled with the mathematics of it all.

Doris McMillan: I bet they never looked at a donut the same way after that.

Chris Gutierrez: You're right. No, this is… these are cupcakes. These are cupcakes.

Doris McMillan: Oh, okay, cupcakes, okay. Wow.

Don Deschler: One thing you see in the closure of classes, instead of the teacher summing up, you see students summing up or summarizing what they've learned instead of the teacher because the focus is on learning, not what we taught, but what they actually… what the students learned.

Doris McMillan: Cause kids are always saying, how are we gonna use this?

Kris Gutierrez: Right, right. And just as many real world applications as you can. And what was so fortunate about the recent election is every class could… could tag into that current event and use it in their classroom.

Doris McMillan: You know, with all that's going on, where do you build in time for teachers planning periods and professional development?

Chris Gutierrez: We use the school day. We don't extend the school day. We use the teachers' planning periods once a month for a professional staff development that they registered for at the beginning of the year, and they recertification credits which we all need to build to keep our licenses current.

And then teachers, on their other planning periods through the rest of the month, can work with each other, they come and work with me and try some of these things and report back to each other. We have informal study groups all over the school of teachers who have come together and said well, let's try some of this stuff. We need to beef up this particular unit of study.

Don Deshler: You know, I might just reinforce a point that was made in a previous segment, and that is the professional development that is done in Chris's school is directly tied to that school-wide diagnostic assessment, the needs of the students, the needs of the teachers.

And that's what drives professional development. And as obvious and logical as that may seem, that is not the case in many schools. Investments are made in one area when the needs are in another.

Mel Riddile: That's right, and when I talk to people, my colleagues, generally about five percent are actually collecting data that relates to their school and using it to drive their reforms in their school whether it be ninth grade transitions or literacy or whatever their focus happens to be.

And I think you have to have something other than your opinion and your belief driving this. It has to be something other than the principal's idea or philosophy.

Chris Gutierrez: Right, and it was so simple because we looked at the data from our first year of testing, and we saw that the vocabulary scores were much lower than the comprehension scores. So vocabulary was our target, and we spent a considerable amount of time discussing different ways to teach vocabulary in the different subject areas.

Doris McMillan: Good. Let me come back to professional development again. What are some of the elements of high quality professional development?

Chris Gutierrez: That it is targeted to the teacher need, I think, so that they can buy in. And that it be more than a sit and get, you know, that it be active learning. And that the people who are presenting the staff development model good teaching themselves. It's not the professorial style, but it's an interactive style with the teachers.

Don Deshler: And then it's modeling, giving them an opportunity to practice and then some follow-up, good, instructional coaching and support as they try… as they attempt to apply that in the classroom.

Mel Riddile: And really important for principals is continuous and ongoing and it's job embedded. Chris talked about that. But taking… sending people out and bring… and him coming back in really hasn't worked well. It needs to be practical and related to what they need in their classrooms and a support system developed.

We mentioned the literacy council. Some of those people can act as supports to people in their own departments and their own teams.

Doris McMillan: Okay, now, let's bring this background to the students. We're gonna pull that back in. Dr. Deshler, I guess it's gotta be really beyond frustrating to be a 15-year-old who struggles with reading. How can educators keep the kids from getting discouraged and just giving up?

Don Deshler: You know, the point you made, beyond frustrating, I don't think any of us can appreciate what that must be like, what… how many doors are closed on our life without having access to ideas and so forth. How do we keep them from getting totally discouraged? One is to have conversations with them and find out what's important in their life.

What things excite them. And design the instruction that we do around those kinds of interests and goals that they've got. Secondly, it's important that we design the instruction out of the gate at a level where they don't get frustrated once again. We need to structure it so they can experience some success.

We then build on that success and express our belief in them as learners and as individuals.

Doris McMillan: Dr. Riddile.

Mel Riddile: Our goals have to be places where kids wanna be, where they're wel… not only welcomed, but they're wanted, they feel wanted, where there's hope, where they think every day that those people want me to succeed. We wanna hear students say, like one of my students said, in this school, it's hard to fail.

The teachers won't let you fail. And another student said instead of running to their cars to the end of the day, our teachers are waiting in their rooms to help us. That's what's different about this school. And when you do that… And the other thing that students have to know that there is a plan for them.

That whatever… wherever they are, they have… we have a plan for them to get there and succeed.

Doris McMillan: Chris, let me come back to you. How can parents partner with schools to promote literacy?

Kris Gutierrez: Well, I think at the secondary level it's really difficult because those teenagers, the kids don't want the parents around, and the parents think, well, I did my thing in elementary. But what we have done through a program that our city is sponsoring is set up a tutoring program for our ELL students, our ESL students.

And the parents and the students actually sign a contract where they will come to tutoring so many days a week, and we're setting up an in school program very similar right now that it's partnered in the… to the point of getting the kids to the tutoring so that they can see progress.

Doris McMillan: Okay, and as we talk about tutoring, what are some of the components of an effective afterschool tutoring program?

Chris Gutierrez: What I have seen with the program that we have is that the director of the program takes a personal interest in each of the kids. And it's much more than just academic tutoring, it's life tutoring. It's how… what am I gonna do? It's planning. She has leadership training for the kids.

She does college training, vocational school training. This is what you can do if you get your grades up and go on. And this is what your parents want for you.

Doris McMillan: Doctor… Oh, go ahead.

Mel Riddile: What Chris is describing really is a safety net that students aren't allowed to continue to fall behind in school and be ignored and passed on. That has to stop. When… that all the students' needs have to be met. We can't just say we're here to teach you literacy skills and ignore the reality of their own life. There has to be a support system for them.

Doris McMillan: Dr. Deshler, how often and using what measures should schools assess their struggling students?

Don Deshler: Well, Mel made the point several times before about the power of data. And it's a tradeoff. In the one hand, theoretically, we'd like to have a lot of data points to tell us how we're going so we can adjust the path that we're on. On the other hand, the collection of data is a costly thing.

It's… it takes time away from instruction. And, quite frankly, in today's world, students are tested a great deal, and they get tired of going through that process. But at a minimum, we're seeing that schools are trying to get at least three data points throughout the years, throughout the course of a year to see how students are progressing.

And that might be on a more type of a standard exam. However, we encourage teachers within their class to be having measures that are specific to their subject matter, for example, vocabulary acquisition and so forth, so that they can see on a week to week basis how students are doing and adjust instruction accordingly to meet their needs.

Doris McMillan: Let me come back to you, Dr. Riddile. When it comes to improving student achieving, we're all impatient. We want it yesterday. So for schools that do implement an aggressive literacy initiative, how long does it take to really see results?

it's never really in place because it's going to involve and it's going to grow. If you're going a good job and if you're, for example, as a high school is working with their feeder schools, and that the students come better prepared.

Their readiness levels. Then the nature of your program should change. So you're constantly monitoring how you're doing, how your students are doing. And as Dr. Deshler said, one of the things to understand is that what students like if you had a medical problem, if somebody's sick, you take their temperature every hour.

Well, if they're well, you might only go to the doctor once a year. Well, with students that are in interventions, we need to monitor them continuously. And for other students it's more on longer intervals. So we need data points. And the other thing about the assessment, the diagnostic assessment, I said how can a herd of students sit down and read passages and answer questions?

And I always told the students, this is for you. The one test you take for you. You can't fail. And it's… it's for you and how you are doing, not for the state or for the school, it's for you.

Doris McMillan: Alright. On that note, I wanna say thanks everyone and those are the last of my questions. But in part four of our webcast, the panelists will answer questions from educators out in the field. I hope you will join us. You can learn more about adolescent literacy and watch other segments of this webcast at

Part 4: Viewer Questions

Doris McMillan: How can librarians, school counselors and other staff help support literacy? What common mistakes should principals avoid as literacy leaders? Hi, I'm Doris McMillan. For the answers to these and other questions, join me for segment four of the webcast, Making Room for Adolescent Literacy.

Hello, I'm Doris McMillan and welcome to the webcast, Making Room for Adolescent Literacy. In previous segments we've discussed the scope of the adolescent literacy crisis as well as ways that principals and teachers can develop and implement school level literacy initive [sic]… initiatives.

Now, let's get to the questions. Welcome back to Dr. Deshler, Dr. Riddile, and Miss Gutierrez. Our audience has some questions for you, and I have them right here. Our first question is from Bill in Maryland, and Dr. Riddile, he wants to know what role should other school staff like librarians and school counselors take in school-wide literacy efforts?

Mel Riddile: Well, the moment of truth for implanting any school in initiative including literacy is when the counselor sits down with the student to develop and individual learning plan. We call it a schedule. Now, that counselor today with a complex… complexities of today's high school can't do it alone anymore.

So they have to work together as a… in a team with other people and a literacy coach. It really… a counselor can't schedule a student into a literacy intervention. They have to work with the literacy coach. And I think Kris probably ought to address that, how she does that.

As far as the librarians, they now become, instead of a book repository or lenders of books, they become information guides, helping teachers sort articles and readings by student lexile level so that they can have a, for example, a science teacher wants articles or readings on biomes.

They go to the librarian, and the librarian can then go through their databases and sort articles by lexile, and the teacher then can provide customized level readings for every student in their class.

Doris McMillan: Boy, things have changed a lot since we went to school. Chris, this next question is for you. It's… it's from Amanda in North Carolina. And Amanda says my high school students struggle with decoding. Can you suggest books with high interest but lower readability that won't be too overwhelming for them?

Chris Gutierrez: Yes, there are lots of quality books written at the second and third grade level that are adventurous to high school students that are on the market. And with a little bit of research you can find it. You can Google in… there are some companies, Artisan Press is one.

If you look at the International Reading Association Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, they usually have information about those types of books in there. But there's quite a bit on the market today.

Doris McMillan: Okay.

Don Deschler: And just, a point Mel had made before about the school librarians. They can be a tremendous resource to turn teachers on to certain types of literature for students.

Doris McMillan: Okay. We have another question. This one is from Mary in Memphis. Tracking is a controversial topic, but what do you think about vocational education or other options for students who struggle with literacy? Is that giving up, Dr. Deschler?

Don Deshler: Well, no, we have to stand back and take a look at what are the individual needs and interests of a student and how can we best put together a program that will allow that student to meet his or her potential, not how can we put together a program that will just keep them at the level that they're performing?

There are some wonderful educational programs within vocational education, and it's wrong, very wrong to think of vocational education as being a remedial or a lower track. The important thing is that we put students into an area that is of interest to them. And then we make certain that we get their skills to a level that they can thrive and be successful there.

Chris Gutierrez: Actually, the vocational remedial books that are used are the highest level books in any school. They're much higher than physics, social studies, science, whatever.

Doris McMillan: Really?

Don Deshler: Oh, yeah.

Chris Gutierrez: They're the most difficult books because they're trade books, you know, that actual mechanics need to use. But the key for vocational education is many of those students are hands on learners. So if the academic core curriculum teachers would add more hands on learning in their classroom, it would help those students with that information.

Doris McMillan: They'd be more successful learners.

Kris Gutierrez: Be more successful.

Mel Riddle: Technology's driven up the complexity for all career and technical education areas. For students to be able to be certified to be apprentices, to be a part of a meaningful occupation in that area, they're going to have to read the content in that area.

And as Kris has pointed out, it's the highest of all levels. Actually, English language arts has the lowest reading level of all subjects in high school. That wasn't true ten years ago, but it is true today.

Doris McMillan: …(unint.) oh my.

Mel Riddile: The other thing is we know that students don't grow emotionally, socially, inter… the same rate. They don't learn at the same rate, either. By giving some students more time, we're not tracking students. We're still holding standards constant. So our goals remain constant, the time becomes a variable.

In the 20th Century, the time was a constant and our goals were variable. That's where the old tracking idea comes in.

Doris McMillan: Okay. Let's take a… Did you wanna add something, Dr. Deshler? Okay, let's take another question. This one is from Shawn. Shawn is sending the question from New York. Shawn says what are the biggest mistakes principals make when implementing school-wide literacy programs. Dr. Riddile?

Mel Riddile: Not using data, using their opinion, forcing people to do it because they wanna do it quickly, not involving staff, not communicating. And I don't mean by standing up in front of the faculty and saying we're gonna have a literacy initiative, but it's really the frequency of communication over an extended period of time.

Constantly walking the talk, so to speak. Those are some big… not creating a sense of urgency. Saying well, this is my literacy coach and walking away and never going to a literacy council meeting. In that kind of approach, nothing gets done.

Doris McMillan: Good, is there any sense of urgency about using off the shelf reading materials? An urge to purchase them, I guess I should say.

Mel Riddile: Well, I think there's a sense that there's a magic bullet that some way there's one thing that I can do that's gonna solve all my problems. And that's the first them when I talk with principals, that's the first thing to get out of your head because if we're gonna customize an approach for every child because we want every child to be successful, that means we have to have to individualize it.

We're not going to have a generic, off the shelf type approach. It has to be customizable.

Don Deshler: That… that is… huge investments have been made by school districts in reading programs in the hopes that expenditure of money on this program is going to do it. It won't. The key is always having a highly skilled teacher making those programs come to life and be individualized for the students that he or she is working with.

Doris McMillan: Okay.

Mel Riddile: And the other thing I didn't mention is activity does not equal success. Schools and school systems go out and buy packages and then they say well, we purchased this program. Well, they never monitored it to see if it actually was working. So it's going on for years and years, and they never did an evaluation to see is this really helping our students?

Chris Gutierrez: Or they buy several programs that philosophically compete with each other. So the kids get very confused. So you have to pick wisely and carefully and selectively.

Doris McMillan: Now, as a reading specialist, let me come back to you on this one. What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see principals making? Not Dr. Riddile, of course.

Chris Gutierrez: Well, of course not. Nor my present principal. I think just thinking that the literacy coach can do it by themselves, giving cart blanche which is in one way nice for a literacy coach, but you need that administrator backing and involvement, not just the pat on the back and say go girl, you know.

You need them there with you all the time. And the administrative staff, when they do their evaluations of the teachers, need to add a literacy component to that evaluation in terms of praising the teacher for whatever literacy involvement they're doing in the classroom.

Doris McMillan: A little encouragement goes a long way.

Kris Gutierrez: A little encouragement.

Mel Riddile: That's important. You have to create heroes and recognize people. Have the teachers lead faculty meetings. Have the Spanish teachers that are using a literacy strategy in their Spanish classes or the art teachers, have them… I even had music teachers, the music department presented a fac… at a faculty meeting on integrating literacy strategies in music.

And it really broke down a lot of misconceptions. If they… they said if they can do that, we can do it in any class.

Doris McMillan: Right. Okay, let's take another question. We have a question from Chuck in Chicago. Chuck says how can policymakers help middle and high schools improve adolescent literacy? Do you sense the political will for substantive funding and reform? Dr. Deshler?

Don Deshler: Policymakers play a significant role. We can have wonderful administrative leadership, we can have outstanding instruction in place. But if we don't have the policy there to allow the right components to operate in the right way, it doesn't happen of a (unint.) period of time.

There's been considerable attention given to this over the past year and a half or so. And a report is going to be issued around the first of May. Governor Kaine from the state of Virginia has served as the chair person of this initiative that has been supported by the Southern Regional Education Board.

And this entire report is devoted to the role that policymakers at the state level and the local level can play in terms of putting in place the infrastructures to ensure high level literacy programs in their schools. So I'd strongly urge our listeners to access that.

Mel Riddile: Here's three examples.

Doris McMillan: Okay.

Mel Riddile: State, district, and local school all need to have policies. It's everybody's… policies aren't just state or national. The state can require all new teachers to have a lit… a reading content area course before they're certified. They can do that. The district can require all teachers to receive recertification to take a college level literacy course in reading across content areas.

Kris actually teaches one of those courses. The local school can have a policy that once a month we're going to have a literacy training professional development activity during a planning period. Those are just three examples how a state, a district, and a school can get in ali… align themselves to support literacy initiatives.

Doris McMillan: Okay. Let's take another question. Bobby in South Carolina says the Reading Next reports says we should spend two to four hours every day on literacy. Here's the other question. How is that possible?

Chris Gutierrez: It's very possible. A kid is in school that long taking all the classes, you embed the strategies that Dr. Deshler and Mel have talked about, and they're getting literacy in every subject area in the school.

Doris McMillan: Dr. Deshler?

Don Deshler: Totally agree. What's important as we think about literacy instruction, however, is that different students require different levels of intensity of instruction. So all students are typically in their subject matter classes throughout the course of the day, but there will be some students who will get some additional intensive literacy instruction that might be over and above what their classmates will be getting.

And so to, again, we need to put together individualized programs for students to make certain they're successful.

Mel Riddile: It's really important to emphasize that liter… the best literacy instruction takes place in the context of course content, that course becomes a vehicle in which the skills are taught. So you kill two birds with one stone. They're learning course content and they're learning literacy skills.

When we talk about literacy, we're talking about reading, comprehension, writing, and speaking and thinking. So it's not just about reading words.

Doris McMillan: Okay, my final question. Will in Georgia says how can I involve parents in the school literacy program? Many parents at my school struggle with reading themselves. Chris?

Chris Gutierrez: Several years ago I did a Saturday class for parents and their students. And we pulled the students with low reading levels and invited their parents to join them in a literacy class on Saturday. And it was very successful. We had a small group to start.

But the parents that came were working and wanted promotions. Some had gone back to college and wanted to know how to study for college. And it was very stimulating for me to see this intergenerational give and take with the kids.

Mel Riddile: Schools have licenses for literacy, for example, software. They have labs that they've set up. Those can be used at night with parents. And with a small amount of funding, they can make those available to parents. And I've found that to be very successful.

Doris McMillan: Okay. Well, I wanna say thank you to everybody for your thoughtful answers. We've covered a lot in this webcast, but I'd like to get one final thought from each of you. So, what do you think is the most important thing, the most important take away from this webcast for our audience? And why don't I start with you, Chris?

Chris Gutierrez: If I was a principal I'd say don't hesitate. Get started and start with little steps, you know. Try the first initiative and then let it grow. Don't just say, you know, we're gonna turn the world on… upside down cause then you're gonna get failure.

Doris McMillan: Dr. Deshler?

Don Deschler: We can make gains for students. The gap is large, however we do know a great deal right now as to what to do. And if we take it a step at a time and we're in it for the long haul, lives can be transformed to high quality literacy instruction.

Doris McMillan: And finally Dr. Riddile?

Mel Riddile: There is hope. It can be done. It is being done. It takes a focused effort. Collect data, do a diagnostic assessment. Start small and work with the willing.

Doris McMillan: Okay, thanks so much. And I wanna thank you for joining us for Making Room for Adolescent Literacy. To view all segments of the webcast and for more information about how you can help the struggling readers and writers in your life, please visit us on the Web at And again, thank you for joining us.

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