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The Scope of the Adolescent Literacy Crisis

In the U.S., about 500,000 students drop out every year, frustrated and discouraged with school. And many of the kids who stay in school lack basic literacy skills — federal data tells us that only 34 percent of 8th graders read and write at a proficient level. The statistics for low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities are even more alarming.

On this page:

What the data shows

In the U.S., roughly 500,000 students drop out  every year, frustrated and discouraged with school. Many of these students lack basic literacy skills, and their schools are not equipped to provide the kind of intensive, ongoing literacy instruction that students need to move ahead with their education. To complicate matters, according to recent research by ACT , roughly half of high school graduates lack the reading skills needed to do well in a typical first year college course.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (known as NAEP or “the Nation’s Report Card”), only 34% of 8th graders read and write at a proficient level (that is, at a level deemed to be appropriate for their year in school). And for low-income students and students of color, the statistics are even more alarming: just 14% of Black, 26% of Hispanic, and 15% of low-income 8th graders were found to be proficient in reading.

Since 1971 — when the federal government began tracking student achievement in reading, writing, math, and other subjects — scores have changed very little . In the last several years, 4th grade reading scores have made slight gains, most likely due to recent efforts and investments in literacy instruction at the elementary level. However, for more than three decades now, the majority of the nation’s secondary school students have failed to demonstrate the expected competence in reading and writing, and only a handful of students — 4 percent of 8th graders, in 2019 — have been found to read at an advanced level.

A new sense of urgency

The literacy skills of the typical American teenager haven’t improved since the 1970s, but we know that the demand for literacy skills and “soft skills” has increased dramatically.

Which jobs require social skills?

Deming chart of jobs requiring social skills

(Source: David Deming, Harvard University)

As the U.S. economy has evolved, it’s become progressively more difficult to find a rewarding job without at least a two-year college degree. Employers are emphasizing soft skills in hiring, including the ability to read proficiently and to communicate clearly, in writing and  face-to-face.   

This trend is dramatically presented in a seminal 2007 report from the Educational Testing Service , an analysis of early 21st Century labor market trends, demographics, and student achievement. It’s prediction then  is being borne out today: more and more students are dropping out or graduating without the skills needed for today’s workforce. If young people are unable to  read critically, write clearly, and communicate effectively, they are not prepared for the job market.

“[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.” If that future is to be avoided, the nation’s secondary schools will have to help many more students to reach higher levels of literacy than ever before.  

The last 25 years of research on adolescent literacy

In 1997, the U.S. Congress funded the creation of a National Reading Panel (NRP), a blue-ribbon group assigned to review the available research on reading instruction and to figure out which teaching practices are best supported by the evidence.

The NRP’s report, published in 2000, urged teachers in grades K-3 to focus on five key “building blocks” of literacy: phonemic awareness (recognizing how individual sounds combine to make syllables and words), phonics (learning how letters go together to make those sounds and words), fluency (decoding those letters and words quickly and accurately enough to make sense of texts), vocabulary, and comprehension.

The impact of the NRP report has been profound. Since 2000, its recommendations have been incorporated into countless curriculum guides, lesson plans, teacher workshops, textbooks, commercial reading programs, and so on. Further, it was used as the basis for the federal Reading First program, which  directed billions of dollars to the states, mostly to support teacher training in early reading instruction.

But the NRP report also had a serious limitation.  While it provided a clear and useful framework for teaching young children the basics of reading, it did  not address adolescent literacy instruction. Even though millions of secondary-level students continue to need help with basic skills, and even though all students need to be taught how to read and write higher-level texts, the NRP focused almost entirely on K-3 instruction only.

Since then, experts in adolescent literacy have been trying to fill in this missing part of the picture, so as to provide middle and high school teachers with useful advice on working with older students.

One watershed report was the 2004 publication of Reading Next , whose authors took a second look at the research reviewed by the NRP, highlighting those studies that touched on the upper grades. Reading Next led to the publication of  Writing Next in 2007, highlighting 11 research-based instructional strategies for middle and high school classrooms. A flurry of additional research reviews has followed, including publications on writing instruction, literacy coaching, literacy instruction for adolescent English Language Learners, school leadership for effective literacy instruction, and other topics.

There is now an emerging re-interest in middle — and high school graduates — are still falling far short of the mark in their reading and writing skills. Here on AdLit, we aim to give educators and families more of the tools they need to help students succeed.

Suggestions for school leaders

As content  demands take an increasing level of importance in middle and high schools, explicit literacy instruction often gets squeezed out of  classrooms. However, the need to strengthen reading, writing and communication—so that students can access the curriculum— is greater than ever. School leaders can play a vital role in helping teachers balance these priorities by supporting adolescent reading instruction across content areas. 

Here are some steps you can take:

Create and then sustain a schoolwide literacy plan.

What we pay attention to grows and investing time in planning for a schoolwide literacy approach at the leadership level brings the effort front and center. Once the plan is in place, it’s important to monitor implementation closely and systematically.  Guide and Checklists for a School Leader’s Walkthrough during Literacy Instruction in Grades 4–12 

Make sure that teachers have ongoing opportunities for professional development and discussion within their content areas.

It takes time and effort for teachers of math, science, history, and other subjects to figure out how best to help students meet their disciplines’ distinct literacy demands. At the secondary level, many content area teachers have little or no experience in  providing explicit reading and writing instruction to their students.   To take on that job, and to learn to do it well, they’ll require meaningful, long-term professional development.

Help teachers find ways to remediate and accelerate.

Historically, remedial reading courses have often been  a dead end for the students assigned to them. When providing services for struggling readers, the goal must be to help them catch up to grade level as soon as possible through providing explicit instruction that targets their specific areas of need.

Make time for reading interventions.

Many schools are experimenting with ways to squeeze extra time into the schedule for reading interventions, whether by taking time away from elective courses or by teaching reading early in the morning, after school, on the weekends, or over the summer. For example, ninth grade academies — providing intensive, accelerated reading instruction — have become popular, as has the scheduling of extra class periods for literacy instruction.

Think hard before investing in commercial programs.

Commercial publishers have numerous intervention programs for struggling adolescent readers. In most states, programs usually have to meet the standard of “high quality” or “research based.” Curate and EdReports vet programs to determine if they meet this standard.

If your school has no reading specialist on staff, then consider investing in training for teachers and/or staff who are interested in becoming local leaders on the topic of reading assessment.

For recommendations of good professional development programs and resources in your area, contact your school district, state department of education, or regional affiliate of the International Reading Association.

Guide and Checklists for a School Leader’s Walkthrough during Literacy Instruction in Grades 4–12  


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