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Best Practices for Adolescent Literacy in Afterschool and Summer Programs

The National Summer Learning Association examines the characteristics of effective summer learning opportunities, gives examples of high-quality programs, and presents an agenda for improving such programs.

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Parents often view the summer months and afterschool time as opportunities to offer their children new experiences that they wouldn’t have access to during the school day — exploring interests and hobbies, catching up on an area of schoolwork in which they need additional help, participating in sports, arts, and camps, vacationing, and spending time with relatives. Summer, in particular, tends to conjure an idyllic image characterized by choice and flexibility. In line with this image, a recent Academy for Educational Development poll of American parents finds that 43% of parents want summer programs to be fun, while 24% want the programs to be learning opportunities, and 22% desire a more academic focus. While middle class parents are more likely to look for summer opportunities offering enrichment experiences, lower income parents prefer instructional programs that instill learning skills through tutoring and assignments (Public Agenda 2004). This difference may be due, in large part, to the different types of summer experiences available in middle class compared to low-income neighborhoods.

The image of summer and afterschool programs as exploratory learning opportunities does not have to be disconnected from reality. Programs can strike a balance between enrichment activities and academic content that will boost students’ performance in reading, writing, and text comprehension. Numerous studies confirm that quality summer and afterschool programs can have a positive impact on adolescents’ literacy abilities, overall academic success, and socio-emotional development.

While there are many ways to measure program quality, the National Summer Learning Association offers a framework that focuses on two dimensions: approach to learning and program infrastructure. Effective summer learning programs, in particular, have an intentional focus on accelerating learning, support healthy development, and provide early and sustained opportunities for skill-building during the summer months. They are supported by a strong program infrastructure that emphasizes empowering leadership, collaborative planning, extensive staff development, strategic partnerships, commitment to evaluation and a focus on long-term sustainability.

The Department of Education offers four key components as essential for an Adolescent Literacy Support Framework: 1) staff motivation, 2) research-based instructional practices, 3) strong curriculum, and 4) organizational support. Other researchers and organizations emphasize instructional quality, enrichment opportunities, high expectations, rigor, approaches to learning that link academic content to student interests, a strong mentoring component, cooperative learning, use of graphics (e.g., story maps) and technology, strong text structure, diverse mediums for communications, age-appropriate curriculum, targeted skill development, access to variety of texts, and real-world activities to stimulate learning as components of quality programs (Alvermann, 2001; Biancarosa & Snow, 2004; Guthrie & Davis, 2003).

When examined in tandem, these components of effective programming seem to indicate that out-of-school time programs have a tall order to fill. Holistic programming is difficult to implement, and few afterschool and summer programs have invested seriously in linking program practices to youth outcomes (Spielberger and Halpern, 2002). However, there are many excellent examples in the field in which providers and curriculum developers are working together to offer comprehensive programming that includes a strong literacy focus. Many of these programs employ some of the professional development strategies mentioned in the previous section, and they continually look for ways to strengthen their current offerings. These programs acknowledge and support the vision that summer and afterschool should be fun as well as academically enriching. Following are a just a few examples of high-quality programs for adolescents.

Characteristics of Effective Summer Learning Programs

The National Summer Learning Association’s approach to learning

  1. Intentional focus on accelerated learning

  2. Firm commitment to youth development

  3. Proactive approach to summer learning

Program Infrastructure

  1. Strong, empowering leadership

  2. Advanced, collaborative planning

  3. Extensive opportunities for staff development

  4. Strategic partnerships

  5. Rigorous approach to evaluation and commitment to program improvement

  6. Clear focus on sustainability and cost-effectiveness

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Examples of High-Quality Programs

AfterSchool KidzLit

AfterSchool KidzLit is an afterschool reading program for grades K–8 that promotes young people’s motivation to read, capacity to read, thinking skills, and social development. The program is built around 120 books that appeal to young people’s interests. A facilitator guide for each book helps youth workers to organize a readaloud, partner reading, or “book club” activity in addition to providing questions to prompt group discussion.

KidzLit was created and piloted during a three year period at over 100 highly diverse sites in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Atlanta, and New York, serving students ages 5 to 13. Site staff who have used KidzLit report that youth participants show an increased enjoyment of literature and desire to read, an enhanced vocabulary, a greater ability to express ideas, stronger relationships with peers and adults, a greater understanding of self and others, and a strengthened commitment to shared values.

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Harlem RBI

Harlem RBI is a unique year round youth development program in East Harlem, New York offering a variety of enriching activities centered on literacy. Although Harlem RBI began as a little league baseball program for neighborhood youth, the program has grown to include a sophisticated literacy component in which youth are grouped according to reading level and have various opportunities to develop reading and writing skills. The curriculum includes individual work, such as independent reading and writing in reading response journals, and teamwork that links morning classroom instruction to the afternoon baseball game.

Founded in 1999, the program serves 600 low-income children annually ages 7 to 18. Last summer 86% of youth improved their reading scores or kept them constant, showing no summer learning loss, while 92% of children improved in reading comprehension. Among parents surveyed, 90% reported an improvement in their children’s work and attitude towards school.

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hArtworks is an inner-city public middle school literacy magazine written and edited by the students of Charles Hart Middle School. Created by the school and the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, the program gives students an opportunity to exercise their creative energy, speak their minds, and be heard by an audience throughout the city. Started in 1999, the program annually serves over 400 students in grades 4–12. Students participating in the program have showed increased grades in English, improved literacy skills, higher engagement in extracurricular activities, and increased rates of pursuing higher education.

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Trail Blazers

This 20-day residential camp gives students from lower income families an opportunity to engage in enrichment and literacy activities. Participants are encouraged to read, give presentations to their peers, and write for the camp magazine. The children also learn responsibility by making their own beds, scheduling group activities, and aiding in the organizational elements of the camp. By the completion of camp, young people not only walk away with a great learning experience, but also with a portfolio of literary work. Trail Blazers was established in 1938 and annually serves 266 students ages 7-17.

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Youth Education for Tomorrow (YET)

The Youth Education for Tomorrow (YET) program provides customized literacy experiences for diverse ages, grades, and reading level groups four days a week, an hour and a half each day. The program is composed of:

  • read-alouds, which last for approximately ten minutes where teachers read a short text,

  • shout-outs, where students to respond to the initial text,

  • writing using Balanced Literacy components,

  • word works, where students play games to develop specific skills,

  • independent reading for 30 minutes using the 100 Book Challenge, and

  • pre- and post-testing progress assessments.

The program has served over 500 afterschool classrooms across the country. Participants have shown literacy improvement of an average of 1.2 grade levels with at least 180 days between tests.

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Youth Speaks

Youth Speaks is the leading nonprofit presenter of spoken word performance which incorporates education and youth development experiences. Presenters of local and national youth poetry slams, festivals, reading series, and more, Youth Speaks also offers a comprehensive slate of literary arts education programs during the school day and the afterschool hours, and offers numerous publications and youth development programs.

Founded in 1996, Youth Speaks is present in over 40 cities, working with quarter million young adults on reading, writing, and presentation skills. In 2006, San Francisco representatives shared their talent with the American Educational Research Association Out-of-School Time Special Interest Group.

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While the examples above provide a small window into the diverse types of summer and afterschool literacy experiences available to youth, there are many others that we weren’t able to highlight here. For additional examples of best practices, visit the websites below:

Opportunities for the Future: An Agenda for Improved Practice

The continual sharing of best practices is essential to bring literacy programs to the forefront of the national youth development and education agendas, and to inform the field about effective strategies. Although individual organizations highlight specific programs through awards and convenings, more must be done to centralize information and educate practitioners and parents on quality summer and afterschool programs for children of all ages.

The National Summer Learning Association recommends the following agenda for improving literacy practice within summer and afterschool programs:

  • Develop standards for high-quality literacy instruction in summer and afterschool settings that recognize the unique roles these programs play in young people’s lives.

  • Increase the availability of information that explicitly states what effective programs do to advance literacy learning. Include descriptions of the instructional strategies, activities, and resource materials programs rely on to deliver quality programming.

  • Develop a searchable database that houses a compendium of literacy resources created specifically for out-of-school time settings.

  • Provide more opportunities for providers to collaborate and share effective strategies, including professional development and networking opportunities, and site visits to quality programs.

Excerpted with permission from Center for Summer Learning. (2007). Motivating Adolescent Readers: The Role of Summer and Afterschool Programs, pp. 17-21. Baltimore, MD: Author.