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Imbedding Adolescent Literacy in Out-of-School-Time Programs

Carnegie Corporation of New York
How can structured out-of-school (OST) time programs provide more support to students and schools in advancing literacy skills? How might these programs incorporate adolescent literacy development activities, while preserving their unique youth development approach?

On this page:

We suggest eight areas to consider for programs that wish to enhance or develop literacy initiatives targeted at adolescents.

  • Alignment of goals, activities, instruction, professional development,
  • Participant assessment,
  • Literacy skill and strategy foundations,
  • Student engagement and motivation,
  • Tutoring strategies,
  • One-on-one support,
  • Transfer opportunities, and
  • Program evaluation.

Alignment of goals, activities, instruction, and professional development

OST providers interested in enhancing their adolescent literacy development activities should first consider where such activities might fit into the programs’ overall goals. Once you have determined to what extent literacy development and/or enrichment activities support the intent of your program, then project coordinators and staff may engage in a process of strategic planning around literacy. In the table below, we provide a brief summary of possible literacy-related objectives organized by the four types of adolescent literacy development programs. Each category includes a sample programmatic goal, followed by some examples of corresponding adolescent literacy development (ALD) objectives, instructional activities, and professional development/planning activities that may be appropriate in supporting these goals.

Participant assessment

Assessing students’ literacy skills is critical to the success of any program that uses texts in activities. Participant assessment allows the program to gain perspective on students’ existing literacy skills, carefully tapping into what young people can do, like to do, and want to do in terms of literate activity as they enter the program and as they progress throughout the program.

Even those programs who do not strive to teach literate skill, but employ various kinds of text as a cornerstone of their activities, should assess the literate skill of their participants. Such assessments allow you to take stock of the demands your activities place on participants and to assess whether the activities risk excluding youth from full participation in the program.

The negative feelings that many youth associate with assessments raise the dilemma of how programs can accurately and routinely assess young people’s literacy development without treating them to a steady diet of testing. Our suggestion is to make use of some forms of formal assessment judiciously at starting, mid, and ending points of participation in the program, and to bolster those formal assessments with informal, dynamic assessments throughout program activities.

Literacy assessments can range from standardized test batteries to more informal assessments, such as informal reading inventories, content reading inventories, literacy process interviews, literacy attitude surveys, literacy practice interviews, and portfolios. In what follows, we offer a few specific suggestions of age-appropriate literacy assessment materials.

  • Standardized test batteries. Although these data can be very valuable for formal evaluation of program success, we strongly discourage the actual administration of such instruments within the program itself, preferring that OST providers rely on data gathered via school settings. If it is absolutely necessary for the program to administer a standardized assessment, then we suggest the Gates-McGinitie (GMRT, Riverside Publishing). The GMRT is relatively brief in duration, can be accessed on line, and offers accompanying instructional suggestions based on the assessment results.
  • Informal reading inventories (IRIs). There are a number of excellent informal literacy assessments that provide educators with information about the specific nature of readers’ and writers’ strengths and challenges. Such information is also helpful in programs that are not explicitly about literacy development but that recognize their programs as having high literacy demands. Informal reading inventories such as the Qualitative Reading Inventory provide information on decoding, fluency, and comprehension across many levels.
  • Content reading inventories. The advantage of a content-area reading inventory (CARI) is that it is based on actual content texts that actual young people are expected to read in their middle and high school classrooms. Any educator can construct a CARI simply by choosing a complete section of text and developing questions that require readers to extract information, make inferences, and apply ideas in the text to their own lives. The disadvantage of this individualized assessment is that the OST provider must construct content reading inventories themselves; there are no prepared materials to purchase. However, they are extremely cost effective because they demand only that a program have access to either content-area textbooks or to real-world texts that might appropriately be used in content classrooms.
  • Literacy process interviews. Literacy process interviews are designed to assess how readers and writers think about their work as they are engaged in it. The interview questions one designs serve only as a protocol, with specific questions framed for particular reading and writing activities as they occur. The participants’ responses are not scored on a scale, but are used to guide program educators as they teach youth different literacy skills and strategies. For example, questions might revolve around what a reader did when encountering an unknown word. Such questions provides the program educator with a valuable insight not only about the type of vocabulary that might challenge adolescent readers in the program, but also about the particular strategies a given reader might know for dealing with unknown or difficult words.
  • Literacy practices interviews. Literacy practices interviews can be given individually or in small, focus group-like settings. Literacy practices interviews have the goal of eliciting the different kinds of texts (e.g., print, digital, oral) that youth like to read/write/hear/speak.
  • Portfolios. We use the idea of portfolios here to represent the notion that one of the best ways of assessing is to collect examples of youth work over time. Portfolios — which can include formal assessments, all of the interview responses listed above, written texts, book lists, art work, and anything else that participants and program educators feel represents participant growth — capture progress and effort in a single piece of writing, as well as development over time.
Program TypeDescription & GoalsLiteracy Objectives
Literacy and/or Academic
OST programs that provide explicit literacy and academic instruction to youth who struggle in school, with the goal of improving literacy and/or overall academic achievement*Help youth achieve grade-level proficiency in reading and writing

*Teach youth reading and writing strategies that will enable them to become independent learners

*Support classroom curricula through project-based learning opportunities and scaffold required literacy skills

Literacy EnhancementOST programs that engage young people in activities that require the use and refinement of literacy skills, including creative and persuasive writing, public speaking, and debate, both to increase the motivation of young people and to develop critical literacy skills necessary for participation in a democratic society*Engage youth in fun, project-based reading and writing activities with relevant, meaningful content

*Use written and oral communication as a tool for and reflect on their experiences

*Provide opportunities for young people to share their writing with an audience, reflect on their creative work, use writing to accomplish tasks, and grow as literary artists
Academic EnhancementOST programs that coordinate activities to support academic skill-building in reading and writing to promote positive attitudes, and self-confidence around learning and academic success through a variety of activities that build academic competencies*Provide a print-rich environment for young people to be exposed to a variety of texts

*Engage participants in standards-based educational curricula embedded using educational games, art, music, drama, dance and career exploration opportunities

*Seek transfer learning opportunities by imbedding classroom curriculum objectives within project-based activities
Social DevelopmentOST programs that support positive youth development and encourage young people to make positive choices and transition successfully to adulthood. Often include literacy-based activities, without literacy instruction or opportunities to practice literacy skills with guidance*Provide opportunities for youth to use their communication skills

*Demonstrate how literate activities are an essential ingredient in pursuing careers like theatre arts

*Engender a value in academic success by creating opportunities for young people to become proficient in reading and writing

Program TypeSample Literacy ActivitiesPlanning and Teaching Tasks
Literacy and/or Academic Development*Individualized and small-group instruction in a range of literacy skills

*Opportunities to read orally and silently for practice

*Opportunities to hear others read

*Opportunities to write for practice and to review writing

*Opportunities to read others’ writing

*Activities to help youth locate texts that correspond with their interests (e.g., trips to local libraries/bookstores)

*Guidance for youth in setting purposes for reading, monitoring comprehension, and employing strategies as needed

*Intensive, on-going professional development in basic literacy teaching practices, including phonics and phonemic awareness, vocabulary instruction, language analysis, text structure, and comprehension strategies; working with youth from multiple social and cultural backgrounds; motivation, interest, and engagement

*Analysis of instructional texts, with a focus on the motivating features, and linguistic/cognitive demands

*Assessment of contexts for instruction, with focus on motivating/de-motivating features

*Participant assessment
Literacy Enhancement*Project-based activities, often for the purposes of community/civic service (e.g., social action projects that require young people to take stands on issues, use data to argue points, and reason through their arguments

*Data gathering (via interviews and surveys

*Information text reading

*Debate and dialogue

*Persuasive writing (e.g., essays, critiques, and letter writing)

*Reviewing, critiquing, and revising oral and written texts
*Intensive, on-going professional development in basic literacy teaching practices, including phonics and phonemic awareness, vocabulary instruction, language analysis, text structure, and comprehension strategies; working with youth from multiple social and cultural backgrounds; motivation, interest, and engagement; working with youth from multiple social and cultural backgrounds; motivation, interest, and engagement

*Analysis of instructional texts, with a focus on the motivating features, and linguistic/cognitive demands of the texts

*Assessment of contexts for instruction, with focus on motivating/de-motivating features

*Participant assessment

Academic Enhancement
  • Games
  • Reading informational texts
  • Writing essays, research reports, and narratives
  • Arts-based activities
  • Project-based learning activities
  • Field trips
  • Data collection activities
  • Community service
*Intensive, on-going professional development in basic literacy teaching practices

*Assessment of literate demands of the academic activities

*As appropriate, analysis of instructional texts, with a focus on the motivating features and the linguistic/cognitive demands of the texts

*Assessment of contexts for instruction, with focus on motivating/de-motivating features

*Participant assessment with a focus on literacy skills
Social Development
  • Games
  • Reading informational texts
  • Writing essays, research reports, and narratives
  • Arts-based activities
  • Project-based learning activitiesc
  • Field trips
  • Data collection activities
  • Community service
*Assessment of literate demands of the social development activities as necessitated by assessment of literate demands

*Targeted professional development in specific literacy teaching practices

*Professional development in motivation, interest, and engagement in reading and writing

*Analysis of texts to be used in activities, with a focus on the motivating features and the linguistic/cognitive demands of the texts

*Professional development in working with youth from multiple social and cultural backgrounds

*Assessment of contexts for instruction, with focus on motivating/de-motivating features

Literacy skill and strategy foundations

The next step for all OST programs interested in advancing adolescent literacy is to build a strong foundation of activities and interactions that value a diverse range of reading, writing, and verbal communication skills. OST programs that are built upon a robust literacy foundation provide the following:

  • Text-rich environments. Successful programs seem to offer a diverse range of print and electronic reading materials, including texts that represent a wide array of cultural, racial, ethnic, and classbased experiences. Students also need a quiet, productive space afterschool for studying.
  • Project-based curricula. Rather than engaging in a series of ad-hoc activities, quality programs plan and implement educational enrichment activities that are well designed and aligned with-or at least acknowledge-state educational standards. Typically, the features of project-based pedagogy include (a) questions that encompass worthwhile and meaningful content anchored in authentic or real-world problems; (b) investigations and artifact creation that allow students to learn apply concepts, demonstrate their understanding, and receive ongoing feedback; (c) collaboration among students, teachers, and others in the community; and (d) use of literacy and technological tools.
  • Meaningful learning opportunities. The idea of framing activities in purposeful projects is not new, and many in- and out-of-school time groups consider such work central to providing meaningful learning opportunities for children and youth. Designing activities as projects with clearly defined goals or driving questions helps to make the literacy learning more meaningful.
  • Qualified staff members who can respond to student questions and lead without controlling, youth work. We must underscore the importance of including lead staff members who understand literacy processes, recognize the different types of texts that exist and be able to analyze the demands of working with such texts, know the range of literacy skills they might encounter in participants, and are knowledgeable about various strategies for making sense of or producing written texts. Without at least some expertise among the staff, it is likely that programs will turn to packaged literacy activities that violate the principle of being embedded in meaningful work.
  • Opportunities for youth to draft, share and revise their work. Developing good writing skills includes the ability to create multiple drafts, incorporate constructive feedback and continuously improve one’s work. OST programs should include this process in both literacy development and enhancement activities. Students also enjoy sharing their work with a broader audience, although many are often hesitant at first, given negative associations they may have with past writing experiences. Making writing public can give writing activities a sense of greater purpose.
  • Provide opportunities for students to enhance multi-literacies. OST providers should not assume a certain skill level and access to technology among their young participants. Research shows that certain segments of disadvantaged communities still have difficulty in accessing and high-end use of computers and online communication. Competency in multi-literacies requires the ability to communicate through various forms of multimedia, to access information online efficiently, and process streams of text.

Student engagement and motivation

Given the urgency they face to show immediate improvement in school-like tasks, most literacy development programs look and feel schoollike. The irony, of course, with this situation, is that the programs offer youth more of the same activities they fail at in school.

OST programs can offer youth activities and tasks that generate the need to communicate in print, thus producing a reason to learn print. In addition, OST programs can link to school-based project curricula and taking up where school projects leave off or cannot go. OST could partner with schools to provide opportunities for youth to continue to explore community-based literacy and content learning across a variety of disciplines.

Tutoring strategies

When it comes to helping students with their homework, tutors and staff should be prepared to teach students strategies that will help them become independent learners.

  • Assessing the student’s approach to various literacy tasks and gaining student commitment to enhance learning. The tutor’s goal is to clearly define the skills and strategies necessary to complete current assignments, evaluate whether the student’s current strategy is working, and gain the student’s commitment to learn a more efficient and effective strategy.
  • Co-construction of a learning strategy. Based on student needs and the context of learning (i.e., the particular homework assignment), the tutor works in collaboration with the student to create a simple, logical series of information processing and self-regulation steps to accomplish the task.
  • Teaching strategies. The Teaching phase contains three critical components. In the first, Modeling,, the tutor provides an expert model of the learning strategy and monitoring behaviors by demonstrating how to apply the behaviors to the students’ current homework assignment. The main goal during modeling is to model the expert thinking and verbal self-talk associated with using good strategies to complete academic tasks. In the second, Guiding, the tutors provides scaffolded support as the student applies the new strategy to the task at hand. During Guiding, the tutor provides positive and corrective feedback to the student. Finally, the tutor provides continued Support as the student applies the strategies more and more independently.
  • Application to a new task. Once the student has mastered the strategy for a particular subject area, the next step is transferring that skill to an assignment in another class. Again, the tutor models the strategy and guides the student in practicing the steps repeatedly until the tasks can be performed independently.

One-on-one support

At least one-quarter of students struggle with basic literacy skills, and the proportion is higher for low-income and minority youth. OST programs serve a significant number of students that need extra support beyond enrichment. Research shows that one-on-one tutoring can help improve at-risk students’ reading achievement.

Transfer opportunities

Rather than focusing on spelling and grammar, OST programs may emphasize student expression and creativity. However, from a research standpoint, it is unclear if non-academic reading and writing activities transfer into school success. If the OST provider seeks to advance academic achievement, programs may explore ways of making transfer more explicit without losing their uniquely engaging instructional styles. For example,

  • Intentionally Disguised Learning. Perhaps after participants engage in a highly motivating project that uses literate skills, programs can facilitate a student-led discussion on the educative value of the activities.
  • Dovetail afterschool projects with classroom assignments.
  • Insure that youth experience a diversity of contexts to apply their literacy skills.

Program evaluation

After OST providers have tailored their literacy activities to participants’ strengths and challenges according to well-defined programmatic goals, a comprehensive evaluation plan helps to track outcomes and measure success. A strong evaluation plan examines both the process of the literacy intervention (i.e., inputs and the nuances of day-to-day practice), as well as the results (i.e., outputs, in terms of both data on student achievement and on student and parent satisfaction and motivation).

Although there are no published tools available that are specific to adolescent literacy development in out-of-school time, the Center for Summer Learning provides a helpful, more general self-assessment tool for OST providers, based on effective practice research. The self-assessment includes dozens of questions for OST provider to consider in supporting a intentional learning environments including staff development, evaluation and sustainability.

Finally, be sure to include input from the young people about the content and design of your literacy enrichment activities. Find out the skills, talents, and interests of the youth participating in your program. Establish regular feedback mechanisms, such as student satisfaction surveys and a youth board, to insure that young people have multiple opportunities to guide program planning and implementation.

Moje, E. B., & Tysvaer, N. (2009). Adolescent literacy development in out-of-school time: A practitioner’s guide . New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.