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For Teens, Phonics Isn’t Enough

Connect For Kids
Schools often struggle to find appropriate materials and approaches to support adolescent literacy. Strategies that work for children can ignore teens’ existing skills, knowledge, and life experience, and exclude them from the critical content that their peers are studying. Here are some effective teaching strategies for struggling older students.

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“What do you see here?” teacher Rita Jensen asks, showing her class at John Muir Middle School in San Leandro, California a local road map. She pushes them for more description than the obvious, “a map.”

As the students interpret the material, “this road goes here, that one will take you to the freeway,” Jensen interrupts to say, “See, you accessed prior knowledge to infer that.” Or, “You just predicted something.” “You just made a summary.”

This is how Jensen often begins her Opportunities program, a pull-out class for seventh graders with below-grade reading skills. She starts small, with magazine articles, maps or cartoons.

“Students learn the routines of comprehension on very simple texts. They’re learning how to think about what they’re thinking. I get them into routines of interacting with the text and summarizing, predicting, and making connections, so that when I raise the bar in terms of difficulty, they can still do it,” she says.

With each text, students begin by noting their reactions to and questions about the material in the margins as they read. In small groups, they work through their questions with classmates. The whole class then shares thematic summaries and main points along with the strategies they used to unravel complicated passages or complex sentences.

Rita Jensen’s approach is based on a model called the Reading Apprenticeship Framework, developed by the WestEd Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI), a California-based program that trains teachers to address literacy problems in middle and high schools. Jensen says in the three years she’s done this, her students, many of them non-native English speakers, typically advance three grade levels in reading between September and May.

“Kids who are invisible in other classes have nowhere to hide all of a sudden,” says Jensen.

Drop-out dangers

There’s no question that most of our children are learning to read, but as they get older, are they then “reading to learn”?

The numbers paint a dismal picture. American fourth graders score near the top in international comparisons of reading skills, but by the time they reach eleventh grade, they lag behind not only their counterparts in industrialized nations, but also those in much of the developing world as well, including Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines, according to a landmark 2002 RAND Corporation study of adolescent literacy.

A 2003 Department of Education assessment found that 25% of students entering ninth grade read at “below basic” levels, unable to understand newspapers, news magazines or their own textbooks.

Frustrated, many will leave school. Poor literacy is the number-one risk indicator for dropping out. Across the country, nearly 30% of eighth graders will drop out before finishing high school (in some urban areas, the numbers range as high as 50%.

Leaving teens behind

“Around fifth or sixth grade, reading becomes no fun anymore, ” says Jensen. It’s no longer about reading stories and talking them through. “All of a sudden, they’re thrown into six different classes and carry huge, 25-pound textbooks with chapters, main ideas and summaries. It’s a completely different world.”

A world where the good readers have mastered different strategies for approaching different types of writing, such as a science textbook, a primary historical source or an argumentative essay in social studies. They’re the ones asking relevant questions in class, while less-skilled readers sit quietly in the back row. It’s not that they can’t decode the words, most can even read aloud when asked. But comprehending the material, or analyzing or interpreting it, is another story altogether.

“[Struggling] students often bring the idea of what reading is from the way they were taught in early grades: you say the words, say them together, get to the end, and you’re done. It’s more about pronouncing words correctly than actively understanding. In later grades, not actively understanding is a danger and an academic liability,” says Ruth Schoenbach, co-director of WestEd.

While not intuitive to all students, the necessary skills can be taught. “Teachers we work with are helping students realize that reading well is not magic,” says Schoenbach. “It takes effort and supported practice in a classroom community where students and the teacher are talking about reading and how to solve different kinds of comprehension problems.”

“It’s an effort, and we can develop strategies and awareness and learn from each other how to read in different ways,” says Schoenbach.

What works

In classrooms across the country, teachers are incorporating literacy into their science, economics, history and social studies curriculum. They use approaches like the SLI’s Reading Apprenticeship Framework, the University of Kansas’ Strategic Instruction Model, and others.

Many of the most successful ones center on structured small-group discussions. “It seems obvious, but a big motivator and way to engage kids is to get them discussing what they’re reading and get them talking in structured discussions with one another, sharing strategies and ideas,” says Sue Lusi, vice president for policy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, DC-based policy organization that promotes adolescent literacy.

Research shows that intense discussion and time for self-directed reading, choosing supplemental reading materials from a library or online collection of relevant articles, books and primary sources, for example, can help motivate teens and reverse the common “I’m just not a reader” excuse.

Not surprisingly, it helps to work with materials that are relevant to teens’ lives. “Teachers [also] have to look for ways to build connections beyond subject areas and the usual interests,” says Schoenbach.

Hundreds of US schools have begun hiring “literacy coaches” to train and prepare teachers on effective strategies for their classrooms, and to monitor progress. They help teachers plan in-class exercises to improve reading skills while still teaching content.

Other programs, like North Carolina’s Literacy Through Photography, which mixes self-guided photography with writing exercises, and a Danbury, Connecticut program that turns a double-period gym class into a holistic mind-body workshop incorporating reading and writing projects, are less orthodox. Evaluations of these and other programs are underway.

Still, although exact numbers aren’t available, most in the reading field agree that there are too few programs in schools targeting older students’ literacy. A 30-year history of stagnation in reading scores seems to bear that out.

Literacy HotLinks

Redirecting resources

It’s partly a funding issue. Most of the money and research devoted to literacy is aimed at helping younger kids learn the basics, in the hopes that they won’t need literacy help down the line.

Also, it can be hard to convince middle and high school teachers, subject area experts, to spend class time teaching kids to read. Few are trained to teach reading to adolescents, and many are reluctant to take on the task.

“We’re hearing more and more that it’s not fair to assume that the science teacher is going to stop teaching science in favor of reading. But you can say to teachers, there are techniques you can use while teaching science that will help kids better understand your content. It’s about refining your teaching to help kids learn strategies so they can understand the texts,” says the Alliance’s Sue Lusi.

“The big question at the administrative level is, ‘Are the kids learning anything?’” Jensen says. “Are we willing to slow down the curriculum and suffer the consequences of April showing up and we haven’t gotten through the Civil War yet?”

No national strategy

Despite what is known about effective strategies for teens, many middle and high schools still use remedial approaches based on what works for younger kids.

For example, ninth grade students in California whose reading scores are two or more levels below grade level are required to be scheduled for three full class periods each day of phonics instruction. Some advocates worry this ignores teens’ existing skills, knowledge, and life experience, and results in exclusion from critical content that their peers are studying.

In the absence of a national commitment to devote resources to teen literacy, schools struggle to find appropriate materials and approaches, and the funding to sustain their efforts.

In some cases, schools use federal Title I funds aimed to help students at risk. Other schools use private money to staff schools with literacy coaches to train teachers, and to purchase materials and resources. John Muir Middle School uses state funds earmarked for students at risk to provide Rita Jensen with training and materials, Jensen says.

President Bush has proposed spending $100 million on a “Striving Readers” initiative to promote adolescent literacy interventions. It would fund about 50 to 100 grants in secondary schools. A strong start, say advocates, but not enough to turn the grim statistics around.

While the nation crafts its approach, schools and individual teachers will continue their own efforts.

“We’re building a knowledge base,” says Lusi. “As Susan Frost [president of the Alliance for Excellent Education] is fond of saying, ‘We don’t have the cure for cancer, but that doesn’t prevent us from treating it even as we seek cures and better treatments.’”

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