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Millions of youth lack the literacy skills they need to succeed in postsecondary education and the workplace, and the trajectory of achievement in secondary schools for struggling, reluctant, or English language learners point to this as a continuing need.1 Youth with learning disabilities (LD) are among the least prepared. Students labeled as ‘struggling’ are generally considered to be two or more years behind grade level expectations. Two-thirds of secondary students with LD are reading three or more grades levels behind. Twenty percent are reading five or more grade levels behind.2

Adolescent literacy has emerged in the past decade as a unique focus of literacy development with specific concerns and practices. The topic has attracted the attention of educators, service providers, researchers, and policymakers alike as a key to ensure that youth have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in 21st century postsecondary education and the workplace. Researchers have documented what works and best approaches for reading and content area instruction for secondary youth and returning young adults.3

Struggling students and those with diagnosed LD have unique instructional needs. This Tech Works Info Brief taps into the findings of the research on adolescent literacy and suggests ways technology tools can support the teaching and learning process and promote independence.

Technology can be a tremendous benefit to differentiating instruction and supporting learners’ success with literacy tasks in career training. Used strategically, technology tools can support individualized needs while supporting instruction of a shared, core curriculum. Students with LD will most likely not be prepared to use many mainstream tools as learning supports, however, as “far too few” K-12 students with LD are using technology in the classroom.4 They will need explicit instruction and guided practice to become proficient.

A handful of big ideas in adolescent literacy research should inform how school and alternative programs approach this topic and plan programs for youth and professional development for their instructors. These ideas indicate that programs and instructors should pay particular attention to: background knowledge and vocabulary, comprehension strategies, the synergies of reading and writing, and the importance of interest and motivation.

Background knowledge and vocabulary

Youth who struggle with academics, including those with LD, will likely benefit from focused attention on their background knowledge and vocabulary as part of literacy instruction.5 As youth move from general survey courses in secondary school to more in-depth disciplines and career training topics, specific background knowledge and vocabulary assumed in reading materials and preparation tasks become even more important. Pre-teaching and making explicit the background knowledge and vocabulary assumptions needed for success in a training program are keys to helping youth engage the material thoughtfully. This is especially true for students who are English language learners (ELLs); even if their oral English is quite proficient, the content areas and specific job-related vocabularies are often completely unfamiliar. Learners with LD need explicit, multisensory instruction that helps them connect new vocabulary with the sounds and spelling patterns, and many opportunities to use and hear new words in context.

The youth population in the United States is multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic, and becoming more diverse each year. Students represent a wide range of abilities, educational experiences, and literacies.6 This diversity questions any assumptions made by programs and curriculum developers about background knowledge and vocabulary, and underscores the need to pay attention to relationship building, engaging learners’ interests, and supplying a variety of scaffolds, including technology tools.

How can technology support learners?

Electronic references such as dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias. Definitions, translations, and explanations are now a click away. Identify dictionaries and other online tools to use in the program, teach their use, and expect students to use them to develop their vocabulary skills. Look for tools with text to speech to read the word, read the definitions, and support word study. If classrooms are not equipped with Internet-ready computers, consider purchasing handheld dictionaries with many of the same features and encourage students to get their own and use them. Have students sign up for a word of the day e-mail or text message to receive on their own cell or smart phones.

Video supports, how-to diagrams and animated illustrations. Visuals are a fantastic tool for building background knowledge, especially for ELL learners. Bookmark sites such as in a new window) with content specific illustrations to help learners grasp sequences, interactions, and relationships. Use virtual manipulatives and interactive math dictionaries such as the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives(opens in a new window) and The Math Forum@Drexel University(opens in a new window) to demonstrate concepts and vocabulary.

Comprehension strategies

All students benefit from ongoing comprehension strategy instruction throughout their academic careers as the texts and expectations continue to change dramatically across content areas (a biology lab report is constructed and written quite differently than a history text, for example).7 The same is true for career and technical preparation. How texts are constructed, the key structural phrases and words, and the unique vocabularies of specific disciplines contribute to the unique “academic literacies” of each discipline. Learners with LD have difficulty in comprehension for a variety of reasons. They may struggle to decode the text, stay focused, monitor their comprehension, make inferences, or generalize to the larger reading purpose. They need many opportunities to experience guided practice, hear strategies modeled, and be prompted to employ appropriate strategies.

A variety of comprehension strategies are appropriate for all readers, but struggling readers often have a very limited repertoire. They need explicit modeling and guided practice to learn new strategies or to apply different strategies appropriate for specific texts.8 Supporting and reinforcing comprehension instruction requires a deliberate increase in the amount and quality of time devoted to open, sustained discussion of reading content. Far from watering down expectations, this recommendation calls on instructors of all types of courses to step up and increase the rigor of the intellectual intensity with which they engage their learners in discussions of text and modeling of comprehension. This discussion time can be used to model and roleplay thoughtful, respectful conversations and critical thinking skills — soft skills that struggling students often lack and which workforce development programs and employers identify as key to workplace success.

How can technology support learners?

Digital text. Convert any scanned reading material into digital text with a scanner that has optical character recognition. This allows it to be read aloud by text to speech software and also customized to meet visual needs (enlarged font, shaded background, etc.). Books are increasingly available for purchase as digital books through online booksellers and free ebooks are available at Project Gutenberg(opens in a new window) University of Virginia library. For learners with a documented visual and print disability, a subscription is available to the vast online repositories of digital books at in a new window) and Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic(opens in a new window).

Text-to-speech (TTS) software with electronic references. Providing a read aloud through TTS supports learners’ comprehension and vocabulary. Many students with dyslexia have better listening than reading comprehension. TTS programs, especially those with highlighting as the text is read provides a model of fluent reading, supports vocabulary development, and frees attention for annotation and active comprehension.

Annotations and study skill features. Literacy software with text-to-speech and study skill features can assist learners to be active readers. Teach readers how to annotate with virtual post-it notes, bookmarking, highlighting, and color coding.

Synergy of reading and writing

Just as academic literacies challenge reading comprehension, they also challenge learner’s writing proficiencies. While a student may be able to write a personal narrative or creative story, he or she may struggle to construct an acceptable technical report or daily event log. Explicit writing instruction and guided practice reinforces vocabulary and comprehension strategies9 to help learners generalize and internalize the academic literacies and gain confidence with them. And while reading and writing are complementary processes, struggling writers, especially those with LD, need explicit strategy instruction and guided practice to become proficient and flexible writers.10 The underdeveloped writing skills of many new workers are considered a major barrier to workplace and postsecondary success.

In addition, preparing youth for the 21st century workplace includes the ability to write for multiple audiences and purposes, alone or collaboratively, and to use a variety of tools and platforms to do so.11 Learners with LD commonly continue to struggle with many of the components of writing including spelling, handwriting, planning, revising, and editing. Literacy instructors can coordinate planning with other content area teachers to reinforce a shared set of writing strategies and approaches across content areas, including the use of similar technologies.

How can technology support learners?

Spell checkers. Despite the ubiquity of spell checkers in mainstream word processors, strategies to use them efficiently are rarely taught. Install the program on all computers in the program. Teach how to use it and expect learners to access it. They should know how to attempt a spelling in order to generate a list of suggestions, how to skim the list of suggested words, and how to check whether the correct word has been chosen. Teach learners how to use spell checkers in conjunction with dictionaries, thesauruses, glossaries, and other reference sources and to listen to their writing through a text-to-speech program as a means of proofreading. Consider programs specifically designed to catch the common mistakes made by dyslexic writers.

Word prediction software. These programs are built on common patterns of English writing and misspellings and may have the ability to “learn” from users’ mistakes. These programs predict, offer a suggested next word or phrase (predict) that can be chosen from a list, and correction suggestions that are often more accurate than the spell checker programs that come with mainstream word processing programs.

Graphic organizer software with outlining and drafting capabilities. Electronic graphic organizers can be used as presentation to whole groups for a discussion of relationships and concepts, or by individuals as pre-reading or during reading organizers to aid comprehension. By mapping relationships visually, abstract connections and sequences can be made explicit. Programs that convert from visual presentation to outline or draft can help struggling learners convert their thinking into writing.

Voice recognition software. For students who have severe dysgraphia or spelling disabilities that inhibit their writing, using voice recognition software may offer an alternative way to input their thoughts. Training times have been greatly reduced and accuracy greatly increased in the last generation of this technology. Although training the user and the software is still important and represents a time commitment, for some users, it is well worth it.

Interest and motivation

Interest and motivation are absolutely key to learning, yet youth with LD or who have experienced years of school failure may be reluctant to reengage with any academic system.12 The best way to learn what youth are interested in is to watch what they do on their own time. Take an environmental scan of the out-of-classroom literacies taking place in your own hallways and parking lots: singing, dancing, texting, e-mailing, gaming, note writing, surfing the Internet, photography, music, etc. Look for what digital devices learners carry with them. The literacies that youth engage in on their own can be used to draw analogies to and support academic literacies that contribute to rather than conflict with their emerging identities.13 Tapping into their interests can energize youth’s motivation to do the extra work required to be successful.14 In several studies of youth and adults, Fink15 found that even severely dyslexic learners reported reading a significant amount of text and actively engaging in inquiry for extended periods when driven by their interests.

Similarly, community-based projects that engage youth as responsible community members can successfully draw on the “funds of knowledge”16 present in their families, themselves, and their communities. Forging partnerships with community organizations can provide internships, projects, and mentors.

How can technology support learners?

Digital project-based learning. Use the Internet for inquiry based projects for research, identification and communication with other models and communities engaged in the same topic, and to create end products that can be shared with the larger community on the Internet — a digital movie or podcast, a tutorial, a report or blog post. Encourage learners to “geek out” and “go deep”17 on a subject, becoming and involving experts on a topic.

Digital storytelling. Create opportunities for learners to tell their stories and become self advocates. Digital storytelling platforms such as the free MovieMaker in Windows XP or iMovie in Apple’s iLife suite can help even students with limited English begin with visuals and take their time to narrate, record, or transcribe their story into a digital movie they are proud to show. Digital presentations like these are increasingly being accepted as an audition for employment, internships, or training programs.

Presentation and diagramming software. Encourage learners to represent what they know by making available presentation software such as PowerPoint, simple web pages, or graphic organizers. Students who struggle with language can excel with visual representations when trained to use the programs. Google Sketch allows users to create 3-D representations and designs.

Resources and technical assistance centers

Below are sources of additional information on adolescent literacy, learning disabilities, training materials, and links to further professional learning opportunities:

Adolescent Literacy ( in a new window) provides online articles, graphic organizers, and links to research-based information on instruction and supports for youth literacy development.

Carnegie Corporation of New York(opens in a new window) sponsors the Carnegie Council for Advancing Adolescent Literacy which produces reports on how to advance literacy and learning for all students, including such topics as the cost of implementing adolescent literacy programs and reading in the disciplines.

Edutopia(opens in a new window) is an interactive site with examples and suggestions for digital project-based learning initiatives and an active community of educators. in a new window) is an interactive technology planning tool and roadmap, created by the Center for Implementing Technology in Education(opens in a new window).

The International Reading Association(opens in a new window) maintains a focus area for adolescent literacy and professional development resources and research.

LD OnLine(opens in a new window) offers hundreds of resources and articles specific to addressing the academic and life success of individuals with LD. The technology section hosts articles on how to integrate technology into teaching, learning, and independent living.

Literacy Matters(opens in a new window) hosts an online collection of professional development modules, archived workshops, and resources addressing the instruction of adolescent literacy and a section for activities for learners.

TechMatrix(opens in a new window), an online database of products reviewed for universal design and accessibility, features with links to manufacturers’ websites and a collection of research on the use of technology for instruction.