Adolescent Literacy

A Schoolwide Approach

11/20/2009  |  JOAN SEDITA, M.ED.

There has been a growing interest in recent years in adolescent literacy, especially as Americans become more concerned about the economic and civic health of the nation. Literacy skills are necessary more than ever to succeed in college and work, as well as to manage the everyday life demands of an increasingly more complex society and world economy.

Unfortunately, literacy problems among students in grades four through 12 continue to be widespread. On the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 69 percent of eighth graders fell below the proficient level in their ability to comprehend the meaning of text at their grade level. Reports show that even high school students with average reading ability are currently unprepared for the literacy demands of many workplace and postsecondary educational settings.

School-Wide Planning

More middle and high schools are beginning to acknowledge that they must develop a school-wide approach to teaching literacy skills to all students, that includes two tiers of instruction. The first tier is content literacy instruction for all students that is delivered in regular classes including history, science, math and English language arts. The second is reading instruction for struggling readers that is delivered partly in regular content classes, and partly in intervention settings (including extended English/language arts blocks and individual/small group settings).

A school-wide approach to reading instruction must involve all teachers in the development of the model and delivery of reading instruction, including regular content teachers and staff who work with special populations. It must also have strong, committed leadership that provides ongoing support and guidance for reading instruction.

There is no single explanation for why some students beyond grade five have reading difficulties. Although adolescent reading problems are sometimes attributed to lack of study, motivation or attention, research in reading and literacy has shown that these issues are often secondary consequences of underlying problems, not the primary causes of poor reading. In most cases, struggling readers have difficulty in one or more of the following:

  • Word recognition and decoding skills (i.e., phonemic awareness, phonics, and/or fluency)
  • Language processing ability at the word, sentence or discourse level
  • Vocabulary development
  • Life experience, background knowledge of the reading topic
  • Awareness of one’s own comprehension processes (metacognition)
  • Comprehension and study strategies

The best way to determine the cause of an individual student’s reading difficulty is through diagnostic assessment. Annual reading assessments should be administered to all students. The assessments can be group-administered, but should yield more than a simple grade-level score.They should provide a first-round indication of individual ability in specific components of reading (e.g., word identification, fluency, vocabulary, listening and reading comprehension, comprehension strategy skills). Based on the results of this initial assessment, two categories of readers can be identified: good readers and struggling readers.

Two Settings for Literacy Instruction

Struggling readers and good readers need content literacy instruction that incorporates differentiated instruction and scaffolding to meet a wide variety of needs. Realistically, content teachers should not be expected to provide interventions for decoding and fluency, but they are in many ways in the best position to teach comprehension, vocabulary, and writing about content skills. As content specialists, they know more about how to read science, math, history and literature. Inclusion teachers, or paraprofessionals, may be assigned to these content classes to assist in providing differentiated instruction. Based on a meta-analysis of the research to date on effective adolescent literacy instruction, the Institute for Education Sciences made the following recommendations that address content literacy instruction:

  • Provide explicit vocabulary instruction
  • Provide direct and explicit comprehension strategy instruction
  • Provide opportunities for extended discussion of text meaning and interpretation
  • Increase student motivation and engagement in literacy learning

The fifth recommendation was to make available intensive and individualized interventions for struggling readers that can be provided by trained special-ists. This recognizes that some students need more intense help to improve literacy skills than classroom teachers can provide. Struggling learners need different interventions based on their individual needs. Some may need instruction in basic word identification skills. Some may need specific practice to develop fluency skills. Some may require instruction in language structures or vocabulary development, while others may need more practice with comprehension strategy instruction than is offered in regular content classes.

The teachers providing intervention instruction and supplemental reading programs can be reading specialists, special education teachers,Title I teachers, and/or paraprofessionals. The intervention methods and materials may include specific supplemental reading programs, targeted intervention instruction and/or reading intervention software.

Middle and high school administrators must make the acquisition of reading skills a priority and provide adequate time in the school schedule for reading instruction. They must also be willing to use flexible grouping patterns when scheduling students in order to implement a two-tiered model for delivering reading instruction in both content classes and intervention settings. Professional development for content teachers and specialists is also essential.

The time, effort, and expertise necessary to develop a school-wide plan for providing effective reading instruction to all students present a challenge for most middle and high schools. The challenge is worth taking — there is an urgent need to improve the reading, writing and comprehension skills of middle and high school students.

Joan Sedita is founding partner of Keys to Literacy, a literacy professional development organization that focuses on adolescent literacy. For more information visit
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