Adolescent Literacy

Issue:

Until recently, literacy was widely seen as an exclusively elementary school issue. The assumption was that once students learned the mechanics of reading and writing (grades 1­-3), they were equipped with the foundation upon which to build comprehension and critical thinking skills. As a result, a significant investment of resources in literacy was made in the early grades. Lack of resources at the local level for secondary schools caused many school systems to eliminate positions for reading teachers at both the middle and high school levels. It is important to remember that middle level and high school teachers are subject-matter focused and do not perceive themselves as reading teachers. Even English teachers teach literature, not reading.

Recent findings call for a new approach. While elementary schools have, on average, improved student achievement in the past decade, middle level students’ overall scores have been flat and high school students’ scores have decreased. This downward curve can largely be traced to deficits in reading performance beyond the elementary grades. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that 8th grade reading scores have remained the same and 12th grade scores have dropped significantly since 1992. (NCES, 2005)

In addition, significant disparities persist among socioeconomic, demographic, and ethnic groups. Approximately 45 to 50 percent of low-income, Black, Hispanic, American Indian students, and English language learners (ELL) score below the basic level on the NAEP, while less than 10 percent of high income, White and Asian/Pacific Islanders score below the basic level (NCES, 2001).

Today, it is estimated that 8 million middle level and high school students cannot read with proficiency. A student who cannot read with comprehension is severely limited in his/her capacity to learn in any academic subject. The issue of adolescent literacy is, therefore central to the success of any middle and high school reform effort. In addition, the problem will only increase in intensity, while NCLB will continue to demand accountability for achievement of all student subgroups in schools. Compounding the problem further, it is estimated that, by the year 2010, over 30 percent of all school-age children will come from homes in which the primary language is not English.

NASSP Guiding Principles

  • NASSP is committed to being a major voice in supporting middle level and high school leaders in their efforts to address the adolescent literacy crisis.
  • NASSP is committed to the concept of providing all students with equitable educational opportunities, regardless of their language, cultural background, race or socioeconomic status.
  • NASSP recognizes that successful schools, particularly schools serving large numbers of high poverty students and students of color, have placed an emphasis on adolescent literacy (NASSP, 2005)
  • NASSP believes only a focused effort to invest resources in adolescent literacy at the local, state and federal levels will address the issue at hand.

Recommendations

Successfully addressing the adolescent literacy crisis is complex and requires multilayered solutions that:

  • Encourage principals to invest themselves in all aspects of planning and sustaining a schoolwide literacy program. This includes forming a literacy leadership team, creating a collaborative learning environment, developing a school wide plan to address the professional development needs of teachers, and develop their own capacity around the issue.
  • Persuade district leaders to make adolescent literacy a priority. Schools should receive support mechanisms such as district-wide professional development opportunities that help middle level and high school teachers to teach literacy.
  • Urge district leaders to acquire robust data systems that help schools measure individual student progress.
  • Drive families and communities to make reading a priority and reinforce the efforts of the schools to improve student reading competency. District leaders should collaborate with community leaders to provide families with literacy opportunities, when needed. Through these programs families would build their own capacity to offer the best reading environment for their adolescent children.
  • Influence state leaders to build the capacity of districts and schools by providing resources for students reading below grade level in middle grades and high schools. State education agencies should align literacy standards with subject standards and become clearinghouses for best practices in adolescent literacy. They should recognize and publicize successful programs.
  • Encourage federal lawmakers to provide adequate resources to address the literacy needs of middle level and high school students.
  • Inspire schools of education to incorporate literacy into teacher education programs for middle level and high school teachers
  • Convince business leaders, who recognize the importance of having employees able to think critically and comprehend material, to create partnerships with schools to help them implement successful literacy practices.

References

National Center for Education Statistics, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2005.

NASSP. 2005. Creating a Culture of Literacy: A Guide for Middle and High School Principals.

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Adopted July 13, 2006