Reaching the Older Reader

Susan Black
April 1, 2005

The number of poor readers in the nation?s schools is staggering: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 8.7 million fourth- through 12th-graders read below grade level. Eighth-graders don?t fare well either. Close to 70 percent read below the proficient level, and 25 percent fail to read at the most basic level.

The literacy gap is even wider for minority students, those with learning disabilities, and those whose first language is not English. Almost half of African-American and Hispanic eighth-graders, for example, read below the basic level.

For both white and minority students who struggle with reading, the problem persists far beyond school. Most dropouts are poor readers, as are those who end up in the nation?s juvenile justice system. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice reports that more than one-third of all juvenile offenders -- median age, 15 and a half -- read below the fourth-grade level. And, CJJ adds, 82 percent of prison inmates are school dropouts, and a high proportion are unable to read.

Statistics like these raise doubts about schools? ability to meet the reading goals called for by the No Child Left Behind Act. That?s the conclusion of ?Achieving State and National Literacy Goals, a Long Uphill Road,? a report prepared by RAND Education for the Carnegie Corp. of New York.

Progress is being made in the primary grades, the report says, ?but many children are not moving beyond basic decoding skills to fluency and comprehension.? RAND?s findings ?suggest some major concerns about the ability of states to meet the ambitious goal set by [NCLB] of 100 percent proficiency for all students,? the report concludes.

A true crisis

I go to great lengths to avoid using the word ?crisis.? But when it comes to literacy, I?m convinced the word applies.

So are others who?ve studied the problem. Ernest Fleishman, senior vice president of New York-based Scholastic Inc., calls adolescent literacy -- or the lack of it -- ?a national reading crisis.? In a 2004 report on adolescent literacy, Fleishman describes the meager prospects that await poor school-age readers. Many nonreaders are unemployable, and those who land menial jobs earn extremely low wages, usually without health insurance or other benefits. To survive, many illiterate and barely literate teens and adults depend on social services and other forms of public assistance.

Recent reports underscore the severity of the situation. The 2001 National Census reports that 42 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds who dropped out of high school and did not earn a GED reported no employment income. And a recent investigation by the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education shows that, compared with high school graduates, dropouts are three times as likely to live below the poverty line and end up on welfare rolls.

Michael Kamil, a Stanford University literacy expert, also believes adolescent literacy has reached a crisis point. Compared with U.S. fourth-graders, who place near the top in international tests of reading performance, Kamil says, 11th-graders fall close to the bottom, behind students from Brazil, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other developing countries. (If the students who have dropped out of school by the 11th grade were included in this comparison, the U.S. showing would be even more dismal.)

In a 2003 AEE research report on adolescent literacy, Kamil says many students achieve adequate reading skills in the primary grades, but their reading performance often diminishes in the later elementary grades and continues to fall in middle and high school. Catherine Snow and Gina Biancarosa, both with Harvard?s Graduate School of Education, report a similar finding, noting that some 70 percent of older students require reading remediation. Many students can read words on a page but cannot comprehend what they?ve read.

Tackling the problem

It?s possible to raise middle school and high school students? overall literacy, including reading comprehension, Snow and Biancarosa contend. But to do so, schools must have the will and persistence to make literacy the cornerstone of learning.

In Reading Next, a 2004 report from the Carnegie Corp. of New York and AEE, Snow and Biancarosa recommend the following classroom-based strategies to improve adolescent literacy:
| Provide direct, explicit instruction in reading comprehension, such as summarizing and discussing texts with others.
| Teach students reading and writing skills specific to subjects such as science and math.
| Motivate students to become self-directed and independent readers.
| Encourage students to work collaboratively, using text materials at different levels and on a variety of topics.
| Individualize reading, writing, and content instruction for students who need extra help.
| Include more writing in daily lessons.
| Add technology, such as well-designed computer tutorials, to help struggling readers.
| Assess students continuously and use information to monitor and adjust lessons and assignments.
| Infuse literacy development into all classes, not only English and language arts.
| Train teachers to teach literacy development well.
| Use data to inform literacy policies and practices.
| Organize interdisciplinary teacher teams that focus on literacy in daily lessons.

High-performing middle and high schools that succeed in teaching students to read and write well ?weave a web of connections? that support literacy, says Judith Langer, director of the National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement based at the State University of New York at Albany.

Langer?s five-year study of English programs, conducted in 44 classrooms in 25 schools in four states, discovered major differences between effective adolescent literacy programs and ineffective ones. Highly successful programs, Langer found, practice six instructional practices concurrently and consistently:

1. Teach students using a variety of activities, including independent lessons, exercises, and drills; lessons involving reading and writing about new concepts and information; and lessons in which students apply new learning in class discussions.

2. Prepare students for tests by emphasizing the knowledge on which they?ll be assessed, and integrate test preparation into daily lessons instead of giving students separate drills.

3. Incorporate students? real-life experiences both in and out of school into daily lessons.

4. Give students critical reading and writing strategies they need to succeed on daily lessons and homework assignments.

5. Provide time for students to read broadly on topics of interest, explore texts from many points of view, and conduct their own research.

6. Foster collaborative learning by placing students in well-chosen groups. Prompt students to raise questions, discuss ideas, and ?bump minds? with one another.

Developing literacy

But playing catch-up in middle school and high school isn?t necessarily the most effective way to solve the adolescent literacy crisis.

Joseph Torgesen, a professor of psychology and education at Florida State University and director of the Florida Center for Reading Research, says that, first and foremost, schools need to do a better job with literacy in kindergarten, first, and second grades.

Primary-age children who have difficulty with alphabetic and phonological skills (such as knowing letter names, distinguishing and blending individual sounds, and matching sounds to print) begin a ?terrible spiral? that prevents them from becoming competent readers, Torgesen says.

Most children who have difficulty with pre-reading exercises in kindergarten and first grade are destined to be poor readers in fourth grade. In fact, Torgesen?s 2001 study shows that children who fail at emergent literacy usually remain at the lowest reading levels as they go up the grades.

Waiting to intervene until children are in the later elementary grades has mixed results. Studies show that remediation helps older students improve in reading accuracy and comprehension, but their fluency rates continue to falter.

To get reading right in the early grades, Torgesen says, schools should, first, design balanced reading programs that include phonemic awareness, word-building skills, and reading comprehension.

Second, teachers should use early, intensive, and targeted interventions to remedy, or at least sharply reduce, primary-age children?s weak literacy skills. Teachers should regularly assess students? skills and provide specific remedial help for those who need it. Kids with weak phonemic skills, for example, should receive practice in reading words accurately and fluently. Kids from disadvantaged families -- those most likely to have weak vocabularies and gaps in general knowledge -- should receive extra help with acquiring vocabulary words, using correct syntax, and obtaining general knowledge to support reading comprehension.

Third, teachers should add ?reading intensity? into daily lessons by putting high-risk students into small, flexible groups. Intensive small-group work must be frequent -- 20 to 45 minutes a day, four or five days a week -- and time should be spent on word-reading skills and reading practice.

I can attest to Torgesen?s strategies in raising four-year-olds? emergent literacy. For several years I?ve conducted annual evaluations of a city school district?s prekindergartens, focusing for the past four years on children?s literacy development.

The district?s prekindergarten coordinator now sees to it that teachers are intentional about literacy, all day, every day. She personally trains them to provide balanced literacy, assess students, and provide small-group remedial sessions. The results are gratifying: Children?s literacy is improving, and there?s evidence that racial literacy gaps are narrowing.

Research and reform

Reading, says the University of Maryland?s John Guthrie, is ?a broad mosaic? that can be studied from many angles.

Some of those angles were apparent at workshops on adolescent literacy conducted by the Partnership for Reading, an organization sponsored jointly by the National Institute for Literacy, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U.S. Department of Education.

In one session, for instance, the University of Georgia?s Donna Alvermann reported her research on literacy in the so-called Net Generation, claiming that many teens who shrug off assignments to read textbooks are highly motivated to tackle complex reading material on websites. In another session, Sally Shaywitz of the Yale University School of Medicine described biological factors that play a role in reading. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Shaywitz found that in unimpaired children, the parietal-temporal region of the brain lights up during reading tasks, whereas dyslexic children?s frontal region goes into action.

But the Partnership for Reading says much more research is needed, especially to answer three questions:

1. How should reading be taught in the upper grades? It is still not clear whether tactics used to teach beginning reading apply to older students as well.

2. Which early reading problems best predict problems during adolescence? It?s known that beginning readers require lessons in phonemic awareness, letter and number naming, and print awareness and that struggling adolescent readers require lessons that improve fluency and reading comprehension. What?s unknown are the best strategies for teaching adolescents.

3. How can schools motivate failing adolescents to read? Virtually no research has been done in this area.

Julie Meltzer, an adolescent literacy specialist at the Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University, acknowledges the ?large breach between research and practice.? And she?s concerned about a ?marked reluctance? in many middle and high schools to focus on literacy.

Still, she envisions ways schools can rescue poor readers. To begin, she encourages school leaders to put literacy at the core of their school reform agendas. And she recommends using the best research-based practices now available to at least keep the existing literacy crisis in check.

Literacy is indeed in crisis. Nearly nine million struggling readers desperately need your help.


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I am a special educator who tutors on the side. When I started tutoring I began working with adolescent students. My experience has been with students in the primary grade levels. When I started wotking with older students, I discovered that they had never really learned phonics. The ball had been dropped when they were younger, and they&;ve been struggling ever since. The patterns have been the same, denial, embarrassment, a fear of words with more than two syllables, and no inteest in reading unless with a teacher. A lot of these students have parents who were unable to help them because they themselves have reading disabilities. When parents don&;t read, this has a negative impact on a child&;s ability and attitude towards reading. Lack of interest and a basic fear of reading is passed on to children of parents who do not read themselves. You can tell when families don&;t read as a pastime or for enjoyment; there arent&;t any magazines, novels or newspapers in the home, only books students get from school or the library. Library books, as well as textbooks from schools are often misplaced or just lost. In Baltimore, they don&;t allow students to take books home, because they are frequently lost. I would appreciate any new developments on how to reach an adolescent how to read. Thanks, Leverne

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