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Reading Problems

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Results from a closely watched national test released this month have heightened concerns about adolescents’ reading skills. While overall scores on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress—which tests a sampling of 4th and 8th graders in math and reading—showed at least modest improvement since 2003, the average reading score for 8th graders declined by a point. Just 31 percent of the 8th graders scored at or above the proficient level in reading—a figure that has barely budged since the first NAEP scores were issued in 1992.

The NAEP results add to a growing body of research and commentary suggesting that many young people today are not learning—or at least not using—advanced reading skills. In a recent review of results from a range of reading assessments, for example, researchers from the RAND Corp. concluded that while schools’ focus on reading in the primary grades has generated some gains, “many children are not moving beyond basic decoding skills to fluency and comprehension.”

Over the long term, that breakdown may be contributing to other worrying trends identified recently. Fifty-three percent of all college students must take remedial courses, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. And in the past 20 years, the National Endowment for the Arts found in a widely publicized 2004 survey, young adults (ages 18-34) have gone from being the group most likely to read literature to the least likely.

Such patterns have created a surge of interest among educators in penetrating the unique reading problems of today’s adolescents and teens. In a 2004 report titled “Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy,” a panel of education researchers assembled by the Carnegie Corporation and the Alliance for Excellent Education identified 15 key elements to help adolescents move beyond word recognition to more purposeful reading. The items strictly related to classroom instruction include intensively teaching comprehension strategies; making texts available that encompass a wide range of topics and reading levels; holding small-group student discussions of texts; allowing for independent reading and student-selected materials; and focusing on writing.

If the Reading Next panel’s recommendations suggest the importance of students’ personal engagement with texts, the lead article in a recent issue of the magazine Educational Leadership devoted to reading comprehension is more explicit. Titled “Learning From What Doesn’t Work,” the article criticizes standard school practices that discourage adolescent students’ individual inclinations in reading. Authors Gay Ivey and Douglas Fisher instead encourage sustained silent-reading periods, giving kids a wide range of books to choose from, and injecting personal reflections into discussions of books. “Students need instruction,” they write, “but mostly they need opportunities to negotiate real texts for real purposes.”

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