When Dennis and Dan Szymkowiak get together for family gatherings, school talk runs as heavy as the brown gravy. As teachers at the same high school in this middle-class suburb north of Chicago—Dennis in English, and Dan in mathematics—there’s always catching up to do on administrative issues, school events, and students the brothers have in common.
But when their two sisters, who are elementary school teachers, and Dan’s wife, a middle school science teacher, join in the conversation, the focus invariably turns to instruction, and the challenges of helping students understand their respective subjects.
As a veteran English teacher at Mundelein High School, Dennis Szymkowiak has long taught students strategies for tackling increasingly difficult literary texts and writing assignments in his classes. But it was in those family discussions that he began to fully grasp the difficulties students were facing in other subjects because of inadequate reading skills.
“We were talking about students who were struggling in school, and Dan said, ‘The kids in my class can add, subtract, multiply, and divide. They just can’t read well enough to
understand the problems,’ ” says the gray-bearded Dennis, 56. “Then I got it.”
That epiphany set Dennis on a mission to help Dan, 48, and teachers of other subjects at Mundelein High, beef up students’ literacy skills as a way to ensure their grasp of course content. The brothers have helped arrange professional development sessions focused on literacy, they’ve handed out research studies and tip sheets, and they’ve worked on retooling the district’s curriculum.
Now, Dan regularly reminds his students to “read the problem in a math way,” or asks them to explain in writing the mistakes they made in solving a test problem.
On any given day, a visitor to the building might encounter 10th graders in a Spanish class discussing what they already know about the history and culture of Cuba before reading an essay in that language on a 19th-century Cuban political writer; students in a chemistry lab reviewing complicated vocabulary words as an introduction to a lesson on endothermic and exothermic reactions; or history students using graphic organizers to break down content, writing notes in the columns of their readings, and summarizing the issues leading up to a historic event they are studying.
“These kids are going through a big shift from learning to read to reading to learn,” says Dennis Szymkowiak. “Many can’t make that shift, … mostly because they have not been trained.”
While researchers generally agree that literacy skills should be taught directly to adolescents across the curriculum, and that there are adequate research-based strategies for doing so, the experts also point out that much of that information has failed to reach the classroom, or has been ignored by teachers, who are either ill prepared or disinclined to incorporate those approaches.
“There’s a very old belief on the part of high school teachers that, in fact, they don’t have to be responsible for reading,” says Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford University and a member of the National Reading Panel. That congressionally mandated panel issued its synthesis of experimental research on reading in 2000. The panel’s landmark report outlined five essential components of effective reading instruction.
“Over the years, we’ve accumulated quite a bit of information about how to teach literacy [to adolescents], but we need a delivery system. High school teachers think it’s important, but they don’t think it’s their job.”
Over the past decade, much of the nation’s attention, and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state education funding, have been focused on using research to improve early reading instruction, which is generally targeted to grades K-3. Now, as the problems of high school education gain traction among policymakers, interest in how to address the reading challenges facing older students as they tackle harder material in specific subjects has surged.
According to the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, some 70 percent of 8th and 12th graders do not qualify as “proficient” readers. And on an international comparison of student achievement in reading, the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, U.S. 15-year-olds were outperformed by peers in more than a dozen other countries, according to results released in December.
“This is an extremely complex problem, and the longer we let these kids go, the more serious the problem becomes,” Kamil says. “The problem exists because [after 3rd grade] we stop providing [reading] instruction, and the instruction we do provide is not what they need.”
In a field that has often been divided on the best ways to teach children to read in the early grades, there appears to be little of that ideological debate over adolescent literacy. Researchers from a variety of backgrounds are trying to spread the word about the solid body of knowledge showing the importance and effectiveness of teaching basic and advanced reading skills for students in the 4th through 12th grades.
Doing so, however, could prove even more difficult than the efforts in early reading education.
“Ensuring adequate ongoing literacy development for all students in the middle and high school years is a more challenging task than ensuring excellent reading education in the primary grades,” Harvard researcher Catherine E. Snow writes in a 2004 report on adolescent literacy for the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. “Secondary literacy skills are more complex, more embedded in the subject matter, and more multiply determined. Second, adolescents are not as universally motivated to read better or as interested in school-based reading as kindergartners.”
Raising awareness of the problem has become a major aim of a number of public and private initiatives for school improvement.
The Alliance for Excellent Education, for example, has asked groups of researchers to synthesize and disseminate study findings and to make recommendations for policy directions that it hopes will improve instruction for adolescent literacy. Likewise, the RAND Corp., of Santa Monica, Calif., undertook its own study of the scholarly literature with a panel of experts, and in 2002 laid out a research agenda for studying reading comprehension across grade levels.
In addition, President Bush’s Striving Readers initiative will put $26 million this fiscal year into school-based programs for middle and high schools that test research-based reading instruction. The president is asking for more than $200 million for the program in fiscal 2006.
And the U.S. Department of Education—in partnership with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development—has issued grants to a network of researchers around the country, including Kamil, for longitudinal studies into the social, behavioral, cognitive, and instructional factors affecting adolescent literacy.
One such study, led by University of Michigan researcher Elizabeth Birr Moje, will investigate how influences outside the classroom—family, peers, communities, and cultural forces—affect students’ motivation and skills in tackling academic and leisure reading tasks. Moje, who has studied teenagers’ reading behaviors in Detroit, has found that many adolescents demonstrate high levels of skill in understanding complex reading tasks related to popular media, such as video games and music. Too often, though, students do not apply such savvy to their school subjects and are not as engaged in academic content.
At Mundelein High School, Dennis and Dan Szymkowiak knew they couldn’t wait for definitive guidance from researchers. They began working together to study the existing research and find ways to make literacy a foundation of their classes. They even developed an integrated English/mathematics course, in which students studied carefully selected literary texts and applied mathematical principles to learn about statistics and logic based on the numerical content of the texts. They have also made the rounds together at literacy conferences, raising some eyebrows among participants about the curious pairing.
“They look at me and say, ‘What is a math teacher doing here?’ ” says Dan Szymkowiak. “But they realize we all have the same problems with our students. With Dennis’ help, and with other teachers’, we came to have a common language and some common strategies for helping kids process the content.”
The strategies that have become common throughout the school are well documented in the research literature: Teachers ask students what they know about a topic before they start reading; they review new or difficult vocabulary words; they demonstrate for students how to take notes as they read and to summarize periodically to make sure they understand the text.
Beyond those approaches, students at Mundelein High are encouraged to anticipate the topics and questions they might encounter in the text. In Dennis’ 9th grade English class, for example, students select articles from a popular magazine. After reading the headline, photos, and graphics for a particular article in the magazine, they make some predictions about what the piece is likely about and the kind of information it might contain. Then they read it to see if their predictions were accurate.
Some teachers say the higher level of literacy preparation has changed their classroom approaches significantly.
In Anthony Kroll’s chemistry class, for example, students may be asked to write about a particular chemical process and show an example. Kroll regularly uses reading activities to prepare students for the next lesson.
“They are encountering in this class a lot of words with very specific meanings, or words that have different meanings elsewhere,” says Kroll, who’s been teaching chemistry for 12 years. “For years, I just presented this material and assumed that kids understood it, but now I realize that they weren’t getting it at all.”
Too many other teachers still have not come to that realization, says Stacey Gorman, a social studies teacher at Mundelein. In interviews Gorman conducted with a number of teachers at the school last year to gauge the extent and quality of reading instruction, it was evident that literacy was still an afterthought in most classrooms.
“A lot of teachers assign kids reading at night from the text, and they are given no purpose for reading it and no strategies for comprehending what they’re reading,” says Gorman, who videotaped her informal study in the hope that her colleagues could better recognize the importance of giving students more literacy skills.
For the Szymkowiak brothers, convincing their colleagues that literacy is not an add-on, but a critical part of all their jobs, requires constant effort. They’ve gotten a boost from the school’s improvement plan under the No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasizes reading across the curriculum to help boost student achievement. Among other goals, the plan sets an objective for improving reading proficiency among Mundelein High students, and requires all teachers to address literacy in their classrooms by teaching vocabulary on a weekly basis and regularly assessing students’ understanding of the subject matter. Some staff development has also focused on reading strategies.
“We can see from some of our data that certain individuals who combine traditional instruction with literacy strategies, their students are doing better,” says Dennis Szymkowiak. “Building reading skills doesn’t cut into teaching literature, or math, or science. … It’s part of it.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Dynamic Duo