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Southern States Urged to Tackle Adolescent Literacy

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 01, 2009 4 min read
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The Southern Regional Education Board is advising its 16 member states to devise a comprehensive set of policies to improve reading for middle and high school students.

Calling adolescent reading “the most critical priority for public middle grades and high schools,” a report released today at the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association in Washington advises states to identify reading skills that apply to different subject areas, craft curricula, establish reading-intervention programs, and prepare teachers of adolescents to teach reading along with academic content.

It also calls on states to prepare a detailed plan to work with school districts to implement the policies.

“We’re saying this needs to be the top priority, even if something else has to give,” David S. Spence, the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, said in an interview. “It’s obvious that we get kids reading or decoding by grade 4 or 5, and we probably make good progress in that. But in terms of higher-level reading, reading comprehension, we just don’t do it.”

Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia chaired the committee of legislators, state education officials, and others who came up with the recommendations for adolescent reading. The panel recognized, he said, “the problem that we stop teaching reading too early.”

Not every teacher, he said, needs to be a reading specialist. But all teachers do need to be trained, he added, in how to recognize reading deficits, and schools need to have strategies to respond to them.

Virginia has a higher percentage of 8th graders scoring at or above proficiency in reading than any other SREB state, he said. At the same time, he said, that figure—34 percent—"is hardly anything to turn cartwheels about.”

“An unacceptably high percentage of our students who go on to community college or four-year universities require remedial work,” said Mr. Kaine, who is a Democrat.

Getting Beyond Stories

Several reading experts who were not involved with the publication of the report, “A Critical Mission: Making Adolescent Reading an Immediate Priority in SREB States,” said its recommendations are on target.

They’re consistent with recommendations on adolescent literacy that have been made recently by the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices, said Ilene Berman, a program director for that center. “We, too, recommend that states build support for a state focus on adolescent literacy,” she said. “We encourage states to write and implement literacy plans.”

“I am glad to see they are doing this, because there was a certain period in American education, not too long ago, that it was assumed if you were just worried about reading in the primary grades, you’d solve all your problems,” said Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. But, she said, many students need instruction beyond the primary grades in how to read for different purposes.

Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford University, echoed Ms. Snow’s views that many educators have erroneously believed that students only need to be taught to read in the primary grades. Reading instruction in those grades, he says, focuses mostly on stories. But in middle and high school, Mr. Kamil noted, students need reading skills for other kinds of text.

“We have the stories, but then we have an intermediate form of text that is relatively information. Newspapers are a good example. Then we have a formal text, like a biology textbook,” he said, contending that educators teach a lot about reading stories, a bit about reading informal texts, and very little about reading formal texts.

A big piece in the puzzle of improving adolescent literacy, Mr. Kamil said, is training all middle and high school teachers to teach reading. Regular classroom teachers can help struggling readers by explicitly teaching vocabulary, he said, or by teaching reading-comprehension strategies. He added, however, that some students may have to be removed from the classroom for additional reading instruction as well.

The report says none of the 16 SREB states has a comprehensive plan to address adolescent literacy, but Alabama and Florida are ahead of other Southern states in implementing reading initiatives for middle or high school students.

Alabama, for instance, has been expanding a reading initiative that started in the early primary grades to grades 4 to 8.

Joe Morton, the superintendent of education for Alabama, said his state plans to use economic-stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, such as extra funds for school improvement, to carry out some recommendations in the SREB report.

One of the next steps in Alabama will be to include some high schools in the statewide reading initiative, which supports reading coaches in schools. Mr. Morton said data from the 29 schools with students in grades 4-8 who have participated in the reading initiative show that it is working.

He agrees with the SREB report that adolescent reading should be his state’s number one education priority.

“If you can’t read, there is no other thing to do in school with students for six and a half hours except discipline them and take them to lunch,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2009 edition of Education Week

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