Focus on Adolescent Literacy

Michael L. Kamil, an education professor at Stanford University, provided guidance on how educators can improve adolescent literacy.

Chat: Focus on Adolescent Literacy

Tuesday, May 26

The struggle to improve adolescent literacy is creating a buzz in education circles. Education Week and Michael L. Kamil, a prominent researcher in the field, discussed the need for schools to teach reading in middle and high schools as well as elementary schools. Mr. Kamil, an education professor at Stanford University, chaired the committee that created a new reading framework for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which was used to develop tests that will be administered this year. He was also the lead author for “Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices,” a practice guide published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Related Story: Southern States Urged to Tackle Adolescent Literacy

Michael L. Kamil, professor of education, Stanford University

Mary Ann Zehr, assistant editor for Education Week and blogger for Curriculum Matters and Learning the Language, moderated this chat.

Live Chat: Focus on Adolescent Literacy(05/26/2009)


12:32 Web Person: Jennifer: Today’s chat, “Focus on Adolescent Literacy,” is now open for questions, so please start submitting them. Our moderator, Mary Ann Zehr and today’s guest, Michael L. Kamil will be here at 1 p.m. to begin answering your questions. Thanks for joining us.


Mary Ann Zehr: Hello, everyone. I’m Mary Ann Zehr. I write about literacy here at Education Week and I’ll be the moderator today. I’d like to introduce Michael L. Kamil, an education professor at Stanford University and an expert on reading.

We don’t have a lot of questions yet in the bank, so readers, please send one or two in, so the chat is a lively as possble.

We’ll start with a question from Robert Pondiscio over at Core Knowledge Blog.

1:01 [Comment From Robert Pondiscio]
Is it time to recognize the limits of reading strategy instruction and make a serious effort to build up students’ background knowledge to aid comprehension? The idea that reading comprehension is a transferable skill -- learn to decode and apply strategies and you can read anything -- is simply not working.



This isn’t a matter of either or. There are NO instructional methods that work all the time. However, the most potent rsearch findings suggest that strategy instruction produces the most consistent large effects in raising students reading and writing abilities. As for background knowledge--that is something that needs to be ADDED to, not replacing strategy instruction. And finally, all pedagogy should be based on what students need, not some predetermined curriculum.

1:05 Mary Ann Zehr: Michael, I’d like to hear about your hopes concerning how the Obama administration might support adolescent literacy. What do you hope will happen?

1:08 mkamil: The comprehensive literacy bill moving forward seems to acknowledge the need to make adolescent lteracy a part of the entire literacy “program”. Rather than focusing on elementary, middle or secondary school it makes it a connected set of programs and policies. The danger would be to guard against feeling that we have solved the elementary “problem” and there would be no need to continue funding it.

1:09 Mary Ann Zehr: Arne Duncan has proposed expanding the Striving Readers program for middle and high school students, and extending it as well to elementary schools. Here’s a question about that program from my colleague Kathleen Kennedy Manzo.

1:09 [Comment From Kathleen]
Has the federal Striving Readers program produced any effective models for addressing the adolescent literacy problem. What lessons have been learned from that program?

1:11 mkamil: There have been few published results as yet. Some of the interventions that were used in some of the Striving Readers have been the subject of other evaluations. Most of the comprehensive programs have not shown great success. The Extended Reading Opportunties evaluation is one available study that showed little effect of several interventions.

1:12 Mary Ann Zehr: Robert has a follow comment to the question he asked earlier.

1:12 [Comment From Robert Pondiscio]
I’m not sure how my question was translated by the guest into an either/or. I did not suggest abandoning strategy instruction. Clearly, however, the emphasis on strategy instruction as well as concerns about “what students need” (is it possible there are students who do NOT need a broad, well-rounded curriculum?) have relegated content area instruction to the sidelines with predictable consequences for comprehension.

1:17 mkamil: I apologize if your wording was mis-translatd. Strategy instruction is critical in content areas because it is different in each area. Asking questions is a strategy that depends on the discipline for appropriate implementation--learning to ask questions in history does NOT prepare a studen for asking questions in biology, for example. I think my earlier answer said that both background knowledge AND strategy instruction were necessary. As for my comment about what students need, I was referring to reading instruction, not general curriculum. Everyone needs a broad well-rounded curriculum, but lack of litercy skills precludes access for some students.

1:17 Mary Ann Zehr: Here’s someone else who is thinking about content.

1:17 [Comment From Cynde]
What proactive steps can I take to help all HS content teachers buy in and commit to literacy instruction? With the emphasis on content knowledge accountability in HS, even teachers who have good intentions forego the literacy strategies when faced with all the feel they have to teach.

1:21 mkamil: This is a recurrent problem with HS teachers. Two suggestions come to mind one is to employ highly qualifed coaches to work with the teachers about how to do literacy instruction. (The International Reading Association has guidelines for high school literacy coaches.) At the beginning all new instructional methods are difficult. Continued practice with coaching feedback will help. The second suggestion is to help teachers form study groups to deal with these issues. Some of the roadblocks are discussed in the recent IES Practice Guide on Adolescent Literacy.

1:22 Mary Ann Zehr: Let’s move on to the issue of free reading. “Guest” has a question about this.

1:22 [Comment From Guest]
What is your opinion of allowing students time in class to read what they want, instead of following a rigid, prescribed reading plan?


mkamil: The research on free reading, reading practice, or recrational reading shows that having students read more does NOT lead to better reading. Instead it seems to show that good readers read a lot more than poor readers. Besides, the key to learning is not to read randomly but rather to obtain both organized and useful knowledge. The earlier comment about content is relevant. If we believe it is important fo students to learn mathematics, history, biology, etc., we have to direct students to read specific materials.

As a supplement, with appropriate instruction and feedback, some choice in reading does help, but only with those two variable added in.

1:28 Mary Ann Zehr: Let’s talk about what kind of policies states can have to support adolescent literacy. Here’s a comment from Alan Richard, whose organizations recently called on southern states to create plans to improve adolescent reading.

1:28 [Comment From Alan Richard, SREB]
My organization recently released a major report calling for states to make reading in the middle grades and high school the top immediate priority in public education (see the link to Ed Week’s story about the report above the chat window, or visit The report recommends that states identify the specific reading skills students need as they progress through school, change curricula as needed, provide teachers with professional development, assist struggling readers in stronger ways, and hold schools accountable for improvement. I’d like to know Dr. Kamil’s thoughts on such policy recommendations, which were developed by a committee of state leaders led by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, our current Chair. And how hopeful can we be about long-term changes in schooling that will produce much better student readers and writers?



I heartily endorse the SREB recommendations. We do have a real start on the identification of the reading skills that are needed in disciplines, but we need more work. We have to write learning standards in the disciplines that reflect the acquisition of those sills, and require not only professional development but better pre-service prepartion. Several states I work with are moving in this direction, and I am pleased to see such a strong policy document.

As for the hope--I think it is the ONLY way we can make progress.

1:32 Mary Ann Zehr: Which states do you think are ahead of others in having policies to support adolescent literacy and why?

1:37 mkamil: At the risk of not being inclusive, I will pick out the standards revision for New York. That process has set literature up as a separate content area and has committed to including reading standards in each of the content areas. Several other states, including Florida have embarked on an ambitious program of deploying coaches. New Jersey would be another state that has shown great strides in adolescent literacy. Massachusetts is another.

1:38 Mary Ann Zehr: Here’s another question about what high schools should be doing.

1:38 [Comment From Catherine Gewertz]
Hello. Since I cover high schools (and write a blog about it for EdWeek), I would love it if Professor Kamil could describe in as concrete a way as possible what good adolescent literacy instruction would look like at the high school level. Would it occur in classes across the disciplines? How would it change instruction and reading lists in English classes?


mkamil: I think we have to get away from thinkng about reading ACROSS disciplines and think more about reading WITHIN disciplines. How to read a discipline whould be a central concern, since text-based learning is a life-long necessity. We need to emphasize effective ways to tech vocabulary, find ways to identify struggling students and bring resources to bear to improve the reading of those students. Discipline-based instruction has to be done in content classes so that the important elements of the content are not ignored. Professional development (inclding coaching) is critical.

As for English classes, most HS English teachers are not reading teachers. The direction I mentioned above about separating literature as a content area is one major change. It would make reading a distributed responsibility across all the content areas.

1:47 Mary Ann Zehr: I’d like to return to something you mentioned when talking about New York’s plan to support adolescent literacy. You said that the state has standards in each of the reading content areas. The SREB report stops short of asking states to create standards. Rather it says states should identify reading skills in each of the content areas. What’s the difference between skills and standards what’s your position on what’s needed?

1:50 mkamil: First, I need to stress that the NY effort is still in progress. The plan is to produce these standards. In order to do that, it is necessary to identify the skills. What we need are standards for the skills we have already identified as well as efforts to make that list of disipline-based skills more complte. SREB is calling for the identification. I assume the NEXT logical step would be standards after that.

1:51 Mary Ann Zehr: Let’s take a question from Katie regarding the influence of students’ technology skills on literacy.

1:51 [Comment From Katie]
What impact do you think text messaging and e-mailing has had on adolescent literacy?

1:54 mkamil: I’m not sure we have any evidence that these modes of electronic communication have had any serious effects on literacy (although I do see some texting shorthand in written compositions). This could be taken care of by making sure student attended to the nature of their audiences when writing and being able to identify different voices when reading. Slang has about the same sort of impact . . .

1:56 Mary Ann Zehr: Since I’ve written a lot here at Educatin Week about English-language learners, I can’t resist asking you a question about this group of students. What, if anything, should middle and high schools being doing differently than for non-ELLs to ensure these students acquire literacy?

1:59 mkamil: ELLs present some different problems in middle and high school from those in elementary school. First they are more likely to have had schooling in their native language. If they can read in their L1, instruction needs to build on that ability. Research suggests that the appropriate use of native language is most effective in acquiring literacy in a second language. The research suggests that it is easier to acquire a second literacy.

2:00 Mary Ann Zehr: Michael, we’ve run out of time. Thank you for all of your concrete answers to these questions. What would you like to say as the last word?

2:01 mkamil: I hope everyone who has attended will continue to work at adolescent literacy. We need a concerted effort to improve the ability of our students to have the greatest number of options in life.

2:02 Mary Ann Zehr: Thank you everyone for joining us.

2:02 Web Person: Jennifer: A transcript of this chat will be available on this page immediately after the chat has ended. Thank you.


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