Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

What About Our Older Readers?

By Janet I. Angelis — November 07, 2001 7 min read
The hurdles to literacy don't end at the 3rd grade.

In the current rush to support reading achievement in the primary grades, we are in danger of abandoning a generation of children. These are the students in grades 4 and higher who need to learn and practice a whole set of complex reading, writing, and language skills so that they can handle the variety of texts they will encounter and produce as they go through school and beyond. If we do not balance our concern for their younger brothers and sisters with a continuing investment in the reading achievement of upper-elementary through high school students, we risk capsizing our boat. And we do so at the very moment we as a nation seem to have come on deck to address a pressing national need: ensuring that all our children become able readers.

This focus on early reading can be seen, for example, in the last round of funding awarded under the Interagency Education Research Initiative, a partnership of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Science Foundation. It targeted funding for research on reading only at the level of prekindergarten through grade school. And as we know, the only reading goal stated in the Bush administration’s education blueprint is that every child will be reading by the 3rd grade.

Federal resources for research into the development of reading and writing abilities throughout the later school years seem to be drying up. If so, this represents giving up on an effort that goes back at least to the Reagan administration, when the first National Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature was funded. Should we fail to continue to invest in understanding the learning needs of older as well as younger students, we not only risk abandoning the current generation of young people, but also, because the skills needed for reading academic texts are different from those required in the early years, we risk shortchanging future generations as well.

One of the biggest challenges facing English and language arts teachers and administrators is finding the best ways to help adolescents develop the abilities they need to become independent readers.

One of the biggest challenges facing English and language arts teachers and the administrators who support them is finding the best ways to help adolescents develop the reading abilities they need to become independent readers of academic and other texts. At conventions of the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, teachers and administrators seek out researchers from the National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement, known as CELA, to ask specifically how to help these students. And language specialists in state education departments and large school districts report that, as one study puts it, “many teachers are struggling with how to teach [and] reinforce reading in the middle grades.” Sometimes their concern is with struggling readers, but sometimes it is with typical students, who need to learn the variety of skills and strategies required to read, comprehend, and construct meaning from their history, science, mathematics, technical, and literary texts.

Since the National Assessment of Educational Progress 4th grade reading scores were released in April, much has been written in the popular and professional press bemoaning our national lack of progress in reading comprehension. The 2000 results show a stagnation in scores overall and an increasing gap between high and low performers. In 1998, scores for 12th graders showed not only that the poorest students are doing poorly (a drop from 80 percent to 77 percent performing at or above “basic” from 1992 to 1998), but also that only 6 percent of students perform at the “advanced” level (as compared with 20 percent “below basic”). Overall, 40 percent of adolescents have difficulty comprehending specific factual information. The need for research and development in this critical area would seem clear.

What should be done? It is one thing to learn to read, quite another to become good at it. Once students reach the 4th grade, expectations for their reading change. They are expected to distinguish between the various academic disciplines and to understand and use the specialized language and conventions of each. They must learn, for example, the distinctions in meaning between the same word used in different disciplines (the word “range,” for example, as used in mathematics, geography, and music).

As they progress through the grades, students will read increasingly longer and more complex literary works and analyze plot, character, setting, conflict, and other facets, seeking to understand worlds beyond their own, both imaginary and real. They will need to be able to make connections from one body of knowledge to another, using one to deepen learning in another. They need to know where and how to seek information for academic and other purposes and to become increasingly independent and better able to judge the reliability of their sources (including those on the Internet). When studying a historical period, they should be able to read and learn from primary sources, a textbook, a historical novel, and a film documentary, understanding what kind of information can reliably be drawn from each. They must learn to form and express opinions, make judgments, and recognize the assumptions that underlie the opinions and judgments of others. And they need to learn how to use new technologies both to gather and share knowledge.

Proficiency in reading goes well beyond the decoding and comprension skills that have become the focus of effort in much of early reading.

These are just a few of the very specialized skills that their middle and high school teachers will need to teach them and help them develop, hone, and refine over their years of schooling. Such proficiencies go well beyond the decoding and comprehension skills that have become the focus of effort in much of early reading. Thus, the instruction to help students develop these abilities needs to be different. It must help them build fluency, boost comprehension, acquire vocabulary, and learn to recognize different kinds of text and how to read and learn from each. And we need continuing research into the best kinds of instruction to ensure that all students acquire these abilities.

While some of this complex of activities is understood, previous research studies need to be replicated in additional settings, and more studies must be designed to bring us to a fuller understanding of how to help more students achieve them. For example, although researchers have learned that students are more successful in acquiring essential literacy skills when their teachers use multiple lesson types—direct instruction, simulated practice, and authentic tasks—more work needs to be done in schools and classrooms to better understand these processes and to develop the materials that will help teachers and administrators put them in place.

Research also has found that the most effective classrooms engage students in the debates and activities that are central to the field being studied: An effective science lesson has students engage in a scientific inquiry—learning the proper methods of exploration and employing the vocabulary and language of the scientist. Thus, the effective teacher of science inducts students into the scientific community. This science teacher is not only helping students become scientifically literate, but can also be a true partner of the language teacher in helping students develop broader literacy skills. Again, however, we have much yet to learn about the best ways to foster literacy development across the curriculum.

A current false assumption is that if a child has learned to decode by the end of grade three, she or he will be a good reader for life.

One danger of having the popular press take up a cause in education is the unfortunate spread of false assumptions. Not long ago, many came to believe that brain development stopped at the age of 3. A current false assumption is that if a child has learned to decode by the end of grade 3, she or he will be a good reader for life. Another is that if a student has not become a good reader by grade 8, it is too late. Although we can probably all cite individual examples that are exceptions to these “rules,” the exceptions alone tell us that we must continue our efforts to understand better what works and why, so that the goal of ensuring reading success for every child can become a reality.

We need a continued national investment in research into developing strong readers and writers able to handle their academic coursework in middle and high school and beyond. We owe it to today’s and tomorrow’s students—indeed, to our own future.

Janet Angelis is the associate director of the National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement, or CELA, at the State University of New York at Albany. The Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature was the precursor of CELA.

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as What About Our Older Readers?

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