Reading & Literacy

States Urged to Focus on Adolescent Literacy

By Robert C. Johnston — October 25, 2005 4 min read
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States must take more comprehensive steps to address the inadequate reading skills of America’s adolescents, groups representing the nation’s governors and state boards of education urge in two recent reports.

The consequences of not acting include lower wages and living standards for individuals and a country that is less competitive globally, add the reports released by the Washington-based National Governors Association and the National Association of State Boards of Education, in Alexandria, Va.

“Reading to Achieve: A Governor’s Guide to Adolescent Literacy” is available from the National Governors Association.

Read the executive summary of “Reading at Risk: The State Response to the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy”, posted by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

According to the NGA report, “Reading to Achieve: A Governor’s Guide to Adolescent Literacy,” just three of 10 U.S. 8th graders are proficient readers and almost 40 percent of high school graduates lack the reading and writing skills that employers seek.

“Governors understand that nearly two out of every three jobs in the coming decade will require postsecondary education, and the fastest-growing job sectors require the highest literacy and education demands,” John Thomasian, the director of the NGA Center for Best Practices, said in a statement.

Too often, the report charges, emphasis on literacy ends at the 3rd grade, and heavy investments in early literacy skills “are tempered by the weak literacy instruction students encounter in middle and high schools.”

By 4th grade, many youngsters still struggle with writing for various reasons, including poor vocabulary, insufficient background knowledge, inadequate reading strategies, and a lack of motivation to read, the NGA report adds.

Five-Step Strategy

To make matters worse, the report says, states lack mechanisms that might help them do a better job addressing the literacy needs for students after the 3rd grade. It says that few state education systems require explicit literacy instruction across content areas or offer extra literacy supports to students who are struggling.

See Also

In addition, the report points out that educators and policymakers do not have solid data on student literacy performance, state standards lack explicit and rigorous literacy expectations, and teachers and principals receive limited training in adolescent-literacy instruction.

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that advocates strong academic standards, said the reports are part of a growing focus on adolescent literacy. “I think it’s becoming more of a priority than it has been,” he said. “Up until a couple of years ago, it had been invisible.”

The NGA report outlines a five-step strategy for addressing adolescent literacy:

• Build support for a state focus on adolescent literacy, including K-12 literacy report cards;

• Raise literacy expectations across grades and curricula, including the demands of “real world” reading material;

• Encourage and support school and district literacy plans;

• Build educators’ capacity to provide adolescent-literacy instruction; and

• Measure progress in adolescent literacy at the school, district, and state levels.

‘Problem Is Staggering’

“Excellent reading instruction in the early grades is necessary, but not sufficient, to prevent later literacy problems,” the report states. “State policymakers need to understand that a focus on adolescent literacy need not detract from early literacy efforts.”

Suggested Reading

The National Governors Association has released a guide with several ideas and strategies to help governors develop more effective and comprehensive adolescent-literacy policies.

• Create a state literacy report card for grades K-12.

• Lead a statewide adolescent-literacy campaign.

• Designate a state office or coordinator for adolescent literacy.

• Establish an adolescent-literacy advisory panel.

• Require schools and districts provide interventions for struggling readers.

• Offer teachers specialized certification in adolescent literacy.

• Improve the value and timeliness of literacy performance data.

SOURCE: National Governors Association

The state school boards’ association’s report, “Reading at Risk,” echoes similar concerns, saying the “scope of this literacy problem is staggering.” In addition, it cites estimates that about half the incoming 9th graders in urban, high-poverty schools read three years or more below grade level.

“States can no longer afford to neglect taking to scale those practices that are well-documented and that have been demonstrated to be effective,” the NASBE report argues.

Produced by a yearlong NASBE study group on adolescent literacy, the report compels state boards of education to take a more prominent role in making student literacy a priority “for all students at all levels.”

A central finding of the group is that state literacy plans must target improved literacy skills by teaching them within the context of core academic subjects, rather than apart from challenging content instruction.

The report outlines its own six suggestions for state literacy plans, including state-set goals and standards, more preparation in literacy for teachers, and strategic use of data to evaluate student needs and programs.

Moreover, the NASBE study group recommends that states require district- and school-based literacy plans, offer more financial support and resources, and provide greater oversight.

Said Mr. Cohen of Achieve: “The bottom line is that the problem is not going to be solved unless we find a way to better equip a large number of teachers with the skills they need to teach literacy to middle and high school students.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as States Urged to Focus on Adolescent Literacy

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