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Addressing Adolescent Literacy

High school network addresses national deficiencies.

The need to address adolescent literacy with a focus on English Language Learners has created a growing realization that instructional practices need to change.

Only 4 percent of eighth-grade ELL students and 20 percent of students classified as "formerly ELL" scored at proficient or advanced levels on the reading portion of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The National Center for Education Statistics in 2005 also reported that dropouts and high school graduates are demonstrating significantly worse reading skills than they did 10 years ago. Two recent studies conducted by the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth and the Carnegie Corporation of New York's Panel on Adolescent English Language Learners elevate the urgency of responding to the literacy needs of middle and high school students.

Planning for Success

At the Connecticut Technical High School System (CTHSS), the largest technical high school system in the state, administrators noted a slight decrease in the reading proficiency of ELL students on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT). It went from 44 percent in 2004-2005 to 43 percent in 2005-2006, alerting the district to take action. Top administrators started to deliver new instructional methods to support ELL students through differentiated instruction. CTHSS, comprised of 17 regional locations, serves more than 10,500 students. The district offers full-time academic and 37 trade and technology programs including computer, construction, health, hospitality and tourism, manufacturing, and transportation. Integrating academic instruction with vocational training, the district offers students opportunities for postsecondary education, apprenticeships, or gainful employment upon graduation.

District leaders recently created a handbook, Content Literacy Strategies for English Language Learners: A Handbook for the Connecticut Technical High School System, to meet the linguistic needs of all students. Its goals include improving student competence in English, providing students with access to content literacy, and improving overall academic achievement. It was created to differentiate instruction and meet the second-language acquisition and curriculum needs of ELL students. And it advocates modifying instruction, not content, so that teachers can equip students with the skills needed to access the curriculum. In the 2006- 2007 school year, more than 61 percent of ELL students were at or above proficiency on the CAPT reading test.

The handbook was developed by the district's ELL and world languages consultant, Laura F. Vega, and Liliana Minaya-Rowe of Johns Hopkins University, as well as members of the district's ELL Handbook Faculty Advisory Board.


The Library/Media Center's Pivotal Role

To give students access to the differentiated curriculum, teachers need to maximize available resources. One such resource is the library/media center, which can provide more meaningful access to curriculum and more opportunities to develop a better understanding of academic language. (See the sidebar, "Steps to Completing Assignments.")

The media center provides the means to explore knowledge through listening, speaking, reading and writing-the ingredients that underlie language proficiency and enhance content.

Santina Scalia, library/media specialist for CTHSS's Emmett O'Brien Technical High School in Ansonia, Conn., has a library orientation program for newly enrolled ELL students within the first few weeks of school to familiarize them with library services.

Students who visit the media center frequently to locate resources and select materials are more apt to develop literacy habits

Scalia says that library/media specialists "strive to remove existing barriers to information access and promote literacy for all students." Scalia provides experiences where students feel safe to explore their interests by meeting regularly with ELL students.

In the CTHSS's media centers, audiobooks help ELL students improve reading fluency and pronunciation skills. They enable students to internalize the basic structure of a narrative, exemplify the structural difference between written language and oral language, decode printed text, provide a speech model, and help improve English pronunciation.

Students who visit the school media center frequently to locate resources and select materials are more apt to develop literacy habits. The more ELL students achieve in class as a result of using library services, the more inclined they will be to continue using the library. This model is student centered, conforms to the differentiated demands of ELL students, and prepares them to meet the challenges of life, school and the workplace.


Locating and Evaluating Media Media specialists can also steer students to resources that are outside of school, including the public library and community outreach programs. They provide expertise in locating and evaluating media specific to a topic with DVDs, videos and Web sites to clarify difficult concepts and/or provide deeper understanding of content. In addition, co-planning activities to incorporate visual supports, such as maps, overheads, and demonstrations, brings a concept to life, promotes application, and fosters language fluency. When students use models and props, they serve as scaffolds and contextualize instruction. These authentic experiences help students understand the material presented and can be reinforced through teacher modeling prior to starting the research assignment.

Assisting in Trades

In carpentry, for example, students research whether to use pressure-treated lumber, cedar, or a plastic composite material to build a deck. The library/ media specialist can support classroom strategies by recommending the use of a graphic organizer to compare and contrast the information researched and determine the essential content that responds to the question. Through the use of a thinkaloud, the student articulates the solution to a real-world problem.

"The beauty of having a student perform a think-aloud is that it requires an ELL to assess the situation and articulate a response incorporating the appropriate trade vocabulary," Vega says. "The overall benefits of this process are real-life applications for language use, authentic problem-solving and, most of all, providing the opportunity for nativelike production of language. These are the types of experiences that equip students with workplace readiness skills. This is what the CTHSS is all about."


Professional Development

Since the release of the handbook, professional development has been ongoing for administrators and staff . Using classroom scenarios, participants experience firsthand the challenges ELL students encounter when learning the language of academics. The language of trade technology is charged with embedded words that sound like conversational phrases yet carry explicit meanings related to the trades-for example, in electrical "cut the power," in electronics class "jump the circuit," in hairdressing "take the weight out of a haircut," in culinary "proof the yeast" or "dress the chicken."

Students just learning English will take these phrases literally; therefore, teachers must explain them in the right context. Strategies such as word walls, in which commonly used words are displayed on a wall, reinforce these concepts before, during and after classroom instruction.

For high school ELL students, simplifying content is not an option. High school students must meet high-stakes test requirements in reading and math. For CTHSS students there is a higher achievement standard that requires them to read and understand texts written at a college level and comply with licensure to the trades.

"These are the types of experiences that equip students with workplace skills." -Laura F. Vega, ELL/world languages education consultant, Connecticut Technical High School System

Therefore, more attention needs to be given to teaching content without compromising the integrity of the subject matter using the language of the trades. The district's curricula have been streamlined to include essential or "powered" standards in each academic and trade area. Differentiating instruction to meet the language and academic needs of ELL students through essential content emphasizes constructing meaning from the curriculum rather than following the thematic sequence of a textbook.

For more information about the Connecticut Technical High School System, go to

Barbara St. Onge is school improvement and library/media education consultant at the Connecticut Technical High School System; Santina Scalia is library media specialist at Emmett O'Brien Technical High School in Ansonia, Conn.; and Laura F. Vega is English Language Learners/world languages education consultant at CTHSS.