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Professional Opinion

Improving Literacy from a Different Angle

Career and technical leaders have made reading and writing skills a top priority.
An instructor assists a student during an Exploring Technology Systems class at North Davidson Middle School in Lexington, North Carolina.

At its most fundamental level, literacy represents the ability to read, write and communicate. Unfortunately, too many adolescents lack the literacy skills necessary to navigate the reading and writing requirements of high school and the future world in which they will work and live.

One of the ironic facts about adolescent literacy is that the reading levels of U.S. adolescents have actually declined during the past two decades, despite the fact that more students are taking higher level courses. Explicit literacy efforts must be targeted at high school students, but just giving students “more of the same” isn't likely to have the dramatic impact that is needed.

Almost every school district in the country has some type of literacy initiative in place, but all too often an incredible resource is overlooked. Career and technical education leaders have recognized the literacy challenge and have made improving their students' reading and writing skills a top priority. Today's CTE programs, offered in middle schools, comprehensive high schools, magnet or career-themed schools, and area technical centers, are both academically and technically demanding. Students must be able to read, comprehend, analyze and report on high level information in order to be successful not only in their education program but in their future careers.

Engaging Literacy Content

Research has shown that one of the best ways to help students gain literacy skills is to motivate and engage them with content related to their interests, which can engage reluctant readers and, at the same time, improve literacy skills. Approximately 97 percent of all high school students take a CTE course at some point that exposes them to this essential relevancy. Students typically find their CTE courses to be directly connected to their future goals and are often more willing to engage in reading and writing within these courses. Job-specific vocabulary and authentic work situations can inspire students to apply themselves to literacy tasks that lack meaning in other contexts.

Contrary to what you may have heard, reading and writing opportunities can be found throughout CTE courses, and many CTE teachers are implementing rigorous content-area reading strategies. Industry-based technical textbooks (some of the most difficult reading high school students will encounter) and journals form the foundation, but the examples are limitless. For instance, at Georgia's Golden Isles Career Academy, broadcast video students use the local newspaper to gather information that they use to write the news, sports and weather scripts they produce in the video lab. Students in health care programs often read and discuss novels containing medical issues, such as Eleventh Hour and My Sister's Keeper.

Supporting Integration Efforts

In order for CTE literacy initiatives to be successful, school administrators must be committed to this approach. Some school districts have set literacy goals for their CTE programs, such as these from Davidson County Schools in Lexington, North Carolina:

  • Students will read two career-related articles per month and demonstrate understanding in a writing opportunity.
  • Students will write weekly to complete CTE assignments.
  • Students will prepare a written report and/or research study each semester in every CTE class.

In other places, such as Maine, state and local administrators have worked in partnership to help CTE teachers better integrate content-area reading strategies.

Substituting CTE courses for traditional remedial reading courses can also provide a new approach to helping your students. In Florida, a lack of success with remedial reading has led to a rise in the popularity of content-area reading intervention courses, which provide opportunities for intensive reading intervention using the CTE course content. Courses such as “Digital Design” are infused with intensive reading strategies to engage reluctant readers in high-interest content.

Increasing students' literacy skills will require the commitment of the entire education community. CTE teachers and administrators are primed and ready to assume a leadership role in this vital effort, and I hope you will consider the contribution they can make.

Alisha Hyslop is the assistant director of public policy for the National Association for Career and Technical Education.