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Spotlight on Adolescent Literacy

Recent studies call for increased funding.

Following the publication of a 2004 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004), the topic of adolescent literacy emerged as an issue of concern. It recently has received increased attention thanks to the latest round of studies and calls for additional federal funding (Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, & Barrera, 2010).

While K3 literacy has been emphasized for decades, adolescent literacy has been underaddressed, as evidenced by the fact that 6 million of the nation's 22 million middle and high school students are labeled as "struggling readers." In fact, 12th-graders' reading proficiency actually dropped from 40 to 35 percent between 1992 and 2005. Other data point out an equally disturbing statistic: 69 percent of eighth-graders and 65 percent of 12thgraders cannot read at grade level (Miller, 2009; Ayers & Miller, 2009).

A national report on the topic details a five-year study by the Carnegie Corporation of New York's Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy (Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, 2009). The study confirms the findings of other researchers that despite increases in elementary reading scores, little progress has been made at the middle and high school levels. While state initiatives pertaining to adolescent literacy have demonstrated some success, these efforts are too limited. The report's recommendations include expanding literacy instruction in all upper-grade subject areas; increasing funding for middle and high schools, possibly through Title I money for disadvantaged students; and focusing on literacy in all classrooms by hiring teachers with strong literacy skills and through professional development (Gewertz, 2009).

Striving Readers

Since many experts are calling for additional funding, all eyes are on the nation's most visible program targeting adolescent literacy. To date, Striving Readers has been piloted in Chicago; Danville, Ky.; Memphis; Newark, N.J.; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; Springfield, Mass.; and at seven youth detention facilities in Ohio. The program has received $30-35 million per year since its inception five years ago—compared to the $1 billion budget of the Reading First program; the Obama Administration has requested an additional $335 million to expand it. Based on nearly five years of data (U.S. Department of Education, 2009), the Alliance for Excellent Education generated these program and policy recommendations for Striving Readers:

  • Invest in comprehensive literacy reform that spans all grade levels.
  • Establish a phased-in approach that allows programs sufficient time to implement a three-tiered approach.
  • Build a research base by requiring sites to participate in evaluations.
  • Invest in teacher professional development programs that specifically target adolescent literacy.
  • Strengthen partnerships between teacher preparation programs and districts implementing literacy programs.
  • Ensure that states develop sustainability plans beyond the federal resources

(Ayers & Miller, 2009).

Others caution that Striving Readers— and similar programs—must not be merely scaled-up versions of Reading First. Adolescent literacy involves unique challenges that require distinct solutions. William G. Brozo, a professor at George Mason University and expert on adolescent literacy, observes that you cannot have "the same one-size-fits-all programs that came with Reading First. You can't use mind-numbing drills to capture the attention and imagination of a ninth grader reading at the sixth grade level" (Cassidy et al., 2010).

What Can Administrators Do?

While increased federal funding would provide a boost for adolescent literacy, questions still remain regarding what states can do in the meantime. A report from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (2009) emphasizes the urgency of literacy skills in the 21st-century global information economy: "Opportunities for economic success will increasingly require that young people possess strong literacy skills." The report lists five strategies that states should pursue to address the problem:

  1. Build support for a state focus on adolescent literacy.
  2. Raise literacy expectations across grades and across curricula.
  3. Encourage and support school and district literacy plans.
  4. Build educators' capacity to provide adolescent literacy instruction.
  5. Measure progress in adolescent literacy at the school, district, and state levels.

Some administrators are looking to the work of other states and districts. In 2007, Alabama launched an adolescent literacy project, building on the successes of a statewide elementary reading initiative. Echoing the research findings, Alabama is emphasizing professional development in literacy instruction and literacy coaching during the year and through summer institutes. Just Read, Florida! pursues these same strategies and also includes a family literacy component.

Other statewide initiatives have been implemented in Kentucky, New Jersey and Rhode Island (Bates, Breslow, & Hupert, 2009), and the National Association of State Boards of Education's State Adolescent Literacy Network (2007) comprises five states: Connecticut, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Utah and West Virginia. In addition, the proposed revision of the Standards for Reading Professionals (International Reading Association, in press) will include a separate category for middle and secondary high school teachers. In its annual survey of the topic, the March 2010 issue of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy summarizes the current status of adolescent literacy. One very obvious conclusion is that adolescent literacy is finally getting the well-deserved attention in the last half of the first decade of the new millennium. Unfortunately, despite the attention, there do not appear to be extensive reports that explain any program having great success.

Stan Bumgardner is an Edvantia writer.

For more guidance on this topic, the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center has compiled a toolkit of research-based solutions:

This toolkit includes research and best practices from a variety of sources, including recommendations for middle and high school principals, teachers, literacy coaches, families, and the community. It also features a Webcast on the role of states in addressing the adolescent literacy crisis.