Why Adolescent Literacy Matters Now
As I see it today, the ability to read awoke in me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.
As editors of the Harvard Educational Review, a journal that is read by a broad range of education researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, we aim to address topics that are timely and have central importance to the field. In deciding to devote a Special Issue of the journal to the topic of adolescent literacy, we thought carefully about the role of literacy within the broader enterprise of education, and we asked ourselves two main questions: First, why literacy? And second, why adolescent literacy in particular?
Our answer to the first question was straightforward: If knowledge is power, then literacy is the key to the kingdom. For centuries, the ability to read and write has given power to those who possessed it, although access to book learning — indeed, to books themselves — was often limited to a privileged minority (Vincent, 2000). Today, by contrast, we inhabit a digital age in which written texts are more widely and democratically available than ever before. A prerequisite for access, however, is still the ability to comprehend and appraise those texts. Individuals who lack strong skills for finding, understanding, and evaluating written information cannot easily arm themselves with that information or use it to advance the causes they value. And because a free society depends on an informed and autonomous citizenry, the loss is not theirs alone. As we confront some of the great questions of our time — about war and diplomacy, immigration and citizenship, health care and human rights, and fair access to education and employment — literacy liberates us from dependence on received wisdom and allows us to find and weigh the evidence ourselves. Simply put, literacy is a cornerstone of our freedom.
Given the importance of literacy to a free society, it is no surprise that among the “three Rs” of formal schooling — reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic — the first two emphasize literacy. In the United States, preparing students to read and write fluently has long been a central responsibility of the public schools (Ravitch, 2000), and the emphasis that No Child Left Behind places on students’ reading performance has only increased the centrality of literacy instruction. Moreover, schools have historically organized their curricula around academic disciplines (Sizer, 2004), which rely heavily on texts to store and communicate knowledge. The consequence is that reading and writing proficiency are critical determinants of students’ overall success in school. In truth, sophisticated reading and writing skills may vary among disciplines: Gleaning insight from a mathematical treatise is different, after all, from analyzing Borges. But insofar as literacy involves interpreting, evaluating, and making use of the information in texts, advancing students’ literacy skills lies close to the heart of the educational enterprise.
We also see literacy as timely and essential as it relates to our second question, “why adolescent literacy in particular?” Research tells us that around grade four, students make the critical transition between “learning to read and reading to learn” (Chall, 2000, p. 99). It is this transition that makes adolescent literacy instruction distinctive — and distinctly challenging. The kind of literacy that safeguards self-determination is not simply about decoding words on a page or recounting the chronology of a story — skills that are necessarily emphasized as students first learn to read. Rather, it is about engaging with complex ideas and information through interaction with written documents. Using texts as vehicles for learning, critiquing, and extrapolating from extant knowledge is the domain of the postprimary and especially the secondary grades, and that domain is not restricted to language arts classrooms. Understanding texts, weighing their merits, and utilizing the information they offer are skills that adolescents draw on throughout the academically fragmented school day. However, the kinds of reading and writing they perform throughout the day vary considerably. Therefore, a central challenge of adolescent literacy instruction lies in recognizing that effective literacy skills differ among disciplines and in helping students develop the range of skills that facilitate success in many contexts.
A second distinctive challenge of adolescent literacy instruction lies in attending to adolescents’ developmental needs as they mature from children into young adults. To engage adolescents, literacy instruction must capture their minds and speak to the questions they have about the world as they contemplate their place within it. It must allow them to interact with intellectually challenging content even as it sharpens their ability to derive meaning from texts. Pedagogy and content that adhere too closely to what works with young children are not likely to hold the attention of curious young adults, nor will they prepare those young adults for the rigors of a postsecondary education, where disciplinary knowledge and critical, independent thinking are prized.
The bad news in the United States today is that far too many students leave secondary schools without the advanced literacy skills they need to succeed in higher education or to flourish in a knowledge-based economy (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006). The good news is that creative researchers are pursuing ways to change the status quo. In recent years, scholars and policymakers have devoted increasing attention to the urgency of adolescents’ literacy needs and to the distinctive challenges posed by those needs. Our goal in assembling this Harvard Educational Review Special Issue is to share some of their latest efforts — quantitative and qualitative, large-scale and small — with a wide range of education stakeholders.
The contributors to this Special Issue bring many lenses to the topic and offer multiple views on what it will take to help adolescents who struggle with academic reading and writing. Vicki Jacobs opens the issue with “Adolescent Literacy: Putting the Crisis in Context,” which describes how the current adolescent literacy “crisis” emerged and how the United States has responded thus far. As she recounts trends in reading instruction from the eighteenth century to the present, Jacobs argues that the United States has long harbored concerns about older students’ reading skills. The difference today, she explains, lies in the framing of the problem, the pedagogies teachers use, and the nation’s general expectations for young people’s literacy achievement.
The subsequent three articles examine the difficulty of teaching literacy in secondary schools and the reasons content-area teachers may balk when asked to teach reading explicitly. In “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy,” Timothy and Cynthia Shanahan open with a contemporary overview of adolescent literacy achievement in the United States. They go on to describe a qualitative study they undertook with a group of mathematicians, chemists, and historians to identify how reading approaches differ among the disciplines, and to devise reading strategies that, if taught explicitly, might help students internalize the core principles of each discipline.
In “Redefining Content-Area Literacy Teacher Education: Finding My Voice through Collaboration,” Roni Jo Draper also describes collaborating with content-area experts — in this case, teacher educators in mathematics, music, and theater — and explains how this collaboration changed her view on the role literacy instruction should play in content-area classrooms. Draper calls for a broad definition of literacy that reflects disciplinary mastery, and she argues that content-area literacy instruction should support rather than supplement disciplinary learning.
In the next article, “Cognitive Strategies for Adolescents: What We Know about the Promise, What We Don’t Know about the Potential,” Mark Conley describes the trend toward teaching students to adopt the “cognitive strategies,” or thought processes, of proficient readers, such as summarizing, predicting, and inferring as one reads. Arguing that these strategies are often taught in ways that oversimplify the intellectual demands of disciplinary and workplace thinking, Conley calls for more research on advanced cognitive processes and on ways to help educators teach cognitive strategies more purposefully.
The next four articles call attention to the multiple, nested contexts within which literacy instruction for adolescents is carried out, including social groups, neighborhoods, schools, and states. These articles remind us that efforts to support adolescent readers and writers must consider the milieus in which the work is undertaken. The first two articles suggest that effective literacy instruction must attend to adolescents’ developmental needs by understanding the contexts in which they live and the purposes reading and writing serve in their lives. Specifically, in “The Complex World of Adolescent Literacy: Myths, Motivations, and Mysteries,” Elizabeth Birr Moje, Melanie Overby, Nicole Tysvaer, and Karen Morris present results from a large-scale, mixed-methods study exploring the in-school and outside-school literacy activities undertaken by adolescents in a midwestern, mostly Latino community. Using survey and interview data, Moje and her colleagues counter the myth that adolescents do not read outside of school. They also describe ways teens use reading and writing to participate in social networks or to enhance their social capital through learning.
In “Toward a More Anatomically Complete Model of Literacy Instruction: A Focus on African American Male Adolescents and Texts,” Alfred Tatum argues that schools’ narrow focus on strategies for reading, to the exclusion of culturally attuned rationales, results in their failure to address the literacy needs of many African American male adolescents, particularly those living in high-poverty communities. Tatum offers an “anatomically complete” framework that considers the theoretical (head), instructional (body), and professional development (legs) components of effective literacy instruction. He then presents a case study demonstrating how relevant texts can give African American adolescent males new lenses through which to interpret their lives and the world.
Further exploring the nested contexts in which literacy instruction occurs, the next two articles address the need for school-level and state-level policies that support effective literacy teaching for adolescents. In “Implementing a Structured Reading Program in an Afterschool Setting: Problems and Potential Solutions,” Ardice Hartry, Robert Fitzgerald, and Kristie Porter describe their multisite randomized trial designed to study the effects of a technologically intensive reading program, READ 180, in an afterschool context. They focus on results from their implementation study, which show that effective program implementation depends largely on school-level administrative decisions about issues such as staffing, classroom assignments, preparation time, snack-time scheduling, and technology support and maintenance.
In the next article, “State Literacy Plans: Incorporating Adolescent Literacy,” Catherine Snow, Twakia Martin, and Ilene Berman describe two literacy institutes offered for state education policymakers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2000 and 2001. The authors review literacy policies that were developed by four participating states and then call on the research community to support state policymakers in promoting effective literacy instruction beyond grade three.
We also present an essay review of three recent publications on adolescent writing instruction. In “Beyond Writing Next: A Discussion of Writing Research and Instructional Uncertainty,” David Coker and William Lewis review Writing Next, a meta-analysis of quantitative writing-instruction research, as well as two other publications by Writing Next authors Steve Graham and Delores Perin. Coker and Lewis recommend Writing Next for its clarity and rigor but consider whether a schism between two writing-research traditions — one based in composition studies and the other in educational psychology — may prevent the report from informing the work of as many teachers and teacher educators as it might otherwise reach.
The issue concludes with two editors’ reviews of recently published books and reports on adolescent literacy. In the first of the reviews, Sabina Rak Neugebauer examines two recent reports on the literacy-acquisition needs of English-language learners (ELLs). She commends the reports’ recommendations for better tracking and support of ELLs but argues that the reports’ rhetoric should place the burden more explicitly on the education system, rather than on the students themselves. Finally, in a review of two recent adolescent literacy books for school leaders, Jacy Ippolito demonstrates how the volumes complement each other and together fill a gap in the literature currently available to administrators, teachers, and literacy coaches who seek better ways to support struggling adolescent readers.
We are delighted to bring you the work of these authors. We hope you find their ideas as encouraging as we do in working toward a day when all students leave secondary school able to engage deeply with the written word.
Jennifer L. Steele
Jennifer F. Samson
Special Issue Editors
Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C. E. (2006). Reading next — A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy: A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
Chall, J. S. (2000). The academic achievement challenge: What really works in the classroom? New York: Guilford Press.
Haley, A., & Malcolm X. (1964). The autobiography of Malcolm X: As told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine.
Ravitch, D. (2000). Left back: A century of battles over school reform. New York: Touchstone.
Sizer, T. R. (2004). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. New York: Mariner Books.
Vincent, D. (2000). The rise of mass literacy: Reading and writing in modern Europe. Cambridge, England: Blackwell.
Assembling an HER Special Issue is a team effort, and there are a few people to whom we owe special gratitude. First, we wish to thank the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and Carnegie program officer Andrés Henríquez in particular, for providing guidance and financial support for the dissemination of this Special Issue. We would also like to thank Catherine Snow for her support and encouragement. In addition, Douglas Clayton and Jeffrey Perkins of the Harvard Education Publishing Group, our parent organization, have worked diligently to ensure that this issue reached a broad audience of researchers and practitioners. We are grateful to Laura Clos for shepherding manuscripts through the review process, and we thank Dody Riggs for ensuring that every article was subjected to timely and rigorous copy editing. Finally, we thank the authors who accepted our invitation to contribute to this Special Issue, for it is their dedication to adolescent learners that moves the field forward, improving our understanding of how to serve those students well.