By the Center on Instruction
A Call for Effective Adolescent Literacy Practices
One in four students in grades four through twelve was a struggling reader in 2005, and fewer than one-third of public school 8th graders read at or above grade level (Perie, Grigg, & Donahue, 2005). Some of these students lack the skills necessary to read new or unusual words or to figure out their meanings. Most fail to understand much of what they read. Older students who are tackling complex informational text face serious and growing challenges. Even in our modern, multimedia world, most content-area knowledge (science, social studies, history) after third grade is presented through print-based resources (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004; Perfetti, Landi, & Oakhill, 2005). The ultimate goal of reading is understanding and learning from print; thus, reading programs must support students in reaching this goal. In addition, middle and high schools are challenged to create classroom environments that support student interest and motivation to engage in school-based reading tasks.
In the last decade, much attention has been given to preventing early reading difficulties (e.g., National Reading Panel [NRP], 2000), while the reading difficulties experienced by older students have been less of a priority (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004). This is starting to change as adolescent reading instruction becomes an increasingly “hot topic” in education (see Cassidy & Cassidy, 2007). Already, a body of research-based practices is emerging and program developers are focusing more on the instructional needs of older students. Research-based materials and professional development opportunities are increasingly available to teachers and other instructional personnel working with struggling readers in secondary schools and classrooms. Although preliminary and not widely disseminated, these efforts represent a promising start.
The purpose of this practice brief is to provide schools, districts, and states with background knowledge about best practices for older students who struggle to read. It focuses on the reading skills that adolescents need to more fully access content-area curricula and, in turn, secure a productive future. We define adolescent reading as occurring between fourth and 12th grades and as separate from early reading in kindergarten through third grades.
Several documents inform the content of this brief, among them Reading Interventions for Adolescent Struggling Readers: A Meta-Analysis with Implications for Practice (Scammanca et al., 2007) and Academic Literacy Instruction for Adolescents: A Guidance Document from the Center on Instruction (Torgesen et al., 2007).
Our intention is to provide a comprehensive overview of the current knowledge on best practices for teaching older students with reading difficulties. For details on the research that supports each recommended practice, please see Interventions for Adolescent Struggling Readers:
A Meta-Analysis with Implications for Practice, available online at http://www.centeroninstruction.org/files/COI%20Struggling%20Readers.pdf.
A Brief Background in Essential Components of Reading
According to the National Reading Panel report (NRP, 2000) there are five essential areas of early reading and each contributes to the reading process. They are:
- Phonemic awareness – an auditory process that involves hearing sounds that make up words. Skills in this area include rhyming, blending sounds together to make words, and segmenting words into separate sounds.
- Phonics – recognizing that sounds link to letters and that those letters are combined to make words. To read and spell words, readers use their knowledge of the alphabetic principle to identify patterns of letters that represent specific sounds.
- Fluency – reading effortlessly and automatically, recognizing individual words “by sight.” Fluent reading sounds natural, as if the reader is speaking casually.
- Vocabulary – understanding and using words in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
- Comprehension – the purpose of reading. Involves complex cognitive processes that enable the reader to gain meaning from text and repair misunderstandings when they occur.
The Focus of Reading Instruction for Adolescent Readers
Instructional recommendations for older readers differ only slightly from those for younger readers. They can be organized into five general areas:
- word study;
- comprehension; and
Absent from this list are phonemic awareness and phonics. For most older readers, instruction in advanced word study, or decoding multisyllabic words, is a better use of time than instruction in the more foundational reading skills (such as decoding single-syllable words) which many older readers have accomplished. Of course, we recognize that older readers possess a range of knowledge and skills, and there may be older readers who would profit from instruction in the more foundational skills. Because of the increased challenge of motivating older students and the positive reading outcomes associated with attending to student motivation to read, a section on motivation is also included. Each section of this document describes the reading component, characteristics of successful and struggling readers, and features of effective instruction.
For Further Study
We are limited in the information we can include in this overview. In most cases, schools will need to provide further professional development opportunities to prepare teachers adequately to implement the practices recommended. The Spring 2008 professional development module created in conjunction with the meta-analysis and this practice brief is another resource. Furthermore, this report offers only limited information on assessment, an essential component of effective literacy instruction. One place to look for more information on assessment is the National Center on Student Progress Monitoring, www.studentprogress.org.
Finally, because this document presents only an overview of effective reading practices for adolescent readers, it does not include technical information about the studies from which the information is drawn. Refer to the earlier-mentioned Reading Interventions for Adolescent Struggling Readers: A Meta-Analysis with Implications for Practice (Scammacca et al., 2007) and Academic Literacy Instruction for Adolescents: A Guidance Document from the Center on Instruction (Torgesen et al., 2007) for details of specific research studies in reading.
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