In the MiddleBy Michelle Bates Deakin
Once upon a time, teachers taught students to read on grade level in elementary school. The children learned to decode words and read with fluency by third grade, and they lived happily ever after. Except they didn’t. And that way of looking at literacy is increasingly being read as a fairy tale.
In schools and in the press, early literacy has garnered significant and important attention. But even though strides have been made in elementary literacy, that hasn’t translated into improved reading levels for middle school and high school students. Researchers and educators are turning increasing attention to the complex issues surrounding adolescent literacy. And they are trying to put out the message that getting an elementary school child reading on grade level is not a surefire vaccination against later reading troubles. Even excellent third-grade readers can falter in later years if reading instruction is neglected in the middle and high school years.
“By the beginning of the millennium, a lot of people were aware that we made progress in improving reading instruction in the early grades, but that did not — as the No Child Left Behind rhetoric would suggest — solve all the problems,” says Professor Catherine Snow. “It’s like teaching kids to walk early and then expecting they can do ballet.”
Snow is coauthor of the seminal report in the adolescent reading field that began to focus national attention to the problem. In 2004, along with Gina Biancarosa, Ed.M.’99, Ed.D.’06, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford University School of Education, Snow wrote Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy. “Educators must . . . figure out how to ensure that every student gets beyond the basic literacy skills of the early elementary grades, to the more challenging and more rewarding literacy of the middle and secondary school years,” she wrote. “Inevitably, this will require, for many of those students, teaching them new literacy skills: how to read purposefully, select materials that are of interest, learn from those materials, figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words, integrate new information with information previously known, resolve conflicting content in different texts, differentiate fact from opinion, and recognize the perspective of the writer — in short, they must be taught how to comprehend.”
Speaking from her office in Cambridge this fall, Snow says that even though the report is only 10 pages long, it is important. “It gave voice to all the worries people were having,” she says. And since it came out, she says, adolescent literacy issues have gotten more attention, and researchers and educators alike are addressing the many challenges involved in tackling the adolescent literacy issue.
And those challenges are numerous. Content-area teachers in middle and upper grades are often resistant to calls that they teach literacy when they want to teach in their specialty area instead. English-language learners and children from low-income communities face particular hurdles in acquiring sufficient academic vocabulary to be proficient readers of more complex subjects. And because adolescence itself is a complicated time developmentally, it is difficult to create blanket solutions for all students.
“There are so many different reasons why adolescents might be struggling with reading,” says Snow. “If a secondgrader is having trouble reading, you pretty much know it is because they haven’t gotten the alphabetic code. But if you have a seventh-grader, it could be that the student never actually learned the tools he should have learned in second or third grade. Or he could have learned perfectly well but decided that he wasn’t interested in reading and thus never practiced and developed those skills in the way that avid readers do, and in the process failed to acquire the vocabulary knowledge or the world knowledge one would naturally acquire between 8 and 13. It creates a huge deficit.”
The number of students struggling with the deficit is staggering. In the spring 2008 issue of the Harvard Education Review, Lecturer Vicki Jacobs, C.A.S.’80, Ed.D.’86, associate director of the Teacher Education Program, catalogs some dismal statistics. The 1983 report A Nation at Risk, found that about 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States could be considered functionally illiterate, and that functional illiteracy among minority youth could run as high as 40 percent. The 1984 Report Card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that gains in reading for 13- to 17-year-olds had either flatlined or increased insignificantly since 1971. And subsequent NAEP Report Cards have shown little, if any, improvement. In 2002, it reported that about 25 percent of eighth- and twelfth-graders read below basic levels, and it found that more than 6 million adolescents have been “left behind” academically and will be similarly disadvantaged when they enter the U.S. labor market. In 2007, the NEAP reported that for eighth-graders, the achievement gap between minority and white students had not narrowed.
Despite 25 years of worrisome statistics, Jacobs writes that organized response to the adolescent literacy crisis was slow to materialize. “This delay was due in part to the nation’s ongoing commitment to addressing early reading difficulties and developing effective primary-grade reading materials.” But as those programs for early readers began to fall into place, she says, “the time had finally come to turn full attention to older readers.”
Experts agree that adolescent literacy is not a simple problem with a simple solution. But a series of projects in urban schools, as well as anecdotal evidence from middle school reading specialists and literacy coaches, demonstrate that adolescents do respond to some reading interventions. Like all school issues, funding and teacher retention pose obstacles. And because middle school and high schools students switch teachers frequently throughout the day, it’s difficult to impose a crosscurricular solution. Meaningful change, researchers say, will have to include a collaborative approach among professionals at many levels.