Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Putting the Adolescent Reading Crisis in Context

Vicki Jacobs uses a historical perspective to delve into the relationship between content-based instruction and literacy instruction

The United States is in the midst of a self-declared crisis concerning adolescent literacy, based on results from national tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Harvard Graduate School of Education Lecturer Vicki Jacobs examines the definition of adolescent literacy, the history of later reading instruction, and the on-going question of who takes responsibility for literacy development beyond the primary grades. She suggests that one way to begin to emerge from the current crisis is to commit to a developmental definition of literacy, emphasizing how the skills required for effective reading change as students progress through school. She also argues that reading instruction in content-classrooms must serve teachers' goals for teaching their particular content.

When do the challenges of reading go beyond the basics?

Jacobs draws on the work of the late Jeanne Chall — the unofficial dean of reading researchers and former professor at HGSE — who established the differences between early, primary-grade reading (learning to read) and later, content-based reading (using reading to learn). Specifically, a developmental view of reading suggests that the challenges of applying basic reading skills (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency) to learn begin as soon as students are faced with the demands of learning in particular content-based discipline — around grades 3 and 4.

At this point, students need to read to gain knowledge and understand concepts from a wide variety of literary genres and fields of study. Ideally, by middle school, students should have learned how to be strategic readers, using background knowledge and experience to develop a context for their reading. They should be able to make predictions about what they read; and they should have the skill to question, analyze, and synthesize a variety of texts. Importantly, they should also have begun developing self-awareness of their comprehension processes — how they make meaning of text — and they should have begun to accrue a variety of strategies to correct the course of their reading, as necessary. For example, recognizing when they need to re-read a passage or refer to another part of a passage to clarify its meaning.

By the high-school years, successful readers bring their broad and deep background knowledge and experience (often drawn from previous reading) to text, as well as the strategic reading skills and strategies they practiced in earlier grades. They hone their ability to analyze and synthesize discipline-specific texts while juggling multiple layers of meaning as well as increasing points of view which often contrast and conflict. Jacobs argues that students need on-going, explicit instruction to meet the increasing requirements of reading within each content area and to become “literate” in each content-area — that is, to acquire the skills and habits of mind needed to be independent and on-going students of a particular discipline.

A history of literacy instruction

Early schooling in the United States largely did not tackle these challenges. Instead, teachers in the mid-1700s emphasized instruction in the basic skills of decoding text. By the mid-1800s, schools began to separate classrooms by grade level, allowing teachers of older students to focus more on content. Through the Industrial Revolution, the notion of reading for meaning continued to grow in importance. However, during World War I — when officials were shocked to discover that many U.S. soldiers could not read training materials — educators began to develop remedial instructional approaches. The responsibility for this instruction was given to reading specialists who helped struggling readers with basic skills, usually in a setting outside the content-classroom. Thus content-teachers began to think that reading was a separate content and that reading instruction was the responsibility of reading staff.

The notion that reading instruction has a place in content instruction, however, is not new. In the early 1900s, Edmund Huey, a pioneer in the psychology of reading, advocated embedding reading instruction in the study of content so that it might “disappear in the study of ‘central subjects.’” In the 1950s, the national Right to Read campaign introduced the slogan, “Every teacher a teacher of reading,” drawing attention to how reading skills could support students' learning of content. By the late mid-1980s, the fact that adolescents needed to learn meaning-based reading strategies to be able to learn the most from their content-texts was accepted as common knowledge.

Historically, content-teachers have been resistant to accepting responsibility for reading instruction. Jacobs argues that they, rightfully, have perceived reading to be additional content for which they have neither the training nor time. To make matters worse, in the midst of the 1980s economic recession, funding for professional development dropped, and reading specialists were frequently the victims of budget cuts. Textbooks on teaching content-area reading rarely addressed how developing reading might contribute to students' achievement of specific learning goals. And content-area teachers, by and large, had few resources to turn to as many of their students continued to struggle to read their classroom materials.

Supporting teachers of adolescent literacy

Jacobs argues that, if the trend of transferring responsibility for adolescent reading instruction to content-area teachers continues, those teachers need and deserve sufficient support. Above all, teachers need to understand the complementary relationship between the goals of their content-instruction and the reading strategies they can use to achieve those goals. Focusing on stages of reading would reinforce the need to teach, explicitly, the advanced reading skills required of literate members of a particular discipline.

Content-area teachers should also have the opportunity to discuss how they prepare and guide students through three stages of learning. Teachers might examine how they support students through an initial, pre-learning stage. How do they activate and organize students' relevant background knowledge and experience? How do they introduce new vocabulary and concepts? And how do they help students anticipate and engage with substantive material? During the second, guided-learning stage, teachers need to examine how they guide students through progressively deeper levels of understanding. To consolidate students' learning and prepare for assessment, the final stage, teachers need to examine the means by which they allow students to analyze, synthesize, and test the validity of what they have learned. And they need to examine the degree to which they are explicit with students about how and why particular strategies they have used in their instruction work for successful students.

Such conversations would allow teachers to understand how the strategies they are using to support students' achievement of content-goals are, more often than not, can also serve as reading strategies. While content-teachers are not reading teachers, per se, they are responsible for helping their students become independent learners in a particular discipline—learners who are able to comprehend the “world” as well as the “word” of their disciplines.


In order to navigate an increasingly rich and literate society, direct instruction in basic reading skills is simply not enough. As literacy demands of the workplace and marketplace continue to increase, it is clear that our work to address the reading crisis is far from finished. Jacobs argues that the best steps forward are those that clarify and support meaning-based strategies for reading within and across the curriculum.

For more information, see Jacobs, V.A. (2008). Adolescent literacy: Putting the crisis in context. Harvard Educational Review, 78 (1), 7-39.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles