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Adolescence Literacy Focus of Askwith Forum

In 1983 Nation at Risk revealed that 13 percent of all 17-year-old Americans could be considered functionally illiterate. Now, 20 years later, little has changed statistically with adolescent literacy rates.

Calling the adolescent literacy problem a "crisis," HGSE Lecturer Vicki Jacobs said at a recent Askwith Forum that the adolescent literacy problem isn't new to educators who, in the 20th century, had already recognized adolescent readers struggling with comprehension. "If you are feeling depressed or overwhelmed by the disease and apparent cure, you have every right to," Jacobs said.

On Wednesday, April 9, the forum, Adolescent Literacy: Translating Research into Effective Policy and Practice, brought together Ardice Hartry, senior research associate for MPR Associates; Timothy Shanahan, director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Professor Catherine Snow to discuss the problems of adolescent readers and what can be done to improve adolescent literacy skills. The forum was held in collaboration with the Harvard Education Review, whose recent issue focuses on adolescent literacy.

"Ironically, early literacy was never really a problem in the United States," Snow said. "Third-grade teachers aren't worried about reading, it's the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-[grade teachers] who are worried."

Snow outlined how early literacy received so much attention following the Carnegie Corporation's research, that it led to the creation of Reading First, a federally-funded program for improving early literacy instruction in schools.

Following Reading First, Snow pointed out, the mistake was in thinking that all literacy problems were fixed. While Carnegie Corporation has continued to research areas of illiteracy, it now is focused on the issue of adolescent literacy. "I think we need a new way of talking about the issues," Snow said. Snow envisions this talk focused on changing the old ideas around literacy such as learning first over reading first, literacy as a tool, teaching content, and deep, disciplinary knowledge among students.

"If we are going to improve reading achievement then we're going to have to take some action," Shanahan said.

The trouble with many middle-school students occurs in the classroom. By this time, students are "shared" among different teachers in different subjects. Shanahan emphasized the complexity of this problem as a teacher, since it's difficult to know how well a student is doing or to understand all the different content being taught.

Additionally, another problem today is that many teachers are using what Shanahan considers too much "rationale" in their teaching. In order to keep up with the pressures of standardized tests, teachers commonly use videos, Powerpoints, and other multimedia to teach lessons in a more concise fashion. As a result, students are relying less and less on textbooks, and consequently, using reading to learn, he said.

According to Shananhan, who is a member of the National Reading Panel and was actively involved in the development of Reading First, adolescent students need more required reading, more instruction time specifically geared toward reading, and low-level readers need even more time. Teachers also have to understand what makes better readers, and learn, likely through professional development, how to provide more intense instruction.

But the panelists agreed that implementing changes in the classroom, education, and policy isn't always easy -- sentiments echoed by many audience members.

For instance, Hartry, who studied the implementation of the Scholastic's Read 180 as an afterschool program in a southern Massachusetts school district for three years, said there were many odds stacked against the school, including challenges in funding, retaining qualified staff, avoiding teacher and student fatigue, and various scheduling aspects of the program. However, despite the trouble of implementing the reading program, students were excited and interested in reading demonstrated by an overall high attendance rate. "Structured reading programs can be successful, but it requires a lot of work," Harty said.

While no one disputed the need for teaching students reading more intently, Snow said that bigger question is, "what is the right way to achieve a balance of content teaching and tool teaching?"

For Shanahan, the answer is providing more time. "Ultimately, we have to put a time on it," he says, noting that his mandated daily two-hour reading requirement in Chicago Public Schools hasn't made him popular, but has bridged the content gap and instructional issues many teachers experience.