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Moving the Needle on Adolescent Literacy: Ed School Hosts Sixth Annual Jeanne Chall Lecture

In secondary schools around the nation, the achievement gap among adolescent readers is wide and growing. Motivation is often low, instructional time is insufficient, and campus environments are rarely conducive to improving literacy performance. University of Kansas Professor Donald Deshler, also director of the Center for Research on Learning, spoke about these realities at the Ed School's sixth annual Jeanne S. Chall Lecture held on Thursday, October 21.

"The questions that we're grappling with are the following: How do we move the needle on adolescent literacy? Can we move it? And if we're to succeed, what buttons should we be pushing instructionally and organizationally in school systems," asked Deshler, during his talk, "Moving the Needle on Adolescent Literacy."

After brief introductions by Academic Dean Robert Schwartz and Associate Professor Nonie Lesaux, Deshler quickly reminisced about his first encounter with the late Jeanne Chall, a former Ed School professor and celebrated leader in reading research and instruction. "I was about to present a lecture in Longfellow Hall when somebody tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to a woman in the audience and whispered, 'Do you know who that is? That's Jeanne Chall!' I totally freaked out! There she was, sitting in the front row! But she was so kind; she just smiled and bobbed her head. Kindness was always high on her list of characteristics," he said.

Deshler, who in 2000 was selected by the Journal of Remedial and Special Education as one of the 50 most influential scholars in 20th century special education, played an audio clip early in his presentation of a teenager named Marcus struggling to read aloud an excerpt from a novel. After a minute of frequent pauses, mispronunciations, and repeated words, Deshler articulated precisely what everyone in the audience was feeling. "Isn't that painful," he asked. "And there are millions more like Marcus in our secondary schools. So how do we close the gap?"

Several slides in Deshler's Powerpoint presentation made clear that the majority of reading programs implemented throughout the United States are extremely costly and mostly ineffective. He joked that after seeing the results of his extended reading opportunities study ― an examination of the efficacy of a yearlong secondary school supplementary reading class for struggling students ― the lecture organizers might wonder why they invited him. The data showed that the struggling students recorded virtually no improvements in vocabulary, grade point average, or credit earnings after a year of supplemental intervention. "In light of these results, we need to ask ourselves if there's a better mousetrap, and if so, what that mousetrap might look like," he said.

As a result of these findings, Deshler and his team realized that one teacher cannot be solely responsible for literacy. Instead, secondary schools need to develop a continuum of literacy instruction to combat the debilitating fragmentation of block schedules; that is, teachers of content classes from every subject need to use similar classroom approaches so that struggling students can utilize strategies learned in supplementary classes throughout the whole school day. These teachers should follow certain "content enhancement routines" such as connecting new ideas to prior knowledge and providing partially completed graphic organizers for the students to finish, he said. In this way, the learning environment becomes familiar and navigable for students, providing an appropriate atmosphere for significant academic growth.

As Deshler described the general apathy in secondary schools toward squandered instructional time, incorrect student placement in supplementary classes, and student absenteeism, he became visibly upset. "Cumulatively we can see why that needle's not moving," he said.

Deshler revealed that when he asked staff about struggling adolescent readers and their ability to ever read close to grade level with high-quality instruction, 66 percent responded that they were "not confident." "This is not a minor finding," he remarked. "I mean, we know when someone believes in us, don't we? Kids are perceptive. They know how many wrinkles we have on our forehead, and they can tell how much we believe in them."

As he finished his presentation, Deshler offered a bottom-line summary of what he wanted the audience to take away from the evening. "The only way the needle moves is through an integrated school-wide approach in which everyone owns part of the problem and believes big changes in achievement can happen."

Following Deshler's lecture, Gutman Library director John Collins and Lecturer Pamela Mason announced Katherine Stahl, assistant professor of literacy and the director of the New York University Literacy Clinic, as the recipient of the Jeanne S. Chall Visiting Researcher Award. Stahl's work focuses on reading acquisition and comprehension, with an emphasis on elementary school instruction in urban settings.

In addition, Collins and Mason announced Jennifer DiBara Crandell, Ed.D.'10, as the recipient of the Jeanne S. Chall Doctoral Student Research Award. Her doctoral dissertation, "Information Book Read-Alouds in Head Start Preschools and the Development of Preschoolers' Vocabulary and Emergent Literacy Skills," dealt with literacy acquisition as it relates to early childhood development.