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Winter 2009

In the Middle

With an increased interest in early literacy, have middle school readers been left behind?


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.

How We Teach

In the 1970s, there was a familiar mantra that "every teacher is a teacher of reading." But the mantra has gradually fallen out of favor. Instead, teachers prefer to refer to themselves by their specialties. They are historians or mathematicians, not reading teachers.

It's a dangerous distinction where reading success is concerned. "Content-area teachers in middle and high school feel less prepared to teach reading skills, and they also view reading skill as something that should have happened at the elementary level," says Lecturer Pamela Mason, M.A.T.'70, Ed.D.'75, director of the master's program in language and literacy and the Jeanne Chall Reading Lab. But Mason stresses that there is a developmental process of learning to read different kinds of texts, and students need to learn to read like a historian or like a scientist. That requires very different strategies from those with which they learned to read elementary school narratives. Chall, the late Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and reading research expert for whom the reading lab was named, called the shift children must make the difference between "learning to read" and "reading to learn."

"A nuclear physicist doesn't read her research the same way she reads a biography of Harry Truman," says Mason. "But as expert readers we sometimes lose sight of the shift we are making as we approach various types of texts. We need to make those shifts very explicit for our adolescent readers and give them the tools to use the text structures to support their comprehension of the text."

Within the last five years, Mason has witnessed an infusion of literacy coaches and reading specialists into middle schools. They are filling an important role in modeling for adolescents the different reading skills needed for different subject areas. And they are showing teachers how to incorporate the teaching of literacy into their lesson plans without making them feel like reading teachers.

Lori DiGisi, Ed.D.'93, is a literacy specialist at the Fuller Middle School, for grades six to eight, in Framingham, Mass. At the school for the past nine years, DiGisi says her role has evolved a bit every year. For the past three school years, she has worked primarily as a literacy coach, meeting with teams of teachers across subject areas. "The focus of our meetings is: How do you help students become skilled readers of each subject area?" DiGisi says.

She impresses upon the subject-area teachers that each discipline requires a different comprehension strategy. Reading a primary text in social studies requires students to ask questions such as, who wrote this? Why are they telling this story? Science reading often benefits from visualization and analogies.

DiGisi also meets with two groups of seventh- and eighth-grade students who read below grade level. The students have no disabilities, but they have fallen behind their peers. "My goal is to give these kids the opportunity to build their vocabularies," says DiGisi. Without intervention, DiGisi says, these students would fall through the cracks as the demands of reading become more challenging. "They are in a time when many kids developmentally find reading boring," she says. "We have to build a habit of mind that it is worth it to work through hard reading."

In addition to her work in the Framingham school, DiGisi sits on the International Reading Association's Special Interest Group on Adolescent Literacy, and she is vice president of the Massachusetts Reading Association. For the past three years, she has traveled to Washington to meet with legislators and advocate for programs that address problems in adolescent literacy. In particular, she lobbies for support and funding of the Striving Readers Act of 2007. Its goal is to establish adolescent literacy initiatives with measurable goals, and it funds curriculum materials, instructional tools, and intensive high-quality professional development for teachers, literacy coaches, and school leaders.

"I want kids to be able to access the world," says DiGisi. "A lot of the world comes in a print format. It's my passion to help kids access and understand what is written." She has encountered teachers along the way who have been resistant to incorporating reading strategies into their already packed curriculum plans. However, she also finds that over time, their resistance breaks down as teams of teachers come together in TALL (teaching and learning literacy) meetings, and the teachers find that the strategies work.

Pilot Program: West Coast

For the last five years, Associate Professor Nonie Lesaux has been partnering with the San Diego public schools to study adolescent vocabulary and comprehension. Her work with the city's schools has shown her that over and over, children who read well in the primary grades have been falling behind and struggling with texts. It has been particularly true, she has found, for second-language learners and students from lowincome backgrounds.

literacy_illustration2.jpg"Our work in San Diego informed us that, for the most part, these kids were reading words very well, accurately, and efficiently, and they are typically good kids in the classroom. But their vocabulary levels are so low that their comprehension is also low," says Lesaux. "They were reading the words well, but they didn't know what they were reading. And low vocabulary means low comprehension."

Last year, she implemented a pilot project with 500 children in seven San Diego middle schools that had striking results. The program included nine units -- two weeks per unit with two one-week review sessions. Each unit revolved around a short piece of engaging informational text, covering topics such as whether children watch too much television and a soccer program in Africa. The texts all included target vocabulary words with important, ambiguous concepts, such as "justice" and "integrate." Teachers helped the students use the words in a variety of contexts and writing and transform them with prefixes and suffixes. After the 20-week program, both native speakers and English-language learners in the project showed marked growth in vocabulary and reading comprehension. Lesaux says that it may be the first research study in which the effects of vocabulary instruction have an impact on students' reading comprehension. Students who participated in the program showed seven extra months of growth beyond what is usually seen in the sixth-grade year, according to Lesaux.

And the students seemed to enjoy it. After the pilot concluded, one girl said, "I changed as a student because I have learned way more about the use of words and the best ways to use some of them. ... The words help me in other classes because instead of saying one word, I can say a word that sounds more professional and more sixth-grade. The activities have been very challenging, but it comes out better for me in the end because it helps me understand the different words." A boy reported, "Now when I talk to people, I understand what they are saying instead of not knowing what they are saying."

Lesaux also found that the teachers involved in the program reported real satisfaction. "Teachers can't design a program like this on their own time," says Lesaux, who worked for six months with a team of four doctoral students and research associates to devise the materials. "It was good, high-quality content that we could put in the hands of teachers."

This year, she is expanding the program, known as ALIAS, or Academic Language Instruction for All Students, to reach between 2,000 and 2,500 sixth-graders in mainstream classrooms in 14 schools. Lesaux's work underscores her belief that vocabulary is the key to literacy. "What we're finding in low vocabulary scores [are] gaps in background knowledge. When you read a text, you need to know 80 percent of the words to gain new information and learn from the text," she says. "The intervention we're running seeks to build background knowledge."

She has started the program in English language arts classrooms because Lesaux believes those teachers are the most suited to try the program out. Ultimately, she would like to teach these concepts across all areas. "In a perfect world," Lesaux says, "every middle school and high school teacher would be focused as much on the language and literacy as the content areas they are teaching."

Pilot Program: East Coast

On the other side of the country, Snow has been working with middle schools in Boston to improve adolescent literacy. The collaborative project of the Boston Public Schools and the Strategic Education Research Partnership is in place in eight Boston schools this year.

"The program is responsive to the needs identified by the district, and it morphs a bit each year," says Snow. This year, it is attacking the adolescent literacy issue on several fronts: developing a diagnostic assessment to determine the kind of reading intervention individual students need; an academiclanguage building program called WordGeneration; analyzing data to see which programs work well in the schools; and a remedial reading course for eighth- and ninth-grade students reading at the third-grade level or below.

Snow began working with the middle schools at the request of then-Boston Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Payzant, M.A.T.'63, C.A.S.'66, Ed.D.'68, now an Ed School professor. With more resources, Snow would like to expand the program beyond middle schools. "It's sort of artificial to limit the program to middle schools," she says. "If students are having trouble, it's in part because of what they didn't learn earlier on. And given that they're far behind in middle school, it's unlikely they'll be remediated up to the level that they'll look just hunky-dory. So it's worthwhile thinking of high school as well."

Despite the scope of the problem, Snow is more optimistic about adolescent literacy issues than she has been in the past. "It is very reassuring that people understand this is a problem now," she says. "Ten years ago, people were single-mindedly focused that the problem in middle and high school were in English language areas, and that literacy was a K-3 issue. Now people are more realistic that there are real literacy challenges across the grade levels."

Coaches and the Future

Doctoral candidate Jacy Ippolito's work has approached the adolescent literacy crisis from many angles. He worked as a reading specialist and literacy coach in the Cambridge Public Schools for seven years. He taught a course called Literacy Coaching at the Ed School last fall. And he is writing his doctoral dissertation on the role of literacy coaches in creating organizational change in middle and high schools.

"Middle and high schools are complex organizations," says Ippolito, Ed.M.'01. "And adolescent literacy is not just an issue of adolescents needing more or different kinds of instruction. Organizations need to work differently to support adolescent literacy growth."

From his experience in schools and his research, Ippolito sees so many barriers to progress on the adolescent literacy front. "Teacher identities and professional histories; departmental structures; differentiated roles, such as reading specialists and literacy coaches; lack of teacher preparation to teach literacy skills; arguments over whose responsibility literacy instruction is; competing factors such as motivation and engagement; disparities between in- and out-of-school literacy practices; and the increasing demands of reading to learn all contribute to the stagnation in literacy achievement," he says.

Even still, Ippolito believes that literacy coaches can have an important role as change agents in middle and high schools by helping teachers improve their practices. Unfortunately, literacy coaches are vulnerable to budget cuts. And, he says, it is very difficult to make a connection between the presence of literacy coaches and measurable improved student outcomes. "Coaches are involved in improving teaching practice," he says, "but teachers are responsible for student achievement." Districts often cut coaches before their effects can be seen.

Ippolito's practice and research has led him to assert that the solution to the adolescent literacy problem is going to be a highly collaborative effort among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. "A new kind of educational research needs to emerge to answer these questions, ones that have crossand interdisciplinary leanings," says Ippolito, who coedited the spring 2008 Harvard Educational Review, which focused on adolescent literacy. "The crisis isn't going to be solved just by new instructional practices. We can demonstrate that certain practices are successful, but getting those practices to be adopted requires teacher-level, principal-level, and organizational-level changes. Solving the crisis isn't just about the relationship between the teacher and the student, but the larger organization, too."

Snow is heartened that more funds and research are being directed toward the problem. The Alliance for Excellent Education has set up a website with resources for addressing middle and high school reading deficits. The Carnegie Foundation is funding adolescent literacy doctoral researchers, and this year it awarded two predissertation fellowships to Ed School students. And some urban districts are beginning to work together to tackle the adolescent literacy crisis. Last year, for example, the Aspen Institute's Urban Superintendents Network met three times to share strategies and learn from each other about adolescent literacy. Snow believes that is an important step in the right direction.

"Alone," she says, "none of them feels like they have the right solutions."

-- Michelle Bates Deakin is a freelance writer. This is her first piece for Ed.