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Reaching Out to Illiterate Teens

After third grade, reading is less of a subject and more of a tool, as students begin reading for content. But many students enter middle and high school without basic reading skills, dooming their academic careers. Included: Strategies to improve adolescent literacy.

As the number of U.S. teenagers who cannot read fluently continues to grow, so does the need for literacy programs targeted to that age group, according to a speaker at a national conference for education writers.

"We're just not as organized about teaching reading above third grade," said Michael L. Kamil, an education professor at Stanford University and author of a report for the Alliance for Excellent Education called "Adolescents and Literacy: Reading for the 21st Century." "Many in high school are still developmental readers."

Educators often assume most children can read by fourth grade, when students begin reading for content. But many students still cannot read fluently by that age, according to the report. Results of the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams indicated that 25 percent of eighth graders and 26 percent of 12th graders were reading at the "below basic" level. Only about 70 percent of U.S. high school seniors graduate.

Lacking the ability to read well, students fall further and further behind in their classes as the material becomes more complex, Kamil noted. "If they don't get it [reading] by third grade, they will suffer for their whole school careers," he said. "There has been no infrastructure in middle and high school to teach reading. We need to help content teachers teach reading. Content is difficult in social studies and science."

While little research has been done about how to teach older students to read, certain program components -- such as building vocabulary for reading comprehension, learning to summarize a paragraph, and generating questions about passages -- remain critical to the process. But educators also have found that adolescents need a different instructional approach than the one used with young children.

"No one thought about what to do with fourth grade students and older [who cannot read]," Kamil noted. "We should be teaching teachers to teach reading more effectively. You are looking at a different type of reading than is done in first through third grades."

"By the time they get to high school, they are either readers or not," added Gayle Cribb, who teaches American history and Spanish at Dixon High School in Dixon, California. "If you can read, it is like magic."

Research has shown that scripted literacy programs help students who have middle-level skills, but it is unclear how effective the programs are with lower-and higher-performing students, Kamil said. Other studies have shown that students will read far more difficult text on a computer screen than in a textbook.

The Alliance for Excellent Education recommends literacy coaches and reading specialists to work with older students and their teachers, but the effectiveness of literacy coaches is still unclear, Kamil added.


One program schools have been using to improve adolescent literacy is Reading Apprenticeship, developed by the Strategic Literacy Initiative. Dixon High School is using it and is pleased with the results, Cribb said.

"Using Reading Apprenticeship, the curriculum expands to how we read and what read in the ways we do, as well as what we read in subject area classes," Cribb said. "We're choosing to address literacy across the curriculum."

Since adopting the program, Dixon High School has seen a significant improvement in reading ability among students in low socio-economic groups, she said. Some of those students include English language learners who never mastered reading in their native language, Cribb added. "My job is to move them along a continuum."

With more secondary schools coping with poor readers, more substantial research on adolescent literacy is expected, according to Kamil. "A lot of demonstration programs have been done, but almost none evaluated," he said.