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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Why Johnny (Still) Can't Read: Schools Meet the Challenge of Producing Teen Readers

As reading skills falter, educators push to improve adolescent literacy.
By Carol Guensburg
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades

Credit: Veer

Even as books take a back seat to technology, reading is more important than ever in an increasingly complicated, information-rich world. Basic literacy no longer suffices. In higher education and the workplace, young people must handle an array of complex texts -- narratives, repair manuals, scholarly journals, maps, graphics, and more -- across technologies. They need to evaluate, synthesize, and communicate effectively.

Unfortunately, more than 8 million U.S. students in grades 4-12 struggle to read, write, and comprehend adequately. Only three out of ten eighth graders read at or above grade level, according to the 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Readers who fall significantly behind risk school and workplace failure. In 2003, only three-fourths of high school students graduated in four years, the National Center for Education Statistics reports; the previous year, just over half of African American and Hispanic students graduated at all.

Without a high school diploma, it's harder to make a decent salary. In 2004, for instance, high school dropouts earned a median $401 per week, compared with $916 for college graduates. A new report from the National Governors Association, "Reading to Achieve," estimates that deficits in basic skills cost as much as $16 billion annually in lost productivity and remedial costs.

"Older children still need instruction on what you would call the critical reading skills: how to attack text in different subject areas, draw inferences, and bring background knowledge to bear in ways that make sense," explains Peggy McCardle, who oversees the child development and behavioral branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

Further complications arise for the nation's 5 million K-12 students with limited English proficiency. They "represent enormous diversity in skills and histories," observes Catherine Snow, a professor and leading expert in literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Though some students may know English, she adds, others "arrive with high home-language literacy skills and no English, or with a history of failed and interrupted schooling and no English." Few middle schools and high schools are equipped to provide it.

Though the bulk of literacy investment has centered on young children, the quest for improved adolescent-literacy skills has gained ground, thanks to tougher state assessment standards and, significantly, the federal No Child Left Behind Act. By requiring disaggregated scores as part of accountability, the NCLB "forces us as an educational community to look at those who are struggling," Don Deshler, director of the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, says approvingly.

The NICHD, part of the National Institutes of Health, has partnered with the U.S. Department of Education to fund ongoing research, including providing grants to five adolescent-literacy experts to explore new ways of learning. Researchers already have determined some scientifically sound practices, summarized in "Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy," a pivotal report coauthored by Snow and released by the Alliance for Excellent Education in 2004. It's one of several recent guides aimed at rallying educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders around adolescent literacy.

"Reading Next" identifies fifteen key elements found in effective programs. Nine promote instructional improvements, such as strategic tutoring and intensive writing. The rest relate to infrastructure, including stronger leadership and extending time for literacy education. Though the elements can be used in different combinations, the authors say three are vital: ongoing assessment of students to immediately address individuals' needs, ongoing assessment of the program to test efficacy and inform research, and professional development.

"Basically, it says every teacher in a middle school or high school plays a role in addressing the literacy needs of kids," says Deshler, an adviser on the project.

That's a new,and sometimes unwelcome, responsibility for subject-area teachers accustomed to leaving literacy instruction to the language arts faculty. Even English teachers may lack training in basic literacy instruction. Most colleges of education require only a single reading course for prospective teachers. To help current teachers improve instruction techniques, some schools are hiring literacy coaches (see "The New Drill: Teaching Educators How to Improve Reading Levels," February 2006).

Schools with more resources are using digital technology for literacy support. For example, interactive computer programs give students individualized lessons in vocabulary, while monitoring progress. Deshler and other advocates of improved adolescent literacy praise the Bush administration's new Striving Readers program, which directed $25 million to support reading achievement in poor secondary schools in 2005. (Congress is expected to approve at least another $30 million for 2006.) They also note that its funding is dwarfed by the more than $1 billion in federal funding set aside for Reading First, established by the NCLB to provide comprehensive instruction in poor schools through third grade.

Thanks to Reading First and its precursor, the Reading Excellence Act, says Susan Frost, an education consultant and a former president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, "every K-3 teacher can receive the professional development necessary to teach reading well." As a result, she says, "we're seeing upward movement in fourth-grade scores." That outcome, she adds, argues for more investment in students in grades 4-12 -- "most of our nation's students."

Bolstering adolescent-literacy rates takes resolve. Right now that's most pronounced at the state level, advocates say.

Two states stand out. The Alabama Reading Initiative began in 1998 to build K-12 literacy skills, though budget constraints limit the program to grades K-3. Just Read Florida followed in 2001; this year, the state will spend $99 million from its own coffers on efforts such as assessing K-12 students and dispatching 3,000 reading coaches to them. Other states have targeted their aid, perhaps requiring individual remediation plans for at-risk readers, says Ilene M. Berman, program director for education division of the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices.

Former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, president of the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education since early 2005, says he wants to see every state developing a literacy policy for its secondary schools. "We want to emphasize this is a continuum," he says. It's about time.

Carol Guensburg is a freelance journalist and former founding director of the Journalism Fellowships in Child and Family Policy. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.

This coverage was made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Pamela Collins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In spite of NCLB, children who have severe dyslexia will never be the readers that the rest of us are. They, more than anyone, need assistive technology to be able to have text and novels read and reread to them as needed. They need to be able to dictate answers and essays to a computer and have assistance in editing by either a teacher or the computer. With technology and with schools that teach differently, many of these dyslexic students can go to college. Most of them are very bright. Dyslexics cannot be taught to read by conventional methods, and I am tired of people saying they just need to try harder or practice more. Thank you.

g nichols's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a special needs teacher. Even in our regular population, I find 11th graders that can't read. Teachers are told not to fail them so on they go.

You find today that children do not read outside of school any more. Technology reins and I agree, reading is more important now than ever. You CANNOT increase speed, comprehension, vocabulary or any other reading sub-process unless you READ!
You cannot become a proficient reader if the only reading you ever do is in school. Of course it's the teacher's fault! Politicians have to pander to the voters and the voters are the PARENTS! That's where "It takes a village" and NCLB come from. Everybody is a teaching expert.

Brandi Steedley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is a sad story that children these days can not read. It is even sadder that they are promoted to the next grade and can not read. The love of reading should begin in the home at an early age. Then, when they are older, reading should become a natural enjoyment, not a dread. Teachers are doing their part in the classroom, parents should help out by reading to their children at home. Does anyone else agree?

Gary Nichols's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Absolutely dyslexia is a different issue. It is further a shame that much special education time is eaten up by students who do not need to be on an IEP. I'm not sure if you are indicating that anything I said should be interpreted that I am including a dyslexic population in my comments. I am not. The 11th graders that can't read are NOT dyslexic. They've been tested. Our lower grades were told not to fail them. I talk with teacher after teacher in low income areas that indicated the same. If they fail, it's the teacher, if they are passed on it's the teacher. Parents are excused. The universities that pander all this nonsense do not even recognize that these students exist. The watch phrase is "change what you need to change" to get them through. That's a quote. When it is time for these kids to enter a post secondary college or tech school, guess who is first in line to rule them out!

Kristen F.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a fifth grade teacher in Ohio. Our school district is one that has benefited from Reading First. Our administrators saw the improvement that Reading First produced in our K-3 program and decided to move parts of the program into our upper elementary and middle schools. Two years ago, I was a part of a committee that wrote a grant- the Adolescent Literacy Improvement Grant. We are now doing many of the things necessary to improve adolescent literacy in our building, such as improving fluency and comprehension, and working incessantly on building background information. This past school year our efforts paid off as all of our grade levels (3-8) passed the reading portion of the Ohio Achievement Test.

Christine Stade's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reading is such an important part of the learning process. Children who cannot read will fail at every other subject. I believe reading should begin at the preschool level, and that preschool should be mandatory. This way students are sharpening their sitting and listening skills in the preschool years and not learning these skills in kindergarten. The preschoolers would know their letters and sounds to prepare for the kindergarten introduction into reading. This would help ensure that the kindergarten students are ready to learn to read.
Remedial classes should be a part of each grade with a qualified "reading teacher," to assist those students with reading or comprehension. Reading is the lifeline to success in learning.

Lakisha Chennis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the statement above. Pre-schoolers should be exposed to letters and their sounds early on. These basic skills and more will prepare them for reading in kindergarten. Basic phonic skills are vital in their literacy success. Reading is a way of life and it will determine a students success in life.

Vivian Perez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, sad but true. This article has open my eyes to seeing more in the refugee that come with little to no English language experience that struggle their whole lives to make a living because they never mastered the art of reading, writing, and understanding the language. As easy as it may be to teach a student to read and write in English, compares to a middle or high school student, it is known that most of those students don't make it into the country until around middle school age.
Building programs that help a child learn in different ways is one thing. I want to know how you can test a child's IQ if all children learn in different ways. Unfortunately, we live in a country where money talks. If you have enough of it then you can afford to hire someone who cares. As for if you come from a poor background then you are stuck with what ever you can find out there, if you need extra help.
For that same reason I believe that public school teacher have to make that extra effort in identifying these problem and help those who need it. We have far more resources then they do and we know where to go to help them. If you ask by what the real problem is here, I would say that we don't have enough teachers willing to go the extra mile.

Jolie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was a wonderful article. I enjoyed reading it and thought about multiple intelligence the entire time. If they teach with a scientific approach then they could easily change to fit in using multiple intelligences. Can anyone tell me some of the methods of teaching with the scientific based teaching? I also enjoyed all the comments on how this either worked or didn't work in your schools. Very interesting.

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