Adolescent Literacy: Helping Students Who Read Below Grade Level

May 30, 2006

Moderator's note: The post below is in response to the following email we received:

"I am a teacher in a high school special ed program. It is often hard to find materials for my students. I need ones that are written to a population of readers in grades 2-4, but for teenagers. I have previously used the books Charlotte's Web and Holes. The problem is that I need discussion references for this grade level 9-12. I am trying to set up a curriculum for next year with reading in world, American, and English literature that is written low, but has enough to keep the interest of my students and is available on audio. Can anyone help with suggestions, but please remember I have very little money for class sets and I will probably be the one buying some of the books. Thank you."

In the health academy I started in 1986 in California, my first concern was the students' level of reading: Most of the high school academy students were reading around the third-grade level. My teacher externship at a local hospital had me exploring the hospital library, and that experience indicated to me that the majority of reading in health is probably at grade level fourteen, or the second year of postsecondary education. After leaving the externship, I was determined to teach my students how to read, and I immediately drove to the local university and enrolled in a master's program in reading.

In this quest, I found three strategies that encourage low-level high school students. First, I discovered "skinny books." Publications exist out there that list titles of such books, such as Books Junior High Boys Like to Read. I looked for materials such as these with classic titles and bought simplified, illustrated versions of Tom Sawyer, Lorna Doone, and War and Peace for my classroom.

I also encouraged my students to read and read and read, inviting them to choose books about topics that interested them, such as basketball and movie stars. Then I asked them to read more difficult material. Newsweek magazine had a weekly medical column based on an article from the New England Journal of Medicine. Students first read the Newsweek article so they understood the concepts and then read the original journal article. In this process, I started teaching students successful reading strategies.

Finally, students wrote their own books. This strategy is effective, because students have to learn more about reading in order to write. Students loved reading each other's books, and I kept the books (they could make one for themselves and one for the class) in order to build a classroom set.

Stay tuned: next -- how to motivate students to read boring textbook information.

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