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Essential Components of Adolescent Literacy

The heart of language instruction involves students engaging in a synthesis of reading, writing, and sharing ideas.

October 13, 2023
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English language arts teachers know that students in the early grades need intentional work with the ways that words sound and are formed. Through the grade bands, we also know that students are often asked questions that require them to name aspects of stories to identify characters, settings, and plots. But what about those next steps in literacy that are needed to challenge and sustain growth for older readers?

In many ways, adolescent literacy is a bit of a mystery, with questions of what kind of texts students should be exploring and what types of work are most engaging. In this post, I’ll share some ideas from both research and practice for leading middle school and high school readers through next steps in literacy development.

Adolescent Literacy Should Be Critical

As the Common Core standards unfolded about a decade ago, there was a shift from experiential responses to readings to a more critical approach that focused on the function of language in the text itself. This work of close reading is important, although it is also essential to connect readings for relevance.

At the same time, there’s even more work to do with readings. Louise Rosenblatt suggested that reading exists on a dynamic of information-gathering and enjoyment; the two are not necessarily divorced. 

When I use the word critical, I don’t mean negative or deficit-focused, but rather I intend the word to be focused on thoughtful readings and responses. This means that when we read in class, we spend time in critique and analysis, with a focus on deeper questions of intention and meaning. I also want to focus critical attention on what students do well when engaging in literacy. A critique shouldn’t be an opportunity for fear, but an invitation to think about what is working well—and how we can grow together. 

Connections Are Essential 

I recommend taking intentional steps to have your students consider questions about why authors and artists make particular choices in their work. This leads to critical conversations for readers where they connect what’s on the page to continuing and pressing issues going on in today’s world. This includes word choices, along with sentence crafting and larger questions of structure. Reading isn’t simply about answering surface-level questions, as Jeffrey Wilhelm pointed out in his work You Gotta BE the Book. Critical engagement is a must, and craft is part of this consideration of the larger “questions” of literacy.

Though some forms of education might focus on compliance, I want my students to connect what we read to their goals, dreams, and identities. When an aspect of a book falls short or is problematic, authentic responses can be helpful. Talking through what works well and how a text falls short is honest work, forming deeper levels of critique.

Part of being critical is noticing that the themes that authors spoke of, in some cases hundreds of years ago, still have currency today. This is the work of engaging with contemporary and classic literature and noting when authors make progress and share unique visions of the world—and when they fall short and reflect views that mistreat or misrepresent others. At times, we may discover authors who do this work well and then fail at other points in their portrayals of human beings.

I also make the effort to share readings that help students notice inequities, develop solutions, and consider what is possible for their lives. Authors speak across space and time in ways that can help youth ask questions—this is a wonderful facet of reading that I celebrate through podcast interviews. Whether we’re reading a voice from long ago, like Zora Neale Hurston, or a more contemporary voice, like Maya Angelou or Jason Reynolds, I want my students to always see the living story and literary lineage that is present in the world of reading.

Adolescents are in conversation with the world around them, including popular culture. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also approach our readings as a conversation and acknowledge the limitations and possibilities that texts offer. Applying what they read to think about their own voices and concerns can bring texts alive.

Attention to Composition is Sorely Needed 

Write, write, and write even more. Writing, creating, drawing, filming, and crafting are all welcome ways to engage with texts and ideas. 

Frank Serafini has explored the ways that readers want to share about texts they enjoy through conversation, and scholars such as Jennifer Rowsell have explored possibilities for thinking about how young people take up stories across digital and creative forms. There is also work being done by scholars such as Alison Dover to trace how literacy work is done across languages.

In short, doing something meaningful with what we have read is part of literacy practice, drawing on the reciprocal relationship of reading and writing that Marie Clay has suggested. When it comes to composing, I think of digital and arts-based creating, as well.

While a focus on reading is helpful and absolutely essential, writing and composing help adolescents engage with the page by adapting, exploring, and sharing ideas. This is the heart of language instruction. 

Even though it might be an interesting skill to be able to name each aspect of a grammatical form to its smallest ingredient, from the noun to the predicate nominative and from the adjective to the gerund, I am intensely interested (even devoted) to having my students engage in the practice of writing their ideas and sharing them across different means of communicating. Again, we go beyond surface-level work.

Sharing ideas should never be reserved for a particular group of students; rather, the work of literacy is for everyone, even if this work takes place in different ways across a range of tools.

Model Compassion Through Your Instruction

I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time with my high school students each day, talking about ideas and exploring words. Making authentic connections, practicing critical thinking, and finding ways to share ideas are some of the nonnegotiable components of this experience.

As we engage with issues to come and make decisions about what texts and voices to center, part of my commitment is to continue the practice of being a compassionate and thoughtful human—and hopefully model steps in literacy through this way of taking up the questions and problems we contend with in a changing world.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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