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
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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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Gina Fournier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Common book reading assignments are killing voluntary reading. One size does not fit all, of course. Internet access to Cliff and Spark Notes means too many students never read assigned reading material, yet are rewarded with As, Bs and high school diplomas. This behavior, approximating reading, works in some college classrooms, too.

Students graduate high school and college without a working knowledge of the world of books. Attitudes toward reading include "hate" and lack of respect. Time is a huge factor, with reading not included in many lives. Some students don't read because they don't feel they're good at doing it.

Community colleges serve all ages and kinds. I find that Americans don't know about the organizational systems in libraries and how they differ from bookstores, which is one of many negative results of over-reliance on common book assignments(an approach which benefits the teacher most).

Suprisingly, I find that far too many students are internet illiterate, as well, unaware of the need to "read," analyze and differeniate sources.

So much is lost when students are force-fed classics en masse year after year, primarily joy for reading. But the list of unwanted outcomes is long. Even the brightest students need help recognizing the traditional divisions of "fiction" and "nonfiction," which suggest some possibly disturbing implications.

In my classes, the group reads aloud together shared texts (I see the latest brain research supports my gut instincts). Otherwise, students choose independent reading assignments for out of class work.

Here's what I know: Students must first fall in love personally with reading before they are willing to authentically engage in involuntary reading. Minus a love for the writtebn word, they use the many techniques they pick up along the way to avoid reading. The default setting at this point for far too many students is AVOID READING, and it works (shame on teachers). But the situation is fixable.

I just found this resource! Thank you!

Eileen Tresansky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Working with dyslexic students for 17 years, I have found that their ability to grasp the concepts and skills they need to become independent readers varies as much as their degree of dyslexia. What methods I use with one student are not always the same ones I use with another. It truly depends on where their weakness in reading lies. It also depends on the amount of education their teacher has had in learning how to teach reading. Some teachers still need to improve their methods of instruction. I agree the Social Studies teacher and the Science teacher need reading instruction first!

Catherine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reading is such a wonderful skill to have. I am still stunned when I find someone who is at my age and struggles to read (am 47). What kills me is that there are children who can barely read and are still passed from grade to grade.
Back when I was in high school, there was an incident that I will never forget. I went to Catholic High School where you DIDN'T get passed unless you were competen in all required areas. There was no passing with a D. The year I was to graduate, the city's public high school seniors were being tested. HALF of them, it was found, could not read or write!!! I couldn't believe. Here was a group of students like me getting ready to graduate and they couldn't read or write??????
I am thankful for the education I have. Reading has taken me to many places and helped me in many situations. Everyone deserves that.

John Sanderson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While I can respect your opinion that you received a superior education in your Catholic high school, I believe you should also be grateful to your parents for providing you with a solid foundation as you grew up. Your family situation was probably not totally dysfunctional, as is the case in far too many households today. It is highly unlikely, as well, that your mother abused alcohol or drugs during her pregnancy, so you didn't have to deal with the challenges that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder or some drug induced brain damage would have created for you and your teachers. In other words, be very thankful for the education you received, but also give many thanks that you never had to deal with the physical, emotional, cognitive, and other challenges so many children are faced with these days - challenges that, no doubt, continue to inhibit their abilities to learn how to read and develop many other vital skills. And please be understanding that there are many good people (children and adults) in this great land of ours who have defective wiring in their brains that make the wonderfully exciting (for you, and for me) experience of reading an obstacle no less daunting for them than running a sub-four minute mile might be for you. Be proud and grateful, but please be understanding, too.

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To read "Nine Reading Experts Explain The Sad State Of Reading," please copy/paste this address:

All the experts I trust speak of children routinely learning to read in first grade--Blumenfeld, McNee, Potter, Collins, Engelmann. That must be the goal, and to reach it, we have to eliminate sight words.

Also see "40: Sight Words--The Big Stupid" on my site.

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I invited nine of the world's main authorities to explain what happened to reading. The result is a powerful article that every parent and teacher needs to read.

Nine Reading Experts Explain The Sad State of Reading

Bruce Deitrick Price's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A minute ago there was no previous comment so I left a new one, then there were two!

judy koppenaal's picture

That is the real issue-parents. They are their children's first teachers and should be taught to read to them, take them to the library and take the time to teach/answer questions. Without a foundation, a building will fall. Parents, are definitely a variable to a child's education -our legislature needs to remember that and stop blaming schools for everything.

Bettydavis's picture

[quote]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?[/quote]

Bettydavis's picture

[quote]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?[/quote]I have been teaching children to read for the last 10years independent of the public schools. Children who have gone through the program are reading above grade level. I just don't agree with passing children into the next grade when they ahve not mastered the skills needed to be successful.

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