Janna Osman, M.Ed., Vice President for Advanced Learning
Why make a case for advancing adolescent literacy performance and what can be done for students who are not reading proficiently in order to be college and career ready? This paper will address what can be done in middle school for the adolescent literacy learner, identified in the research as beginning in grade 4, in order to benefit from the opportunities that literacy affords.
We cannot ignore the data. The Nation’s 2019 Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), tells the story of performance that has been virtually unchanged over the past 10 years. Sixty-three percent of Vermont’s fourth grade students perform below proficient in reading.
Dr. Joseph Torgesen, distinguished professor emeritus from Florida State University has researched and reported that children who get off to a poor start in reading rarely catch up. Confirmed by Shaywitz, Fletcher, Stanovich and others; the consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time. By fourth grade most have missed the window to learn to read fluently. The research is disturbing (Snow & Biancarosa, 2006). Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States alone. That is a student every 26 seconds – or 7,000 a day. About 25% of high school freshmen fail to graduate from high school on time. In a longitudinal study of nearly 13,000 urban students, researchers found that 82 percent of sixth graders who had failed an English class did not go on to graduate from high school. Another 6 percent of those students who had failed English in sixth grade graduated late, while only 12 percent of those sixth graders who had failed an English course went on to graduate high school at all. This bleak portrait of struggling readers can be addressed early on but what can we do if the student is in middle school without interventions in place?
One estimate is that about 10 million children have difficulties learning to read. The good news is that 90 to 95 percent of struggling readers can learn to read with appropriate research-based instruction, early on, but it is never too late for middle school students if all teachers are on board. Every teacher can become a reading teacher within their content area. For students struggling on the foundation level (early acquired phonological knowledge) reading interventionists and others can help middle school students to learn to decode (read) and encode (spell) effectively through explicit word study instruction.
At the advanced word level, for example, a science teacher can help students to understand the concept of Greek combining forms in order to decode the vocabulary of science, such as geology, a combining of geo (earth) with ology (the study of), an important morpheme (meaning bearing unit) to build vocabulary, reading, and writing. The science teacher also plays a critical role in supporting students’ understanding of text. In order to build comprehension of content, the science teacher teaches the knowledge of how information is structured within text to support comprehension. This applies across all content areas.
The research is clear, we know what we need to do to build a strong system necessary to develop students’ reading across all content areas with an expanded vocabulary and deep comprehension. Teachers can learn to explicitly identify student needs using their knowledge of advance language concepts, applied to their pedagogical knowledge, to build comprehension within the content area(s).
This requires systemic change by advancing teacher knowledge using evidence-based literacy, incorporating transformative literacy coaching for applied learning, and engaging in data-based decision-making.
The Stern Center’s Lead to Read Middle School Model brings the science of reading to teachers thereby advancing systems. The Comprehensive Reading Course for Educators, produced by MindPlay®, is a 35-45-hour online course, serving as a textbook source, for all educators who wish to expand their knowledge of effective reading and spelling instruction.
Research demonstrates that adolescents need evidence-based instruction across the curriculum in:
- Advanced Language Study
- Foundation skills for struggling readers
Transformative literacy coaching, founded on adult learning principles and coaching research bring job-embedded professional learning into the classroom through collaboration, reflection, feedback, and goal work for increased student success through application in the classroom. Valid and reliable assessments inform instruction across the curriculum.
Retooling requires teaching new literacy skills for comprehension to occur, for example:
- How to read purposefully
- Select new materials of interest and learn from them
- Integrate new information with known
- Resolve conflict in different texts
- Differentiate fact from opinion
- Recognize the perspective of the writer
- Read unknown words
Across content areas we are all teachers of reading. The explicitness with which teachers teach comprehension strategies makes a difference in learner outcomes, especially for low achieving students. We can change the trajectory and data outcomes for adolescent literacy learners if we work together.