Thinking About Adolescent Literacy

After reading Mary Zehr’s “Southern States Urged to Tackle Adolescent Literacy,” published online from Ed Week, I was struck at again how often major media articles are guilty of gross oversimplification.

The article chronicles the call for a detailed problem to address “the most critical priority for public middle grades and high schools,” adolescent reading weaknesses, a by a sixteen state regional education board. It also articulates the need for more professional development of teachers in the area of reading strategies. It all triggered some thoughts that I often have regarding the “reading crisis.”

I don’t think many would argue that more needs to be done to improve the reading ability of students beyond primary school. In my experience, I share the notion that we too often stop reading instruction too early. However, I would clarify that it is formal instruction that wanes. While this fact might be fine for a student in the context of a rich literacy environment or reading culture, it leaves those who are not at a significant disadvantage, one that only grows worse with every year it is not addressed. Students from strong reading cultures seem to almost default into making inferences, connections, and gleaning deeper understanding. As the gap widens and stratifies between students it is not surprising that reading becomes a “critical priority.” Addressing the priority may require more formal instruction. Yet, formal instruction need not be the boring, mundane, old-time religion that many of us can be tempted to roll-out in an effort to address the problem.

Most students read all the time, even the “non-readers” to a great extent. Of course they do not always read what schools deem as important, as others have highlighted eloquently. I would also suggest that they do not typically read deeply, unless it is something that appeals to them in some profound way. The reasons for this are many, likely far too many to itemize in a single article.

Still, I am always amazed at how easily we tend to forget or dismiss the fact they we live at time when more human beings are literate and schooled than at any time in history. More people than ever can read. Now, this is a different metric from reading well, but it is something that should at least be acknowledged as some measure of success. There was a time, not that long ago, that only the smartest or the wealthiest learned any kind of literacy skills. Plus, consider that it really is not until the fourth or fifth grade that most students are truly reading at a level that reaches any kind of adequate proficiency, meaning they are reading texts of length and complexity without a lot of illustrations. Thus, most adolescents have only been really reading, a skill with an array of increasingly complicated and sophisticated demands, for far fewer than ten years.

Yes, the demands placed on our students have only increased and better practices are the only way to foster students who read well, but these increased demands require increased innovations in our teaching. We simply are not solving the same kinds of problems anymore.

On a related note, Jim Burke’s English Companion Ning has recently begun a web-based discussion group around Kelly Gallagher’s recent book Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, which has some spirited discussions and keen insights and includes responses from the author. I suspect it would be interesting for many reading this.


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