4 reading responses
Supporting Adolescent Literacy
Across the Content Areas
“Reading is a different task when we read literature, science texts, historical analyses,
newspapers, tax forms. This is why teaching students how to read the texts of
academic disciplines is a key part of teaching them these disciplines.”
(Key Ideas of the Strategic Literacy Initiative, 2001)
Literacy – the ability to read, write, speak, listen, and think effectively – enables
adolescents to learn and to communicate clearly in and out of school. Being literate
enables people to access power through the ability to become informed, to inform
others, and to make informed decisions. Adolescents need to have strong literacy skills
so that they can understand academic content, communicate in a credible way,
participate in cultural communities, and negotiate the world. In addition to a cultural
component, therefore, building literacy addresses empowerment and equity issues.
The standards movement asserts that all students should understand content at deeper,
more complex levels than have been advocated previously for any but the most advanced
students. For students to construct meaning and derive usefulness from what they learn,
they must be able to retain important information, understand topics and concepts
deeply, and actively apply knowledge (Perkins, 1992). Reading and writing play a crucial
role in the ability to “learn for understanding” (Graves, 1999; Graves, 2000).
What happens, as is often the case, when literacy skills are too weak to support learning in
content areas? At the middle school and high school levels, literacy skills must become
increasingly sophisticated to meet more challenging academic expectations. The ability to
transact meaning from the academic text of different disciplines is often not directly taught,
with the consequence of failure to comprehend those academic topics. For example, if
students can’t understand a scientific argument, then they can’t understand the science that
they’re trying to learn. If students can’t understand how history is presented, they can’t
understand the points being made or connect those to what is happening in the present. If
these literacy skills are not fluent due to lack of practice and inappropriate instruction, all
but the most advanced readers and writers are placed at a disadvantage.
Research in this important area suggests the direction that improvement efforts must
take. We know some of the ways to reach reluctant readers and writers. We know a
variety of teaching and learning strategies that have been shown to be effective in
assisting adolescent learners to develop their capacity as readers and writers. We know
that enhancing literacy skills will improve learning in the content areas (NRP Report,
2000). Despite this knowledge, there is a lack of implementation of known strategies
and an “ever-deepening crisis in adolescent literacy” (IRA, 1999). How can we bring
effective content-based literacy instruction to life in the classroom in ways that will
make a positive difference for students?
Why are educational practitioners and
policymakers concerned about adolescent
Nationwide poor performance
The 1998 Reading Report Card by the NationalAssessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed
that barely a majority of U.S. adolescents (approximately
60%) could comprehend factual statements. Even more
alarming were the results showing that fewer than 5%
could elaborate on the meanings of the materials they
read. Additionally, the NAEP writing assessments
indicated that few adolescents could write effective pieces
with sufficient details to support main points.
Added demands of new technologies
The literacy demands that adolescents will face as twenty-
first century workers and citizens far exceed what has
been required in the past (Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw &
Rycik, 1999). They will encounter a world already filled
with new types of information systems, new modes of
communication, presentation, and publication, and wide
access to technologies that support new ways of
managing, analyzing, developing, and monitoring
information. The infusion of technology into our
communication systems worldwide brings with it the need
to better understand how technology changes and extends
literacy demands now and for the future (Luke & Elkins,
1998; Rycik & Irvin, 2001). However, many teachers are
not technologically literate, many schools still have
limited or unreliable technological capacity, and most
educational systems are not adequately preparing students
to develop the types and levels of literacy necessary to
truly capitalize on technology as a teaching and learning
Pressure from the standards movement
It has always been the case that “beyond the primary
grades, students need to grapple with texts that are
expository, dense, and full of new, more difficult
vocabulary, especially in math, science, and social studies”
(Allen, 2000). Until recently, a student’s experience with
these more challenging texts depended largely on his or
her level of literacy skills. Now, statewide standards,
accountability, and the public disclosure of low-
performing schools have increased the pressure on high
schools to raise scores and to improve other measures of
performance among all students. Thus, the challenge
includes and reaches far beyond remedial reading
(although adolescent remedial reading programs are
chronically under-funded). Add to this the distinct
literacy needs of increasing numbers of English Language
Learners attending high schools throughout the United
States. At the heart of this performance requirement is a
student’s literacy – his or her ability to understand and to
use language to master content areas.
Inconsistent instructional practices
Research over the past ten years demonstrates that
student performance at the high school level can improve
when teachers infuse their content-focused instruction
with literacy support. However, another barrier to literacy
is that many high school teachers maintain the
assumption that their job is to focus on content areas, not
to teach reading or writing, and many feel that they lack
the expertise to teach reading. Consequently, many
teachers end up planning content instruction so that it
minimizes reading and writing instruction (Allen, 2000;
Cziko, 1998), and without the key support and practice
opportunities needed to strengthen skills, students end up
reading and writing less.
The complexity of teaching reading strategies to high
school students is clear. It is equally clear that very few
high school students are currently receiving such
instruction. A review of promising practices shows that
efforts tend to be sporadic and dependent on individual
teacher efforts. As a result, it is often only the best
students who are taught how to analyze, synthesize,
debate, present, and evaluate information from multiple
sources – the very skills that average and weaker students
need for academic success. Without continued and
systemic literacy focus, all but strong readers and writers
will have difficulty meeting the literacy demands inherent
in state content standards.
What recent developments have taken place on
the national and state levels?
Despite the enormous national and Presidentialattention to reading and despite the higher failure
rates among older students on national and state reading
and writing tests, no policies address adolescent literacy at
the national level. The International Reading
Association (IRA) reports that state and federal funding
for adolescent reading programs in the United States has
In 1999, The International Reading Association (IRA)
Commission for Adolescent Literacy developed a position
statement to respond to “the ever-deepening crisis in ado-
lescent literacy” and to begin to offset the
disproportionate attention and resources dedicated to
early literacy. The position statement advocates seven
principles for supporting adolescents’ literacy growth.
There is some evidence that the IRA’s position statement
and findings have helped to bring attention to the issue.
Developments on the National Level
Seven Principles for Supporting Adolescents’
The International Reading Association (IRA) Commission
on Adolescent Literacy Position Statement advocates that:
■ Adolescents deserve access to a wide variety of reading
material that they can and want to read.
■ Adolescents deserve instruction that builds both the skill
and desire to read increasingly complex materials.
■ Adolescents deserve assessment that shows them their
strengths as well as their needs and that guides their
teachers to design instruction that will best help them
grow as readers.
■ Adolescents deserve expert teachers who model and
provide explicit instruction in reading comprehension
and study strategies across the curriculum.
■ Adolescents deserve reading specialists who assist
individual students having difficulty learning how to
■ Adolescents deserve teachers who understand the
complexities of individual adolescent readers, respect
their differences, and respond to their characteristics.
■ Adolescents deserve homes, communities, and a nation
that will support their efforts to achieve advanced levels
of literacy and provide the support necessary for them to
The 1999 IRA Adolescent Literacy Position Statement can
be found at: http://www.reading.org/pdf/1036.pdf
Some further examples of positive steps include the
RAND study, Reading for Understanding: Towards an R&D
Program in Reading Comprehension (January 2001), which
recommends increased research and development
resources for this important area. More and more,
professional development resources are being used to help
secondary teachers learn what they need to know to
support literacy across the curriculum. The U.S.
Department of Education is funding adolescent literacy
initiatives. One such project is the online communication
of effective practices via a Spotlight on Adolescent
Literacy on The Knowledge Loom, a Web site dedicated
to education reform. The Knowledge Loom was
developed by the Northeast Regional Educational
Laboratory (LAB), a program of the Education Alliance
at Brown University. Content for the Spotlight was
provided by LAB partner, The Center for Resource
Management (CRM).The Spotlight can be accessed at:
Recent efforts by state and by district
Some states have been able to address high schoolliteracy through Comprehensive School Reform
Demonstration (CSRD) legislation and funding, low-
performing schools legislation, or secondary-school
Developments on the State Level
Promising Futures: A Call to Improve Learning for Maine’s
In 1998, the Maine Department of Education Commission
on Secondary Education developed a report for
Commissioner Albanese. The report, Promising Futures: A
Call to Improve Learning for Maine’s Secondary Students,
recommends an ambitious approach to learning that takes
as its goal the attainment of the Maine Learning Results for
all Maine youth. Its purpose is to generate creative, student-
responsive, and forward-thinking instruction and school
organization. Promising Futures recommends steps that
policymakers and leaders beyond the school can take to
encourage and support secondary school improvement.
The 1998 Promising Futures report is available at:
the organizational support structures that they plan to
employ. They are available at: http://www.mcsd.org/
Report_files/secondary.pdf and http://www.madison.
What would a successful approach to improving
adolescent literacy include?
Need for a comprehensive approach
Studies suggest that successful secondary initiativeswould require a school-wide focus. “Although
research-based reading strategies may be applied in
schools on a piecemeal basis, some researchers believe
that success in solving older students’ comprehension
problems depends on their inclusion in a strategic
framework that will move students to a deeper
understanding of the information they read” (Allen,
To assist those attempting to improve adolescent literacy
at both the classroom and the school-wide level, CRM
examined the literature from several relevant fields,
including cognitive psychology, English Language Arts
instruction and assessment, linguistics, motivation theory,
English as a Second Language, education, and discourse
analysis. The findings suggest that effective support
results from a threefold approach:
1) careful attention to the social and motivational issues
attendant to adolescent learners,
2) explicit teaching and use of cognitive strategies, and
3) integration of literacy instruction with content-area
learning in ways that support teaching and learning in
These must be supported through appropriate
organizational structures such as adequate professional
development, scheduling, and course development. As in
every successful educational reform initiative, leadership
What is the Adolescent Literacy Support
One strategy for improving adolescent literacy,developed by CRM, is the Adolescent Literacy
When given the choice, many educators have chosen to
focus on literacy in their proposals and action plans.
Maine’s state department of education has obtained a
waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to work
exclusively at the secondary level with its CSRD funding.
At the state level, the Maine Department of Education
has made adolescent literacy a focus of secondary school
reform statewide. Maine’s Center for Inquiry into
Secondary Education is collaborating with the Northeast
Regional Educational Laboratory (LAB) and LAB
partner, The Center for Resource Management (CRM).
Their project will assist high schools to use the
Adolescent Literacy Support Framework to develop
coherent school-wide literacy support programs. The
planned five-year initiative includes a research
component and builds on Maine’s 1998 Promising Futures
Some local districts have developed their own policies
and are in the early stages of implementing systemic
adolescent literacy initiatives. The El Monte School
District in East Los Angeles County is integrating literacy
and leadership best practices into the CSRD programs of
three high schools. Two other districts recently carried
out their own investigations of the research in the area of
secondary literacy and developed comprehensive literacy
plans. The plans include detailed descriptions of the roles
of administrators, teachers, and reading specialists, and
Comprehensive School Reform
Demonstration Project (CSRD)
The nine research-based components of the Comprehensive
School Reform Demonstration Project (CSRD) are:
1) Effective research-based methods and strategies
2) Comprehensive design with aligned components
3) Professional development
4) Measurable goals and objectives
5) Support within the school
6) Parent and community involvement
7) External technical support and assistance
8) Evaluation strategies
9) Coordination of resources
Available at: http://www.lab.brown.edu/public/csr/csrd.taf?
Support Framework — a research-based framework
designed to bridge the divide between research and
practice in this area. The Framework provides teachers
and administrators with a comprehensive overview of
what needs to be addressed to effectively support
adolescent literacy development. Improving literacy
schoolwide using the Adolescent Literacy Support
Framework necessitates putting into place all four Key
Components: motivation; research-based strategies;
application across the curriculum; and organizational
Key Component A: Motivation
Address student motivation and engagement in learning
Literacy clearly has social and cultural attributes.
Research strongly suggests that school and classroom
cultures play large roles in whether or not adolescents
develop positive literacy identities (McCombs & Barton,
1998). Students who have experienced repeated failure at
reading are often unwilling to participate as readers or
writers. Attention to how to meet the social and
emotional needs of adolescents in learning situations is
correlated with how motivated students are to further
develop their literacy skills and engage in reading and
writing. School and classroom cultures that successfully
promote the development of adolescent literacy skills are
characterized by connections, interaction, and
responsiveness, which lead to student engagement and
reflection (Collins, 1997; Davidson & Koppenhauer,
1991; Krogness, 1995; Moore, et al., 2000; Schunk &
Zimmerman, 1997; Wilhelm, 1995).
Key Component B: Strategies
Integrate research-based literacy strategies
Adolescents “must learn to think about the complexities
of the reading process and then actively apply appropriate
strategies” (Allen, 2000). They must, therefore, learn the
literacy strategies, be given time to practice and apply
them to a variety of contexts, and subsequently use them
for learning in the content areas. A growing body of
research examines the differences in the metacognitive
skills of good vs. poor readers (Schoenbach et al, 1999;
Wilhelm, 1995; and others). The research suggests a
menu of best practices that together constitute good
instruction for developing adolescent literacy.
Key Component C: Across the Curriculum
Integrate reading and writing across the curriculum
“Reading is a different task when we read literature,
science texts, historical analyses, newspapers, tax forms.
This is why teaching students how to read the texts of
academic disciplines is a key part of teaching them these
disciplines” (Key Ideas of the Strategic Literacy
Initiative, 2001). The literacy demands of different
content areas vary substantially (Grossman & Stodolsky,
1995), and the research clearly supports the use of a
variety of comprehension strategies to enhance learning
in the content areas (Haller et. al., 1988; NRP Report,
2000). Effective content-based vocabulary instruction,
understanding of text structures, and discourse analysis
all play key roles in assisting students to maximize
content-area reading, writing, and understanding.
The Adolescent Literacy Support Framework with its Four Key Components
Key Component A: Motivation
A successful adolescent literacy initiative takes into account the social and emotional needs of adolescents.
■ Instruction makes connections to students’ lives.
■ Students interact with each other and with texts.
■ Teachers create responsive classrooms.
Key Component B: Literacy Strategies
A successful adolescent literacy initiative uses research-based approaches to adolescent teaching and learning.
■ Teachers guide and engage student learning in optimal ways.
■ Teachers create and promote student-centered classrooms.
■ Students develop reading and writing through purposeful uses of time.
■ Students develop speaking and listening skills through shared and collaborative learning.
■ Students gain higher order thinking and metacognitive skills.
Key Component C: Across the Curriculum
A successful adolescent literacy initiative supports reading and writing to learn in each/all of the content areas.
■ Students develop vocabulary in relevant contexts and through engaging activities.
■ Students develop understanding of text structures.
■ Students develop recognition and analysis of discourse features.
■ Teachers support learning in the English classroom by integrating discipline-specific literacy development.
■ Teachers support learning in the math classroom by integrating discipline-specific literacy development.
■ Teachers support learning in the science classroom by integrating discipline-specific literacy development.
■ Teachers support learning in the social studies classroom by integrating discipline-specific literacy development.
Key Component D: Organizational Support
A successful adolescent literacy initiative relies on key organizational structures and leadership capacity to ensure
necessary support, sustainability, and focus.
■ The initiative meets the agreed upon goals for adolescents in that particular community.
■ The initiative articulates, communicates, and actualizes a vision of literacy as a priority.
■ The initiative employs best practices in the area of systemic educational reform.
■ The initiative is defined in a way that connects to the larger educational program.
■ The initiative provides focused and sustained teacher professional development.
■ The initiative has a clear process for program review, improvement, and evaluation.
Key Component D: Organizational Support
Build organizational and leadership capacity for
sustained and focused literacy
Experience with high school educational reform models
(e.g., Coalition for Effective Schools; Breaking Ranks;
Career Academies) reiterates the principle that
implementing and sustaining change in secondary schools
requires a host of organizational and leadership structures
specific to the ongoing initiative. Studies show that
secondary school restructuring efforts, where the
necessary organizational supports and leadership
capacities are not in place, tend to be short-lived; they
also contribute to high levels of teacher frustration, stress,
and burnout on the part of teachers charged with
implementing change (Nolan & Meister, 2000). To date,
although the link between adolescent literacy
development and better content-area achievement is
clear, few systemic high school literacy initiatives have
been carried out beyond the planning and initial
The components of the successful adolescent literacy
initiative are designed to be integral to the larger
educational program in order to infuse the whole and add
to its coherence. To ensure continued success and
maximum responsiveness, there are ongoing cycles of
1) examining outcomes and results,
2) reviewing and improving program components,
3) seeking participant feedback, and
4) implementing improvements.
Each Key Component has associated best practices, which
are featured on The Knowledge Loom’s Spotlight on
Adolescent Literacy in the Content Areas. The Spotlight
provides suggested strategies and resources, snapshots of
successful practice, policy links, questions to think about, an
expert panel, research summaries and bibliographies, and a
host of other support resources to assist educators in
optimizing their use of the Adolescent Literacy Support
Framework to change teaching and learning in their schools.
How does the Framework address the needs of
The standards movement mandates qualityeducational experiences that support all students in
meeting and exceeding content-area standards. The
Adolescent Literacy Support Framework is designed to
reflect best practices in teaching and learning for all
students. Key Components A, B, and C are based upon
the research on successful practices with struggling,
average, and advanced students. Further, the Framework
takes into account the latest research about what works
with English Language Learners. Thus, by implementing
all of the components of the Framework, teachers and
administrators will support academic success for a wide
variety of learners.
What does adolescent literacy development look
like at the classroom level?
How would the application of these strategies bedifferent from what we see now in content-area
classrooms? The following excerpts from recent
publications give a glimpse of what Components A, B,
and C look like “in action” at the classroom level.
Integrating literacy and literature as an apprenticeship
The following is an adaptation of a story written by Christine
Cziko, a former high school English teacher from San
Francisco. It originally appeared in California English (Vol.
3, no. 4, 1998) as “Reading Happens in Your Mind, Not in
Your Mouth: Teaching & Learning ‘Academic Literacy’ in an
Urban High School.” The full article, in its original form, can
be found at: http://www.WestEd.org/stratlit/prodevel/
We thought that if we could create classrooms in which
students could use some of the energy they put into hiding
what they don’t understand into revealing and working to
figure out their confusions, we might create a powerful
new learning dynamic. We thought about ways to make it
“cool” to be able to articulate what in a particular text is
confusing and why, and we considered how to invite the
entire class to contribute strategies to unlock difficult
text. The model was: teachers as “master readers” and
students as “apprentice readers.” It was not a remedial
We began by reading works by authors, including Martin
Luther King, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Frederick
Douglass, writing about the role of reading in their lives.
They explored questions such as, “What roles does
reading serve in people’s personal and public lives?” The
students were also prompted to think about their own
relationship to reading, reflecting on questions such as,
“What are my characteristics as a reader?” and “What
strategies do I use as I read?”
We also read and discussed articles that provided a
common conceptual vocabulary for thinking about one’s
own cognitive processes. Students learned about schema,
metacognition, and attention management. The
following comment illustrates how students internalized
some of these ideas and strategies:
In Academic Literacy, they taught you about
different channels of your brain. Like my teacher
would say, “You have one channel for being with
your friends, and one channel for getting dressed,
and you have a channel for being in school.” And
so then we would be supposed to ask ourselves,
“What channel am I on now? Am I on my school
Another key element was in our modified version of
Silent Sustained Reading. Books were self-selected, but
students were expected to finish a 200-page book each
month and keep a record of both what they were reading
and what they were learning about themselves as readers.
They were introduced to and given frequent opportunities
to practice a variety of cognitive and “text-wise”
strategies: including questioning, clarifying, summarizing,
and predicting; using graphic organizers; and breaking
sentences into manageable parts.
Literacy across the high school curriculum
The following descriptions are excerpted from “How School
Leaders Can Support Successful Secondary Content Area
Literacy,” an article published in the October 2001 issue of
Principal Leadership, and written by Julie Meltzer (The
Center for Resource Management) and Sidney Okashige (The
Education Alliance at Brown University).
Supporting Literacy Development in the MATH
A secondary math classroom that supports literacy
development uses language processes to enhance
understanding and to demonstrate understanding.
Especially with word problems, teachers model problem-
solving through thinking aloud, and students articulate,
verbally or in writing, how they solve problems. Students
and teachers develop concepts actively. They make
frequent use of word play and connections to real-life
applications. They also use varied and flexible grouping,
team construction, and presentation of responses to
problematic scenarios requiring mathematical solutions.
Supporting Literacy Development in the SCIENCE
In secondary science classrooms where literacy
development is a priority, reading, writing, and discussion
happen on a daily basis. Students and teachers build and
expand understandings through the use of many kinds of
texts, including the reading and analysis of essays, journal
articles, Web sites, textbooks, and science fiction.
Teachers support reading comprehension through
electronic media, film, laboratory experiences, and
visuals. Students actively construct and reinforce
meanings of specialized vocabulary and make explicit use
of textbook features. They also develop hypothesis,
prediction, analysis, and description skills in verbal and
written forms. Students are able to use the writing
process to strengthen lab reports, analytic writing,
solutions to problem sets, and research findings. Teachers
use active inquiry, and students expect to read and
conduct scientific research as the fabric of teaching and
learning. Students frequently present and discuss their
findings, ideas, and questions.
Supporting Literacy Development in the SOCIAL
In a secondary Social Studies classroom that supports
literacy development, students and teachers use a wide
variety of resources, including reproductions of primary
sources in texts, kits, or Web sites, (diary entries,
newspaper accounts, maps, inventories, photographs, film,
and historical fiction), to develop understandings of eras,
places, and events. They make use of explicit textbook
features, use specialized vocabulary in classroom
discussion and student writing, and investigate the
thinking and approaches of social studies specialists (e.g.,
anthropologists, archaeologists, economists, social
historians, sociologists). They actively participate in the
framing and exploration of essential questions. They
make frequent connections between eras, events, famous
and infamous people, different representations of the same
or similar events, and the past and present. They
examine how languages develop and how language is
used, both by those in power and by those who resist, as
part of historical, cultural, geographic, and psychological
studies. Students discuss, present, and debate. They use
research skills. They are grouped in various ways for
different kinds of assignments, and their interests are
taken into consideration.
How will adolescent literacy across the curriculum
improve test scores?
Putting into place all four research-based KeyComponents of the Adolescent Literacy Support
Framework should improve and sustain performance on
standards-based state accountability tests. Students who
are motivated and engaged learn more and practice more.
Students who can use reading and writing strategies
effectively to learn content know more and can think
critically and respond analytically to material presented to
them. Students who have experienced teaching and
learning in which they have developed the practice of
interacting with subject matter will retain more of that
Teachers who experience high-quality, ongoing
professional development and who are provided adequate
time for ongoing teacher collaboration centered on the
examination of student work can improve their ability to
support literacy development across the curriculum. Thus,
through implementing the Adolescent Literacy Support
Framework, high schools can become more focused on
essential higher-order learning outcomes across the
content areas leading to improved student performance