Adolescent Literacy Crisis or Crisis of Student Engagement?

Adolescent Literacy Crisis or Crisis of Student Engagement?

It is widely acknowledged today that too many adolescents lack sufficient literacy skills. The United States Department of Education has even declared a “crisis” in adolescent literacy, stating that “the literacy skills of many students in grades 4–12 are so alarmingly low that the students have difficulty meeting the academic challenges of high school and are ill prepared for postsecondary education and the workforce.” Literacy in this context can mean more than reading and writing, although the U.S. Department of Education says that it is most often “data on students’ reading skills that generate concern.”

The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), an education-focused nonprofit with a strong online presence, offers a unique perspective on the state of adolescent literacy. The crisis, according to a post on ASCD’s website, is less about adolescent literacy in general and more about students’ lack of academic skills. “Literacy is a big part of the everyday world of adolescents,” researchers Judith L. Irvin, Julie Meltzer, and Melinda S. Dukes argue in Chapter 1 of their book, “Taking Action on Adolescent Literacy.” (The book is available for purchase through ASCD’s online store.)

This chapter is published on the ASCD site and focuses specifically on the idea that adolescents are in fact often quite immersed in literacy through social media, “poetry jams,” and other real-life interactions that revolve around reading, writing, and responding to significant people in their lives. What’s missing, the authors contend, is a similar development and application of literacy skills in school. Most adolescents are “actually highly motivated readers and writers,” according to Irvin and her colleagues. Thus, the question becomes: How can teachers and other school staff help students improve their “academic literacy skills”?

The answer may lie in better student engagement. In the first chapter of their book, Irvin, Meltzer, and Dukes offer a visual guide to improving student literacy, at the center of which are the following words: “Student Engagement, Motivation, and Achievement.” Students must be “motivated to engage with literacy tasks and improve their proficiency as readers and writers,” the authors declare, noting that such efforts can create a “cycle of engagement and instruction.” Engagement builds competence, and competence then leads to improved levels of engagement.

This concept is supported by other academic researchers. On the website run by the organization All About Adolescent Literacy, a post by the U.S. Department of Education asserted that “literacy experiences” at school should be clearly connected to “students’ interests, everyday life, or important current events.” Centering students in literacy instruction can provide a confidence boost and help learners access “content-area texts,” which is important because it can lead to a deepening of academic literacy skills—the exact kind that students will need for future success.

What follows on the All About Adolescent Literacy site is a list of specific ways teachers can directly tap into student motivation and engagement. Here is a snapshot of what that could look like:

  • Monitor progress: Students should be given “explicit feedback” about their skills and “thinking processes” in connection to discipline-specific work. Clear goals (set by both teacher and student), consistent feedback, and other direct interactions can help make the structure and purpose of academic work more transparent and, ideally, more accessible.

  • Promote student choice: Allow students to choose companion texts that support their understanding of in-school work and empower them to choose topics of study and forms of assessment. This can help them “assume greater ownership and responsibility for their engagement in learning.”

  • Embrace collaboration: Emphasizing collaboration, communication, and greater connection (between academic subjects and students’ lives, for example) can go a long way toward building a positive, youth-friendly learning environment. The All About Adolescent Literacy post contended that this should be matched with a solid grounding in concrete academic skills and strategies, including research, comprehension, and the sharing of information with others.

The All About Adolescent Literacy guidelines for fostering greater student engagement also touch on possible barriers to implementation. For instance, teachers should not confuse student engagement with student entertainment. Building excitement through “contests, competitions, and points” will surely exhaust teachers, but will it also improve student learning? Probably not. Instead, teachers should work on helping students develop intrinsic motivation for improving their literacy skills by making the purpose of their lessons very clear and by allowing plenty of opportunities for students to get to know themselves as learners.

Other possible pitfalls on the road to better student motivation and engagement may include a lack of adequate resources. Adolescents often have strong ideas about their own interests—are there enough highly engaging texts to support this and keep them invested in reading and writing? Another trouble spot may be teachers’ understanding (or lack thereof) of the importance of teaching concrete reading skills to students, especially outside of the Language Arts classroom. Content-area teachers can help students improve by making sure to emphasize the value of “strategic reading,” which is something that can be best supported through a schoolwide approach.

Another thing to watch for is the often negative relationship between students with lower literacy skills and school. Researchers warn that those who struggle with reading may find themselves blamed by teachers for their inadequate skills, or they may believe that teachers do not think they are capable of succeeding. Again, the key to overcoming this centers on student engagement, according to Dr. Kenneth Shore, a psychologist with the Hamilton, New Jersey, school system.

Teachers who have struggling students on their hands can help these individuals succeed by offering real feedback (showing students that they are more than just a number) and otherwise positioning the students’ needs and experiences at the center of classroom work. In Dr. Shore’s view—which is shared by many experienced educators—nurturing a student’s sense of belonging and providing clear, concrete academic work can go a long way toward addressing the “adolescent literacy crisis” that may limit opportunities for current and future student success.

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