Need to Improve Adolescent Literacy Rates? Develop a Literacy Action Plan

Need to Improve Adolescent Literacy Rates? Develop a Literacy Action Plan

In a 2011 paper prepared for the United States Department of Education, American Institutes for Research fellow Terry Salinger made a stark declaration: The literacy skills of many students in grades 4 to 12 are "so alarmingly low" that these students will struggle with not only high school, but also any postsecondary coursework or careers they may try to pursue.

Salinger's paper, "Addressing the 'Crisis' in Adolescent Literacy," primarily cites National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results as evidence of troubling adolescent literacy rates.

These worrisome literacy rates for older students can be seen in 2015 NAEP scores. According to the Nation’s Report Card, the 2015 average score remained stagnant at grade 4 and was 2 points lower at grade 8 compared to 2013 scores.

Reporter Juana Summers drew the conclusion that many seniors may be graduating from high school without the skills needed to "succeed in college and work." Salinger shared this concern in her report, cautioning that the "negative outcomes of adolescents' low literacy rates continued long after high school, no matter whether they have actually acquired a high school diploma or not," and included strategies for tackling this perceived crisis head-on. Recommendation No.1: States and school districts should develop a clear "literacy action plan." Here's a closer look at what literacy action plans are, and how to begin when putting one in place.


Start fresh

Using her research into adolescent literacy action plans, Salinger recommended that states and school districts display a willingness to scrap their existing approaches to K–12 literacy instruction. It may be best, she advised, to "conduct a two-part review that asks tough questions about student test data and the instruments that yielded the data." She went on to note that getting data professionals to help assess adolescent literacy scores may be the most "efficient” place to start, so everyone has a clearer picture of what students are being asked to do, where they are succeeding, and where they are running into trouble.


Think beyond K–3 literacy instruction

Adolescent literacy specialist Joan Sedita has written extensively about how to help students improve their reading skills as they move toward graduation. In a 2011 book on teaching basic language skills, Sedita noted that stagnant literacy rates for older students occurred alongside a greater investment in early literacy teaching and learning, at the expense of addressing older learners' literacy needs. Sedita cited a 2010 Carnegie Council report on adolescent literacy that found strong early literacy instruction in grades K–3 does not "inoculate students against struggle or failure later on." (Sedita defines adolescent literacy as beginning in grade 4.) According to Sedita, a specific focus is needed to help older students gain the phonics, fluency, and comprehension skills necessary for success in high school and beyond. She highlights key resources and instructional strategies for educators.

Implementation matters

An important aspect of any literacy action plan is sustaining implementation through continuous feedback and support for students, teachers, and administrators. In a guidebook addressed to school principals, the Center on Instruction advised that "recognizing and rewarding" the efforts of those following through on a renewed commitment to student literacy is an important way to sustain implementation of literacy plans. Also, school leadership teams must stay invested in what the center described as the "hard work" of getting students to read and comprehend content more deeply and effectively. One principal told the center, "I must be part of the team," before further stating that principals "must know what's going on" and be able to show that they are actively overseeing the implementation of any new team approach to literacy instruction.


The guide acknowledged that the "complexity of any such effort may seem daunting," especially for those new to undertaking "systematic work" on improving adolescent literacy rates. Yet creating and sticking with a comprehensive, school-wide plan backed up by a specific focus on the needs of adolescent students could be an important way to begin moving literacy rates from stagnant to soaring.

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