Tackling the Literacy Needs of Younger Adolescents
Improving literacy rates among adolescent students is a growing area of focus in education, and rightfully so. Statistics from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test (NAEP) given in 2017 revealed that just 36 percent of fourth-graders who took the reading test scored “at or above” the proficient level. Most students scored in the range of “basic” proficiency, while another third fell into the “below basic” skill level. (The NAEP is a government-run test that measures trends in student performance at grades four, eight, and 12 in reading, math, and science.)
This range of results held true for the nation’s eighth- and 12th-graders as well, with most students scoring in the “at or above basic” range. These numbers add up to a picture of adolescents in need of greater literacy instruction and intervention, since reading, writing, and critical thinking skills are widely regarded as essential tools for future success. Given that adolescent students fall into a broad age range—from fourth grade through 12th grade, or roughly ages 9 to 18—a one-size-fits-all solution to their literacy needs will simply not suffice.
Understanding younger adolescents
To get a deeper understanding of who these students are and how best to support them, it may be worthwhile to shine a spotlight on the youngest adolescents. As Harvard University researcher Vicki Jacobs wrote in a 2009 piece called “Putting the Adolescent Literacy Crisis in Context,” students' literacy needs change markedly over time. Emerging adolescents in third and fourth grade are often expected to put their early reading skills (decoding words, grappling with phonemic awareness, and so on) to use in new ways as they access content across the curriculum.
Jacobs asserted that by middle school, students should have a host of strategic reading skills in hand with which to “question, analyze, and synthesize a variety of texts,” among other higher-level tasks. Without these advancing skills, students may naturally feel left behind and left out of peer activities—a key developmental concern for middle school students. As Karen Tankersley wrote in her book “Literacy Strategies for Grades 4–12,” struggling readers tend to feel “anxious about school,” which can lead to a complex cycle of frustration and misunderstanding for teacher and student alike. If unaddressed, this may actually push students further away from accessing the literacy skills they need to succeed.
In response to this troubling scenario, here are some concrete strategies that can be implemented to help get younger adolescents on the right path as early as possible.
Helping students connect effort to success
In “Literacy Strategies for Grades 4–12,” Tankersley zeroed in on what teachers can do to help struggling readers gain confidence as they work to improve their skills. “Teachers must continually reinforce the connection between effort and achievement with struggling students,” she wrote, before going on to explain that small steps can add up to bigger successes. This may involve setting lots of “reachable goals” that keep students engaged and moving forward.
Today, many educators would recognize this as evidence of a “growth mindset” approach to learning. Pioneered by Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck, the concept of growth mindset suggests that teachers and students alike can continue to learn and grow—provided they put effort into doing so.
Courtney Rejent, a teacher whose work was profiled on the education blog Mind/Shift, noted that “readers, especially struggling readers, often have this mindset that they’ll never be good readers.” To combat this, Rejent learned to recognize and nurture the “small little moments” that can be stitched together into a narrative of success using a strategic framework developed by former teacher and current literacy consultant Gravity Goldberg. Goldberg describes the teacher’s role—particularly with struggling readers—as that of “miners, mirrors, models, and mentors.” More specifically, this involves diagnosing each student’s problem areas with reading (acting as a “miner”), observing and praising effort (“mirroring” good long-term strategies such as reflection), modeling effective methods for improved literacy skills, and then mentoring or coaching students onward with specific feedback and insights. (Watch Goldberg demonstrate this approach)
Coaching with middle school students in mind
In an article titled “Literacy Coaching in the Middle Grades,” Michael C. McKenna and Sharon Walpole described the unique challenges facing those tasked with improving literacy outcomes for students in early to middle adolescence. McKenna and Walpole contend that this job is quite different than it is for literacy coaches who work in the early elementary grades, partially because explicit literacy instruction often fades to the background in middle school.
As literacy coaches are “effective school leaders” who often work with both adults and students, they need to be “skilled at collaborating with other educators to effect change,” McKenna and Walpole asserted—all while facing grade-specific hurdles. As students enter middle school, there tends to be less information and research regarding best literacy intervention strategies, as well as increased pressure from faster-paced curriculum demands.
Middle school literacy coaches, then, need to advocate for the particular needs of younger adolescents through needs assessments, school-wide communication, and a professional commitment to their own continual development. This is a complex job that requires in-depth knowledge of how to scaffold lessons for English Language Learners, how to help teachers incorporate literacy tasks across the curriculum, and more.
What literacy coaches might do best is model collaboration. Demonstrating the ability to work well with others, share information and strategies, and open up the classroom to greater interaction may go a long way toward helping younger adolescents gain essential literacy skills. This is also a frequently mentioned characteristic of 21st-century learners and citizens who must find their way in an increasingly information- and knowledge-heavy landscape. Paying attention to the particular needs of middle school students and emerging adolescents might be a very good place to start.
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