What to Do When Adolescent Literacy Rates Spell Trouble

What to Do When Adolescent Literacy Rates Spell Trouble

In February 2017, the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University hosted a forum called "The Adolescent Literacy Crisis in America," led by institute director Dr. David Steiner. In framing the problem, Steiner cited data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federally sponsored test given to random samples of students across the United States to gauge their skills in reading and math, among other academic subjects. Steiner warned forum attendees that "the nation has in fact lost ground" in grade 12 reading scores since 1992, even though there "has been some progress at fourth grade."

Why the concern over adolescent literacy? "There is no better predictor of long-term life chances than reading fluency," Steiner asserted before turning over the forum to literacy researchers and practitioners. These participants described the work they are doing to address adolescent literacy-related issues, including focusing on "vocabulary and background knowledge." (One strategy from City Springs School in Baltimore involved the use of cross-curricular materials in all classes—even art and physical education.)

Data shows that almost two-thirds of today's high school students may be struggling readers, with reading scores from the 2015 NAEP indicating that just 37 percent of the 19,000 high school seniors who took the test scored in the Proficient range. According to the NAEP, "Proficient" denotes "solid academic performance," although some observers contend that it may indicate above-grade-level achievement. Similarly, 2015 NAEP reading scores for eighth-grade students indicated that 34 percent scored at or above the Proficient level, meaning the majority of students scored at or below the basic skills range.

It may be easy to dismiss these scores as simply one indicator of student literacy rates. However, a deeper dive into the landscape of today's adolescent literacy indicates further legitimate areas of concern, including the following:


Literacy means more today

Strong literacy skills are considered a necessity in today’s job market, but the definition of what constitutes literacy is changing. For instance, advanced students—the ones who go on to college and successfully graduate—are often assumed to not only able to read and write well, but also to perform well in new focus areas gaining more recognition, such as media and information literacy. To be considered truly literate, they are also expected to possess a complex mix of other skill sets, including critical thinking and the ability to innovate.

But what about the students who are still struggling readers as adolescents? Without a foundation of strong reading and writing skills, there is a concern that these students will be left behind as college education and theeconomy move forward. Research shows that students who lack adequate literacy skills as fourth-graders are four times more likely to drop out of high school, according to a 2010 article in The New York Times.

Race and income level impact literacy

Wealthy white students in the U.S. have higher literacy rates than their Black, Latino, and Native American peers. Here are some stark statistics illustrating this divide among fourth-graders who scored below the Basic level in the 2007 NAEP reading test:

  • 54 percent of Black students

  • 51 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students

  • 50 percent of Latino students

  • Only 22 percent of Caucasian students

As far as income goes, in 2014, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported that just one-fifth of low-income fourth-graders were "reading at a proficient level, compared to more than half of high-income children." The lower achievement rates of racially and economically isolated fourth-graders is especially troubling given that school becomes more text-dependent and demanding as students move into middle and high school.


Adolescents need age-specific literacy interventions

The data is clear: Too many adolescent readers are struggling with basic literacy skills. The question then becomes what to do about it. Certainly, an emphasis on high-quality early literacy instruction is essential—even before students start kindergarten. Brain research has shown that early exposure to literacy-rich environments with the guidance of caring, knowledgeable adults is of the utmost importance in terms of giving students a solid start on the path to becoming strong readers, writers, and critical thinkers.

However, as the International Literacy Association has argued, adolescent students need their own literacy-rich environments, ideally paired with age-specific instruction. The association published a position statement on adolescent literacy in 2012, calling for all adolescents to have, among other things, access to a "culture of literacy in their schools with a systematic and comprehensive programmatic approach to increasing literacy achievement for all." The association also advocated for the hiring of more "middle and high school literacy specialists" so adolescent learners can gain the skills needed to navigate not only school, but also life as citizens, employees, and independent young adults.

Without this "culture of literacy" and the presence of well-trained educators, adolescents may continue to struggle with basic literacy skills. As noted above, this puts them at higher risk for dropping out of high school, which in turn increases the chances that they'll be left out of both college and the knowledge economy. (Another significant issue: A 2010 report by the Kids at Risk Action group stated that "85 percent of all juveniles who come into contact with the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate.")

However, literacy expert Rafael Heller believes there is reason to be hopeful. According to Heller, "America's adolescent literacy crisis is finally getting the attention it so urgently deserves." Those looking for classroom tips may want to turn to a 2008 report from IES, a group that offers evidence-based insight into classroom practices. The IES report offers a wealth of useful ideas for teachers, such as recommending the provision of "explicit vocabulary instruction" to students, along with providing a nudge to keep students "engaged and motivated" along the way.

An easy-to-navigate summary of the top five recommendations from IES—complete with research-supported links—is accessible at the All About Adolescent Literacy website.

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