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Adolescent Literacy Report Has Implications for Standards, Assessments


Yesterday's release of a capstone report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York's Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy covered some interesting ground and issued some pretty strong calls to education and policy people at all levels to make the topic a high priority. (The report's use of terms like "re-engineer" and "revolution" got our attention.)

One of the interesting things that took shape at a panel discussion of the report yesterday was the potential intersection of the adolescent literacy work with the move to design common standards and better assessments. (The council urged policy folks to endorse common standards that infuse literacy skills into adolescents' coursework, and to back better literacy assessments.)

David Coleman, an all-around heavyweight education policy wonk and consultant who is helping shape the standards, said any new common standards must recognize and remedy the disconnect between the literacy skills high schools often demand of students (writing narratives or shaping essays based on their opinions) and those that colleges and workplaces most often demand (writing well-constructed arguments). What will be crucial in developing sound middle- and high school-level standards, Coleman said, is to infuse the development of good persuasive writing skills across all subjects in the curriculum.

(On that note, take a look at a very good new story by my colleague Debbie Viadero, who examines the new attention being paid to students' argumentation skills.)

Coleman also made an important point about the way assessments hamper good literacy instruction. Most break students' reading and writing skills down into artificial subcategories that don't reflect the way their skills develop or how one skill relates to another. Misleading as they are, the results of those assessments still guide (or misguide) the way teachers diagnose students' literacy needs and target instruction. The prescription for literacy assessments? Gotta have far better ones if we're going to teach literacy more intelligently, at all grade levels.

Carol Lee, an education professor at Northwestern University, made a related point. Virtually no assessments gauge which subject areas are giving students difficulty. This goes with the point the panelists hit again and again yesterday: You can't just teach adolescents reading and writing in English. The biology teacher must have skills to help students master the specific language and content of science, and those are not necessarily the same skills the history teacher needs to help students decode and deconstruct complex original source documents. And that was Lee's point: If you are going to try to figure out what difficulties middle and high school students are having in reading, you're going to need to know what type of reading is proving difficult.


I agree that teachers of students stuck in the achievement gap must infuse literacy into their curriculum. I taught Special Day Classes of Biology and World History to high school students with learning disabilities. Since my credential and training were for K-6 literacy instruction and I passed California's reading instruction exam (the RICA), I technically could teach phonics and reading comprehension strategies. Where I struggled most was in phonics because high school students, particularly those who are lowest performing and therefore less engaged, are embarrassed by the strategies I was taught to use for phonics - i.e. segmenting words by phonemes, reading the childish passages available for their reading levels, and reading aloud in front of the class. I was only successful in direct phonics instruction when I "pulled out" 1-2 students at a time so they were removed from their peers. It's obvious that we need to support students who read far below grade level, though this is not an easy task for a teacher with a classroom of students ranging in abilities and for the students themselves who are very embarrassed of their abilities. I think computer programs like Read 180 and Reading Revolution are most successful because teachers can differentiate and challenge each student at their own level as well as provide direct reading instruction to small groups in a more comfortable setting. (Unfortunately these programs are pretty expensive).

(Some of my English Language Learners asked for tutoring because they recognized that their language deficiencies were holding them back.) Yet, overall, my response to this blog post is that

I agree with the criticism of having things broken down into so many standards. Things are broken down so much that it detracts from the real job of teaching kids to read and write. After all, being able to identify an appositive phrase in any given sentence will probably rarely come up even in polite conversation for any of us, but 7th graders have to learn ( and very quickly forget) this "very important" skill in order to show they've mastered one of the 60 something standards we need to address here in California. Imagine the time spent on the irrelevancies of grammar, and how much better it would be to spend that time teaching kids to understand what they read, and to write well.

Dee Tadlock, Ph.D., developer of Read Right methodology in use in many schools in the U.S., has warned the reading field for years that focus on distinct skills in early reading development is potentially disastrous(decoding, in particular). Decoding may be easy to "measure" in Grades 1-3, but, when it becomes the primary reading strategy for a student, reading ability falls apart beginning in the 3rd and 4th grades. When its influence continues into adolescence, the effects on comprehension and school performance are devastating. Someone needs to examine her theoretical constructs, her methodology, and the methodology's results with students. Data is available for thousands of adolescents--and it clearly documents that she is on to something.

Teachers struggle with how to teach reading comprehension. The implicit-instruction teachers hope that reading a lot really will teach comprehension through some form of reading osmosis. The explicit-instruction teachers teach the skills that can be quantified, but ignore meaning-making as the true purpose of reading. Check out seven research-based reading comprehension strategies with multiple links at http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-teach-reading-comprehension/

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