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LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS: New Report Calls for Advanced Literacy Skills for All Students, Reading Instruction Across the Curriculum

“The only way to guarantee that future generations will succeed in the twenty-first century is by raising expectations and meeting them with reading and writing strategies for each course,” said Bob Wise

Over the past few years, a strong coalition of educators, researchers, policymakers, professional associations, and advocacy groups has worked together to focus attention on the plight of millions of America’s students in grades four through twelve who are unable to read and write well enough to achieve even basic academic success. Already, those efforts have paid off in a wide range of local, state, and federal initiatives designed to help struggling students develop the reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills they need to move beyond the basic mechanics of literacy and move ahead in the secondary school curriculum.

However, according to Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement, a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, aiming only to bring greater number of middle and high school students to a modest level of proficiency in reading and writing would be a “grave mistake.” In addition, the report maintains, students will need to develop the advanced literacy skills that are required to master more complex academic content—especially in math, science, English, and history. Only then can students be truly prepared for college, work, and citizenship.

“The only way to guarantee that future generations will succeed in the twenty-first century is by raising expectations and meeting them with reading and writing strategies for each course,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.

According to the report, written by Cynthia R. Greenleaf, codirector of the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd, and Rafael Heller, senior policy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education, more than two thirds of all eighth and twelfth graders read at less than a proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and half of those students are so far behind that they “drop off the scale entirely” and score below the most basic level.1 It adds that poor literacy skills are also a problem for college-going students. In fact, only about half of high school juniors and seniors taking the ACT college entrance exam scored at a level indicating that they were college ready.

As a bit of good news, the report notes that several efforts are currently underway at the state and district levels to provide struggling adolescent readers with the high-quality interventions, materials, and instruction they need to bring their literacy skills up to grade level. At the federal level, legislation to authorize a federal Striving Readers program has been introduced in both chambers of Congress, with strong bipartisan support.

While these efforts will enable students to reach a modest level of proficiency in reading and writing, the report stresses that they do not address the achievement of the higher literacy levels students will need in order to succeed in college, a technical program, or another course of study. Or, as the report puts it, these strategies might help students “climb from the lower rungs of the ladder to the middle, but it will leave them a few rungs short of being able to continue their education.” It says that public schools must instead provide students with the advanced reading and writing skills that they will need in order to meet their own life goals, college-level standards, and workforce demands. According to the report, the next step for those working to improve adolescent literacy instruction must be to figure out how to improve reading in content areas while continuing to help students achieve basic reading skills.

In an effort to instruct district, state, and federal policymakers on how to make this leap, the report offers several recommendations. First, it suggests that policymakers define the roles and responsibilities of content area teachers clearly and consistently while assuring those teachers that they will not be held responsible for teaching basic reading skills to middle and high school students—that, the report says, is a job for reading specialists. However, it adds that members of every academic discipline should define the literacy skills that are essential to their content areas and identify those skills that they should be responsible for teaching.

The report also suggests that all secondary school teachers receive initial and ongoing professional development in teaching the reading and writing skills that are essential to their own content areas. It adds that states should require all secondary school teachers to take a course in literacy in the content areas, and that policymakers should continue to encourage districts and schools to refine and improve upon their use of literacy coaches to work with regular classroom teachers to assess and meet students’ literacy needs.

Finally, policymakers should combine school and district rules and regulations, education funding mechanisms, and state standards and accountability systems to give content area teachers positive incentives and appropriate tools with which to provide reading and writing instruction. For example, the report says that states should include open-ended writing and analytic reading items in all high-stakes reading and writing assignments, content area tests, and graduation exams, rather than the multiple-choice and short-answer items that most currently use.

The report also connects the importance of teaching of reading and writing to the rest of the secondary school improvement agenda and says that policymakers should treat literacy instruction as a “key part of the broader effort to ensure that all students develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life after high school.”

“Literacy stands at the heart of the academic content areas, and inasmuch as these content areas comprise the heart of the secondary school curriculum, content area literacy instruction must be viewed as the cornerstone of any comprehensive movement to build the kinds of thriving, intellectually vibrant secondary schools that young people deserve and on which the nation’s social and economic health will depend,” the report concludes.

The complete report is available at http://www.all4ed.org/publication_material/reports/literacy_content.

1) Students who score below the basic level have some literacy skills in that they can decode and comprehend simple texts, but they tend to struggle with the more challenging materials typically assigned in middle and high schools and have trouble writing clear, effective materials on their own.

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