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A SOLID INVESTMENT: New Alliance Publication Finds Strong Evidence to Justify a Major New Federal Effort to Support Adolescent Literacy

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“There is a large body of research that can be brought to bear on adolescent literacy problems,” said Michael Kamil

In 1997, alarmed by low levels of reading achievement in America’s schools, Congress funded a blue-ribbon National Reading Panel (NRP) and directed it to conduct an exhaustive review of more than thirty years of research into the teaching and learning of reading. The resulting report is now widely viewed as an exemplar of the sort of useful, trustworthy guidance that the education research community can and should provide to federal policymakers. Indeed, its recommendations laid the groundwork for the Reading First program, which has, to date, provided more than $5 billion in funding to the states to support research-based reading instruction in the first few years of school.

It is important to note, however, that while Reading First focuses only on grades K–3, the NRP report was not limited to research on early literacy. Actually, it surveyed the research on reading instruction throughout grades K–12, and it can provide a solid foundation for the federal Striving Readers program—which supports literacy instruction in the middle and high school grades— just as it did for Reading First. Indeed, the findings of the NRP and research that has been released since the NRP’s report was issued constitute a solid base of knowledge that justifies a major new federal investment in adolescent literacy, asserts Federal Support for Adolescent Literacy: A Solid Investment, a new issue brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report notes that, over the past decade, significant findings related to instruction in grades 4–12 have been made, the knowledge base on adolescent literacy has expanded, and the research exists to provide a solid foundation for effective policymaking.

“There is a large body of research that can be brought to bear on adolescent literacy problems,” said Michael Kamil, professor of education at Stanford University, and member of the National Reading Panel who was one of several literacy experts quoted in the brief. “While we need to know more, we can help struggling and striving adolescent readers right now if we apply what we already know.”

According to the brief, when Reading First was launched five years ago, many policymakers believed that if students could master the basics of literacy in the first few years of school, that would be sufficient to carry them successfully through the middle and high school years. Increasingly, though, research has made it clear that students need ongoing support in order to handle the more difficult kinds of reading and writing they must do in the upper grades. This research is underscored by results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, which find that fewer than a third of America’s adolescents meet grade-level expectations for reading; among low-income students, the number is closer to one in seven.

After reviewing some of the relevant recent research studies and policy reports on literacy, the brief outlines several recommendations for policy change. They include:

  • Encourage schools, districts, and states to articulate clear, comprehensive, actionable plans for improving literacy instruction;
  • Invest in tools that help schools identify struggling readers and appropriately adjust instruction in grades 4–12;
  • Invest in ongoing professional development programs designed to help all middle and high school teachers provide effective reading and writing instruction in their subject areas;
  • Support and invest in accountability systems that give teachers strong incentives to provide effective reading and writing instruction;
  • Invest in ongoing research on and evaluation of strategies to improve adolescent literacy.

The brief acknowledges that many efforts are underway across the country to translate the recent reports and recommendations into real improvements in reading and writing instruction, including a number of disparate, small-scale reforms in schools, districts, and teacher education programs, as well as larger, statewide efforts such as Just Read, Florida! and the Alabama Reading Initiative. However, the brief also notes that the country has not pursued these strategies in any sort of concerted, systemic way.

“If widely implemented, [these strategies] would help millions of students improve their literacy skills, greatly increasing their chances to succeed in their middle and high school classes, earn a diploma, and continue on to college or job training programs,” the brief reads.

The complete brief is available here.

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