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INFORMING ADOLESCENT LITERACY POLICY AND PRACTICE: Alliance Brief Offers Lessons Learned from Federal Efforts to Improve Literacy Skills of Middle and High School Students

"When students enter middle and high school with reading skills that are significantly below grade level, they are at great risk of dropping out."

To help improve the literacy skills of adolescent readers who struggle to read at grade level, the U.S. Department of Education recently announced that eight states will receive $6.6 million in Striving Readers grants. The grants range from approximately $600,000 for the Virginia Department of Education to nearly $1.3 million for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

“When students enter middle and high school with reading skills that are significantly below grade level, they are at great risk of dropping out,”U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said when announcing the grants. “Programs like Striving Readers give students a chance to improve their reading skills and succeed in school and in life.”

According to the release from the department, grantees may use funds for interventions for middle and high school-aged students to improve basic reading skills, motivation, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension using research-based programs. Grantees may also use the funds for professional development aligned with scientifically based reading research, reading assessments, and to design and implement a rigorous evaluation.

To assist the new grantees, as well as to inform policymakers looking to expand federal efforts to improve reading and comprehension among middle and high school students, the Alliance for Excellent Education has released a new policy brief that highlights lessons learned from the experiences of previous Striving Readers grantees.

The brief, Informing Adolescent Literacy Policy and Practice: Lessons Learned from the Striving Readers Program, notes that recent efforts to improve literacy have tended to focus largely on the early years, and often at the expense of secondary students. As a result, reading and comprehension skills of students in the primary grades have improved, but achievement for middle and secondary students has remained virtually unchanged.

“The nation’s approach to teaching reading is analogous to a builder helping to lay the foundation of a house, but not following through to assist with the walls, windows, doors, and roof,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “America’s students are getting the help they need to become proficient readers in the early grades, but they are not being supported in building the vocabulary and comprehension skills they need to master the more complex materials they will encounter in middle and high school across all of their classes.”

For the last two years, the Striving Readers program, which is the main federal effort aimed at reversing these trends at the secondary school level, has operated at eight sites-six large school districts, one consortium of multiple rural districts, and one statewide education system for students in the juvenile justice system.

In developing the brief, the Alliance convened representatives from seven of the eight initial Striving Readers grantees, as well as other experts in adolescent literacy research, to guide efforts to expand adolescent literacy instruction at the federal, state, and district levels. The brief relays the following lessons from these experiences:

  • Allow sufficient time for planning and launching the program. Educators, administrators, policymakers, and others who are considering creating an adolescent literacy program for their school or district need to devote sufficient time and attention during the start-up phase in order to lay a solid foundation.
  • Choose the best program. Schools or districts should have an extended discussion among the parties who will be responsible for executing and evaluating the model and then select an intensive intervention model that meets the needs of struggling readers.
  • Build ownership and capacity. Perhaps the most essential task when contemplating putting an adolescent literacy program in place is to build ownership among classroom teachers, as well as district and school leaders-which includes teacher leaders and key stakeholders-so that the program survives beyond infancy.
  • Maintain fidelity and accountability. School and district leaders should ensure that the literacy program is implemented as designed.
  • Build the knowledge base while supporting student learning. Given the dearth of effective and sustained adolescent literacy programs across the nation, the ultimate goals when creating these programs are to serve students and schools well and generate information based on data that can be used or replicated by policymakers or other schools.

The brief also makes several recommendations for how the federal government can promote a more cohesive and comprehensive literacy effort for secondary school students. For example, it suggests the federal government invest in literacy reform from pre-K through grade twelve and ensure equitable funding for all grades. The brief also recommends that the federal government include a comprehensive adolescent literacy component as part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Informing Adolescent Literacy Policy and Practice: Lessons Learned from the Striving Readers Program is available here.

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