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TOWARD A MORE LITERATE NATION: Alliance for Excellent Education Hosts Symposium on Reading and Writing Instruction in Secondary Schools

"Today, we know how many struggling readers there are, and we know how to help them. Just five years ago, you couldn't get your own shadow to attend a symposium on adolescent literacy. Today, it's standing room only."

For decades, education leaders and policymakers have given high priority to raising the quality of reading instruction in the nation’s elementary schools, with the goal of teaching every child to decode text fluently by the third grade. We now know-and recent scores on national reading tests prove-that many older children need high-quality literacy instruction to comprehend the increasingly difficult texts they encounter in history, literature, math, and science classes. Without this sort of ongoing assistance, they can lose the benefits gained from even the best early literacy programs.

Unfortunately, few middle or high schools have a comprehensive approach to teaching literacy across the curriculum, nor do they have enough teachers who can identify reading difficulties and provide the extra help some students need to become effective readers. On November 7, the Alliance for Excellent Education hosted a full-day symposium to discuss the challenges involved in creating a focus on high-quality adolescent literacy instruction at the secondary school level and getting all teachers to buy in to the process.

In welcoming the attendees, Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise alluded to the progress made around the issue of adolescent literacy over the last few years. “Five years ago, it was pretty hard to find anybody who knew what struggling readers were, much less how to help them improve their reading skills,” he said. “Today, we know how many struggling readers there are, and we know how to help them. Just five years ago, you couldn’t get your own shadow to attend a symposium on adolescent literacy. Today, it’s standing room only.”

The first panel examined the elements of good literacy instruction and discussed the specific literacy features in place in high-performing, high-poverty schools. It also addressed what the need for literacy instruction would mean for content area teachers. For example, does every teacher need to be a reading teacher? If so, do math, science, literature, social studies, and other content area teachers bear precisely the same responsibility for teaching students to read and write, or do their responsibilities differ in specific ways?

The second panel focused on the kinds of professional development, incentives, and supports that secondary school teachers need to teach reading and writing effectively. It also examined the types of questions and concerns content area teachers raise when they are asked to take a greater role in literacy instruction. The final panel moved away from the focus on teachers to the larger organizational and political conditions in which teaching takes place. It examined what school and district leaders and state and federal policymakers can do to encourage real change in ways reading and writing are taught. The panel also discussed obstacles that must be removed in order for good middle and high school literacy instruction to flourish.

“If we want to keep making progress, and if we want to do more than just tinker around the edges of our national literacy crisis, we must figure out how to help more teachers become committed, skilled, and thoughtful instructors of reading and writing,” Wise said.

More information on the symposium, including handouts and PowerPoint presentations, is available at audio and video from the conference is also available.

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