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Ask the Author: Mariana Haynes

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September 23, 2010 05:00 pm

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Mariana Haynes, Senior Fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, recently wrote The Federal Role in Confronting the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy, a brief on the role that the federal government can play to advocate for a comprehensive, national, and schoolwide focus on K–12 literacy.  We sat down with Mariana to discuss the brief and ask her a few more questions on literacy. Do you have a question for Mariana? Post it in the comments section below and we will be sure you get a response.

What are the differences between the literacy needs of young students versus middle and high school students?

As students move from learning to read to reading to learn, students are asked to perform complex literacy tasks in speaking, listening, reading, and writing in relation to content-area disciplines. As the demands for applied literacy skills in postsecondary settings increase, it is imperative that students receive literacy instruction that is integrated into all subject areas. Students must contend with written material that includes technical vocabulary and concepts unique to mathematics, social sciences, history, and language arts.

Yet, many middle and high school teachers lack the preparation and supports for teaching these skills within their content-area discipline and have minimal resources to draw upon in helping students who struggle to read and write. Large numbers of students cannot understand or evaluate text, provide relevant details, or support inferences about coursework material. Without high-level literacy skills, students will be relegated to the ranks of unskilled workers unable to compete in a global knowledge economy.

How do the common standards in English Language Arts help address the literacy crises?

Postsecondary success depends on students’ abilities to understand, evaluate, and apply the information they read in complex written material. Yet, for decades, literacy achievement for eighth and twelfth graders has stagnated. Moreover, since the 1960s, there has been a steady decline in the difficulty and sophistication of the content of texts students have been asked to read. The English language arts Common Core State Standards, now adopted by 37 states, can help reverse this trend. These standards require students to master literacy performances as part of grade 6-12 standards for literacy in history, social studies, and science.

As such, students are required to evaluate intricate arguments within subject areas, synthesize information presented in various forms, and provide summaries that make clear the relationship between key details and ideas. The developers of the English language arts Common Core State Standards cite evidence from ACT and other research that the level of text complexity students can read successfully predicts success in credit-bearing college courses. The standards call for students to receive extended exposure to non-fiction material to foster reading and writing competencies within content areas.

Although adoption of the standards is a bold first step, much more must be done to ensure deep implementation of the standards. The current system has not equipped teachers with the knowledge, skills, and supports to identify which skills to emphasize and how to teach them depending on the individual needs of learners. Multiple studies and surveys show that teachers are not prepared to teach or incorporate literacy strategies. The persistent under-preparation and training of teachers has been well-documented for half a century.

What are three things the federal government can ask states to do improve literacy in this country?

To begin developing a system that supports teachers and school leaders in providing school-wide literacy instruction and supports to all students, federal and state policies must recognize the necessity of building the capacity for educators to ensure that all students receive literacy instruction and supports throughout schooling. State and district actions are needed that include:

  • Developing comprehensive literacy plans for all K-12 students to ensure that literacy is integrated into content-area instruction and that struggling readers receive intensive supports as needed;
  • Strengthen teacher education and licensure through the design of performance-based systems to ensure that teachers acquire competencies in literacy instruction; and
  • Invest in ongoing research and evaluation to provide more definitive guidance on programs for English learners, identify evidence-based instructional strategies, and evaluate approaches for improving teaching effectiveness.
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