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Adolescent Literacy Captures the Spotlight (The Council Chronicle, Sept. 04)

What Are the Issues and What Do They Mean for Educators?

Educators have long known that building strong literacy skills is a complex and lifelong process. Now this message is reaching a much wider audience as national attention focuses on adolescent and young adult literacy. In part, students' less than stellar performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in addition to No Child Left Behind requirements for every child to achieve at grade level by 2014, are driving the interest.

In fact, concern for the issue has prompted President Bush and legislators to introduce programs for strengthening literacy at the secondary level. These proposals would extend the support already targeting K-3 literacy instruction. (For more information, visit and

Focus Is "Much Deserved"

"The current focus on adolescent literacy is long-needed and much deserved," says Kylene Beers, senior reading researcher in the School Development Program at Yale University and author of When Kids Can't Read/What Teachers Can Do.

"For too long in this country we've presumed that students learn all they need to know about reading and writing in elementary school and when in middle and high school simply put those skills to use. The reality is, though, that literacy knowledge acquired in elementary school is foundational knowledge for the literacy demands of middle and high school; it is not completed knowledge. The literacy demands adolescents face require that instruction in reading and writing continue through middle and high school as the texts--the ones that adolescents read and the ones they write--are more complicated; genres more intertwined; syntax more complex; vocabulary more demanding.

"The current focus on adolescent literacy means that teachers recognize that adolescents cannot be expected to master more sophisticated literacy demands without instruction," says Beers.

Meeting Classroom Needs

So how are teachers meeting the needs of the diverse literacy learners in their classrooms?

"Ultimately," says MaryCarmen Cruz, Chair of the Adolescent and Young Adult Literacy Subcommittee of the NCTE Executive Committee, "we need to look at the prior literacy experiences of the adolescents and young adults in our classrooms, and if they're positive, we need to enrich them. If students have been limited in those or have other experiences that aren't traditional in our academic setting, then we tap that and we guide them into developing a literacy that ensures most importantly academic competencies and knowledge."

Cruz, who teaches English at Cholla High Magnet School in Tucson, Arizona, explains that teachers want students to develop a deep understanding of content and of different rhetorical devices.

But literacy instruction across disciplines and even into the secondary grades is complicated by the fact that teachers in subjects other than English, and even middle and high school English teachers, might not see that they have a role. To improve this, Cruz advocates for conversations among colleagues in various disciplines. "This is a concept that I think we as educators would do well to pay attention to: We all are teaching literacy because literacy really is thinking; literacy really is being able to articulate your world."

Connecting to the World

In addition to conversations among educators, Cruz also sees value in talking with students about how and why they use the materials of literacy, which these days can include books, magazines, TV, film, and, increasingly, digital and multimedia sources.

In this environment, she says it's especially important to connect classroom skills to the activities and demands of the real world. "What's especially key for us as educators is to recognize that so many of our students are experts in that digital or multimedia arena, which lies outside of the classroom and is not typically acknowledged in the school curriculum. [We need to realize that] those literacies are critical and meaningful."

While glad that the spotlight is now on adolescent and young adult literacy, Cruz is cautious about what support might be offered. "We want to welcome federal assistance or support through grants that look at research or that assist with implementing programs, but we want to be careful with those at the same time." She says that programs must not be limited in scope, scripted, or prescriptive. Instead they should "honor the expertise and wisdom of educators."

She stresses that educators are the ones who work directly with the students and who see the diversity in classrooms. "We see readers who are struggling; we see students who may be labeled as struggling readers but really aren't struggling because their way of perceiving the world just isn't following the agenda of the traditional curriculum. They may be quite adept, quite literate, in other forms, in other media.

"We must pay attention to this," she says, "because of the accountability measures and also because of [concerns about] what kind of funding or what will be funded for us to implement."

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