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Still learning: Reading beyond grade three

An amazing number of skills lie behind strong reading. By the end of the third grade, successful readers have made dramatic growth in literacy skills, from understanding

Characteristics of good readers

By the end of third grade, strong readers can:

  • Read aloud fluently;
  • Relate what they read to what they already know;
  • Monitor their comprehension;
  • Learn new vocabulary from the context;
  • Figure out unfamiliar words using their knowledge of phonics and context clues;
  • Understand literary elements, such as events, characters, and settings, and compare these elements across books;
  • Recognize themes;
  • Understand the differences among such genres as fables, poetry, and nonfiction;
  • Write for specific purposes and audiences, using language conventions;
  • Have favorite authors and types of books;
  • Read widely and across all content areas in diverse types of materials; and
  • Discuss and write about what they read.

Sources: Snow, Griffin, and Burns, 1998, and Guthrie and Alvermann, 1999.

sound-letter relationships to learning new vocabulary from the context. But they need more advanced reading skills to succeed in the middle and high school grades. As students delve more deeply into their subjects, texts and assignments become more complex, and the goal becomes reading to learn, rather than learning to read.

Continuing to develop students’ reading skills in the upper grades is important not only for their academic success, but also for their economic advancement and personal growth. “Strong reading skills are the gateway to success in high school and college,” concluded Cliff Adelman. They also have a positive long-term impact on students’ opportunities and achievements in later life. Compared to adults with lower literacy skills, for example, strong readers are more likely to hold full-time jobs, vote in national elections, volunteer in their communities, and help their children with their homework (Kutner et al. 2007).

But we rarely talk about the skills that make a strong, skilled reader, even though data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other sources paint a fairly bleak picture of the nation’s reading skills—especially when it comes to older students. To make matters worse, in the later grades some students wind up falling by the wayside because they still struggle with basic reading skills.

Fortunately, research can help us pinpoint reading problems and identify strategies to overcome them. Research also provides insight into the kind of instruction that goes into developing more advanced reading skills.

This is the second report in a two-part research packet. Part one, From beginner to stellar: Five tips on developing skillful readers From beginning to stellar: Five tips on developing skillful readers, looks at reading acquisition in the early grades. This part examines how students continue to develop reading skills in later elementary grades through high school (grades 4–12), especially as texts present content knowledge in more complex ways.

Identifying struggling readers

Ideally, students develop the necessary reading skills by the end of third grade, when explicit reading instruction usually ends. Yet, according to NAEP, more than 60 percent of fourth graders score below what it defines as the “proficient” level. This means students cannot extract information from texts or make inferences. One-third score below NAEP’s “basic” level, which means they may not be able to locate and identify facts from stories and articles. (See “At a glance: the proficiency debate ” for a fuller discussion of NAEP levels.) There are other tests that show there is cause for concern about students' proficiency on reading more advanced texts.

For these students, the key is to diagnose their difficulties, determine where their problems lie, and find techniques that solve those problems. Heller and Greenleaf (2007) suggest assessing reading skills as soon as students enter a school to identify those who are below grade and determine their specific learning needs.

Curtis (2003) estimates that about 10 percent of adolescent readers struggle with word identification because they have difficulty deciphering letter-sound relationships. Students at this age make the problem worse, she adds, by guessing at words on the basis of context rather than trying to sound them out.

But for most struggling adolescent readers, the problem is that although they can read words accurately, they do not comprehend what they have read (Biancarosa and Snow 2004). Guthrie and Alvermann (1999) suggest that these comprehension problems may include having trouble figuring out the correct meaning of a word, being unable to make inferences from the text or link ideas in the text to their prior knowledge, and failing to ask themselves if they understand what they just read.

In identifying reading problems, it is important to differentiate between reading difficulty and reading disability. Although reading may be difficult for some students, that does not necessarily mean they have a diagnosed disability. Students having difficulty may have problems with fluency, word recognition, or understanding the text; they may have received poor reading instruction in the past; or they may simply require more specialized reading instruction than has been provided. Alert teachers will recognize that these students need extra reading help.

Sources of reading difficulties

Several sources of reading difficulties are beyond the individual student’s control. Among them, researchers say, are achievement gaps that exist before students enter

The Alabama Reading Initiative

Since 1998, the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI) has provided grants to schools to significantly improve reading instruction and offered intense and ongoing professional development for teachers. ARI teachers say the following strategies have been particularly engaging or successful with students:

Graphic organizers, such as Venn diagrams, story maps, comparison/contrast charts, to organize, summarize, and display information that students have read

KWL, a graphic organizer that asks students to list before reading what they know (K) about the subject and what they want to learn (W) from reading and to list after reading what they have learned (L)

Think-alouds, a form of teacher modeling in which the teacher reads a text aloud and then stops and monitors students’ comprehension by commenting on the story. For example, the teacher might say, “I’m thinking the character’s made a mistake, and he’s going to regret that decision. What do you think?” This strategy increases metacognition.

Cooperative learning or working in teams to encourage discussion and shared construction of meaning

ABC books made by older students and shared with youngsters in elementary school

Fluency checks—having students read out loud for one minute and noting their speed and accuracy.

Source: Salinger and Bacevich, 2006.

school and are often related to socioeconomic status, parental education levels, and language background. They also stem from inadequate early reading instruction (Strickland and Alvermann 2004).

Gaps in vocabulary attainment appear at a very early age between poor and affluent students (Hart and Risley 2003). And, as Strickland and Alvermann (2004) note, poor and minority students are more likely to attend schools with “high mobility rates, inadequate resources and facilities, and large numbers of children with challenging learning needs”—factors that often have a negative impact on their overall education, and specifically on their reading instruction.

Another crucial factor in the reading achievement gap involves teachers’ attitudes. The RAND Reading Study Group (2002) asserts that low-achieving students are often pigeon-holed by teachers. RAND cited research that found teachers who worked with high-achieving students focused on higher-order thinking skills and clearly explained that the purpose of reading is to understand and expand knowledge. When working with low-achieving students, however, the same teachers focused on low-level factual reading, interrupted student reading more frequently, and did not provide the students with any clues for comprehension.

Likewise, ACT (2006) found that during the 2002–2003 ACT National Curriculum Survey, teachers who perceived students as “college bound” were more likely to focus instruction on higher-level critical reading skills and less likely to provide “non-college-bound” students with those skills. So, for many students, their reading difficulties are within schools’ control.

Strategies for students with reading disabilities

Some students are formally diagnosed with a reading disability. Tests—often IQ tests—may be administered when listening, speaking, reading, writing, or math skills do not measure up to a student’s potential. Those who are identified as having a learning disability may then be referred for special education, where an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is developed, outlining appropriate educational goals and services. An estimated 7–9 percent of the school age population has reading disabilities, according to Gersten et al. (2001) and Riddle Buly, and Valencia (2003).

Research has produced a growing store of effective strategies for advancing students’ overall reading skills and for remediating struggling readers. For convenience's sake, the strategies can be divided into four broad categories: Expanding vocabulary, enhancing comprehension, providing different instruction for different students, and challenging students.

Expanding vocabulary. The National Reading Panel (CIERA 2003) suggests that teachers continue to build vocabulary directly and indirectly, and offered the following strategies for indirect vocabulary instruction:

  • Read aloud to students, regardless of grade level. Hearing new words in context helps students of all ages learn words. Discussing new vocabulary and concepts before, during, and after reading the selection helps students relate the words to their prior knowledge and experiences.
  • Require students to read extensively on their own. Numerous studies have found a correlation between how much students read and how skilled they are (National Reading Panel 2000). The more students read, the better their vocabulary, their “world” knowledge, and their ability to read.
  • Foster word consciousness. This attitude is defined as “an awareness of and interest in words, their meanings, and their power.” Teachers can help students develop a love of words in several ways—by noting the way authors use words to convey particular meanings, by encouraging students to play with words (with puns or crossword puzzles, for example), and by helping students research a word’s origin or history.

Different instruction for different students. Teachers who produce the greatest gains in reading achievement adapt their instructional practices to meet individual student needs—a process known as differentiation (Duffy 2003). These teachers recognize that students have different ways of learning and respond best to different types of instruction. Effective teachers modify their instructional techniques according to students’ varying needs. But before teachers can offer this flexible instruction and feedback, notes the Rand Reading Study Group (2002), they need lengthy and intensive preparation, and ongoing professional development.

The amount of reading in middle and high schools

How much do students read, and how much time is spent on reading instruction at middle and high school levels? Little data is available, but a few sources do exist.

In a national survey of high school seniors by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (2005), more than half of the students said they spent one hour or less per week either reading/studying for class or reading for enjoyment. Just over 90 percent reported spending six hours or fewer reading for class on a weekly basis.

Number of Hours Per Week

Percent of Students*











15 or more


Interestingly, seniors spent roughly the same amount of time reading for pleasure online as they did on reading assignments—26 percent said they spent four or more hours reading online for personal reasons, while 23 percent read online four or more hours for homework.

As for reading instruction, the Center estimates that middle schools offered an average of 331 minutes of English/language arts/reading instruction in 2006-2007 (McMurrer 2007). In an effort to determine the impact of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation on school instruction, the Center asked districts if middle school instruction in various subjects had changed since NCLB was implemented in the 2001-2002 school year. One-fourth of the districts reported increases in instructional time in the language arts. Increases were more common in districts with at least one school identified as being in need of improvement—39 percent versus 20 percent of those without any such schools. Districts that have increased instructional time in middle schools reported adding an average of 118 minutes per week in language arts and 97 minutes per week in math.

Note: No data are available on whether instructional time has changed in high schools, as the Center investigated changes in credits rather than instructional time, reflecting the fact that high school instruction is influenced by state graduation requirements.

Enhancing comprehension. There are numerous strategies for enhancing comprehension, which Heller and Greenleaf (2007) break down according to timing:

The Striving Readers Initiative

In 2004, recognizing that the federal Reading First Initiative would not reach struggling readers who are already in middle and high school, Congress created the Striving Readers Initiative to improve the reading skills of middle and high school students who read below grade level. Grants were awarded in 2006, funding eight multi-school projects that will implement and conduct rigorous scientific studies of the effectiveness of specific interventions designed to help struggling readers. The multi-year grants ranged from $14 million to $24 million, and no new awards are expected.

  • Before reading: Review vocabulary that will be in the text; predict what the text is likely to say, and identify features of the text, such as tables of contents, headings, illustrations, and authors’ biographical statements.
  • During reading: Draw a chart, map, or other visual representation of the text’s argument; ask questions about main ideas; and make note of unfamiliar words, concepts, or ideas to research after reading.
  • After reading: Summarize and restate the text’s main points or compare notes with other students.

What about silent reading? Instruction that is interactive and provides guidance and feedback during reading works better for struggling readers, researchers say (CIERA 2003). Although many schools have adopted classroom programs to encourage independent reading—such as Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) or Drop Everything and Read (DEAR)—research has not yet confirmed whether independent silent reading improves reading achievement and fluency (National Reading Panel 2000). Studies suggest there are more beneficial ways to spend reading instructional time (such as the strategies above) than to have students read independently in the classroom without guidance or input from the teacher. Given the correlation between reading ability and how much a student reads, however, it makes sense for teachers to encourage independent reading outside the classroom.

Challenging students. Because teacher perceptions may affect the type of reading instruction struggling readers receive, several reports have cautioned against “dumbing down” assignments for these students. For example, the RAND Reading Study Group (2002) notes that many struggling readers are not challenged by their teachers and are “ghettoized” in classrooms, receiving drill worksheets instead of interesting work that is appropriate to their reading level.

Heller and Greenleaf (2007) extend the same caution to content-area teachers. The struggling readers in their classes should not be excluded from reading, writing, and talking about the academic content of the texts. Instead, teachers need to find ways to engage these students in compelling issues and problems related to the particular academic discipline, rather than forcing them to do basic skills-focused reading exercises. It may take some effort, the researchers say, but finding interesting and relevant reading materials written at the student’s level can help build comprehension and content knowledge.

Because so much knowledge is conveyed through reading in the middle and high school years, teachers may assume that struggling readers cannot handle challenging or even grade-level work. But Heller and Greenleaf (2007) recommend that teachers look for the strengths students bring to school and find ways to build bridges between academic content and the everyday competencies students display. For example, Kamil (2003) notes, to learn the instructions for many computer games, students may

Reading Specialists and Literacy Coaches

To enhance reading instruction at all levels, many schools and districts have hired reading specialists and literacy coaches. These are usually experienced teachers who leave the classroom to take on the role of supporting or mentoring other teachers to strengthen their reading instruction. It’s hard to find definitive estimates of the number of people in these positions, though Deussen and Riddle Buly (2006) note that 5,600 districts have hired full-time reading coaches as a result of the federal Reading First program.

Unfortunately, there is no systematic body of research on coaching’s impact on literacy for middle and high school students, according to Kamil (2003) and Deussen and Riddle Buly (2006). Deussen and Riddle Buly are optimistic that evaluations of Reading First programs will allow the education community to document what, if any, impact coaching has on instruction and student achievement. Evaluations may also answer questions about effective coaching arrangements, including how to structure time with teachers, what characteristics to look for when hiring coaches, and what training is appropriate for teachers assuming the coaching role.

use complex reading skills that are not evident in the classroom.

Advanced reading skills

As students leave the elementary school years, both the textbooks and the literary books they read become more challenging and complicated. As ACT (2006) notes, this complexity occurs on several dimensions:

  • Relationships: The interactions among ideas or characters are no longer simple and stated outright but may be layered and subtle.
  • Richness: A large amount of information may be transmitted through data or literary devices, such as irony or metaphor.
  • Structure: Texts may have elaborate story lines, and stories may be told in unconventional ways, such as through the use of flashbacks.
  • Style: Writing styles evolve from straightforward and easy, to understand, to dense and complicated.
  • Vocabulary: The number of complex words increases dramatically, especially in such disciplines as science, math, and social studies.
  • Purpose: As with relationships, the purpose of a text may no longer be stated outright, and readers may not recognize the purpose immediately.

However, teachers rarely teach the advanced reading skills needed to handle this added complexity. As discussed in the section below, upper-grade teachers, including English teachers, rarely see teaching literacy skills as part of their job. But making the jump to advanced reading shouldn’t be something students have to figure out on their own.

In short, handling texts this sophisticated requires students to still rely on the five component skills cited in From beginner to stellar: Five tips on developing skillful readers From beginning to stellar: Five tips on developing skillful readers, part one of this series: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. However, three of those skills—building fluency, expanding vocabulary, and enhancing comprehension Handout: Enhancing comprehension—move to the forefront. In addition, motivation and other components of reading come into play.

Who’s teaching these skills?

In the upper grades, students need advanced literacy skills to read and learn from the more sophisticated assignments and texts they receive for disciplinary studies, particularly in math, science, English, and history. But where are students to learn these advanced skills? Middle and high school teachers typically see themselves as content specialists who are not trained for—or responsible for—providing reading instruction.

“Ask math, science, and history teachers where students receive literacy instruction, and they might shrug, or maybe they’ll point to the English department,” Heller and Greenleaf (2007) note. “Ask the English teachers, though, and many of them will shake their heads—English teachers tend to regard themselves as content-area specialists too, with literature as their subject matter, and only partly as reading and writing instructors.”

Studies provide the rationale for content-area teachers’ involvement in teaching advanced reading skills: The RAND Reading Study Group (2002) showed that comprehension strategies are learned more effectively when students apply the strategies in reading content-based texts rather than being taught them as abstract principles. “[S]tudents learn those skills best when they have compelling reasons—such as the desire to make sense of interesting materials—to use them,” RAND

NAEP: Measuring reading proficiency nationwide

A common yardstick for gauging how well students are doing is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called The Nation’s Report Card. Although its standards are high and its content and results don’t always align with those of state assessments and other tests, NAEP is the only nationwide test that can compare student achievement across states.

NAEP reading scores for fourth graders are trending upward. Recent attention to developing early reading skills could partially explain the uptick in reading scores for 9-year-olds. Average reading scores for fourth graders rose to their highest level in 2007, up to 221 from 208 in 1971 (Lee, Grigg, and Donahue 2007).

But scores at the eighth- and twelfth-grade levels remain the same. Average scores for thirteen-year-old students (eighth graders) rose only 8 points between 1971 and 2007, while average scores for twelfth graders were the same in 2004 as they were in 1971 (Lee, Grigg, and Donahue 2007; Perie, Grigg, and Donahue 2006).

In comparison, recent NAEP math scores have increased considerably at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, rising from an average of 230 in 1990 to 240 in 2007 for fourth graders and from 270 in 1990 to 291 in 2007 for eighth graders. Math scores for twelfth graders, like their reading scores, stayed basically the same, with a slight rise from 305 to 307 (Lee, Grigg, and Dion 2007).

NAEP reading achievement gaps are evident among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Only a little more than half of African American, Latino, and American Indian eighth graders (54 percent, 57 percent, and 58 percent, respectively) score at NAEP’s “basic” level, compared with 83 percent of white and 79 percent of Asian eighth graders. Similarly, only 58 percent of eighth-grade students on free and reduced-price lunch reach at least the basic level, compared with 82 percent of those who are not eligible.

By eighth grade, most thirteen-year-olds (73 percent) can read at NAEP’s “basic” level, which NAEP defines as being able to recognize the main topic of an article and make inferences when the passages are short and uncomplicated. Students at this level have progressed past the state of learning how to read.

As students move from middle school to high school, though, these reading skills will not be enough. For example, one skill that NAEP classifies as “proficient” at the twelfth-grade level is the ability to “search dense text to retrieve relevant explanatory facts.” Students will need skills like this for the more complex texts and assignments they receive in high school and in college.

However, in 2005, only 40 percent of all twelfth graders were scoring at or above the proficient level, and the proportions are even smaller for African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and low-income students (16 percent, 20 percent, 26 percent, and 19 percent, respectively). Similarly, in ACT’s 2005 national sample of high school graduates who took its college-entrance test, only 51 percent were “ready for college-level reading” (ACT 2006). ACT has assessed students taking its test for such readiness since 1994, and found that the proportion of graduates who were reading at college level peaked at 55 percent in 1999. Since then, readiness has declined: The 2005 percentage is the lowest since ACT has done the assessments.

Given this statistic, it is not surprising that 11 percent of students who continue their education need some remediation in reading (National Center for Education Statistics 2003). More alarming is the impact of remediation on a student’s chance for completing a degree: One national study found that 70 percent of students who took one or more remedial reading courses did not attain a college degree or certificate within eight years of enrollment (Adelman 2004).

For more discussion of NAEP’s achievement levels, see At a glance: The proficiency debate.

School administrators and policymakers may need to convince content-area teachers that this is the case. They may also need to provide the professional development that will enable teachers to play this role. The key is to get teachers to (1) acknowledge that their role is to help students, (2) see that the medium of learning in most subjects is the written word, and (3) recognize that they are best suited to impart the literacy skills unique to their discipline.

In addition, there are literacy skills that are distinctive to each field. For example, Heller and Greenleaf (2007) note that the reading skills used by algebra students (translating word problems into an algebraic equation) are different than those used by literature students interpreting poetry (analyzing word choice, tone, and the use of metaphor and symbol). Similarly, the style and format for writing up chemistry notes (detailed, impersonal, accurate record of steps taken and observed reactions) is unlike the style and format for drafting a history paper or writing a literary analysis.

Teachers need to remember what it was like to be a new student in the discipline, Heller and Greenleaf say, and “articulate and make concrete the skills, knowledge, and concepts they may take for granted but that many students need to be shown explicitly.”

Heller and Greenleaf (2007) suggest that schools hire reading specialists (see box) to help students who struggle with decoding and fluency, leaving content-area teachers free to focus on the advanced literacy skills required for their subject area. Students need to understand how experts in the academic disciplines “look at the world, investigate it, and communicate to one another about what they see and learn,” they say.

Merging reading instruction and content-area instruction is a tough sell, researchers acknowledge. According to Wade and Moje (2000), many studies have found that students engage in little content-area reading, whether in class or for homework. Wade and Moje offer several possible reasons for this:

  • Teachers are concerned about students’ reading skills and think they can’t handle the texts;
  • Teachers, especially science and math teachers, doubt the value of reading about a topic, preferring hands-on activities instead; and
  • Many teachers consider oral instruction—whole-class lecture, explanation, demonstration, and recitation—the most efficient way to deliver course content and monitor learning. (See The amount of reading in middle and high schools.)

To strengthen reading instruction at the secondary level, Biancarosa and Snow (2004) recommend a schoolwide approach. They have identified fifteen elements of effective adolescent literacy programs:

  1. Direct, explicit comprehension instruction in the strategies and processes that proficient readers use to understand what they read, including summarizing, keeping track of one’s own understanding, and a host of other practices.
  2. Effective instructional principles embedded in content, including language arts teachers using content-area texts and content-area teachers providing instruction and practice in reading and writing skills specific to their subject area.
  3. Motivation and self-directed learning, which include building motivation to read and learn and providing students with the instruction and supports they will need for independent learning tasks after graduation.
  4. Text-based collaborative learning, which involves students interacting with one another around a variety of texts.
  5. Strategic tutoring, which provides students with intense individualized reading, writing, and content instruction as needed.
  6. Diverse texts, at a variety of difficulty levels and on a variety of topics.
  7. Intensive writing, including instruction connected to the kinds of writing tasks students will have to perform well in high school and beyond.
  8. A technology component, using technology as a tool for and a topic of literacy instruction.
  9. Ongoing formative assessment, which includes informal, often daily assessment of how students are progressing under current instructional practices.
  10. Extended time for literacy, which includes approximately two to four hours of literacy instruction and practice in language arts and content-area classes.
  11. Professional development that is both long term and ongoing.
  12. Ongoing summative assessment of students and programs, which includes more formal assessment and provides data for accountability and research purposes.
  13. Teacher teams that are interdisciplinary and meet regularly to discuss students and align instruction.
  14. Leadership, which can come from principals and teachers who have a solid understanding of how to teach reading and writing to the full array of students present in schools.
  15. A comprehensive and coordinated literacy program that is interdisciplinary and interdepartmental and may even coordinate with out-of-school organizations and the local community.

The first nine elements are instructional approaches, and the last six are infrastructure components. Although the instructional improvements by themselves can have an impressive impact on a school’s reading instruction, Biancarosa and Snow note that the infrastructure supports will strengthen the impact. Conversely, they say, without the infrastructure in place, it may be difficult to sustain and expand instructional improvements.

What the research means for your schools

While NAEP data and other sources paint a fairly bleak picture of the older students’ reading skills, there’s cause for optimism. In time, the large amount of reading research currently being funded will no doubt help educators shape new strategies and programs to help struggling readers. Additional insights can be expected from the results of the federal Reading First program and Striving Readers Initiative, as well as from the intense attention paid to adolescent literacy by the Carnegie Corporation and the Alliance for Excellent Education.

In the meanwhile, your district can take steps now to strengthen the development of advanced literacy skills in middle and high schools:

Questions school board members should ask:

  1. How many students in grades 4–12 are reading below grade level?
  2. What policies do our schools have to distinguish struggling readers from those with disabilities?
  3. Are there any policies that unintentionally subject struggling readers to lower overall expectations?
  4. Do our schools have interesting material that doesn’t “dumb down” subject matter for struggling readers?
  5. Are advanced reading skills explicitly taught, especially by those outside English?
  6. Do our schools and teachers know about the specific, proven instructional strategies mentioned in this report?
  7. What kind of support do our schools and teachers need to teach advanced reading skills and help struggling readers?

Actions to consider:

  • Assess students’ reading skills. Researchers suggest testing students as soon as they enter a school to identify those who read below grade level, identify any difficulties or disabilities, and determine learning needs.
  • Consider hiring reading specialists or literacy coaches. Although the research is still out on the impact of coaching on reading achievement, specialists and coaches can relieve content-area teachers by helping struggling students with the basic skills of decoding and fluency.
  • Encourage content-area teachers to teach the literacy skills distinctive to their field. Teachers need to recognize that most of the content in their field will be imparted through the written word, be it in print or online. Struggling readers should be engaged in compelling issues and problems related to the particular academic discipline, rather than simply assigned to do exercises focused on basic reading skills.
  • Provide professional development on effective comprehension strategies. Most upper-grade teachers have not been trained to help students develop advanced literacy skills. Finding and funding high-quality professional development programs could be the most effective way to address the issue of struggling readers, the National Reading Panel (2000) concluded. “If teachers changed their teaching as a result of professional development,” the panel found, “the reading achievement of their students improved.”
  • Encourage reading outside of school. The more students read, the more they gain in fluency, vocabulary, and knowledge. Research has shown that sustained silent reading in class is not as effective as more interactive programs that include discussion and debate, but that’s no reason not to encourage outside reading. Many school districts are taking part in community-wide reading promotion projects such as the National Education Association’s “Big Read” and the Library of Congress’ “One Book.”
  • Make developing strong readers a priority. Show your district’s commitment by distributing resources—time, money, teachers, specialists, and professional development—to provide and support a sound infrastructure for a comprehensive and coordinated literacy program.

As Congress considers the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, high school reform appears to be high on the agenda, and this offers another opportunity to focus on adolescent literacy. Teaching reading and writing should be tied to “the rest of the secondary school improvement agenda,” say Heller and Greenleaf (2007), who recommend “treating literacy instruction as a key part of the broader effort to ensure that all students develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life after high school.”

This research review was prepared for the Center for Public Education by freelance writer Eileen M. O'Brien with additional editorial contributions from Sally Banks Zakariya. Much of O'Brien's work has focused on access to quality education for disadvantaged and minority populations. She has a master of public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. Zakariya, a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Virginia, is former editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal and director of publications for the National School Boards Association.

Posted: March 6, 2009

©Center for Public Education

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