Carnegie Corporation of New York
Report on Adolescent Literacy
Our nation’s educational system has scored many extraordinary successes in raising the level of reading and writing skills in younger children. Yet the pace of literacy improvement in our schools has not kept up with the accelerating demands of the global knowledge economy. In state after state, the testing data mandated by No Child Left Behind reveals a marked decline in the reading and writing skills of adolescent learners.
School systems are now grappling with the fact that promising early performance and gains in reading achievement often dissipate as students move through the middle grades. As a result, many young people drop out of high school or perform at minimal level and end up graduating without the basic skills that they need to do college-level work, get a well-paying job or act as informed citizens.
The truth is that good early literacy instruction does not inoculate students against struggle or failure later on. Beyond grade 3, adolescent learners in our schools must decipher more complex passages, synthesize information at a higher level, and learn
to form independent conclusions based on evidence.
They must also develop special skills and strategies for reading text in each of the differing content areas (such as English, science, mathematics and history)—meaning that a student who “naturally” does well in one area may struggle in another.
We have a strong knowledge base of reading instruction for grades K-3. However, literacy supports for adolescents present greater instructional challenges and demand a range of strategies. Middle and high school learners must learn from texts which, compared to those in the earlier grades: are significantly longer and more complex at the word, sentence and structural levels; present greater conceptual challenges and obstacles to reading fluency; contain more detailed graphic representations (as well as tables, charts and equations linked to text) and demand a much greater ability to synthesize information.
Also, each content-area has its own set of literacy skills that students are required to master before they can move fully from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Adolescents who fail to master these more complex tasks in their learning process are likely to become unskilled workers in a world where literacy is an absolute precondition for success.
Luckily, the deterioration of literacy skills in adolescents is not inevitable. States that have invested in adolescent literacy initiatives are already seeing positive benefits for their efforts. Adolescent literacy must now be made an overarching national priority.
To reach the goal of providing quality literacy instruction for all our nation’s adolescents, we must systematically link instruction to the growing knowledge base on literacy and inform it with up-to-date data relating to outcomes and best practices.
We must also find and support good teachers and provide them with the right professional development opportunities. Schools, districts, states, and federal policy-makers all have vital roles to play in the process of re-engineering the nation’s schools to support adolescent learning. Accordingly:
1. The Vision: Literacy for All draws on up-to-date research showing that adolescents need a higher level of literacy than ever before, both for college-readiness and employment in the new global knowledge economy, and goes on to describe how our current state of knowledge already equips us to re-engineer schools to support quality adolescent learning.
2. The Challenge: What It Will Take to Get Our Adolescents College and Career Ready details the specific literacy needs of adolescent learners and shows how these needs can best be met in our nation’s schools.
3. The Keys: Underpinnings for Successful Reform shows how professional development for teachers and the effective use of data are the keys to improving adolescent literacy and realizing the ambitious goal of “literacy for all.”
4. The Agenda: Re-Engineering for Change At All Levels sets out a national agenda for fully supporting adolescent learners, using case-studies to show exactly how schools, districts, and states can help to re-engineer the experience of adolescent learning.
5. A Call To Action: Where To Begin summarizes the main points of this report by setting out specific action steps for school leaders, district leaders, state leaders, and federal policymakers. Our common goal must be to ensure that all students receive the support they need for active citizenship, college and career readiness, gainful employment in the global knowledge economy, and lifelong learning. The time to act is now.