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What is adolescent literacy?

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 0 Comments

Ever since the report of the National Reading Panel in 2000, significant emphasis has been placed on research-based practices for teaching reading in the elementary grades. Early literacy achievement, however, is not necessarily a guarantee that literacy skills will continue to grow as students move beyond grade 3. Scores at the secondary level, where there has been relatively little investment by school districts or states, have remained flat. A growing body of research has developed about what students beyond grade 3 need in order to keep growing their reading and writing skills, why some struggle, and what effective instruction looks like, beginning with two seminal research reports: Reading Next (2004) and Writing Next (2007).

I’ve been in the field of literacy instruction for over 40 years, and while I’ve participated in many elementary reading and writing professional development projects (I was one of the lead trainers for Reading First in MA, and I’m author of the Keys to Beginning Reading professional development course), my passion has long been for teaching older students how to read and write. It all began with my first teaching job, working with teenagers with learning disabilities at the Landmark School in Massachusetts in the 1970’s and 80’s. One of my first published pieces was in 1980 titled “Section 504: Help for the Learning Disabled College Student.” Many of the students I taught were applying to colleges and hit a barrier because, prior to Section 504, colleges could turn down their applications simply because they had a learning disability! From 1981 to 1984, I founded the Landmark College Preparation Program for 18-22 year-olds, which was later moved to Putney, VT and became Landmark College. The staff and I created curricula and teaching materials for teaching these older students with reading/writing difficulties the reading and writing skills they needed to succeed in college. That experience still informs my work today. Several of my Keys to Literacy professional development courses are focused on grades 5-12, including Keys to Adolescent Literacy, The Key Comprehension Routine, The Key Vocabulary Routine, and Keys to Content Writing.

The term adolescent literacy can be misleading – adolescent literacy is not limited to teenagers! This label is used to describe literacy skills for students in grades 4-12. The axiom that through grade 3, students are learning to read, but beginning in grade 4 they shift to reading to learn (Chall, 1983), sums up why grade 4 is the logical place to make the jump from early literacy to adolescent literacy. Adolescent literacy encompasses the skills that must be taught to all students so they can meet increasingly challenging reading and writing demands as they move through the upper grades, as well as what needs to be done for those students who fall behind who may need intervention instruction in foundational literacy skills.

Over the years I’ve collected numerous research reports, articles, book chapters, and books that focus on research-based practices for adolescent literacy. In 2011, I wrote a chapter for Judith Birsh’s book Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills (3rd Edition) titled Adolescent Literacy: Addressing the Needs of Students in Grades 4-12 where I summarized the findings of the research and presented a model for literacy planning in the upper grades. I’ve organized a list (Adolescent Literacy Resources) for this blog post that I hope educators who want to learn more about adolescent literacy instruction will find helpful.

Instruction for students in middle and high school grades (5-12) includes content literacy in the areas of vocabulary, comprehension, and writing for students who are at grade level, and intervention instruction for students with literacy that should target instruction based on the reading and writing skills that are not at that grade level. For many students who still have difficulty with decoding skills, this may include intervention in the areas of phonics and fluency. The research report Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices (Kamil et al., 2008) presented the following five major recommendations. Note that the first four are related to content literacy instruction that teachers of every subject can provide, while the last recommendation suggests that older students who still have difficulty with reading will need intensive intervention taught by well-trained teachers.

  1. Provide explicit vocabulary instruction.
  2. Provide direct and explicit comprehension instruction.
  3. Provide opportunities for extended discussion of text meaning and interpretation.
  4. Increase student motivation and engagement in literacy learning.
  5. Make available intensive and individualized interventions for struggling readers that can be provided by trained specialists.

Content Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy

What’s the difference? Content literacy typically refers to instructional practices for teaching vocabulary, comprehension and writing skills that are used across grades and in all subjects. For example, it is well documented that summarizing significantly improves comprehension as well as writing, and teaching summarizing is an example of content literacy. Similarly, activities for helping students make connections between vocabulary that is new and words already known (such as a Semantic Mapping activity) is a generic instructional practice that aids students in any subject. Disciplinary literacy typically refers to instruction that is very specific to a particular subject. That is, skills that teach students how to read and write like a scientist or mathematician. While there is a significant base of research about content literacy instruction across upper grades, there is not as much for disciplinary instruction. Many literacy experts suggest that a focus on disciplinary literacy should not start until high school for students who already have basic grade level literacy skills. A 2012 article (Fagella-Luby et al., “Building a House on Sand and Fog”) makes this related point:

“There is growing interest in disciplinary literacy instruction as a primary means of improving adolescent literacy outcomes. At times, this disciplinary framework has been represented as a replacement for the more broadly known general strategy instruction. However, disciplinary literacy, a potentially powerful idea, cannot replace general strategy instruction for all adolescent learners because adolescents who struggle with reading and writing do not possess the foundational skills and strategies necessary to learn proficiently.”(p 69)

Here’s a list of free resources available from Keys to Literacy to support adolescent literacy instruction:

If you are interested in accessing literacy professional development for grades 4-12, visit the Keys to Literacy offerings page to learn about the live, virtual-live, and online courses for teaching vocabulary, comprehension, and writing.


  • Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C.E. (2004).”Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy”. A report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
  • Birsh, J. (Ed). (2011) Multisensory teaching of basic language skills, third edition. Baltimore: Brookes
  • Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of reading development. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Faggela-Luby, M.N., Graner, P.S., Deshler, D.D., & Drew, S.V. (2012). Building a house on sand: Why disciplinary literacy is not sufficient to replace general strategies for adolescent learners who struggle. Topics in Language Disorders, 32, 69-84.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve the writing of adolescents in middle and high schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for  Excellent Education.
  • Kamil, M.L., Borman, G.D., Dole, J., Kral, C.C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A practice guide (NCEE#2008-4027). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education. Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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