Adolescent Literacy Beyond English Class, Beyond Decoding Text

by Mary Neuman and Sanjiv Rao
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XVll, Number 1, June 2005, Reaching Our Reading Goals

A respected, highly skilled practitioner in a large urban school system recently shared her observations on adolescent literacy issues in her district: “Not many high schools are willing to look into the core work of teaching reading, writing, and other forms of literacy as part of the everyday life of the student and the school. Of those that do, most only seem willing to look at reading—and that’s not enough.”

There is little dispute that the state of adolescent literacy is a problem. As commentators in education journals and newspapers and on television and radio continue to point out, many schools and districts are failing to help all students become literate. Despite (or, some would argue, because of) the implementation of a bewildering variety of programs—many focused specifically on literacy—far too many students leave their educational experience disengaged and unprepared to meet the demands of higher education and the world of work, much less the loftier goals of education: to participate effectively in one’s community, make informed choices, and contribute to cultural well-being.

Students walking to class in a stairwell.

Yet, as the urban practitioner quoted above suggests, how schools view literacy—and how they view their responsibility for developing it—go a long way toward explaining these results. Many students require significant support in order to develop their literacy skills, but often teachers do not feel competent or adequately prepared to address those needs. In fact, though the vast majority of educators have the best of intentions, some secondary educators still feel it is the responsibility of the English teachers alone to solve literacy problems; others believe literacy is irrelevant to teaching in the content areas.

Moreover, schools and school systems too often limit reform efforts to some version of “breaking the code of texts,” to the exclusion of the complex communicative, functional, and socially embedded characteristics of literacy. According to the groundbreaking work of Paulo Freire (1970), reading and speaking the word is inseparable from engaging with the world.

Traditional high schools are ill equipped to integrate literacy instruction across the curriculum or to address much beyond basic decoding skills.

To be sure, this broader view of literacy frequently bumps up against the political, fiscal, and policy realities of classroom life. Traditional high schools are ill equipped to integrate literacy instruction across the curriculum or to address much beyond basic decoding skills. Fortunately, though, reform efforts are paying increasing attention to adolescent learners and moving toward small schools and small learning communities in an effort to create relevant, rigorous, meaningful learning structures for students.

What Is Literacy?

What exactly do we mean when we talk about literacy? Should literacy be narrowly defined as being able to read (i.e., decode and comprehend) a text, thereby risking a restrictive definition that excludes many aspects and assets of disciplines, students, and communities? Or should literacy be broadly conceived so as to include communication, technological literacy, mathematical literacy, scientific literacy, and the like, thereby risking a dilution of the concept that diminishes its power? We contend that these varied notions are not mutually exclusive, but rather embedded in each other. Colin Lankshear (1998) has established a framework that views literacy in three interrelated dimensions: “operational,” or breaking the code of texts; “cultural,” or participating in the meaning of texts and using texts functionally; and “critical,” or critically analyzing and transforming texts.

In our view, effective literacy also involves engaging with and creating a range of texts, building on the languages, experiences, cultures, and other assets of students, and communicating and expressing understanding in multiple ways, both independently and with others.

The traditional view of literacy as decoding and comprehending texts is too limited. For one thing, it is difficult to separate these basic skills from the broader purposes of literacy; making meaning and engaging with texts is integral to comprehension. As one Southern California high school student put it: “I do my homework every night. I sit and I find myself drifting away from the story. I can read it—I just don’t get it.” Like many adolescents, this student needs to be taught overtly the necessary strategies to connect with and make sense of the text in order to comprehend it.

In addition, without acknowledging literacy as a complex set of skills and practices rooted in social contexts, culture, and language, schools fail to provide equitable learning opportunities for young people. The creation of meaning involves social and cultural practices that enable teachers to meet the needs of every student, regardless of background. Moreover, literacy is not an end in itself but a means to empower young people to analyze and create all kinds of texts. To paraphrase Freire, the value of literacy is realized not merely through the ability to read and write, but through an individual’s ability to employ those skills in order to navigate, shape, and be an agent for his or her own life, as well as through the ability to change one’s knowledge, self, and situation through the use of texts (EDC, 2000).

Teaching literacy in this broad sense requires explicit instruction. In particular, metacognitive skills—the ability to analyze and think about our own thinking—help good readers construct meaning. These strategies might include rereading the paragraph, using context clues, predicting, summarizing, connecting the text to prior knowledge, discussing and interpreting texts in collaborative groups, and asking questions of ourselves and others about text content and the reading and writing process. For example, a teacher might read a passage aloud to her class, articulating the questions, thought processes, and connections to her prior knowledge she is thinking about as she reads. One student defined this process as helping him “see into the teacher’s mind.” In turn, students are able to monitor their own thinking as they engage with texts.

Literacy Across the Curriculum

An appropriately broad view of literacy also recognizes that literacy is the province of all content areas, not just English language arts. Literacy development in the content areas is critical to students’ literacy development in high school. It helps students engage with contextualized, meaningful material that leads to learning to understand academic texts and navigate the situations they will find outside the classroom walls.

Students need to be explicitly taught how to strategically and critically read a science textbook, a primary document in history, a Shakespearean sonnet, and a word problem in mathematics. Each of these texts requires a different set of strategies for attacking the text. They are written in different genres, with specific vocabulary, and they all have their own pattern of discourse that needs to be unlocked and deconstructed for students.

Beyond this “breaking of the code,” however, students must also engage in doing the work of science, history, and mathematics and expressing their learning in oral, written, and visual forms. For example, a student of science learns how to inquire, investigate, construct, solve problems, and interpret. In reading a science text, students need to think like scientists by learning how to ask meaningful questions, determine what they know, develop questions to perform related investigations, construct and interpret data, and decide the difference between fact and fiction. These habits of mind need to be taught explicitly, simultaneously with the content.

I am sick and tired of what we do in our ESL classes. We are always going to the supermarket, as if all we did in life was eat... I need to get ready for other classes.

The challenge of developing literacy across the curriculum is particularly acute for English-language learners, who are learning a second language even as they learn different subject areas. Too often, school systems lack the appropriate structures, knowledge, and supports to meet the diverse educational needs of these students and understand the diverse educational and cultural contexts from which they come. The range of educational backgrounds and skills within a school or classroom among those learning to speak, read, and write English is immense. Some come from war-torn countries with little schooling while others are quite fluent and literate in their native tongue. Yet teachers oft en fail to capitalize on students’ backgrounds in order to teach them to be literate effectively. As one 16-year-old Salvadoran girl said:

I am sick and tired of what we do in our ESL classes. We are always going shopping to the supermarket, as if all we did in life was eat . . . . I need to get ready for the other classes. I am lost in World History, for example. Why can’t we study something like this in ESL? (Walqui, 2000, p. 87)

At the same time, teachers need to recognize that English-language learners’ struggles with English do not necessarily reflect their understanding of the content. Consider this comment from a tenth grader originally from Mexico:

Sometimes it is hard for me to do things because of my English. There are times when I feel a lot of pressure because I want to say something, but I don’t know how to say it. There are many times when the teacher is asking questions; I know the answer, but I’m afraid that people might laugh at me. (Walqui, 2000, p. 86)

Although many high schools have yet to take up the challenge of addressing literacy across the curriculum, some important efforts are under way. At one high school, for example, the principal presented to the entire school community an annual state-of-the-school report, including the school’s literacy data. After the community examined the data, the principal asked all participants how they were going to increase the opportunities to engage in meaningful literacy tasks and the overall quality of the resulting work for their students. The expectation was that it was everyone’s responsibility, and the solution was co-created by the staff and administration. The principal shared this data with all of her stakeholder groups, revisiting the data frequently. Teachers learned new strategies and shared them with department colleagues and, increasingly, in interdisciplinary teams. The school has begun to address the quality of the teaching and learning in all content areas.

Making Literacy Relevant to Students’ Lives

Other schools are taking the instructional approach of connecting literacy to students’ lives. All of us, as educators, know of students who have literacy skills but who lose interest in reading and other literacy tasks and have difficulty engaging with the school-based curriculum. We recognize these struggling, disengaged readers and writers through their body language—bodies slumped down, hoods pulled over their heads, little eye contact. Well aware of their struggles, these students send us strong messages: “It doesn’t matter!” or “This is boring.”

Teachers can help students overcome these attitudes by getting to know the students well and connecting their interests and experiences to appropriate texts. They can also draw connections between real-world situations and the literacy demands of particular courses. As young people struggle with issues of independence, autonomy, and identity, it is all the more important that school-based literacy activities in every discipline are relevant—and that the learning happens by doing the work, not just reading about it. This is not to say that interesting material is sufficient; while we help students to understand texts at their grade level, we must also provide the necessary supports—time and access to master readers, writers, and content specialists (i.e., their teachers)—for students and teachers to meet increasingly high standards.

Another approach involves learning what the students and families of a school community walk into the school building with. Students, particularly adolescents, navigate, are shaped by, and learn from the world of work, home, language, community, and youth culture on a daily basis. Teachers who ask the right questions, rather than simply look for the right answers, are the ones who truly learn what their students know, what they are learning and how well, and how to change their teaching practice to maximize their students’ learning opportunities. Like other approaches, learning and taking into account students’ backgrounds requires the willingness on the part of educators to learn about, take stock of, and broaden the thinking about what counts as literacy learning and what it takes to support effective literacy development.

The efforts to engage students and their families need not be the sole responsibility of schools. Afterschool programs and learning outside of school nurture the academic and social development of youth. The structures and organization of such programs can help inform the ways in which teachers and schools rethink their own practice. Recent research by Kris Gutiérrez has shown the sophisticated ways literacy learning can take place in after-school settings, even for those students who typically struggle in school (Hull & Schultz, 2002). In addition, teachers can inform themselves about these structures and learning opportunities by visiting, observing, and thinking about the learning that students engage in every day in their jobs, in community centers, in athletics, and the like. Reflecting on our own experiences in such settings, we find it difficult to deny the real, rigorous, creative kinds of literacy—from communication to analysis to expression—that takes place in such settings.

A Community of Learners

The expectation that each adult on the campus is responsible for the literacy skills of all students needs to become part of every school's culture and norms.

To teach adolescents well and equitably, literacy development must be every teacher’s responsibility. Some high school teachers do not see it as their responsibility, while others have not been taught how to teach reading comprehension, much less approaches to tap into students’ rich linguistic, cultural, and community assets to create the bridge between what students already know and what they are expected to master in school. Still it is important to note that many teachers are learning how to use and teach a range of literacy approaches in their content areas. By becoming aware of the strategies they use to read difficult content and respond in multiple ways to a variety of texts in the workplace and in their own lives, teachers are learning how to teach students how to navigate hard-to-understand material. The expectation that each adult on the campus is responsible for the literacy skills of all students needs to become part of every school’s culture and norms. No structural change can be successful unless the educators leading the efforts are continuously improving their own capacity to teach every student well and equitably.

Beyond instructional approaches and building knowledge, however, effective literacy teaching and learning requires sufficient time, appropriate physical space, sensible school structures, appropriate student placement and grouping patterns, attention to the habits of effective readers, writers, and thinkers, and actively committed, caring, adult learners who learn from, with, and about their students. For example, this may mean providing “intervention” classes in addition to grade-level classes. Students do not have enough time in a 50-minute period to close their gaps in literacy. The additional class time could allow explicit teaching of strategies, which students could use to catch up with their peers in the regular class. Ideally, within a school setting, all teachers would be incorporating these strategies across the curriculum. But to make that happen, schools need supports at the classroom, school, district, and community level; a willingness to think creatively about how to organize and structure learning and its requisite supports; and a commitment to improvement at scale.

As educators, we can’t fail any of our students. The approaches we describe may not be the only answers. But our challenge is to recognize the problem—and the role all of us play in its solution. Schools have an enormous role, and, at this point, schools have not done enough.

But important changes are under way. We hope we can look back in a few years and see that young people possess the skills, knowledge, and stamina necessary to become lifelong independent readers of, and actors in, the word and their world.


  • Education Development Center. (2000). Introduction: What is literacy? Mosaic Retrieved on December 13, 2004 from
  • Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
  • Hull, G., and K. Schultz. (2002). Connecting schools with out-of-school worlds. In G. Hull and K. Schultz (Eds.), School’s out: Bridging out-of- school literacies with classroom practice (pp. 32–57). New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Lankshear, C. (1998). Frameworks and workframes: Literacy policies and new orders. Keynote address, special seminar on current directions in education policy pertaining to literacy and numeracy education, the Australian College of Education, Canberra. Retrieved December 13, 2004, http://www.geocities. com/c.lankshear/workframe.html
  • Walqui, A. (2000). Access and engagement: Program design and instructional approaches for immigrant students in secondary schools. McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.

Mary Neuman is director of Leadership at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Sanjiv Rao is a senior associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted with permission from Voices in Urban Education (Winter/Spring 2004). Voices in Urban Education is a journal published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University — Robert Rothman, editor.

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