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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Restoring the balance: putting the adolescent reading crisis in context


A longer version of this article originally appeared on Usable Knowledge, a website produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Cambridge, MA, USA

The United States is in the midst of a self-declared crisis concerning adolescent literacy, according to results from national tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. HGSE Lecturer Vicki Jacobs examines the definition of adolescent literacy and the ongoing question of who takes responsibility for literacy development beyond the primary grades. She suggests that one way to begin to emerge from the current crisis is to commit to a developmental definition of literacy, emphasising how the skills required for effective reading change as students progress through school. She also argues that reading instruction in content classrooms must serve teachers' goals for teaching their particular content.

When do the challenges of reading go beyond the basics?

Jacobs draws on the work of the late Jeanne Chall, who established the differences between early, primary-grade reading (learning to read) and later, content-based reading (using reading to learn). Specifically, a developmental view of reading suggests that the challenges of applying basic reading skills (eg, phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency) begin as soon as students are faced with the demands of learning in particular content-based discipline – around Grades 3 and 4.

At this point, students need to read to gain knowledge and understand concepts from a wide variety of literary genres and fields of study. Ideally, by middle school, students should have learned how to be strategic readers, using background knowledge and experience to develop a context for their reading. They should be able to make predictions about what they read; and they should have the skill to question, analyse, and synthesise a variety of texts. Importantly, they should also have begun developing self-awareness of their comprehension processes – how they make meaning of text – and they should have begun to accrue a variety of strategies to correct the course of their reading as necessary. For example, recognising when they need to re-read a passage or refer to another part of a passage to clarify its meaning.

By the high school years, successful readers bring to texts their broad and deep background knowledge and experience (often drawn from previous reading), as well as the strategic reading skills and strategies they practised in earlier grades. They hone their ability to analyse and synthesise discipline-specific texts while juggling multiple layers of meaning as well as increasing points of view which often contrast and conflict. Jacobs argues that students need ongoing, explicit instruction to meet the increasing requirements of reading within each content area and to become 'literate' in each content area – that is, to acquire the skills and habits of mind needed to be independent and ongoing students of a particular discipline.

Supporting teachers of adolescent literacy

Jacobs argues that, if the trend of transferring responsibility for adolescent reading instruction to content-area teachers continues, those teachers need and deserve sufficient support. Above all, teachers need to understand the complementary relationship between the goals of their content instruction and the reading strategies they can use to achieve those goals. Focusing on stages of reading would reinforce the need to teach, explicitly, the advanced reading skills required of literate members of a particular discipline.

Content-area teachers should also have the opportunity to discuss how they prepare and guide students through three stages of learning. Teachers might examine how they support students through an initial, pre-learning stage. How do they activate and organise students' relevant background knowledge and experience? How do they introduce new vocabulary and concepts? And how do they help students anticipate and engage with substantive material? During the second, guided-learning stage, teachers need to examine how they guide students through progressively deeper levels of understanding. To consolidate students' learning and prepare for assessment, the final stage, teachers need to examine the means by which they allow students to analyse, synthesise, and test the validity of what they have learned. And they need to examine the degree to which they are explicit with students about how and why particular strategies they have used in their instruction work for successful students.

Such conversations would allow teachers to understand how the strategies they are using to support students' achievement of content goals can, more often than not, also serve as reading strategies. While content teachers are not reading teachers, per se, they are responsible for helping their students become independent learners in a particular discipline – learners who are able to comprehend the 'world' as well as the 'word' of their disciplines.


In order to navigate an increasingly rich and literate society, direct instruction in basic reading skills is simply not enough. As the literacy demands of the workplace and marketplace continue to increase, it is clear that our work to address the reading crisis is far from finished. Jacobs argues that the best steps forward are those that clarify and support meaning-based strategies for reading within and across the curriculum.

Dr Jacobs is Lecturer and Associate Director of the Teacher Education Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

For more information, see Jacobs, V.A. (2008), Adolescent literacy: putting the crisis in context, Harvard Educational Review, 78 (1), 7–39.


Subject Headings

Child development