Adolescent Literacy/Writing Crisis: Topic Overview

Defining the "Crisis"

Within America’s K-12 schools, adolescents (defined as students in grades 4-12) are currently experiencing what some scholars term “a writing proficiency crisis” (Graham & Perin, 2007, p. 11). Results from a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) report indicate that 70 percent of students in grades four, eight, and twelve are considered “low-achieving” writers (Persky, Danne, & Jin, 2003). That is, these students are not meeting grade-level standards on standardized writing tests. This writing crisis not only impacts students in middle-grades and secondary-level educational settings. Lack of proficiency in writing also affects students entering postsecondary classrooms. For example, ACT (2005) cites that one-third of high school graduates are not prepared for college-level composition courses. As a result, postsecondary institutions are now enrolling an increasing number of first-year students in developmental or remedial writing courses (need citation).

Additionally, the writing crisis impacts students after graduation. For example, The National Commission on Writing (2004) recently surveyed 120 major American corporations to determine whether employers were satisfied with the writing skills possessed by their employees. Within the report, "Writing: A Ticket to Work...or A Ticket Out: A Survey of Business Leaders," the Commission cites that "People who cannot write and communicate clearly will not be hired and are unlikely to last long enough to be considered for promotion" (2004, p. 3). Further, among the businesses surveyed that do employee individuals lacking proficient writing skills, " appears that remedying deficiencies in writing may cost American firms as much as $3.1 billion annually" (2004, p. 4). Employers expect new employees to be competent writers of workplace genres; otherwise, employees lacking these skills may be detrimental to a business' profit and reputation. Writing, therefore, is a vital skill all prospective employees need for success in the workplace.
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Not all scholars agree, though, that the writing skills of our nation's adolescents warrant "crisis" status. University of Georgia professor and English education scholar, Peter Smagorinsky, provides an alternative view to the current writing crisis. As a regular contributor to the blog, "Get Schooled," he does not believe that our nation's secondary-level schools are in a "crisis" situation simply because 32% of graduating seniors are not meeting grade-level writing standards. Smagorinski (2012) asserts,

Here’s another solution, one I see as quite different from what others see as a crisis of incompetence among our nation’s teaching of writing: Read the data properly. If 32 percent of the nation’s high school graduates are not ready for college writing standards, that means that 68 percent of them are ready. Let’s dig a little further. How many high school graduates attend college? Today, 68 percent of all high school graduates attend college.
If, as Smagorinski believes, our nation is not facing a literacy or writing crisis, it is still apparent that students' writing skills are still relevant to educators, students, parents, community members, and prospective employers. As The National Commission on Writing explains, "Writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many "(2003). Similarly, the National Writing Project (2013) aptly describes the importance writing plays in one's life in its statement, "Writing is essential to communication, learning, and citizenship. It is the currency of the new workplace and global economy. Writing helps us convey ideas, solve problems, and understand our changing world. Writing is a bridge to the future."

Trends and Sub-Issues Associated with this Topic

In short, the ability to write and communicate effectively within and outside the classroom is a skill set every secondary-level student must master in order to be successful in both educational and workplace settings. Yet, the topic of adolescent literacy is complex and comprised of several sub-issues, including (but not limited to):

  • Viewing "literacy" as a term with an evolving meaning
  • Considering "where" literacy/writing skills are taught
  • Understanding best practices for teaching writing
  • Providing training and support to all teachers of writing

Adolescent Literacy/Writing Crisis: Trend or Issue?

Literacy as a Shifting Trend

Kylene Beers, education scholar and former President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), aptly defines "literacy" as a concept that does not hold a static, permanent meaning. Instead, she explains, "Literacy is not a tangible object...literacy is a set of skills that reflects the needs of the time. As those needs shift, then our definition of literacy shifts" (Beers, 2007, p. 7). In decades past, literacy was defined by the ability to sign one's name and read on a nominal level. With the emergence of public education, literacy was measured by one's ability to understand a set body of work or knowledge (e.g., historical facts, literary texts, and math and/or scientific formulas). More recently, the emergence of technology has greatly transformed what it means to be "literate." No longer must one simply memorize facts and recall information; instead, "...making meaning and connections will be valued" in the new, digital world (Pink, 2006, p.8). That is, to be fully literate in a 21st century workplace and community, one must be able to read and understand a variety of texts published in various media forms, analyze the information being presented in such texts, and communicate clearly in multiple genres and modalities.

Trend: New Standards and Changes as to Where Writing is Taught

In an effort to address the shifting definition of literacy, organizations - including the Common Core State Standard Initiative(CCSS) - have established standards focused on skills secondary-level students should master before entering the workforce and postsecondary education setting. For example, in the introduction to the CCSS, the authors assert that these new standards "...lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century." One skill addressed by the new CCSS literacy strand pertains to writing. Historically, teaching writing has primarily taken place in English classrooms; however, the CCSS extend literacy education to secondary-level teachers in other content areas. The CCSS authors maintain, "The Standards set requirements not only for English language arts (ELA) but also for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Just as students must learn to read, write, speak, listen, and use language effectively in a variety of content areas, so too must the Standards specify the literacy skills and understandings required for college and career readiness in multiple disciplines." More specifically, students are expected to write arguments focused on discipline-specific content. They must also use narratives within historical analyses, literary analyses, and explanations of step-by-step processes used in mathematical and scientific procedures. Further, across all content areas, students must learn to draw upon a wide range of sources (e.g., informational texts, literary texts, and digital sources) when engaging in writing assignments. In short, the new CCSS support writing across the curriculum.

Other organizations promote writing across disciplines and grade levels to enhance students' literacy achievement. For example, the National Commission on Writing (2003) states, "We strongly endorse writing across the curriculum...In history, foreign languages, mathematics, home economics, science, physical education, art, and social science, all students can be encouraged to write more - and to write more effectively" (p. 28). The National Writing Project(NWP) concurs, "Writing can and should be taught, not just assigned, at every grade level" (2013).

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Thus, CCSS and educational organizations (NCTE, NWP) agree that writing is a vital skill. For students to be literate members of their community, school, and the future workforce, they need continual training as writers across the curriculum. Therefore, the new assessment standards represent a trend in writing instruction, extending the teaching of writing beyond the ELA classroom and into other content areas. As a result of this trend, several issues are now surfacing for students, administrators, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders.

As a faculty member within a teacher education department , I am invested in preparing pre-service teachers to be effective K-12 practitioners. Similarly, I work closely with in-service teachers to provide them with professional development and graduate-level coursework in writing education. Therefore, I have chosen two key issues pertaining to the adolescent literacy crisis and trend toward writing across the curriculum based on my professional role as a teacher educator. The key issues I face are: determining best practices for teaching writing and providing training and support to all teachers of writing

Issue: Need to Better Understand Best Practices for Teaching Writing

One need not search a long time through print and digital sources to find thousands of books, journal articles, blogs, opinions, tips, and rants regarding what it means to be a "good" writer or a "good" teacher of writing. Some materials on teaching writing are pragmatic. For example, websites such as Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL) serve as a writer's handbook, providing students (and teachers) with a guide for composing various genres, using citation styles, and understanding different grammatical or mechanical rules. Other sources focused on teaching writing are theoretical in nature. Organizations such as NCTE and NWP provide teachers with position statements and research briefs describing what "good" writing instruction should look like in the classroom. Next, many professional writers also offer their opinions on the topic of teaching writing. For instance, young adult author Chris Crutcher offers the following advice on his website:

But you can’t turn your back on a good story. You can’t turn your back on a good writer. Some of you are going to write stories for a living and some of you are going to write stories part time. Some of you will write essays, some of you will write poetry that’ll screw people’s insides up. But if we’re going to save this world, we’re going to do it by being smart, and we’re going to do it with imagination (2012).

Crutcher's advice for aspiring writers is philosophical in nature; it is also inspirational. However, his advice (similar to Purdue OWL's style guide and NCTE's position statements) does not specifically explain what strategies, methods, or practices a teacher might use to be an effective writing instructor. Surprisingly, there are thousands of writing instruction resources available ; however, education scholars maintain that a key component to writing instruction is missing: a consensus regarding which teaching strategies or methods are most effective among K-12 students. In 2007, the Carnegie Corporation of New York sponsored an extensive study on writing instructional strategies (Graham & Perin). Within this project, Graham and Perin (2007) analyzed 142 studies focused on adolescent writers and performed a meta-analysis of the studies to determine key instructional elements being used to improve student writing in grades 4-12 (p. 36). After reading and comparing all 142 studies, the researchers identified the following elements " be effective for helping adolescent students learn to write well and to use writing as a tool for learning...

  1. Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments
  6. Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex,sophisticated sentences
  7. Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition
  8. Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task
  9. Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities, writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing
  10. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing
  11. Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material (Graham & Perin, 2007. pp. 4-5).

The report compiled by Graham and Perin (2007) provides teachers with a solid list of various instructional strategies or approaches that have been proven effective according to rigorous research. Yet, the authors also acknowledge the limitations of their report. First, they insist that this list does not constitute a "full writing curriculum" (Graham & Perin, 2007, p. 4). That is, one cannot simply string together all of these 11 practices and expect student writing to improve. Instead, teachers must analyze each element to determine which ones are appropriate for their learners, content areas, learning goals, curricula, and writing tasks. Second, Graham and Perin (2007) believe that additional research in writing instruction is needed (p. 26). The authors explain, "New practices in writing instruction have recently arisen and require investigation...New researchers must take on the challenge of studying writing instruction in all its complexity. Reading research was once limited in much the same way as writing research now is, but consistent attention from the academic community brought forth a flood of knowledge about many aspects of the reading process.Writing must be next (Graham & Perin, 2007, p. 27). Considering that this report was published six years ago, it is even more imperative for scholars and teachers to investigate best practices for teaching adolescent writers. By better understanding those teaching strategies positively impacting student learning and by disseminating that knowledge to teachers, students, administrators, scholars and parents, we all have the opportunity to positively impact the current literacy crisis.

Issue: Training and Supporting Teachers of Writing

Just as teachers of writing need knowledge regarding effective instructional practices, they also need training and support to develop their own instructional skills. Current research, however, indicates that teachers of writing may not be receiving the professional development they require to be successful in their K-12 classrooms. According to
The National Commission on Writing (2003), “Only a handful of states require courses in writing for certification, even for elementary school teachers. And very few high school instructors in disciplines such as history, science, or mathematics are exposed to courses in how to teach writing” (p. 21). In a policy research brief, NCTE (2011) reiterates the need for supporting all teachers of writing in stating, “Few teachers in subjects outside ELA have been trained to provide effective instruction in reading and writing across the curriculum…” (p. 17). While scholars and educational organizations concur that providing training and support to all teachers of writing is imperative; there does not seem to be an easy solution for practically implementing such training. For example, pre-service teachers already have heavy course loads in their respective undergraduate programs. That is, pre-service teachers must complete their core classes, content-related classes (e.g., math, science, etc.), general education classes, and content-specific methods classes. Additionally, pre-service teachers must engage in field work within K-12 classrooms. Therefore, it may not be feasible for teacher preparation programs to require all pre-service teachers to enroll in a course focused on writing instruction.

Supporting the teaching of writing across the curriculum also poses challenges and issues for in-service teachers. Two key issues include finding time within content-area classes for teaching writing and finding time to participate in professional development. First, content-area teachers have prescribed standards and curricula they must address over the course of a semester or academic year. In order to cover all of the required materials, teachers often must carefully design assignments, assessments, and instructional activities so that students are able to grasp the material via multiple learning styles. When planning, teachers also must take into account which activities and assignments may best be delivered in-class and which activities and assignments may be assigned as homework. With both classwork and homework, there is a finite amount of time in which the work may be completed. Therefore, teachers often face the reality that they cannot "cover it all." For such teachers, who are unaccustomed to teaching writing, the inclusion of writing assignments, activities, and tasks in an already-packed curriculum may seem overwhelming and impractical. Such teachers will most likely need assistance to restructure curriculum, assessments, and assignments. Further, such teachers may also need to learn how to utilize instructional strategies that are writing-focused rather than focused on their respective content-areas (e.g., math, social studies, physical education, etc.).

Providing in-teachers with the professional development needed to be successful teachers of writing across the curriculum poses additional issues and questions, such as:
  • Who should be responsible for this professional development?
  • Should each individual school or district provide such training?
  • Should in-service teachers be required to take additional coursework and/or obtain an endorsement or certificate for teaching writing?
  • Should the states adopting the CCSS (or other initiatives supporting writing across the curriculum) provide funding and resources to compensate teachers for the time spent in professional development?

In Conclusion...

With the inception of the Common Core, the teaching of writing (and other literacy-related skills) is increasingly in the spotlight and is receiving much attention from the media as well as researchers and educators. These new assessment standards are one reaction to data collected regarding students' lack of proficiency in writing. These standards are also, in part, a reaction to the very nature of "literacy" as a changing, evolving concept. Though the new standards provide teachers with an end-goal pertaining to students' literacy across disciplines, the standards do not explain how to effectively teach writing or how teachers might be trained and supported. As a teacher education faculty member, I continually wrestle with these issues surrounding the literacy needs of our adolescent learners and the professional development needs of educators.

One practical idea I have for addressing this literacy issue is the development of a literacy pedagogy course for students enrolled in my department's secondary-level certification programs. A proposal for this course may be found here:


  • Coker, D., & Lewis, W.E. (2008). Beyond writing next: A discussion of writing research and instructional uncertainty. Harvard Educational Review 78.1: 231-251. In this scholarly, peer-reviewed journal article, two education professors provide their perspectives regarding the publication of Writing Next (Graham & Perin, 2007).

  • National Commission on Writing (2003). The Neglected “R:” The Need for A Writing Revolution. This research brief provides an overview of the status of adolescents' writing scores and proficiencies in grades 4-12 nationwide. Additionally, the Commission provides guidelines for K-12 teachers and teacher preparation programs for teaching writing, supporting teachers of writing, and assessing writing.

  • National Council of Teachers of English (2011). Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum. This research brief provides both an overview of research collected on writing across the curriculum initiatives within K-12 schools nationwide as well as advice to K-12 teachers interested in implementing writing across the curriculum within their classrooms.

  • National Writing Project (2013). This is the website for the NWP, an organization whose mission is to support the teaching of writing in K-12/postsecondary classrooms and provide professional development and resources to all teachers of writing.

  • Smagorinski, Peter (2012). "The Real Educational Crisis is Manufactured Educational Crisis." Get Schooled with Maureen Downey. Atlantic Journal-Constitution. 13 June 2012. In this education-focused blog, University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinski provides his perspective on what scholars term, "the writing proficiency crisis."