"The more you read, the more things you know…

The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go." ~ Dr. Seuss

Some may view this passage as nothing more than a sing-songy rhyme from a beloved children’s book. Dr. Seuss’ words, however, reflect a trend in secondary-level education that has emerged over the past decade. This trend pertains to the reading proficiency (or lack thereof) possessed by our middle and high school students.

book, reading, learning
book, reading, learning

Topic Overview: The more you read, the more things you know…

Many educators and parents would agree that reading is a fundamental skill all students should possess in order to be successful in academic, workplace, and social settings. To become proficient readers, students need to frequently engage in the act of reading. In other words, practice makes perfect. Students alsoneed to be exposed to a wide range of texts– including literary genres, nonfiction (or informational) texts, and digital media (International Reading Association, 2012). Historically, educators have typically viewed reading instruction as the responsibility of elementary teachers (Lattimer, 2014). It has been assumed that once students progress into middle and secondary grades, they are proficient readers and able to comprehend content-specific texts with little (or no) explicit instruction from their content teachers; however, according to recent student assessment data, this assumption is not true (IRA, 2012). At the national level, NAEP scores for 2011 show 34 percent of eighth-graders to be at proficient levels or above proficient levels in reading (US Department of Education, NCES, 2011). In the state of Georgia, approximately one-third of all high school graduates possess the reading skills necessary to enter postsecondary coursework (Petrilli, 2015). Reading skills are not only needed for students to be successful in classroom settings; such skills are also crucial within workplace settings. According to a 2006 survey of over 400 employers, reading comprehension was ranked as one of the “very important” skills for those entering the professional workforce (Casner-Lotto & Benner, 2006). Another work-related survey found that 38 percent of applicants did not possess the reading skills needed for the jobs for which they had applied (Center for Workforce Preparation, 2002).

The more that you learn,

the more places you’ll go... Exploring trends and issues regarding secondary students and their reading levels

If secondary students do not possess sufficient reading skills, they most likely will not be able to meet the literacy demands found within postsecondary coursework or in workplace settings. In order for these students to “go places,” they must be able to comprehend complex texts. National assessment data, however, indicates that a lack of reading proficiency among our secondary students is not an isolated event. It is not a one-time issue, experienced in a single grade level or in a single testing cycle. Instead, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, secondary students’ test scores in reading have not significantly improved in recent years – and in some cases – have declined over time, making this topic a trend in education. According to the NCES (2016), “…the average reading score [for 8th grade students] in 2015 (265) was lower than in 2013 (268), but it was higher than in 1992 (260). In 2015, the average reading score for 12th-grade students (287) was not measurably different from the score in 2013, but it was 5 points lower than in 1992 (292).” Over time, many of our secondary students have not shown improved growth as readers. The question is, why?

You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

Undoubtedly, secondary-level students have “brains” – that is, they have the capacity to learn. Additionally, reading is not a new skill or concept; they have been learning how to make meaning with texts since they first entered the P-12 classroom.

Why, then, do so many secondary students struggle with reading?

In the policy research brief, Adolescent Literacy, authors (Gere, Aull, Dickinson, Orzulak, & Thomas, 2007) assert that learning to read is not a once-and-done skill. They explain, “Some people see the processes of learning to read and write as similar to learning to ride a bicycle, as a set of skills that do not need further development once they have been achieved. Actually literacy learning is an ongoing and non-hierarchical process” (Gere et al., 2007, p.1). In short, learning to be a proficient reader is an ongoing process. In the elementary grades, students learn foundational reading skills, such as memorizing sight words, using context clues to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words, and learning the text structures for various genres. As students progress from the elementary to secondary levels, they continue to use these skills as well as learn additional skills, such as analyzing literary and rhetorical devices, interpreting the use of graphics in texts, and considering authors’ tone or biases. Since students are engaging in reading week after week, year after year, it would seem that “practice makes perfect”. Why, then, do students at the secondary level struggle in this area?

According to scholars (Gere et al., 2007; IRA, 2012; Lattimer, 2014), students may struggle due to both the types of reading tasks they must complete and the kinds of texts they encounter at the secondary level. In recent years, emphasis has been placed on students engaging in performing “close readings” of texts (Beers & Probst, 2016; Snow & O’Connor, 2013). A “close reading” refers to “…an approach to teaching comprehension that insists students extract meaning from text by examining carefully how language is used in the passage itself” (Snow & O’Connor, 2013, p. 2). When students engage in a close reading, they do not simply read to find the “correct” answers or read to summarize a text’s main ideas. Instead, students determine a text’s meaning by making critical judgments; further, students explain their judgments by referring to passages from the text. This approach requires students to carefully extract evidence from a text in order to construct meaning, which can be a time-consuming process. If students are struggling readers, they may find it challenging to engage in the close reading process of comprehension, analysis, and justification (Lattimer, 2014; Snow & O-Connor, 2013). As a result, they may not fully understand the text being studied or they may become frustrated and give up completing the reading task.

Another factor impacting secondary-level readers is the kind of texts they encounter. For example, Gere et al. (2007) explain,

“The move from elementary to secondary school entails many changes including fundamental ones in the nature of literacy requirements. For adolescents, school- based literacy shifts as students engage with disciplinary content and a wide variety of difficult texts and writing tasks” (p. 3).

That is, secondary students must be able to comprehend complex texts in several content areas. In a single day, they may encounter a historical document, a short story, a chapter from a biology textbook, and a set of word problems. In each of these situations, they must be able to comprehend content-specific vocabulary and navigate a wide range of text structures/genres. “In other words, when in history class, we should read as a historian, and when in science class we should read as a scientist, and when in math class we should read as a mathematician” (Beers & Probst, 2016, p. 68). In each content area, writers construct meaning in different ways. Students, then, should be equipped with appropriate strategies for reading these varied texts. Most likely, there is no one-size-fits all approach to comprehending and analyzing texts across content areas. How, then, might students learn appropriate, content-related reading strategies? Several scholars (Beers & Probst, 2016; Gere et al., 2007; IRA 2012; Lattimer 2014) recommend that secondary content teachers assume the additional role of reading teacher.

Whose job is it to teach secondary-level reading?

Although scholars (Beers & Probst, 2016; Gere et al., 2007; IRA 2012; Lattimer 2014) believe that the best way for students to learn discipline-specific reading (and other literacy) skills is through instruction provided by their content-area teachers, this solution may not be simple to implement. In fact, this solution raises additional issues. Some of the key issues associated with this solution include:
  • Issue #1: Teacher role/identity: Many secondary teachers - including those who teach English language arts - assume students possess sufficient skills for reading complex texts within their given content area (Lattimer, 2014). As a result, many secondary teachers do not view "teaching reading" as their role (Beers and Probst, 2016; Lattimer, 2014). This "lack of ownership" for reading instruction "extends across departments" (Lattimer, 2014). If teachers do not view teaching reading (and/or other literacy skills) as part of their job description, then these teachers are not likely to include such practices in their instruction. That is, content teachers who view themselves solely as content teachers will most likely focus on teaching their respective content material (e.g., biology, American literature, or algebra) and not teach students how to read and respond to complex text within their respective content area.
  • Issue #2: Pedagogical training: In order for teachers to be confident and competent reading teachers, they must possess the knowledge and skills needed to teach such literacy skills. In fact, the International Reading Association (2012) advocates, “Adolescents deserve content area teachers who provide instruction in the multiple literacy strategies needed to meet the demands of the specific discipline” (p. 5). Unfortunately, there is not a national mandate that requires secondary teachers to take methods coursework in teaching reading (or other literacy skills) in order to obtain licensure in their secondary-level content area. Therefore, most secondary-level classroom teachers may lack professional training in teaching reading, unless such training is provided by individual schools and districts or unless these teachers choose to take such methods coursework.
  • Issue #3: Teaching constraints: Standards, assessments, curriculum, pacing guides - For many secondary teachers, there are many factors contributing to what content is taught, how it is taught, how it is assessed, and how much time is spent on specific topics, skills, and tasks. Integrating reading instruction with content instruction may prove to be challenging for teachers who are already struggling to "cover" the content and standards specific to a particular discipline. Again, if teachers lack pedagogical training in how to effectively integrate reading and content instruction, the act of teaching reading may be viewed as an "extra" duty to perform rather than viewing reading instruction as a means for complementing or augmenting content instruction.

More reading (annotated bibliography)

Beers, K., & Probst, R.E. (2016). Reading nonfiction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Practical, pedagogically-based book that provides content-area teachers with strategies and tools for teaching reading in a variety of disciplines.

Cassner-Lotto, J., & Benner. M.W. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers' perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. New York: The Conference Board; Washington, D.C.: Corporate Voices for Working Families; Washington, D.C.: Partnership for 21st Century Skills; and Alexandria, VA: Society for Human Resource Management. Survey of employers' perspectives regarding the work "readiness" of employees.

Center for Workforce Preparation. (2002). A chamber guide to improving workplace literacy: Higher skills, bottom-line results. Washington, D.C.: US Chamber of Commerce, Center for Workforce Preparation.

Gere, A.R., Aull, L., Dickinson, H., Orzulak, M., & Thomas, E.E. (2007). Adolescent Literacy: A Policy Research Brief. Urbana, IL: NCTE’s James R. Squire Office of Policy Research. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Positions/ Chron0907ResearchBrief.pdf Published by NCTE, this article provides a summary of recent research related to adolescent literacy as well as practical pedagogical tips for educators.

International Reading Association (2012). Adolescent literacy (Position statement, Rev. 2012 ed.). Newark DE: Author. Retrieved from
https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/where-we-stand/adolescent-literacy-position-statement.pdf?sfvrsn=8 Interesting article providing a discussion of the factors contributing to adolescent students' literacy interests and needs as well as practical suggestions for literacy educators.

Lattimer, H. (2014). Real-world literacies: Disciplinary teaching in the high school classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE. Pedagogically-focused text for secondary content-teachers. Provides descriptions of actual literacy-based assignments content-area teachers might implement in their classrooms.

Petrilli, M. J. (2015, August 24). Two routes to college readiness. Retrieved from Thomas B. Fordham Institute — Flypaper: http://edexcellence.net/articles/two- routes-to-college-readiness.

Seuss (1990). Oh, the place's you'll go! New York, NY: Random House.

Snow,C., & O’ Connor, C. (2013). Close reading and far-reaching classroom discussion: Fostering a vital connection. International Reading Association. Retrieved from http://www.reading.org/Libraries/lrp/ira-lrp-policy-brief--close-reading--13sept2013.pdf Detailed description regarding the attributes of "close reading".

US Department of Education, National Center of Education Statistics. (2011, November). The nation’s report card: Reading 2011 (NCES 2012-457). Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/main2011/2012457.asp Interesting statistics regarding recent assessment data.

US Department of Education, NCES. (2016, May). The condition of education: Reading performance. Retrieved from
http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cnb.asp Statistics regarding recent K-12 assessment data; includes graphics (charts, tables, etc.).