Academic journal article The Future of Children

Patterns of Literacy among U.S. Students

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Patterns of Literacy among U.S. Students

Article excerpt

Literacy, as the editors note in the introduction to this volume, plays a key role in social mobility, economic growth, and democratic participation. Literacy--the ability to access, evaluate, and integrate information from a wide range of textual sources--is a prerequisite not only for individual educational success but for upward mobility both socially and economically. In addition, because much of the growth in the economy in recent decades has been in areas requiring moderate- to high-level literacy skills, economic growth in the United States relies increasingly on the literacy skills of the labor force. Finally, in an information-rich age, thoughtful participation in democratic processes requires citizens who can read, interpret, and evaluate a multitude of often-conflicting information and opinions regarding social and political choices.

Given the importance of literacy skills, how well do U.S. students read? The answer to this question is not simple, for a number of reasons. The first concerns the kind of "reading" being assessed: sounding out the words in a picture book, reading the instructions on a homework assignment, reading a novel, or evaluating the arguments in an expository text. Each is an example of reading, but each draws on a very different set of skills and competencies. The second reason concerns the benchmark used in the assessment. A comparison of U.S. students' literacy skills with those of earlier cohorts may show improvement even if actual literacy proficiency rates remain low. A comparison with students in other countries likewise yields information on relative rather than absolute levels of literacy. A comparison of student performance relative to standards of proficiency determined by literacy experts, and taking into account the types of skills needed for success in the modern economy and for thoughtful participation in democratic processes, may yield yet a different set of answers. A third reason concerns differences among student subgroups. Literacy skills, and trends in literacy skills, may vary by age, by gender, by race and ethnicity, and by socioeconomic background. A full answer to the question of how well U.S. students read must address this variation.

In this article, we describe the reading skills of U.S. students during the elementary and middle school years, when literacy skills are developing most rapidly. We draw on research based on large national and international assessments to describe the development of different types of literacy skills and knowledge as children age, the trends in literacy skills over the past four decades, the variation in literacy skills and trends among subgroups of students, and the relative positions of U.S. students and those in other countries.

Dimensions of Literacy

Literacy encompasses a complex set of skills. At its simplest, it is a combination of word-reading skills and knowledge-based literacy competencies. Word-reading skills, such as decoding and letter-sound awareness, are more procedural in nature and are necessary for reading written text. Knowledge-based literacy competencies include vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge related to the words included in the text, and the ability to integrate these two features with contextual information to make sense of a given text. Knowledge-based competencies also draw on comprehension skills, which enable the reader to draw inferences and conclusions from complex texts, to compare and evaluate the effectiveness of texts, and to interpret and integrate ideas and information, particularly information from discrepant sources. (1)

The distinction between these two sets of competencies is not sharp, and their development does not proceed in simple sequential order: children develop vocabulary and background knowledge even before they learn to decode, for example, and continue to build their background knowledge in parallel with the development of complex comprehension skills. …

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