Academic journal article The Future of Children

Adolescent Literacy: Learning and Understanding Content

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Adolescent Literacy: Learning and Understanding Content

Article excerpt

The nation's educational system is turning out readers who are ill-prepared for the literacy demands of the twenty-first century. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report indicates that almost one-third of U.S. students do not achieve basic levels of reading competency by fourth grade. (1) Equally alarming, high school students' reading performance shows no improvement from 1971, with only 38 percent of high school seniors scoring at or above proficient. (2) Indeed, estimates are that 90 million U.S. adults lack adequate literacy, with many unable to take care of their health needs, let alone participate in the contemporary workforce. (3) And the literacy skills needed for the twenty-first century have themselves increased. To be literate today means being able to use reading and writing to acquire knowledge, solve problems, and make decisions in academic, personal, and professional arenas.

Twenty-first-century literacy poses four major challenges for students and their teachers. First, successful readers must learn how to move beyond what text says to what text means. Successful learning, problem solving, and decision making at school, at work, and in personal situations rely on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of information from multiple sources of traditional text as well as expanded conceptions of text that include multimodal information sources. (4) Second, effective readers must be able to apply reading and interpretation skills differently depending on subject matter, using different knowledge, reading, and reasoning processes to interpret Macbeth, analyze the causes of the Vietnam War, or explain the advantages of compact fluorescent bulbs over incandescent ones. (5) Third, ongoing advances in information technology make it necessary for readers to be able to navigate vastly increased amounts of information, both traditional print-based texts and multimodal forms including complex visuals and animations. (6) Moreover, because the World Wide Web lacks traditional controls on the quality of that information, readers and users must know how to evaluate sites and sources for relevance, reliability, level of complexity, impartiality, and completeness. (7) Some argue that the web has introduced "new" literacies. (8) In fact, by spotlighting the centrality of inquiry and problem solving to twenty-first-century literacy, the web has raised the bar on what it means to be literate. (9) Fourth, to analyze, synthesize, and integrate disparate material, readers must be able to connect information across multiple sources and evaluate whether the different sources are consistent. Successful readers must adopt an active, critical, questioning stance while reading. (10) In so doing they not only use general reading skills but also pay close attention to discipline-specific content, reasoning, and knowledge-production processes.

As yet, only a meager body of research-based evidence speaks directly to the teaching and learning challenges posed by these literacy demands. Much of what researchers and educators know about successful reading comprehension comes from small-scale laboratory- or classroom-based research (ranging from one or two teachers to twenty or thirty for each instructional intervention) on comprehension instruction, including vocabulary development. Research related to disciplinary literacies and the use of online resources is just emerging. As might be expected for an emerging research area, more of this work is descriptive than experimental, but it is nevertheless instructive. In this article I focus on what is known about reading to learn content, the core educational task from fourth grade through high school. I describe what reading to learn content entails, the kinds of knowledge and conceptual skills it requires, and three broad types of instructional approaches aimed at helping students acquire and gain proficiency at reading to learn. I also discuss what teachers need to know to support students in reading to learn. …

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