Five Facts You Need to Know about Adolescent Literacy

“Speaking is natural. Reading and writing are not.” This insight from literacy researcher Louisa Moats tells us a lot about our students’ needs. Even after kids have mastered the basics of reading in primary grades, they still need instruction to be able to read middle and high school level texts. We shouldn’t assume that advanced reading skills, those needed to understand a biology textbook, a play like Romeo and Juliet or an SAT passage, will come naturally to our kids. Instead, we need to deliberately equip our students with the skills they’ll need for such secondary-school-level texts. After working with middle and high school students for decades, we at Zinc Learning Labs figured out which strategies are most effective to raise secondary school students’ reading levels. These tactics, listed below, work to push readers of all abilities - from struggling to advanced - to the next level.

Five strategies to improve adolescent literacy:

1. Vocabulary Instruction

In the Institute of Education Sciences’ (IES) report on how to improve adolescent literacy, their number one recommendation is explicit vocabulary instruction. This isn’t surprising, since researchers suggest that students need to know 90-95% of words in a text to be able to comprehend it. Vocabulary instruction is common in primary grades, but rarer as students get older. However, it’s just as important for older kids.

There are two keys to effective vocabulary instruction: First, it’s crucial that you’re teaching students what a word means through images, synonyms, and sentences and not just having them memorize a flat definition. Second, learning a word once isn’t enough. Students should learn new vocabulary words multiple times using spaced repetition. This means that they should revisit new words several times over at least a couple of months, with the time between their exposure to the words getting longer as time passes. This process of almost forgetting the new word and then retrieving it, is what will move words into students’ long-term non-procedural memory. Once the words are there, they don’t have to see them every day or month to remember them. It’s like skills in your long-term procedural memory, like riding a bike or driving a car. You can call on them whenever you need them - whether you’ve been using them regularly or not.

There are different types of vocabulary words that you should teach. Be sure to cover Tier II words, the gatekeepers to advanced literacy, which we don’t come across in spoken language, and Tier III words, those that are subject specific. Students need these Tier III words to understand what they’re reading in the sciences, history, math and social studies.

2. Explicit comprehension strategy instruction

The number two strategy in the  IES report on improving adolescent literacy is to provide “explicit comprehension strategy instruction.” This recommendation goes back to Louisa Moats’ quote; reading, especially of complex texts, doesn’t come naturally for most students. Reading practice is important, but it’s not enough. Students need instruction on how to read challenging texts. We recommend working on close reading skills, like identifying tone, inferring, and using “navigator” words, like “however” and “therefore” as clues from the author.

3. Background knowledge

To a large degree, how much you know about the subject of a text determines how well you’ll comprehend it. Ask a student who knows nothing about global economics to read an article on an international trade war, and they’ll likely struggle - if they don’t first give up from boredom and overwhelm. Ask that same kid to read an article on the same level on a topic they know about and love, say sports, and comprehension is no problem. That’s because when you read an article, the author often assumes that the reader has background knowledge on the topic and doesn’t explain everything. This can lead many readers who are unfamiliar with the subject to get lost.

It’s impossible to guarantee that your student will know about everything. However, you can increase the breadth of their knowledge to improve the odds and expose them to diverse topics, places and writers. An easy way to do that is to assign reading from diverse online sites. For example, have students read science articles in Nat Geo, technology pieces in Wired, and analytical essays in The Atlantic.

4. Zone of proximal development

Education researcher Lev Vygotsky coined the term “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) to describe the space where learning takes place. He explained that students need to be challenged in order to learn and grow, but that they shouldn’t be challenged so much that the material is over their heads and discouraging to work through. The same goes for reading. In order to get adolescent readers to grow, we need to find the sweet spot where they can have productive struggle. The text shouldn’t be too easy or too hard. It’s a great practice to give students a reading assessment once to three times a year, so that you know where they’re at and where their ZPD would be. If you’re reading a text with them, you can choose texts that are even more challenging, since they’ll have your support for comprehension. For independent reading practice, set the level a bit lower than that.

5. Engage

Don’t forget to make reading fun! Unfortunately, most adolescents report that they don’t like to read. For many it feels like a chore. Once you’ve followed the strategies above to make sure that your students have the skills they need for comprehension, give them some freedom. Allow them to choose what they want to read at the appropriate level. When students are engaged, they’re much more willing to put in the effort to comprehend and finish a tough text. This practice will reinforce their reading skills and help them to grow as readers.


Colette Coleman - Zinc Learning LabsColette Coleman, M.Ed. is a former classroom teacher now leading product development of Zinc Learning Labs’ reading tools.

Have you tried Zinc Learning Labs? We combine all of the five strategies listed above to give 5th-12th graders the skills that they need to excel at reading and enjoy the process!

At the Co-op, save 63% on an annual subscription to Zinc Learning Labs here  for a single student. Plus, members can save 68% on up to three additional annual student subscriptions.

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