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Let's Move the Needle

Students reading books at a table

Improving Literacy Outcomes for Secondary Students


The Challenge

In recent years there has been a groundswell of attention paid to early literacy instructionThe work has been a multi-pronged effort by parent groups, educators, journalists, and field organizations to shift instructional practices, curriculum, teacher education, and education policy to better align with the science of reading.

This attention is well deserved, as reading scores in the US have been dismal for decades. Where the attention has shifted the learning experiences of students, reading scores are improving (see reports on the Mississippi miracle, using Core Knowledge, and 3rd grade reading in Tennessee). 

There is, however, a compounding challenge we must also consider; the impact of decades of poor reading instruction.

There are cohorts of students who were not successfully taught to read in the early years and were not provided the opportunity to gain those skills in later years. Some students are lucky - their parents have the financial means to provide for private reading tutors, others find themselves in schools that know how to address reading gaps in later grades. But these are the exceptions, not the norm.

Currently in middle and high schools all over the country, there are  scores of students unable to independently read grade level material and who are being denied the right to read. When you talk to middle and high school students they can tell you about it. So too can their teachers. You can see the systemic challenge in reading data and in college remediation rates. The lack of grade level literacy in secondary schools is a pervasive and real problem. 

Bright Spots

The good news is, this problem is totally solvable. Students who struggle to read at grade level today do not need to graduate still struggling. They can catch-up.

These older students have the same right to read as younger students do. We owe them sustained solutions that support identity and community building, accelerate foundational skills, build disciplinary knowledge and vocabulary, and engage students in critical & relevant grade-level tasks. 

Some of those solutions have been done in schools for years - bright spots from teachers like Julie Brown and Larissa Phillips. Reading clinics have been using proven methods with clients in clinical, school, and carceral settings for decades.

More recently, states like Tennessee have been turning policy and money to the challenge in secondary literacy. And in recent years, education organizations have started attending to the challenge with a focus on field research, model programs, and emerging work with districts. All of this attention is welcome.

Moving the Needle

Looking forward, this attention needs our collective foot on the gas. Each of us - be it in teacher preparation, classroom instruction, or state education policy - can focus our work on improving secondary literacy. While everything must get done, everyone does not need to do everything.

Consider your position in the education system; what work can you do in your corner of the world to support and accelerate adolescent literacy? Collectively we can provide the intense focus and support needed to create lasting and sustainable changes for middle and high school students' literacy.

  • As a classroom teacher: Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of your students’ literacy skills? What support might they need in word recognition, reading fluency, knowledge & vocabulary? 

  • As a school leader:  How can your school or district focus on the literacy experiences and outcomes of middle and high school students? In what ways do you provide the time and support for teachers to better know the literacy needs of their students and how to address them?

  • As a professional learning provider: How does your support of teachers address the knowledge, pedagogy, and instructional practices necessary to meet the literacy needs of adolescents?

  • As a curriculum writer (in a district or for a publisher): How can your materials provide just-in-time and strategic supports to build students’ reading skills within content areas, build coherent bodies of relevant knowledge and vocabulary, and regularly engage students in critical grade-level tasks? 

  • As a state and district leader: How might your policies around student assessment, course requirements, and teacher learning attend to the literacy needs of middle and high school students?  How do you fund and support school programming models, instructional materials, and professional learning to improve adolescent literacy?

With multiple entry points into supporting the literacy of secondary students, there are numerous other questions we might ask. The point is for each of us to step into the work so we can get the needle moving. 


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