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2005 National Leadership Summit on Improving Results for Youth

Concurrent Session Notes

Adolescent Literacy

June 14, 2005

Dr. Bonnie Jones, Moderator

On the first day of the National Leadership Summit, participants had the opportunity to choose from among 14 concurrent sessions, featuring a total of 45 content experts who spoke about topics that ranged from aligning career preparation with state standards to meeting the transition needs of culturally and linguistically diverse youth with disabilities and their families. One of the sessions featured three experts who highlighted some of the latest research on literacy and practical applications to improve youth literacy rates.

Dr. Donald Deshler, Director, Center for Research on Learning, University of Kansas – Lawrence

Dr. Deshler said that acquisition of basic literacy skills and strategies plateaus at the fifth or sixth grade level, and that a gap between those with and without basic skills emerges as learning demands increase. Less fluent readers have smaller sight vocabularies, have limited understanding of words and multiple word meanings, have limited background and conceptual knowledge, and are less skilled in using strategies that enhance understanding. These students struggle, particularly as curriculum demands become more rigorous. At the same time, research has shown that instructional practices do not reflect what is known about the learning needs of students with disabilities. In both general education and special education classes, more than 50 percent of teaching time is spent in lecture, and other types of activities that would better serve students with disabilities are not utilized.

Dr. Deshler suggested that students with disabilities can meet grade-level curriculum demands through systematic, intensive, explicit instruction. Research has shown, for example, that students with learning disabilities were able to learn a word recognition strategy when the student-teacher ratio was five to one and lessons were taught 50 minutes a day, five days a week. When the student-teacher ratio increased, the intervention was less successful. His center has developed numerous interventions for working with students with disabilities in a variety of settings. He concluded that as group size decreases, the explicitness and intensity of instruction increases, and that instruction of students with disabilities should recognize the continuum of students’ abilities.

Dr. Peggy McCardle, Associate Branch Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health

Dr. McCardle agreed with Dr. Deshler that many children who do not learn to read by the third grade will continue to find reading a challenge in school and throughout their lives. She said that research has shown that proficient readers must constantly adapt cognitive processes and have instructive feedback as they read, and that instruction must be systematic, explicit, challenging, and focused on disciplinary knowledge and conceptual understanding. In addition, reading and writing activities must have meaning in the world outside of school and should capitalize on students’ cultural backgrounds and personal experiences. More research is needed to better understand how to instill and maintain motivation in reading and how best to provide comprehension-strategy instruction and writing instruction.

To this end, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) funds basic research related to reading instruction and how to identify, prevent, and remediate problems. NICHD, OSERS, and the DOE Office of Adult and Vocational Education have jointly funded longitudinal, cross-sectional research with diverse groups. This research is examining characteristics of adolescent readers and struggling readers and the ways in which factors affecting the development of literacy change over time. Funded projects are investigating social and cultural influences on the motivation and engagement of adolescent Latino teens, teacher supports to close adolescent literacy gaps, the behavioral and neural effects of different reading instruction approaches for students with learning disabilities, characterization of subtypes of reading disabilities according to neurobiological and skills profiles, cognitive and neural processes in reading comprehension in normal and impaired readers ages 10 to 14, and how best to sequence interventions for adolescents with reading difficulty.

Dr. Deborah Howard, Program Director, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, Ohio

Dr. Howard said that a KnowledgeWorks Foundation (KWF) initiative, a partnership with the Ohio Department of Education, seeks to improve high school student achievement by focusing on practice and systems change statewide. Improving literacy skills is one way to improve achievement on standardized tests. For many reasons, she explained, urban and rural students are entering Ohio high schools unprepared academically. Components of the Ohio initiative include converting 18 large, low-performing schools into 69 new small schools and establishing 10 new “early college high schools,” where students can earn a high school diploma and college credit concurrently. At schools involved with the initiative, 65-75 percent of students are entering below grade level, most of them three to four levels below grade level.

Dr. Howard noted that small schools set the conditions for student success, but what happens within schools determines the probability of success. Therefore, her foundation is challenging high schools to “turn their teaching and learning strategies upside down,” focusing on students before content. Initiatives include onsite coaching, statewide professional development, community outreach to make learning relevant, student leadership development, and establishment of a statewide stakeholder advisory group. The KWF literacy framework is designed to lead to student empowerment and achievement by providing site resources, technical assistance, and teacher ownership. As a result of the project, Ohio schools are immersed in year-round literacy training, and the project team is working with Kent State University to gather data that will inform classroom instruction.

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