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Adolescent Literacy

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do some people have difficulty learning to read?

For some youth, environmental factors hinder the process of learning to read. Children who are English language learners, or whose parents do not read to them, or who are exposed to a limited vocabulary, will have more difficulty learning to read English. Others have difficulty due to the presence of a disability. Research has identified several factors that lead to reading difficulties irrespective of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. These include inadequate phoneme awareness (awareness of the speech sounds of the language), lack of understanding of the alphabetic principle (correspondence of letters to speech sounds), and the inability to apply these with fluency and accuracy when reading text. Other important factors are deficits in reading comprehension strategies and the application to reading, lack or loss of motivation to learn to read, and inadequate teacher preparation (Overview of Reading and Literacy Initiatives, 1998).

What approaches help adolescents with disabilities learn to read?

Research-based approaches that help secondary students with disabilities improve their reading skills include Strategic Instruction Model (SIM), Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR) and class-wide peer tutoring. CSR was developed for students with learning disabilities and students who are at risk of reading failure (Klingner & Vaughn, 1998). CSR adapts reciprocal reading (Palincsar & Brown, 1984) and employs cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1987). CSR uses four strategies:

  • Preview (Students brainstorm about the topic and predict what will be learned. This occurs before reading.);
  • Click and Clunk (Students identify parts of a passage that are hard to understand and then use four “fix-up” strategies);
  • Get the Gist (Students identify the most important information in a passage); and
  • Wrap Up (Students ask and answer questions that demonstrate understanding; then they review what was learned) (Klingner & Vaughn, 1998).

SIM is a package of components designed for students with learning disabilities (Deshler & Schumaker, 1988), in combination with instructional tools for use by teachers (Schumaker, Deshler, & McKnight, 1991). The learning strategies portion of SIM helps students with disabilities to better manage the requirements of their general education courses (Deshler, et al., 2001). Strategies specifically related to reading are:

  • Paraphrasing (Students express main idea and details in their own words);
  • Self questioning (Students develop questions concerning reading passages and read to find answers);
  • Visual imagery (Students visualize scenes in detail); and
  • Word identification (Students decode unfamiliar words by using context clues and word analysis).

Class-wide peer tutoring is an effective method for improving the literacy skills of students with mild disabilities in inclusive classrooms (Greenwood, Delquadri, & Carta, 1997; Fulk & King, 2001). Structured approaches to peer tutoring emphasize training of students in giving and receiving feedback. An additional benefit of peer tutoring is the opportunity for students to enhance their social skills. Effective peer tutoring models provide opportunities for all students to participate in both the tutor and learner roles.

In addition to acquiring decoding and comprehension skills, students need to develop fluency in reading. This can only be accomplished through the frequent practice of reading, which requires engagement and motivation.

How can teachers engage reluctant and struggling readers?

Many students reach middle school and high school with below-grade-level reading skills. Reading is generally not enjoyable for these students, so they tend to avoid it and develop coping mechanisms to hide their difficulties. Students with a history of failure often protect themselves emotionally by withdrawing and ceasing to try to learn. These patterns can only be overcome if students feel sufficiently engaged and motivated to work steadily at improving their literacy skills.

Research and theory support the use of several instructional processes that help students become engaged and motivated readers. These processes, defined below, include a focus on learning and knowledge goals, learning through real-world interactions, support for autonomy and choice, using interesting texts, providing instruction in strategies for reading and writing, collaboration among students, using praise and rewards, evaluating effort and progress, promoting teacher involvement, and ensuring coherence among instructional processes (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).

Learning and Knowledge Goals: When teachers and students are focused on goals related to learning and understanding rather than on performance (e.g., getting the right answer), students are more highly engaged in learning.

Real-World Interactions: Students tend to be more engaged with reading when texts and books are connected to enjoyable, interactive, hands-on activities. Use of manipulatives, role-playing, and service projects are examples of activities that increase student engagement.

Autonomy Support: When students have choices, they experience more autonomy and become more motivated as learners. Choices that can be offered in reading classes include input regarding which books to read, the decision to work alone or in small groups, involvement in creating questions to be addressed in assignments, and input on the kinds of projects or presentations they will work on.

Interesting Texts for Instruction: Like others, students are generally more motivated to read when they find the text interesting. Guthrie and Wigfield (2000) note that interesting texts are “single-authored works in which the text matches the topical interest and cognitive competency of the reader” (p. 412). Students often have preferences for certain genres of books, such as mystery or science fiction, or for certain content, such as stories about animals or space travel. For students who struggle with reading, many books are available in which the reading level is lower than the interest level. These high-interest, low-reading level books can play an important role in keeping struggling readers engaged.

Strategy Instruction: Strategies to improve student reading performance include both teachers’ instructional strategies and the learning strategies taught to students that they can use both inside and outside of the classroom. Most learning strategies require significant time and effort to learn at the level needed to be useful on a day-to-day basis, and student engagement and motivation are important during this learning process. A number of strategies have been identified as particularly helpful to students with disabilities. These are described in the NCSET Instructional Strategies and Student Learning Strategies Web topics under Additional Resources.

Collaboration: When students collaborate while reading, they experience multiple perspectives and engage in the social construction of knowledge from text. Social collaboration in the classroom helps to create a learning community that supports intrinsic motivation and active learning. A socially supportive classroom increases students’ willingness to express their views and also increases motivation and interest in reading and writing.

Praise and Rewards: Praise from teachers can help students experience a sense of pride and accomplishment in their work and can help orient students to helpful strategies. However, praise can be counter-productive if students perceive it as manipulative. To be helpful, praise needs to be sincere, spontaneous, and interpreted as a reflection of real accomplishment. Giving rewards and incentives for reading books can increase the amount of time and effort put forth by students. However, the effects of using rewards are often short-term. Students who become accustomed to such extrinsic rewards can become focused on performance goals, such as grades, and become less interested in comprehension and reading for enjoyment.

Evaluation: Teachers who successfully capture and keep students’ attention and inspire their interest in reading tend to evaluate effort and progress rather than measuring achievement against external benchmarks. Students who are evaluated on the basis of projects and portfolios have the opportunity to develop a sense of competence and self-efficacy, which promotes intrinsic motivation.

Teacher Involvement: Students are most engaged in learning when they see that their teachers care about and are interested in their progress as individuals, have positive and achievable expectations, and offer students some level of control over their learning.

Coherence of Instructional Processes: When the instructional processes described above are connected to each other, the result is greater coherence and increased student engagement. For example, strategy instruction is enhanced when paired with interesting texts.

How can I find books that will interest struggling and reluctant readers?

Resources listing materials of high interest to teens that are written at accessible reading levels are available on several Web sites. These materials help provide reading practice, and, in some cases, include items that can be used as alternatives or supplements to grade-level classroom texts.

  • AMP Reading System from Pearson (
    High interest books written for students who read below grade level.

The following resources include books that are selected for interest rather than reading level. For struggling readers, books from these lists can be read aloud or provided on tape to spark interest in reading.

  • Alex Awards: Books written for adults that appeal to young adults (
    This Web page includes 10 books selected for the Alex Award by the Adult Books for Young Adults Task Force. The selection contains exceptional adult fiction and nonfiction that interests a variety of teen readers.
  • American Library Association’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers (
    The titles included on the Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers are found on this Web page. Both nonfiction and fiction are featured, and the books are selected for teens who do not enjoy reading. While the list is not aimed for teenagers with reading disabilities, some of the books may be suitable for these individuals.
  • Best Books for Young Adults (
    The Young Adult Library Services Association has listed its selections for the Best Books for Young Adults 2002 on this Web page. The featured books, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and biography, are recommended for ages 12 to 18.

What can schools and districts do to support adolescent literacy?

Schools and districts should ensure that every teacher is prepared to work with students on literacy skills. Professional development in reading instruction should be available to all teachers and paraprofessionals. Teachers may need to have the additional support of reading specialists. These specialists can be available to teachers on an ongoing basis and can ensure that teachers have the skills to help students with more significant needs. Classroom teachers may also need assistance from paraprofessionals or volunteers. Parental involvement should be encouraged, and parent-training initiatives should be included as part of any school’s efforts to improve adolescent literacy. Schools also need to ensure that teachers and school libraries have a wide range of reading materials so that students have access to an appropriate level of reading materials that interest them. In addition, the school day should be structured so that students have time to read for pleasure as well as for information.

Students who enter high school with poor reading skills are at risk of dropping out. Middle schools should put extra effort into assuring that all students can read well enough to succeed in content-area classes.

Schools that offer career and technical education classes or work-based learning experiences also promote literacy. Students in these programs are often motivated to improve their functional literacy, even if they have little interest in literature. These courses and experiences can help students learn how to use manuals, understand charts and graphs, and write instructions for others. However, students in vocationally-oriented programs should not be permitted to avoid challenging academic classes. Male students, in particular, tend to choose vocational programs requiring less reading than those chosen by females. A study of students at High Schools That Work sites found that male students’ reading skills could be improved in the context of vocational programs (Forget & Bottoms, 2000). Nonetheless, findings also indicated that students in such programs would benefit from being exposed to more challenging academic content; learning communication skills including writing, discussing, debating; being expected to read both during class and outside of class; and receiving extra help from teachers.

How can parents encourage adolescents to read?

Parents can encourage reading by increasing teens’ access to reading materials and by sharing reading. Adolescents benefit from having access to a wide range of reading materials in the home that reflect their interests and are at an appropriate reading level. Teens should be encouraged to choose their reading materials and to read for their own purposes, whether for information or pleasure. Parents should try to allow adolescents to read what interests them, excluding as little as possible. In general, neither nagging nor praising students about reading is helpful. Adolescents need to find their own reasons for reading. Parents can also encourage reading by sharing a newspaper article, reading aloud a letter from a friend or relative, or pointing out an interesting magazine article. Reading some books currently popular with adolescents can make it easier to share conversations about reading.

What are the new literacies?

In recent years, the concept of literacy has been extended beyond the traditional realms of reading and writing to include the other ways in which people extract meaning from symbolic information. This includes computer literacy, cultural literacy, economic literacy, scientific literacy, information literacy, media literacy, visual literacy, etc. (Pettersson, 2000). Many of these new literacies are described on the new literacies page of the Reading Online Web site (



The following sources were cited in this Frequently Asked Questions section. For additional research and resources, see our links to other pages on this topic below.

Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (1988). An instructional model for teaching students how to learn. In J. L. Graden, J. E. Zins, & M. J. Curtis (Eds.), Alternative educational delivery systems: Enhancing instructional options for all students (pp. 391-411). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.

Deshler, D. D., Schumaker, J. B., Lenz, K. B., Bulgren, J. A., Hock, M. F., Knight, J., et. al. (2001). Ensuring content-area learning by secondary students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16(2), 96-108.

Forget, M., & Bottoms, G. (2000). Academic and vocational teachers can improve the reading achievement of male career-bound students. Retrieved from

Fulk, B. M., & King, K. (2001). Classwide peer tutoring at work. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34(2), 49-53.

Greenwood, C. R., Delquadri, J., & Carta, J. J. (1997). Together we can! Classwide peer tutoring to improve basic academic skills. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Guthrie, J. T., & Wigfield, A. (2000). Engagement and motivation in reading. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, vol. 3 (pp. 403-422). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (1987). Learning together and alone (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Klingner, J. K., & Vaughn, S. (1998). Using Collaborative Strategic Reading. Teaching Exceptional Children, 30(6), 32-37. Retrieved from

Palincsar, A. M., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), 117-175.

Pettersson, R. (2000). Literacies in the new millennium. In W. Strykowski (Ed.), III Miedzynardowa Konferencja. Media a Edukacja. Poznan, Poland: Oficyna Edukacyjna Wydawnictwa. Retrieved from

Schumaker, J. B., Deshler, D. D., & McKnight, P. C. (1991). Teaching routines for content areas at the secondary level. In G. Stover, M. R. Shinn, & H. M. Walker (Eds.), Interventions for achievement and behavior problems (pp. 473–494). Washington, DC: National Association of School Psychologists.

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This document was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

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