Promoting Young Adolescent Readers

Literacy initiatives have led to a steady increase in fourth grade reading scores since 1999, but according to research, the literacy levels of 13- and 17-year-olds have remained static for almost 40 years. Why do middle school readers continue to struggle?

According to a new white paper from Generation Ready, “Adolescent Readers in Middle School,” the problem isn’t students’ lack of ability to read, it’s their struggle to comprehend text that is increasingly complex and discipline-specific. The introduction of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts, with its focus on deeper understanding and critical thinking, may compound their struggles, says author Sheena Hervey, chief academic officer for Generation Ready.

The report, which looks at some lessons learned from the New York City Department of Education’s Middle School Quality Initiative, suggests professional development for middle grades teachers that helps them implement several strategies focused on improving literacy and achievement among young adolescents:

  1. Give students extended time to engage with text across the curriculum. Rather than summarizing difficult content for students, teachers should give them more time to fully comprehend what they are reading. Some of that extended time will take place in English classes; the rest must be included in other subject areas such as science and history.
  2. Explicitly teach comprehension strategies. That includes modeling comprehension strategies, providing guided or scaffolded practices with complex texts, and providing students with opportunities to practice comprehension strategies independently.
  3. Introduce students to academic and domain-specific vocabulary in meaningful contexts rather than in isolation.
  4. Work in teams to collaborate across disciplines. Common planning time can help create consistency of instruction.
  5. Provide students with opportunities to collaborate around complex texts. Rich and rigorous conversations with peers helps students synthesize material, integrate new learning, share ideas, and seek clarification.
  6. Develop an assessment strategy that tracks student reading growth and identifies strengths and learning needs. The strategy should include summative and formative assessments and should emphasize progress over achievement.

“Our challenge is to ensure our students have the skills they need to be literate in a rapidly changing world. The stakes are high both in terms of individual quality of life and national economic competitiveness,” according to Hervey.

Read the white paper at