Investigating Methods for Increasing the Literacy Rate in Middle School Students

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What is Literacy?

So what exactly is literacy? The term conjures up multiple meanings and ideas in the minds of most educators and in some ways is dependent on what content area you teach. Some might argue that it is an ideology based on some sort of value judgment about a student’s worthiness and their competence in reading and writing (Alvermann et al.). However, as unlikely as it may sound, some experts have raised concerns that in some families, cultures, and communities the ability to read and write proficiently is not valued to the same degree as it is in modern Western culture and that it is not “viewed as being the ticket to equality, a good job or social mobility” (Alvermann et al. 13).

In an effort to better understand what it means to be literate this paper examines the component parts of what is an enigmatic problem in American schools today; the problem of reduced literacy rates in middle and high school students and the measures that need to be taken to reengage them in the educational process and help them become more literate members of society.

A. What the Statistics Say.

So back to the question of what literacy is. For the purpose of this paper let us expand the meaning to include the skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening – after all, are these not the skills we expect most students to have mastered prior to graduation? Unfortunately this seems to be the crux of the matter, because recent reports have focused on the fact that many middle and high school students are not reading and writing at levels that allow them to compete in the 21st century.

In fact as many as eight million students in grades four through twelve struggle to read at grade level, and as many as 70% of older students require some form of remediation (Biancarosa and Snow 3). It is not that students cannot read the words; they simply cannot comprehend what they are reading. In an Alliance for Excellent Education report from 2003 over 3,000 students drop out of high school every school day in America (Fisher and Ivey, “Evaluating the Interventions” 180). Obviously there is a problem with either what we are currently doing in the classroom or the manner in which it is being presented.

B. What are we Doing?

In most schools explicit instruction of reading skills begins at the elementary level and is gradually phased out throughout the middle school years, with high school students receiving little if any instructional support that builds further reading skills. This policy, if conducted in the field of mathematics, would be considered ridiculous if it were followed in our schools, so why is it acceptable for reading? Four possible reasons exist for this dual policy in our nation’s schools. They are:

* decision makers do not understand the complex nature of literacy learning,

* secondary teachers are not trained to support students’ literacy development,

* resources have been put into early literacy reform efforts to the neglect of adolescent literacy, and

* literacy demands are higher than ever before (Irvin et al. 4).

Although the first of these four examples is certainly important, the focus of this paper will primarily be on the last three. Let us take a look at an example of both two and three above in a typical situation.

A new high school principle eliminated a time slot in the school day that had previously been dedicated to Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). He warned teachers that students needed to be focused on the instruction at hand rather than sitting around reading during this time period. In reference to this policy change he stated “Students have to be taught. We need more time focused on direct instruction”. Predictably, during the next two years book circulation rates at the high school library plummeted and the schools overall achievement on the content standards tests declined, not only in reading but also in history and science (Fisher and Ivey, “Learning From What”). It would seem obvious either the new principal’s ideas concerning what students need in the way of instructional practices, or his lack of adequate training that would support literacy development at this level, contributed in some way to the declines that were seen.

Another example of current practices is the case of Anthony. Anthony is an African American male student from a large urban school. He is currently sixteen years old and failing the ninth grade. Anthony has no discernable disabilities and has attended twelve schools between the first and ninth grade. He has five siblings, who with his mother live in a one bedroom apartment. Unfortunately Anthony witnessed his father’s death in a drug related shooting at some point during his life. Anthony currently reads at a fourth grade level on reading assessments, writes poorly using sentence fragments, and does not spell well. He often misspells common sight words such as when, there, and once (Fisher and Ivey, “Evaluating the Interventions”).

The school he attends purchased a computerized reading intervention program to help students like Anthony, and he is scheduled into the computer room for intervention one period per day along with his normal English class and content area classes. This school, unlike our other example, provides its students twenty minutes of self-selected reading per day. During this time Anthony can be found reading the sports page of the local newspaper or one of many sports magazines in the room (Fisher and Ivey, “Evaluating the Interventions”).

Anthony, the reading specialist, and an administrator discuss a reading intervention program the school has implemented using specific criteria developed to help Anthony and other students like him. The reading specialist noted that the web-based computer program did not require any adult support and that “students just sit down and begin working”. When asked whether or not Anthony was being challenged by the program the specialist assured the administrator that each student must complete a series of lessons in order to progress. Upon observation it was evident that yes, indeed Anthony was engaged with the program and that according to him “reading is easy”.

The program introduced him to three sight words: I, you, and was. He clicked on each word as the computer said that word and afterwards he moved onto sentences. Each sentence contained a blank line in which Anthony was asked to identify the missing word. The first sentence was “The cub gets a rug”. The second sentence was “The cat gets a nap”. The third sentence was “Ron has a dip in the _____”. His choices were van, fox, and tub. We asked Anthony to select the wrong answer to see how the program would handle the response. Anthony entered the word “van” as part of the researchers experiment. The computer responded “No, that is not correct”, and read the sentence again.

This was repeated eleven more times without any assistance or guidance offered by either the computer or an adult to guide his efforts. Because he had no one to help him and the program does not facilitate that help Anthony has no chance of learning why the wrong choice is wrong, or when he answers correctly why the answer is correct. Reading skills were not involved with solving the problem; instead Anthony merely had to use the process of elimination. Furthermore, at no time was he required to ever use any of the sight words that were originally presented in the sentences he was reading (Fisher and Ivey, “Evaluating the Interventions”).

Despite the schools best efforts, the instructional program employed to help Anthony improve his literacy did not address his instructional level; the intervention was not driven by assessment data, and the program provided no instructional support if Anthony answered incorrectly. Additionally, the reading specialist noted that Anthony at no time was required to read any authentic texts as part of this program (Fisher and Ivey, “Evaluating the Interventions”). Obviously neither is an example of what we should be doing in the classroom, but rather serves to ask the question – Where do we go from here?

C. What Role Does Writing, Speaking, and Listening Play?

Reading is just one part of the equation when considering the improvement of student literacy needs. In building the whole package we must consider students’ abilities to also:

* write fluently

* speak clearly

* listen intently

After all, learning is language based and in order to learn we must be able to use all these processes concurrently.

Unfortunately when middle schools were developed, in a switch from the junior high format, there was a fundamental shift in the emphasis placed on the amount of time that was being spent teaching reading to fifth and sixth grade students. In theory, this shift to having an integrated language arts program resulted in reading and language arts being combined into one class, requiring teachers to instruct students in each of the four areas mentioned earlier: reading, writing, speaking, and listening during a single 45 to 50 minute time block rather than as separate entities of reading and English (Kirk). Understanding when and for what purpose this shift occurred can help us understand what steps may need to be taken to improve our ability to better facilitate student literacy needs.

So far we have a pretty good understanding of what literacy is and what skills a student needs to be literate. We also know a little about what we have been doing to promote those skills in the classroom, but what other factors affect student literacy?

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