Adolescent Literacy

adolescent literacy


Excerpted from the CE Course Adolescent Literacy, The National Institute for Literacy and Professional Development Resources, 2007.

Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imagination so they can create the world of the future.

Despite the call for today’s adolescents to achieve higher levels of literacy than previous generations, approximately 8.7 million fourth through twelfth grade students struggle with the reading and writing tasks that are required of them in school. For many adolescent students, ongoing difficulties with reading and writing figure prominently in the decision to drop out of school. These indicators suggest that literacy instruction should continue beyond the elementary years and should be tailored to the more complex forms of literacy that are required of adolescent students in the middle and high school years.

There are a number of key literacy components that interact to help form literacy skills:

• Decoding/phonemic awareness and phonics
• Morphology
• Fluency
• Vocabulary
• Text comprehension


Decoding – or word identification – refers to the ability to correctly decipher a particular word out of a group of letters. Two of the skills involved in decoding or word identification are phonemic awareness and phonics. Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made up of individual units of sound. These units of sound are called phonemes. Adolescents who are phonemically aware, for example, understand that three phonemes, /k/, /a/, and /t/, form the word cat. Students understand that the word fish also has three phonemes because s and h together make the distinct sound, /sh/. Phonemic awareness also includes the ability to identify and manipulate these individual units of sound. For example, phonemically aware students can make a new word out of weather by removing and replacing the first consonant sound with another consonant sound (e.g., feather).


Morphology is the study of word structure. Morphology describes how words are formed from morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a word. A morpheme may be as short as one letter such as the letter, ‘s’. This letter adds plurality to a word such as cats. Likewise, a morpheme can consist of letter combinations that contain meaning. These units of meaning could be roots, prefixes and suffixes. An example of a morpheme that consists of letter combinations would be the word pronoun. This is also a compound word. Several combinations of word types can be created by compounding words; however, it is important to point out to the student that the meaning of a compound word does not always match the meanings of the individual words separately.


Fluency is the ability to read text accurately and smoothly with little conscious attention to the mechanics of reading. Fluent readers read text with appropriate speed, accuracy, proper intonation, and proper expression. Some researchers have found a relationship between fluency and text comprehension, which indicates the importance of fluency. Readers must decode and comprehend to gather information from text. If the speed and accuracy of decoding words are hindered, comprehension of the words is compromised as well.


Vocabulary refers to words that are used in speech and print to communicate. Vocabulary can be divided into two types: oral and print. Vocabulary knowledge is important to reading because the oral and written use of words promotes comprehension and communication. The three primary types of vocabulary are (1) oral vocabulary, which refers to words that are recognized and used in speaking; (2) aural vocabulary, which refers to the collection of words a student understands when listening to others speak; and (3) print vocabulary, which refers to words used in reading and writing. Print vocabulary is more difficult to attain than oral vocabulary because it relies upon quick, accurate, and automatic recognition of the written word. Furthermore, the words, figures of speech, syntax (the grammatical arrangement of words in sentences), and text structures of printed material are more complex and obscure than that of conversational language. A few studies have suggested that vocabulary instruction leads to improved comprehension.

In addition to distinctions between oral, aural, and print vocabulary, vocabulary is categorized according to whether it is typically used in an informal or formal setting. Vocabulary used in a formal, educational setting is referred to as academic vocabulary. Researchers who investigate academic vocabulary knowledge typically categorize words into three areas: (1) high-frequency, everyday words (e.g., building, bus driver, eraser, etc.); (2) non-specialized academic words that occur across content areas (e.g., examine, cause, formation); and (3) specialized content-area words that are unique to specific disciplines (e.g., ecosystem,
foreshadowing, octagon).

Text Comprehension

Comprehension is the process of extracting or constructing meaning (building new meanings and integrating new with old information) from words once they have been identified. Many struggling adolescent readers do not have difficulty reading words accurately; they have difficulty making sense of the information and ideas conveyed by the text. Comprehension varies depending on the text being read. Even proficient readers may have difficulty comprehending particular texts from time to time. Difficulties with comprehension may result from a reader’s unfamiliarity with the content, style, or syntactic structures of the text. Even as adults, many people struggle when reading Shakespeare or the manual for installing a new computer program.

How content-area teachers can work with struggling adolescent readers in their classrooms

Countless middle and high school students at every socioeconomic level are struggling with learning academic content because they cannot read and write at grade level. To address this problem, all educators, including content-area teachers, need information on how to incorporate effective literacy learning strategies into the content-area curriculum.

Some common themes have emerged from the research literature as effective practices for instruction. The most common suggestion made throughout the research surveyed is that teachers should use systematic, explicit, and direct instruction. When students experience explicit instruction on a specific skill, teacher modeling, guided practice, and independent practice, they are much more likely to become proficient at the skill being taught. The second common theme throughout many of the literacy components discussed is the use of repetition. One way to ensure that students retain a strategy or skill is to review it in different contexts and with different texts. Whether applied to reading a text repeatedly to improve fluency or practicing the steps of a strategy multiple times to master that strategy, repetition contributes to the improvement of adolescent literacy skills.

The improvement of adolescent literacy is an issue that all middle and high school teachers should be equipped to address in their instruction. To be effective, content-area teachers must be aware of instructional approaches and strategies that can be used within their existing curricula to help improve the literacy levels of the struggling readers that they encounter. In this way, they will learn the content area.

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