Literacy (writing and reading) is crucial

By Jerome Dancis


Literacy (writing and reading) is crucial. A really good article "Upper Grades, Lower Reading Skills  --  Middle, High Schools Find They Must Expand Programs for Older Students" (at end) and a really good discussion "Adolescent Literacy" (excerpts below) appeared July 13, 2006 in the Washington Post.


A report "Reading Next"  [1] notes that: "Some 70 percent of older readers [between fourth and twelfth grade] require some form of remediation. Very few of these older struggling readers need help to read the words on a page; their most common problem is that they are not able to comprehend what they read."  This report strongly recommends literacy (reading and writing) programs for the bulk of middle and high school students; a crucial element of such a program would be:  

"Effective [literacy] instructional principles embedded in content [for example math class], including language arts teachers using content-area texts and content-area teachers providing instruction and practice in reading and writing skills specific to their subject area".  (Emphasis added.)


A report published by the National Association of Secondary School [2] Principals (NASSP) states  (

"Historically, direct literacy instruction has been supported up to the third grade. However, there is a glaring need for it to continue so students can not only read narrative text, but also learn specific strategies to derive meaning from expository and descriptive text. When literacy instruction stops early, how can middle and high school students learn the strategies to read increasingly difficult text and to comprehend more abstract ideas?  If a regular student continues to need direct instruction to read and comprehend the text found in secondary textbooks, consider the tremendous need for instruction and intervention that struggling readers must require. And sadly, if students two to three grade levels behind their peers do not receive intensive literacy instruction, the results can be devastating because the struggling reader will not experience success within the content areas. Therefore, it becomes even more critical that secondary content area teachers better understand and teach specific literacy strategies to help students read and extract meaning from the written material used to teach the course content. Conclusions from the RAND Reading Study Group [2002] clearly support the need for continued literacy instruction at the middle and high school levels     * Secondary students in the United States are scoring lower than students in other comparable nations. This is especially evident as secondary students deal with understanding discipline-specific content text."  (Emphasis added.)


This NASSP report quotes a 1999 position statement by the International Reading Association, which argued for  "  * Highly skilled teachers who model and explicitly teach reading comprehension and study strategies across the content areas".

I have allocated class time to reading instruction for the somewhat complicated sentences and paragraphs, which come up in my college math courses.   [3].  


How well are the Prince Georges' County's better graduates prepared for college? The ‘‘better” graduates are what the Maryland Higher Education Commission has named "CORE"graduates — namely, those who complete the high school classes which closely fit the freshmen admission requirements for the University System of Maryland, including three years of high school mathematics and four years of high school English.


Almost one in three (31 percent) of PG county CORE graduates needed to take remedial reading when they entered a Maryland college in 2004 (up from 19 percent in 1998).  The PGCPSS instructional program was ineffective for these graduates. This situation is not merely deplorable; this should be unacceptable.


Relatedly my article, should be of interest: "Reading Instruction for Arithmetic Word Problems: - If Johnny can't read and follow directions, then he can't do math"  at

[Those with middle or elementary school children might try out appropriate problems on them.  The problems are NOT in order of difficulty.  Some lower grade problems are Problems 6, 6B, 6C, 6D 21, 22, 23, 25, 31.   A not so easy Grade 3 problem is Problem 30.]




Excerpts from Transcript            Adolescent Literacy by Jeremy Ayers,

Policy and Advocacy Associate, Alliance for Excellent Education

Thursday, July 13, 2006; 1:00 PM

As many as six million middle and high school students can't read at acceptable levels, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. Across the Washington area, thousands of students will enter high school this fall unable to read at grade level.


2. Most older students struggle with comprehension, not decoding. Meaning, most older students can read the words on the page, but they cannot understand it, identify the main idea, or connect ideas in the passage to other ideas in other passages. Some struggle to decode, but most struggle to comprehend.


Research is clear that direct, explicit comprehension instruction improves reading achievement.


In fact, ALL students can benefit from learning these strategies. Literacy strategies have been shown to improve not only reading and writing skills but achievement in MATH, science, and other subjects.


Encouragingly, research shows that the quality of a teacher makes a big impact on student learning and can compensate for challenges a students brings with her or him.


Unfortunately, many middle and high school teachers are not prepared to teach literacy skills. They became teachers to teach their subjects, not reading. But their students are floundering in Reading AND in their subjects because they cannot comprehend their textbooks.


If we are to make a SERIOUS effort to improve literacy skills schools must do their job. Middle and high schools must have teachers in all subject areas trained and skilled to teach literacy strategies in their subject area so that students can better understand and remember what they learn in each class.


Bowie, Md.: I have a rising eighth grade daughter. All throughout elementary school, she received A's and above grade level scores in reading and spelling. However, once middle school started, we realized that her reading comprehension and vocabulary skills are actually low. I'm not sure why this was not discovered sooner.


Ayers: We should stop blaming parents for all the problems that children face.


In fact, your daughter's case shows that many schools are just not equipped to identify and diagnose reading problems, especially in the upper grades. This is generally not the school's or teacher's fault. Most middle and high school teachers and administrators are not trained to deal with literacy issues. They think the problem is solved in earlier grades and that students naturally progress.


Research tells us that each subject has literacy skills specific to that subject. So teachers in EVERY subject need to know literacy strategies specific to that subject so that students can understand and remember what they are learning. The University of Kansas has developed a remarkable model for helping subject-area teachers do this (


This is why the federal Striving Readers program also requires schools that receive a grant help every subject area teachers learn and use literacy strategies.


If you think about it, students who are really behind, who really struggle to read will need more than a 45-60 minute reading class each day. They will need help in each class they take, and probably even beyond the school day with tutoring and supplemental programs.


If we are to SERIOUSLY improve literacy in the upper grades we need every teacher, every program, and every caregiver to learn and use literacy strategies with our students. Their achievement and our national health depend upon it.




Upper Grades, Lower Reading Skills

Middle, High Schools Find They Must Expand Programs for Older Students


By Lori Aratani             Thursday, July 13, 2006; B01


Teaching reading has long been considered the job of primary grade teachers. But some educators are calling for more attention to be paid to the reading needs of middle and high school students, many of whom are struggling to master this critical skill.


The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based education policy research and advocacy group, estimates that as many as 6 million middle and high school students can't read at acceptable levels. It's an issue for students well above the bottom of the class. A report released in March that looked at the reading skills of college-bound students who took the ACT college entrance exam found that only 51 percent were prepared for college-level reading.


"That is what is the most startling and troubling," said Cyndie Schmeiser, ACT's senior vice president of research and development. "The literacy problem affects all groups -- not exactly in the same ways, but it's affecting all groups regardless of gender, income or race."


Though struggling students might be able to read words on paper, experts said, they lack the ability to explain or analyze what the words mean.


In the past two years, at least a half-dozen major education associations have released reports on adolescent literacy, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of State Boards of Education. State and national test scores also paint a troubling picture of the reading skills of older students.


In Maryland, 33 percent of incoming high school freshmen will need extra help in reading, according to results from the 2006 Maryland School Assessments released last month. In Virginia, 24 percent of last year's freshmen needed additional support. And according to 2005 test results in D.C. public schools, 71 percent of middle and high school students needed special help with reading.


The National Governors Association has offered states grants to develop programs targeted at older students. And school systems faced with significant numbers of middle and high school students unable to read well enough to keep up with their peers already have begun investing more dollars into programs to aid students.


Starting this fall, educators in Montgomery County will spend $1.2 million to place reading coaches at its 25 high school campuses -- more than tripling the number the system had last year. In Anne Arundel, officials will launch a course targeted at high school students who have difficulty reading. In Virginia, state education officials have formed a task force that will examine, among other issues, why so many of its high school students are struggling to read. Fairfax County schools already offer special courses for high school students who have difficulty reading.


Last year, the Bush administration launched the Striving Readers program, a $24.8 million effort that targets middle and high school readers. In the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, the administration hopes to almost triple the program's funding to $70.3 million. But educators said that is a drop in the bucket compared with the nearly $5 billion the federal government has spent to help younger kids read since 2002.


"This assumption that students master all the reading skills they need by the end of third grade just doesn't fly," said Beth Cady, spokeswoman for the International Reading Association.


Educators said older students struggle for many reasons.


The U.S. school population has rapidly diversified over the past few decades. The number of students who are learning English has more than doubled, from 2.03 million in 1989-90 to 5.01 million in 2003-04, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. A decade ago, students who were learning English made up 6.1 percent of the student population in Montgomery; today, the figure is almost 10 percent.


But it's not just immigrants. A breakdown of test scores in Maryland, for example, shows that black students, those enrolled in special education and those who come from poor families are most likely to lack strong reading skills.


Educators said it's difficult to pin down one cause. Bad teaching, chaotic home lives, low expectations for some students, cultural bias, the fact that older students simply don't read enough -- all have been faulted.


And student attitude can be a factor.


"By late elementary school, kids who are struggling readers have developed strategies to avoid reading," said Sylvia Edwards, a reading specialist with the Maryland State Department of Education. "They are under the radar, scraping by."


Even in such affluent, high-achieving counties as Montgomery, one in five kids reaches high school reading at a basic level. When broken down by race, the numbers are even more startling, with 42.1 percent of black students and 47.8 percent of Hispanic students reading at only a basic level when they reach high school.


In Fairfax, about 15 percent of students who entered high school last year had difficulty reading. But among black students, 32 percent were not reading well; among Hispanic students, 33 percent were struggling.


Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association and a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said many school systems stop emphasizing formal reading instruction once children leave primary grades. "It's not like a polio vaccine -- a couple of shots when you're a little kid and then you're done," he said.


And often, if older kids are having difficulty reading, their middle and high school teachers lack the training to intervene. "It's a lot easier in grade school to talk about learning to read, but if you're talking about it when you get to high school, then you're acknowledging that we've somehow slipped up," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia.


Shanahan and others said the key to helping older students is less about the mechanics of reading -- phonics and such -- than about the nuances of reading, that is, teaching students how to understand and explain what they read.


Patricia O'Neill, who represents Bethesda and Chevy Chase on the Montgomery school board, said she fears that if more isn't done to help kids catch up, they will not be able to graduate from high school, noting that statewide tests that students must now take to receive their diplomas include significant amounts of reading and writing.


Wise and others said that unless more is done, school systems will be forced to spend millions on remediation programs. And efforts to close the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts could be stymied.


"The focus of state and federal efforts has been on the early grades, and it needs to start there," Wise said. "K-3 is necessary for building a strong foundation, but I wouldn't be much of a carpenter if I build a foundation but not the rest of the house."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company



[1]   "Reading Next:  A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy"  at

[2]  "Secondary Schools"  means "middle schools,  (junior high schools) and high schools".

[3]   Most of the seniors (in engineering), entering my (second semester) linear algebra course, cannot make sense of the statement of the following theorem, even though they learned all the terms in a previous course.  Theorem.  Linear combinations of solutions, to a homogeneous linear equation, are more solutions to the same equation.  I teach my students how to translate this theorem,  into mathematical formulas.