Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 2

Research Link / Improving the Reading Skills of Adolescents

Reading skills are essential to the academic achievement of middle and high school students. After seven or eight years of elementary education, however, many students still lack sufficient proficiency as readers. Although 8th and 12th graders have steadily improved on a U.S. national assessment that measures fundamental skills, such as reading for literary experience, reading to gain information, and reading to perform a task (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999), many adolescents continue to perform at unacceptable levels. What can secondary educators do to help these learners improve?
To address this problem, Nancy Collins (1996) searched for underlying causes. She found that the major reasons for lack of reading comprehension among remedial readers at the secondary level are poor motivation, lack of experience, and egocentricity. Collins concluded that students who are not successful in the classroom have not had experiences with language in meaningful situations.

Motivation Matters

As in Collins's report, intrinsic motivation, which involves having an interest in content and wanting to learn for learning's own sake, is a theme that runs through research on improving adolescent reading skills. According to Guthrie, Alao, and Rinehart (1997), intrinsic motivation for literacy and other academic subjects declines in middle school. Teachers, however, can help students regain their motivation and improve their reading performance by connecting reading assignments to real-world learning experiences. In addition, Guthrie and his colleagues believe that teachers must give students self-directed activities, invite collaborative learning, and allow for varied forms of self-expression.
What are secondary schools doing to improve students' reading skills? When Arlene Barry (1997) conducted a national survey on the status of high school reading programs, she discovered a significant reduction in reading services at this level. Further, her research showed that schools rely heavily on standardized tests for program placement and evaluation. In addition, she found a movement away from pullout programs. Instead, survey respondents expected educators to teach students reading in their content classes. Barry found, however, that many content teachers resist their role as reading teachers, citing a lack of time, skill, and support.

One Success Story

At least one school seems to be an exception to those described in Barry's study. Joyce, Showers, Scanlon, and Schnaubelt (1998) conducted a study at San Diego's Morse High School. In fall 1996, more than half of the 9th and 10th graders were reading below the 50th percentile, as measured by the Abbreviated Stanford Achievement Test (ASAT). Despite a significant number of dropouts in grades 11 and 12, fewer than 45 percent of the remaining students scored at or above the 50th percentile on the ASAT.
In spring 1996, teachers established a formal reading course in the secondary curriculum. The reading teachers received extensive staff development, and they designed and implemented curriculum and instructional strategies with a high probability of success for older beginning readers. The new reading course included extensive reading and vocabulary development, comprehension exercises, and writing. In addition, the new reading course stressed vocabulary building through natural language and through reading in school and at home. Listening to teachers read was a significant component of the instructional strategy.
At the end of the first semester, students gained more than one grade level in reading achievement. This gain was more than four times what we would expect had there been no intervention. At the end of the second semester, the gain was about five times the mean gain that these students had made during a comparable period of time in school.

Fostering Improvement

The success of students at Morse High School has been impressive. Ballash (1994) maintains that high school teachers must constantly show remedial readers their progress. She also states that to help students develop metacognition, teachers must show them how reading strategies are effective in improving their reading comprehension. Finally, she found that teachers must direct students to reread for meaning, provide plenty of content for language learning, and allow students to use a speaking vocabulary that is greater than their reading vocabulary.
Nancy Farnan (1996) believes that a similar repertoire of teaching strategies should be used at the middle school level. She contends that reading skills will improve only when literature leaves lasting impressions on the students and when students begin to monitor their own understanding. When they realize that they do not understand what they are reading, they must be capable of mobilizing strategies to correct the problem. Students master these skills when they actively construct meaning, learn more about themselves and others, read from a variety of sources, and view reading as an enjoyable experience.
Researchers agree that to improve the reading skills of adolescents, teachers should consider using any medium that stimulates students' interests and involvement in language. As Nancy Collins (1996) says, "The only way to improve reading skills is to read."

Ballash, K. M. (1994). Remedial high school readers can recover, too! (Open to suggestion). Journal of Reading, 37(8), 686–687.

Barry, A. L. (1997). High school reading programs revisited. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 40(7), 524–531.

Collins, N. D. (1996). Motivating low performing adolescent readers. Bloomington, IN. ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication. (ERIC Document Reproduction No. EDO-CS-96-06)

Farnan, N. (1996). Connecting adolescents and reading: Goals at the middle level. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 39(6), 436–445.

Guthrie, J. T., Alao, S., & Rinehart, J. M. (1997). Engagement in reading for young adolescents. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 40(6), 438–446.

Joyce, B., Showers, B., Scanlon, M., & Schnaubelt, C. (1998, March). A second chance to learn to read. Educational Leadership, 55, 27–30.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). The condition of education, 1999. Washington, DC: Author.

Author bio coming soon

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 199291.jpg
Redefining Literacy
Go To Publication