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Taking Action on Adolescent Literacy

by Judith L. Irvin, Julie Meltzer and Melinda S. Dukes

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Student Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement

Why is this component important? Becoming skilled readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and thinkers requires ample opportunity for practice, authentic reasons for communicating, and effective instructional support. To achieve competence in literacy, students must be motivated to engage with literacy tasks and to improve their proficiency as readers and writers. Instruction and practice then provide the coaching and feedback necessary to gain competence. Increased competence inspires continued motivation to engage. This cycle supports improved student achievement. The role of school leaders is to ensure that this cycle of engagement and instruction is provided by all teachers to all students.

Literacy is a big part of the everyday world of adolescents. They pass notes, read e-mail, write in journals, share stories, study the driver's manual, decipher train schedules, search the Web, send instant messages to one another, read reviews of video games, discuss movies, post blogs, participate in poetry jams, read magazines and novels, and so much more. Yet many middle and high school teachers and administrators lament that students just do not read and write anymore, often blaming today's TV and video game culture.

We maintain that many, perhaps most, teenagers are actually highly motivated readers and writers—just not in school. For school leaders who want to improve the academic literacy skills of students so that they will be more successful in school, this situation poses a challenge. Addressing this challenge is the key to a literacy improvement initiative. Helpful questions for school leaders to ask include the following:

  • What evidence do we have of students' out-of-school literacy skills that we can build upon to encourage completion of reading and writing assignments in school?
  • What motivates and engages students to read and write, and how can we include these types of opportunities throughout the school day and across the content areas?
  • What kinds of coaching, instruction, and practice develop proficiency in reading and writing, and how can leaders support teachers to provide these?

Many researchers have explored the richness, competence, and depth of adolescents' out-of-school literacies (see for example, Alvermann, 2003, 2004; Lee, 2005; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). The motivation for students to read and write outside of school seems to be threefold: (1) the topic needs to be something they feel is important to communicate about; (2) the topic needs to be something they feel strongly about or are interested in; or (3) the reading or writing needs to take place when they want to do it, or “just in time.” Add to this a feeling of competence with the language, topic, or genre and multiple authentic opportunities for feedback and practice. These conditions produce situations in which adolescents are highly engaged with reading and writing.

Consider, for example, this instant message (IM) conversation between two teens who rarely read or write in school. Note the participants' high level of fluency with a code that many adults do not understand:

JZ: what's the 411 on tonight
LilK: we r abt2 hit the mall
JZ: which 1
LilK: TM
JZ: now?
LilK: yeah—going 2 get som p-za n then p/u a movie. u coming?
JZ: may-b. which movie?
LilK: dky—there r a few dope ones. what do you want 2 c
JZ: idk
LilK: what about wolfcreek
JZ: str8 J y? that what you want
LilK: j/c
JZ: what time? Go alap
LilK: Y
JZ: bcoz got 2 do some family stuff. hit my numbers b4 u go
LilK: a-rite
JZ: g2g
LilK: k
JZ: cul8r
LilK: c ya

If adolescents have reading and writing skills as we claim, why is it so difficult to get many of them to read a chapter in the history text or finish a short story in a literature anthology? Several issues are at play. First, out-of-school literacy skills may not be adequate for, or easily transferable to, academic reading and writing tasks. Second, many teachers do not build upon or bridge from out-of-school literacies to develop academic literacy skills because they may assume that because students will not read and write that they cannot. Third, most academic reading and writing assignments are not particularly motivating or engaging. And fourth, many middle and high school teachers do not have the expertise to provide reading and writing instruction in the content areas.

Many students approach assignments as something to get through without understanding the relevance of those assignments to their lives. Many try to avoid assigned reading because for them reading is an unpleasant, arduous, and unrewarding task; for some middle and high school students, their decoding and basic fluency skills are too limited to read grade-level textbooks. For far more students, the content of the textbook, article, or trade book is too difficult or too irrelevant to their experience, and encountering the information on the page is not sufficient for understanding. These students need to talk, write, and connect the content to what they already know to make sense of the material on the page. Other students do not see the relevance of the assigned reading to their lives and are not interested in putting forth the effort to complete the task. Often, however, many of these same students are able to persevere with difficult reading if they are interested in the subject at hand and if they get appropriate help—that is, if they can be motivated and supported to engage with the task.

Engagement with learning is essential, because it is engagement that leads to sustained interaction and practice. Coaching, instruction, and feedback become critical to ensure that students develop good habits and increase their proficiency. Increased competence typically leads to motivation to engage further, generating a cycle of engagement and developing competence that supports improved student achievement.

In the Leadership Model for Improving Adolescent Literacy, the interconnected elements of Student Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement make up the central goal of a schoolwide literacy improvement effort and are represented as the center circle on the graphic that depicts the model. In this chapter, we describe the well-researched connections between motivation, engagement, and achievement. Then we present strategies for motivating students to engage with literacy tasks, followed by a discussion of how engagement is connected to development of proficiency and what leaders can do to promote student motivation, engagement, and achievement. Two vignettes illustrate aspects of motivation and engagement, first through relationship building, then through instructional context. In both, the classroom itself is used as an intervention to get disengaged students motivated and involved in reading and writing for authentic purposes. We conclude the chapter with key messages.

Why Motivation and Engagement Are Important

Until recently, most middle and high schools in the United States have not included a focus on improving academic literacy skills—reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking—as a primary educational role. People have largely assumed that students are supposed to arrive in middle and high schools with adequate reading and writing skills that they can then apply to assignments involving increasingly complex reading and writing tasks. If, by chance, students do not arrive with these skills, educators sometimes prescribe remediation. More often, students are able to get through classes without reading and writing much at all. Well-meaning teachers may focus on alternate methods—showing and telling as opposed to reading and writing—to ensure that students are “fed” the content and not “penalized” for having low literacy skills. The result is that the students with the weakest skills often get the least amount of practice.

Other teachers assign reading and writing tasks and give low or failing marks to students who do not complete the assignments, assuming that motivation, not ability, determines if the work is turned in. The mindset of many teachers and administrators is that if students do not have the requisite reading and writing skills by middle or high school, it is simply too late. A number of educators speculate that some students just do not like to read and write—“that's just the way it is.” Additionally, many middle and high school teachers do not know how to provide explicit reading and writing instruction. Specific literacy instruction, as part of content-area learning, tutoring services, learning centers, or study skill classes, has been virtually unknown in many middle and high schools.

For students with poor academic literacy skills, this lack of embedded and explicit literacy support results in a downward spiral that can lead to academic failure. It is especially important to motivate students who arrive in middle and high school classrooms with a history of failure as readers or writers. People are understandably reluctant to persist at behaviors that they do not enjoy or that make them feel incompetent—adolescents even more so. Adolescents with poor literacy skills will sometimes go to great lengths to hide their deficiency; some of them devote considerable energy to “passing” or to distracting attention from their struggles, and the effort required is a major reason why many drop out of school.

Yet discussions with teens who are struggling readers and writers do not suggest convictions such as “we are proud of not being able to read and write well” and “we should be left alone to reap the lifelong consequences of leaving school with inadequate literacy skills to face the workplace and the responsibilities of citizenship.” Many of these students understand that poor literacy skills place them at a distinct disadvantage economically, personally, vocationally, and politically. They want to be better readers and writers, but in addition to their weak literacy skills, other serious barriers interfere, such as

  • minimal and often inappropriate help,
  • alienation from uncomfortable school environments and curricula that seem irrelevant to their lives, and
  • unreceptive environments for admitting the level of vulnerability they feel.

Motivation and engagement do not constitute a “warm and fuzzy” extra component of efforts to improve literacy. These interrelated elements are a primary vehicle for improving literacy. Until middle and high school educators work strenuously to address all of the barriers, and thereby motivate students to become engaged with literacy and learning, in the words of one student we interviewed, “I can tell you it just ain't gonna happen, you see what I'm sayin'?”

The Connection Between Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement

By the time students reach middle and high school, many of them have a view of themselves as people who do not read and write, at least in school. It is often difficult for teachers to know if middle school and high school students cannot or will not do the assignments; often all they know is that students do not do them. Herein lies the challenge for teachers and administrators: how to motivate middle and high school students to read and write so that they engage in literacy tasks and are willing to accept instruction and take advantage of opportunities to practice and accept feedback, thereby improving their academic literacy skills that will, in turn, improve their content-area learning and achievement.

This is not an either/or proposition. Instruction without attention to motivation is useless, especially in the case of students who are reluctant to read and write in the first place. As Kamil (2003) points out, “Motivation and engagement are critical for adolescent readers. If students are not motivated to read, research shows that they will simply not benefit from reading instruction” (p. 8). In other words, adolescents will take on the task of learning how to read (or write) better only if they have sufficiently compelling reasons for doing so.

Because motivation leads to engagement, motivation is where teachers need to begin. Reading and writing, just like anything else, require an investment by the learner to improve. As humans, we are motivated to engage when we are interested or have real purpose for doing so. So motivation to engage is the first step on the road to improving literacy habits and skills. Understanding adolescents' needs for choice, autonomy, purpose, voice, competence, encouragement, and acceptance can provide insight into some of the conditions needed to get students involved with academic literacy tasks. Most successful teachers of adolescents understand that meeting these needs is important when developing good working relationships with their students. However, many teachers have not thought of these needs in relation to their potential consequences for literacy development, that is, to what extent they meet these needs in the classroom through the academic literacy tasks they assign and the literacy expectations they have for students.

Motivating students is important—without it, teachers have no point of entry. But it is engagement that is critical, because the level of engagement over time is the vehicle through which classroom instruction influences student outcomes. For example, engagement with reading is directly related to reading achievement (Guthrie, 2001; Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). Engagement—with sports, hobbies, work, or reading—results in opportunities to practice. Practice provides the opportunity to build skills and gain confidence.

However, practicing without feedback and coaching often leads to poor habits. Coaching—or, in this case, explicit teaching—helps refine practice, generates feedback, creates structured exercises targeted to specific needs, and provides encouragement and direction through a partnership with the learner. Note that more modeling, structure, and encouragement are often needed to engage students who are motivated to begin but who have weaker skills and therefore may not have the ability or stamina to complete tasks on their own.

Sustained engagement, therefore, often depends on good instruction. Good instruction develops and refines important literacy habits and skills such as the abilities to read strategically, to communicate clearly in writing or during a presentation, and to think critically about content. Gaining these improved skills leads to increased confidence and competence. Greater confidence motivates students to engage with and successfully complete increasingly complex content-area reading and writing tasks, and this positive experience leads to improved student learning and achievement.

Thus, teachers have two primary issues to contend with when trying to improve the literacy skills of unmotivated struggling readers and writers: (1) getting them to engage with academic literacy tasks, and (2) teaching them how to complete academic literacy tasks successfully. Proficiency is developed through a cycle of engagement and instruction (Guthrie & Wigfield, 1997; Roe, 2001). Figure 1.1 shows a Literacy Engagement and Instruction Cycle that exemplifies the interrelatedness of teaching and learning within the context of literacy.

Figure 1.1. The Literacy Engagement and Instruction Cycle

Not available for electronic dissemination.

Source:The Literacy Engagement and Instruction Cycle

This cycle represents the learning conditions and support required for literacy learning to take place. Teachers and administrators who understand what this cycle looks like within the content-focused classroom can support the activation and maintenance of the cycle for all students. The vignettes in the next two sections of this chapter illustrate how teachers can make this happen and what types of learning environments are effective for motivating students to engage with academic literacy tasks. For leaders, the challenge is how to support teachers to develop these types of classroom experiences and contexts so that they become typical practice, rather than the exception.

Breaking the Cycle of Failure

Breaking the cycle of failure for struggling readers and writers and engaging all students to participate actively in their own literacy development requires the use of classroom environments themselves as interventions. In some cases, it is the classroom culture that prompts or supports reluctant readers and writers to want to engage with literacy tasks, resulting in their being more open to instruction. Such classroom environments provide motivation to read, multiple opportunities and authentic reasons to engage with text, and safe ways to participate, take risks, and make mistakes. In these classrooms, students feel that the teacher really cares about them and their learning. The following vignette illustrates how this type of classroom context worked to encourage the literacy and learning of one student.

Carly arrived at high school reading at the 5th-grade level. During middle school, she got involved with a rough crowd that did not care much about doing schoolwork, and figured that no one cared much anyway, so why should she try? She used to like books about real people and stories that the teachers in elementary school read aloud. In elementary school, she had been a pretty good student.

During the first week of 9th grade, Carly's English teacher told her that she would like Carly to join the mentoring club. Carly told her, “No disrespect, but I don't think so.” The teacher, Ms. Warren, persisted. Furthermore, she read all of Carly's papers, checked in with her daily, and had a frank talk with Carly about how she had a lot of potential, was very smart, and needed to get her reading and writing up to speed.

The books and short readings that Ms. Warren assigned in English were interesting and relevant to Carly, describing real events and people with dilemmas, but they were hard for her to read. Students in Ms. Warren's class were encouraged to share their opinions and ideas—but they always had to back them up with what they had read in the text. Ms. Warren taught her students multiple strategies for approaching different types of texts and always connected what they were reading to important themes in students' lives—power, cheating, love, violence. Carly tried the strategies and found they helped a lot.

Carly began to work hard—but just in that one class. She agreed to join the mentoring club because Ms. Warren just wore her down and kept asking her again and again. To her surprise, Carly found she loved tutoring younger students, and the experience made her work harder on her own reading and writing skills so she could be a good role model for Tyanna, the 4th grader she met with after school. Carly's attendance improved because when she skipped school, both Ms. Warren and Tyanna got on her back about it. She started working harder on her papers because Ms. Warren commented on them and scheduled time to meet with her one-on-one to revise them. She asked Carly questions about her intent as though she were a real author. Later Carly admitted, “At the beginning I didn't think about what I was writing; I just wrote something down to turn in. But then I started thinking more about it.” Carly also liked that Ms. Warren always gave students a choice of what to write about.

Midway through the year, Ms. Warren told Carly that she had a lot to say and suggested that she submit one particular essay to the school literary magazine, The Mag. Carly balked, but Ms. Warren submitted it anyway and it was accepted. Kids whom Carly did not even know came up to her and commented on how much they liked it. When she was asked to be on the editing committee for The Mag, she was surprised. She started to think that maybe she wasn't so stupid after all and went to the Learning Center for help with algebra. Her grades started to improve.

The following year, when she was asked what made the difference for her, Carly responded immediately: “It was Ms. Warren, Tyanna, and that darn piece she [Ms. Warren] submitted to The Mag. Kind of a combination. I'm still not so good at math. I have trouble sometimes reading my history book, and I hate biology—it's gross. But now I know that I am smart and that what I do matters and that I am just shooting myself in the foot if I don't try. I never thought about college before, but now I think I want to go.”

Middle and high school leaders can reverse the downward spiral of failure many students experience by creating a literacy-rich environment throughout the school (see Chapter 4 for suggestions), establishing classroom environments as described in this vignette as the norm, and expecting all content-area teachers to provide literacy instruction in the content areas. Although Ms. Warren was apparently well versed in strategies for improving reading and writing, most content-area teachers, including many English teachers, are not. School leaders can support teacher learning about content-area literacy instruction through frequent, high-quality, job-embedded professional development and by providing opportunities for strategy sharing, feedback, and coaching. Content-area teachers must accept the challenge of integrating literacy and learning for their students.

Likewise, students cannot be expected to develop skills when the contexts for engagement and support for instruction are not in place. As described in the vignette, Carly was unengaged in school and not willing, at first, to participate in her own literacy development. She needed to see that someone cared, needed to have authentic and motivating reasons to read and write, and needed support to improve her literacy skills. None of this was likely to magically happen just because the educators in the school system announced that they believe in high standards for all students. But Ms. Warren knew how to create a classroom culture that supported literacy development. For Carly, as for many students, motivation and engagement led to increased literacy skills and higher self-esteem as a reader, writer, and learner, which led, in turn, to improved academic achievement.

Conditions for Engagement

The literature is full of examples of how the climate and conditions of the classroom really can make a difference in whether or not adolescents choose to engage in literacy tasks. We know that the learning environment and culture within each classroom play a part in supporting or undermining the chances that middle and high school students will participate in, and therefore benefit from, literacy development through the engagement-instruction cycle. This is the case with students at all literacy levels, including struggling readers and writers, English language learners, reluctant readers and writers, and aliterate students (those students who have adequate reading and writing skills but typically choose not to read or write). This understanding means it is well worth paying attention to the elements of classroom culture and environment to ensure that the conditions for literacy learning are in place. The following vignette describes students' engagement with a variety of literacy tasks when these were assigned within a motivating and supportive learning environment coupled with effective instruction.

The 8th grade students on the Dream Team at Lincoln Middle School were studying the topic of water quality. For this interdisciplinary unit, Kamal, Ayan, Mara, and Erika were put into a group. None of them really understood why watersheds were important when they began the project. The first assignment was to read and discuss a chapter in the science book. The terminology was hard, and they really did not understand what the chapter was about even after previewing it. But the science teacher provided strategies for learning the vocabulary and reading the text, so even though the group members were not inspired, they were able to complete the assignment.

Members of Kamal's group became more interested when they saw the results of a local survey of waste disposal habits of businesses and households. The results indicated that “really disgusting stuff” was being dumped near the city's main supply of drinking water. Students listened to a local scientist and a government official talk about watershed and water treatment issues—policies, pollution, protections, and current threats. Students then took a tour of the local water treatment plant. In social studies class they debated the pros and cons of bottled water in terms of environmental and equity issues. Based on additional research and responses to e-mail questions submitted to the speakers, the students created a physical model of the watershed and the water treatment facility and discussed possible areas of concern.

Each team of four identified key questions and went into the field to conduct tests of water and soil for the presence of pollutants. Then they learned to read government charts representing safe levels of these substances in the public water supply and technical documents describing the treatment plan for the city. Kamal's team carefully compared its test results with the information on the charts. What they found was disturbing. Levels of certain toxic substances and bacteria were high in the reservoir, but the water treatment facility was not addressing the problem by changing the treatment of the water, suggesting that the city's drinking water may not be safe. The teachers encouraged the students to report their findings using PowerPoint presentations. Students were given a specific format for presenting their questions, data, conclusions, and recommendations. Together with teachers, the students developed a rubric for each component of the presentations. The two presentations with the highest scores based on the rubric would be presented to the city council.

The members of Kamal's team worked hard on their presentation—harder than they had ever worked before. Kamal and his fellow group members checked and rechecked facts, read and reread articles, discussed and debated what the recommendations should be, and revised and edited their presentation. To make sure they understood what they were reading, the group took the articles to the Learning Center during lunch, where a teacher showed them some strategies for finding facts and taking notes. They used these strategies to tackle some tough text, including findings from a scientific report. The two students with limited English proficiency in the group, Ayan and Mara, asked the others repeatedly if what they wrote was “OK.” Kamal, usually apathetic when it came to school, saw this issue as important—he had four younger brothers and sisters, and his family used tap water for cooking and drinking all the time; he wanted it to be safe. Erika, who was usually shy in class but who really liked music, made up a theme song about water safety to accompany their presentation.

When Kamal's team's presentation was chosen as one of the two to be shared at the city council meeting, their classmates were surprised. But Kamal and his teammates were not—this was an important opportunity to be heard. In their minds, this was much more important than the rest of the stuff they usually did at school—and they were willing to put in the time and effort to do it right. When a staff writer from the local newspaper attended the presentation and pressured the city to respond to the students' findings, the students knew their effort had been worthwhile.

In this vignette, several key factors relating to motivation inspired Kamal's team to engage with much more rigorous reading and writing than was typically the case. The students were working together on an issue they thought was important; they had choice and autonomy in the decisions about how to gather and present the information; and the presentation was for an authentic audience beyond the teacher or their peers. In Guthrie and Knowles's 2001 review of the empirical literature and their three-year study of K–12 classroom events that prompted sustained literacy interactions, they outline seven principles for promoting motivation to read:

  • use of conceptual themes to guide inquiry,
  • real-world interactions as springboards for further inquiry,
  • encouragement of self-direction,
  • the existence of a variety of texts,
  • support for the use of cognitive strategies,
  • social collaboration, and
  • opportunities for self-expression.
Guthrie and Knowles see this network of variables as those “likely to spark and sustain the long-term motivation required for students to become full members in the world of engaged readers” (p. 173). Like many researchers and practitioners, Guthrie and Knowles stress the connections between the affective, social, and cognitive aspects of reading. Although this research was not solely focused on adolescents, all of these factors were in place during the water quality project described in the vignette, and they contributed greatly to the engagement and success of Kamal's group.

Strategies to Engage Students

One extensive review of the literature related to adolescent literacy (Meltzer, 2002; Meltzer & Hamann, 2004) generated three promising practices that teachers can use to motivate students, including English language learners, to read, discuss, and strengthen literacy skills across content areas:

  • making connections to students' lives, thereby connecting background knowledge and life experiences to the texts to be read and produced;
  • creating safe and responsive classrooms where students are acknowledged, have voice, and are given choices in learning tasks, reading assignments, and topics of inquiry that then strengthen their literacy skills; and
  • having students interact with text and with each other about text in ways that stimulate questioning, predicting, visualizing, summarizing, and clarifying, preferably in the process of completing authentic tasks (tasks with a personal purpose or for a larger audience than the teacher).

Adolescent motivation in general is highly variable and is often dependent upon purpose and context, including relationships with peers, parents, teachers, and others. Therefore, a variety of motivational entry points need to be present to spur student engagement with literacy. Content-area classrooms that implement these three practices tend to be well stocked with books, magazines, technology resources, and a variety of other types of texts and materials. The next sections describe what each of these practices looks like in the classroom.

Making Connections to Students' Lives

In classrooms that promote motivation, teachers continually make connections between texts and the life experiences of students, films, other texts, previous school experiences, and the topic at hand. Before assigning a piece of text to read, teachers provide students with a purpose for reading, and they consciously activate students' prior knowledge. Teachers use a variety of approaches—demonstration, film, field trips, picture books, discussion—to build students' background knowledge and regularly ask students to present similarities and contrasts between their own life experiences and what is in the text. For example, students might participate in hands-on activities that they then actively discuss and analyze before completing related reading and writing. Motivation to read and write is enhanced by their new knowledge and experience and by the discussion that precedes the reading and writing. Students feel as though their life experiences are relevant and appreciated and that they are expected to use their own and others' experiences to make sense of text and content. They view the content they are learning as meaningful and connected, not isolated and foreign. Reading, discussing, analyzing, and creating texts become primary formats for learning and expression.

Establishing a purpose for reading is also related to improved comprehension. When students have a purpose for reading, have adequate background knowledge, and make personal connections to what they are reading, they can persevere through challenging text. Helping students to make connections is essential because student engagement is determined by the personal purpose for reading, the particular texts being read, and the links between the texts and students' personal circumstances. Helping students make connections between their own goals and their choices of texts is also important for how students develop the ability to use text to learn.

In the vignette, Kamal and his team were able to make connections between what the speakers said, what the textbook said, what articles and reports revealed, and the field trips they took. They had opportunities to discuss what each meant and allowed the connections being made and the conclusions being drawn to spur further inquiry.

Creating Safe and Responsive Classrooms

In safe and responsive classrooms, teachers respond to adolescents' needs for choice and flexibility and offer clear expectations and support for higher achievement. Teachers are also responsive to differing cultural and socioeconomic perspectives, making their appreciation of these perspectives clear through their facilitation of discussion, choices of literature, structuring of assignments, and assessment strategies. Teachers who successfully build upon the multiple literacies that students bring with them to the classroom learn about these literacies and help students understand how the forms of argumentation, categorization, and rhetoric that they commonly use out of school are similar to and different from those commonly encountered in academic texts.

Most important, teachers must understand that engagement feels like a high risk for many students. For those with low literacy self-esteem, the motivation to read and write depends on their judgments regarding whether teachers will give up on them or believe that they are worth the investment of time and encouragement. Teachers who persist in trying to reach resistant or reluctant learners continue to repeat invitations to join in the discussion, valuing small contributions and allowing students to participate at their own pace. Teachers must make clear to students that they care about their learning and their development of literacy skills, as well as their well-being as individuals. It is okay to make mistakes in these classrooms—the teacher acknowledges explicitly that learning is a continuum and that the role of students in a learning community is to improve their own skills and help others to improve theirs. When possible, teachers incorporate a choice of topic or format and, sometimes, goal setting and self-assessment into reading and writing assignments to accommodate varying student interests and learning styles and to engage students in developing their proficiency as readers and writers.

In the vignette, Kamal's group clearly felt that the classroom was a safe environment in which to learn, question, and present ideas. The team was encouraged to make choices, follow lines of inquiry, and use a variety of sources of information. The teacher validated a personal reason for pursuing the topic and encouraged various means of expression. Resources were provided and support was available to help the students as needed.

Having Students Interact with Text and with Each Other About Text

In classrooms that support motivation, students frequently work in small groups and pairs to analyze texts and to edit one another's writing assignments. Teachers structure learning experiences to help students develop deeper comprehension through discussion, to debate using text-based reasoning, and to understand various points of view. A collaborative learning experience within the context of a classroom environment that welcomes and supports diverse perspectives is the norm across the content areas. The multiple literacies that students bring to the classroom are viewed as a capacity and a resource. Teachers might encourage students to compare and contrast how a scene could be described using first language, home dialects or vernacular English, or IM script. Different ways of approaching and solving problems in math and science and writing are discussed and appreciated. When students share how situations similar to those being studied in social studies or read about in English would play out within their own cultural contexts, teachers value their contributions as additional insight into the topic at hand, not a distraction.

Kamal and his team members were able to discuss their project with one another from its inception through its presentation. They were able to discuss texts and to use their native languages when necessary to understand or explain to one another or to find out how to express something in English. Class activities encouraged discussion and debate and exploration of multiple, often conflicting, texts and points of view.

Focusing on Authentic Literacy Tasks

Authenticity is often the hidden key to motivating reluctant readers and writers to engage in academic literacy tasks. Yet in many middle and high school classrooms, authentic literacy tasks, if they occur at all, tend to be infrequent events. Moreover, many teachers consider simulated performance tasks to be authentic—a perspective students often do not share. Adolescents want their work to matter, and they want to conduct inquiry for reasons other than it being an assignment or an exercise. Authentic literacy tasks play into adolescents' needs to do things that are real and often prompt new effort for rehearsal, comprehension, discussion of content, planning, revision and editing tasks, summarizing, and other literacy skills because these activities are being carried out for purposes other than “just passing it in to the teacher.” This phenomenon was evident in the vignette; the fact that water quality was a real issue that mattered to Kamal and his teammates led to much more rigorous effort than standard textbook reading assignments had elicited.

Other authentic literacy tasks include adolescents reading with younger students or creating books on tape or authoring books for them, designing Web sites, writing newspaper articles, and conducting and reporting upon inquiries that reflect real societal concerns (such as neighborhood crime, pollution, teen issues, or school or city policies that affect them or their families). These strategies often motivate and engage students to persist with challenging or extended reading or writing tasks (Alvermann, 2001).

Encouraging Critical Literacy

Helping students to analyze bias, perspective, audience, and the underlying assumptions and purpose of a piece of writing is an authentic approach for studying texts because it empowers students to understand that texts are not infallible. As vehicles for communicating the point of view of the author, texts are infused with subjectivity and based on assumptions. Understanding the larger political, historical, and economic contexts within which texts are produced allows students to comprehend why certain perspectives are valued above others, what assumptions underlie the author's words, whose ideas gain currency, and why this might be the case. Students can apply these understandings to their reading of an article about a scientific discovery, primary sources, history textbooks, novels, newspaper stories, and many other types of text. For many students, this approach to studying text is motivating and meaningful and leads to greater engagement with text. For Kamal and his teammates, understanding the texts so they knew if the water system was at risk was an important reason to persevere through challenging material.

Using Technology

The use of technology is often highly motivating to adolescents in terms of getting them to read and write more carefully and with more effort. The ability to revise on the computer, to add effects (color, graphics, sound) to presentations, and to code or mark text using word processing features such as highlighting motivates many students, especially when this capability is combined with an authentic purpose to read and write. Some students are much more likely to persevere with skill development if it is presented through a computer program or to complete an inquiry assignment if it is structured as a Web quest.

In the vignette, Kamal and his teammates used a PowerPoint presentation to successfully present their case. The technology was a useful and easy-to-use tool that helped communicate their ideas to their audience.

Connecting Engagement to Improved Proficiency

Although it may be easy to see how these learning conditions stimulate motivation and engagement, the connection to how they build literacy skills and improve literacy learning may be less clear. Obviously, willingness alone does not make one competent. As previously shown in the engagement-instruction cycle (Figure 1.1), when coupled with support and instruction, engagement with literacy tasks that one perceives are worth completing allows for guided practice. Because skillful coaching improves performance during practice, practice allows for improvement to take place.

But just as responsive classrooms do not happen by accident, neither does literacy learning for the vast majority of students. Most students need skillful literacy instruction within the context of content-area learning to support their ongoing literacy development, including explicit instruction in reading strategies and skills and how these can be applied to various genres and contexts. In Chapters 2 and 3, we present, in detail, the types of strategies and skills that reading and writing instruction should include as part of both content-area instruction and intensive interventions for struggling readers and writers.

In the following sections we describe three additional types of academic literacy habits and skills that the research stresses as being necessary for all students to develop to become independent learners: metacognitive skills, vocabulary development, and the ability to generate questions. Competence in each of these three skill areas supports students' abilities to learn content. Teachers' conscious development of each of the three, coupled with attention to motivation, will support engagement with academic literacy tasks and improve reading and writing proficiency. Students' academic success is dependent upon developing competence with each of these, whether or not they are used in conjunction with reading or writing.

Developing Metacognitive Skills

Metacognitive skills allow students to monitor their own comprehension effectively. That is, learners realize when they do not understand something or when something does not make sense. Students with good metacognitive skills can use a variety of “fix-up” strategies when reading or listening, like rereading, listing or visualizing, questioning the text, relating the content to personal background, or using text aids to assist with comprehension. Weaker readers can learn the metacognitive strategies that stronger readers use. These strategies help weaker readers improve reading comprehension and, therefore, improve their content area learning. Being able to use metacognitive strategies independently as needed to strengthen and deepen literacy and learning is the de facto definition of an “independent learner.” This sense of having more control over one's reading and learning through the development of metacognitive skills typically motivates students to sustain engagement.

Developing Vocabulary

Vocabulary development is intertwined with reading comprehension and content-area learning. Students need a variety of strategies they can use to learn and remember the many technical terms, key concepts, and academic vocabulary that they encounter in the study of various disciplines. There is no evidence that “assign, define, and test,” the most prevalent approach used in middle and high school classrooms for learning vocabulary, is effective in helping students to learn words. According to Allen (1999), teachers in each content area should implement purposeful vocabulary instruction to

  • increase reading comprehension,
  • develop knowledge of new concepts,
  • improve range and specificity in writing,
  • help students communicate more effectively, and
  • develop deeper understanding of words and concepts with which students are only nominally familiar.
Struggling readers and writers and most ELL students also need purposeful attention to the study of words (root words, affixes) and the development of academic language (non-content-specific words found in printed directions, forms, textbooks, novels, and other publications). Throughout the literature, vocabulary development is stressed as a key component of literacy.

Generating Questions

Finally, students need to learn how to generate good questions. Questioning is effective for improving comprehension because it provides students with a purpose for reading, focuses attention on what must be learned, helps develop active thinking while reading, helps monitor comprehension, helps review content, and relates what is being learned to what is already known (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001). Having students generate their own questions about a text has also been shown to be an effective strategy for improving reading comprehension—questioning becomes a vehicle for connecting the text to their own prior knowledge.

Questioning is a part of several other learning strategies. For example, writing-to-learn strategies, written responses to higher-order-thinking questions, engagement in Socratic discussion, use of analytical graphic organizers, inquiry-based learning, and collaborative routines for text study all involve asking and answering questions, and all have been proven effective in improving literacy habits and skills, including reading comprehension. Developing metacognitive skills requires asking oneself if a particular text is making sense, and if not, why not. Activating prior knowledge, described in the literature as an essential way to connect students with text and improve reading comprehension and the ability to learn from text, requires asking questions. Many stages of the writing process, from choosing a topic to developing an outline, revising, and publishing, also require the ability to ask questions. Completing research is highly dependent on identifying key issues and framing good questions to guide inquiry. Again, the premise that students need to be able to ask effective questions is not one that is found in many middle and high school classrooms, where the focus is typically on answering questions asked by the teacher or the text.

Explicitly teaching students these literacy habits and skills and providing multiple opportunities to practice them across content areas will ensure that students develop competence in these three areas. For example, teachers can focus on vocabulary development with each unit of study, or teach how to complete a research paper and present research findings through a focus on questioning. As the engagement-instruction cycle (Figure 1.1, p. 34) illustrates, this increased competence will further motivate students to engage with reading and writing tasks and will lead to improved student achievement.

Connecting Learning to Adolescents' Needs, Interests, and Dispositions

Adolescents are not passive recipients of information who have few skills. They are, instead, actively curious young people with background knowledge and a wide range of literacy skills that they may or may not be using in school. Improving their skills involves gaining their participation. Sometimes teachers and administrators spend considerable energy fighting with adolescents instead of harnessing their abilities and skills in the service of improving their literacy and learning. To help adolescents improve their academic literacy habits and skills, teachers and administrators can build on needs, interests, and dispositions that adolescents have, such as those presented in Figure 1.2.

Figure 1.2. Linking Instruction with Needs, Interests, and Dispositions

Adolescents' Needs, Interests, and Dispositions

Possible Instructional Response

Need for control/autonomy

Provide choices in

  • Assignment topics
  • Assessment modes
  • Books to read
  • Order of completing work

Interest in technology/media

Use technology to support

  • Communication
  • Presentation
  • Research

Need to be heard

Provide authentic audiences, expectations, and opportunities for writing/speaking for an audience beyond the teacher

Disposition to debate

Plan many opportunities for

  • Debate
  • Text-based discussion
  • Opinion boards
  • Blogs
  • Letters to the editor
  • Student correction of content/format errors

Need to make a difference

Set up opportunities for

  • Reading to/tutoring others
  • Research into real issues
  • Apprenticeships
  • Creating informational Web sites
  • Writing articles for publication
  • Peer editing

Need to belong

Create a classroom culture and reinforce classroom norms that support the development of a community of readers, writers, and thinkers

Sense of accomplishment

Teach students how to participate in

  • Literacy goal setting
  • Progress monitoring
  • Use of rubrics
  • Collaborative teaming for completion of literacy tasks

What Leaders Can Do

School leaders know that most academic learning in middle and high schools takes place within classrooms. Leaders who are aware of the options teachers have to promote student motivation and engagement with literacy tasks can ensure that these options are in place in every classroom. Principals can work with teachers to identify a vision for what classrooms where students are motivated to engage with literacy development would look like. What would teachers be doing? What would students be doing? What would the classroom environment be like? Then teams of teachers can define what immediate steps they can take to move toward this vision. The vision can be reintroduced during the year to check on progress and remind teachers of this priority. When principals do walk-throughs or visit classrooms, their feedback to teachers might include references to aspects of the learning environment, assigned tasks, or instructional support that appeared motivating to students. Principals should also provide feedback about how many students appeared to be actively engaged in learning so that teachers can monitor their progress in reaching and involving increasing numbers of students. Leaders can provide opportunities for teachers to share strategies for motivating and engaging different types of learners so these strategies are used more widely across classrooms.

School leaders also should think about the school environment in its entirety. How would visitors know that this is a school that values and encourages reading, writing, and thinking? Establishing a literacy-rich schoolwide culture that is focused on student motivation, engagement, and achievement will make it easier for teachers to feel supported to make changes, will reinforce key messages to students and parents about the importance of reading and writing, and will clarify to teachers that school leaders are willing to “walk the talk.” (We present more ideas on what a schoolwide culture and environment look like in Chapter 4.)

A primary role of school leaders is to motivate teachers to engage in the professional development necessary for them to learn how to support the literacy development of their students more effectively. As long as teachers see a lack of engagement as “the students' fault,” they will not be provoked to change their own classroom practices to focus on motivation and sustained engagement with reading, writing, and thinking. If they do not know strategies that support literacy in the content areas, they cannot be expected to incorporate them into classroom teaching and learning. School leaders need to motivate and engage teachers to make necessary changes in classroom learning environments and instruction through high-quality professional development, establishing an expectation that this will occur and providing support. (We describe strategies for providing the support that teachers need in Chapter 6.)

School leaders may want to survey students about their attitudes toward reading and writing and solicit students' suggestions on what types of classroom environments and support they would find helpful to their learning. Sometimes hearing what students say is motivating to them is helpful to teachers who do not understand the challenges of literacy development from the students' point of view.

Relevance, relationships, and rigor are the rallying cry of middle and high school reform efforts (Daggett, 2005). Through an unwavering focus on literacy improvement, all three can be achieved. School leaders need to understand the goal—student achievement—as well as the primary route to that goal—increased motivation and engagement of students and teachers, leading to improved teaching and learning and higher self-efficacy of teachers and learners. The end result will be greater student success.

Key Messages

This chapter discussed the critical relationship between student motivation, engagement, and achievement and how school leaders can use classroom environments and contexts as intervention tools, interrupting a cycle of failure. Some students arrive at middle or high school with the hard shells of resistant readers or writers, but, underneath, no student wants to fail. Enacting the engagement-instruction cycle is essential to ensuring that all students have a chance for success. Helping students to become active participants in their quests to become competent, confident readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers requires classroom contexts that motivate and engage students, coupled with explicit literacy instruction that supports the improvement of their skills. The following are the key messages from this chapter:

  • A focus on motivation and engagement is the key to any effort to improve adolescent literacy habits and skills.
  • Sustained engagement in reading and writing tasks coupled with effective instruction leads to improved learning.
  • Three strong strategies for improving motivation and engagement are authentic tasks, critical literacy, and use of technology to support literacy development.
  • Students' motivations to read and write are highly variable and dependent on purpose, perceived value, self-efficacy, interest, and context.
  • Focusing on instruction without attention to motivation is not likely to be successful with adolescents.
  • Classroom environments and teacher actions can sustain and encourage, or undermine, student motivation and engagement in academic literacy tasks. Three important instructional practices are having students make connections, creating safe and responsive classrooms, and having students regularly interact with text and with one another about text.
  • Increasing students' competence through explicit literacy instruction within the context of a supportive learning environment will increase student engagement and improve student achievement.

Literacy is an integral part of adolescents' identities. Many struggling readers and writers have decided that improving their reading and writing skills is not worth the effort. Teachers may not know what to do when confronted with students who do not or will not read or write. When school leaders are aware of the connection between student motivation, engagement, and achievement, and know the strategies and practices that have been effective in breaking through students' resistance, they can support necessary changes in classroom environments, instructional practices, and school culture. Principals can support teachers' professional development, sponsor discussions among teachers about what they can do to infuse their content-area teaching with the effective practices mentioned in this chapter, and ensure that classroom environments and instruction include a strong focus on student motivation and engagement. Caring teachers, along with instructional and environmental supports, can go a long way to turning around a history of failure for many adolescent readers and writers.


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