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Adolescent Literacy: Overview

Adolescent literacy has, for many years, been a forgotten area as educators have focused their attention on early literacy, in particular, Grades K-3. However, in the last few years adolescent literacy has gained more attention as policy makers and educators realize that literacy is a critical issue even as students transition into the middle and high school settings. In a recent press release (2004) President Bush proposed the Striving Readers Initiative, a program for middle and high school students that complements the elementary Reading First program. Both the Striving Readers Initiative and Reading First are part of the larger No Child Left Behind Act (2002).

The U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) have committed the next several years to research and development of projects and programs designed to understand the development of adolescent readers and to implement and evaluate instruction and intervention programs to improve the reading and writing abilities of adolescent readers and writers. This promising new direction might prove fruitful in discovering new and better ways to engage students in learning as they confront the academic domains of secondary education.

The International Reading Association Committee on Adolescent Literacy (1999) has highlighted the importance of examining adolescent literacy. In this statement, the association recommends that adolescent learners:

  • Read a wide variety of literature that appeals to their interests.
  • Receive modeling and explicit instruction from expert teachers for the skills and motivation to read complex materials.
  • Work with teachers who understand the complex nature of individual adolescent readers.
  • Participate in assessments that determine their literacy strengths and needs.
  • Work with a reading specialist if they have difficulty learning how to read.
  • Receive support from their home, community, and the nation.

Some recent publications have also highlighted the importance of examining adolescent literacy. For example, in Reconceptualizing the Literacies in Adolescents' Lives, Alvermann and her colleagues invite educators of adolescents to consider a broader view of adolescent literacies that encompasses gender, race, ethnicity, and social class (Alvermann, Hinchman, Moore, Phelps, & Waff, 1998). Thus, increasing the literacy of adolescents involves gaining a better understanding of the kinds of literacies that are reflected in their social and cultural lives outside of school. More recently, Alvermann (2002) examined adolescent literacy instruction and argued for instruction that takes into account students' self-efficacy and engagement with an array of texts in many different settings. She also pointed out that with the increasingly complex academic demands of the subject areas as students enter secondary education, students must have the appropriate background knowledge and strategies for reading a variety of texts. These strategies include:

  • Comprehension monitoring—knowing when comprehension breaks down and knowing the fix-up strategies for improving the comprehension when it does break down, such as rereading, applying reasoning, or using the organizational signals within the text.
  • Cooperative learning—problem solving or sharing ideas with peers through discussions, debates, and other peer-led activities.
  • Using text structure—understanding that texts are organized by displaying the organization graphically.
  • Answering questions—answering teachers' questions and receiving feedback in order to demonstrate an understanding of the text.
  • Generating questions—asking questions about information in the text.
  • Summarizing—making generalizations that sum up the most important information in the text.

Jetton and Alexander (2004) also stressed the complexity of adolescent literacy as learners begin to confront subject areas or domains such as history, algebra, biology, and English in high school. They stressed that engaging in these academic fields requires that students possess the requisite knowledge, the strategies, and the motivation to learn the subject-matter. Secondary teachers, in turn, must possess the requisite content knowledge in order to facilitate knowledge growth in their students, and they must possess the pedagogical knowledge for representing and transforming subject-matter information so that students can easily learn it. Teachers must also create classrooms that engage students in the content, rather than the transmission approaches in which the teachers tell and students listen, an approach that seems to dominate secondary education.

H. L. Mencken (1949) states, "There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong" (p. 443). There are no easy solutions to the demands for higher levels of literacy for middle and high school students. In order to prepare adolescents to be literate citizens in a global economy, teachers need to understand and use research-based instructional practices with these adolescent learners.

Alvermann, D. E. (2002). Effective literacy instruction for adolescents. Journal of Literacy Research, 34(2), 189-208. Retrieved April 1, 2020, from (Adobe® Reader® PDF 83 KB)

Alvermann, D. E., Hinchman, K. A., Moore, D. W., Phelps, S. F., & Waff, D. R. (Eds.). (1998). Reconceptualizing the literacies in adolescents' lives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bush, G. W. (2004, September 3). Strengthening education and job training opportunities. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from

Jetton, T. L., & Alexander, P. A. (2004). Domains, teaching, and literacy. In T. L. Jetton and J. A. Dole (Eds.), Adolescent literacy research and practice (pp. 15-36). New York: Guilford Press.

Mencken, H. L. (1949). The divine afflatus. In H. L. Mencken, A Mencken chrestomathy (pp. 442-448). New York: Knopf.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425 (2002). Retrieved April 1, 2020, from

* Various materials were created with the assistance of Tamara Jetton.

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