Why aren’t we doing more for adolescent literacy?
The federal government invests a whole lot more in “kid literacy” than in teen literacy (we invest nearly $20 billion per year on Head Start, Reading First, and Title I reading programs, and about $30 million on Striving Readers). The same pattern is true in the states as well, and if you look at school standards, accountability monitoring, and the professional development of teachers, you see a definite tilt towards younger kids when it comes to reading.
It’s not just the inputs that differ either. National Assessment data show that kids are improving more in reading early on than the upper grades. The pattern is slow growth versus early on followed by stagnation. Our young kids do well in international comparisons, while our older kids get creamed.
Part of the problem is that the idea that learning to read is something accomplished by the time kids are in third grade. That reading development can extend through a lifetime is not widely recognized. Older kids could do better, if we are willing to teach them longer than we have traditionally. We need more explicit learning standards for older students, better preparation for their teachers, curricula, instructional materials, and programs for those who fall behind if we are going to get kids to higher levels of achievement.
The problem isn’t entirely due to official neglect and lack of funding. Another problem is that the field has been distracted; those who should be figuring out how to most effectively extend instruction up the grades have been exploring youth culture instead.
The theory is that youth now confronts many literacies in their daily lives, that these literacies are cognitively demanding, and multimodal (including reading film, television, Gangsta Rap, web pages, and other non-reading literacy). It is often claimed that these literacies are cognitively more demanding than the ones taught in school. So if kids are learning and using these challenging literacies on their own, why so much trouble advancing academically in school? This problem is attributed to the cultural mismatch between school literacy and the literacy of youth culture that has alienated kids from the mainstream. In other words, kids come to value the literacy they have learned on their own because it buys them entrée into the real world, and so they reject and refuse to learn the literacy of school. Some scholars want to celebrate these new literacies (go video games), while others hope to turn these insights into teaching nostrums: such as the idea that we should teach popular culture; the more we focus on Hip Hop the better the kids will recognized the relevance of school literacy.
There are some problems with these theories, though I certainly think it is a good idea to monitor the use of literacy in society, including within youth culture. One basic flaw is the claim that the skills students use when playing video grams are commensurate with those evident in reading. We don’t have good measures of cognitive equivalence across tasks, so there just isn’t convincing support for the idea that understanding the conflict in a video war is equal to understanding the conflicts in novel like, The Scarlet Letter.
Even more flawed is the idea of the prevalence of these new literacy practices among youth. The researchers seem to be trying to “prove” that such literacy practices are widespread through case study examples. But looks at normative practices of IM-ing and the like do not reveal that all youth are so engaged. In fact, such practices tend to be highly skewed towards particular economic levels (at which school literacy attainment tends to be high anyway). Hollywood loves to feature teen whiz kids who sneak into the Pentagon computers and access the missile launch codes, or straighten out the credit crisis for our banks. The image is cute, but not very accurate.
The reason that a lot of kids can use literacy in these new ways is most likely because they are appropriating the literacy taught them at school for their own purposes (as has been done by literacy users since scribes began incising characters on clay tablets). A nationwide study of literacy practices among teens and young adults would be informative, and I suspect they would show that the kids who were doing well with traditional literacy were the ones most likely to explore new literacies.
Ultimately, these ideas founder on the premise that we should teach popular culture and the literacy practices of youth in school. If you want to kill youth culture, then try to appropriate it. Instead of romanticizing the use of these non-school literacies, we need to recognize their limitations. As Don Leu and his colleagues at the University of Connecticut have been showing, teens may be using the Internet, but they are not sophisticated users by any means. School needs to stay to the business of teaching kids to read demanding and difficult text and to be thoughtful and critical in those readings. My observations tell me that the reading of youth culture tends to be relatively simple, derivative of school practices, and not very deep or critical. Sometimes it is best to tend to your own knitting, and I suspect that is the case here. We need a lot more attention on school literacy all the way up through Grade 12; let’s trust that kids will figure out Hip Hop and Xbox for themselves.