Empowering Secondary Students in a Literary World

Submitted by:

Claricia Mohler

Literacy at the secondary level has long been overlooked, recently however, there have been some concerted efforts to reverse this trend; Franke (2002) writes 'millions of dollars fuel early reading research and initiatives in the United States with the hope of catching students before they fall through these reading instruction cracks' (p.16). As the nation focuses on ensuring elementary students meet literacy standards, literacy skills for secondary students continue to decline. Schools are charged with the responsibility of fostering reading. Reed (2005) reports, 'students who are less motivated to read, and who spend less time practicing their reading skills, typically lag behind their peers and often experience frustrating academic difficulties.' The written word in its multi-faceted forms must be read and understood to ensure a literate community. Every secondary teacher plays an important role in addressing the literacy needs of all students and inspiring them to read independently from a variety of sources.

Students must be given opportunities to develop reading skills in an array of complex text in an effort to evaluate, synthesize, and communicate effectively. Once stimulated, educators can motivate the secondary struggling reader, provide differentiated instruction, participate in professional development, and provide students a choice of reading materials to empower them in a literary world. 'The act of learning to read and write has to start from a very comprehensive understanding of the act of reading the world, something which human beings do before reading the words' (Freire, 1987). Troubling statistics show that more than three thousand students drop out of high school every day (Carnegie Corporation, 2004). Moats (2001) says, 'Reading failure begins early, takes root quickly, and affects students for life,' she goes on to report that more that '42 percent of 4th graders score below basic in overall reading skill on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)' (pg. 2) and about 25 percent of the nations adults are functionally illiterate. The number of high school dropouts is on the increase and according to Guensburg (2006) more than 8 million U.S. students in grades 4-12 struggle to read, write, and comprehend adequately. Thornburgh (2006) from Time magazine states, 'Nearly 1 in 3 public high school students won't graduate' (pg. 32).

Obviously, the need to revisit the secondary reading program is essential. It is vitally important that the nation's educational leaders examine and reexamine the task of ensuring students complete high school. An epidemic is sweeping the educational system not in the form of an illness but in the form of apathy and indifference. This problem has either been ignored or passively addressed for far to long and will escalate if left unchecked. Guensburg (2006) states that, through The No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush has directed $25 million in a Striving Readers program to support reading achievement in poor secondary schools. Children want to learn to read therefore, teachers must make reading meaningful and successful through the use of interesting literature. A variety of reading material must be made available to students so they may choose what they want to read. Providing students a wide variety of reading materials will facilitate in keeping them engaged in literacy.

Literacy for struggling secondary students is obviously a critical piece of the puzzle in preparing them to graduate from high school and succeed in post secondary education. Consequently, educators must learn to identify the characteristics of the struggling secondary student. Guensburg (2006) quotes Deshler, 'Every teacher, not just English and language arts instructors, plays a role in addressing the literacy needs of kids' (pg. 36). This may present a challenge for subject-area teachers who are accustom to leaving literacy instruction to English and reading teachers but is of little consequence when considering the needs of the student. Franke (2002) says 'many secondary schools are asking their teachers to learn how to teach reading in addition to the content areas for which they are responsible.' However, they need to understand and recognize why students do poorly with reading assignments. Students may have weak phonological processing abilities thus causing a deficiency in word recognition speed and accuracy; resulting in frustration (Moats, 2001). Schools will need to provide training to equip teachers with the tools necessary to strengthen their lessons and utilize reading strategies through a variety of materials. Students who do not like to read will continue to fall behind and may begin to act out to cover up their reading difficulties. Failing grades and or not meeting standard on high-stakes testing could be another indication. Once teachers are able to identify students who are in need, what becomes the next step in approaching literacy among secondary students?

The educational community must address different instructional approaches to providing effective instruction. Some students may need to build their phonological skills to develop word recognition and vocabulary, while others may need to strengthen fluency, and yet others may have to work on deriving meaning from the text by expanding their vocabularies and using a range of comprehension strategies (Moats, 2001). Franke (2002) quotes Wren, 'There isn't a powerful instructional strategy I would use with all students,' but goes on to say 'It's not the strategy that's important, it's how the teacher uses it and with which students' (pg. 18). Teachers must make use of strategies that will reconnect students with reading. It will be important to provide content that reflects real life situations and high interest material. Questions teachers ask students also affect the learning process.

Students avoid questions asked in class for fear of answering incorrectly, thereby, inhibiting students from learning. Effective questioning techniques incorporated by the educator will help increase a student's level of thinking. Blair (2002) discusses Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) program associate Jill Slack's approach to utilizing questions in the classroom. Slack categorizes questions into two groups: 'Core questions - cue and direct the classroom's thought experiences and focus on observation and recall, comparison, grouping, labeling, classifying, sequencing, predicting, and inferring' and 'Processing questions - narrow the focus of discussion, elicit a variety of responses from different students, provide students with an opportunity to give evidence for their ideas or information, or help students create relationships between evidence and statements.' The responsibility to learn must also fall to the student, for students must be sharp listeners when using processing questions. Slack goes on to say Core questions need to be clear, (use language that students understand) focused, (identify content and thinking skill) and open (use words that provide students an opportunity to give complete responses and allow for diverse responses) i.e., 'What did you notice about the _________?', 'What do you think will happen as a result of _________?'

On the other hand Slack states Processing questions consist of questions that may 'refocus,' 'clarify,' 'verify,' 'redirect,' 'narrow the focus,' or 'provide support' depending on the particular need of the student i.e. a verifying question may be, 'Give me an example of_______.' or a supporting question may be, 'What is the reason for thinking will result in _________?' The types of questions asked, directly affect student's involvement and learning and prevent students from guessing and having a 50/50 chance of getting the correct answer with a yes or no response. Philip Gough (personal communication, March 30, 2006) expressed that in order for secondary students to become better readers they simply have to read a lot.

Teachers should constantly promote literacy by modeling, reading to students, using book talks, and encouraging the use of technology as tools to learning new information. A literature circle is another strategy teachers may use in all subject areas to develop literacy. A literature circle is comprised of a small group of students who come to a consensus on which book to read. They each have a particular job that will make them responsible for contributing to the discussion at the end of the reading. This strategy allows students to focus on a particular task while still being exposed to the thoughts and ideas of other students and contribute to the discussion. Literature circles create a student-centered learning environment and guide students to understand what they have read, through dialogue, written and artistic responses. It also allows them to develop critical thinking skills, which further enhance the learning process. An abundance of strategies are available to teachers to engage students in literacy, but these strategies when ignored or unused simply become missed opportunities.

Professional development in literacy is another essential tool at the secondary level, as many teachers have specialized areas of study and may not have the know how to incorporate reading strategies in their daily lessons. School districts are hiring reading specialists who will work with teachers to provide techniques to embed literacy in all subject areas. These reading specialists provide staff development and conduct classroom visits to provide teachers with feedback that will help them improve their approaches to literacy. Support for these programs must begin at the district level and trickle down to teachers; administrators must encourage ongoing, job embedded, collaborative work among the staff. After all, 'Improving literacy is not just an educational or social need, it is essential if the United States is to compete in the new global economy' (Davenport and Jones, 2005). Literacy is the foundation to the world and students in the United States are guaranteed the right to learn. Educators must be mindful of the gift of teaching they possess for it is this gift that will empower students to read. 'Teachers need to constantly, subtly, creatively invite children into the world of literacy' (Reed, 2005). Perhaps with a united effort the nation will soon see an increase in literacy and in the number of students completing high school.


Blair, L. (2002). The right questions can improve student thinking and learning. SEDL Letter. XIV, 3:20-22.

Carnegie Corporation (2004). A report from carnegie corporation of new york: Reading next: Vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Davenport, D. & Jones, J.M. (2005). The politics of literacy. Policy Review. Retrieved May 6, 2006, from

Frank, J. (2002). Making every teacher reading teacher: Putnam city secondary educators Work to help struggling readers. SEDL Letter. XIV, 3:16-19.

Guensburg, C. (2006). Why Johnny (still) can't read: As reading skills falter, educators Push to improve adolescent literacy. Edutopia. February 2006, 35-36.

Guensburg, C. (2006). Reading rules: At jeb stuart high, students can't wait to hit the Books. How'd that happen? Edutopia. February 2006, 40-49.

Moats, L.C. (2001). When older kids can't read. Retrieved April 28, 2006, from

Reed, D. (2005). Motivating students to read: Issues and practices. SEDL Letter. XVII, 1:14-17.

Rubenstein, G. (2006). The new drill: On-site coaches focus on teachers, not students, in battle to boost literacy. Edutopia. February 2006, 37-39.