Reading and Literacy in Adolescence Research Paper

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Adolescent literacy learning is a major focus in early 21st century secondary schooling in the United States. Partly as an outgrowth of widely-publicized efforts to increase reading achievement in early grades, policy makers, researchers, and educational leaders are turning their attention to the specific needs of adolescent literacy learners. Adolescent reading achievement in particular is the current focus of considerable national attention, especially in regard to struggling readers. Both the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) have issued statements and policy briefs calling attention to the need for effective literacy instruction for adolescents. The federal government recently announced the Striving Readers program intended to increase student achievement in middle and high schools not meeting state benchmarks and to further the knowledge base of instructional techniques most effective in promoting adolescent reading achievement. All of these activities point to the important role of adolescent literacy learning in the 21st-century curriculum.

Although reading and writing in subject area disciplines such as history and science is an important aspect of promoting student learning, English language arts education is the primary content area for supporting adolescent literacy growth. This research-paper provides an overview of English language arts education for adolescents with a specific focus on reading and the study of literature. Writing instruction and the study of language are critical components of adolescent literacy learning as well. The intent of this research-paper is to provide an overview of reading and the study of literature in secondary language arts with the recognition that reading and literary study are strongly affiliated with writing and language study. The first section of the research-paper provides background on the specific needs of adolescent literacy learners. The second section discusses the theoretical base of reading and literature instruction and provides an overview of different pedagogical models used in secondary language arts classrooms. The third section of the research-paper discusses the types of texts students typically encounter in language arts education. The research-paper concludes with a discussion of promising developments and potential concerns in English language arts education.

Recognizing the Needs of Adolescent Literacy Learners

Supporting the literacy growth of teenagers begins with the recognition that students in Grades 6 through 12 have different needs than either elementary school students or adults. When students transition from elementary to middle school, it is generally assumed that they have learned basic processes of reading and writing. In middle school, they encounter new literacy demands, including the expectation that they read and write in content area disciplines such as social studies, mathematics, and science.


An essential element in fostering adolescent literacy development is the concept of engagement. When students are interested in what they read and write, and are able to monitor their understanding, they are actively engaged in literacy learning. Although it may seem obvious that students need to be engaged in their learning, what is apparent from research is that many adolescents are not engaged by the texts and activities they encounter in the English language arts classroom. Engagement involves more than entertaining lesson plans or popular texts; it develops from the internal motivation of the adolescent literacy learner, as well as the classroom context in which he or she learns. Engagement is a complex phenomenon that differs with each individual. Because of this great variation, it is helpful to conceptualize engagement as a cycle of four interrelated elements that shift as the literacy learning context shifts. The key elements of engagement are motivation, cognitive strategies, choice and control, and social dimensions.

Motivation in literacy learning, in part, comes from the student’s belief that he or she can succeed at the task. Many adolescent readers do not believe they can read the texts they encounter in a way that satisfies teacher and testing expectations. These students often rely on verbal explanations of the text provided by teachers and peers. Sometimes these students have not acquired the reading skills necessary for proficient reading of secondary school materials. In other cases, these students may possess the skills but lack confidence in their ability to apply the skills and strategies to their reading. In either case, student motivation increases when students learn to use reading strategies within the context of each discipline area. The use of cognitive strategies is essential to engagement because it is through knowing how to apply specific reading strategies and writing skills that students develop a sense of self-efficacy and motivation. Educators can help students by not encouraging them to rely exclusively on the teacher or peers to find out if they understood the text; this will eventually increase students’ awareness of their own efficacy as readers. Teachers wanting to strengthen their students’ sense of self-efficacy will often find out what the students see as their strengths as readers and build on these over the course of a year. Choosing texts that have rich potential engagement from an adolescent perspective is another important way teachers support adolescent readers’ confidence.

In addition to self-efficacy, students need to sense purpose in their literacy learning to be motivated. This means that they understand why they are reading and writing certain kinds of texts and what they can expect to gain from the texts. Purpose in reading ties directly to what the reader wants out of a given text; it does not come from a student’s desire to finish the task or earn a good grade. Teachers cultivate students’ sense of purpose by helping individual students find texts that are meaningful to them, engaging students in inquiry about the importance of particular texts, and selecting texts that connect directly to adolescent issues.

Choice and control refers to providing students with choices about their literacy learning. Numerous studies have revealed the important role choice plays in motivation for adolescent readers. A large-scale study of middle school readers conducted by Ivey and Broaddus (2001) indicated that choice and availability of desirable reading material were prime motivational factors influencing the students’ reading. When providing adolescent readers with choice about what texts they will read, a teacher must recognize that when given the opportunity to select their own reading material, adolescents in a number of studies have indicated a preference for texts that exhibit features not necessarily found in classrooms—they choose books based on movies or television, specialty magazines, comics, and cartoons. Allowing for choice and control is not equated with turning over all instructional decisions to students. When teachers accommodate students’ needs for choice and control in their own literacy learning, they must retain the responsibility for guiding individual students in their development as readers and writers. Teachers can use their professional knowledge about adolescent literacy to draw upon student opinions and create recommended reading lists. Teachers can also provide students with options for assessment, ranging from written responses to artistic interpretations of literary works, to using discussion as a means of evaluating student learning.

Because reading and writing are social practices and serve as a means of communication, involving adolescents in the social dimension of literacy learning is also an important aspect of engagement. This means that students who are engaged are reading, writing, and using language to interact with others. Teachers who foster engagement through the social dimension of literacy create a reading community in which students share the social dimension of reading through talk, writing, and creative interpretation.

Strategic Reading Development

Adolescent literacy learners need specific instruction in the development of reading strategies. It is generally assumed by educators that secondary-level students possess basic decoding and comprehension skills. Extending these skills to develop the reading comprehension habits necessary for negotiating a range of complex texts is one of the goals of adolescent literacy education. In recent years, the trend toward explicit instruction in strategic reading has gained momentum. The underlying assumption for this practice is that strong readers possess and use a number of unconscious strategies when they read. These strategies are part of their reading process before, during, and after reading and include habits like predicting what will occur next in the text, questioning the text, and connecting to background knowledge. Strong readers rely on these strategies all the time, but struggling readers may not be aware of these strategies or know how to apply them in a specific discipline.

Discipline-specific Literacy Practices

An aphorism often used to describe a key difference between early and secondary literacy instruction is that in early literacy students learn to read and in adolescent literacy students read to learn. Implicit in this statement is the idea that secondary students are expected to read texts from core content area disciplines such as math, English, science, and social studies and apply the knowledge gained from their reading to their overall learning in the discipline. Adolescents are also expected to use literacy to deepen their understanding of a wide range of elective subjects such as art history, business, and vocational classes. Knowing how to read and write in subject-specific ways is not an automatic outcome of general literacy development, however. Each discipline has its own particular literacy practices, and often adolescents are not aware of this. It may never occur to them that proficient reading of a computer science textbook requires different strategies than proficient reading of a Robert Frost poem. Disciplinary literacy practices include approaches to reading, ways of thinking, and specific uses of writing. To teach adolescents these concepts, teachers must draw upon and build on students’ background knowledge or schemata about the topics and help them recognize the specific features of texts within a discipline. For example, texts in language arts classes are often narrative; thus, one important comprehension skill is the ability to enter the story world of the text (Wilhelm, 1997). In science, on the other hand, texts are often expository in nature. To read these texts successfully, students must identify main ideas and understand cause and effect. These examples illustrate the kinds of literacy practices used in different disciplines. Because adolescents are generally required to take courses in a minimum of four core disciplines (English, math, social studies, and science) and elective courses (e.g., family and consumer science, art, business), it is important that they receive explicit instruction in the particular ways of reading and writing that are fundamental to each discipline.

Social Dimensions of Adolescent Literacy Learning

Reading is much more than mastery of technical skills or knowledge. It is a complex social activity that involves multiple levels of social meaning, including the reader’s identity, the classroom context, the author’s identity, and the role of the text in any given social group. The culturally situated nature of reading recognizes that both readers and authors are members of specific social communities that shape their perceptions, attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs. Adolescents need teacher, peer, and whole-class relationships that support their development as sophisticated readers and thinkers.

Effective adolescent literacy instruction is predicated on the belief that adolescents need multiple opportunities to interact with others in the construction and comprehension of reading. In classroom practice, this means adolescents are engaged in meaningful discussions in which their inquiry and input is valued. The social dimension of literacy learning is not limited to discussion, but often includes writing and other forms of communication. When exploring the social dimension of literacy, adolescents are ideally engaged in interaction that deepens their understanding of texts and helps them recognize the social, political, and historical content and purposes within texts. Adolescents learn literacy practices most effectively when they feel they are members of dynamic and caring learning communities.

Recognizing and Valuing Diversity

An aspect of the social dimension of adolescent literacy learning is the importance of recognizing and valuing diversity in the English language arts classroom. Race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and other identity characteristics are inextricably linked to the social dimensions of literacy learning. Because of a persistent achievement gap between White and non-White adolescent readers, it is vital for educators to recognize and respond to the diverse experiences and needs of these adolescents. In a policy brief, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE; 2007) points out that “Mono-cultural approaches to teaching can cause or increase the achievement gap and adolescents’ disengagement with literacy” (p. 5). Multicultural literacy instruction incorporates several features. First, such instruction treats all literary traditions as valuable, rejects the privileging of some literary traditions over others, and recognizes that taste and value are cultural constructs. Thus, multicultural literature does not merely include several ethnic texts, but treats all texts as products of specific cultural traditions. Because literacy conveys cultural meaning and power, effective multicultural literacy instruction engages students in inquiry about how texts are valued in different contexts. Supporting adolescent literacy growth means recognizing that one-size literacy does not fit all. Research points to differences between the types of texts male and female students seem to enjoy (Smith & Wilhelm, 2002). Effective instruction recognizes the cultural frameworks of students, teachers, authors, and social communities and seeks ways to challenge literacy practices that are oppressive.

Multitextuality in Adolescent Lives

One of the most significant developments in adolescent literacy instruction is the recognition that students have rich lives outside of the classroom context. Often their nonschool literacy experiences involve digital or nonprint-based forms of text. With the growing recognition that adolescents negotiate complex literacy experiences that span their social worlds in and out of school, educators have turned their attention to exploring the role of multitextuality in adolescent lives. This perspective acknowledges adolescents’ out-of-school or voluntary literacy learning as a resource for school-based learning. By valuing students’ indigenous literacy practices, multitextuality in the classroom engages students in the reading and production of texts that reflect authentic 21st-century literacy skills. Because contemporary literacy skills require familiarity with a host of competing narrative sources such as the Internet, books, television, and film, it is it is important for teachers and students to distinguish the unique demands of specific modes of literacy.

Reading and Literature in Secondary English Language Arts

Given the array of the adolescent literacy learner’s needs, many schools and professional organizations expect all secondary teachers to share the responsibility for teaching adolescents how to grow as readers and writers. This collective approach to fostering literacy growth is known as reading and writing in the content areas. Although educators have recently given significant attention to adolescent literacy and many content area teachers are aware of the need to integrate literacy in their practice, it is the English language arts classroom where adolescent literacy learning is the central focus of curriculum and instruction.

When students think of English class, they might generally think of reading literature, writing essays, and occasionally doing grammar exercises. Reduced to its most basic elements, this vision of secondary English represents what is referred to as the tripod model of English curriculum (Applebee, 1974). This curricular model is based upon three strands of inquiry: language, literature, and composition. The three strands are inherently related, and English teachers are encouraged to teach the three subjects in an integrated manner. Although this model of language arts has been historically widespread in the secondary English classroom, a broader and more complex model of English language arts is espoused by the major literacy professional organizations. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has a long history of continually reevaluating the discipline of English to more clearly define and structure the field to more accurately reflect real-world literacy practices (as opposed to strictly school-based literacy practices like the five-paragraph essay). In 1996, the NCTE and the International Reading Association (IRA) copublished Standards for the English Language Arts. This set of standards specifically articulated a broad vision of English studies, the aim of which is to provide students with “the opportunities and resources to develop the language skills they need to pursue life’s goals and to participate fully as informed, productive members of society” (National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE] & International Reading Association [IRA], 1996, p. 3). The standards emphasize the shifting literacy demands of society and articulate the need for students to be conversant in reading, interpreting, and composing a diverse range of texts including nonprint media. The NCTE/IRA standards deliberately broaden the scope of study in English from the traditional tripod model to include subjects like speech and drama, technology, and media literacy. The NCTE/IRA standards do not treat these subjects as distinct facets of language arts that should be added into an existing curriculum. Rather, the standards articulate and emphasize the interrelated nature of English language arts as processes that are used to both compose and interpret a range of texts. The standards advance a view of language arts as both content and process. The NCTE/IRA standards are not intended to be prescriptive curricula, but instead are meant to create a shared and purposeful vision of the complex work of literacy education.

The NCTE/IRA standards enjoy broad support and have been used as the basis for state and district level standards throughout the country. In language arts, standards-based education usually does not rely on a specific set of texts that students are to read. Rather, standards-based education focuses on the types of texts students read, as well as the processes students apply in comprehending, interpreting, and appreciating the texts. Because there is no national curriculum in the United States, there is variation in the specific texts secondary students study, the types of writing they learn, and the range and depth of language study they are exposed to in secondary English classes. Despite this variation, there are important general trends in secondary reading and literature study.

Teaching Reading and Teaching Literature

A tacit understanding underlying curriculum in secondary English language arts is that reading is integral to the study of literature. Yet, just as adolescents who possess decoding and comprehension skills do not automatically know how to read a historical thesis, they also do not automatically know how to read a Gary Paulsen novel or a Shakespearean sonnet. This points to the need for secondary English teachers to incorporate explicit reading strategies instruction into their teaching of literature. The need for reading strategies instruction in the English language arts classroom for adolescents may seem obvious, but it has not always been addressed in classroom practice. Reasons for this include secondary English teachers’ self-identified lack of knowledge about how to teach reading strategies and their deep commitment to the tradition of teaching literature (Ericson, 2001). This trend may be changing; the increased attention to adolescent literacy has resulted in the burgeoning of professional development materials specifically aimed at helping the secondary language arts teacher incorporate reading instruction. This movement is in response to the recognition that adolescents need explicit instruction and practice in the development of reading strategies associated with different kinds of texts. Teachers use a range of models, both informal and commercially-produced, to strengthen adolescents’ strategic reading skills. Across the models there is general consensus on the need for the following: developing meta-cognitive awareness of one’s own reading process, identifying the main idea and summarizing the text, drawing upon background knowledge, actively questioning during reading, visualizing, making inferences, and synthesizing information from the text with prior knowledge to create new understandings.

Teaching reading strategies to students in Grades 6 through 12 is a means of helping them better read, interpret, and appreciate a wide range of texts. In addition to teaching students the “how” of reading, secondary English curriculum has a strong foundation in teaching about and through texts; this literature instruction is what many consider to be the heart of the English curriculum. Literature instruction in the secondary school is often comprised of four areas: the literary works themselves, background information, literary terminology, and cultural information (Purves & Pradl, 2003). One of the most enduring approaches to teaching literature in the secondary classroom is the use of new critical theory. New criticism, developed by English scholars in the 1920s through the 1960s, espouses the importance of close reading of the text. It rejects the consideration of sociohistorical information in the evaluation of text and emphasizes the formal elements of text structure. New criticism suggests that there is a single correct way to read a text; a pedagogical manifestation of this theory can be found in the questions and answer sections that accompany literary passages in secondary English textbooks. For example, students might be asked to identify the use of metaphor in a poem or to analyze how an author resolves the conflict in a novel. This approach to literature instruction was widely used in the late 20th century and continues to thrive in secondary classrooms today.

A competing approach to teaching literature is the use of reader-centered (as opposed to text-centered) pedagogy. Rejecting the idea that each text has only one correct interpretation, reader response theory posits that each reading is unique. Reader response theory, as articulated by Louise Rosenblatt (1978), advocates that reading is a transaction between the reader and the text. Each transaction is unique, affected by the reader’s past experiences, the circumstances of the reading, and the sociocultural factors influencing both the reader and the author. It is a process-centered approach in which the reader is an active participant in constructing meaning from the text. In secondary language arts curriculum, reader response theory provides the basis of a pedagogy that emphasizes personal response to literature. In this model, teachers ask students to reflect on and build their own interpretations of the text.

This approach is widely recognized for its ability to motivate readers by valuing their experience and background knowledge. A benefit of reader response theory is that it values an individual reader’s schema and interpretation, and rejects the notion that there is only one valid way to read a work.

But reader response pedagogy in the secondary language arts classroom is problematic. English educators have made several observations about reader response theory in the classroom. An especially prevalent concern is how to evaluate what counts as a valid interpretation. Because of the emphasis on individual response, it is possible that virtually any interpretation suggested by a student could be a legitimate reading of the text. The flexibility inherent in reader response is not a substitute for rigor. Rosenblatt and others have pointed out that a valid interpretation is one that does not disregard evidence presented in the text. Thus, the criteria for evaluating quality in interpretation must account for the reader’s experiences and knowledge as well as the content of the text. Another concern is that reader response ignores the cultural and political dimensions of both the reader’s and the author’s context. Critics charge that in classrooms where personal response is promoted as the main way of interpreting text, it is possible, for example, for White students to read the works of an author of color and not attend to elements of racism presented in the text. As with the concern about what constitutes a valid interpretation, this critique of reader response theory focuses on how it is manifested in secondary classrooms, not with reader response as a theoretical model. Reader response theory as articulated by Rosenblatt and others acknowledges the importance of examining the reader’s sociocultural context. Teachers can address this concern by asking students to explore how their personal response is shaped by their social context. Teachers can also extend the learning about and through the text to take into account the political and social dimensions of the context in which the text was originally produced as well as the context in which students are reading it.

Secondary English language arts instruction is heavily influenced by developments in scholarship and pedagogy at the university level. Both new criticism and reader response theory have roots in the academy. Thus, it is not surprising that an emerging trend in secondary English literature instruction is the inclusion of many postmodern literary theories. These critical approaches to reading and interpreting literature start with the assumption that there is no universal truth and that all experience is subjective. In this vein, reader response theory is a type of postmodern literary theory. As discussed above, reader response theory has been particularly embraced in secondary English education. Other literary theories that have made inroads in adolescent literacy learning include feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and critical race theory. A number of professional books and journal articles advocate for and provide pedagogical models for teaching adolescents how to read literature through a critical lens. Despite professional discourse that suggests the value of teaching students critical literary theory, it is difficult to gauge the influence of these theories in classroom practice. Arthur Applebee’s large-scale national study of the teaching of literature in secondary schools (1993) found that the most common approaches to teaching literature were new critical and reader response. Interestingly, even though these two models are based upon diametrically opposed assumptions (that there is one correct reading and that each reading is a unique transaction), Applebee found that teachers did not see an incompatibility between the two traditions. This suggests that teachers use and even adapt certain features of literary theory in their instruction rather than subscribing to literary theory as doctrine.

Three Approaches to Teaching Text

English language arts teachers use theoretical lenses as a way to read and analyze text. These lenses influence how teachers shape the meaning adolescent readers derive from texts. Another important aspect of adolescent language arts education is the pedagogical approach teachers adopt when structuring the literature learning environment. There are three basic approaches to teaching text found in the secondary classroom: whole-class reading, literature groups, and independent reading.

In whole-class reading, all students read the same book at the same time. Teachers often use this teaching strategy because they want to create a shared literary experience among their students, building an inclusive and supportive learning community in the process. Another reason teachers opt to teach the same book at the same time to a whole class is they want to use features of the text as anchor lessons that students can refer to throughout the course of their learning. For example, a teacher may use a poem to teach personification or a nonfiction text to teach students how to identify and articulate a main idea. In some cases, teachers may also use whole-class reading to meet curricu-lar requirements that students read specific texts, although with the advent of standards-based curriculum, such practices may be based on tradition more than official curriculum. Instruction that complements whole-class reading may use minilessons (20 minutes or shorter) that enhance students’ understanding of the text. Because some students may rely on the teacher or peers for comprehension, it is especially important that teachers work with all students to ensure they are reading and comprehending the text during whole-class instruction. It is common practice for English teachers to intersperse whole-class reading with writing, visual, and kinesthetic activities.

The use of literature circles or reading groups is another approach to teaching texts in secondary classrooms. Students are grouped either by the teacher or through self-selection and read a common text in a small group. There are many variations of group reading; for instance, students may read a variety of texts on one topic. Again, as with whole-class reading, students share a common literary experience, but in the case of literature circles, the shared experience is with a smaller group. Literature circles provide students with an opportunity for discussion in which reluctant discussants may participate more actively because of the smaller group size. Because teachers are not the facilitators of the discussions, literature circles open the possibility for engaged, student-centered, authentic discussion. Literature circles also meet adolescents’ needs for choice and control by allowing a degree of student choice regarding text selection, reading schedule, and even assessments.

One challenge of using literature circles in the classroom is how to manage multiple groups reading different texts. Harvey Daniels (2002), who is widely recognized as the most influential promoter of literature circles in the language arts classroom, suggests a combination of management and assessment techniques. One frequently used method is to assign roles to each reader in the group. These roles represent a range of reading behaviors, such as visualizing, developing vocabulary, and analyzing character development. Assigned roles are not an essential element of literature circles; teachers may prefer to use other means of assessing students, such as recording their discussions or creating multilayered tasks for the group to complete.

The final approach to teaching text in the English language arts classroom is independent reading, in which students read texts on their own. Independent reading fosters adolescent reading development when it is incorporated as a consistent and extensive classroom practice. Independent reading helps readers build fluency, develop vocabulary, and experience a variety of text formats and features. Research shows that independent reading practice is most effective when students select their own material, which may include magazines, newspapers, series books, or graphic novels. Teachers who incorporate independent reading in their classrooms often allow for student choice while reserving the right to approve student selections. To do this well, teachers need to be knowledgeable about their students as individuals and about a wide range of texts so that they can make appropriate recommendations and informed decisions. Significant teacher knowledge and preparation is required to meaningfully incorporate independent reading in the language arts classroom. The teacher’s responsibilities in independent reading include maintaining an atmosphere conducive to reading; providing ample reading time in class; implementing assessments that provide information about students’ engagement and comprehension; conferring with students about their reading; teaching minilessons on reading strategies, text features, and authors; and modeling engaged reading by reading and sharing personal enthusiasm for books.

All three of these approaches—whole-class instruction, literature circles, and independent reading—have benefits and limitations in classroom practice. No one method meets the needs of all readers; therefore, teachers should adopt more than one approach in their literature instruction.

The Range of Texts Taught in the English Classroom

Students need exposure to a range of different literary traditions. This section explores the characteristics of literature that students typically encounter in the secondary language arts curriculum.

The Expanding Canon

Despite standards-based curricula that promote outcomes instead of content coverage, the teaching of English language arts has been characterized by remarkable consistency in the actual texts used in classroom instruction. In a national study of the book-length works taught in English, Applebee reported uniformity in the most frequently taught texts. Nine of the 10 most frequently taught texts were written by White males of European descent, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird being the exception. Overall, the five most frequently studied authors were Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Twain, Dickens, and Henry Miller. These texts and authors reflect what for many years was considered the canon of high school literature. Often equated with classic literature, the traditional canon has been criticized for its inaccessibility to contemporary adolescent readers and for its exclusion of literary traditions emerging outside a White, male, or Eurocentric perspective. For some time, what texts should constitute the canon has been the topic of heated debate in academic circles. The fortunate carryover of this discourse has been the reshaping of the secondary English canon to include a richer range of texts.

No large-scale study of a similar nature has been conducted since Applebee’s 1993 study, yet numerous indicators point to a shifting curriculum that now includes more authors of color, female authors, young adult literature, nonfiction, and popular (i.e., not specifically literary) texts. This shift is evidenced by such things as the range of authors included in literature textbooks, articles published in professional journals, and professional development materials published by national organizations. For example, a Web-based video workshop produced by the Annenberg Foundation provides an in-depth look at how to teach multicultural literature in high school ( channel/workshops/hslit/). Authors whose work secondary students may encounter in the classroom include Amy Tan, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Leslie Silko, Chinua Achebe, Sandra Cisneros, and Langston Hughes. The inclusion of more authors of color and female authors in the secondary classroom recognizes that literary tradition encompasses many diverse experiences. It also reflects the population in secondary schools, which exhibits tremendous diversity. Students need to be exposed to texts in which their traditions and identity are represented.

The use of young adult literature in the 21st-century language arts curriculum is also widespread. Young adult literature, also known as adolescent literature or teen fiction, is—as its name implies—written primarily for adolescent readers. Main characters in these books are often adolescents, and the plots and themes of the texts reflect issues that are especially relevant to adolescents’ interests.

Young adult literature deals with contemporary issues or historical issues with contemporary relevance and considers diverse perspectives, including cultural, social, and gender. It spans many genres, including poetry, series books, novels, graphic novels, and nonfiction. Many scholars identify the 1960s as the period in which authors and publishers began to specifically target the teenage reader. Although not all English teachers are eager to embrace this literature, adolescent readers find it appealing enough that the publishing sector devoted to their interests has grown tremendously. Today’s adolescent literature reflects a broad range of styles, interests, genres, and perspectives. Teachers express concern that adolescent literature is not of sufficient quality to merit classroom time when there are classic works that have withstood the test of time and that the issues presented in adolescent literature are too controversial for the classroom. The first of these arguments has been resolved with some degree of consensus more so than the latter. Although individual teachers may appreciate or disregard specific young adult texts, the English language arts community as a whole has articulated the importance of young adult literature in the curriculum. Which young adult texts should be taught in classrooms is, at times, a source of controversy. This is apparent in the number of young adult titles listed in the American Library Association’s (ALA) lists of the most frequently challenged books. In 2005, for example, 7 of the top 10 most frequently challenged works were young adult literature.

Digital, Nonprint, and Popular Culture Texts

Twenty-first-century literacy is predicated on the ability to understand and use digital and nonprint texts. Effective teachers of adolescent literacy take into account how popular and nonprint texts construct multiple positions that viewers and readers inhabit. As discussed earlier, it is important for educators to build bridges between adolescents’ nonschool literacy practices and school-based learning to increase students’ motivation and provide them with meaningful opportunities to develop relevant literacy skills. A key way of doing this is through the study and use of digital and nonprint texts. The Internet is an essential component of contemporary literacy; with the exponential increase in the amount of user-created text available online, the World Wide Web presents an especially rich venue for teaching about and through digital texts. Such literacy activities go beyond completing a Webquest or using the Internet to find information for a research project. Critical exploration of digital literacies engages students in the evaluation and creation of such Web-based text formats as wikis, blogs, electronic mailing lists, podcasts, and Web sites. Extending inquiry to explore the relationship between texts is called multimodal literacy. The benefits of purposefully incorporating digital literacies and nontraditional texts in the classroom are significant. Not only does this increase the possibilities for student engagement, but research demonstrates that it also increases student achievement in traditional literacy skills like writing paragraphs and comprehending print-based text (Hobbs & Frost, 2003).

Popular culture texts also support adolescent literacy learning. These texts may be print-based, such as zines (self-published magazines that offer an alternative to mass market media) or graphic novels, or they may be nonprint media, such as film and television. Again, the most effective pedagogical practice encourages critical viewing and analysis of the text structure, content, and purpose.


At the beginning of the 21st century, there is much to consider when evaluating how to best support adolescents in developing the literacy skills that they will need to be knowledgeable and empowered members of a global society. What is clear is that shifting literacy demands will affect how literacy is taught in secondary schools. How this will look in 5 or 25 years is difficult to say, but it is likely that students will be engaged in reading and composing a greater variety of texts than were their counterparts in the late 20th century. In the not too distant past, secondary English language arts teachers were relatively immune from the effects of No Child Left Behind because the legislation and policy initiatives were directed at supporting early literacy learning. Now, however, the pressure to meet prescribed achievement goals is felt in every middle and high school in the United States. In some schools, this pressure results in the adoption of a commercial reading program that promises to raise achievement. Although such programs may indeed increase student achievement on specific assessments, they contribute little to the development of the wide-ranging, purposeful literacy habits that adolescents need. Adolescent literacy educators must negotiate the competing demands to prepare students for 21st-century literacy and success on mandated assessments. Currently, there is little congruence between the assessments and the complex realities of being a competent literacy user in contemporary society. National professional organizations like the NCTE and IRA are increasing their presence in the policy arena to influence how adolescent literacy learners’ needs are met now and in the future. A positive outcome of the intensified attention to adolescent literacy is the potential that more research, professional development, and shared knowledge will contribute to supporting the literacy development of all adolescents.

See also:


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