OVAE: Office of Vocational and Adult Education
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Adolescent Literacy Research Network
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Introduction | Research Solicitation | Projects Funded


The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the U.S Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE), and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) have had a longstanding interest in the study of literacy and reading disabilities. In particular, while the NICHD has funded both basic and applied research on the reading process, reading disabilities, and intervention trials for reading remediation and effective instruction, OVAE seeks to fund work that will improve the quality and effectiveness of secondary education and support academic achievement of those students who traditionally have been held to lower expectations. OSERS, in recent years, has funded elementary grade reading research, model demonstration and technical assistance and dissemination projects and is highly interested in research activities that will improve services and results for adolescents with disabilities. Many adolescents with disabilities fall behind their peers academically, increasing the likelihood that they will drop out of high school, affecting opportunities for full-time employment adequate to sustain adult living. The research funded under the partnership among these agencies will support them in their broad effort to enhance literacy and employment skills of young American adults.

Adolescent Literacy: Research Informing Practice, two workshops co-sponsored by multiple federal agencies and professional associations in 2002, focused on the important but under-researched area of adolescent literacy. Individuals appear to have greater difficulty learning to read after nine years of age, but the factors that contribute to or account for this difficulty have not been explained. Researchers know that children who have not developed foundational reading abilities by approximately nine years of age are highly likely to struggle with reading throughout their years of schooling, if not for the rest of their lives, and may never read efficiently enough to acquire information or to enjoy the process. Thus, most of the middle school and high school students who are poor or failing readers could be "left behind" as they continue through school and move into the workplace. This effort seeks to focus both research and educational practice on the "after nine" group – that is, on striving readers.

Data from the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show not only the often-cited fact that 41 percent of fourth grade boys and 35 percent of fourth grade girls read below the basic level, but also reveal disturbing facts about high school youths. For instance, in 8th grade, at a time when all students are expected to be able to acquire information through the reading of textbooks and other materials, 32 percent of boys and 19 percent of girls cannot read at the basic level. In 12th grade, 30 percent of boys and 17 percent of girls cannot read at the basic level. Among Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students, the picture is even more discouraging: 47 percent of Black, 46 percent of Hispanic, and 39 percent of American Indian 8th graders and 43 percent of Black, 36 percent of Hispanic, and 35 percent of American Indian 12th graders read below the basic level.

Even those adolescents who score at the proficient level require continuing instruction, as they are faced with increasingly complex texts to decipher and understand. The 1998 NAEP data also indicated that nearly 60 percent of adolescents can comprehend specific factual information, yet fewer than 5 percent of adolescents were able to extend or elaborate on the meaning of the materials they read. Further, in the 1998 NAEP writing assessment, the data indicated that few adolescents could write effectively with sufficient detail to support main points. Since instruction for adolescents typically focuses on teaching content – science, math, literature, etc. – and does not focus on teaching students how to read and write effectively, students' preparation for advanced study and the workforce will be insufficient.

Approximately 1.4 million students drop out of school between grades 9 and 12. Achievement varies among ethnicities and economic classes, with large differences between whites and Latinos and African Americans. A majority of incoming ninth graders in high-poverty urban schools read two to three years below grade level.

Reading disabilities persist over time – they do not go away. Research has indicated that as many as 74 percent of children with early reading disabilities have reading deficits at follow-up several years later. There is also evidence that some successful early readers develop substantial difficulties with reading at older ages. Thus, research illustrates that that the long-term implications of low literacy levels among pre-adolescents and adolescents are serious.

Many high school graduates enter college unprepared in reading. Approximately 25 percent require remedial reading courses. In community colleges, that number ranges from 40 to 60 percent of freshmen, and 25 percent of these students leave school without graduating. Many drop out because they cannot read well enough to do the course work. About 56 percent of Hispanics, African Americans, and students with disabilities do not finish with a diploma four years after they start.

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Last Modified: 10/16/2007