Adolescent Literacy

Welcome to our adolescent literacy page! This Wiki is a collaborative project of students from various sections of LIS 506 in the Fall semester of 2011.
It was created to help interested professionals explore the issues surrounding adolescent literacy. Feel free to read the whole page or to use the table of contents to jump to specific sections.


Since 1997 Reading Today has published an annual article that lists topics related to literacy on a scale ranging from extremely hot to extremely cold based on feedback from literacy leaders from around the United States, Canada, and outside North America (Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, and Barrera 448). According to Jack Cassidy, Corinne Valadez, Sherrye Garrett, and Estanislado Barrera IV, authors of “Adolescent and Adult Literacy: What’s Hot, What’s Not,” adolescent literacy first appeared on the list in 2001 making it a relatively new topic. It became a hot topic in 2006 and has remained a hot topic for the last five years and will likely continue to be considered hot in the future as adolescent literacy continues to receive widespread attention and more research is done on the topic (Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, and Barrera 450).

It is no surprise that adolescent literacy has become a hot topic. In 2010 the Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy reported that “adolescent literacy [is] the cornerstone of the education reform movement” and concluded that “adolescents need a higher level of literacy than ever before, both for college-readiness and employment in the new global knowledge economy” (Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, and Barrera 451). Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education emphasized the importance of adolescent literacy by suggesting that “reading ability is a key predictor of achievement in mathematics and science, and the global information economy requires today’s American youth to have far more advanced literacy skills than those required by any previous generation” (Pitcher, Martinez, Dicembre, Fewster, and McCormick 636). However, adolescents do not seem to be gaining the literacy skills they need to succeed in today’s world which fuels interest in and concerns about adolescent literacy.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress and American College Testing have identified today’s adolescents as “under-literate” (King-Shaver and Hunter 2). It has been reported that “nearly half of high school graduates lack the reading skills needed to pass first-year college courses,” and “only 59 percent of the students tested were deemed ready for college work” (King-Shaver and Hunter 2-3). Furthermore, according to the Reading Next report written for the Carnegie Corporation of New York “more than 8 million students in grades 4-12 are struggling readers; every school day, more than 3,000 students drop out of high school; only 70% of high school students graduate on time with a regular diploma; 53% of high school graduates enroll in remedial courses in postsecondary schools” (qtd. in Santa 466).

Because of these findings and others like them, it is becoming increasingly clear that adolescent literacy is a separate skill set from the basic literacy skills needed to read and write that are taught in early elementary school and the literacy skills that are used in the adult world. Thus far, educators tend to teach students how to read and write until around the fourth grade. Then, they stop teaching students how to read and expect students to begin reading to learn (Ehren 193). According to Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, and Barrera “the emphasis on early reading provides a foundation for the skills needed later, but…a foundation doesn’t make a house, and basic skills don’t make for high-level competence” (450). Just as adolescent literacy is seen as separate from basic literacy skills, it is more than “an embryonic form of reading and writing,” and, therefore, ongoing literacy instruction is necessary beyond the fourth grade to help adolescents master the vast array of social practices which require communication skills (Alvermann 9).


In spite of the growing concern surrounding adolescent literacy and the attention being given to adolescent literacy by educators, researchers, legislators, and others there is not one agreed upon definition of adolescent literacy because there are so many attributes associated with the concept. For example, some believe adolescent literacy only deals with reading (King-Shaver and Hunter 1), others believe that adolescent literacy is a social practice that involves reading and writing and other modes of communication (Alvermann 8), while still others see adolescent literacy as reading and writing as well as being able to manipulate “new media—including non-digitalized multimedia, digitalized multimedia, hypertext or hypermedia” (King-Shaver and Hunter 1-2). While these definitions of adolescent literacy are partially accurate and identify areas researchers are concerned with such as struggling readers, new media and multimodality, and young people’s use of literacy skills in informal vs. academic settings, they provide a fragmented view of what adolescent literacy as a whole really is. In its broadest sense King-Shaver and Hunter define adolescent literacy as:

"The way teenagers make sense of their world. It is how they literally and figuratively use the tools of education combined with what they learn and know from outside the classroom to comprehend and understand the today and, more importantly, the tomorrow of their lives. It includes such diverse yet inclusive skills as being literate in reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and technology. It also includes the facility to learn and be able to explain concepts from various content areas, such as mathematics, social studies, and science. The aspect that unites all of these apparent divergent literacies is the ability of adolescent learners to be self-directed and reflective about their own learning" (2).

There is not one simple definition for adolescent literacy. Rather it is a complex set of skills that need to be taught or acquired beyond the literacy skills taught in elementary school. The two areas of adolescent literacy that researchers seem to dedicate most of their attention to are adolescent literacy as reading, particularly reading comprehension, and adolescent literacy as multimodality and how informal adolescent literacy practices relate to academic adolescent literacy practices.

Important Terms

Academic Literacy
Literacy skills that adolescents learn and use in school and that are “school sanctioned.”
Differentiated Instruction
“Honors every learner’s pursuit of literacy through the teacher’s diagnosing and acting upon the learner’s readiness, interests, and learning style. The teacher creates an inclusive environment through the celebration of diverse avenues to learn content, apply process, produce a product, and grow through assessment” (King-Shaver and Hunter 2).
Informal Literacy
Literacy skills that adolescents learn and use outside of school. These literacy skills are often not recognized in school settings.
“The combination of two or more modes in representation—linguistic (written words), visual, audio, gestural, and spatial” (Mills 35).
New or Online Literacies
“The socially mediated ways of generating meaningful content through multiple modes of representation (e.g., language, imagery, sounds, embodied performances) to produce digital texts (e.g., blogs, wikis, zines, games, personal webpages) for dissemination in cyberspace” (Alvermann 9).

Changing Forms of Literacy

The term "literacy" is no longer limited to reading books. With new technologies emerging every year, the term has come to incorporate digital and media literacy as well. Many young people spend a large amount of their time on the computer playing games, visiting social media sites, or making YouTube videos. As Lisa Tripp discusses in her article titled "Digital Youth, Libraries, and New Media Literacy," the educational benefits of activities such as these are often called into question. She writes, "Although adults frequently view such activities as frivolous or worrisome, there is a growing body of research that calls attention to the value and important of such activities to young people and to the powerful and compelling ways that young people are learning by using digital media and online communication" (329). Because today's society practically demands its citizens to be computer literate, activities that seem "frivolous" such as playing online games can actually aid a child in becoming successful later in life.

In order to be computer literate, youth first and foremost need access to "a variety of technical and social resources, including the time and space to experiment with media in open-ended ways" (Horst et al., 2009; Ito et al., 2009). Both school and public libraries can provide youth with access to computer resources. Studies have shown that young people do indeed take advantage of the computer resources available to them at libraries. In a 2010 national study, it was found that "nearly half of the nation's 14 to 18 year olds reported using a library computer within the past year" (Becker et al., 2010). Researchers also discovered that among youth in households below the federal poverty line, 61% used the public library computers for educational purposes (Becker et al., 2010). As Tripp points out, "These statistics suggest that young people continue to turn to libraries for access to technical resources and opportunities. This presents libraries with a strategic opportunity that can be mobilized to promote young people's engagement with the library, foster new ways of learning with media, and help young people develop and practice new media literacy skills" (329).

Why is it important to promote adolescent literacy?

It is no secret that adolescent literacy is important. According to the Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy “adolescent literacy [is] the cornerstone of the education reform movement” and “adolescents need a higher level of literacy than ever before, both for college-readiness and employment in the new global knowledge economy” (Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, and Barrera 451). The U.S. Department of Education also emphasized the importance of adolescent literacy by suggesting that “reading ability is a key predictor of achievement in mathematics and science, and the global information economy requires today’s American youth to have far more advanced literacy skills than those required by any previous generation” (Pitcher, Martinez, Dicembre, Fewster, and McCormick 636).

Adolescents need strong literacy skills to succeed in college and in the workforce. However, adolescent literacy is also important on a broader level beyond an individual adolescent’s success. Adolescents with poor literacy skills grow into adults with poor literacy skills, and beyond needing strong literacy skills to secure adequate employment, adults generally need strong literacy skills to provide their children with a strong literacy foundation at home and to be active community members. According to Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, and Barrera it is especially important that parents have strong literacy skills because parents are often the first people to expose their children to reading and writing. When children begin school lacking emergent literacy skills they are more likely to fall behind and go through school with low literacy skills allowing the cycle to continue. When adults improve their literacy skills, they also improve their sense of community and become more engaged citizens which helps society as a whole (Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, and Barrera 453). As Greenleaf and Hinchman explain, “all readers have the right to see themselves as ‘thriving, literate, intelligent human beings with contributions to make’” (qtd. in Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, and Barrera 453). Promoting reading and comprehension as well as multimodal literacies work to establish the strong literacy skills that adolescents need to succeed both as adolescents and adults.

While it is true that many young adults are skilled at using the computer and are considered to be computer literate, this is not the case for everyone. As Jenkins et al. has warned, "there is a danger that digital inequities will result in deepening a participation gap, shaping which youth will succeed and which will fall behind (3)." Therefore, because of this potential gap due to the amount or quality available to youth, libraries need to play an important role in promoting digital and media skills.


In Adolescent Literacy: A Position Statement for the Commission on Adolescent Literacy of the International Reading Association (1999), Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, and Rycik detail seven principles for supporting adolescents' literacy growth:
  1. Adolescents deserve access to a wide variety of reading material that they can and want to read.
  2. Adolescents deserve instruction that builds both the skill and desire to read increasingly complex materials.
  3. Adolescents deserve assessment that shows them their strengths as well as their needs and that guides their teachers to design instruction that will best help them grow as readers.
  4. Adolescents deserve expert teachers who model and provide explicit instruction in reading comprehension and study strategies across the curriculum.
  5. Adolescents deserve reading specialists who assist individual students having difficulty learning how to read.
  6. Adolescents deserve teachers who understand the complexities of individual adolescent readers, respect their differences, and respond to their characteristics.
  7. Adolescents deserve homes, communities, and a nation that will support their efforts to achieve advanced levels of literacy and provide the support necessary for them to succeed.
In short, schools and public libraries cannot have successful programs to promote adolescent literacy without having an established system in place. Schools will first need to ensure that they have reading specialists on staff who are trained to assist individual adolescents with reading difficulties. Schools tend to concentrate their reading specialists on developmental literacy in the primary grades, making this a budgeting obstacle that must be overcome. Additionally, schools must have a suitable library facility that carries the materials that students seek. This is easily accomplished by asking students to be part of the selection process, or by monitoring the OPAC search queries. Public libraries also must be receptive to the information-seeking behavior and desires of their adolescent patron base. Communication with the members of this group is key, and may take place in the form of an in-person or online/social networking focus group.

Examples of Programs in Schools and Public Libraries

According to Sharon M. Pitcher et al, authors of "The Literacy Needs of Adolescents in Their Own Words," a successful program will include "more self-selected reading to help students see the benefits of improving reading in something they want to read" (8). Here are examples of programs/lesson plans that promote this idea of self-selection:

1. To promote media and digital literacy, children can assemble in small groups and create original YouTube videos. Allow each group to write their own script, bring in props and costumes, and act out and film the scenes. Edit the video on the computer and then upload to YouTube.

2. Start a drama club where children can adapt their favorite books to the stage. Hold a book talk discussing the novel that will be adapted to the stage before the script writing begins. Students can then write the script, cast the characters, and be on stage crew.

3. Have students create a soundtrack for a book that they have read. Children will select songs that match the book's text and fit in with specific scenes in the story. This promotes literacy by asking students to become fully involved with the text of both a song and a novel.

4. Make time each day for independent reading. Allow children to choose their own books to read. Ask students to type reviews of the books they are reading on the computer and share with their classmates.

5. Set up a Book Buddies program where an older child (middle school or high school) reads with a younger child (elementary school) once a week. Allow them to pick out which books they would like to read together.

Additional program ideas:

Literacy Activities for Day Care and Preschool Settings:

Literacy Activities for Kindergarten:

Literacy Activities for First Grade:

Program Case Study

An example of a successful library program that promotes digital and media literacy can be found at the Chicago Public Library called YouMedia. YouMedia provides a space (both online and physical) for young adults to explore. The physical space is over 5,500 square feet of the library and contains over 100 laptop and desktop computers, high-speed internet access, cameras, a music recording studio, and more. Library staff, called YouMedia mentors, have been hired to create programming based on media resources and youth. A special aspect of YouMedia is the ability for young people to "have the freedom to self-select the pathways they wish to explore" (Lee). The space allows for youth to engage with computers and digital media in different ways. Because of this, "the different areas within YouMedia create a continuum for learning in ways that can change and adapt based on the interests and needs of young people, the skills and expertise of mentors, and the curricular themes and opportunities developed by the Chicago Public Library" (Tripp).

Challenges to Promoting Adolescent Literacy

There are many challenges to promoting adolescent literacy. One of the largest challenges is incorporating comprehension strategies into content areas. Barbara Ehren, author of “Looking Through an Adolescent Literacy Lens at the Narrow View of Reading,” explains that “reading different subjects requires different reading approaches” and that “it is not just a knowledge base in a domain that students need, but facility with the specific discourse used to convey that knowledge” (192).
Carol Santa, author of “A Vision for Adolescent Literacy: Ours or Theirs?” reached a similar conclusion when she stated that “process cannot be separated from content” (489). Teachers need to not only teach students the content area but also model and teach the disciplinary literacies that go along with the content. This will help students gain better comprehension and in turn improve their literacy skills and education. According to Santa this poses a challenge because it requires secondary teachers to “make a philosophical shift in what it means to teach” by teaching process and content not just content (474). This is where one of the challenges lies. As Ehren explains, most secondary teachers consider themselves “subject area teachers” and do not see teaching reading comprehension as part of their role as a teacher (192). Even when secondary teachers do see teaching reading comprehension as part of their role they probably do not have the necessary knowledge skills or training in the strategies needed to incorporate reading comprehension into their curriculum. They may also be reluctant to incorporate anything into their curriculum that may take time away from teaching content that will appear on high stakes tests even if it has the potential to help students learn and gain comprehension skills that would probably help them do better on standardized tests (Ehren 193).

Another challenge to promoting adolescent literacy is that adolescents do not all have the same literacy needs. The range of learners and their skill levels is vast. King-Shaver and Hunter suggest that individualized, differentiated learning plans can help adolescents receive instruction that meets their needs (3). However, creating student-centered differentiated learning plans for each student takes time that many teachers do not have. King-Shaver and Hunter also suggest other ways to engage students which are also associated with differentiated learning and recommended by the National Council of Teachers of English such as providing students with meaningful choices and engaging students with real-world literacy practice. While these suggestions provide quality learning experiences for students, they are also time consuming for teachers and often do not correspond to the content on standardized tests.

There are also challenges associated with incorporating multimodal literacies into the curriculum. According to Kathy Mills, author of “Shrek Meets Vygotsky: Rethinking Adolescents’ Multimodal Literacy Practices in Schools,” people tend to think that all adolescents today are “digital natives.” However, this is not the case. Adolescents are not all digital natives to the same extent because there are differences in the types of multimodal and digital practices across social groups. Therefore, although many teachers assume that adolescents are learning multimodal literacy skills outside of school and they do not need to teach them, teachers do in fact need to promote multimodal literacies so they can help the digital novices catch up to the digital natives. Teachers also have a responsibility to provide guidance and to push students beyond the known to the new so students can achieve more than what they could on their own (Mills). However, there are many obstacles to incorporating multimodal literacies into the curriculum. Many teachers do not feel confident using multimodal literacies and do not feel that they are in a position to teach skills they do not feel confident with to students. There are also limits to what schools can provide for students because of Internet filters and privacy rules.

Additional Resources

All About Adolescent Literacy. Provides resources for all who work to promote adolescent literacy.

Beers, G. Kylene, Robert E. Probst, and Linda Rief. Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007. Print. Captures a discussion between 28 of most read educators about the present and future of teaching literacy.

Biancarosa, Gina, and Catherine Snow. Reading Next—A Vision for Action and Research in Middle School and High School Literacy: A Report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2006. Print. Reviews the research on adolescent literacy and explaines specific strategies for improving adolescent literacy.

Finders, Margaret J., Just Girls: Hidden Literacies and Life in Junior High. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997. Print. Explores the literacies that adolescent girls use inside of and outside of school.

Fisher, Douglas, and Nancy Frey. Improving Adolescent Literacy: Content Area Strategies at Work. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill/Prentice Hall, 2008. Print. Provides strategies and tools for helping students master the literacy and comprehension of content area texts.

Moore, David W., Thomas Bean, Deanna Birdyshaw, and James A. Rycik. Adolescent Literacy: A Position Statement for the Commission on Adolescent Literacy of the International Reading Association. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1999. Print. Explains the situation surrounding adolescent literacy and explains principles for supporting adolescents' literacy growth.

Morgan, Michelle F. Meeting the Challenge of Limited Literacy Resources for Adolescents and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities. Great Britain: British Journal of Special Education, 2008. Print. Identifies the literacy needs of adolescents and adults with intellectual disabilities based upon findings from an action research investigation.

Smith, Michael W., and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. “Reading Don’t Fix no Chevys”: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002. Print. Explores the literacies that adolescent boys use inside of and outside of school.

Tovani, Cris. I Read It, but I Don't Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2000. Print. Engaging account of how teachers can help adolescents develop their comprehension skills.


Alvermann, Donna E. “Why Bother Theorizing Adolescents’ Online Literacies for Classroom Practice and Research?” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52.1 (Sept. 2008): 8-19. Print.

Cassidy, Jack, Corinne Montalvo Valadez, Sherrye Dee Garrett, and Estanislado S. Barrera IV. “Adolescent and Adult Literacy: What’s Hot, What’s Not.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53.6 (March 2010): 448-456. Print.

Ehren, Barbara J. “Looking Through an Adolescent Literacy Lens at the Narrow View of Reading.” Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 40 (April 2009): 192-195. Print.

Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., boyd, d., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., et al. (2009). "Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media." Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robinson, A. (2006). "Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century." Chicago: The MacArthur Foundation.

King-Shaver, Barbara, and Alyce Hunter. "Adolescent Literacy and Differentiated Instruction." Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009. Print.

Lee, A. "YouMedia: A new vision for learning." DMLcentral. 2010. Retrieved from

Mills, Kathy A. “Shrek Meets Vygotsky: Rethinking Adolescents’ Multimodal Literacy Practices in Schools.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54.1 (Sept. 2010): 35-45. Print.

Moore, David W., et at., "Adolescent Literacy: A Position Statement for the Commission on Adolescent Literacy for the International Reading Association." Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1999. Print.

Pitcher, Sharon M., Gilda Martinez, Elizabeth A. Dicembre, Darlene Fewster, and Montana K. McCormick. “The Literacy Needs of Adolescents in Their Own Words.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53.8 (May 2010): 638-645. Print.

Santa, Carol M. “A Vision for Adolescent Literacy: Ours or Theirs?” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 49.6 (March 2006): 466-476. Print.

Tripp, Lisa. "Digital Youth, Libraries, and New Media Literacy." The Reference Librarian. 52.4 (2011). 329-341. Print.
iterate, intelligent human beings with contributions to make’” (qtd. in Cassidy, Valadez, Garrett, and Barrera 453). Promoting reading and comprehension as well as multimodal literacies work to establish th