The purpose of this study, funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Development (NICHD), is to understand the complex relationship between the cognitive and linguistic demands posed by increasingly advanced content area reading and writing tasks and the motivational demands posed by adolescents’ development and exploration of many different pathways to adulthood. Using a range of data collection methods, we hope to develop both a broad and deep perspective on who young people are and what motivates them to persevere or to give up in the face of content literacy challenges. We hope also to examine the contexts that support or inhibit their perseverance so that we can use this information to inform the construction of supportive learning environments and activities within and beyond the Detroit Public Schools and Detroit communities.
Specifically, we seek to examine the influence of peer, family, community, and cultural factors on the development of literacy skills in both struggling and successful adolescent readers and writers in one subset of the Detroit Public Schools. The mixed-methods research design allows us to examine how demographic categories (e.g., gender, ethnicity, race, and social class), school contexts, and cultural practices (a) motivate students to develop particular kinds of reading and writing skills and (b) shape students’ abilities to navigate different school and social tasks using various reading, writing, and communication strategies.
The results of this study will inform research on adolescent development as well as research and teaching in content area literacy. Most important, the study will yield a great deal of important information that can directly and immediately inform content-area literacy teaching and learning in the Detroit Public Schools.
Theoretical and Empirical Rationale
Over the past five years, adolescent literacy development has increasingly becoming a question of interest to federal and local policy makers, to school leaders, to classroom teachers, and to university teacher educators and researchers. Although research on secondary school and adolescent literacy development has been conducted intensively over the past 50 years, it is only within the last five years that legislators and other officials have taken note of the serious reading and writing challenges faced by young people as they move throughout the subject matter areas of middle and high school. Despite the best efforts of elementary school teachers and parents, a number of adolescents struggle with the basic processes of reading and writing. These students find decoding and encoding any kind of text to be a difficult process.
An even greater number of youth, however, have achieved basic reading skills by the time they move into middle and high schools, but have not learned skills and strategies necessary for making sense of the texts of the content areas, texts which become increasingly difficult to read as students advance through the content areas and encounter increasing amounts of text, technical vocabulary, disciplinary discourses, and demands for sophisticated text processing. It is well documented on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) that youth in fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades struggle most with the ability to analyze texts, make or convey inferences from texts, and synthesize ideas across texts (Donahue, Voelkl, Campbell, & Mazzeo, 1999). These high-level reading skills require knowledge of how disciplinary ideas are communicated and how texts in each discipline are constructed. Youth who have not yet learned to read and write with proficiency by the sixth grade find themselves hopelessly lost as they confront the expository texts of science and social studies. The complexity of integrating print and numeric symbols is even more challenging in mathematical literacy tasks, especially as the concepts of mathematics become increasingly abstract. And even the familiar narrative texts of English language arts take a complex turn as youth are asked to analyze narrative structures in new ways. Writing research reports and persuasive essays adds another layer of challenge. Added to each of these cognitive and linguistic challenges posed by the texts of the upper-level content areas is the changing motivation of the adolescent. As young people become more independent and able to traverse different social settings, they often find themselves unmotivated to dig deeply into subject matter learning.
The challenge young people experience in reading and writing complex texts is exacerbated by the demand for independent reading and writing often made by secondary school content teachers. Secondary school teachers expect their students to read independently for several reasons. One is that secondary teachers ask students to read and write independently because they do not see themselves as teachers of literacy, but as purveyors of content. They expect students to have acquired the necessary reading skills for making sense of complex text, not recognizing the new demands that such texts pose for novice readers in the content area. Many content area teachers also feel pressured to cover their content. As a result of their belief systems and the pressure they feel, many secondary teachers do not believe that they have the time to devote to helping students learn strategies for working through challenging texts.
In addition, many secondary teachers believe that it is their responsibility to prepare their students for independent learning required in post-secondary education. Rather than developing that independence by developing strategic reading skills, many secondary school teachers try to build independent habits of mind and practice in their students by requiring students to read excessive amounts of texts on their own. The intention is wise, but students are rarely equipped with the knowledge of the content area, the complex text processing skills, and, often, the motivation and interest necessary to be independent readers in the content areas. Consequently, many middle and secondary school students and teachers alike become disenchanted with the idea that reading and writing texts can be useful aspects of learning in the content areas. Teachers, in frustration, stop asking students to read and write texts; students, when asked, either refuse or struggle through with weak comprehension.
In sum, teaching and learning literacy in the content areas of the middle and high school are difficult tasks. Educators of all types (classroom teachers, teacher educators, researchers, administrators, policy makers) stand to benefit from the in-depth study of what motivates young people to engage in different kinds of literate practice and of how their motivations, beliefs about their skills, expectancies for success, and contexts of support in and out of school correlate to their achievement in school. We propose to study these aspects of adolescent literacy and to use our findings to support DPS teachers and administrators in enhancing literacy education for all adolescents. Our work will also provide a national and international model that will inform state and federal literacy policy and literacy theory development. We see this as part of an important partnership between the Detroit Public Schools and the University of Michigan to lead the way in improving adolescent literacy practice at many levels.