Adolescent Literacy: Learning and Understanding Content

Summary :

Learning to read—amazing as it is to small children and their parents—is one thing. Reading to learn, explains Susan Goldman of the University of Illinois at Chicago, is quite another. Are today’s students able to use reading and writing to acquire knowledge, solve problems, and make decisions in academic, personal, and professional arenas? Do they have the literacy skills necessary to meet the demands of the twenty-first century? To answer these questions, Goldman describes the increasingly complex comprehension, reasoning skills, and knowledge that students need as they progress through school and surveys what researchers and educators know about how to teach those skills.

Successfully reading to learn requires the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information from multiple sources, Goldman writes. Effective readers must be able to apply different knowledge, reading, and reasoning processes to different types of content, from fiction to history and science, to news accounts and user manuals. They must assess sources of information for relevance, reliability, impartiality, and completeness. And they must connect information across multiple sources. In short, successful readers must not only use general reading skills but also pay close attention to discipline-specific processes.

Goldman reviews the evidence on three different instructional approaches to reading to learn: general comprehension strategies, classroom discussion, and disciplinary content instruction. She argues that building the literacy skills necessary for U.S. students to read comprehensively and critically and to learn content in a variety of disciplines should be a primary responsibility for all of the nation’s teachers. But outside of English, few subject-area teachers are aware of the need to teach subject-area reading comprehension skills, nor have they had opportunities to learn them themselves. Building the capacity of all teachers to meet the literacy needs of today’s students requires long-term investment and commitment from the education community as well as society as a whole.