Monday, January 12, 2015


Adolescent Literacy Flim-Flam

Will Fitzhugh

The Concord Review

There is no question that lots of people around the nation are concerned about the literacy of American adolescents. They must be worried about the ability of our students to read and write, one would assume. It might also seem reasonable to take for granted that professionals interested in teen skills in reading books and writing papers would give close attention to those students who are now reading a fair amount of nonfiction and writing really exemplary research papers at the high school level.

At this point, expectations need to be altered a bit. Surely coaches of Adolescent Sports have a tremendous fascination with the best teen athletes in the country. There are lots of prizes and even scholarships for high school students who perform very well in football, soccer, basketball, baseball, etc., and there are even college scholarships for good teen cheerleaders. We might think it odd if all high school coaches cared about was physical education classes and even in those, only those student/athletes who were most un-coordinated and incompetent. Not that it is unimportant to worry about teens who are overweight and cannot take part in sports, but nevertheless, coaches tend to focus on the best athletes, and colleges and the society at large seem to think that is fine for them to do, and is even their job, some would say.

But when it comes to students who read well and write good term papers, the Literacy Community has no interest in them. It is only able to focus on the illiterate and incompetent among Adolescents, and their professional peers seem to think that is fine for them to do, and is even their real job. And it surely is important for them to help those who need help. They should do research and develop curricula and programs to help teens become more literate. They have been doing this for many decades, and yet more than a million of our high school graduates each and every year are in remedial (non-credit) courses when they are “admitted” (conditionally) to colleges around the country.

Perhaps the current approach to literacy training for young people might deserve a second look. The Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed college professors, 90% of whom reported that they thought the freshmen in their classes were not very well prepared in reading, doing research, or writing term papers. Their high school teachers had thought they were well prepared, but college professors didn’t see it that way.

No doubt many of those students had the benefit of the Adolescent Literacy Initiatives of, National Council of Teachers of English, National Writing Project, Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), Alliance for Excellent Education, Partnership for Reading, National Adolescent Literacy Coalition, Learning Point Associates, Education Development Center, Council of Chief State School Officers, Scholastic, Adolescent Literacy Coaching Project (ALCP), National Governors’ Association, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Adolescent Literacy Research Network, Adolescent Literacy Support Project, WGBH Adolescent Literacy website, and the International Reading Association, not to mention the many state and local literacy programs, and yet our students’ literacy still leaves a lot to be desired, even if they can graduate from high school.

To me it seems that, unlike coaches, the literacy pros are almost allergic to good academic work in reading and writing by our teens. I am not really sure why that would be the case, but in the last 27 years of working with exemplary secondary students of history from 46 states and 40 other countries, I have not found one single Literacy Organization or Literacy Program which had the slightest interest in their first-rate work, which I have been privileged to publish in 103 issues of The Concord Review so far. They may have heard about it, but they don’t want to know about it, as far as I can tell.

It does seem foolish to me, that if they truly want to improve the reading and writing of adolescents, they don’t take a tiny bit of interest in exemplary reading and writing at the high school level, and not only in the students’ work, but even perhaps in the work of the teachers who guided them to that level of excellence, just as high school coaches are interested in the best athletes and usually in their coaches as well.

They could still spend the bulk of their time on grants given them to do “meta-analyses” of Literacy Strategies and the like, but it seems really stupid not to glance once or twice at very good written work by our most diligent teens (the Literate Adolescents).

Of course, I am biased. I believe that showing teachers and students the best term papers I can find will inspire them to try to reach for more success in literacy, and some of my authors agree with me: e.g. “When a former history teacher first lent me a copy of The Concord Review, I was inspired by the careful scholarship crafted by other young people. Although I have always loved history passionately, I was used to writing history papers that were essentially glorified book reports...As I began to research the Ladies’ Land League, I looked to The Concord Review for guidance on how to approach my task...In short, I would like to thank you not only for publishing my essay, but for motivating me to develop a deeper understanding of history. I hope that The Concord Review will continue to fascinate, challenge and inspire young historians for years to come.” Emma Curran Donnelly Hulse, Columbia Class of 2009; North Central High School (IN) Class of 2005......“The opportunity that The Concord Review presented drove me to rewrite and revise my paper to emulate its high standards. Your journal truly provides an extraordinary opportunity and positive motivation for high school students to undertake extensive research and academic writing, experiences that ease the transition from high school to college.” Pamela Ban, Harvard Class of 2012; Thomas Worthington High School (OH) Class of 2008...

But what do they know? They are just some of those literate adolescents in whom the Professional Adolescent Literacy Community seems to have no interest.

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