April 16, 2002 Feature

Getting Into the Adolescent Literacy Game

I love basketball. I am a fan of long standing, having attended St. John's University in its basketball heyday when Lou Carneseca was still an assistant coach. I watch games at all levels, from the NBA to the YMCA league where 5-year-olds play with their shorts at their ankles.

My teenage son has taught me a lot about the game from a player's perspective, which is what got me thinking about basketball, literacy, and the speech-language pathologist. Getting into the game of basketball provides a great metaphor for our assuming new and expanded roles with literacy. The metaphor is especially useful when applied to adolescent literacy, an arena in which we need all the help we can get to step up and make significant contributions as professionals.

Defining the "Game" of Adolescent Literacy

Basketball is an increasingly popular sport at all levels of play, from the well-organized professional game with teams of highly paid athletes using brand-name equipment to the local playground pick-up game with teams made up of enthusiasts hanging around the court waiting for available hoops. Right now, adolescent literacy seems more like a pick-up game than a well-structured team effort.

This analogy is appropriate given the sporadic nature of literacy efforts in secondary schools—but, before we can discuss the subject, it is important to define "adolescent literacy." When most people talk about literacy, they are addressing reading and writing. My definition is more comprehensive. It refers to the listening and speaking—as well as reading and writing—skills and strategies teenagers need to participate fully in society, including the microcosm that is school.

Two different aspects of adolescent literacy are germane: literacy acquisition involving the developmental growth in language expected of all adolescents as they mature, and literacy acquisition by struggling students, that is, those who have not yet acquired rudimentary skills and strategies appropriate to their grade level. A statement by the International Reading Association's Commission on Adolescent Literacy puts into perspective the importance of literacy to this age group:

Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imaginations so they can create the world of the future.

Struggling to Stay in the Game

The fact that large numbers of adolescents have difficulties with reading and writing is no secret. Although data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress report cards are questioned by some as true indicators of adolescents' literacy status, they can at least orient us to the problem. The 1998 Reading Report Card indicated that 26% of eighth graders and 23% of twelfth graders were below a basic level in reading, with 67% of eighth graders and 60% of twelfth graders below a proficient level. The 1998 Writing Report Card was indicative of problems in written expression as well, with 16% of eighth graders and 22% of twelfth graders below a basic level, and 73% of eighth graders and 78% of twelfth graders at or below a proficient level.

Considering the reality of reading and writing difficulties in adolescents, it would be logical to assume that an all-out effort is underway across our nation to enhance literacy with this group. Such is not the case. Other than the typical offerings of language arts classes in middle schools and English classes in high schools, literacy for struggling students is commonly not addressed in organized ways, especially at the high school level. At some schools, unless students qualify for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, there are no programs to assist them.

Why this lack of attention to struggling readers and writers at the secondary level? Although myriad reasons account for this complex state of affairs in specific places, one factor is prominent across the board. Most educators in secondary schools do not regard literacy as a domain to address specifically, other than in the context of language arts or English classes. Secondary teachers express sentiments like: "It's not my job to teach reading and writing; teachers at the elementary school level should have taught those skills" and "I am responsible to teach the content of my subject; I don't have the time to teach literacy too."

It is not surprising that secondary-level teachers focus on content acquisition, given the pressure on them to ensure that students master a rigorous curriculum. What is surprising is that they may not accept responsibility to help students whose reading and writing deficiencies inhibit academic learning. Without essential listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills, students will not be able to achieve high standards in mathematics, science, social studies, and the humanities. For example, students in middle and high schools are required to learn academic subjects by reading large amounts of material from textbooks. Those who cannot read well will have major difficulty mastering the content of their classes. School failure often results.

Following the basketball metaphor, administrators in secondary schools need to replace the current pick-up game of catch-as-catch-can services to struggling readers and writers with well-organized teams of professionals to play in this adolescent literacy game. Secondary educators need to attend in more structured and complete ways to this important venue for young people. How can SLPs participate in this game? What should we know about playing the game?

Starters and Bench Players

An organized basketball team has players who are starters. They are usually the best, most active members of the team who begin each game and play for much of it. Then there's "the bench," consisting of the rest of the team members who sit on the sidelines ready to be called into the game. These players have varying skill levels. Some are just as skilled as the starters; they just haven't been called upon to do much playing yet. They may be rookies who need more experience. Others may need more practice to play at a level required to contribute significantly to the game. In either case, a bench player has to be ready when called upon to get out on the floor and contribute to a win for the team. The aspiration of any bench player is to become a starter.

SLPs have been on the bench as far as adolescent literacy goes. Given the status of adolescent literacy, one could argue that everyone in secondary schools is sitting on the bench waiting for the professional game to start. However, even when schools are providing support for struggling readers and writers, it would be unusual for SLPs to be in the starting lineup. Suggesting to SLPs that they assume new or expanded roles with adolescent literacy carries with it two types of blocks. First, for most SLPs, involvement in reading and writing is a new direction, one they may be venturing into with some hesitation. Second, speech-language services to adolescents are not high on the priority list for some school districts.

As bench players, SLPs have many of the skills needed to make a contribution to the game but haven't stepped up their level of play to warrant participation as starters. When middle and high school students are struggling with reading and writing, it is rare for secondary educators to consider the SLP as a source of information and assistance. Many SLPs would not think of themselves in this role and would say that they need more knowledge in written language than they typically receive in their professional preparation programs. However, we should not underestimate the contribution that can be made with the typical knowledge and skills that SLPs possess in language, its development, and disorders. We can still get in the game.

Team Play

As in any team sport, playing basketball as a coordinated body is essential to success in the game. However, there are different positions on the team, each with a variety of plays to learn. One player alone does not have the skills to cover all positions. Some are better ball handlers than others, some can rebound, others are good at jump shots, and others play their best under the basket. In fact, one of the most valuable members of the team, the point guard, isn't typically the player who scores the most points. Her job, however, is to get the ball where it needs to be and to assist other team members to score points. What is important is that the team works together in doing all the jobs that need to be done—getting the ball down the court, blocking, screening, passing, and shooting according to the game plan.

If we acknowledge that SLPs may not typically have all the skills needed for the game of adolescent literacy, we also should note that the fundamental knowledge and skills we have regarding language, its development, and its disorders provide the keys to success in reading and writing skill acquisition. This background puts us in a good position to contribute to the team. We may not be able to do everything that needs to be done, but that's not the point. It is not our job on the adolescent literacy team to do everything. In fact, our position may be more tenable and palatable if we use our specific expertise wisely and differentiate our roles from those of colleagues.

What can SLPs do that we are uniquely qualified to do? We can attend to written as well as spoken language for students on existing caseloads. We can look for underlying language problems with students who experience problems with reading and writing. We can assist teachers in making the modifications needed for students with literacy problems who are struggling in academic classes. We can advise teachers about what to do to enhance literacy acquisition with students not currently eligible for any programs who are "falling through the cracks." This notion of role differentiation for SLPs can allay the concerns of practitioners about becoming classroom teachers or reading specialists.

Offense/Defense

Unlike the game of football, in which players usually play on either an offensive or defensive squad, basketball players have to contribute to both offense and defense. They are sometimes called upon to score points in the other goal and at other times to defend their own goal. The use of this aspect of the game in the metaphor should not be interpreted as having to act aggressively or defensively in human interaction terms as a member of the adolescent literacy team. What applies is the responsive aspect of the defensive game—that is, being aware of the opposition and adjusting play accordingly. This defensive posture requires being sensitive to the potential barriers operating in middle, junior, and high schools. It includes knowing the requirements of the secondary setting, the realities confronting teachers and students, the literacy problems encountered by adolescents, and the difficult curriculum standards students must meet to be successful.

The offensive aspect of the game can be applied to taking the initiative—assuming leadership roles to exert influence on others—and not sitting back waiting for others to make plays. Leadership is needed to promote awareness of literacy issues in secondary schools and to foster appropriate delivery of services to students having difficulties in these areas. A byproduct of leadership roles is that others will be informed about what SLPs know and can do and, as such, these roles have marketing value.

Leadership may include providing the following: technical assistance to teachers to assist them in meeting the needs of students with literacy problems; professional development to assume some responsibility for assisting colleagues in expanding their knowledge base and repertoire of language techniques; policy development to influence the course of actions taken at local, state, and national levels; curriculum development to create more language-sensitive curriculum for middle, junior, and high school students; and advocacy to speak on behalf of adolescents who need academic and related support.

Playing Time/Stamina

The best players on the basketball team are called upon to play often, just as SLPs have to be available for sufficient time when called upon to play the game of adolescent literacy. In many school districts, resource priorities are directed toward younger children, and SLPs may serve middle, junior, and high schools only one day a week, if that. To make a significant contribution to adolescent literacy, SLPs have to be assigned to secondary schools much more frequently. Full-time services should be the goal.

It is also true that more playing time requires greater stamina. Effective players need staying power. Efforts directed toward adolescent literacy may not reap results immediately. It is essential that SLPs on the team sustain efforts at designing and delivering adolescent literacy services at middle, junior, and high schools. It will take hard work to create programs that make a real difference in the lives of adolescents. Intervention should be sensitive to setting demands; target literacy skills and strategies; attend to linguistic, metalinguistic, and metacognitive underpinnings; use a strategic approach; promote generalization to content classes; and facilitate student self-management. Stamina also requires shaking off fouls committed by others. Sometimes the playing gets rough!

Scoring

In the game of basketball, no matter how talented the players are or how successful individual plays may be, the bottom line is scoring. It is crucial that SLPs focus on final outcomes when working with adolescent language. The emphasis has to be on whether or not adolescents are becoming more literate in their academic classes and other settings, not whether they are getting better in treatment. This view requires that SLPs think beyond IEP goals that deal only with discrete language skills to more of a focus on academic, social, and vocational outcomes as a result of the work they do.

The type of scoring that captures the attention of secondary educators is the performance of adolescents on high-stakes assessment tests. Whether we like it or not, these tests are viewed as indicators of students' abilities to meet high academic standards. SLPs have to be aware of the skills and strategies needed by adolescents to perform well on these tests and need to be conversant with their colleagues about the results. They also have to be able to translate student performance into specific recommendations for intervention.

Starting in the Game

Whether you are employed in the schools or in other settings, if you are interested in school-age youngsters you are needed on the adolescent literacy team. There is nothing more challenging, yet entertaining, than working with adolescents. Although SLPs have a long history of intervening at early stages of language disorder, we now know that language problems often persist into adolescence and young adulthood and contribute to academic failure. We cannot ignore these young people. Now that we have a greater understanding of the relationship between spoken and written language, we cannot justify focusing our attention exclusively on spoken language. We have to address literacy defined in its broadest sense of listening, speaking, reading, and writing if we are to help teenagers become successful. Now is a good time to seek a starting spot on the adolescent literacy team and become a "go to" professional.

Barbara J. Ehren, is currently a research associate with the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, which focuses on struggling adolescents. She has spent half her career in the schools in various capacities. Her primary interest is collaborative efforts in the schools to promote literacy acquisition and academic learning for all young people, but her first love is adolescent literacy. Contact her by email at Libby23@aol.com.

cite as: Ehren, B. J. (2002, April 16). Getting Into the Adolescent Literacy Game. The ASHA Leader.

  

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