Adolescent Literacy and Achievement: Widening the Path to Success

Research and Action Report Fall/Winter 2007

by Michelle Porche, Ed.D., and Stephanie Harris, M.A.


Is Literacy Enough?, which we co-authored with Catherine Snow and Patton Tabors, we explore the continuities and discontinuities of early literacy skills on adolescent achievement. In this book, we describe the original 83 low-income students who began participating in the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development at the age of 3, and we conclude with the outcomes for the 47 participants who continued in the study until they reached young adulthood. When this study began, Dr. Snow, the Principal Investigator, set a groundbreaking path into the importance of language as a foundation of early literacy. Results from this study have influenced conceptual and practical approaches to early reading instruction, helping to set national standards. At the end of the 16-year study many hypotheses were borne out, even as new questions were generated about our most vulnerable children.

We hypothesized that supportive learning environments with opportunities for exposure to rich language use both at home and at school were essential to the development of early skills in word recognition, academic language, and vocabulary. Secondly, we hypothesized that those skills would be predictive of later comprehension skills. We found support for both of these hypotheses. But our most striking finding was the high degree of continuity between standardized literacy assessments from elementary through high school, which in some cases showed a stark contrast with actual school achievement as measured in GPA, retention in grade, and disciplinary actions.

While many students who started out well in elementary school—usually the result of strong home and school support—continued to do well throughout high school, and others who began school at a disadvantage to their classmates fell further and further behind, we also saw a third group of students who possessed exemplary literacy skills but who were failing in school. Interestingly, what we were seeing in our research was mirrored in results from other studies around the country.

Although the most recent Nation’s Report Card shows modest progress in elementary reading scores, most notably in our home state of Massachusetts, the report also shows a decline for middle school students’ progress. At this particular crossroad our nation is mired in a chokehold of accountability and standardized testing. Legislation rests on the premise that if every child can pass proficiency in reading we will have fixed our broken educational system. This focus on literacy is necessary and essential, but is it sufficient for change when drop-out rates remain alarmingly high and our older students are far behind students in other industrialized countries in reading, math, and science? As researchers dedicated to this project for over a decade we, too, placed a great deal of emphasis on the power of literacy as a transformative opportunity for a new generation of children in the 21st century. We still believe in this power, but also have a more realistic view of the many factors that influence achievement including social and emotional variables that we, as a nation, must also pay attention to in order to remediate our educational system.

While we were initially encouraged by the evidence of strong literacy skills among students in our study, we became concerned as we witnessed a decline in school engagement for some of our strongest performers who clearly were capable of doing well. These students had started off strong, but began to show signs of significant failure in middle school, yet not because of ability. Some of our strongest students—who happened to be boys in this study—were the ones dropping out of school, being retained in grade, or being expelled. Why were these seemingly well-equipped students falling apart?

As our students moved into middle school they encountered a terrific number of challenges at home and at school that were not related to academics. Students were struggling due to a multitude of factors including school transitions, harassment at school, difficulties with peer relationships, neighborhood violence, domestic violence in the home, divorce, traumatic loss, teen pregnancy, social-emotional difficulties, identity, motivation, and lack of support from overworked school personnel. Qualitative case studies in the book describe these factors in greater detail, in combination with longitudinal statistical analyses charting growth in literacy skills over time. After taking a closer look at some of these factors we began to understand that for high-risk adolescents unfortunately the path to academic success was much narrower than the path to failure.

So how can we widen that path to success? How can we ensure that more students complete their high school education? We were left with these new questions as we wrapped up our research. The list of risk factors described in our study seems daunting but there are things that parents, educators, researchers, and policy makers can do that would help make a difference in these students’ lives. In fact, by taking a look at some of the students who were able to successfully navigate those challenges and go on to college, we gained insight on success. Some of these students who were placed in special education or were enrolled in vocational programs reported being very satisfied with school, having higher motivation than other students in the sample, and reporting more positive attitudes about school. Why was this so? Perhaps the smaller class sizes enabled them to develop closer relationships with their teachers, which helped them feel more connected. In contrast, some of our participants had to persevere through competitive academic programs with relatively little support from school personnel. These students who remained engaged in school described the ways that parents and other important adults in their lives helped them set goals and plan for their educational futures.

There are a growing number of efforts designed to improve instructional practices for adolescent literacy. Stimulating reading instruction needs to be provided to assist students in staying motivated so they continue to want to read to learn once they have learned to read. But to be most effective, these efforts must exist within a greater context of social and emotional support for adolescents. A move towards smaller schools is one example of a strategy to provide more individualized instructional time for each student. Additional time and attention may have a direct effect on achievement but an indirect effect as well, in that it fosters stronger relationships between students and teachers and may provide opportunity for teachers to help address other stresses in a student’s life that interfere with learning.

In a new direction of research at the Wellesley Centers for Women, much driven by witnessing the patterns of academic discontinuity for adolescents in this study, we focus on learning more about social and emotional risk factors and how those factors are related to learning in general and literacy in particular. Further, we are beginning to explore the ways that teachers can augment their instructional skills with greater knowledge of how these other risk factors influence adolescent development and learning.

Data from the Home-School Study allowed us to hear in the students’ own words how difficult it is for them to focus attention on academic tasks when distracted by stressful situations outside of school. Now, in new research we are also beginning to hear how middle school teachers recognize the way stressful events in adolescents’ lives impede classroom learning, as well as teachers’ frustrations with limitations in being able to attend to issues beyond preparation for standardized testing.

Next steps are recognizing ways to combine targeted academic instruction with integrated strategies for providing socio-emotional support in coordination with school support services, thereby making explicit links between school mental health and achievement. Many students succeed despite adversity, and we highlight these stories in the book as well.

Improvements in literacy instruction are working to help keep younger children from falling behind. But much work needs to be done to develop school-based interventions in areas not traditionally thought of as critical to academic achievement so that adolescents truly have the support they need to succeed.

Michelle Porche, Ed.D. is a senior research scientist and Stephanie Harris, M.A. is a research associate at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW). Their book, Is Literacy Enough? Pathways to Academic Success for Adolescents, was published earlier this year by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. and is available through the WCW Publications office. Their current evaluation initiatives include the Collaborative Language and Literacy Instruction Project (CLLIP) and Boston Ready: Universal Access to Professional Development for Early Childhood Educators. Michelle Porche’s additional research projects include Trauma and Literacy; Community Dialogue and Needs Assessment for Addressing Traumatic Stress among Resettled Refugee Youth in New Hampshire; Success in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (SISTEM); and Adolescent Mixed-Ancestry Identity: A Measurement Pilot.