National Writing Project

Book Review: Bridging the Literacy Achievement Gap Grades 4-12, edited by Dorothy S. Strickland and Donna E. Alvermann

By: Harriet Williams
Date: February 2007

Summary: Williams reviews this book, edited by Dorothy S. Strickland and Donna E. Alvermann, which surveys issues, research and ways to address the achievement gap between White students and students of color.

 

New York: Teachers College Press, 2004.
304 pages.
Paperback: $24.95
Cloth: $52.00

In only a few decades, there will be no racial or ethnic majority group in the United States, but collectively people of color will constitute the majority in both the electorate and the workforce. Unfortunately, our schools have established a grim track record in serving this segment of the population. Despite educators' and policymakers' efforts during the past quarter-century, students who are African American or Latino continue to post reading and writing scores that lag behind those of White students on standardized tests, and these problems become especially acute when the students come from families who are poor.

Surveys of student achievement by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) between 1973 and 1999 showed "a persistent though slightly narrowing gap between White and Black students and between White and Hispanic fourth graders. . . . [A]t grades 8 and 12, no significant change in either gap was seen across the assessment years" (6). Overall, NAEP results for reading in 2002 were "not encouraging" as the gaps between students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds continue to be "of concern" (6).

As Ronald Ferguson of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government argues, "It is no exaggeration to say that failure to raise achievement among Black and Brown children may weaken the economic, political, and social stability of the nation. As never before, closing this gap is in everyone's interest" (vii). In a thoughtful and readable new text funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Bridging the Literacy Achievement Gap Grades 4–12, editors Dorothy S. Strickland and Donna Alvermann "harness the efforts of some of the best and more experienced minds at work on these issues" (11). Although they are not the primary audience for this collection, writing project teachers, some of the best and most experienced minds in our classrooms, should familiarize themselves with the issues and promising practices detailed in this book.

The book, which is an excellent resource for educators who want to change the status quo, is divided into three parts: the introduction gives an overview of the issues and problems; Part I describes the best research on possible causes of the existing gap; and Part II offers detailed case studies of approaches that have proven effective in various contexts. The authors suggest that readers approach the text as a "dialogue between the issues and the promising solutions" (11). This dialogue, featuring the voices of some of the most accomplished researchers in literacy studies as well as teachers who have successfully collaborated to start solving the problem of the literacy gap, should be read by all teachers, administrators, and policymakers who plan to enter into their own local dialogues in order to help those who struggle to read in school.

The Carnegie Foundation and the NWP National Reading Initiative

The Carnegie Foundation, which granted the funds to assist the editors in compiling this text, has had a long-term interest in adolescent literacy and in equalizing educational opportunities. This is an interest shared by the National Writing Project, which also received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to help support its National Reading Initiative (NRI). The NRI effort aims to use the existing network of NWP sites to produce resources focused on improving reading comprehension. Further, NRI organizes high-quality professional development programs for teachers of grades 4–12 that emphasize informational texts and expository writing and connect these to the teaching of writing.

Introduction: Knowledge Bases and Expectations

Strickland and Alvermann's 13-page introduction, "Learning and Teaching Literacy in Grades 4–12: Issues and Challenges," provides a coherent summary of many of the frames and knowledge bases regarding reading and literacy that are informing the NRI work. Primary among these is a perspective on youth culture that recognizes that "school literacy, though important, is but one of the literacies that young people use daily" (2). Much of what is known about exemplary literacy instruction for preadolescents and adolescents assumes an equal playing field, "one in which attention is duly focused on constructing meaning from and with texts of various kinds by applying common background knowledge" (2). Yet the increasing diversity of students in our schools today makes fallacious the assumption that students share "common background knowledge."

The authors define three key expectations for adolescent literacy learners and explain how these expectations may or may not play out for different subgroups of students: (1) students will use effective text-processing skills and strategies; (2) they will be motivated and engaged; and (3) they will adopt normative ways of reading and writing.

Failure to meet these expectations would be problematic for any adolescent, but when such failures are compounded by issues of poverty, diversity of home and linguistic backgrounds, and low-quality literacy instruction, the results show up in the literacy achievement gap reported by NAEP and others.

Part I: Research

Part I, "Understanding the Literacy Achievement Gap: Learners and Contexts," explores the research on key factors thought to contribute to the achievement gap. This wealth of information from some of the nation's top researchers has not been collected and presented as coherently before. Taken together, the pieces in Part I provide, in 80 readable pages, a framework for beginning to understand the immensely complicated relationship between learners and the contexts in which they learn. Robert Jimenez writes about teaching English language learners; Deborah Hicks focuses on White poverty in an Appalachian community; Carol Lee describes the characteristics of learning environments that promote achievement among African American adolescents, and Don Deshler, Jean Schumaker, and Susan Woodruff examine literacy concerns among special- needs students.

Teacher-researchers and inquiry groups will appreciate the fact that each of these chapters is tailored to a very specific context so that readers can choose to study and discuss those concerns that are particularly pressing at their sites and schools.

Two other important chapters in Part I include an overview by Timothy Shanahan of structures and reforms proven to improve secondary reading achievement and an analysis by noted researcher Allen Wigfield of the research on student motivation to read in middle and high school. The chapter on motivation alone makes this volume a must-buy for writing project site libraries: Wigfield marshals information from 15 psychological research studies to make specific recommendations for fostering increased motivation by (1) building students' reading successes, (2) focusing on improvement rather than comparison, and (3) providing greater student choice. Because the research literature on motivation is so extensive as to be almost overwhelming for teachers who are pressed for time, Wigfield has performed a significant service by culling the field to the best of recent research and providing tailored suggestions for further reading. This 12-page chapter would provide an excellent framework for a study group of teacher-consultants who want to think seriously about their own inquiry into improving adolescents' motivation to read.

Part II: Promising Practices

Part II, "Addressing the Literacy Achievement Gap: Promising Practices," details specific exemplary practices in middle and high schools that have demonstrated success in closing the achievement gap. These case studies, drawn from work in different parts of the country and focused on different goals (e.g., improving literacy in science) all highlight the importance of collaboration among teachers and researchers. The single most important constant among these disparate contexts was the teachers' willingness to do whatever it takes to change the status quo.

As a teacher at Mound Fort Middle—an urban high-poverty, low-achieving school in Utah whose student scores on SAT 9 moved from the 29th percentile in 1996 to the 61st percentile in 1999—put it, "I know these kids. I know they are capable of doing more. We can't keep passing the buck to someone or something else. We have to take responsibility. . . . [S]omething has to change" (176). Though none of the teachers are explicitly identified as belonging to the writing project, their stories, attitudes, and philosophies echo NWP principles, and these school-level success stories underscore our core beliefs that systematic work of thoughtful teachers in professional development teams implementing sound literacy practices can make a difference.

Reading Apprenticeship

The chapter "Apprenticing Urban Youth to Science Literacy" gives a particularly rich and thoughtful description of Reading Apprenticeship, one of the models of instruction that has succeeded in raising reading scores of highly diverse populations in classrooms in urban San Francisco and Oakland in the West and Durham, North Carolina, in the South. This case study by Cynthia Greenleaf and Cindy Litman features a close look at Will Brown's science classes at Skyline High School in Oakland, California, which are populated by ethnically diverse students, nearly 60 percent of whom test below grade level on reading, language, math, and science, according to the California state standards. Only half of the 700 ninth-graders who begin Skyline, an "underperforming" Title I school, graduate. Will, who has taught all levels of science, including sheltered chemistry for English learners, is a member of a professional community integrating Reading Apprenticeship into subject-area teaching.

 Working within the Reading Apprenticeship structure, Will serves as a "master," or proficient reader of multiple types of science texts that his students must read, and his viewpoint is that they are inexperienced, but not beginning readers. Therefore he works to provide the opportunities and instructional support to build their experience in reading science texts, which, he says "is significantly different than reading other kinds of literature" (203). His experience as a research chemist has convinced him that "readers need powerful reading habits and attitudes to comprehend the ideas of science embedded in the various structures and conventions of science texts and language" (203).

Fortunately, this case study defines and illustrates many of those reading habits so clearly and concisely that other teachers can readily implement many of his practices. Readers get an extensive overview of both the theoretical framework of Reading Apprenticeship—with its four equally important dimensions: social, personal, cognitive, and knowledge-building—and a close look at how these dimensions play out in the explicit routines and structures of Will's class.

Reflective Reading Log.  Although all of the reading/writing practices that are defined and illustrated with student examples are rich and exciting, the Reflective Reading Log Rubric (215) and the Team-Read discussion leader prompts (218) are perhaps the most generative for content-area teachers. Many teachers already use reading logs, but this rubric, which explicitly "rewards effort generously, and rewards prior knowledge stingily" (215), is constructed to guide students toward negotiating new understandings of the difficult texts they encounter.

Refreshingly, the authors acknowledge that maintaining the routine of using the logs requires patience on both the teacher's and the students' part. We hear the students' complaints; we hear Will's patient replies that they must persevere. One wonderful moment occurs when Eduardo, a ninth-grader, first learns that they may use their reading logs during chemistry tests, and blurts out, "That's cheating." We read an interview with Eduardo later, after a poor first grading period, as he finally catches on: "Dr. Brown told me I could get my grades up, and I tried it (the log), and I seen it go up, so then I thought, from there on I said, you know, `If I can do that, I might as well try harder.' And I started trying harder in school, in all my classes" (216).

Team-Read Prompts. The Team-Read discussion prompts are also explicit supports for students to discuss the ideas and texts of chemistry. The chart defining the roles of clarifier, questioner, summarizer, and predictor is a wonderful set of prompts that echoes the roles of teens in literature circles in English classes. Joaquim notices the difference the chance to talk to his classmates in these focused ways has made in his learning: "I feel like if we do all the things together, I understand better. That's better because we can help each other, and we can figure out the things he say more easy" (220).

Identity Shift. These students seem to be learning more than a set of cognitive strategies. It appears that their new-found belief in their own ability to be successful as readers and learners in rigorous academic contexts has allowed them to choose to use the strategies, and that choice has resulted in their experiencing the strategies' power. This shift in students' sense of identity, such a powerful shaper of adolescent behavior, is perhaps at the heart of what can help us as teachers to boost literacy achievement.

Eliminating the Gap

Reading and interrogating Will's story and the other equally compelling 13 case studies in this section illustrates the important point that there is not just one way, one program, that will be the magic bullet for this problem. We know what doesn't work—that teaching to bad tests is only diversionary. Instead, the combination of understanding of why the gap exists, which literacy practices work best with struggling readers, how critically important attitudes about change are, and how professionals collaborate to become collectively better than any one person can be alone just may provide the framework to begin to forge that bullet.

As literacy leaders in our communities, writing project teachers should study and discuss this vital text in professional development groups. We have the committed teachers, we have the networks, and, with this text, we have both an overview of the theoretical frameworks that surround issues of adolescent literacy and case studies that can provide rich departure points for local efforts to eliminate this gap.

About the Author Harriett S. Williams is the director of the Santee Wateree Writing Project and an associate professor in the English Department at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

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