A recent research study by the University of Chicago, Reading on Grade Level in Third Grade: How Is It Related to High School Performance and College Enrollment?notes the importance of early reading intervention in which the authors note:

For children, a critical transition takes place during elementary school: until the end of third grade, most students are learning to read. Beginning fourth grade, however, students begin reading to learn. Students who are not reading at grade level by third grade begin having difficulty comprehending the written material that is a central part of the educational process in the grades that follow.

Meeting increased educational demands becomes more difficult for students who struggle to read. (p. 2)

  • Nearly 80 percent of students who were above grade level in reading in third grade graduated from high school compared with 55 percent of students throughout the school district.
  • 60 percent of students reading above grade level attended college compared to only 20 percent of students reading below grade level

The U.S. Department of Education report, The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2011, provides cause for alarm, as less than half of all students are considered proficient in reading by 4th grade, with little improvement occurring in the ensuring 4 years through 8th grade:

Percentage of 4th grade students reading at a level of proficiency or higher (p. 15):

  • 49 percent Asian
  • 44 percent White
  • 19 percent Hispanic
  • 18 percent Native American
  • 16 percent Black

Percentage of 8th grade students reading at a level of proficiency or higher (p. 44):

  • 47 percent Asian
  • 43 percent White
  • 22 percent Native American
  • 19 percent Hispanic
  • 15 percent Black

Many school districts are actively pursuing efforts to increase students’ college and career readiness and implement changes to the curriculum such as the Common Core State Standards. However, while the Common Core State Standards provide a framework for the type of knowledge that students should be able to acquire and demonstrate, the standards cannot teach themselves—students must be engaged. There are three critical areas of student engagement that parents and teachers must consider:

  1. Provide meaningfully relevant literary texts
  2. Engage students in self-reflection of their short- and long-term goals, and help students to understand the connection between effort and outcomes.
  3. Engage students in higher levels of learning through reading, writing, thinking, and talking about the issues raised in the texts

Alfred Tatum, in Enabling Texts: Texts That Matters, notes the importance of providing students with interesting, meaningful, and relevant literary choices:

More than 30% of the adolescents [surveyed] did not identify a single text they found significant. The students ascribed the absence of meaningful texts in their lives to teachers’ refusal to acknowledge their day-to-day realities couched in their adolescent, cultural, and gender identities. A young man offered that ‘I need to read interesting topics like teen drama, violence, something you can relate your life or other people’s lives to.’

High school students need and benefit from a wide range of texts that challenge them to contextualize and examine their in-school and out-of-school lives. I agree with Apple (1990) who argues that ignoring text that dominates school curricula as being simply not worthy of serious attention and serious struggle is to live in a world divorced from reality. He asserts that texts need to be situated in the larger social movements of which they are a part.

There are several reasons adolescents refuse to read. Primary among them are a lack of interest in the texts and a lack of requisite skills and strategies for handling the text independently. It is imperative to identify and engage students with texts that pay attention to their multiple identities.
(Tatum 2013)

Robert Marzano, in Classroom Instruction That Works, notes the importance or reinforcing student effort and providing recognition.

Effort and recognition speak to the attitudes and beliefs of students, and teachers must show the connection between effort and achievement. Research shows that although not all students realize the importance of effort, they can learn to change their beliefs to emphasize effort.
(Marzano 2001)

The Common Instructional Framework, provides a researched-based framework for guiding students through interesting and culturally relevant texts, “Every student reads, writes, thinks, and talks in every classroom every day.” (2013)

The Common Instructional Framework, pioneered by University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts and adopted by the North Carolina New Schools Project, outlines six critical areas:

  1. Collaborative Group Workinvolving bring students together in small groups for the common purpose of engaging in learning.
  2. Writing to Learn through which students develop their ideas, critical thinking ability, and writing skills.
  3. Literacy Groups where students work collaboratively for understanding a variety of texts and engaging in a higher level of discourse.
  4. Questions where students are challenged to use good questions as a way to open conversations and further intellectual inquiry.
  5. Scaffoldingwhere students connect prior knowledge and experience with new information.
  6. Classroom Talk where students articulate their thinking and strengthen their voice either in pairs, collaborative group work, or as the whole class.

Follow Your Dreams: Lessons That I Learned in School (Wynn 2007) is a critically acclaimed work of nonfiction and poetry. However, it was written with the intent of providing a contextual framework for self-reflection, self-examination, and self-motivation. Beyond the traditional literary analysis of characters, point of view, setting, conflict, and style students are guided through important self-reflecting considerations relative to their attitudes and behaviors toward school and those required to guide students toward their long-term dreams and aspirations.

Maximizing the benefit of this book, or any literature, requires teachers, either individually or as grade-level or subject-area teams, to engage in conversations regarding the depth to which they seek to engage students. For example, a traditional literary analysis would certainly lead to a degree of self-reflection as students examine the parallels between the author’s point of view and their own lives. However, a much deeper self-examination would challenge students to examine their current attitudes and behaviors within a long-term context leading to such questions as:

“Are my attitudes and behaviors toward school and learning consistent with achieving my long-term goals?”

“Are my short- and long-term goals consistent with my educational and career aspirations?”

“Who are the people and what are the programs and materials that can provide support and encouragement toward achieving my goals”

“Who are the people and what are the habits and behaviors that provide obstacles toward achieving my goals?”

“What is a realistic self-assessment of my current skill level and what is my plan for developing the type of skills needed to pursue my college or career aspirations?”

“What type of self-monitoring and external support will I require to become successful?”

The book provides a literary response—another voice so to speak—in response to the needs of a particular classroom, grade level, or school community. The book is particularly relevant to student populations (and their teachers) who struggle with issues of race, poverty, urban violence, gang intimidation, bullying, and who lack extensive knowledge of postsecondary planning and preparation. Within this regard, the book can serve as a catalyst to addressing such issues as part of a much larger framework of influencing student behaviors, shaping school climate, and inspiring students to become vested in their own success. Important staff considerations are:

“Who are the students who are struggling most academically in our school?”

“Who are the students who are least likely to maximize the opportunities for learning, personal growth, and creative development in our school?”

“Who are the students who appear to demonstrate attitudes and behaviors most inconsistent with the dreams and aspirations they are affirming?”

“Who are the students who appear most in need of inspiration to combat their feelings of inadequacy and despair?”

This is obviously the short list as there many considerations to be examined through staff discussions pertaining to student demographics and the associated challenges which they present. However, the answers to such questions identifies “why” the book can play an important role in supporting student growth and achievement within a classroom or school setting. The following considerations provide a framework for “how” to maximize the transformational process of student engagement required for such growth and development to occur:

“What are some of the important issues that we [staff persons] wish to expand on as a result of engaging students in reading and analyzing the issues raised in the book?”

“How are we prepared to monitor and support students who become self-motivated to set goals?”

“How are we prepared to intervene to reduce student failure and to celebrate student success?”

“How are we prepared to give a voice to those students who embrace change and begin redirecting their attitudes and behaviors toward more positive outcomes?”

These important, yet oftentimes difficult conversations, can guide a classroom teacher, entire school staff, or parent toward identifying literature that provides much more than characters, point of view, setting, conflict, and style. Such conversations can provide a guide to literature that inspires, encourages, and informs.

Overcoming negative cultural constructs

In an article for UCteen, high school student, Anthony Turner, discusses how he was “caught” reading by a group of students from his high school. Anthony, who is African-American, notes:

“Recently I was ‘caught’ reading at McDonald’s by a group of kids at my school. I say ‘caught’ because many of my peers consider reading to be a lame activity. They think it’s something that only geeks do.”

Anthony went on to share the encounter with one of the students:

“One girl name Tiffany walked up and said ‘Is that a…’ she rubbed her eyes and acted like she couldn’t believe what I was doing…book?’ she finished in a sarcastic, incredulous way.”

Anthony provides a critique as to why developing high levels of literacy is important and goes on to provide insight into a common cultural construct among urban youth in general and African-American youth in particular:

“Black youth culture prizes guys who play ball, bag girls, dance, and rap. Simply reading a book is considered passive or introverted. Or it’s considered a ‘white thing’—something black kids, especially black boys, shouldn’t be caught doing if they want to be popular.”

In would be enough to applaud Anthony for his brilliant critique on youth culture, however, Anthony provides insight into current research:

“I think some kids hold themselves back academically for those reasons. I know I feel slightly wary in school after hearing my peers say that people who read have no lives.

African-American and Hispanic males have the lowest high school graduation rates in the U.S. We need to step up our performance in order to compete. With the economy the way it is, the chances for black youth to succeed can look pretty slim, and if we don’t like to read, those chances get even slimmer. So, the next time you’re killing time by updating your status on Facebook or watching TV, think about reading a book instead. It helps more than you know.”

Read the entire article and view a video of Anthony…


What is the purpose of school if our children are not learning how to read? The student who cannot read, cannot access the rest of the curriculum, fully understand what is being taught, take effective notes, or be prepared to pursue college and careers after high school. Subsequently, the way forward is clear:

  1. Parents must know EXACTLY the reading level their children are on
  2. Children should be reading every day and parents should listen to how they read and how they are processing what they have read
  3. Teachers and parents should be engaging students in reading, thinking, writing, and speaking on a daily basis
  4. Children should have access to interesting texts that they “want to read”
  5. Children should not only be engaged in reading philosophical texts, but reading practical texts that assists them in overcoming obstacles, setting goals, and making connections between learning and outcomes

Although there is undoubtedly much more that can be done, these 5 things will take us a long way from where we are.

Works Cited:

The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2011. (2012). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Lesnick, J, George, R., Smithgall, C., and Gwynne, J. (2010) Reading on Grade Level in Third Grade: How Is It Related to High School Performance and College Enrollment? Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Common Instructional Framework. (2013). North Carolina New Schools.