In the introduction to their text, Christenbury et al. (2009) identify three areas for focus: adolescence, literacy, and research, noting that their definitions are not limited to the “simple, unified, [and] unproblematic” (p. 3), but that the complexities inherent in each are compounded when they interact. As the United States pushes forward in its education reform efforts and has fallen victim in the past to manipulation at the hands of so-called reformers whose political agendas have facilitated bias in the creation of reports that have served to influence the nation’s literacy policies, as seen in the production of reports like those of the National Reading Panel, whose recommendations advocating teaching reading based on phonemic awareness have since been proven dubious (Marshall, 2009; Luke & Woods, 2009), we would be remiss if we did not understand that literacy is a high-stakes endeavor that “bureaucrats, politicians, and governments [use] to shape relations between human subjects, to reorder and distribute material goods, [and] to regulate and govern flows of discourse and the shape of local practices” (Luke & Woods, 2009, p. 197).
While there are disagreements about what literacy comprises – from “learning to read and write” to “having knowledge or competence” (Christenbury et al., 2009, p. 5), there is no doubt that the concept and its instruction are both socially situated and political (Gee, 2001). Given the unpredictability of adolescence, a relatively modern idea “that acknowledges the unique space between childhood and full adulthood” (Christenbury et al., 2009, p. 4), coupled with the complexities of understanding literacy, adolescent literacy researchers are faced with hurdles as many literacies, including digital ones, are “typically ignored in school” (Christenbury et al., 2009, p. 7), the place historically where much literacy research has been conducted.
Ippolito et al. (2008) write, “If knowledge is power, then literacy is the key to the kingdom” (p. 1). In our digital age, however, access is still contingent upon ability, whether that ability is linked to cognition, socioeconomic status or equal educational opportunity. Research shows that “the kind of literacy that safeguards self-determination is not simply about decoding words on a page or recounting the chronology of a story,” basic skills that often lend themselves well to standardized testing, but “it is about engaging with complex ideas and information through interaction with written documents” (Ippolito et al., 2008, p. 2), activities whose complexities are not as readily measured, and therefore not considered cost-effective or efficient areas to test. As a result, the field of literacy education exists within an atmosphere of tension between traditional and progressive models of literacy education (Jacobs, 2008, p. 18).
Moreover, there is also dissonance between theory and practice that further complicates adolescent literacy, particularly as it relates to assessment. Alvermann (2009) argues that the current system of standardized testing is at odds with anyone who assumes a sociocultural view of literacy — defined by Moje et al. (2008) as “acknowledg[ing] the role of print and other symbol systems as being central to literate practice, but recogniz[ing] that the learning and use of symbols is mediated by and constituted in social systems and cultural practices” (p. 109) — where “[t]he focus on individual rather than group meaning making” is difficult to negotiate (pp. 23-24).
Because “adolescent literacy is about complex social relationships between adolescents and their rich symbolic and discursive lives,” and “adolescents need both a personally safe and cognitively stimulating environment, where they can explore and take risks” (Langer, 2009, pp. 49-50), school environments adversely affected by standardized testing mandates are problematic. Marshall (2009) argues that “standards and assessment policies in many school contexts are both narrowing the curriculum and restricting the resources teachers can draw upon in working with students” (p. 122). While some argue that curriculum “should reflect student experience” (cited in Johannessen & McCann, 2009, p. 68), and this is what many teachers are taught in teacher education programs, “we are now confronted in many schools with assessment policies that directly undermine the teaching and evaluation practices we have long endorsed” (Marshall, 2009, p. 122). This tension is a direct result of education policy.
Given that “[p]roponents of standards policies have often rested their arguments on a specific ideological perspective about what education is for” (Marshall, 2009, p. 114), we must consider the motivations driving the reform movement. Anyon (1980) asserts that “public schools in complex industrial societies like our own make available different types of educational experience and curriculum knowledge to students in different social classes” (p. 67), serving to replicate “the tensions and conflicts of the larger society” (1981, p. 38). Although Worthy et al. (2009) note the history of tracking for utilitarian purposes in a market-based economy, they also argue that we must go beyond such practices and create schools that are “transformative rather than reproductive institutions” (p. 230).
Thus far, although the literature tends to address issues of adolescent literacy important to researchers, teachers, and teacher education students, the philosophies underlying policy makers, most of whom have no direct experience in the field, are being driven by different assumptions that are completely at odds with what educators adopt as best practices as a result of research and practical application. Hillocks (cited in Marshall, 2009) points to attitudes legislators have about teaching and learning that vilify teachers as morally deficient and students as lazy (p. 121) as being responsible for inflicting a reform agenda. Of course, one can easily argue that it is much easier to blame teachers and students than to look at larger societal problems, such as poverty and joblessness, as causes undercutting teachers’ ability to teach and students’ ability to learn. It’s much cheaper to continue the interminable cycle of education crisis rhetoric and legislate unfunded mandates than to address real issues that impact education.
Alvermann, D.E. (2009). Sociocultural constructions of adolescence and young people’s literacies. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer, and P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy research (pp. 14-28). New York: The Guilford Press.
Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education 62(2), 67-92.
Anyon, J. (1981). Social class and school knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry 11(1), 3-42.
Christenbury, L., Bomer, R. & Smagorinsky, P. (2009). Handbook of Adolescent Literacy Research. New York: The Guilford Press.
Gee, J.P. (2001). Reading as situated language: A sociocognitive perspective. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 44(8), 714-725.
Ippolito, J., Steele, J.L., & Samson, J.F. (2008). Introduction: Why adolescent literacy matters now. Harvard Educational Review 78(1), 1-5.
Jacobs, V.A. (2008). Adolescent literacy: Putting the crisis in context. Harvard Educational Review 78(1), 7-39.
Johannessen, L.R. & McCann, T.M. (2009). Adolescents who struggle with literacy. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer, and P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy research (pp. 65-79). New York: The Guilford Press.
Langer, J.A. (2009). Contexts for adolescent literacy. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer, and P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy research (pp. 49-64). New York: The Guilford Press.
Luke, A. & Woods, A. (2009). Policy and adolescent literacy. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer, and P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy research (pp. 197-219). New York: The Guilford Press.
Marshall, J. (2009). Divided against ourselves: Standards, assessments, and adolescent literacy. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer, and P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy research (pp. 113-125). New York: The Guilford Press.
Moje, E.B., Overby, M., Tysvaer, N. & Morris, K. (2008). The complex world of adolescent literacy: Myths, motivations, and mysteries. Harvard Educational Review 78(1), 107-154).
Worthy, J., Hungerford-Kressler, H., & Hamptom, A. (2009). In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer, and P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy research (pp. 220-235). New York: The Guilford Press.