11/19/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Literacy Crisis in Middle Schools Demands Professional Development in Key Teaching Areas

There is a growing literacy crisis in American middle schools. And most teachers are unprepared to fix it.

Recent research conducted as part of the New York City Department of Education's Middle School Quality Initiative confirmed what is known to be true in middle schools throughout the country: Adolescents who have no trouble reading individual words often struggle to understand full texts across various disciplines.

In other words, what we have isn't a reading crisis, but a comprehension crisis.

While some progress has been made in middle school literacy, it's clear that a significant number of current middle school students will graduate unable to understand complex texts necessary to succeed after high school.

Some of this stems from the fact that our schools have not kept up with changes and the demands of life after graduation. What was good enough in the past is simply not good enough going into the future.

To close the gaps, we must begin with an awareness of what students need most but are not getting. This includes:

  • Explicit teaching of comprehension strategies within an all-inclusive literacy program.
  • Instruction in the discipline-specific reading strategies needed for literacy in content areas.
  • Teachers who work in teams and collaborate across disciplines.
  • Opportunities to collaborate around complex texts.
  • Introduction to academic and domain-specific vocabulary.

But the gaps aren't limited to students. Teachers often lack the training or support required to address students' needs. More rigorous standards and new curricula alone are not the answer. Instead, there needs to be a deepening of teachers' understanding about the reading process and effective literacy practices across content.

In my work, I've found there are three key elements to closing the middle school literacy gap.

First, there must be a sustained whole-school focus. To ensure a successful outcome, all teachers and administrators must be engaged in the effort.

Second, we must ensure that all teachers have an understanding of literacy learning globally and adolescent literacy specifically. This sets the groundwork for improved literacy instruction across curricula.

The third key is a focus on the teaching practice. It's not just theoretical. Teachers need professional development opportunities in which they can work side-by-side with experts who model behavior, provide feedback and ensure that teacher learning is translated into instructional practice.

Preparing students for tests and preparing them for life beyond school are very different goals. As educators, we must recognize the difference and use every available tool to prepare our kids for what lies ahead.