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Education Reporter

Story Hour for Teenagers
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Many adults have fond memories of sitting on a cozy rug in an elementary classroom, delighting in the tale of Charlotte's Web or the wacky adventures of The Phantom Tollbooth. These days, you might see a similar sight in a middle or high school. Reading aloud to older students is gaining favor with increasing numbers of teachers. Some education experts are also recommending the practice, largely because so many adolescents lack the necessary comprehension skills to tackle higher-level texts on their own. A recent Carnegie Corporation report on literacy noted that although American 4th-graders have some of the highest reading scores in the world, by the 10th grade they score among the lowest in the world.

"The days are passing by rather rapidly of middle and high school teachers' being able to say, 'Either you get the content or you don't.' I think we are starting to see a greater acceptance of the need for this," said Karen Wood, professor of literacy education at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Most research on the efficacy of reading aloud has involved elementary school students and little is yet known about its value for adolescents. One 1,350-student high school in Alabama is in the vanguard, though. Teachers and administrators at Buckhorn High School have made their school an experimental laboratory for increasing student literacy levels for the past decade.

The school decided drastic measures were in order ten years ago when entering freshman were tested, and one-third of them were found to be reading at or below the 7th grade level. In fact, many were reading only at the 4th or 5th grade level.

Buckhorn staff found little expertise on which they could draw in their quest to infuse literacy skills into every subject. Over time, teachers adopted a smorgasbord of approaches previously used only with younger children. Now they incorporate art projects and wordless picture books in an attempt to engage students. The goal is to use these easily accessible materials to introduce more complex subject matter.

Tommy Ledbetter, principal of the high school for the past 28 years, acknowledges that the result is a high school that "looks more like an elementary school." He said that is because letting the students sketch, make cut-outs, or fold their ideas seems to help them.

To strengthen reading skills, English teacher Tracy Wilson uses shorter articles or excerpts to help students gain confidence before tackling word-dense textbooks. She also stops frequently as the class reads a fiction passage to discuss what is happening in the story, a practice she calls "talk-alouds." Her students make colorful "foldables," with sections for a word's meaning, context, origin and usage to learn new vocabulary.

The school has adopted the work of education author Kelly Gallagher who warns teachers not to commit "assumicide," or assuming that students possess the skills they need to understand the content of what they read. Instead, Buckhorn teachers explicitly teach comprehension skills such as contextual clues. Students are also taught the usefulness of the table of contents, and the significance of photographs and captions.

Buckhorn librarian Wendy Stephens has revamped the school's book collection in support of the strategies used in the classrooms. She is building a collection with more picture books, magazines and comic books. Boys particularly like the manga, or Japanese cartoons, and girls are currently crazy about the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer.

Other schools are increasing their use of picture books for high school courses too. Debra Schneider, a history teacher at Merrill West High School in Tracy, California uses picture books to supplement the U.S. history curriculum for 11th graders. She has also read students excerpts from the 1987 book, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam; students told her that was much better than having to read from a textbook.

English teacher Paul Hankins teaches 11th graders at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg, Indiana. He has read John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men to his students every year for 36 years. He said he often faked having read a book when he was a student, and reading the book aloud ensures his students won't get away with that.

Some educators are concerned that too much reading aloud won't help students. Angelia Greiner sometimes reads aloud over the Internet for her distance-learning English and speech students at the Arkansas School of Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Still, she emphasizes, "They've got to learn to read on their own, what we call close reading." Teachers who read too much class content to students do them a "grave injustice," she said.

The communications director for the Core Knowledge Foundation, Robert Pondiscio, also has serious concerns about teachers reading aloud to adolescents. "The need to do this at all seems to be a way of glossing over poor reading skills and poor content knowledge that should have been addressed in elementary school." (Education Week, 11-4-09; 1-6-10)

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