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The Strategic Reading Initiative:
Vermont’s Response to the Adolescent Literacy Crisis

In the mid-1990s, educators began to take pay increasing attention to the field that has come to be known as “Adolescent Literacy.” Students beyond grade three could not, in the words of the New Standards English Language Arts Reference Exam, understand, analyze or interpret reading material at satisfactory levels. What’s worse, the deficiencies increased as students progressed through the grades—in 1998 fewer than 5 percent of the adolescents assessed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress could extend or elaborate meanings of the materials they read.

In 1999, the International Reading Association published “Adolescent Literacy: A Position Statement for the Commission on Adolescent Literacy of the International Reading Association.” The IRA’s premise is simple:

The need to guide adolescents to advanced stages of literacy is not the result of any teaching or learning failure in the preschool or primary years; it is a necessary part of normal reading development. Guidance is needed so that reading and writing develop along with adolescents’ ever-increasing oral language, thinking ability and knowledge of the world.

In other words, the assumption many educators had made that helping students learn to read through third grade was sufficient to create readers who could make meaning of increasingly sophisticated text through the years was incorrect.

Vermont had begun to pay attention to the issue in 1998. The Reflective Reading Project of the Vermont Center for the Book brought hundreds of educators together to engage in a process that would, in 2001, result in the creation of the “Nine Strategies for Reading Comprehension,” and the student-friendly “I’m a Reader” poster and bookmarks illustrating the strategies.

That same year, the Vermont Department of Education teamed up with the Vermont Reads Institute to create the Vermont Strategic Reading Initiative. Enrollment in the VSRI began in 2002, when more than 40 schools participated in one of the VSRI’s three strands.

The first is “Strand One,” which is designed to enable a school to bring the teachers of all subjects at all grade levels together to help their students understand, analyze and interpret the materials they are asked to read. Inter-disciplinary teams receive extensive training in and opportunities for guided practice and reflection about teaching reading strategies in their content areas, and work with a consultant who visits their school every week to support their efforts to help all teachers integrate reading-comprehension instruction into content instruction. In 2002, six schools participated. In 2003, those schools re-enrolled, and were joined by six new schools.

The second is “Strand Two,” which is designed to help and “Strengthen Literacy Leadership” within schools, districts and regions of the state. The participants in this strand are individuals who are in professional teaching or supervisory roles, and focus on literacy at the fourth-grade level or higher. They are provided opportunities to discuss and reflect upon their roles as literacy leaders, in improving the teaching of reading strategies in the content areas, and significantly improving the pedagogy within their schools. Almost two dozen schools have enrolled in this strand in 2003.

“Strand Three” provides professional development opportunities to a variety of schools and organizations on an as-needed basis. VSRI consultants have presented workshops, modeled and observed classes, and created symposia for several dozen schools and districts. Organizations such as the Vermont Association of Middle Level Educators, Vermont Math Institute, and “Flow of History” have contracted with the VSRI for services.

RESOURCES: Funding to support the work of this project comes from the schools under a fee-for-service agreement, Title VI and grants from the Henderson and Fieldstone Foundations.