Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core: From Research into Practice

reviewed by Leslie David Burns - April 04, 2014

coverTitle: Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core: From Research into Practice
Author(s): Jacy Ippolito, Joshua Fahey Lawrence, & Colleen Zaller (Eds.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612506046, Pages: 304, Year: 2013
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Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core, edited by Ippolito, Lawrence, and Zaller, is a collection of essays reviewing research, teaching, and classroom practices in six domains identified as having “the most leverage” (p. 3) in helping content-area teachers teach reading and writing. These domains include disciplinary literacy, vocabulary, discussion, digital literacy, multiple texts, and writing to learn. Contributors respond to the following questions: “Why is success with reading and writing in the earliest grades not translating to improved academic achievement at secondary levels?” and “How can we improve literacy for content-area learning in middle and high schools?” (p. 2). In responding, the editors note they “have explicitly taken the recommendations of the Common Core Standards (CCS) seriously” to focus on providing readers with topics they perceive make “the biggest difference both immediately and over time” in alignment with the current standards movement (p. 3). This well-organized text makes strong contributions toward helping secondary teachers and teacher educators address the distinct literacy practices necessary for students to succeed in traditional academic disciplines, including social studies, science, mathematics, and English.

The authors’ focus on aligning traditional academic practices with the CCS is particularly rich with regard to its reviews and models of how “disciplinary literacies”—ways of reading, writing, thinking, talking, and practicing in different fields of study—must become central for all teachers across the curriculum. The text is organized in easily read chapters, each approximately 15 pages. For each of the domains addressed, the authors offer one chapter reviewing research findings, followed by a chapter describing resulting practices that have been successfully used by educators in their own classrooms and schools. Its research reviews are concise and clear, and models for implementation are highly useful and sustainable for educators, considering how they can use disciplinary literacy to enhance their existing instruction. A particularly attractive feature of this book is the contributions of secondary teachers, literacy coaches, and instructional coaches actively working in today’s classrooms. The chapters offering models and rationales both contextualize the research findings offered in their companion chapters and provide authentic, practical discussions of concrete steps teachers might take in order to integrate reading and writing into their work.

Where many content-area literacy texts offer superficially useful laundry-lists of strategies, this collection offers and explains precise differences between the literacy practices of different subjects and their disciplines, and how to teach and use them. For example, Dobbs’ chapter “Vocabulary in Practice” offers teachers strategies that help the reader think about which words students must be taught to succeed in a particular subject, and also when, whether, and how to teach vocabulary in strategic ways. Dobbs offers questions to guide instructional design such as identifying the focus of each lesson and identifying the vocabulary needed for success in that specific lesson, determining which words are essential for comprehending a text the students will read, teaching academic terms needed for students to engage with the discipline day-day, and deciding which words might not be essential for teaching. In doing so, Dobbs helps teachers focus productively while still improving instruction by linking it to research-based findings about how adolescents learn.

An additional strength of this book is its message that there is not and never will be a simple solution to the adolescent literacy needs of all students, teachers, and schools at all times. As Ippolito and Zaller note in their conclusion, no standards framework or single book can address all aspects of adolescent literacy. A second thematic strength is consistent emphasis that successful literacy instruction requires time. It cannot be attained via short-term interventions, one-time gimmicks, or isolated literacy assignments. The six domains can be integrated into any teacher’s practices for routine use over time so that students internalize the skills and concepts they need. Finally, the text offers excellent illustrations of how and why literacy instruction is not the task of a single subject-area, but rather a task shared by teachers in every subject.

While strong in explaining the need for attention to disciplinary literacy instruction, Ippolito et al.’s collection has some limitations. These may be a consequence of the book’s title and implication that it will in fact address adolescent literacy broadly in the “era” of the CCS. That policy movement was initially viewed as a watershed moment when introduced in 2010. 46 out of 50 states adopted it, making the CCS seem popular, unproblematic, and a broadly public good for education reform. The editors explicitly choose to avoid discussions of political issues and policy reform, but cite the CCS’s professed focus on rigor and adaptability as a “key strength of the document,” and “a smart strategy” (p. 246) that has since been widely debated.

While the CCS’s claims are laudable, the authors’ decision to cite them while eschewing discussion of the controversies surrounding the reform renders some of the book’s recommendations problematic. For example, the CCS repeatedly highlight the goal of preparing students to become literate for future college and career readiness, but many of Ippolito et al.’s findings and recommendations are grounded in highly traditional and therefore conservative approaches in an era that preeminent scholars say requires a profoundly different view (Alvermann, 2002; New London Group, 2000). At times, research is misrepresented, and the text is further limited by emphasis on what Shanahan refers to in Chapter Ten as “the primacy of written [print-based] texts and the importance of understanding them” (p. 143). Despite dedicating two full chapters to discussions of how digital texts must be used to teach adolescents today, the authors rely heavily on recommendations of print-based texts and treat digital texts and other non-print options as supplemental or subordinate to traditional reading resources.

Beyond these theoretical and ideological considerations, the authors’ claims regarding the CCS as unproblematic as evidenced by the initially widespread adoption are complicated by the fact that one state has already withdrawn from the movement. Further, nearly one-third of the remaining states are considering withdrawal due to, for example, findings that the standards have no basis in scientific research. In fact, they contradict the findings that do exist about how standards for college and career readiness might work (Stotsky, 2010).

Without detracting from its many useful contributions, Teaching Adolescent Literacy presumes a cognitivist approach to literacy, defined by McCormick (1994) as an objectivist approach with potential to help improve literacy “but whose practices have, so far, failed to go beyond information processing to culturally contextualized thinking—a condition that seems essential to any argument in favor of disciplinary apprenticeships to discourse” (p. 8). At times, as in Olson and D’Aoust’s chapter “Writing in Practice,” the authors conflate cognitivist theories with expressivist theories that frequently differ (McCormick, 1994). While cognitivist and expressivist strategies can be used in complementary ways, their fundamental presumptions about how and why literacy learning works often diverge in significant ways.

Most significantly, the text does not acknowledge or account for the sociocultural nature of literacy. There is a tendency to treat literacy as autonomous in the sense that it operates universally regardless of the contexts in which it is used. While the authors succeed in explaining how literacies must be oriented to the requirements for academic success in different disciplines, they do not account for how adolescents’ personal experiences, out-of-school knowledge, and motivations must also be addressed. As Street asserts, literacy “always depends upon the social institution in which it is embedded” (1985, p. 8) but it is also always dependent on the participants’ cultures, identities, and resulting diversity as learners. Here, literacy is treated solely in the context of disciplinary learning, which is important but insufficient for an adolescent literacy textbook. Reading across disciplines is not a uniform endeavor, and Ippolito et al. are very successful in explaining and illustrating that fact. However, the decision not to address matters of culture and discourse elides the kind of balanced approach advocated by Pearson (2004) to foreground disciplinary teaching and ensure that academic literacies are never offered in isolation from students’ own knowledge and identities. Teachers must always contextualize disciplinary literacy by designing instruction that responds to and values what students already bring to bear when learning any academic subject. Since literacy is both mechanical and contextual, Ippolito et al.’s focus on autonomous literacy models to the exclusion of sociocultural considerations limits the text’s utility for adolescent literacy practice overall.

While it is unfortunate the book does not address the already political nature of the CCS, that does not detract from its primary contributions: greater understanding of why disciplinary instruction matters, and how to implement that instruction in ways proven to support student success. Ippolito et al.’s work may have been better represented by a modified title: “Teaching Disciplinary Literacies to Meet Common Core Standards.” That title (perhaps) more accurately describes the book’s actual content. That said, to their credit, the authors openly acknowledge their decision to avoid debates about the CCS. Their purpose is not to offer a comprehensive guide. Teaching Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core accomplishes exactly what the editors and authors intended. It provides concrete ideas, examples, and guidelines based in research and practice, and it “provide[s] a real foothold for change” (p. 247) in the ways teachers use literacy to support learners of specialized academic content.


Alvermann, D. E. (Ed.) (2002). Adolescents and literacies in a digital world. New York: Peter Lang.

McCormick, K. (1994). The culture of reading and the teaching of English. New York: Manchester University Press.

New London Group. (2000). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. In B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (Eds.), Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures, pp. 9–38. New York: Routledge.

Pearson, P. D. (2004). The reading wars. Educational Policy, 18, 216-252.

Stotsky, S. (2010, June 6). Common core standards miss the mark. Retrieved March 29, 2014, from

Street, B. V. (1985). Literacy in theory and practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 04, 2014 ID Number: 17482, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 8:35:03 AM

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