3 Steps for Engaging Adolescents in Literacy

Working with adolescents with language learning disabilities (LLD) is both rewarding and challenging. Many of our students have struggled with language learning, academics, and social-emotional growth throughout their education. While effective intervention in earlier grades may have helped them overcome some aspects of their ongoing linguistic gaps, there is still much work to be done to help our students succeed at high school levels.

A New Paradigm for Adolescent Intervention

Intervention at these higher levels must depart from more traditional paradigms. For example, pull-out services and isolated memory or skill drills are too far from the realities of what adolescents need to succeed. Language literacy intervention not only needs to target language and academic learning, but it must also extend beyond the classroom to help students with LLD function better in life.1 Speech-language pathologists are often in a key position to help adolescents make transitions into the “real world” of work or higher education.

Leaders in the field of adolescent language, such as Barbara Ehren, Vicki Anne Reed, and Marilyn Nippold, stress the importance of helping students develop the components of “being literate.” Several current researchers and writers have expanded upon what is meant by literacy as well. Many who specialize in adolescent literacy, including the previously mentioned authors, also emphasize the importance of including social-emotional aspects into the mix.

Supporting Adolescents in Literacy

You can help your adolescents on the path to literacy and academic success by incorporating these three steps into your intervention plan:

1. Use the literacies your students already engage in.

Talk to your students about the texts they already use for entertainment, information, or communication with friends.2 Find out which texts that they relate to, such as hip-hop lyrics, websites, and other popular culture literature, to engage them in literacy activities.

Guide your students through analyses that address why they like these texts and open a discussion around the effectiveness of the language used. Using a Venn diagram, have the students compare the styles of two rap artists. These are metalinguistic activities that encourage students to think about and analyze language on a more conscious level while, at the same time, acknowledging the literacies they like and are familiar with.

2. Emphasize the idea of perspective taking and “higher” levels of text interpretation.

Introduce the idea of why we use mental state terms, including metacognitive words like realize, understand, and imagine, and metalinguistic verbs like explain, argue, and agree.

In order to fully understand and interpret a text, it is critical to understand what is given in the text (a more literal translation) and what is the meaning under the surface (more interpretive and, perhaps, inferential).1 We can teach something “new” (for example, new vocabulary and use) within a familiar context (the adolescent literacies already engaged in).

3. Move to less familiar and more academically focused texts.

Again, start with topics your students know something about, like sports or fashion, to teach them new words, new skills such as complex syntax, and new strategies like organizing using a Venn diagram. Move to curricular materials starting with Language Arts or your student’s best subject to help them apply the lesson. Integrate discussion-based approaches to provide your students with opportunities to relate their personal experience, emotions, and feelings to the content of a text as appropriate.

Background knowledge is a key starting point, but it is only a piece of the complicated puzzle of language literacy learning in adolescents. Keep your eyes focused on academic success intertwined with social-emotional growth through the use of both spoken and written language.

  1. Sun, L. & Wallach, G. P. (2013). Adolescent literacy: looking beyond core language learning deficits. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 20(2): 57-66.
  2. Sánchez, D. M. (2010). Hip-hop and a hybrid text in a postsecondary English class. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(6): 478-487.