Skip Navigation
archived information
Skip Navigation

Back to Ask A REL Archived Responses

REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


August 2018


What does the research say about effective practices in literacy instruction for secondary students?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on effective practices in literacy instruction for secondary students. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to student reading achievement, graduation rates and career readiness for African-American students, students receiving special education services, English learner students and students receiving free and reduced-price lunch. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. (2010). Time to act: An agenda for advancing adolescent literacy for college and career success. New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Our nation’s educational system has scored many extraordinary successes in raising the level of reading and writing skills in younger children. Yet the pace of literacy improvement in our schools has not kept up with the accelerating demands of the global knowledge economy. In state after state, the testing data mandated by No Child Left Behind reveals a marked decline in the reading and writing skills of adolescent learners. School systems are now grappling with the fact that promising early performance and gains in reading achievement often dissipate as students move through the middle grades. As a result, many young people drop out of high school or perform at minimal level and end up graduating without the basic skills that they need to do college-level work, get a well-paying job or act as informed citizens. The truth is that good early literacy instruction does not inoculate students against struggle or failure later on. Beyond grade 3, adolescent learners in our schools must decipher more complex passages, synthesize information at a higher level, and learn to form independent conclusions based on evidence. They must also develop special skills and strategies for reading text in each of the differing content areas (such as English, science, mathematics and history) -- meaning that a student who ‘naturally’ does well in one area may struggle in another. To reach the goal of providing quality literacy instruction for all our nation’s adolescents, we must systematically link instruction to the growing knowledge base on literacy and inform it with up-to-date data relating to outcomes and best practices. We must also find and support good teachers and provide them with the right professional development opportunities. Schools, districts, states, and federal policymakers all have vital roles to play in the process of re-engineering the nation’s schools to support adolescent learning. Accordingly: (1) The Vision: Literacy for All draws on up-to-date research showing that adolescents need a higher level of literacy than ever before, both for college-readiness and employment in the new global knowledge economy, and goes on to describe how our current state of knowledge already equips us to re-engineer schools to support quality adolescent learning; (2) The Challenge: What It Will Take to Get Our Adolescents College and Career Ready details the specific literacy needs of adolescent learners and shows how these needs can best be met in our nation’s schools; (3) The Keys: Underpinnings for Successful Reform shows how professional development for teachers and the effective use of data are the keys to improving adolescent literacy and realizing the ambitious goal of ‘literacy for all’; (4) The Agenda: Re-Engineering for Change At All Levels sets out a national agenda for fully supporting adolescent learners, using case-studies to show exactly how schools, districts, and states can help to re-engineer the experience of adolescent learning; and (5) A Call To Action: Where To Begin summarizes the main points of this report by setting out specific action steps for school leaders, district leaders, state leaders, and federal policymakers. Our common goal must be to ensure that all students receive the support they need for active citizenship, college and career readiness, gainful employment in the global knowledge economy, and lifelong learning.”

Graham, S., Bruch, J., Fitzgerald, J., Friedrich, L., Furgeson, J., Greene, K., …& Smither Wulsin, C. (2016). Teaching secondary students to write effectively. (NCEE 2017-4002). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

From the description: “This practice guide presents three evidence-based recommendations for helping students in grades 6–12 develop effective writing skills. Each recommendation includes specific, actionable guidance for educators on implementing practices in their classrooms. The guide also summarizes and rates the evidence supporting each recommendation, describes examples to use in class, and offers the panel’s advice on how to overcome potential implementation obstacles. This guide is geared towards administrators and teachers in all disciplines who want to help improve their students’ writing.”

Herrera, S., Truckenmiller, A. J., & Foorman, B. R. (2016). Summary of 20 years of research on the effectiveness of adolescent literacy programs and practices. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The importance of adolescent literacy is well established, and the topic continues to be of both local and national interest. Practitioners need to know not only which programs and practices appear effective, but which have the scientific evidence to support that claim. To identify effective programs and practices for general education students in grades 6-12, this review examined thirty-three studies of adolescent literacy programs and practices published over the past 20 years using What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) standards to evaluate the scientific rigor of their research design. This review presents key findings from 12 programs and practices demonstrating positive or potentially positive effects on reading comprehension, vocabulary, or general literacy. The review found: (1) Most of the identified programs and practices included instructional elements such as explicit instruction in reading comprehension or use of instructional routines; (2) These programs and practices can be implemented within the structure of a typical middle-school language arts or content-area classroom. In most cases implementation involved ongoing support for teachers; (3) None of the 12 identified programs and practices was conducted in a high school setting; and (4) Some of the programs and practices were identified as having potentially positive effects on high-stakes outcome assessments, such as state accountability reading assessments.”

International Reading Association. (2012). Adolescent literacy (Position Statement). Newark, DE: Author. Retrieved from [1.08 MB PDF icon ]

From the executive summary: “The 21st century has brought with it a tremendous evolution in how adolescents engage with text. As adolescents prepare to become productive citizens, they must be able to comprehend and construct information using print and nonprint materials in fixed and virtual platforms across disciplines. The International Reading Association (IRA) offers this updated position statement as a guide for supporting adolescents’ ongoing literacy development.”

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A practice guide. (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The goal of this practice guide is to formulate specific and coherent evidence-based recommendations that educators can use to improve literacy levels among adolescents in upper elementary, middle, and high schools. The target audience is teachers and other school personnel with direct contact with students, such as coaches, counselors, and principals. The guide includes specific recommendations for educators and the quality of evidence that supports these recommendations. The first three recommendations are strategies that classroom teachers can incorporate into their instruction to help students gain more from their reading tasks in content-area classes. The fourth recommendation offers strategies for improving student motivation for and engagement with learning. Together, the recommendations are designed to address the literacy needs of all adolescent learners. The fifth recommendation refers specifically to adolescent struggling readers, those students whose poor literacy skills weaken their ability to make sense of written material.”

Lombardi, D., & Behrman, E. H. (2016). Balanced literacy and the underperforming English learner in high school. Reading Improvement, 53(4), 165–174. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Balanced literacy has been proposed as a compromise or middle ground between philosophical approaches to reading instruction that stress teaching of word recognition and those that stress construction of meaning. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of the READ 180 balanced literacy supplementary instruction program on improving reading performance of underachieving students in a predominantly Hispanic urban high school. Students predicting failure on the high school graduation test were assigned to the READ 180 program during the first semester of Grade 10. Comparison of language arts scores on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge in Grade 8 with language arts scores on the High School Proficiency Assessment in Grade 11 showed that both English learners (EL) and English proficient (EP) students in the balanced literacy supplementary program improved from predicting below the cutoff for high school graduation to scoring above the cutoff. However, whereas EP’s in the balanced literacy intervention still scored below their EP peers not in the supplementary program, EL’s in the balanced literacy program scored above their EL peers not in the program. Results suggest the benefit of a balanced literacy supplementary instruction program for underperforming English learners at the high school level.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Lombardi, A. R., Izzo, M. V., Rifenbark, G. G., Murray, A., Buck, A., Monahan, J., & Gelbar, N. (2017). The impact of an online transition curriculum on secondary student reading: A multilevel examination. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 40(1), 15–24. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study investigates the impact of an online transition curriculum embedded with literacy strategies on reading outcomes for secondary students in grades 9-12 across two states. The quasi-experimental pretest/posttest design had a sample of 338 students with and without disabilities and utilized the ‘AIMS Web Maze Test for 8th Grade Reading Prompts’ to measure gain scores in reading comprehension. Multilevel linear modeling methods were used to examine the effects of the curriculum intervention on students nested within teachers. Findings show that while both groups increased in reading, the intervention group made larger gains that were statistically significant and corresponded to a large effect size. These results emphasize the importance of embedding reading comprehension strategies within transition services.”

Scammacca, N., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Edmonds, M., Wexler, J., Reutebuch, C. K., & Torgesen, J. K. (2007). Interventions for adolescent struggling readers: A meta-analysis with implications for practice. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This meta-analysis offers decision-makers research-based guidance for intervening with adolescent struggling readers. The authors outline major implications for practice: (1) Adolescence is not too late to intervene. Interventions do benefit older students; (2) Older students with reading difficulties benefit from interventions focused at both the word and the text level; (3) Older students with reading difficulties benefit from improved knowledge of word meanings and concepts; (4) Word-study interventions are appropriate for older students struggling at the word level; (5) Teachers can provide interventions that are associated with positive effects; (6) Teaching comprehension strategies to older students with reading difficulties is beneficial; (7) Older readers’ average gains in reading comprehension are somewhat smaller than those in other reading and reading-related areas studied; (8) Older students with learning disabilities (LD) benefit from reading intervention when it is appropriately focused; and (9) To learn more about instructional conditions that could close the reading gap for struggling readers, individuals will need studies that provide instruction over longer periods of time and assess outcomes with measures more like those schools use to monitor reading progress of all students. This report summarizes aspects of recent research on reading instruction for adolescent struggling readers. It both synthesizes research findings to determine the relative effectiveness of interventions for struggling older readers and outlines the implications of these findings for practice. Its purpose is to advance the knowledge of technical assistance providers working with state departments of education and local education agencies concerning reading-related issues for students with reading difficulties and learning disabilities (LD). While the authors’ methods and general findings are described, they are presented in terms of their impact on practice and policy.”

Snipes, J., & Horwitz, A. (2008). Advancing adolescent literacy in urban schools (Research Brief). Washington, DC: Council of the Great City Schools. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The lack of sufficient literacy skills is a major factor contributing to poor performance in high school and post-secondary education. Many students, particularly those in urban schools, lack the foundational literacy skills necessary to read and comprehend the academic texts appropriate for high school and beyond. This brief provides a synthesis of the research on adolescent literacy, primarily focusing on policies and practices that can support the development of language skills necessary to access high school content. Authors advocate for leaders in urban education to make academic literacy a fundamental priority in the late elementary and secondary grades, setting explicit, measurable goals for progress in the vocabulary and comprehension skills required to engage academic texts. The report concludes that improving student literacy in urban districts will also require a significant investment of resources to mount interventions and support research on effective strategies, at federal, state and local levels.”

Snow, C. E., & Biancarosa, G. (Eds.) (2003). Adolescent literacy and the achievement gap: What do we know and where do we go from here? New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation. Retrieved from

From the introduction: “Adolescent literacy is undergoing a renewal of interest as a focus for research and instruction. This renewal is due in large part to continued failures to close the achievement gap between privileged and not-so-privileged high school students. Educational researchers have proposed and tested a number of solutions to this problem, many of them addressing students’ need for better literacy instruction, and have identified areas where further research and development are needed. Private and public organizations have also tackled the problem from a variety of angles and perspectives.

Based on our review of the current initiatives and discussions held during a one-day meeting of private and public funders of education reform efforts, we identify a second critical gap—the gap between what we currently are doing to improve the literacy achievement of under-performing adolescents and what we would need to know and do in order to truly address this pressing social problem.

In this paper, we briefly review evidence for the persistence of the achievement gap, and its connection to adolescent and preadolescent literacy. We review a selection of these research and program initiatives focused on improving adolescent academic achievement by targeting literacy. Finally, current and planned efforts of the public and private funding institutions that attended the May 30th meeting are summarized and a heuristic for conceptualizing the intersections of funding efforts is presented. The report concludes with some of the ideas for collaboration and coordination of future funding efforts proposed by the meeting attendees and additional suggestions from the authors.”

Strickland, D. S., & Alvermann, D. E. (Eds.). (2004). Bridging the literacy achievement gap, grades 4-12. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Retrieved from

From the description: “This book addresses critical issues related to pre-adolescent and adolescent literacy learners with a focus on closing the achievement gap. Despite efforts by educators and policymakers during the past several decades, certain groups of students—primarily African American students, English language learners, and students from low-income homes—continue to underperform on commonly used measures of academic achievement. Too often, teachers and administrators lack both proper preparation and good ideas to confront these issues.

  • Part I of this volume contains essential background information about specific populations of learners who are not achieving as well as expected.
  • Part II provides descriptions of promising programs that are authored and co-authored by practitioners and researchers working collaboratively.
  • The result is a valuable resource for those involved in teaching and setting policy for literacy education in grades 4 through 12.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the achievement gap. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers. Retrieved from

From the publisher’s summary: “For those who truly wish to leave no child behind, the racial achievement gap in literacy is one of the most difficult issues in education today, and nowhere does it manifest itself more perniciously than in the case of black adolescent males. Approaching the problem from the inside, Alfred Tatum brings together his various experiences as a black male student, middle-school teacher working with struggling black male readers, reading specialist in an urban primary school, and a staff developer in classrooms across the United States. This essential and timely book offers teachers and schools a way to reconceptualise literacy instruction for those who need it most. Bridging the connections between theory, instruction, and professional development to create a roadmap for better literacy achievement, the author presents practical suggestions for providing reading strategy instruction and assessment that is explicit, meaningful, and culturally responsive, as well as guidelines for selecting and discussing non-fiction and fiction texts with black males. The author’s first-hand insights provide middle and secondary-school teachers, reading specialists, and administrators with new perspectives to help schools move collectively toward the essential goal of literacy achievement for all.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Torgesen, J. K., Houston, D. D., Rissman, L. M., Decker, S. M., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., ... & Lesaux, N. (2017). Academic literacy instruction for adolescents: A guidance document from the Center on Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Center on Instruction. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This document was prepared to assist literacy specialists in the national Regional Comprehensive Center network as they work with states to improve educational policy and practice in the area of adolescent literacy. It comprises three major parts: Part One: ‘Improving academic literacy instruction for students in grades 4-12.’ Based on current research in adolescent literacy, this part discusses recommendations to improve literacy instruction in the content areas (e.g., science, social studies, history, literature), instructional recommendations for English language learners, and critical elements of instruction for special reading classes with struggling readers. It addresses three critical goals for academic literacy instruction with adolescents: (1) to improve overall levels of reading proficiency; (2) to (at least) maintain grade level reading skills from the end of third grade through high school; and (3) to accelerate the reading development of students reading below grade level. Part Two: ‘Advice from experts about improving academic literacy instruction for adolescents.’ Eight experts with extensive experience conducting research on adolescent literacy were asked to respond to four questions about methods for improving adolescent literacy from the perspective of school- and state-level policy recommendations. They were asked to address both literacy instruction in the content areas and recommendations for struggling readers; they were also asked to recommend additional readings related to these questions. An annotated bibliography of their responses is included. Part Three: ‘Examples of state activities in support of improved adolescent literacy instruction.’ This part describes specific activities four states have adopted to improve adolescent literacy, placing the targeted activities in the broader context of each state’s efforts to support improved reading instruction.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Alliance for Excellent Education –

From the website: “The mission of the Alliance for Excellent Education is to promote high school transformation to make it possible for every child to graduate prepared for postsecondary learning and success in life.”

From the website: “More than ever, students need advanced literacy skills to succeed in a fast-paced global economy. Yet during the past four decades, the literacy performance of seventeen-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has remained relatively flat overall. International measures of reading place American fifteen-year-olds seventeenth among developed nations in reading, lagging behind such countries as Poland, Estonia, and Belgium. Moreover, students who struggle to read and write make up a substantial portion of the 1 million students who leave high school without a diploma each year.”

College & Career Readiness & Success Center –

From the website: “The College and Career Readiness and Success Center (CCRS Center) is dedicated to ensuring all students graduate high school ready for college and career success. The mission of the CCRS Center is to serve Regional Comprehensive Centers in building the capacity of states to effectively implement initiatives for college and career readiness and success. Through technical assistance delivery and supporting resources, the CCRS Center provides customized support that facilitates the continuous design, implementation, and improvement of college and career readiness priorities.”

What Works Clearinghouse –

From the website: “The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviews the existing research on different programs, products, practices, and policies in education. Our goal is to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions. We focus on the results from high-quality research to answer the question ‘What works in education?’”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • adolescent literacy

  • closing the achievement gap adolescent reading

  • improving adolescent literacy

  • literacy

  • literacy “achievement gap” “secondary education”

  • literacy “African American achievement”

  • literacy “minority groups” “secondary education”

  • literacy “program effectiveness” “program effectiveness”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.