Academic Literacy: Defining The Big Short


Dr. Harry Stein, Manhattan College

American students are in school for thirteen disconnected years.  In grades K-5 students learn in a reading/language arts/mathematics skill-based school.  Most students have one classroom teacher.  Literacy means reading and language arts, a term that combines writing, speaking, and listening.  Testing assesses reading, language arts skills, and occasionally writing short compositions.

Then a change occurs in grade 6.  Students go to a ‘second” school.  This is a middle or junior high school with departments.  Teacher certifications and expectations change.  Every day students will now see six or seven teachers.  Except for the language arts teacher these teachers do not teach literacy.  They use it as one tool to achieve their academic goals.  These schools, grades 6-12, have redefined literacy.

“Second” schools use four literacy elements:

Information Sources – reading, visual cognition, quantitative analysis and kinesthetic learning skills.

Information Processing – Thinking operations and reasoning odes

Retention – The most critical literacy skill in grades 6-12.

Producing Thought – Responding to objective test items. Writing in 7 forms, speaking, and creating performances in music, theatre, art, and dance.

Knowledge retention is a new and now most critical skill. Without memory students can’t achieve or produce original thought.  These 4 elements are known as Academic and Career Literacy (ACL). Attachments A and B illustrate in mathematics and other departments.

Elementary or skilled-based schools focus on reading and writing composition.  These experiences are important but inadequate for success in knowledge-based “second” schools.  Whether instruction is authoritarian lecture, inquiry project guided, cooperative groups, or individual instruction via technology, these teachers in “second: schools have no exclusive loyalty to academic learning through reading.  They are eclectic in choosing learning materials and teaching tactics.  Their loyalty is to their students and academic subject matter.  This is their identity and mission.  Walk down the hall in a K-5 school and ask a teacher who he or she is.  Their response will be, “I teach 3rd grade.”  They identify by child cohort.  Walk down the hall of a “second” school, middle, junior, or senior high school and ask the same question. “Who are you and what do you do?” The response will be different. The Literacy Big Short emerges from this disconnection between elementary schools and “second” school function and literacy use.  The disconnection is deep, harms students, and is not easily corrected through teacher education reform or new State certification requirements.


Educators have been aware of the literacy disconnection and have made efforts to define and connect literacy between elementary and adolescent “second” schools.  A 2006 project funded by the Carnegie Corporation in association with the International Reading Association and the Alliance for Excellent Education. Fifteen key elements were identified within a reading and writing literacy concept.  They are abridged and paraphrased below:

  1. Direct comprehension instruction.
  2. Effective instructional principles embedded within comprehension activities.
  3. Motivation and self-directed learning.
  4. Text-based collaboration.
  5. Strategic tutoring.
  6. Use diverse texts.
  7. Intensive writing.
  8. Use technology.
  9. Ongoing formative assessment.
  10. Extended time for literacy.
  11. Professional Development.
  12. Ongoing summative assessment.
  13. Teacher teams or cross-departmental reading.
  14. Administrative leadership.
  15. Cross grade and departmental coordination.

The elements do not reflect the actual nature of literacy in “second’ schools They were and remain a response to standardized reading and language arts testing mandates found in district tests, state examinations, PSAT, SAT-1 and the ACT.  These mandates are critical and permanent.  Except for the New York State Regents content graduation examinations, high stakes testing in American “second” schools, middle and high schools, assesses reading and mathematics. But, “second” school students learn and graduate by earning credits in departments that use academic and career literacy, not only the reading component.

What is missing?  The following ACL skills are used across all grades and departments in “second” schools and directly linked to college entrance examinations and achievement.

  1. Visual Cognition: Print and Electronic
  2. Thinking and Reasoning: Applied to all information sources
  3. Cognitive Science: Focus on attention, toleration for frustration, impulsive control, goal setting, task completion, and self-generating questions.
  4. Retention: Both short and long-term academic memory
  5. Applied Quantitative Analysis: Statistics and Data interpretation
  6. Writing in 7 forms: recognizing writing, copying, note-making, redesigned writing, composition, media writing, and web site design

The greatest deficiency in a reading centered literacy is the near total absence of instructional emphasis on retention and memory. Reading contests determining who has read the most books in a year are very important. They nurture motivation and develop skills.  But does any student who has read 112 books remember what they read in book #56?  There is no need to remember until they enter “second” schools where reading is transformed into literature study.  Remembering Act 2 Scene 4 in Hamlet is critical to understanding Act 3 Scene 1. The challenge becomes not what we read but how quickly we can learn and how much more slowly can we forget.  Without useable memory, every Monday is Friday and teachers can’t go forward.  Review is necessary.  Memory is constructed at the time of instruction and not only through study which only rehearses embedded memory.

This literacy disconnection will continue. University reading preparation programs train reading experts.  State certification requirements reflect these goals. Some students in “second” schools must have intensive reading remediation.  Many more new English-language learners are also entering these schools. Special education enrollment is rising.  There is a growing need for expert reading diagnostic-based instruction.  Yet when these students enter content classrooms their teachers are not loyal to reading as the primary information instructional system.  Success in isolated clinical settings or small group instruction do achieve reading gains. Schools and districts are judged by these test results.  But, credit-driven content learning requires skills other than reading skills.  Students do not graduate high school because they can read.  They graduate when they meet credit requirements. Some drop out.


First, can we accept the reality that literacy in the “second” school is not the literacy in the elementary, skill-based school?  Can we accept the reality that university-based degree literacy programs will not easily change since they must produce reading experts and the reformed programs would have to include members from other university departments such as psychology, communications, English, and perhaps, philosophy? Changing state certification requirements is very difficult, time-consuming, and may require administrative code or statutory change.

Any effort to improve achievement in “second” schools must begin in the district.  The first step is an administrative commitment to a new concept of literacy instructional leadership.  Then, in every “second” school can we identify an educator who will embrace and use the ACL concept and gradually begin serving other faculty?  This person could be a reading specialist or a science teacher.  As this teacher assumed a professional development role, they must retain a full teaching schedule.  Any reduction in teaching periods will increase costs, and possibly divide faculty harming the outreach effort.  Administrators should eliminate all school duties for this person.  Their duty will be to practice literacy in their classroom and communicate to other teachers either in their departments or to all teachers during their duty period.  A stipend, summer work, professional travel and other incentives can be offered.

This academic and career literacy leader and administrators can then form a professional learning community (PLC) within the school.  The PLC would include a mathematics, English, science, history, special education, and English-language learner teachers. The PLC would learn about and use ACL and then turnkey their classroom practices within their own departments. Schools would have a permanent cadre of ACL teachers and eliminate outside consultants.

The ACL/PLC project would then assist faculty in meeting school and district goals.  Services could be offered or mandated to new teachers, untenured teachers, teachers at different grade levels, teachers in different departments, and teachers whose observation/evaluation and personal needs include some form of ACL.


All “second” schools are fragmented and consist of teaching tribes with different certifications and indeed even locations within the school.  These schools are centrifugal and fracture a student’s experience in a 6-8 period day.  They lack common academic purpose because every subject has its own claim to virtue.  Academic and career literacy can be binding glue in this planned decentered adolescent education ecology. ACL also gives a common definition to Common Core in “second” schools.  A shared center is created where none existed.

Schools grappling with changing demographic, economic, and social circumstances realize that their future is already rapidly receding behind them.  They are in catchup reaction mode.  Part of the dilemma lies in the recognition that the student achievement goal is restrained by an older concept of literacy which is them again disconnected by the current information communications technology that affects all teaching and learning across the different tribal cells in our “second” schools.

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