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Improving the Literacy of Adolescent Males: Toward a More Anatomically Complete Model. Alfred W. Tatum, Ph.D. Associate Professor University of Illinois-Chicago. Adolescent Literacy Crisis “Momentarily Popular Descriptor”.

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Improving the Literacy of Adolescent Males: Toward a More Anatomically Complete Model

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Improving the Literacy of Adolescent Males: Toward a More Anatomically Complete Model

Alfred W. Tatum, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

University of Illinois-Chicago

Adolescent Literacy Crisis“Momentarily Popular Descriptor”

The confluence of social class, community membership, language, race, ethnicity, and gender and their interplay with schools and the shaping of schools by educators and policymakers have contributed to a crisis in literacy education that is difficult to unravel. Although the formation of this crisis occurs in the primary grades, the magnitude of the crisis becomes more pronounced during adolescence. (Tatum, in progress)

7,000 students drop out of high school each day

8 million struggling readers in grades 4-12

7 out of 10 students entering 9th grade can be considered reading below grade level

5 out of 10 college students need to take remedial courses

Multiple issues contribute to students’ reading failures

Students have a wide range or literacy needs

Literacy Backdrop

Source: Reading Next – a publication by the Alliance for Excellent Education

Alarming Data

  • 1 in 23 White 17 year olds can read and gain information from specialized text.

  • 1 in 50 Latino 17 year olds can read and gain information from specialized text.

  • 1 in 100 African American 17 year olds can read and gain information from specialized text.

Critical Statistic


What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

  • Many educators are failing to increase male adolescents’ engagement with texts, and subsequently, their overall reading achievement scores.

  • Specific texts and text characteristics that engage adolescent males are strikingly absent from the curriculum (Tatum, 2006).

  • Educators find it difficult to use texts to counter in-school and out-of-school context-related issues that heighten the vulnerability level of adolescent males. (Tatum, in press)


  • Just give up

  • Get tired of trying

  • Become despondent and pessimistic about their ability to succeed

We need to dig a hole large enough for ten million of these young men, advertise free government Link cards to attract these young men and some of their parents to the hole, and put a lid on the hole before setting it on fire.

Personal Conversation

If I did not have a mentor outside of school I would probably find myself dropping out. It’s scary not knowing how to read. I don’t want to be in school…. I am tired of being made fun of.

This has been one of the most challenging years that I have experienced while teaching at the middle school level. I am seeing more children of color at lower reading levels and no home support….I continue to make reading a priority everyday by giving "my children" opportunities to experience what I call "successful literacy." I have a group of males (12-13 years old) that are not motivated to do much of anything. Right now we are reading "We Beat the Street" and "Handbook for Boys" in small groups. I hope this experience allows them to see a light to make connections in their own lives.

I must say that I am disappointed in the lack of parent involvement or concern that these children have. When I call home to contact parents about positive days and struggling days, I get comments such as, "it's just a matter of time before he fails again" or "At this point I give up, he's your problem." As I spend nights rethinking new strategies and engaging life long lessons that deal with content, I take on each day as a new opportunity. I go into my class with the hope that this might be the one day where I make a difference for one child.











The Imbalance

Out of School Literacy Overload

In-School Literacy Under-load

Students often lack sufficient texts in-school to help critique, understand and compete with the texts they are exposed to on the outside of school.





  • What are we going to offer this student?

  • A fluency strategy

  • Leveled text

  • Remedial reading class

  • Research-based strategy

  • Test prep (then)

  • Something more

  • What does this student need?

  • A healthy psyche (now)

  • A roadmap (now)

  • Something to compete with what’s happening on the outside (now)

  • Text (now)

They do not explain clearly; we never know what is going on in class.

They know the answers and expect us to know them.

They think we are being disruptive when we are trying to get them to slow down.

Most teachers do not listen to us which makes us think they do not care.

I think they should make sure that we “get” it.

We need teachers who can “read” us.

Do they have to go over everything by a certain time?

All my grades are bad and nobody can help me!

Voices of Adolescents

“We have many students surrendering their life chances before they get to know their life choices.”

Alfred W. Tatum, 2005

Establishing a model of literacy to support teachers in structuring their students’ day-to-day activities in a way that maximizes their engagement with meaningful, responsive texts.

Major Barriers Stand in the Way of Addressing the Literacy Needs of African American Adolescent Males

  • No clear strategy has emerged on how to attain this goal

  • Educators disagree on how to provide effective literacy instruction for struggling readers

  • Educators and policymakers have focused on skill and strategy instruction while ignoring curriculum orientations, forms of pedagogy, and other factors found to be effective in increasing the reading achievement of students of color

We lack a clear definition of literacy instruction for adolescents in the United States that will translate into successful classroom practice. Without this clear definition, overwhelming and embarrassing inconsistency in literacy instruction occurs and can be expected to continue across schools. (Tatum, in-press)

Dangerous Misconception about the Older Struggling Reader

They should accept any form of instruction although, in many cases, they have legitimate reasons to resist instructional practices that will leave them underprepared in society.

Go to sleep

Ignore the instruction

Shrug shoulders when asked to respond

Display dead eyes


Reverse Trajectory

Poor quality instruction

Literacy instruction is more than “just” teaching students to read. It’s about shaping a trajectory that leads to positive life outcomes.

Ending up here

Give permission for wider and broader aims of literacy development in an era of accountability, even encourage it. It is not about AYP, it is about YP. The pressure to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) potentially contributes to overlooking young people (OYP).

Guiding Question

What do we need to do to advance the literacy development of adolescent males?

Vital Signs

Necessary Minimum


In Search of a “More” Anatomically Complete Model

Rescuing and Refining


Usually Well-Defined

Usually Research-Based

Usually Skill/Strategy Focused

Just one critical piece



In Search of a “More” Anatomically Complete Model

The Role of Literacy Instruction

Rescuing and Refining


Usually Well-Defined

Usually Research-Based

Usually Skill/Strategy Focused

Just one critical piece


Teacher Preparation


Teacher Professional Development


Effective Leadership



“More” Complete Framework


The role of literacy instruction

Theoretical Strands

Curriculum orientations

Approach to Literacy Teaching

Use Comprehensive Framework for Literacy Teaching

Instructional Strands

Strengthen Assessment Profile

Mediate Text

Preparation Strands

Professional Preparation

Professional Development

Theoretical Strands and Literacy Trajectories

Role of literacy instruction

Theoretical Strands

Approach to Literacy Teaching

Curriculum orientations

Helping students respond to essential questions?

Corelle’s favorite part of English II had been a played we read by August Wilson, The Piano Lesson…In one long monologue, Boy Willie talks about the turning point in his life, the terrifying moment when he confronted the world’s opinion of his uselessness:

“Many is the time I looked at my daddy and seen him staring off at his hands. I got a little older and I knew what he was thinking. He sitting there saying, “I got these big ol’ hands but what I’m gonna do with ‘em?...All I got is these hands. Unless I go out and kill somebody and take what he got…it’s a mighty long row to hoe for me to get something of my own. So what I’m gonna do with these big ol’ hands?”

What is the essential question?

It is the growing perception of their own uselessness – together with apparent lawlessness of the world around them – that hurtles boys like Corelle…toward extinction. P. 115

Many adolescents are leaving American public schools with their questions unanswered.

Curriculum Orientations

  • Engage students with authentic text and in authentic discussions where they can analyze their realities and discuss strategies for overcoming academic and societal barriers.

  • Address students’ cognitive and affective domains taking into account students’ cultural characteristics.

  • Connect the cultural, the social, and the personal to the educational.


Curriculum Orientations Cont.

Acknowledge that skill development, increasing test scores and nurturing students’ identity are fundamentally compatible.

Resolve the either-or dilemma of focusing on skill development or developing intelligence.


Mr. Tillman told us take out a sheet of notebook paper. He then had us look at the margin.

He asked, “What do you see to the left of the margin?”

“A little space with three holes,” someone said.

“That’s right. There is very little room to roam and three holes that you can sink in.” Sink hole number one is lack of knowledge. Sink hole number two is lack of confidence. Sink hole number three is lack of will. He told us if we lack the knowledge, the confidence, and the will we will almost always occupy a small place trying to avoid sink holes.

Mr. T then told us to look at the right of the margin. He asked, “What do you see?”

One student said, “Nothing.”

Another student said, “Empty space.”

I said, “I see a whole bunch of lines.”

He held up his sheet of loose leaf notebook paper and asked us to peer deeply, look closely, and stare beyond the obvious. “What do you see”? What do you see?” “What do you see?”

“To the right, is you,” He said. This is where you write your story. This is where you move beyond the color line. This is where you decide how you want the world to be. This is where you meet up with people from all walks of life. This is where you sing your song and dance your dance. To the left of the margin is where you surrender your existence. To the right of the margin is your opportunity to reshape your existence.

“How do we get from the left side to the right side,” asked Alex.

“Decide that you want to be there first. Then, think about why you want to be there. Next, prepare yourself. Then, be fearless. Do not believe the doubters. Most importantly, do not doubt yourself.”

Example of a disempowering text orientation

For word study instruction, the teacher called out the words Agatha, Demarco, Adeline, Emilia, andpumpernickel. The students repeated the words. Then the students took turns reading aloud. He then had the students respond aloud to the assessment questions at the end of the text.

Where is the essential question?

They provided wrong answers for a majority of the questions. The students were reading from a text that held little to no significance in the way that it was discussed. They were not provided with any explicit strategy instruction. The students were not becoming better readers or learning new information. This is borderline criminal.

Examining the Trajectory

Full participation in society

“When reading and some form of race-based, class-based or language-based disadvantage collide, you have students learning to read amidst turmoil. This race-based, class-based, or language-based turmoil cannot be ignored or used as a limitation.”

High quality literacy instruction for adolescents with some form of disadvantage attending public schools

Instructional Strands

Comprehensive Framework for Literacy Teaching

Just one critical piece

Instructional Strands



Proposed Solutions to Enable and Engage Adolescents

  • Develop expert procedures for teaching reading.

  • Systematize reading instruction and hold students accountable in a way that guides instruction.

  • Focus on academic excellence and identity development.

  • Question under-treatment and disharmony.

FLUKY FLAN“Capturing the Reader, Not the Responses”

Fluky Flan was fubbing and fobbing. He slipped on a blute and broke his sark. He was rushed to the sneed in a hod that ran every red light. Fluky Flan can no longer fub and fob because of his binny.

  • Who is the paragraph about?

  • What was Fluky doing?

  • What did Fluky break?

  • Why does Fluky no longer fub or fob?

Nurturing Fluency and Building Schema(Integrating Powerful text with powerful instruction)

…When a human being becomes suddenly con s c iou s of the t r e m e n d o us powers lying latent within him, when from the puzzled contemplation of a half-known self, he rises to the powerful assertion of a self, conscious of its might, then there is loosed upon the world possibilities of good…that make men pause.

W. E. B. Du Bois

The Education of Black People (p. 24)

Teacher’s Roles

  • Making text accessible

  • Showing students different ways how to hold their thinking


  • Word Level

    • Decoding

    • Vocabulary

  • Text Level

    • Concept

    • Fluency

    • Comprehension Monitoring

    • Questions and Questioning

    • Text Structure

    • Background knowledge

A,E,I,O,U count to 1 count to 2

  • Split consonant between vowels

    • bal / lad

  • Move one consonant between vowels to the next syllable

    • te / na / cious

  • Split neighboring vowels

    • jo / vi / al

  • Do not separate blends or word groupings that need each other

    • ous, qu, bl, cl, dr,

Contributing factors

What does it mean to exist?


What happens when one’s existence is denied?

Using the Text to Teach the TextMonitoring Comprehension and Building Schema

About 75 million people died of the bubonic plague during the 14th century. Half of the population of Italy fell victim to the ______________________. The plague caused high _______________, swollen glands, dark splotches on the __________________, and spitting of blood. Most _________________ who got the disease ___________________ within a few days. The disease was ________________ from the fleas and rats. Lack of sanitation and poor _________________ account for the continuous plague epidemics throughout the 14th century. So many people died so ___________ that it was difficult to bury them in the _________________ way. The dead were ____________ without the usual prayers and ceremony. Dozen of people _______________ buried in a single big grave.

Contributing factors

What does it mean to exist?


What happens when one’s existence is denied?


Apendulum swings both ways for [struggling adolescent readers]. On one side are hopes and dreams, where the potential leads to promise. On the other side is defeat, where hopes unfulfilled become a record of human tragedy…Teachers must discuss texts with…students in responsive ways in order to help them land on the side of the pendulum that swings toward promise and possibility.

From Chapter 8: Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Severing of Text

“Resign yourself to your color the way I got used to my stump; we’re both victims.” … Nevertheless with all my strength I refuse to accept that amputation. I feel in myself a soul as immense as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers, my chest has the power to expand without limit.

Frantz Fanon

Black Skin White Masks

Every brother on the rooftop could quote, Brother Fanon.

Who are the brother and sister authors today for our nation’s struggling readers?

William Van DeBurg

Enabling Text –moves one to be, do, and think differently.

Disabling text –reinforces students’ perceptions of being struggling readers and incapable of handling challenging, meaningful texts.

Dichotomy betweenEnabling and Disabling Text

Textual Lineage

Edith Hamilton




Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird

John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men

Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

When I ask [teenagers] from low performing and high performing schools to construct their textual lineages, that is, provide a representation of texts that have contributed to who they are and texts that give them direction for the future, they have little to nothing to contribute. These students have entered middle school and high school classrooms in a public education system in the U.S. and are unable to identify texts they find significant in their lives.

The Severing of Text LineagesOne of the Great Tragedies of American Education

Many adolescents suffer from text deficiency, most of the texts they should be exposed to is co-opted by the functional detour to improve reading scores. Instead of focusing on reading scores, schools should be trying to score with reading.

I have no book that change my life


Rebuilding Textual Lineages“Five Backdrops”

  • Personal Backdrops

  • Social / Cultural / Gender Backdrops

  • Economic Backdrops

  • Community Backdrops

  • National / International Backdrops

    • Improving the Human Condition

    • Developing Healthy Psyche that translate into observable behaviors

    • Providing Roadmaps

    • Granting modern-day awareness of the world

Textual forces


Major Aggressors Against Reading Texts that Matter

Education publishers are handicapped because the texts must be anchored in the vital signs of reading and connected to state standards. The guiding mandates for selecting texts are stifling.




Core group of strategies





Assessment profile

Support Structures




Human/Material resources


Urgent List

  • Define the role of literacy instruction for adolescent boys and strengthen concept of reading

  • Provide explicit skill and strategy instruction

  • Turn up the volume on text to rebuild textual lineages

  • Establish instructional continuity

  • Establish a consistent assessment approach

  • Avoid in-school underload

  • Take multiple close-ups

  • Push out less and pull in more

  • Get “with” students as opposed to getting “on” students

  • Re-educate ourselves with powerful text

Powerful texts, in tandem with powerful reading instruction, can have a significant influence on the lives of adolescents despite some of the psychic infections they encounter in communities of turmoil (Tatum, 2007).


As we debate the role of literacy instruction, more specifically reading, we must ask who is willing to move from theoretical courage to practical courage. We know what we are doing is failing large segments of American children. The data are clear. Our students’ textual lineages are being severed as we focus on reading scores and defend this focus by rallying cry slogans. Who is willing to battle to save the soul of American education, not just for the 21st century, but beyond? Who is willing to fight for our children’s rights to be? When we answer these questions and consider the vital signs I have offered we will be able to engage our students with texts because the students will be the focus of our efforts.

It’s not just about students’ literacies; it’s about their lives.

Tatum, 2005


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