Literacy For Life: The Role Of Career And Technical Education In Reading Proficiency

It is well established that a student’s reading proficiency level in elementary school is a good predictor of high school graduation success. The lower the reading level, the more likely it is that the student will not graduate on time. Against this background, it is sobering that many U.S. students reach high school without the reading and comprehension skills they need. According to NAEP data, in 2011, more than a third (33 percent) of 4th-graders were reading at a below basic level; among 8th-grade and 12th grade students, the percentage of students who were stuck at the below basic reading level had dropped, but only to about 25 percent. Many of these students drop out; many go on to earn a diploma, but enter the work world singularly unprepared to earn a living.

What is to be done? Certainly, intensive remediation is part of the answer, but so are practice and motivation and interest. The challenge for struggling readers at the high school level is hard to overstate; by the time they enter high school, they often display a negative and despairing attitude toward school that has been hardened by years of failure. Furthermore, most high school teachers are not trained in literacy instruction, a specialized skill which is theoretically the purview of early elementary school. Indeed, for many urban teachers, motivating kids just to come to school is the major challenge.

How do we motivate these kids, who sometimes exhibit stubborn resistance to reading or to any other kind of schoolwork?  One effective strategy is to make the purpose of reading as interesting and obvious as possible. For many youngsters, that means access to high-quality Career and Technical Education (CTE).

It seems commonsensical that kids who are not academically oriented (not a crime, by the way) could be motivated to learn if they see and understand the relationship of that learning to their real world aspirations.  This is one of the reasons that kids in CTE programs tend to complete high school and enjoy post-secondary success in occupations, training, and education at greater rates than their comparable peers.

It is now fairly well established that CTE -- a sort of hybrid of vocational education and rigorous academics -- is a promising strategy offering a genuine pathway to academic and career success for turned-off students.  Until the last decade or so, however, the role of CTE in building literacy skills has been less well known. It is a natural fit, really. Indeed, illiteracy is simply not an option for CTE students. Today’s workplace requires the ability to read and absorb technical manuals, understand and program computers, write and respond to memos on technical and professional matters, and interpret tables of instructions. In fact, CTE texts can contain very difficult content, on a par with or more difficult than traditional academic courses.

Accordingly, the CTE community has incorporated literacy strategies into their programs in many areas. Some states have embedded  literacy learning approaches reaching back into the elementary grades.  Other states have recognized the need for teachers to be trained to, basically, teach reading in a CTE courses and have prepared courses and instructional materials for them.  Others have made literacy and reading in a CTE context a center of state concern.

Despite all the activity, “literacy-in-CTE” is only just beginning to be subject of research. A recently published Cornell University study found that combining instructional literacy strategies with activities in a CTE context resulted in significant improvements in students’ reading ability and their grades. The daunting, highly-technical terminology of so many CTE texts became “manageable” for struggling students as a result of teacher implementation of these strategies.

This makes a huge amount of sense, really, when one considers that domain knowledge is such an enormous factor in any student’s reading success. That is, the learning of CTE students is "contextualized" – students who are interested in a subject are taught about it, and the more they learn the more complex the text the are able to read about it.

One can only hope that the education reform community will eventually replace the failed mantra of “college for all” with the equally ambitious (but vastly more sensible) mantra of “multiple pathways to success” – and, in so doing, the successful literacy strategies being field tested in CTE will extend to the broader population of struggling students who need them desperately.

- Randall Garton