viewpoints, community college of philadelphia journal of collegiate learning, teaching, and assessment,  10th anniversary issue

Access, Readiness, and College Reading: The Razor’s Edge

by Madeline Marcotte
English Department

The Social Drama

Our students aspire to the professional middle class through a college education, yet many of them aren’t ready for the kind of reading and writing necessary for a college education. While Community College of Philadelphia, as an open-access institution, has always had to offer some form of remediation, the ratio of developmental to college-level English classes has risen steadily since English 099 was first listed in the 1966-67 catalogue. Paula White, in her Viewpoints article, “Teaching Reading Across the Curriculum: A Collective Responsibility,” cites Institutional Research supporting this point. Additional, albeit unscientific, anecdotal evidence fleshes out the picture of how student preparedness has changed. A veteran English Professor, for example, explained that she has always asked her students, how many pages a night can she “comfortably” assign. In the 1970s, she had been able to assign about a 120 pages. By the 80s, it was 60-90 pages; by the 90s, 10-15. Since 2000, she has only assigned about 2-3 pages a night, because the students could not (or would not, which hints at a parallel issue) do the heavier reading load of their predecessors. More drastically, another instructor, of a different discipline, told me he no longer even assigns a textbook because his students do not read it. The student demographic has changed as well, which brings multiculturalism and race (explicitly or not, as Dr. Gay suggested in her talk, “The Scholarship of Teaching & Learning—What’s Race Got to Do With It”) into our on-going discussion regarding access and standards, which, at its core, is really about class and privilege.

In the Politics of Remediation, however, Mary Soliday argues against the view that current student needs are somehow unique. She “challenges the persuasive idea that remediation at the college level is a novel endeavor because students’ needs are novel. […R]emediation exists also to fulfill institutional needs and resolve social conflicts as they are played out through the educational tier most identified with access to the professional middle class” (1). Students’ needs are not novel because this economic drama she describes has been played out on stages over one hundred years earlier, in universities such as Harvard and Yale, and among other, less prestigious institutions.

As Community College of Philadelphia instructors, we are, in Soliday’s view, like a valve regulating the flow of the aspiring classes. If we believe in equity, therefore, what we do in the classroom matters and how we place ourselves in this social drama matters as well. Do we act as filters, allowing through the fittest who somehow survive; or, do we act as scaffolds, ideally aiding as many as possible to reach their own aspirations in a meritocracy? W. Norton Grubb, in “Black Box to Pandora’s Box: Evaluating Remedial/Developmental Education” (2000), argues that the trend in higher education is toward the latter:

The existence and growth of remedial/developmental education in both two- and four-year colleges are testimony to a shift toward a greater institutional responsibility for learning and completion. No longer is it possible to be complacent about high rates of non-completion, particularly since open access (in community colleges) and the expansion of higher education have brought to postsecondary education more under-prepared students—and more lower income, minority, and immigrant students—whose high dropout rates are both personal tragedies and institutional embarrassments. (2)

When we talk of “upholding standards” versus “educating students”—as the goals of those students collide with the reality of their abilities and our ability to remediate—we are, in essence, attempting to define what our role is in the social conflict to which Soliday refers.

In many ways, these questions about access and standards, success and failure, are hardest for the English teacher to answer, because language ability so closely correlates with both socio-economic status and academic success. Thus, we are, essentially, the gatekeepers in English 101, the pre- or co-requisite for every degree program, certificate, and transfer agreement we have to offer here at the College. It may offer little comfort, but English teachers have always been gatekeepers; the first teachers of prescriptive grammar were tutors hired by the London merchant class who wanted their children to have access to the upper, landed classes in 18th century England, which entailed sounding like their societal “betters.” Genevieve Patthey-Chavez, Paul H. Dillon, and Joan Tomas Spiegal, in “How Far Do They Get? Tracking Students With Different Academic Literacies,” (2005) make the point this way:

“In open admissions institutions, pre-collegiate composition teachers walk a razor’s edge as they work to turn the promise of access into reality by preparing students for college classes, but find that many students have far greater language-learning needs than can reasonably be met by available courses.” English teachers—particularly those who teach developmental courses—end up “‘cooling out’” the aspirations of the under-classes by “’most often [delivering] bad news to students about their ability to do college level work’” (262).

Recently, a former English 098-099 student whom I had failed (cooled out—?) the previous semester came to visit me. Though Kiri (whose name I’ve changed) has formidable reading and writing problems, she had shown moderate progress. Yet, because she had missed too many classes and hadn’t completed her course work, I had been able to fail her without having to pass judgment on her linguistic preparedness for English 101. She enrolled again, and it was in the middle of her second attempt when she visited my office in tears; she’d been given the bad news about her ability to do college-level work. Her new English 098 teacher had told her that she probably wasn’t going to pass to English 101, not because her writing outside of class hadn’t improved—it had; I read it—and not because she wasn’t doing the work—she was; I saw it—but because she wouldn’t be able to pass the in-class final. Her journal entries, her teacher had told her, revealed the strange syntax of her private language. Daughter of a Cambodian immigrant and product of the Philadelphia public school system, Kiri’s unedited grammar is a fascinating conflation of “broken English” and African American Vernacular English (“Oh, you mean ‘slang,’” my students have said). She told me her teacher recommended she enroll in some kind of vocational school, but that is not what she wants to do. She wants to be a nurse, a middle-class professional. Language skills are important in vocational occupations, but this is exactly the point: the ability to communicate clearly is not always the same thing as the ability to communicate “correctly.” Our bias is that access to the professional classes requires “correctness,” which linguists will argue is not about language but about prestige. Languages change as civilizations evolve, which is why we no longer pronounce the “k” in “knowledge,” as one, tiny example.

What can we do with a student like Kiri? Certainly her teacher was diligent and thoughtful; I had been impressed by her improvement. But, her story is not unique, neither at our institution nor at similar ones across the country. Genevieve Patthey-Chavez, director of the Inter-segmental Project to Assure Student Success in Los Angeles City College (IPASS), and her co-authors confirm, “For a large number of developmental students the first course functions more like a hurdle than an opening into higher education” (268). Poor outcomes like Kiri’s support the position of those who may want to curb funding to community colleges. On the other hand, those who support the mission of community colleges point to “the success of a subset of remedial students on all measures, including transfer, [which] indicates that at least some remedial students turn community college into a stepping stone to academic success” (275).

Theories and Expectations.

Though some remedial students do achieve their goals, many, like Kiri, don’t and the reasons why are complex. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, in their important study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (2003) find clear differences in the early language experiences of each socio-economic class. The professional class, according to this study, talk more often and with a greater vocabulary to their children. Hunt and Risley conclude that, because of these differences, class is cemented in the first three years of a person’s life. Dr. Jane Healy in Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It (1991) labeled this early, important experience with language a “verbal bath,” which the young brain needs to succeed in later educational endeavors.

As much as this theory of early language development makes sense, it can’t be applied flawlessly to our students. I’ve noticed in the literacy narratives of those students who tend to be more successful readers and writers but aren’t from professional households, evidence of this early attention to language, stories about reading and the gentle questioning by thoughtful mothers, at once affirming the basic idea in Healy, Hart and Risley’s studies and reminding us, of course, that such interactions are not limited to any one class. To further complicate the issue, consider a student like Kiri: had she gotten her verbal bath (assuming she hadn’t), it would have been mostly in Cambodian and “broken” English, which would not necessarily guarantee her future success in English classes and in college in general.

Remedial students, Edmund Hirsch contends, in “The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for all Children,” have not just missed out on their “verbal bath,” but have also missed out on the bank of knowledge necessary to read well at the college level. In support of teaching a core of knowledge articulated within and between school districts, Hirsch, argues that poor children, in particular, suffer more from lack of content knowledge than do their wealthier counterparts. He reasons that these students are not getting this general education at hone, so it is even more incumbent on the schools to provide it. Two of our more common complaints, that our students don’t know anything and that they can’t read, are, Hirsch would say, obviously related. And, he is not even addressing the problems of international students, who—motivated or not—also have a hard time with a college reading load for reasons beyond ESL issues. In my class last semester, only a handful of native students had heard of Affirmative Action; none of my international students had.

While Hirsch’s argument sensibly accounts for much of students’ reading problems, he has his critics, who point out that his “content” is culturally biased. Moreover, students can learn to monitor their own comprehension and be aware of when they might need to look up a reference. Further, Hirsch overlooks an obvious explanation for “why the reading scores of 13- to 17-year olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have not budged in years” (8): explicit reading instruction usually ends in middle school and is largely focused on creative literature. Since reading processes differ according to genre and purpose, students don’t just need content knowledge; they need reading instruction in all subjects in all grades. Reading instruction does not need to come at “the expense of classes in history, science, and art” (11). Rather, reading and content instruction can and should occur simultaneously.

Further factoring in the causes of student difficulty, is the national zeitgeist. Jean M. Tweng and others, in “It’s Beyond My Control: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of Increasing Externality in Locus of Control, 1960-2002” find that, “Young Americans increasingly feel that outside forces control their lives […]. The average 2002 student was more external than 80% of college students in the early 1960s” (315); that is, according to Julian Rotter's theory on locus of control, over the last two decades, the younger generation feels that outside forces, rather than their own machinations, control their lives. Remedial students, who haven’t been successful in past educational endeavors, are even more likely to feel their efforts will be fruitless. Indeed, teachers may also share the external locus of control typifying our time as well, compounding the factors contributing to student struggles. In “Reading For Purpose And Pleasure: An Evaluation Of The Teaching Of Reading In Primary Schools,” which was conducted in England in 2004, Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMIs) report that faculty in ineffective schools “failed to examine their own practice critically enough, often blaming others for pupils’ low achievement” (4).

Therefore, for a myriad of complex causes, our students come to us already behind and apathetic about catching up. Reading experts know that those who are behind—apathetic or not – fall further behind. They have dubbed this phenomenon, “The Matthew Effect,” alluding to the biblical passage Matthew (25:29), often summarized as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” – a reference that also underscores the link between reading skills and economic standing. That so few of our developmental students make it is no surprise. Hirsch states, “Clearly coursework requiring greater reading skills challenge developmental students even after they have completed their college preparatory work” (274). One, even two semesters, of reading remediation is not enough.

Role Revision

Poor readers will continue to struggle in college because, as R.A. Knuth and B.F. Jones (1991) point out in “What Does Research Say About Reading?”, “instruction in the vast majority of classrooms is text-driven and […] most teachers do not provide comprehension instruction.” (See Paula White’s article for what that instruction would look like.) Moreover, for many of us, reading is an unexamined ability, which effectively reduces the likelihood we would see the need to teach it. As accomplished readers, we may not be aware of all the cognitive and meta-cognitive activities that occur while we read. I am continuously surprised by my students over what I’ve taken for granted. For example, when my English 101 students had a hard time understanding the epistles between Abigail and John Adams regarding the implications of the American Revolution on the roles and rights of women, I didn’t realize that it was simply because they hadn’t understood that they—the students—weren’t the intended audience of either writer. I had assumed that given the letter genre, the issue of intended audience would, in this case, not need explicit address. After I clarified that point, however, the Adams’ exchange suddenly became transparent. As we become more aware of the need to teach reading, we also become more sensitive to the processes involved and can, in turn, explain these processes to our students, modeling for them (perhaps using an overhead projector) how we approach a text, what questions we ask about audience and genre, thinking aloud as we read.

Ironically, our own confidence with reading and text may to understand. No one likes to feel stupid; it makes it hard to come to class. Jeff Sommers in “Illustrating the Reading Process: The In-Class Read-Aloud Protocol” recounts how he noticed that his students feel guilty when they don’t understand a short story in the manner he does. After he modeled for them his own reading process, stumbling through an unfamiliar short story by Ursula Le Guinn, his students realized he wasn’t the Wizard of Oz after all. By drawing back the curtain and allowing his students to witness his struggles, they “learned that their own uncertainties and trouble in reading a literary text for the first time were not necessarily signs of poor reading” (303).

Students like Kiri, who are neither properly prepared nor properly motivated, challenge us to examine our role as teachers. While the issue is complex, we can make headway. Knuth and Jones maintain, “Although many students at risk come to school lacking in prior knowledge that is relevant to school achievement, teachers and schools do make a substantial difference. That is, providing students at risk with high quality instruction can drastically alter their academic performance.” This is not to imply we don’t provide our students with high quality instruction, only that there has been a great deal of reading research done that can guide us in the classroom and in curriculum development. And, there is a great deal more research to do, especially at the college level, because much of the research investigates reading in primary and secondary institutions. We are in a unique position here at the College to become a leader in reading research at the tertiary level. Knuth and Jones also point out, “[I]n world class schools, teaching is a multi-dimensional activity. One of the most powerful of these dimensions is that of ‘teacher as researcher.’” I would like to see our institution become the reading equivalent to Mina Shaughnessy’s CUNY where she did her seminal research on basic writing, Errors and Expectations.

Our mission of access means making the class material—not just the doors to the institution—accessible. Given that most of our instruction is text-based and that most of our students are poor readers, we should be teaching reading strategies across the curriculum. In their narrative about their colleagues’ efforts at establishing a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program at the University of Wyoming, Karen Williams and others write, “Student writing causes many college faculty members to complain, but perceptions about whose job it is to teach vary.” The same can be said of student reading, assuming reading problems are even recognized as such and not misinterpreted as metal laziness or indifference.

While WAC programs may not always be carried out according to the theories that underpin them, they are still considered not only pedagogically sound but highly desirable. They have, however, ignored reading instruction, as have most programs, innovative or not, in higher education; the assumption is, reading does not need to be taught past middle school. Williams and her co-authors never mention reading as she provides background: “WAC programs have historically been built on the principle that students need to be active participants in their learning and that writing is a vehicle for them to become engaged in course content while they construct knowledge.” Writing and critical thinking are the main focus in school improvement efforts, including those here at the College, like the Critical Thinking and Writing (CTW) initiative; reading, however, is like the servant, who is responsible for the meal, but not invited to sit at the table. While a Reading Across the Curriculum program, like a WAC program, would employ active learning strategies, the focus would be on the intricate connection between reading, writing, and critical thinking and would ensure that reading ability is no longer taken as a given.


A RAC program here—formal or informal—would most likely increase teacher awareness of reading issues, as WAC programs have increased faculty awareness of student writing and writing instruction. If WAC programs have translated this “heightened interest” into “higher expectation of self, in terms of pedagogy, and higher expectation of student writing” (Williams and others), we may see similar translations of heightened faculty expectations of their own reading pedagogy and higher expectations of their students’ reading abilities.

A RAC program would, of course, be based on the assumption that reading instruction should be a whole school concern. Her Majesty’s Inspectors report that in the most effective schools, “high standards in reading were underpinned by a whole school commitment to ensure that all pupils could read” (4). It would seem that this holds true not just for primary and secondary schools, especially given the more complicated nature of reading in college courses. M. Priscilla Myers and Tom Savage, in their article “Enhancing Student Comprehension of Social Studies Material,” looking specifically at how to improve student comprehension in college-level social studies courses, make a point that can apply to all content areas: “It is obvious that students’ success in social studies programs hinges on their ability to read and comprehend the material in the textbook. […Yet,] learning from text is more complex than it appears and explains why ‘reading across the curriculum’ or ‘reading in content areas’ has be come a critical component of many school improvement efforts” (18).

A Reading Across the Curriculum (RAC) program would dictate that content teachers should not only reinforce general active reading strategies, like prediction, annotation, and double-entry note-taking, but also be responsible for teaching students how to read within their own discipline. Myers and Savage explain that “the ability to use reading and writing strategies to learn new content” is defined as “content literacy” and make a distinction between this and content knowledge. Content literacy is more than being able to decode the words in the text, more than locating main idea and supporting points; it means being able to, in a history class for example, read like a historian. They imply that reading historical texts is difficult even for the average college student, let alone the student who comes to college less prepared. What is called for is a shift from the teaching of content to the teaching of content literacy.

A RAC program—formal or not—would also need to address issues of student motivation and attribution. As Paula White points out, reading research has found clear links between student motivation and reading success. This relationship makes an impact on an institutional level as well. Her Majesty’s Inspectors conclude that ineffective “schools seldom built on pupils’ own reading interests and the range of reading material they read outside school” (4). Taking into account issues of student interest may be as simple as having a discussion about a given topic before reading a relevant text, whether a textbook chapter or a poem.

While it is true that our mission institutionally and instructionally should be to expand student interest, bringing them into the realm of interests held by those with a general education, student motivation cannot be left out of any equation hoping to achieve school improvement. When student interests are not taken into consideration, the general feelings of alienation from class work are compounded. Myers and Savage insist, “Teachers need to be cognizant of and sensitive to students’ backgrounds and experiences, motivation and interest, attention spans, and beliefs about reading and about the self as a reader” (19). Undoubtedly, many college instructors might find such considerations too “touch-feely” and not within the traditional sphere of professorial concerns. Yet we should consider motivational theory. Research has found that what Julian Rotter calls an “internal locus of control” is the best indicator of success in school, especially among poor students. Further, “several studies found […p]arents’ warmth, protectiveness, consistency, and attentiveness produce a more internal locus of control” (Tweng 311). If we stand any chance of helping our students to become internally motivated, we need to create classroom environments that foster feelings of self-worth and respect for student experiences. This is not a matter of accommodation or appeasement—it is simply sound pedagogy, the only means to the desired ends: student success. More than likely, even the most stodgy professor has a personal history in which his own love of learning was incubated in an environment that was, to some degree, “touchy-feely.”

And finally, a RAC program—like most WAC programs—would be based in the notion of process: reading requires revision. Let me conclude by describing two of my favorite classroom exercises, both easily transportable into any content class, that encourage students to see reading as a reflective practice. The first is peer review, enlisted in the service of reading instruction. In small groups, students, using the aid of a reading rubric, assess the reading ability (as manifested in short reading quizzes requiring explanation of a brief non-fiction passage) of their fellow classmates. Not only does this activity spawn small group discussion of the text, but also provides us with a forum to consider the complexities of—as well as the expression of—comprehension and interpretation. The second activity is collaborative summary writing. In small groups, students write a summary of the assigned reading, which is due at the end of the class period. Students engage in discussion as they reread the text and negotiate among themselves what the main point and supporting points are. I collect their summaries at the end of class (allowing me to quickly and easily assess their comprehension) and type them up for evaluation, again with the aid of a rubric, and discussion during the next class meeting. In each exercise, student understanding of both the reading material and the reading process are deepened.


Students want to learn; any vibe we might sense to the contrary is merely defensive posturing. Here is one English 101 student’s end of the semester self-assessment: “As far as reading goes, the story we read from [Edward O.] Wilson, ‘Is Humanity Suicidal?’ was a really tough one to me. What I realized[,] though, was I was able to figure out a lot of the meanings by doing the double journal entries. It was really exciting, because before this class, I would have looked at a story like that, as boring, unreadable, and I really would have had no idea how to figure it out. I really feel like I’m getting smart. I used to think stories like Wilson’s were for smart people, and they really had nothing to do with me. I guess because I couldn’t figure out the meanings, stories like that were of no use to me…. I will miss reading and discussing what we’ve read the most.”

Works Cited

Grubb, Norton W. “Black Box To Pandora’s Box: Evaluating Remedial / Developmental Education.” Community College Research Center. Feb. 2001. Teachers College, Columbia University. 10 April 2006. .

Hart, Betty and Todd R. Risley. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, 2003.

Healy, Jane. Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1991.

Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI). Ofsted. “Reading for Purpose and Pleasure: An Evaluation of Teaching of Reading in Primary Schools.” Dec. 2004 .

Hirsh, Edmund. “The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-rich Curriculum Core for all Children.” American Educator Spring 2006: 8+.

Knuth, R. A. and B.F. Jones. “What Does Research Say About Reading?” North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, Oak Brook, 1991. 10 April 2006. .

Myers, M. Priscilla and Tom Savage. “Enhancing Students’ Comprehension of Social Studies Material.” The Social Studies Jan/Feb 2005: 18-23.

Patthey-Chavez, Genevieve, Paul H. Dillon, and Joan Tomas Spiegal. “How Far Do They Get? Tracking Students with Different Academic Literacies.” TETYC March 2005: 260-77.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Soliday, Mary. The Politics of Remediation. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2002.

Sommers, Jeff. “Illustrating the Reading Process: The In-Class Read Aloud Protocol.” TETYC March 2005: 298-306.

Tweng, Jean M., Liqing Zhang, and Charles Im. “It’s Beyond My Control: A Cross Temporal Meta-Analysis of Increasing Externality in Locus of Control, 1960-2002.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 8.3 (2004): 308-19.

Williams, Karen et al. “A Collaborative Faculty Approach for Improving Teaching of Writing and Critical Thinking Across Disciplines: A Wyoming Case Study.” U of Wyoming, 2002. 10 April 2006..

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