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

Teaching Reading Across the Curriculum: A Collective Responsibility

by Paula White
English Department

The article below by Paula White, and “Access, Readiness, and College Reading,” by Madeline Marcotte were the basis of a SoTL presentation by Professors White and Marcotte at the College during the Spring semester of 2006.

When I recently read the results of a study conducted by the American Institutes for Research which disclosed that more than 75% of students at two-year colleges lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, that in fact, “...most college students cannot handle many complex but common tasks, such as understanding credit card offers and comparing the cost per ounce of food” (Feller A4), I was not surprised: I had just finished teaching two sections of English 102, and it was an eye-opening experience. Early in the semester it quickly became apparent that most of my students had insufficient reading skills to satisfactorily complete the research paper assignment. They were unable to employ effective research strategies such as replacing their chosen key words with synonyms and limiting or expanding their search terms. When they found sources, they were unable to understand what they were reading. In a paper on the death penalty, a student wrote, “Electrocution, firing squad, and hanging are not used anymore except in certain states such as Delaware, New Hampshire, Washington, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah.” His source, however, states, “Delaware, New Hampshire and Washington still authorize hanging. The firing squad can still be used in Idaho, Oklahoma and Utah. The remaining states authorize either electrocution, lethal gas or lethal injection” (Manning and Rhoden-Trader).

In this same student’s paper, I was shocked to learn that “a 1998 study in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to ask for the death penalty.” Again consulting his source, I read, “Ninety-eight percent of prosecutors are Caucasian and are much more likely to ask for the death penalty....A 1998 study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than Caucasians accused of identical crimes” (Manning and Rhoden-Trader). I found the same lack of comprehension demonstrated by this indidvidual manifest in many of my students: they were unable to understand main ideas of various articles, understand what type of source they were looking at, and unable to provide a coherent synthesis of their research, all skills requiring a competent level of literacy. I was disheartened, but after talking to various colleagues, I learned my experience was not singular and, in fact, those two classes encouraged me to take a closer look at our students.

According to a recent study conducted by ACT, “only 51% of 2005 ACT-tested high school students are ready for college-level reading” (1). Other disturbing information that parallels our student population is that “male students, African American students, Hispanic American students, Native American Students, and students from families whose yearly income is below $30,000 are less likely than the ACT-tested population as a whole to be ready for college-level reading” and that seventy percent of students who enter college and take one or more remedial reading courses do not earn a college degree or certificate within eight years of enrollment (2). Here at Community College of Philadelphia, the summary of placement between January and December 2005 indicates that only 13.7% of incoming students were placed at the college level. This fact, and our overall graduation rate of approximately 9%, could imply that reading is a stumbling block for our students in their attempts to achieve academic success. These data may indicate that many, if not most, of our students have insufficient reading skills that impede them from truly learning, truly comprehending course material which will allow them in subsequent course work to apply new information to a core of knowledge.

Another ACT finding that we should consider is that reading is not taught adequately in high schools: “High school English teachers are traditionally viewed—and view themselves—as outside the teaching of reading, because the assumption has been that students come to them knowing how to read” (9). Their focus appears to be on content versus literacy instruction. I think that we, too, share the belief that when our students enter our classrooms they can read, but in stead, they often lack good reading skills because everyone has made the same assumption—subsequently, for many of our students, much reading instruction is needed. Given the time constraints we face over the course of a semester, it is apparent that the instruction of reading cannot take place in English classrooms only, but instead must be taught across disciplines. Additionally, Nancy Fordham points out that content instructors, because they are experts in their fields, are the “best equipped to show students how to read the texts unique to their subjects” (390).

As well as our students’ literacy levels, we also must consider the fact that many of our students are at-risk, as defined by Community College Survey of Student Engagement [CESSIE]: “... students who [are] enrolled in remedial courses, [do] not enter college immediately after high school, [have] one or more dependents, [attend] college part-time, [are] single parents, [are] financially independent, [work] 30 or more hours per week, or [are] the first in their families to attend college” (Evelyn). Donna Mealey argues that “Motivation is the key predictor of academic performance” (599) and notes that “Until at-risk students are motivated to take responsibility for their own learning, until they attribute their success to their own efforts, until they see themselves as learners, they will be unable to take advantage of strategic learning instruction” (598), which she defines as a blending of cognitive skills and motivational will. So how can we possibly, in a fifteen week semester, motivate our students and move our students into the role of strategic learners? In other words, how can we help them to become active, independent learners? The answer is if we recognize that learning is a continuum, all instructors can employ active learning strategies designed to engage students with a text, increase their comprehension, and motivate them to become, as Robert Barr and John Tagg describe, “constructors of their own knowledge” (21).

What is it to learn? Is it to memorize facts, various bits of data for a given purpose, such as a test, or is it to understand information, and, as John Bransford et al. argue, have the ability to transfer that knowledge to other contexts? (9). Much instruction supports the former definition of learning. According to Bransford et al., “Many curricula fail to support learning with understanding because they present too many disconnected facts in a short time....Tests often reinforce memorizing rather than understanding” (24). Barr and Tagg assert that “the primary learning environment for undergraduate students, the fairly passive lecture-discussion format where faculty talk and most students listen, is contrary to almost every principle of optimal settings for student learning” (13-14). There is much research that suggests classrooms must be learner-centered, student-centered (Bransford et al. 12-27; Barr and Tagg). The underlying concept here is that people must take control of their learning, or become active learners, defined simply by Paulson and Faust as “any activities students do in a classroom other than just listening to the teacher’s lecture....Active learning techniques allow instructors to assess the students and their level of learning throughout the course. When students learn actively, they become more connected to the subject matter...” (qtd. in Fritz). Our role, then, as instructors is to employ strategies, active learning strategies, that encourage the independent, engaged role students must assume to effectively learn.

Community College of Philadelphia’s Mission Statement clearly establishes our purpose: when our students graduate they will be productive, inquisitive people able to participate meaningfully in their communities. Our overall goal, then, meshes with Bransford’s definition of the goal of education: “[to help] students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge that allows people to think productively about history, science seems that in order to achieve this ideal, we must consider our role and our students’ role in the classroom, and we must consider active learning strategies, specifically reading strategies that ensure learning and assessment take place – an institutional responsibility that should be shared by all faculty across disciplines.

I’ve heard it said that our students “hit a wall” when they get into the courses demanding a higher level of reading abilities. The findings from the Office of Institutional Research support this belief. Spring 2002 data show that in English 101 and 102 classes, there is a fail rate or no grade rate in these courses of 23% and 29 %, respectively (“Table 70”; “Table 71”). Having taught both 101 and 102, I have noticed that among several issues facing our students are the issues of motivation and inadequate reading skills. A crucial step in moving students from being passive learners to active learners, those who understand their role in the learning process, is to make them aware of their role in their learning through metacognitive strategies.

Donna Mealey convincingly asserts, “Without metacognitive awareness of why and when to use learning strategies, transfer to independent learning may not occur.” Metacognitive strategies can and should be taught across the curriculum (Mealey 601; Bransford et al.19). Some possibilities applicable to course reading are asking students to keep a journal of their difficulties, successes, and strategies with assigned reading. Essentially, instructors are asking students to think about their reading process: how they identify key concepts, how they comprehend material, how they prepare for tests on the course reading (Mealey 599). Additionally, instructors are afforded the opportunity to ask questions relating to students’ learning strategies or comprehension of the text or both. In essence, the instructor and the student have engaged in a dialogue about the reading. Peggy Estrada writes,

Dialogue between teachers and students assumes a unique and pivotal role because it makes students’ thinking audible, thus allowing teachers to more accurately assess students’ positions in the zone [of proximal development] and responsively assist their performance through a variety of means....Over time, students internalize such dialogue with their teachers, thereby moving from other- to self-regulation. Engaging in this kind of dialogue with their teachers is a critical issue of access to learning, particularly for students from homes with less formal educational capital. (322)

Instructors can encourage their students to employ metacognitive strategies when they test by asking students to reflect on their skill. Some instructors give multiple choice tests: they can ask students to describe their confidence level in answering each question. For those instructors who give essay tests, they can ask students to write briefly how prepared they were, what their study strategy was for the test, what grade they think they’ll get and why (Mealey 600). Bransford et al. argue, “Because metacognition often takes the form of an internal dialogue, many students may be unaware of its importance unless the processes are explicitly emphasized by teachers” (21). If we want students to understand their role in the learning process, we must “spell out” their involvement in test success or failure. Fordham points out that in addition to asking questions that only assess comprehension, we need to also ask questions that ask how challenging material is comprehended. These questions focus on activating background knowledge, previewing material, predicting, making connections, questioning the text, inferring, visualizing, clarifying, self-monitoring, summarizing and evaluating (392). According to Fordham, “these are the essential cognitive gear that generates active and proficient comprehension” (392). Self-monitoring questions are helpful to instructors in devising necessary intervention strategies for floundering students, but they are helpful to students because they begin to see themselves as the critical factor in their academic success.

In addition to metacognitive strategies, reading process strategies should be reinforced by instructors across the disciplines. Roman Taraban describes a study in a developmental class that focused on annotation of texts and “looking back” in the text for test answers students were unsure of. Some principles gleaned from this study are applicable to tests in all courses, no matter the format of those tests. One such principle is annotation. Students should be encouraged to annotate in the margins of their texts, including paraphrase and summary of key concept. We should keep in mind, though, that we may need to model what we consider annotation so that we may, as Taraban notes, “[provide] the reasoning behind the annotation notes.” The goals of annotation are to get students to slow down, to move into the posture of active reader, to immediately construct knowledge from a text, to enable students to work from their annotations in preparation for a test. The lookback method is particularly useful after a test has been returned to a student. We can ask students to immediately go back to the text and look up the answer instead of just orally reviewing. We can also allow students to prepare for the test review, when it is more likely, after finding the correct answers on their own, they will comprehend content as it is coming to them from the text and from us.

For many, lecture is the bedrock of a course and, used sparingly, can be an effective pedagogical strategy, although research suggests that whole class and small group discussion are far more effective (Bransford et al. 9-20). Class discussion can be effective in enhancing student comprehension of a text and in allowing instructors to assess student comprehension. Studies indicate that students value discussion, citing greater text comprehension (Ciardiello 212; Estrada; Rosenshine et al.) and increased social and communication skills among the benefits (Pomerantz). It is important, though, that students prepare for the discussion. Francesca Pomerantz describes steps in instructional conversation (IC), including providing a “high level of responsivity to students’ contributions, [asking] open-ended questions ... and the use of text and experience as a basis for statements...”.

The most pertinent aspect to ICs, though, is the student preparation beforehand: students write summaries of text material and pose questions for the IC. Studies show that students asking questions leads to greater comprehension of material (Ciardiello 212) and Bransford notes, “Fundamental understanding about subjects, including how to frame and ask meaningful questions about various subject areas, contributes to individuals' more basic understanding of principles of learning that can assist them in becoming self-sustaining, lifelong learners” (5). Ciardiello asserts that question gen eration is both a cognitive and metacognitive strategy: it is cognitive because generating questions “requires students to search or inspect the text, identify main ideas, and make connections among ideas as a basis for raising a relevant question....Questioning is also a comprehension-monitoring and regulating process. It serves as a form of self-checking to assess if the material is understood....self questioning is the most effective monitoring and regulating strategy of all the metacognitive strategies” (212).

Finally, reciprocal teaching is another active reading strategy that is beneficial to students in their learning and instructors in their assessment of student learning. Rosenshine et al. discuss the benefits of reciprocal teaching: “...the teacher models the cognitive process being taught and then provides cognitive support in the form of coaching (scaffolding) for the students as they attempt the task. As the student becomes more proficient, the teacher fades the support and students provide support for each other. Reciprocal teaching is a way of modifying the guided practice so that students take a more active role, eventually assuming the role of coteacher.”

At mid-semester, I require groups of students to teach the class a chapter or section of the text. I vary the assignment depending on the class level: In English 099, students create a panel discussion of a portion of the text and invite questions from their peers. In English 108, students teach a chapter of the text, and I require them to make handouts and/or a quiz for the class. In English 102, students are required to make a presentation on their research findings and their peers are required to ask questions. No matter the class, the goal of the assignment is clear: to teach their peers about a text. However, I am able to effectively assess the entire class’s comprehension of the text from this exercise.

CESSIE discloses that faculty and students often have very different perceptions about what is taking place in the classroom; for example, “93% of faculty members say they give prompt feedback to students ‘often’ or ‘very often,’ while only 55% of students agree” (Evelyn). A point that can be drawn from CESSIE’s findings is that instructors may not always be aware of problems, specifically content comprehension problems, until it is too late for the student. As Bransford et al. note, “Ongoing assessments designed to make students’ thinking visible to both teachers and students are essential. They permit the teacher to grasp the students’ preconceptions, understand where the students are in the ‘developmental corridor’ from informal to formal thinking, and design instruction accordingly” (24). Active learning strategies in the teaching of reading across the curriculum not only enable students to become true learners but allow us to more accurately assess their learning and intervene in a timely manner, thereby more closely fulfilling our stated mission to provide access to higher education for all who may benefit.


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Pomerantz, Francesca. “What Do Students Learn From Classroom Discussion? Exploring the Effects on Instructional Conversations on College Students’ Learning.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the National Reading Conference, Austin, Dec. 2-5, 1998. ERIC. Community College of Philadelphia Library, Philadelphia, Pa. 14 Feb. 2005.

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Maintained by Jay Howard,Sept 2006