This is the 2012-13 Mentor-Mentee Project developed by Sara Kepros, reading instructor specialist at Learning Services.
College professors have reason to be concerned about their students’ abilities to successfully comprehend their course texts. Students across the United States are leaving high school and entering college lacking the reading skills to succeed in their classes. In fact, the National Endowment for the Arts (2007) found that “little more than a third of high school seniors now read proficiently” (p. 13). Furthermore, when we take a look at adult readers the numbers are startling. The National Adult Literacy Survey (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993) found that almost half of the adults in the US, or 90 million people, scored in the two lowest levels of functional literacy (Moore & Stavrianos, 1995). With the data from these studies, and more like them, we can’t ignore the need to provide classes that help students improve their reading skills and strategies and grow into strategic readers.
In order to begin to close the gap here at Kirkwood, it is important to look at the students who are recommended, or required, to take College Reading. One group of students we find in our classes are those who have taken the Compass reading test (or the ACT test) and attained a low score. The low scores help advisors or program directors flag the students and recommend they take College Reading to improve their reading skills. Another group of students taking College Reading are those students who are “forced” into the course due to cut-off scores in certain classes or programs at Kirkwood.
No matter the path that our students take in coming to College Reading it is true that many of them have been marginalized in the education system for one reason or another and they bring those experiences with them to the course. Another important consideration is that almost all of our students do not see themselves as readers due to their struggles with reading challenging texts. Therefore, one of the important questions for me becomes: What factors need to be present in a college reading course to best meet the needs of the students taking this class?
This year I have been researching three aspects of literacy education – choice, social collaboration and active reading habits – to see what their impacts are on the growth of reading skills, as well as engagement in reading, for students enrolled in College Reading. While I have researched each of these areas, for this paper I plan to focus on providing students choice. Providing students with choice in the texts they read is not a new phenomenon. Many literacy researchers have found that choice leads to higher motivation and engagement in reading for struggling and reluctant readers (Taylor & Nesheim, 2000; Smith & Wilhelm, 2002; Boston & Boxley, 2007). Once learners are motivated they are known to make choices to stay engaged and to push through difficulties because of their interest and the expectation of outcome (Wiesen, 2001).
If paying attention to the voices of students is not enough reason for instructors to provide more choice, future teachers surely carry a powerful voice. When Lesley (2011) gathered data from preservice secondary teachers she found them to have similar beliefs as their future students regarding the value of choice. Nearly all of the 114 undergraduate students who participated in this study described becoming bored and therefore disconnected from the majority of reading assignments presented to them in school. When these students were forced to read textbooks or literature they found their interest in reading lacking. Conversely, when given choice their engagement and motivation increased significantly. One female agricultural education major wrote, “I hated reading books for class not because it was hard, because I had to. Something about having the choice of what I read and didn’t read made all the difference in my technique, mindset, and overall enthusiasm” (p. 31). As the female education major explains so well, lack of choice can greatly affect one’s motivation to read.
Not only can choice help students become engaged with their reading, choice can also combat a common and often overlooked roadblock to reading success – textbook difficulty. It is a reality that textbook difficulty can impede a student’s success in comprehending the material. Research shows that many instructors choose textbooks written two or three years above the average grade level of their students (Chall & Conard, 1991; Budiansky, 2001). Interestingly, as stated by Allington (2002) “adults won’t read hard texts voluntarily – not because we lack character, but because we’ve had too many frustrating experiences trying to learn from texts that were simply too difficult, had too many unfamiliar words, and had complicated sentences that seemed purposely tangled in an attempt to frustrate us” (p. 18). So, if we, as adult learners, choose easier and more manageable texts to learn a new topic, skill or craft, why do we holdfast to the notion that challenging texts benefit our students when they are learning new ideas?
One solution to combat textbook difficulty presented by Allington is giving students choice. He explained how “exemplary teachers offered students” managed choice (p. 18). Essentially, while all students are learning the same content, they can be doing this through a multitude of texts or experiences that they all bring together and dissect. Teachers, Diane Lapp and Douglas Fisher (2009) arrived at similar conclusions about managed choice through work done with 24 students they taught at Health Sciences High and Middle College. They organized their literacy choices around theme questions that would appeal to their students. They created a list of text selections based on the guiding questions and students were allowed to choose a text from this list to read. Their experience during this yearlong study “confirmed for (them) the importance of choice in student learning” (p.561). In fact, Lapp and Fisher found that often students’ first selections led them to another text they wanted to read.
This idea of managed choice, or balancing complete choice with teacher input, appeals to me as a literacy instructor. While the research shows, and my own personal experience confirms, there are significant benefits to allowing students to choose what they will read, I know there are equal benefits to reading a shared text as a class. For example, when my College Reading classes read the memoir Night by Elie Wiesel, about his time spend in a concentration camp as a teenager, we were able to together deepen our insights into the resilience of the human spirit and better understand what it means to forgive while not forgetting while simultaneously applying reading skills and strategies we were learning to this common text. So the challenge for me becomes how to balance student choice with shared, required texts.
I have experimented with some ways of accomplishing both goals during my first year at Kirkwood and have ideas for how to continue to work toward these parallel goals. This fall, I chose four texts that each student was required to read for College Reading. The texts were chosen based on overarching questions I formed as a way to pull the texts together and appeal to where young adults are at in their lives. The questions were: What is your life worth and to whom? What are the consequences of my actions? Who hold the power in our society? How does that power structure affect me? And the texts each student was required to read were:
- If you come softly by Jacqueline Woodson
- The True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
While the texts seemed to engage students and lead to thoughtful, interaction discussions as well as evidence of use of comprehension skills such as analyzing, connecting, questioning, inferring and synthesizing, space for choice was clearly lacking. So, this spring I adjusted my curriculum and narrowed the required text selection to only two books: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian and Night, while allowing students to choose a memoir they would like to read. We situated the various memoirs around the topic of resilience and how we could learn from the resilience of each of our authors. I also added a weekly assignment we called Reading Seminar. This was where students were able to choose any short text they wanted to read, annotate and bring in to discuss. The only requirements were that the text was not boring to them and contained a few unknown words. As the semester went on, I adjusted the assignment so that students were required to find more challenging articles.
The Reading Seminar part of the class was successful on many fronts. First of all, it led to the discussion of current events that some students were unaware of completely as well as stimulated debates regarding controversial issues in society (gun control, the welfare system, etc.). Also, because students were leading the discussions based on texts they chose, they were able to become the experts and bearers of knowledge. Students also needed to read critically in order to be able to lead the discussion and answer the questions that were to come from fellow classmates. Furthermore, students were required to identify and analyze two unknown words with each text they presented. This led to organic teaching and learning regarding parts of speech, predicted meaning of unknown words, the dictionary definition that best fits the context and how to connect the word to their own lives. It was wonderful to see how affording choice led to such multilayered learning.
While I will be better able to assess the success of the added choice after the semester comes to a close, I am already thinking of ways to include more choice in the fall. Recently I attended the International Reading Conference and was reignited with my desire to make room for complete choice in the College Reading classroom. I attended a session at the conference entitled, “Literacy Lessons from Incarcerated Adolescents: Using Case Study Data from Juvenile Hall Settings to Improve Independent Reading Practice”. The presenter, Janice Pilgreen from the University of La Verne, La Canada presented her study about why adolescent males in juvenile hall are choosing to read and how this correlates with the classroom.
Essentially, her findings point to the need for sustained silent reading time in all classrooms in order to create lifelong readers. After reviewing 32 studies regarding sustained silent reading she was able to identify 8 factors that all of the successful programs included. The factors are: access to books, books that appeal to young adults, a conducive environment for reading, encouragement from the teacher, staff training, non-accountability in terms of book reports/projects for the books read, an opportunity to talk about what they’ve read and distributed time (across the week) to read. After reflecting on how high school teachers are working to include complete choice for their students, I am contemplating how to find a space for this complete choice in my classroom and how to help students understand the lifelong benefits of reading in their lives.
Although I began this study already believing that choice is an essential component in a reading classroom, I have grown to understand more fully why this is important as well as how to provide this for college students. I am excited to continue to try new ideas and techniques in College Reading as well as become a resource for other Kirkwood instructors to help them understand how they could adapt their courses in simple yet profound ways for their students. Choice could become the golden thread that works for all students during their journey through Kirkwood.
Allington, R.L. (2002). You Can’t Learn Much from Books You Can’t Read. Educational Leadership, 16-19.
Boston, G.H., & Baxley, T. (2007). Living the literature: Race, gender construction, and black female adolescents. Urban Education, 42(6), 560-581.
Budiansky, S. (2001). The trouble with textbooks. Prism, 10(6).
Chall, J.S., & Conard, S.S. (1991). Should textbooks challenge students? New York: Teachers College Press.
Kirsch, I., Jungeblut, A., Jenkins, L., & Kolstad, A. (1993). Adult literacy in America. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics.
Lapp, D. & Fisher, D. (2009). It’s All About the Book: Motivating Teens to Read. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(7), 556-561.
Lesley, M., (2011). Understanding Resistence: Preservice Teachers’ Discourse Models of Struggling Readers and School Literacy Tasks. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55, 25-34.
Moore, M., & Stavrianos, M. (1995). Review of adult education programs and their effectiveness: A background paper for reauthorization of the Adult Education Act. Washington, DC: Mathematical Policy Research.
National Endowment for the Arts. (2007). To read or not to read: A question of national consequence (Research Report No. 47). Retrieved from www.arts.gov/research/ToRead.pdf
Smith, M.W., & Wilhelm, J.D. (2002). Reading don’t fix no Chevys: Literacy in the lives of young men. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Taylor, S.V., & Nesheim, D.W. (2000). Reading for meaning: Fostering comprehension in the middle grades. New York: Teachers College Press.
Wiesen, B. (2001). Content-based learning in English for academic purposes courses in teachers’ college. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44, 372-381.
About Sara Kepros
Sara Kepros is a Reading Specialist at Kirkwood. She teaches College Reading as well as Effective Reading Strategies. Sara also does guest teaching in courses across the campus, teaching students strategies and tools for increasing their comprehension of course texts. She would love to talk to you about teaching in your class! Sara holds a Master’s in Developmental Reading from the University of Iowa and has been teaching in the Education Department at the U of I for the past 12 years.