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Reading, Writing and Return on Investment

As our society invests more in community colleges, we must focus on the many entering students who lack the literacy skills they need to learn from a postsecondary curriculum.
To be truly literate, college students must understand what they’ve read well enough to summarize it, analyze it, question it, write about it and in general make use of it in a variety of contexts. Often, students have not had sufficient practice in applying higher-level literacy strategies to make sense of, say,
a densely written science textbook.
 
Summarization is particularly challenge because it depends on identifying the most important ideas in texts. Many academically under-prepared students have difficulty distinguishing more from less important information in written sources.
 
Students need to practice literacy skills within the contexts of specific subjects. TC’s Community College Research Center, together with Bronx Community College, Los Angeles Pierce College and Norwalk Community College, has developed and evaluated such an intervention for community college students doing remedial coursework.
 
The intervention—a self-paced curricular supplement—supports practice in identifying main ideas in text and applying them to summary writing, as well as employing academic vocabulary, generating questions and writing opinions. It also grounds reading and writing skills in subjects such as anatomy and physiology, which are appropriate for the many community college students who aspire to careers in health care but struggle with science courses.
 
Summaries written by students benefiting from our intervention contain more of the important ideas from source texts than those written by a comparison group. The summaries are longer than those they wrote prior to the intervention. Also, students who practiced with science texts write more accurate summaries than did comparison groups.
 
Literacy skills are non-negotiable for success in college and life, and thus for a good return on America’s investment in community colleges. As models for how to instill those skills emerge, let’s act on what we know, quickly. Our future depends on it.
 
Dolores Perin is Professor of Psychology and Education, and Senior Research Associate at the Community College Research Center.
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