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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Reading to Learn

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Reading to Learn

Dolores Perin


Rethinking literacy development in older students

by Patricia Lamiell

“Younger students learn to read,” says Dolores Perin. “Older students read to learn.”

That observation, drawn from well-known research, may be the key to overcoming one of the nation’s most daunting educational challenges: the estimated  75 percent of high school graduates who are deficient in literacy.

That figure, which TC President Susan Fuhrman has called “more than an embarrassment—a potential disaster,” is not quite as monolithic as it sounds.

“The same kids who are struggling with history and the sciences are reading instructions for video games and magazines about their favorite rap stars—and getting meaning from the words,” says Carol D. Lee, Professor of Education and Social Policy in the Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University,

Partly that’s because they care about video games and rap stars—which supports a seemingly counter-intuitive finding by Perin, who coordinates TC’s Reading Specialist program: that struggling older readers can be successful if they tackle more difficult, age-appropriate material rather than texts aimed at much younger students. The caveat: the assigned materials must be directly related to their everyday lives or career aspirations. Thus a struggling community college student who eventually wants to work in health care, for example, can improve his or her literacy skills by practicing with texts on anatomy and physiology.

“It’s an extension of John Dewey’s idea that learning is best acquired through active engagement in solving real-life problems,” Perin says.

A soft-spoken woman with a halo of dark, curly hair, Perin recalls her mother, who did not attend college, teaching her to read when she was three. Later, Perin’s younger sister volunteered in a literacy program for teenage girls. Many hid the fact that they couldn’t read. “They never even told their boyfriends,” Perin recalls. “I thought, how will they cope, how will they get by?”

Perin, whose degree is in psychology, has since spent much of her career searching for answers to that question. Issues of motivation, stigma and shame have certainly been part of her focus, but so have the reading skills that are essential learning in high school or college.

To navigate factual text in the sciences or social studies, which can be densely written and hard to understand, students must identify, assimilate, synthesize and draw conclusions from large amounts of information. This allows them to comprehend and develop complex ideas. They must also be able to read critically and to apply the knowledge acquired from reading to practical problems and situations.

This framing of “content area literacy,” as it is known, is not new, but most schools of education cover it only generally, and discipline-area teachers often don’t know how to use it effectively. Thus, from 2005 to 2007, Perin, with funding from Carnegie Corporation of New York, led a group of TC faculty members in developing coursework to prepare middle and high school preservice teachers to teach literacy in their subject areas. TC’s innovation, Perin says, “is to prepare our students to teach reading and writing using content from their specific disciplines.” The course work developed with the Carnegie funding consisted of an adolescent literacy course in the fall, customized for science and social studies preservice teachers, followed by a spring teaching seminar for the same cohort.

Another tenet of the course work is that students can learn to read in part by writing—an idea that Perin and co-author Steve Graham elaborated on in a 2007 report titled “Writing Next,” which was also funded by Carnegie.

“Researchers have long known that the conceptual demands of the social studies—history, civics, geography and economics—are the most challenging for students with poor literacy skills,” says Margaret Crocco, Chair of TC’s Social Studies and Education program, who helped Perin develop the course. “Faculty in the Program in Social Studies want to ensure that their preservice students understand the research basis for literacy strategies so they can use them effectively in their classrooms. Professor Perin’s class addresses this need.”

This past summer, with support from Carnegie and the TC Provost’s Investment Fund, Perin chaired a major working conference at TC on content-area literacy.

“Eastern Europe and Asia have leapfrogged ahead of the U.S.,” Andrés Henríquez, Program Officer for Urban Education at Carnegie Corporation, told the 150 educators in attendance. The United States has dropped from first to 13th in the world in high school completion rates, he said, and from second to 15th in college completion, while American schools continue to prepare 21st-century workers for 20th- or even 19th-century jobs.

Perin directed a recently-completed grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, which was housed at TC’s Community College Research Center (CCRC), to develop and test a curricular supplement for developmental reading and writing classes at community colleges. Results show that students who practiced reading with complex, technical texts in the area of science were measurably better at summarizing and synthesizing the information than those who either did not participate in the intervention or who used the intervention with traditional rather than the technical text. Data analysis is continuing. Rachel Hare, a TC doctoral student who is a senior research assistant at CCRC, coordinated the project and has collaborated with Perin on reporting its results.

Perin is also conducting a literature review on the value of contextualized reading and writing instruction. This work, for CCRC, is part of a national project funded by the Gates Foundation that seeks to determine how to accelerate progress for under-prepared students.

“Dolores has been a pioneer and national leader in the study of developmental education,” says Thomas Bailey, who directs CCRC. “Her survey should clear up the confusion and lack of consensus in the field.”

For Perin, it all gets back to that struggling kid who is living with an embarrassing secret. “We need to work with any student, of any age, as a human being with feelings,” she said two years ago, as a guest on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC public radio in New York. “We can’t give up on anyone, because they can always learn.”


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