2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College Columbia University

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The Benefits of Reading in Context

Developmental education students at community colleges are more successful if they practice with texts that develop literacy skills they will need in college, instead of using more general, abstract reading material. That is a key finding of a recent study by Dolores Perin, Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; and Rachel Hare, Senior Research Assistant at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College.

The results suggest that remedial, or developmental, reading and writing classes at community colleges could be more effective if, instead of using traditional, basic reading texts, they focused on materials that contain information about subjects students will study later in college. The strategy could help equip under-prepared students for college-level courses that require them to read highly factual, dense material. Although developmental education students often practice reading from college textbooks, they rarely do sustained reading in a single content area—biology, for example--as they did in the Perin and Hare study.

“The aim of the intervention,” Perin and Hare write in a brief on the study, “is to provide systematic practice in basic academic skills to augment and strengthen the learning occurring in developmental education classrooms.” 

Community colleges are struggling to accommodate the growing number of students who arrive at their doors unprepared to do college work. An earlier study, done by Perin and Kerry Charron, found that educators are taking different creative approaches to this problem, but little has been done to evaluate the effectiveness of these approaches.

Most community colleges refer under-prepared students to remedial courses, hoping they will prepare them for college-level work. According to the CCRC, more than half of community college students enroll in at least one developmental education course during their time in college. Many more are referred and never enroll.

In the brief on their recent study, “A Contextualized Reading-Writing Intervention for Community College Students,” Perin and Hare write that, instead of focusing on reading and writing skills in the abstract, their approach uses “direct reference to real-life situations,” in an attempt to make the classes more relevant to college and work situations. “The real-life situation on which we based our study is the pressing need to be able to read textbook material in college-level courses,” Perin says. “This is something under-prepared students find very difficult.”  For their study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, Perin and Hare designed a curricular supplement which they called the Content Comprehension Strategy Intervention (CSSI). They used it with three groups of students in upper-level developmental reading and writing courses (one level below college English), at Bronx Community College, Los Angeles Pierce College, and Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. The grant required that they develop the intervention in several phases, and collect preliminary data on how effective the intervention might be. Perin and Hare tested the fully-developed intervention with a total of 246 students at two community colleges.

Using the intervention that Perin and Hare designed, two groups of students in developmental education classes were given supplemental materials to read outside of class. They read 10 passages, one per week, over one semester. One group read passages containing language and concepts in biology, often a required subject at community colleges. A second group read passages on a variety of themes, such as genetic testing, entrepreneurship, censorship, and drug addiction, of the type often used in developmental education but not directly connected to college-level course work.  The intervention provided weekly practice in written summarization, question-formulation, vocabulary skills, and persuasive writing based on these readings.

Both two intervention groups were tested on written summarization and reading comprehension skills before and after the intervention. A third, comparison, group, also in a developmental education class, did not use the supplemental intervention but took the same pre- and post-tests. The same skills were tested in all three groups; what differed was the type of reading material they used.

When the researchers compared test scores for all three groups, they found that the intervention strategy showed a “promising pattern of results.” Both groups that used the intervention compared favorably with the group that did not. And on some measures, the group that used the science version of the intervention showed better gains than the group using the traditional developmental education text.

In written summaries of the readings, for example, the group that had read science-oriented materials identified 52 percent of the main ideas in the readings, up from 42 percent before the intervention. The second group, which read the traditional developmental material, identified 48 percent of the main ideas, up from 40 percent, while the comparison group, which did not participate in the intervention, did not improve. Only students in the first group significantly improved on the ability to present accurate information in their summaries.

Some of the test results were less encouraging. While the science group’s summaries were more accurate, they also contained more word-for-word copying in the summaries, suggesting that the subjects were not confident of their command of the material. “This and other dimensions of the study will be discussed in a longer paper currently in preparation,” the authors write, noting that further research is necessary to learn whether the benefits of contextualized reading and writing intervention can be generalized over larger populations, and whether students who receive this intervention do well in college-level courses.

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