You are here

Sponsored Content

Preparing Low-Performing Students for College Reading and Writing

Strategies for effective curriculum and instruction

Is it possible to help low-performing high school students avoid remedial classes in college reading and writing? Leaders in many states believe it is indeed possible and are now offering or requiring “college prep” or “college transition” courses in high school. These courses are designed to ensure that low-performing students will have the reading and writing skills they need when they graduate from high school.

In this web seminar, a reading and writing professor discussed some of the issues related to providing effective college prep, and highlighted solutions that can assist low-performing students before they enter higher ed.

English and Integrated Reading & Writing
McLennan Community
College (Texas)

I’ve taught community college English since 1989, and I have vacillated between teaching credit-level and developmental courses. I enjoy helping students get ready for college. And I’m interested in creating programs that can reduce the number of students who are required to take developmental courses.

Recent research shows that around 80 percent of high school teachers feel like their students are generally prepared for college, yet only around 20 percent of college instructors believe their students are prepared. The data supports the instructors’ view. Sixty percent of students entering community college require at least one remedial course.

By having to start in remediation, these students face difficulties. Motivation can lag. Programs can be problematic too. Students have to get through as many as six levels of math before they can get to college math. Then they are at a disadvantage, and they are definitely at risk for dropping out. Less than one-fourth of the students who place into developmental courses graduate with a degree or certificate within eight years.

Why is there such a low success rate with these students? It would be incorrect to say that the developmental courses are the barrier. The developmental courses are a ladder to success. These students come to us, however, with a lack of skills that makes their failure very likely. Add to that the fact that by the time students get into college, they have other responsibilities. They’re working, often 40 hours per week. Many of them are in relationships. They often don’t have the emotional intelligence or the behavioral habits that would equip them for success in college.

Reasons behind the lack of preparation

Why is there such a preparation gap? One reason is that there is a lack of clear information on students’ progress toward college and career readiness during the high school years. Often students are surprised that they place into a developmental course, but the curriculum that they learned in high school has not prepared them to do well in classes that require a lot of reading and writing.

The second reason for the separation gap is a mismatch between what high schools teach and the expectations of colleges and employers. For instance, many students come to me saying they've read and written about Shakespeare, yet they cannot write a complete sentence or find the main idea in a few paragraphs from a marketing textbook. These skills are prerequisite to Shakespeare. Why are we teaching so much fiction when students haven't mastered literal comprehension and basic writing?

The third reason is that even if a student does know that he or she is likely to place into a developmental course in college, there have not been programs available that allow those students to become college ready. Now that we are creating these programs, it’s crucial to make them mandatory. Why should we allow a student to graduate high school without the skills to place into college courses?

There has been a national movement to revise the way we remediate students. We want to find the most effective methods, and this is an exploding field of research with lots of states doing all kinds of things. In the last 10 to 15 years we learned that accelerated classes make a huge difference in the success rate of our students.

For example, instead of a student having to come to our institution and take three semester-long courses in reading and two in writing to achieve those college-level skills, we’ve tried to create a pedagogy that accelerates that skill delivery. We found that integrated reading and writing actually prepares students for what they’re going to do in real college-level courses. Students whose developmental courses are integrated (rather than taking writing and reading separately) have much higher pass rates in the gateway college courses, such as freshman composition.

We’re also trying to reduce the time required in mediation, and acceleration and integration can also help with that goal. Finally, we want to decrease the number of students needing remediation. Across the nation you’ll be seeing things such as transition and college prep courses to assist with that objective.

Developing an effective transition program

The Southern Regional Education Board suggested that you first need figure out how you’re going to identify students who would benefit from senior year transitional courses. The second thing is to figure out how you’re going to create your program. Will it be a program of online modules, or an in-house, one-year or two-semester course taught by a high school teacher? It’s imperative that college faculty and administration collaborate with high school administrators.

Once logistical problems have been solved, the next thing is to find professional development programs, or create them. Next, develop accountability plans, which are very important. Actually get together and look at what the data says, and recreate the course that you develop. Most of the good teachers I know recreate their teaching every semester. Keep what works; get rid of what doesn’t.

Another important element is preparing and carrying out communication and marketing plans so that the value of these courses can be clearly communicated. Buy-in and marketing are very important, especially if your state doesn’t require non-college ready students to take this type of a course.

Tips for creating a transition program

The first step I recommend is to create a dialogue between your local colleges and your public administration, faculty and administration.

Second, agree on a college readiness standard. Does it mean simply meeting ACT or SAT benchmarks? Passing a placement test? Having the cognitive skills, behavioral skills and motivation to do well in college? I suggest that we define college readiness as the ability to place into credit-level college courses, to work in a self-directed way, and to use critical and creative thinking to solve problems and to self-manage.

Third, decide on a pre-assessment and post-assessment for students in the course.

Fourth, have interested parties—with colleges taking the lead—agree on learning objectives and curriculum. Figure out the learning outcomes you want to see, including emotional intelligence, and find a way to measure them.

We are hopeful about being able to increase the number of students who place directly into college-level courses. With 60 percent at the community college level requiring remediation, we have to do better. This may seem like a huge challenge, but I believe it can be done.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit: