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Getting Students Ready to Do College Reading

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Syllabus-ted: Preparing Students for the Rigors of College Reading” by Laura Varlas in Education Update, July 2016 (Vol. 58, #7, p. 1, 4-5).
In this article in Education Update, Laura Varlas says all too many students do well on the ACT and SAT, but when they get to college, they can’t do the work. Why? The main problem is reading. A recent NAEP assessment found that only 37 percent of high-school seniors scored at the college-ready level in reading and math. “Having to complete remedial work [in college] is discouraging, expensive, and puts students off track for the careers they hope to have,” says Elizabeth Gonsalves, an English department head in Massachusetts. In her school, what galvanized teachers was seeing a college syllabus and tasks and prompts from a typical professor. “When my department saw what those were, we knew we had to make changes…” Here’s what students need to learn:
• Reading for understanding – In literature classes, students must be able to analyze why characters did something and the reasoning behind it, not just do a summary and identify characters and details. In history classes, they need to get the big picture, not just memorize facts.
• Working with multiple texts – In college, students will be asked to compare texts and use multiple sources to support a claim. The texts might be as different as a novel, podcast, and infographic.
• Mastering broader, Tier 3 vocabulary – For example, students need to know terms like the political left and the political right, and that can come only from reading a variety of contemporary texts such as New York Times articles and commentaries.
• Going beyond narrative – Many high-school students are comfortable with texts where the narrative takes control and reading is logical and sequential. They need to do more analytical reading and be exposed to narratives that are not straightforward – for example, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Teaching students how to take Cornell notes helps them get into a back-and-forth conversation with a text, and marking up a text with colored pens and sticky notes is also helpful.
• Using close reading – College students are sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of reading they’re being assigned, but skimming is not the solution. They need to slow down, re-read, and focus on beginnings, endings, and key passages, asking themselves questions like, “Why did this person take this position?” and “What do you think is going to happen next?”
Of course, preparing students for college-level reading is not just the job of high-school English teachers. “We need to get all grade levels scaffolded toward a college reading level,” says Donna Pasternak of the University of Wisconsin. “If we’re all invested in what college reading is, we have a better opportunity to support and scaffold it.” High-school students should be reading journal articles in science and working with source documents in history. This Modern Language Association website is designed to get K-12 educators sharing writing prompts, syllabi, and strategies for working with complex texts.

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