Del Principe, Annie, and Rachel Ihara. “‘I Bought the Book and I Didn’t Need It’: What Reading Looks Like at an Urban Community College.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.3 (2016): 229-44. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.
Annie Del Principe and Rachel Ihara conducted a qualitative study of student reading practices at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY. They held interviews and gathered course materials from ten students over the span of the students’ time at the college between fall 2011 and fall 2013, amassing “complete records” for five (231). They found a variety of definitions of acceptable reading practices across disciplines; they urge English faculty to recognize this diversity, but they also advocate for more reflection from faculty in all academic subject areas on the purposes of the reading they assign and how reading can be supported at two-year colleges (242).
Four of the five students who were intensively studied placed into regular first-year composition and completed Associates’ degrees while at Kingsborough; the fifth enrolled in a “low-level developmental writing class” and transferred to a physician’s assistant program at a four-year institution in 2015 (232). The researchers’ inquiry covered eighty-three different courses and included twenty-three hours of interviews (232).
The authors’ review of research on reading notes that many different sources across institutions and disciplines see difficulty with reading as a reason that students often struggle in college. The authors recount a widespread perception that poor preparation, especially in high school, and students’ lack of effort is to blame for students’ difficulties but contend that the ways in which faculty frame and use reading also influence how students approach assigned texts (230). Faculty, Del Principe and Ihara write, often do not see teaching reading as part of their job and opt for modes of instruction that convey information in ways that they perceive as efficient, such as lecturing extensively and explaining difficult texts rather than helping students work through them (230).
A 2013 examination of seven community colleges in seven states by the National Center for Education and the Economy (NCEE) reported that the kinds of reading and writing students do in these institutions “are not very cognitively challenging”; don’t require students “to do much” with assigned reading; and demand “performance levels” that are only “modest” (231). This study found that more intensive work on analyzing and reflecting on texts occurred predominately in English classes (231). The authors argue that because community-college faculty are aware of the problems caused by reading difficulties, these faculty are “constantly experimenting” with strategies for addressing these problems; this focus, in the authors’ view, makes community colleges important spaces for investigating reading issues (231).
Del Principe and Ihara note that in scholarship by Linda Adler-Kassner and Heidi Estrem and by David Jolliffe as well as in the report by NCEE, the researchers categorize the kinds of reading students are asked to do in college (232-33). The authors state that their “grounded theory approach” (232) differs from the methods in these works in that they
created categories based on what students said about how they used reading in their classes and what they did (or didn’t do) with the assigned reading rather than on imagined ways of reading or what was ostensibly required by the teacher or by the assignment. (233).
This methodology produced “five themes”:
- “Supplementing lecture with reading” (233). Students reported this activity in 37% of the courses examined, primarily in non-English courses that depended largely on lecture. Although textbooks were assigned, students received most of the information in lectures but turned to reading to “deepen [their] understanding ” or for help if the lecture proved inadequate in some way (234).
- “Listening and taking notes as text” (233). This practice, encountered in 35% of the courses, involved situations in which a textbook or other reading was listed on the syllabus but either implicitly or explicitly designated as “optional.” Instructors provided handouts or PowerPoint outlines; students combined these with notes from class to create de facto “texts” on which exams were based. According to Del Principe and Ihara, “This marginalization of long-form reading was pervasive” (235).
- “Reading to complete a task” (233). In 24% of the courses, students reported using reading for in-class assignments like lab reports or quizzes; in one case, a student described a collaborative group response to quizzes (236). Other activities included homework such as doing math problems. Finally, students used reading to complete research assignments. The authors discovered very little support for or instruction on the use and evaluation of materials incorporated into research projects and posit that much of this reading may have focused on “dubious Internet sources” and may have included cut-and-paste (237).
- “Analyzing text” (233). Along with “reflecting on text,” below, this activity occurred “almost exclusively” in English classes (238). The authors describe assignments calling for students to attend to a particular line or idea in a text or to compare themes across texts. Students reported finding “on their own” that they had to read more slowly and carefully to complete these tasks (238).
- “Reflecting on text” (233). Only six of the 83 courses asked students to “respond personally” to reading; only one was not an English course (239). The assignments generally led to class discussion, in which, according to the students, few class members participated, possibly because “Nobody [did] the reading” (student, qtd. in Del Principe and Ihara 239; emendation original).
Del Principe and Ihara focus on the impact of instructors’ “following up” on their assignments with activities that “require[d] students to draw information or ideas directly from their own independent reading” (239). Such follow-up surfaced in only fourteen of the 83 classes studied, with six of the fourteen being English classes. Follow-up in English included informal responses and summaries as well as assigned uses of outside material in longer papers, while in courses other than English, quizzes or exams encouraged reading (240). The authors found that in courses with no follow-up, “students typically did not do the reading” (241).
Del Principe and Ihara acknowledge that composition professionals will find the data “disappointing,” but feel that it’s important not to be misdirected by a “specific disciplinary lens” into dismissing the uses students and other faculty make of different kinds of reading (241). In many classes, they contend, reading serves to back up other kinds of information rather than as the principle focus, as it does in English classes. However, they do ask for more reflection across the curriculum. They note that students are often required to purchase expensive books that are never used. They hope to trigger an “institutional inquiry” that will foster more consideration of how instructors in all fields can encourage the kinds of reading they want students to do (242).