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Del Principe and Ihara. Reading in Community Colleges. TETYC, Dec. 2017. Posted 01/25/2017.

Del Principe, Annie, and Rachel Ihara. “A Long Look at Reading in the Community College: A Longitudinal Analysis of Student Reading Experiences.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 45.2 (2017): 183-206. Print.

Annie Del Principe and Rachel Ihara conducted a longitudinal study of students’ reading experiences in a community-college setting from spring 2011 to spring 2013 (186). Their goal was to understand what kinds of reading students encountered in the community college and how the students responded to and negotiated the reading requirements.

Del Principe and Ihara compare their study with the longitudinal study detailed in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska. Arum and Roska examined student experiences at four-year colleges, contending that students showed very little intellectual growth through their college careers (183). Del Principe and Ihara note that rather than address intellectual issues, questions about the community-college experience are more often framed around “numerical” concerns such as retention and graduate rates. In contrast, they intend their study to address the “quality” of the two-year-college experience as illuminated through students’ reading practices (183).

The authors summarize findings of three other longitudinal studies focusing on reading, all done at four-year institutions. Two examined reading trajectories of single students at private institutions, both researchers finding that the students’ reading strategies became more “sophisticated” as they advanced in specific majors (184). A study of two students at a public research university captured these students’ experiences in “a variety of humanities classes,” revealing that the students lacked the preparation and guidance to manage the “prodigious reading required” in this environment (185). Both of these subjects dropped out of college (186).

In comparison, Del Principe and Ihara studied five students who, while similar demographically and in terms of academic background to the general community-college population, were “fairly successful students by most academic measures,” four of them completing associates’ degrees within three years; all transferred to four-year colleges (187). The authors collected “many pages of artifacts” from these students and conducted 23 hours of semi-structured interviews across the students’ entire career at their large East-Coast institution (185), using D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly’s “narrative inquiry” method to assess how the students’ stories of their experiences changed over time (187).

Originally Del Principe and Ihara recruited ten students, four who tested into developmental sections and six who were placed into Composition I. However, five students, including three of the developmental recruits, failed to complete the study. The authors note, therefore, that because only one of the remaining students began with remedial coursework, they were unable to build a representative picture of the community-college population and consequentially limited their claims (187). They do contend that their subjects were “not exceptional students” and that their accounts of their reading experiences shed light on the practices of students who do successfully negotiate the community-college environment (187).

Del Principe and Ihara report the individual “reading narratives” of their five subjects, framing them with claims by Arum and Roska that in four-year institutions, the “selectivity” of the institution seemed to affect whether or not students did extensive or demanding reading (185). Further, the authors invoked data from a study by the National Center for Education and the Economy that found that in two-year colleges, reading and writing requirements were “not very cognitively challenging,” and expectations for student performance, including the ability to analyze and evaluate information, were low (185).

In order to interpret their data against these claims, Del Principe and Ihara drew on “[John] Dewey’s concepts of continuity and interaction of experience,” which defined “continuity” as the way that an experience related to other experiences that occurred before and after, and “interaction” as the nature of the context in which the specific experience occurred (188; emphasis original). According to Del Principe and Ihara, this theoretical framework allows an investigator to determine whether a set of experiences “promote[s] and open[s] up new possibilities for growth . . . rather than distort[s] and shut[s] down growth” (189). The authors contend that educators have the obligation to attend to, in Dewey’s words, “what attitudes and habitual tendencies are being created” in order to choose pedagogies that promote growth (qtd. in Del Principe and Ihara 189).

The reading narratives indicate that many teachers assigned reading and required textbooks, but most supplied PowerPoint notes, tested mainly on material covered in class, and did not follow up or assess students’ reading. The narratives led the authors to claim that “often reading isn’t truly ‘required’ in [the] classes and it’s possible for a student to get by, even succeed . . . without doing any/much assigned reading” (200-01). Two of their study students wished for more rigorous reading, while the other three, in two cases because of taxing work schedules, “were often relieved rather than disappointed,” to find that they didn’t have to read (201).

Del Principe and Ihara contrast what they found to be “practical and reasonable reactions” to the community-college environment with the trajectories of the private-institution students studied by other researchers; the four-year students, Del Principe and Ihara report, improved as readers as they advanced in their majors, while the community-college students improved in that they “develop[ed] more appropriate, efficient, and effective ways of reading” that allowed them to apportion their time more strategically (201).

The analysis suggests that students tend to take reading somewhat more seriously in courses in their majors than they do in required general education courses (202). Moreover, the narratives indicate that the only courses in which reading was consistently valued and assessed were the composition courses; the authors posit that the “content” instructors may have prioritized other components of the courses (204).

In their cross-case analysis the authors posit that some factors in the community-college environment limit instructors’ ability to focus on reading. Lower reading proficiency in the student population might mean that basing grades on careful reading would affect retention rates (202). Furthermore, assessing reading skills may be prohibitively time-consuming in an environment in which instructor workloads are already high, especially in content courses with high enrollment caps (204).

Borrowing Jean Anyon’s idea of a “hidden curriculum” that students absorb through the way a class is conducted, the authors return to Dewey’s concept of continuity in learning to maintain that students are acquiring “attitudes and habitual tendencies” that are not conducive to growth as Dewey defined it (203). Del Principe and Ihara’s discovery that the attention to reading that occurs early in students’ academic careers in their composition classes is “not continuous with the arc of students’ reading experiences” as they continue their community-college careers (205). In their view, composition scholars might usefully ask “whom and what we intend to serve by teaching reading” in an environment in which the hidden curriculum defines reading as an unnecessary skill (205; emphasis original).


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Del Principe and Ihara. Reading at a Community College. TETYC, Mar. 2016. Posted 04/10/2016.

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).