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«TEXTS OUR INSTITUTIONAL LIVES: OF Studying the “Reading Transition” from High School to College: What Are Our Students Reading and Why? David A. ...»

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Studying the “Reading Transition” from

High School to College: What Are Our

Students Reading and Why?

David A. Jolliffe and Allison Harl

ore than our colleagues in other departments, English department faculty

M members and administrators need to know what, how, and why students read.

Most composition programs and assignments are grounded in reading, and, of course, so are English majors’ curriculums. English department faculty members are nearly always major players in general education, most of which re- quires substantial reading. We need to know how students are learning to read be- fore they come to college, how we continue to foster close, critical reading throughout the college years, and how our students develop reading abilities and practices that they will continue to inhabit and improve after college.

If the scuttlebutt about reading is true, the Visigoths are at the door. An array of national surveys and studies suggests that neither high school nor college students spend much time preparing for class, the central activity of which we presume to be reading assigned articles, chapters, and books. Similar studies argue that college students spend little to no time reading for pleasure and that adults in the United States are devoting less and less of their free time to reading fiction, poetry, and drama. Books lamenting the decline in the reading of great literature in our culture1 find an eager and ardent audience. The water-cooler conversation in English de- partments and indeed throughout the university seems to confirm the reports and corroborate the end-of-reading treatises and memoirs: legions of students appar- ently come to class ill prepared, not having done the assigned reading at all or hav- ing given it only cursory attention. Professors admit that students can actually pass Dav i d A. J o l l i ffe is professor of English and of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Arkan- sas, where he also holds the Brown Chair in English Literacy. Currently, he directs a pilot version of a community literacy advocacy program in Augusta, Arkansas, and leads the Arkansas Delta Oral History Project, through which mentors from his university collaborate with students from ten high schools in eastern Arkansas. A l l i so n H a r l is pursuing a Ph.D. in American Literature and Culture at the Univer- sity of Arkansas, where her secondary emphasis is rhetoric and composition. Her scholarly interests include frontier American literature, literacy studies, and writing through active citizenship.

College English, Volume 70, Number 6, July 2008 Copyright © 2008 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.

College English 600 exams if they come to the lectures and take (or buy) good notes, whether or not they have read the assigned material. In short, careful reading seems have become a smaller blip on the higher educational radar screen or dropped off it altogether.

Despite the attention paid to student reading in the national surveys, relatively little scholarship has examined empirically what, how, and whether college students actually do read and how reading thus figures in the transition from high school to college. We set out to address this knowledge gap in a local way during a recent fall semester at our institution, the University of Arkansas. We wanted to know how our first-year students taking college composition, a course in which students mostly write about their reading, perceived and effected the transition from high school to college as readers. Therefore, we studied the reading habits and practices of twentyone first-year composition students during the first two weeks of October, at which time they were in their sixth and seventh weeks of a fifteen-week semester. In some ways, our study provides a remarkably accurate local representation of the data about student reading as reported in the national surveys: first-year students at the University of Arkansas spend just about the same amount of time reading and preparing for class as students at other research universities—probably not as much time as their instructors and institutional administrators think they should. In other ways, however, our study offers insights into the reading environments of first-year college students that neither the national surveys nor the status-quo chatter hints at.

We found students who were actively involved in their own programs of reading aimed at values clarification, personal enrichment, and career preparation. In short, we discovered students who were extremely engaged with their reading, but not with the reading that their classes required.

We offer our study as an example of local institutional research, aimed at helping our faculty understand salient aspects of our students’ reading experiences and develop key strategies for addressing our students’ reading histories. We hope, however, that what we found might help other institutions’ faculty members and administrators think more carefully about how they meet and understand their students as readers.

–  –  –

effective educational practice”: “level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environments” (12). Although the answers to questions engendered by each of the benchmark categories might interest faculty members who want to understand their students better, we believe that the questions generated under the rubric of “levels of academic challenge” are most germane to anyone concerned about student reading. The eleven questions in this category ask students about the number of textbooks, books, and book-length packs of course readings that they were required to read; the number and length of the papers that they were required to write; their perceptions of course emphases (for example, analyzing, synthesizing, making judgments, and applying theories or concepts); and the amount of time that they spent preparing for class.

Under the traditional rule of thumb of two hours’ preparation time for every one hour in class, this average full-time student should be devoting 24 hours per week to studying, reading, writing, and so on. However, in the 2005 NSSE, taken by about 130,000 first-year students and a similar number of seniors from 523 colleges and universities, 66 percent of first-year students and 64 percent of seniors at all participating colleges and universities reported spending fewer than sixteen hours during a typical seven-day week preparing for class—“studying, reading, writing, doing homework or lab work, analyzing data, rehearsing, and other academic activities.”2 If one concludes that college students are spending too little time preparing for class, one would also have to deduce that the situation in high school is even more dire. In 2004, five years after NSSE’s debut, the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) emerged from the same organization. In the inaugural HSSSE, over 90,000 high school students from grades 9 through 12 completed the survey, providing information about who is planning to go to college and how well students are prepared for college (“Getting Students Ready for College” 3). Among the seniors completing the survey, 94 percent of all respondents and 90 percent of respondents taking “college credit/prep/honors” courses reported spending six hours or fewer per week on “assigned reading.” These data notwithstanding, a large majority of all of the respondents agreed with the statement, “I have the skills and abilities to complete my work.” (“What We Can Learn from High School Students” 12). In other words, although the large majority of high school students spend less than one hour a day on assigned reading, they feel as though they are good enough readers to get by—perhaps because their schoolwork does not challenge them very much.

The NSSE and HSSSE data find an ominous counterpart in a study reported by Alvin Sanoff in 2006. Nearly 800 high school teachers and about 1,100 college faculty members were surveyed to determine their perceptions of how well students were prepared for college in reading, writing, science, mathematics, and oral comCollege English 602 munication, as well as in more attitudinal domains such as “motivation to work hard,” “study habits,” and “ability to seek and use support services.” Only one-quarter of high school teachers and one-tenth of college faculty members thought that entering first-year students were “very well prepared” to read and understand difficult materials.

Consider the NSSE, HSSSE, and Sanoff data alongside two widely hailed studies of adult reading in the United States and the situation seems even more portentous.

The 2004 report Reading at Risk from the National Endowment for the Arts found that literary reading among adult readers in the United States declined by ten percentage points between 1982 and 2002, representing a loss of 20 million readers, a decline mirrored, somewhat less precipitously, in the diminishing numbers of adults who read books of any kind (ix).3 More recently, the NEA’s 2007 report, To Read or Not to Read, maintained that “Americans are spending less time reading, reading comprehension skills are eroding,” and “[t]hese declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications” (5).

Although the NSSE, the HSSSE, and NEA studies provide fodder for the perception that college-bound and college students can’t and/or don’t read extensively, critically, or even sufficiently, the surveys and reports did not provide us with a rich enough perspective as we planned how to engage in conversations with our institution’s faculty members about designing, adjusting, and delivering reading-based composition and general-education curricula to our students. Very few scholars have actually investigated the quality or quantity of college students’ reading.4 We wanted to know more about the reading lives of our students.

–  –  –

• So far this year [as of October 2], approximately how many hours per week are you spending on reading?

• Approximately what percentage of those hours are devoted to reading for your courses, in contrast to reading for your own interest or pleasure?

• Do you consider the amount of time you spend reading this year excessively high, moderately high, moderately low, or excessively low? Explain why.

• Do you now consider yourself an excellent, above average, below average, or poor reader?

Explain why.

The second task required them to keep a reading journal for two consecutive weeks. We asked them to write for at least thirty minutes daily, describing in detail everything they read that day, and to produce at least ten full entries over the two weeks. For each entry, we asked the students to provide the title and author and the number of pages of each reading, indicating whether each text was read for a class, for a job, or for their interest or pleasure. Additionally, we asked students to indicate approximately how many minutes they spent reading during each day. Finally, we asked participants to focus specifically on one of the texts they read for each day and write about that text, responding to a series of questions. These questions were divided into five major categories: 1.) Focusing on One Specific Text, 2.) Reading Critically 3.) Drawing Relationships: Text to Self, 4.) Drawing Relationships: Text to Text, and 5.) Drawing Relationships: Text to World.5 The following are the actual

questions that we asked students to answer in response to their one “chosen” text:

Focusing on One Specific Text

1. What was the title of the text you read?

2. What was the purpose of reading this text? Why did you read it?

3. Did you choose to read this text or was it assigned? If assigned, who assigned it?

4. If assigned the text, did whoever assigned it give you instructions on how to read it? If so, what were the instructions?

5. If you chose this text for pleasure, why did you choose it?

6. How long did it take you to read the text?

7. Were you engaged in any other activity as you read the text (cooking, watching TV, etc.)?

8. Did you take a break or read straight through?

Reading Critically

1. What was the most important point the text made?

2. What were its most important secondary or supporting points?

3. Did you agree or disagree with the writer on any points?

College English 604

–  –  –

Drawing Relationships: Text to Self

1. Did you find that what you read relates to your life in any way? If so, how?

2. Did this work inspire you in any way or stimulate your creativity? If so, how?

3. Did the text relate to your current job or a future job in any way? If so, how?

4. Did you discover anything new about your personal opinions, beliefs, or values in response to reading this text? If so, how?

5. How do you think your life experiences influence the way you read the text?

Drawing Relationships: Text to Text

1. Did you make any connections between this text and other texts you have read?

2. Does this text relate to other texts assigned in your classes? If so, how?

3. Does this text relate to other texts you have read outside of class? If so, how?

4. Did reading other texts help you understand this one? Or do you feel you needed more background information to understand the material?

5. How do you foresee this text helping you understand texts you expect to read in the future?

Drawing Relationships: Text to World

1. Did you discuss what you read with anyone? If so, with whom?

2. Who else read this text?

3. How is others’ response similar to or different from your own?

4. How does this text relate to the world, to the ‘bigger picture’ in general?

–  –  –

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