Theoretical research models and best practices approaches exist in all education domains to assist teachers in their endeavors to better prepare students for college and life beyond school. As such, while there are a plethora of frameworks, models, and theories to consult, one area of research I would like to see more emphasized and more explored qualitatively is in the area of postsecondary content literacy. A quote by John Naisbitt, a prominent American writer, captures this ideological dilemma best saying, “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.” When I think of the developmental students sitting in my classroom today, many of them have a lot of information available to them at their fingertips, but they lack the knowledge to truly understand or analyze content that will help them properly decode information in useful and contextualized ways.
In an article recently published in the Journal of Developmental Education, Paulsen & Armstrong (2010) contend, “the development of a unifying, comprehensive theoretical grounding for the field would provide such a cohesive framework and would tie together important aspects of postsecondary literacy education”(p.6), which they expand upon by stating emphasis needs to be placed upon coherence in theory, terminology, and teacher preparation. Using this article as a springboard, I would agree that specific studies conducted in these relevant areas would shed more light upon postsecondary literacy issues, as well as provide a format for tackling college readiness concerns. This, of course, is not to say that research has not been done in this area, but many current scholars of literacy today would agree that more should be done, as evidenced by Chung’s (2005) remark that there exists a “lack of an overreaching, authentic, common theoretical framework that developmental educators can and want to call their own”(p.4).
Literacy, as an umbrella issue at all levels of educational reform, informs all pedagogical and andragogical approaches, so teachers who recognize the significance of contextualized experiences also recognize the moral imperative that teaching content is teaching literacy. This is especially true in postsecondary environments, so when students transfer from high school to college, perhaps the issue to consider is not whether they are statistically “underprepared,” but rather are they disproportionally “misprepared”(Paulsen & Armstrong, 2010)? Moreover, should college professors be legitimately concerned with who is responsible for the mispreparedness, or should they be concerned about their own pedagogical processes and techniques as a means to make sure they are combating the problem and not adding to it? The answer, of course, is both. However, very little research has been done to really understand the transitional literacy learner in postsecondary institutions, and if it does exist, much of the data is inconclusive, so how does one even begin to tackle such an omnipresent issue?
One solution is deciding upon and following a coherent framework that all content level teachers can utilize, not just developmental departments or instructors. For example, if every college instructor at Waubonsee Community College embedded Wineburg’s (1998) three processes of corroboration, sourcing, and contextualization into his or her classroom, would that make a measureable difference in improving the literacy skills of transitioning students? I would argue probably so, but data would have to inform and support such a hypothesis, and clearly staff, teachers, and administrators would have to buy-in to the process in order for the intervention to be truly effective. Realistically it is a place to start, but idealistically it is harder to convince large groups of people, teachers and students alike, to think differently if very few of them recognize the importance of self-motivation or see themselves integrally connected to their academic and social environments. So, here exists a leadership challenge as well.
Something to consider also is that while embedding literacy strategies into content classrooms helps to improve students’ overall literacy skills, by themselves they are not effective without a predominant theory or context to link them to. One report that I think is useful for all college teachers to read is the “Final Report from Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy.” This report compares how traditional secondary schools and exemplary secondary schools think about and treat issues with regards to school culture, student information, differentiation, content literacy, and professional development to name a few. One distinction of note, in my opinion, is in the content literacy section where the authors list two qualities that differentiate a normal high school from an exemplary high school: 1.) Literacy is embedded in classroom instruction and is considered a normal part of instruction, and 2.) Students are not aware that they are receiving literacy instruction (Table 1, pps. 4-5). How cool would it be if traditional community colleges adopted the same philosophy, and then created a data warehouse to track how students were performing in these relevant areas? For a community college like Waubonsee, a learning-centered college in particular, this type of research would be invaluable in terms of holistically supporting all transitional students. Not only would instructors be triaging all levels of student learning, but also they would be ensuring that the next transition level from community college to university would be much smoother academically as well as socially.
I have to agree with Paulsen and Armstrong (2010) that classrooms built around “sociocultural and situated cognitive perspectives that view literacies as complex, dynamic social practices embedded in specific purposes” are the right way to tackle the literacy problem that exists in postsecondary institutions today. With the advent of technology, as well, “the single textbook paradigm is gradually being overshadowed by an intertextual environment”(Hodges, Simpson & Stahl, 2012, p.25) and more importantly digital literacy is going to become the norm in college classrooms rather than the exception. Pathway programs or developmental classrooms are where these issues are typically and currently addressed, but in order for educational institutions to become even more effective in helping address the college readiness gap, a teaching shift toward a common theory, a common research-based foundation, and a common assessment process is desperately warranted.
Carnegie Corporation of New, Y. (2011). Time to Act: An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy for College and Career Success. Final Report from Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Carnegie Corporation Of New York.
Hodges, R., Simpson, M. L., & Stahl, N. A. (Eds.). (2012). Teaching study strategies in developmental education: Readings on theory, research, and best practice. Boston, MA: Bedford St. Martin’s.
Naisbitt, J. (2012). John naisbitt quotes. Retrieved from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/j/john_naisbitt.html
Paulson, E. J., & Armstrong, S. L. (2010). Postsecondary Literacy: Coherence in Theory, Terminology, and Teacher Preparation. Journal Of Developmental Education, 33(3), 4-6.