April 17th, 2017

Literacy Levels Among College Students


student with pile of books

When I confront “problems of practice” in my teaching, I like to turn to my smart friends for advice. About a year ago, I was really confounded by my students’ trouble with reading for deep understanding. While I could see that the students were completing assigned readings, they weren’t always able to process the information deeply to analyze the concepts or apply the content to new situations. Since I don’t have much experience teaching reading, I turned to my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Shettel. Jen is a literacy professor and has run several tremendously successful close-reading workshops in our area. I figured she could give some advice. Our conversations prompted some pedagogical experimentation with different literacy-based strategies which Jen and I will be sharing in a preconference workshop at The Teaching Professor Conference this June.

Some readers here may be wondering why we even need to examine reading strategies for collegiate students. After all, our students are adults and they should have already developed advanced reading abilities. That was one of the first areas that Jen tackled with me. While we’d like to think that our students are prepared for the challenging content we assign, collegiate students are still developing as readers and we need to help them in this process. To demonstrate her case, Jen shared Jeanne Chall’s Stages of Reading Development. In this model, Chall identifies six different stages across a reader’s development and the different characteristics and abilities prominent at each. Based on their age, we may expect that our students have reached the highest stage, Construction and Reconstruction. At this stage, students should be able to construct their understanding based on text analysis and synthesis. The reality, however, is that some of our students may be entering our classes without this ability. Maybe some are still at Chall’s “Reading for Learning the New” stage or maybe others are just reaching the “Multiple Viewpoints” stage. Realizing that our students are still developing as readers was pretty eye opening.

In our conversations, Jen and I began wondering whether any large-scale studies had been done to examine college students’ reading abilities. After searching around a bit, we found a 2006 study conducted by the American Institutes for Research titled The Literacy of America’s College Students. The study looked comprehensively at college students’ literacy levels from a variety of different perspectives. If Chall’s work was eye opening, this study was even more so. In the study, the authors identify four literacy levels (below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient) across three different a literacy types (prose, document and quantitative). Looking at the average literacy levels for students enrolled in two- and four-year institutions, the authors report that while college students on average score significantly higher than the general adult population in all three literacy types, the average score would be characterized at the intermediate literacy level.

Expanding the lens to examine the collegiate student population closer, the authors uncover some important findings for those institutions of higher education whose missions include working with first-generation college students or with international students. Students whose parents are college graduates score significantly higher across all literacy types than those students whose parents did not attend any post-secondary education. Foreign-born students score significantly lower across every literacy type than their US-born peers.

I know some readers may see these findings and think that our schools just need to be more selective. Maybe other readers dismiss this study entirely because they work at an elite school with a (presumed) higher caliber of student. It’s important to note that the researchers did not find significantly different literacy levels when comparing students at public vs. private institutions or at selective vs. nonselective institutions. While the findings may be a little disheartening, the report shows that ALL institutions of higher education need to be aware of their students’ literacy levels.

And that’s the big takeaway from this post. Considering our students’ literacy development and ability, we need to assist them with interacting with the readings we assign. We need to help them access our disciplinary texts and support them in their growth as readers. And that’s the main goal with the workshop that Jen and I are developing. It’s titled “Tools and Strategies that Promote Deep Engagement with Assigned Readings.” We hope you’ll join us.

Ollie Dreon is an associate professor at Millerville University, where he also serves as the director of the Center for Academic Excellence.

Baer, J. D., Cook, A. L., & Baldi, S. (2006). The Literacy of America’s College Students. American Institutes for Research.

Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. pp.10-24

  • Bill

    Why in the world is this being published on a news site? Must be a slow news day.

    • JC

      It’s not a news site. It’s a teaching strategies “magazine”

    • MoniLontra

      and even if it was a news site, you don’t think the public should be interested in how well young people can read?

  • It seems significant that the research that supports this piece–and presumably the workshop it’s promoting–is from 1983 (BI, before internet) and 2006 (BSM, before social media). While I’m a great supporter of all the good new information and communications technologies bring, it is clear that they also promote very superficial reading of short, “digestible” texts. I have to wonder, in that light, if the students rated in 2004 or 2005 as “intermediate” readers are representative of students today. Those in my classes, at least, tend to have a “grab-n-go” relationship to texts that militates against anything like understanding multiple points of view or engaging in constructive synthesis.

  • Kimberly Glass

    As a 50 year old teacher, I am glad that this topic has been presented. I have often been uncomfortable at a job, or in a 600 level class for PhD program, wondering 2 things: one, is there a Praxis test for common sense? And, how did this (other) person get this far (must have a Master’s…) In the past (1990s- affirmative action-) I have worked with people who have NO BUSINESS working in the health care or education field, let alone having been admitted to related Graduate programs. Their documentation and practices reflect poor communication skills, LESS THAN intermediate literacy, and a sense of entitlement, for lack of a better word. I am still running into this scenario, and it is a direct reflection of how our country’s value system translates. Teachers, nurses, mental health- NOT valued. Lawyers, medical doctors- same amount of education- valued. Not to mention continued gender gaps. This issue with literacy needs to be dealt with, THANK YOU for a courageous but objective assessment of this issue. Elephant in the room.

  • JD Ponder

    This was an interesting piece. The study link is problematic as you don’t include any information after chapter 5 (all appendices are missing).

  • stickman67

    I teach Modern History in senior high school (in Australia), which is a step below the level of this conversation. However, despite being still in the K-12 milieu, teachers at my level often suffer from a similar problem – the assumption that kids (except those with specific learning needs) can all read at a pretty sophisticated level by Year 11 of high school. And if they can’t, we muddle through, because teaching kids to read is something that happens down in the K-6 end of the building, so we often don’t really know quite what to do. Plus we don’t have time for that sort of thing. This has inspired me to follow up on your links and to dig deeper. Thank you!