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Yep, Reading Is Fundamental

November 4, 2013
Darrell Hucks and Tanya Sturtz
Darrell Hucks and Tanya Sturtz

Pilot Course Links Writing to Reading - and Provides a Foundation for College Studies

By Jane Eklund

Writing skills stem from reading skills.

That sounds like a no-brainer, but when Darrell Hucks and Tanya Sturtz, both assistant professors in the Education Department, set out to find ways to better prepare incoming students for college-level writing assignments, they found that research on student writing doesn’t address college students’ ability to read.

Hucks, who started his career as an elementary school teacher, had begun to link the two skills three years ago while teaching a sophomore-level course required for education majors. He had his students read aloud from a New York Times article they were discussing. “One of the students,” he remembers, “came across a word as he was reading and he looked at me. That look? I recognized it from when I taught third grade. The student didn’t know how to decode the word.” That prompted him to pay close attention to the quality of all his students’ reading. “I knew, when we were talking about writing as an issue, it was tied to reading,” he says.

He and Sturtz had been part of numerous conversations among faculty voicing concern about the quality of students’ writing, and they wanted to move beyond identifying the problem to solving it. Sturtz, a former secondary-school special ed teacher, had first-hand knowledge of the factors affecting high schoolers as they move into college. “When we started talking about the writing,” she says, “we asked, Well, what about the reading? We can’t take them apart.”

Taking a cue from grades one through three, where reading and writing are seen as interconnected components of literacy, they devised a pilot project pairing a reading class with the Integrated Thinking and Writing class required of all first-year students at Keene State. The project launched last fall, with 25 first-year education majors who volunteered for the first-semester reading course and the second-semester writing course, both team-taught by Sturtz and Hucks.

The two teachers are quick to note that their pilot program isn’t about remediation or the idea that the students were coming to college with a deficit. “This was enrichment,” says Hucks, “which is a very different approach. It was not a deficit model of thinking about the students.”

‘It’s About Fluency’

Students who could happily flip through and enjoy a copy of People magazine had no idea how to read and comprehend a scholarly article, Sturtz and Hucks discovered. Reading is about fluency, notes Hucks, and fluency is about being fully invested in understanding the content. Engaged reading, he says, is very different from casual reading.

“There’s thought behind it, there’s inquiry behind it, there’s comprehension, definitely.” So he and Sturtz modeled good reading, putting text up on a screen, reading it aloud, and walking the class through the process of understanding it – including looking up unfamiliar words (which today’s students can do in seconds using their smart phones). They also put together and distributed a guide for reading textbooks.

The second-semester Integrated Thinking and Writing class made the natural leap from reading to writing. Each section of ITW is based on different subject matter; Sturtz and Hucks’ focused on education reform. The course requires students to come up with a topic, research it, and write about it. With the skills the pilot program students had learned in the first semester, they were able to engage actively with the research, to summarize text, to read their writing aloud with an ear to flow, and to help each other edit – all of which led to stronger research papers. Sturtz and Hucks stressed that writing is a process of creating drafts, rewriting, editing, and revising. You can sit down at your computer with a can of Red Bull the night before a paper is due, but the chances of producing something you’ll be proud of are pretty slim, they cautioned.

Launching College Careers

The year-long pilot program expanded to become a guide to approaching the academic side of college life. “So many things went into this project,” Sturtz says. “The reading and writing skills, but also connecting students with resources.”

They brought the class to the campus writing center and to the Aspire office, which offers academic support. They discussed how the strategies and skills the students were learning could be applied to education courses and also courses in any field. They talked about the appropriate approach and tone for emailing professors or college administrators.

And, importantly, the students in their class now have a sort of “home base”: an affinity group of two dozen classmates who also hope to become teachers and mentorship from two faculty mentors. That’s good for both the students and the College, as indicators are that students who have such early peer and faculty support in their field of study are more likely to graduate.

The pilot classes created many levels of support for the students. “I think it’s a model for induction into college life,” says Hucks. “How do we induct our students into campus life, into the culture, into academic life, show them how to be a student at this institution? For them to have access to two faculty members, two professors in the program that they are planning on pursuing later on, it makes a huge difference.”

Emily Fennes, a student from Long Island, New York, who signed up for the pilot program because she thought it would be helpful in navigating college courses, agrees. “I came to this school knowing no one,” she says. Being in a class with 20 other education majors was a great help, she adds. Her classmates got to know each other well, helped each other not just in the pilot classes but in other courses, and made an early connection with two professors in their major. “The things I learned in that class I’m going to be using for the rest of my life,” she says.

Creating Confidence

At the end of the year, the pilot class participants were not just better writers, they were more capable students. They now know how to read, decode, and summarize textbooks and research materials; they know the steps to take what they’ve learned in their research and turn it into a cohesive paper.

Their final research papers, says Hucks, were of higher quality than those of some upper-class students. Writing is critical for these young people, he notes. “They’re going to be teachers. We can’t have them go out and be mediocre teachers.”

“That’s why we do what we do,” Sturtz adds. “We set high expectations and challenge them. If we don’t do that for our own students, how can we expect them to do it for their students?”

For many of the first years in the class, meeting those expectations was a confidence booster. The quieter ones grew bold. The followers stepped up to take leadership roles. Some applied to Keene State’s Honors Program (Emily Fennes joined the program this fall) and others to its Global Studies Program. They showed interest in the education honor society. They became, Hucks says, “more involved in campus life. And they attributed that to having this course, having this connection.”

Recommendations for the Future?

What does the pilot class tell us about ways to better prepare first years for college-level writing assignments and for college life? Observations based on the first year of the program suggest possibilities like offering the dual reading-writing course to more students; linking writing courses to students’ majors; offering team-taught ITW courses that pair writing teachers, who are often English adjuncts, with full-time faculty in the various academic departments; and involving adjuncts more in departmental planning and curriculum meetings.

But Sturtz and Hucks are quick to note that it’s too early to suggest broad changes to the way the College approaches teaching writing. While the pilot course is designed in part to show students how to put together a written research project, it’s also a laboratory for the two education professors. Through teaching the paired reading-writing classes, they’re gathering data for their own research on ways to prepare students for college-level writing. Last year they collected data on the ITW program; this year they’ll be more focused on collecting data on the students.

“We’re trying to see what is working, what we are discovering from these students,” says Sturtz, adding that they need to understand on a small scale what works and what doesn’t before expanding their scope. For now, they’re excited about working with this year’s crop of 27 first-year education majors, culled from the 40 who asked to be in the class.

But last year’s first years, the pilot program’s inaugural students, are still in the loop. They’ll all have opportunities to work with Sturtz and Hucks in the future, through upper-level education classes or field study supervision. And many have signed on to serve as mentors for this year’s group – another indication, say the two professors, that the pilot course has been effective in engaging students in the College community.

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Keene State Today.