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Colleges swamped with poor readers

If Mothers fail to teach their babies to read well in grades K-3,
don't expect them to be able to graduate from college

By Laurie Kobliska, Mother Wire Magazine Editor & Publisher

PALO ALTO - In the wake of public outcry, California State University officials have started reducing the number of remedial courses they teach every semester. The legislature has made it clear that they do not want to pay colleges to teach what public high schools and community colleges already received tax dollars to teach.

Claims about the number of students who enroll in remedial courses seem to escalate constantly. We hear that "75 per cent of colleges offer remedial courses," "80 per cent of the students at my college need remediation," or "85 per cent of minority students will be shut out if we don't have remedial courses."

When exaggeration rules, the public discussion rarely focuses on what actually is meant by the term "remedial course," and whether one kind of educational deficiency is more serious than another. But now, the National Center for Education Statistics has published important data that allow us to sort out the numbers and describe some patterns in the ultimate educational attainment of students who enroll in remedial classes. Puncturing the overblown rhetoric also can lead to some principles for handling remediation in the future.

When you read that your local college is offering "remedial" classes, form now on you will know exactly what that means. It means, simply and completely this - learning how to read words in sentences. To those who learned to read from their mothers, it may come as a surprise to find out just how lucky they are. Older children and adults can never master the linguistic code of their native language so well as those who have learned to read well in grades K thru 3.

This is the knowledge base that millions of would-be college students lack. Some say, they will never become fluent in their own written language, if they have not mastered basic sight words by the end of Third Grade. Those are the magic words containing the indispensable sound [phoneme] and meaning [morpheme] correspondence of the necessary for basic literacy and intellectual development.

It takes nearly five years of intense reading, writing, and speaking practice and drill, for the average American child to master this phonetic code which is contained within the linguistic structure of the English Language.

As part of "High School and Beyond," a longitudinal study based on a national sample of the high-school graduating class of 1982, the center in 1993 gathered the college transcripts of students in a sample to assess how public school students have progressed as they moved from elementary schools to secondary schools, and into public and private higher education institutions. From this data base, we know precisely when and where people enrolled in college, what they studied, how well they performed, and whether they had earned degrees by 1993. The data on degree completion and remediation were recently published in The Condition of Education, 1996.

Looking at the Report on the academic careers of 2.45 million students in more than 2,500 institutions, it is clear just what qualifies a course as "remedial." For example, in math, remedial means any course through the level of what high schools call "intermediate algebra."

In the area of English, remedial courses typically are labeled deceptively "developmental" [code word for non-reader] and for students who do not read or write fluently in their own English language. Then, a course labeled "English-as-a-second-language" offers more of the same to students who may be illiterate in another language in addition to English. Such college and university courses carry no academic credit.

The first thing you notice in the Report is that the bulk of remedial [learning how to read, write,compute] work takes place in community colleges, which account for 56 per cent of the post secondary enrollments in remedial reading, 80 per cent of those in pre-algebra mathematics (such as decimals and fractions), and 61 per cent of those in pre-college algebra.

The second thing that jumps out at the reader of the Report is that the extent of a student's lack of foundation for doing any academic work in the University. Ironically, students seem to be in the colleges and universities to finally, once and for all, to learn to read.They are not there for completion of a degree.

Of the students in the study who had earned more than a semester of college credits by 1993, 55 per cent of those who took no remedial courses, and 47 per cent of those who took only one remedial course, had earned a bachelor's. Making my point, only 24 per cent of those who took three or more remedial courses had earned a bachelor's.

And here is what shocked me. For students who take only one remedial course, it was a course in writing. Deficiencies in writing one's native language generally are easily handled. But, since writing is generally the last of the language skills to be mastered in public schools, it is assumed that one has the tools to develop writing skills, if one has reading skill. What holds for a second language holds for one's native tongue.

Reading ability, however, is often the major underlying factor preventing students from earning the bachelor's degree. Deficiencies in reading skill development indicate comprehensive intellectual problems, and they significantly lower the odds of a student's completing any degree.

The stunning reality of this fact come home to me when I read that one out of eight students in the national transcript study took at least one remedial reading class. Sixty-five per cent of those people found themselves in at least three other remedial courses, as well. Even in basic math, you can't cut it if you are a poor reader.

The Report data from the high-school class of 1982, reveals the presence in the public elementary schools of a needed renovation in reading instruction for a wide range racial and ethnic groups.

The urgent need for remediation in reading certainly presents a bleak picture for the mothers of American school children. For the sake of the children and the future of this nation, mothers are going to have to dust off their old phonics readers and set their children down for a long and serious reading-thinking lesson. These kids are not going to get it anywhere else."


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