Faculty Focus


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.

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.

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.

This article first appeared in Faculty Focus on April 17, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.