Advancing Student Literacy and Reading Comprehension

Meg Gorzycki, Ed.D.

Reading and Student Success

Persistence to degree and academic achievement are ifluenced by many variables, including the student's ability to read college level materials. As reading assignments remain one of the cardinal features of college course work, and as many students struggle with reading comprehension and finding the right reading strategies, instructors may enhance student learning by integrating reading instruciton into the curriculum. The following tutorial will address:

Why Think about Literacy and Reading Comprehension?

Elements of Literacy and Reading Comprehension

Integrating Literacy and Reading Comprehension into the Curriculum

Why Think about Literacy and Reading Comprehension?

Approximately 70% of students enrolled in post-secondary education take at least one remedial course and of those attending a four-year college, only 37% who complete remedial courses subsequently enroll in gateway courses (Charles Dana Center, 2012). Language skills, including reading, writing, and information literacy, are key to students’ persistence to degree yet, despite the fact that many college students have deficits in these areas, professors seldom offer explicit instruction designed to help students overcome these deficits (Erikson, et. al., 2006; cox, et. al., 2003).

In 2012, the California State University (CSU) reported that 66.4% of first-time freshmen in the CSU were proficient in English (California State University, 2014). Many students enroll in college courses with a limited understanding of how to read at the college level and how to read for proficiency in a given discipline, and thus require explicit instruction aimed at developing cognitive and metacognitive skills associated with reading comprehension (Culver, 2011; Hermida, 2009). Research acknowledges that poor reading comprehension may contribute to failure to persistence to degree (Kennedy-Manzo, 2006).

As remedial courses in English and reading skills often do not overcome all deficits associated with reading comprehension and literacy, students may benefit richly from explicit instruction concerning reading skills required for proficiency in a given discipline. Such instruction may introduce students to reading strategies and provide opportunities for students to rehearse their skills with timely, formative assessment (Marschall & Davis, 2012; McWhorter, 1989)

Elements of Literacy and Reading Comprehension

The concept of literacy has evolved significantly over the last century (Graff, 1982). Whereas literacy once regarded the ability to read and write, scholars today speak of various levels of literacies and of various subject and information literacies. The Literacy of America’s College Students (Baer, et. al. 2003) recognizes four levels of literacy:

  • Below Basic: Able to decode words but not extract meaning from prose; able to read simple directions
  • Basic: Able to read short prose and extract information; grasps simple contracts and narratives
  • Intermediate: Able to read moderately dense text and summarize, make inferences, detect cause-effect relationships, and author’s purpose
  • Proficient: Able to read lengthy and complex text; understands how text structure contributes to understanding; able to grasp metaphors and independently synthesize information from a variety of sources; able to perform complex analytical operations and discern relevance, lacunae, significance, and credibility of assertions.

Subject literacy traces its origins to the concept of scientific literacy, which emerged at the turn of the 20th century as scholars articulated the fundamental knowledge they believed qualified students for post-secondary studies (Bohan, 2003). Some scholars claim that subject literacy refers to the ability to “read and write about the subject as a means of knowing still more about it” (McKenna & Robinson, 1990). The term “scientific literacy,” which emerged in the 1950s, was among the first subject-specific references to subject-specific literacy and it was associated with the possession of discrete knowledge, including an understanding of basic scientific concepts, research methods, and an appreciation for the contributions of science to society (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).  Subject literacy regards four universal elements:

  • Mastery of specialized language, lexicon and concepts
  • Mastery of fundamental declarative knowledge upon which advanced studies are constructed
  • Mastery of scientific and epistemological methods used in the discipline
  • Mastery of understanding what the discipline contributes to society

Table 1 illustrates how elements of subject literacy can be articulated in three different subjects. The content in the table is not definitive, but provides an example of what instructors may consider as they design lessons that specifically target subject literacy.

Table 1: Sample of Subject Literacy Elements in Three Courses

Element of Subject Literacy

Cold War History

Public Health

Cognitive Development

Specialized language, lexicon and concepts

Communism, capitalism, containment, domino theory, brinksmanship, Truman Doctrine

Health risk, health benefit, morbidity, host environment, public advocacy

Cognition, stage theory, metacognition, neurological pathway, dendritic development

Fundamental declarative knowledge

Yalta agreement, NATO, German crisis, Marshall Plan, arms race

Ecological model, biomedical risk factors, interventions and agencies of intervention

Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky’s theory, neurological foundations

Scientific and epistemological methods

Primary sources, orthodox school, revisionism,

Demographic studies, quantitative data, qualitative data

Forensic studies, standardized tests, self-reporting surveys

Contribution to society

Explain present political conditions, foster slowness to judgment

Improve public health and productivity

Provide insights to effective teaching strategies


The complex structure of subject literacy and the various levels of literacy suggest that reading comprehension is essentially concerned with constructing and extracting meaning from text. As noted in the report A Nation of Readers (Anderson, et. al., 1985), “Reading is a process in which information from the text and knowledge possessed by the reader act together to produce meaning.” Text does not merely transmit declarative knowledge, it often embeds attitudes, values, implications, and assumptions that must be studied before the meaning and significance of the text can be thoroughly appreciated.

To introduce students to literacy and crtical reading, it might be helpful to use the PowerPoint: Literacy, Critical Reading, and the Curriculum in class discussion.

Integrating Literacy and Reading Comprehension Instruction into the Curriculum

The integration of literacy and reading comprehension skills begins with:

  1. A fearless inventory of student needs and by identifying which declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge ought to be taught in a given course
  2. Acknowledgement that reading comprehension skills involve cognitive tasks and metacognitive strategies that may be regarded as procedural knowledge
  3. Identifying the specific cognitive and metacognitive processes that will be targeted in the course

In writing course outcomes, the instructor may state that the instruction will explicitly teach students strategies for improving their reading comprehension, subject literacy, and/or information literacy. These outcomes may focus on known knowledge and skill deficits students bring to their undergraduate studies or they may focus on knowledge and skill deficits that emerge upon testing students’ knowledge and skill in the first days of the course. The efficacy of instruction relative to literacy and reading comprehension is dependent in part on:

  1. The alignment between the learning outcomes and assessment and the alignment between the assessments and instruction
  2. The extent to which instruction is explicit and utilizes examples drawn from the course content
  3. The extent to which the instructor dedicates time and energy in class to formative assessments and discussion of student work that provides insights to how student might improve their reading comprehension

In some instance, students may need help with basic skills such as identifying main ideas. In other instances, instructors may find that students need help detecting implications or assessing the veracity of claims. Some students may require an introduction to the metacognitive strategies for monitoring comprehension while reading (Mokharti & Reichard, 2002). By working with departmental colleagues, instructors may develop a consensus on what types of knowledge and skill ought to be explicitly cultivated in course work within a given program. Departments may also develop a scaffolding of particular outcomes for improving and augmenting knowledge and skills in incremental ways as students advance in their programs.


Baer, J. D., Cook, A. L., & Baldi, S. (2006). National survey of America’s college students. Washington, D. C.: American Institutes for Research.

Bohan, C. H. (2003), Early vanguards of Progressive education: The committee of Ten, the Committee of Seven, and social education. Journal of curriculum and Supervision, 19(1), 73-94.

California State University. (2014) Fall 2013 freshmen proficincy at entry (fall 2013) one year later (fall 2014)

Cox, S. R., Friesner, D. L., & Khayum, M. (2003). Do reading courses help underprepared readers achieve academic success in college? Journal of college Reading and Learning, 33(2), 170-196.

Erikson, B. L., Peters, C. B., & Strommer, D. W. (2006). Teaching first-year college students. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Graff, H. J. (1982). The legacies of literacy. Journal of Communication, 31(2), 12-26.

Hermida, J. (2009). The importance of teaching academic reading skills in first-year university courses. The International Journal of Research and Review, 3, 20-30.

Kennedy-Manzo, K. (2006). Graduates can’t master college text. Education Week, 25(25), 1-6.

Marschall, S. & Davis, C. (2012). A conceptual framework for teaching critical reading to adult college students. Adult Learning, 23(2), 63-68.

McWhorter, K. T., & Sember, B. M. (1989). College reading and study skills. Scott, Foresman.

Mokharti, K. & Reichard, C. A. (2002). Assessing students’ metacognitive awareness of reading strategies. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(2), 249-259.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content areas literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40-59.

Additional Resources

Academic Literacy: A Statement of competencies Expected of Students entering California’s Public Colleges and Universities. (2002)

Bray, G. B., Pascarella, E. T., & Pierson, C. T. (2004). Postsecondary education and some dimensions of literacy development: An exploration of longitudinal evidence. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(3), 306-330.

Dartmouth Active Reading Resources and Strategies

McNamara, D. S. (Ed.). (2007). Reading comprehension strategies: Theories, interventions and technologies. Psychology Press.

Open College adult literacy resources