Every fall semester, countless American youth for whom English is not a foreign or second language end up taking non-transferable basic skills courses in composition and reading in college. These students have graduated high school, some with an A in their English courses, yet instead of assessing into English 101 — the standard English requirement of most universities and community colleges alike — they assess lower with poor grammatical, writing, or reading skills.
For students with learning disabilities, basic skills courses and their teachers can be a lifeline. The teachers and the courses often help catch students with disabilities who fell through the cracks in high school. The reiteration of basic grammar, reading, and writing for students with learning disabilities can set those students up with great learning habits and review that they then apply to their other courses.
Sadly though, most students who land squarely in pre-college composition and reading courses in college are native speakers of English without disabilities — which says something about education in this country that we might not be ready to face. How can we ensure that our children do not wind up in remedial courses? What steps can we take in their K-12 education that ensures that all their college course work are transferable college level courses?
Part of the problem is systematic. K-12 measures achievement in standardized tests that often don't test for critical thinking. College measures critical thinking. In some ways, we set them up for failure. Consider the following:
In high school, a student reads a passage from a story and sees questions at the end of the story and answers them. In the story, a character wears a sweater on a hot day.
High school question: What color is the sweater character A is wearing? A) Red, B) Green, or C) Blue?
College question: What is the significance of character A wearing a sweater on a hot summer day?
See the difference? A college English course isn't going to be about memorizing a few details and spitting them back; it's going to be about critical thinking. Help prepare your children.
1. Kill Your Television
If we are what we eat, we can most definitely become what we watch. Practice the art of tuning out the TV. Passive watching in 22-minute increments with loud commercial breaks do not help build critical thinking skills. Feed your children longer shows, ones that exhibit critical thinking on topics and ones that don't offer easy solutions or endings. Families need to watch together so they can talk about shows and issues that come up.
While you're killing the television, limit video games and computer games that do not foster critical thinking.
2. Establish Reading as a Love, Not a Chore
It's just as important for parents to model reading to their children as it is for the children to read. Integrate reading into home life if it is not readily part of it. Choose a family novel to read together or establish a topic to research as a family and read non-fiction that pertains to all sides of an issue.
Read for enjoyment as well as information. Don't stop and ask questions at the end of every paragraph. Get through whole chapters and then discuss.
3. Cultivate a Love of Good Film
Screen films in the household that depict multifaceted characters. The real world is not black and white, good and evil. Students trained from an early age to look only for complete good guys or bad guys (clearly marked!) also have a hard time in college courses. Films that demonstrate various motivations for behavior can be ideal for discussion.
4. Study Christian and Greek Mythology
Considering one can't really take an English literature course in college without reading pieces that reference Christian or Greek mythology, it's important that children do not reach the age of 18 without knowledge of either or both. Our Western civilization is steeped in Judeo-Christian stories as well as Greek and Roman. It's in our very language. The stories are chock full of power, sexuality, and violence (the stuff of great literature, after all). These stories were created to explain the world: from origins to seasons to personality traits. Parents do their children a great disservice when not exposing their children to these basics.
5. Keep a Journal
Author Joan Didion is often quoted as saying, "I write to find out what I'm thinking." The act of writing leads the writer to examine his or her thoughts. Parents would do well to cultivate this practice. Ask children to share what they've written but don't make it a requirement. Let them show what they've written because they want to share.
6. Question and Critique
Often students get all the way to college and no one has ever told them anything about their work other than "Good Job!" (with a smiley face). Children need to be asked why they've responded the way they've responded and they need to be asked how they arrived at their beliefs. They need to understand that reading and writing skills are both works in progress.
7. Discuss the World
Children do better in college when they are working with long established tools. Discuss the world, the election, climate change right there at the dinner table. Have friends with opposite points of view? Great! Expose the children to varied viewpoints. If children see their parents engaged with the world they, too, will be engaged with the world.
They will be ready to discuss what they think, what they read, and what they are writing. When it comes time to take the college placement or assessment exams to determine whether they will wind up in remedial or college level composition, it's these skills that will come rushing forward and save the time and money those remedial courses would have taken up.
How are you preparing your children for the college world now?