Reading May Be the Key to Unlocking Basic Skills Success

Academic Senate Basic Skills Committee Chair and Ad Hoc Noncredit Committee Chair

“All the elements of academic literacy—reading, writing, listening, speaking, critical thinking, use of technology, and habits of mind that foster academic success—are expected of entering freshmen across all college disciplines (ICAS).”

The current focus on basic skills has sharpened our knowledge and tools to help students succeed both academically and in the workplace. When needs in basic academic skills are tied to the ICAS1Literacy Competencies for Entering Freshman, there is a very clear picture of expectations for students. Now consider the national research and policy papers declaring a critical need to focus on reading, particularly in higher education. While numerous research projects examine transfer patterns, graduation rates or mathematics and English course success rates, it appears we are overlooking a key ingredient necessary for fundamental academic and workforce success–reading.

Research data from the National Center of Educational Statistics (NCES) reveal a declining expertise in reading and the National Endowment for the Arts describes an essential link between reading, socioeconomic opportunity, and civic involvement. Data suggest that the key to unlocking the door to higher education regardless of the student goal, whether work, transfer, graduate degree, personal development or engaged citizenship, is reading. Alarmingly, recent NCES research presents a clear picture that the national literacy level is declining. Do we assume reading is a skill acquired early in childhood and not a skill that requires continual sophistication? Just try reading that cell phone contract! Reading is far more complex and essential as a key to unlocking success.

The Condition and Effects of Reading Declines in the United States
The Current State of Affairs for Reading

  • “Americans reading less” and “college attendance no longer guarantees active reading habits” (National Endowment of the Arts, pp. 7-8)
  • Nationally, from 1992 to 2005, the average 12th grader reading scores have steadily declined. (NCES)
  • Reading for pleasure correlates with academic achievement and opportunity for career growth. (National Endowment of the Arts, pp. 7-8, 14, 17)
  • Not only is reading declining, Americans are reading less well, reading comprehension skills are eroding. (National Endowment of the Arts, pp. 12-14)
  • Employers rank reading, English language and writing skills as very important skills to success in any workplace endeavor. (The Conference Board)
  • There is a strong relationship between reading and mathematics achievement. (NCES)

The Findings and Correlation between Reading and Successful Workplace and Academic Skills

  • Employers rank reading and writing as major deficiencies in their new hires and concurrently rank reading comprehension as an important skill for workplace success (The Conference Board)
  • Reading for pleasure is strongly correlated to academic achievement, increased employment opportunities and civic engagement. (The National Endowment of the Arts, pp. 14-16)
  • “Twenty percent of U.S. college students completing 4-year degrees – and 30 percent of students earning 2-year degrees – have only basic quantitative literacy skills, meaning they are unable to estimate if their car has enough gasoline to get to the next gas station or calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies.” (AIR)
  • “More than 75 percent of students at 2-year colleges and more than 50 percent of students at 4-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of literacy. This means that they lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, such as comparing credit card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials.” (AIR)

How can we rectify the deteriorating reading conditions among students?

  1. Fully address the graduation requirement for reading at the local colleges.
    The California community colleges are required to determine a reading graduation competency. Title 5 § 55063 requires local colleges to determine a reading competency for the Associates Degree.2 We need to take this mandate seriously. A recent Academic Senate survey of 86 California community colleges revealed that while some colleges have specific and explicit graduation competencies defined as reading assessment scores, a specific reading course requirement or the equivalent, a large number of colleges simply assume that a passing grade in a general education course implicitly equates to a reading competency. The national data would suggest that this is untrue and not a measure of actual reading skill level. Unless the general education course grade is built upon a reading outcome and passing the course is impossible without a college-level reading skill – this is not an adequate competency for graduation. As the data in the national research describe, many students graduate with only basic reading skills after an entire general education program.

    Colleges should clearly create a process for assessing reading proficiency of students and especially in relation to graduation requirements. Reading prerequisites or equivalent level reading assessments may be important considerations not just for student success but to correct this downward reading trend.

  2. Individual faculty should evaluate the level of reading required in their courses.
    Individual faculty need to consider how they incorporate reading in their courses and assignments. According to Title 5 § 55002, Standards and Criteria for Courses, intensity of all courses should guarantee that “the course provides instruction in critical thinking and generally treats subject matter with a scope and intensity that prepares students to study independently outside of class time and includes reading and writing assignments and homework. In particular, the assignments will be sufficiently rigorous that students successfully completing each such course, or sequence of required courses, will have acquired the skills necessary to successfully complete degree-applicable work.”
  3. Curriculum Committees should thoroughly review all curriculum for reading requirements.

    Curriculum review should involve scrutiny of reading assignments and emphasis on college level reading. A rough measure of reading difficulty is to simply type a few sections of the text book into a Word document and, using the review function in WORD, determine the grade level of the text.

  4. Examine innovative methods for reading strategies and integration into discipline courses.

    Colleges should consider innovative reading integration into courses. In Chapter 10 of Constructing a Framework for Success: A Holistic Approach to Basic Skills (, effective practices to incorporate reading into assignments for all disciplines (including a section on reading in mathematics) are available for anyone to use. Study skills courses and student services interactions should consider how to emphasize reading strategies.

    In addition, programs such as Reading Apprenticeship provide training for embedding assessment practices in discipline courses ( The Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC), created by the CSU as a companion to the Early Assessment Program (EAP), is designed for basic skills reading and writing courses to strengthen emphasis on college level skills (

  5. Provide adequate reading assessment and reading sections to address developmental reading. Recent examination of assessment practices in the California community colleges (CCC) indicate that reading assessment tests are the least common and that developmental reading sections comprise the smallest percentage of all basic skills sections. While some strategies integrate reading and writing strategies and are highly effective, where this integration is assumed and not intentional, the emphasis on reading and reading comprehension are critical. America’s declining reading ability is a serious problem. Reading is foundational to all basic academic and workplace skills. Imagine a key that could fundamentally improve student success in all other courses. That key is reading!

American Research Institute [AIR]. (2006). New study of the literacy of college students finds some are graduating with only basic skills. Retrieved March 17, 2010 from

Baer, J.D., Cook, A.L., & Baldi, S. (2006). The literacy of America’s college students. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved March 17, 2010 from…

Baer, J.D., Kutner, M., Sabatini, J., & White, S. (2009). Basic reading skills and the literacy of America’s least literate adults. Retrieved March 10, 2010 from
< br> Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates [ICAS]. (2002). Academic literacy: A statement of competencies expected of students entering California’s public colleges and universities. Retrieved March 16, 2010 from

National Center for Educational Statistics (2006). Comparative indicators of education in the United States and other G-8 countries. Retrieved March 12, 2010 from

National Endowment for the Arts. (2007). To read or not to read: A question of national consequence. Reading Report number 47. Retrieved September 2, 2008, at U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics [NCES]. (2009). Retrieved March 2010 from

The Conference Board, Inc (2006). Are they really ready to work? : Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. The Workforce Readiness Project. Retrieved November 20, 2008, from


  1. The Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senates (ICAS) was established by faculty in 1980 as a voluntary organization consisting of representatives of the Academic Senates of the three segments of public higher education in California - the community colleges, the California State University, and the University of California. The ICAS Literacy Competencies were jointly published in 2002.
  2. Title 5 § 55063. Minimum Requirements for the Associate Degree states that “The competency requirements for written expression and mathematics may also be met by obtaining a satisfactory grade in courses in English and mathematics taught in or on behalf of other departments and which, as determined by the local governing board, require entrance skills at a level equivalent to those necessary for Freshman Composition and Intermediate Algebra respectively. Requirements for demonstrating competency in reading shall be locally determined.”