Research Says Dev Ed Delivers

Amy Doty and Phip Ross

With as much research and data that has been generated in the last 10 years on developmental education, one would imagine conclusions would be clearer. This academic year, the Nebraska Developmental Education Consortium (NDEC) hosted Alexandros Goudas, who guided us through his assessment of research that he has invested in for much of the last decade. At the same time we started following Goudas’s work at the outset of his publishing in 2012 with Hunter Boylan, who founded NOSS (formerly NADE) we sought consultation with Katie Hern, the California Acceleration Project (CAP) co-founder for shaping our redesign at Southeast Community College (SCC).

At CAP and other conferences, Hern is known for awarding the title “Honey Badger” to individuals who go all in on eliminating developmental coursework. Goudas and Hern are both dedicated educators and leaders who have strong opinions. As the data roll out, neither have wavered in their positions. There have been heated, unprofessional debates from folks from what can only be called “camps” we have witnessed online and at national conference breakout sessions.

Those of us whose primary concern is not an argument but what works best for our students, need credible, unbiased voices that look at the research first and form conclusions or next questions. For the work to be legitimate, we need inquiry models that are just that: open, honest, and searching. This requires flexibility to shift with what the data are showing.

In late April, Hern, responding to a faculty member’s opinion piece “Don’t Eliminate Remedial Education in Community Colleges,” pushes back against data that is showing declines in completion with the co-requisite-only model she is advocating by state law.

In her concession about data that show success rates “modestly” declining, her rebuttal is that this data leaves out students who first took remedial classes. Well, they isolated that population from her data because they are measuring the success of directly-placed students with no “remediation.” To include those students would skew the data. With respect, she’s making the very “sleight-of-hand” move she accuses opponents of in the same paragraph.

Hern writes: “Opponents point out that success rates in transfer-level courses declined after AB 705, and this is true. There have been modest declines. But this data omits all of the students who took remedial courses. When you include all students, you see that tens of thousands of additional students completed key requirements for a college degree.” By Hern’s own admission, the number of students benefiting from these developmental courses increases the overall success rates statewide.

In a recent Inside Higher Education opinion article, “Remediation is Not the Enemy,” John Schlueter reviews 2019 research that advocates for the co-requisite-only model. Schlueter points to another “sleight-of-hand” move.  Proponents of co-requisite models focus on the different pass rates for the college-level courses: Students in a co-req course pass college-level math at a higher rate than those who first start in a remedial course.

But that same data, Schleuter points out, shows students who took remedial coursework had a 65 percent pass rate with 82 percent graduating or transferring, compared to the 61 percent in the co-req model and 45 percent graduating or transferring. “Based on these data, to conclude that remediation is an obstacle to student success is misguided,” he concludes. “If we convince ourselves that progress means eliminating the learning opportunities that remedial coursework clearly provides, because they are ‘exit points’ for vulnerable students, then we will continue to overlook the types of reform that really move the needle on student success.”

The crux of the matter comes back to what Goudas emphasizes, and that is to focus upon what the purpose of developmental education is: To prepare students to succeed at an equal (often better) rate than those directly placed. Based on NDEC’s March webinar discussion of co-requisite models in our colleges, the “model” is not singular, but multiple and measured. To illustrate, if a financial advisor was consulting you on your best outcomes, they often say to diversify your investments, be patient, and modify as needed. In other words, don’t go all in on one stock even if, especially if, a broker is pushing their product. Providing a variety of pathways toward the same end goal—student success—is at the heart of creating a ‘diversified portfolio’ of options for students.

Goudas leads our NOSS Research Network and recently put together a valuable resource in the form of an annotated bibliography. In an email to NDEC with the bibliography, he provides a clear-eyed conclusion: “As evidence that stand-alone prerequisite remediation and developmental education are effective and should remain an option in post-secondary institutions, particularly two-year public colleges . . .”

“[These studies] use statistical controls and show strong positive results for students who participated in stand-alone remediation and developmental education. And these positive results range in outcomes, from higher first-year course pass rates to the more important metrics of transfer and degree completion, both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. Moreover, these studies are not from a single research organization or interest group, and they are published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals.

Based on these and many other studies, it is difficult to conclude that the current narrative for remediation and developmental education is true (that they are complete barriers and should be eliminated). In fact, a solid base of research demonstrates the opposite.

Current and past evidence strongly suggests that stand-alone prerequisite remediation and developmental education can and should remain a positive part of a holistic system of student success.”

We would argue that co-requisite models and developmental models do not mutually exclude one another. This is, indeed, a case where ‘both/and’ thinking prevails over the ‘either/or’ mindset. Students’ needs are not one size fits all, and so it follows that the approaches we use to support their learning can and should be as dynamic as possible to support a range of different experiences.


Turk, J. M. (2019). Estimating the impact of developmental education on associate degree completion: A dose–response approach. Research in Higher Education, 60, 1090–1112.

“Overall, when two groups of statistically similar students were compared, developmental education generally improved the chances of earning an associate degree” (abstract).
Saw, G. K. (2019). Remedial enrollment during the 1st year of college, institutional transfer, and degree attainment. Journal of Higher Education, 90(2), 298–321.

“For 2-year college students, remediation enrollment in both mathematics and English improved the likelihood of transferring to a 4-year college and earning a bachelor’s degree” (abstract).
Sanabria, T., Penner, A. & Domina, T. (2020). Failing at remediation? College remedial coursetaking, failure and long-term student outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 61, 459–484.

“Taking remediation is associated with a nearly nine percentage-point increase in bachelor’s degree completion for 2-year college students after accounting for demographic, familial, and academic background characteristics” (p. 474).
Paulson, E. J., & Van Overschelde, J. P. (2021). Accelerated integrated reading and writing: A statewide natural experiment. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 45(1), 13–30.


“Using our most precise samples and a quasi-experimental methodology, we found that students in the non-accelerated SD Reading and SD Writing courses were more likely to pass their first college-level intensive course than students who took the accelerated INRW course” (p. 22).


Goudas, A. M. (2018). Rethinking the corequisite model: What is it, why remedial English and mathematics, and what is its net effect? Journal of College Academic Support Programs, 1(2), 48–50.

“The goal should be to increase success rates throughout college for at-risk students by addressing the actual causes of fail rates and attrition instead of eliminating helpful courses” (49).

Amy Doty and Phip Ross are co-chairs of Southeast Community College’s English Department in Lincoln, members of NDEC’s Leadership Team, and members of NOSS and the NOSS IRW Network. 

Managing Teams Remotely

By Forrest C. Helvie, Ph.D.

While I understand that many of us in the IRW Network are primarily focused on the best practices of our reading and writing classes, I wanted to share some thoughts learned over the course of this pandemic as someone who has been both a program coordinator and department chair, which I think may prove helpful in terms of helping create a greater sense of belonging and community that’s been sorely missing. As someone who was – up until recently – the coordinator of developmental English and the chair of our Academic Enrichment and First-Year Experience department, I had the responsibility of leading a group of full-time and part-time faculty and staff who all held varying levels of comfort with educational technology and navigating the online environment. I hope that what follows will help you in your own programs – whether as a formal academic leader helping to steer the ship or as someone “leading up” to help hold things together.

We live on an island … for now. First and foremost, I found it important to always recognize the context in which we were and still are working. Working and living remotely can feel a lot like living on an island and pretending that isn’t the case can only exacerbate those feelings of isolation. Before kicking off meetings, I would frequently allocate the first five to ten minutes for a quick check-in. This could be something as simple as offering a word cloud poll to see what stood out to asking department members to offer one “rose” and one “thorn” for the week. Doing this won’t change the entire direction of their day let alone their week, but it’s an opportunity to be seen and heard for a moment. And the “rose and thorn” approach does challenge colleagues to try and find something good to focus on as well.

Consistent communication. There are times when groups only need to meet once or twice when they’re charged with a single task. During the pandemic, however, I pivoted away from the 90-minute monthly meetings and shifted towards meeting weekly for about 15-20 minutes. The result was that my colleagues ended up having to meet for less time by the end of the month but also had the opportunity to 1. Hear information far more quickly as issues arose, and 2. Share questions and concerns far more often compared to waiting for the monthly meetings when those kinds of issues would be raised (e.g., discussions around committee work, policy changes at the college, etc.).

In the effort to respect colleagues’ time, I always made sure to notice the identified end time and invite folks to feel free to leave if they needed to be somewhere else; however, I also offered folks time to stay after to further brainstorm together when there were challenges someone needed feedback. This encouraged teamwork and shared innovation to solve student, staff, and faculty needs.

 How can I support you? As the coordinator and department chair, I also used these opportunities to see how I could support my team. The result was that every member of my team had someone asking how they were doing, what help they needed to do their work, and if they needed any other kind of support. Once again, this helped not only acknowledge that we were all on our own virtual islands, but it helped to create virtual bridges between our spaces, which helped them to keep their heads up and trucking forward.

1:1 Options. For some programs, I had staff and faculty who wanted to meet on a weekly basis one-on-one in order to address specific concerns and challenges they faced. Some managed sizable programs with many moving parts while in other cases I had to mentor part-time faculty, and discussions like this might have otherwise monopolized full department meetings. Moving these kinds of discussions into a routine 1:1 session provided me with the opportunity to address the real needs of my faculty and staff while simultaneously respecting the time of everyone for whom those discussions might not have been as relevant.

Move it online. While we all moved online, there was certain information that could move from the in-person meetings to other formats. For example, we would frequently provide program and committee updates about what was going on in that area. In order to reframe our virtual meetings and keep them focused on addressing specific needs in a timely fashion, however, routine updates that didn’t require in-depth discussion were moved to a “consent agenda” which went out in advance of the meeting. This way, the department could keep abreast of what was going on in the programs and campus committees outside of the 15-20 minutes we met, and if there was a need to discuss one such item, then we could do that without needing to unpack everything else. The result? More expedient meetings while ensuring the same amount of information was shared out.

Got a record? Shared documents are a great way to keep track of what was covered. This could be as simple as listing action items that were either completed or identified for completion or more extensive coverage of the meeting discussions. Keeping a running document like this can often be useful, however, as a means of ensuring all department colleagues are current with what’s going on especially when someone is unable to attend a meeting.

Dr. Forrest Helvie has served as a developmental English faculty member for the past eleven years at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. In that time, he has coordinated the developmental English program and chaired the Academic Enrichment and First-Year Experience department. Presently, he is beginning a new position as the Connecticut State Community College Interim Director of Professional Development.

“The Plan for Success” – Supporting Students’ Executive Functioning Skills

By Forrest C. Helvie, Ph.D.

As Integrated Reading & Writing teachers, we all preach and believe in writing as a process. But what do we do when students come into our classes with varying grasps on that process? And how do we help these students develop into independent learners who will be able to take this process and apply it across their programs of study?

The first year of college often serves as a transition point into a new world, and for some of our students, this change can prove disruptive and challenging as they try to adapt their planning skills to the college classroom. Successfully generalizing these process-focused skills can be especially difficult given that many first-time students are still developing their executive functioning (EF) skills. These skills help people plan, consider steps involved with completing simple and complex tasks, and manage their time. Conditions such as ADD/ADHD frequently include executive functioning deficits; however, students who have either struggled in their high school experiences or been away from the classroom for an extended time may also experience EF challenges initially as well (Ward & Jacobsen, 2014). 

Recognizing that a number of students in my IRW classes were struggling with the process planning skills that are integral to their success in the course, I created the “Plan for Success” based on the feedback I’ve provided them on their essays. EF experts Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen (2014) developed a strategy for work completion called “Get Ready, Do, Done, Get Done” and my “Plan for Success” approach adapts their work for college level writing students to not only help them get done, but be able to do it on their own after they’ve progressed on from my class. To ensure it happens with fidelity (and to aid in their attempts to translate my handwriting!), I do this in class on the day they receive their papers back initially, but as the semester goes on, the students find they’re better able to complete it on their own thereby growing their sense of “academic independence.”

The first step in the “Plan for Success” is to have students fill out the title of assignment and the due date for the next draft at the top of the paper. This seems simple enough, but it’s serves as a continual visual reminder of when the assignment and its due date. Before they can begin the work, they need to be 100% clear on what the subject is and when it will be due.

Next, students identify WHAT they need to edit and revise. They do this through collecting all of the feedback provided to them in their essay after reading instructor feedback and then creating a bullet list of what they find. This way, students don’t need to flip back and forth through their initial draft to find the feedback as it will be collected all in one place. Additionally, it requires students to read the instructor feedback and transfer it onto their plan in a way they’ll understand. If the feedback doesn’t make sense, they have an opportunity to seek clarification right away. As a result, they will have gathered all that they need to complete the work thoroughly. Lastly, this bypasses more traditional “writers’ checklists,” which utilize a one size fits all approach. Instead, the “Plan for Success” offers each student an entirely individualized list. After all, when students understand something is relevant to their needs, the likelihood they’ll buy in is that much greater.

Afterwards, I have students write out WHERE they will work on these revisions. Some students might have access to a computer at home, but others are not as privileged. Even those who do have a computer at home still need to understand some spaces are more conducive to learning than others. This step reinforces the importance of students recognizing that one of the steps in completing their work is ensure they have a good study environment, and this may result in more planning for some than others. Too often, assignments fail to be turned in because students didn’t plan on where they would go to complete the work or until it’s too late. With practice, they’ll begin to know where they can be most productive and how to avoid those places that can distract them from being focused on work completion.

Then, students identify WHEN they will complete the work. Again, this step aims to address last-minute planning that often results in students working at the last possible minute … or failing to get the work done at all. For many, this may prove to be one of the most challenging aspects of the plan, but with practice, they’ll become more acclimated to thinking about scheduling time to complete their work. Even if they recognize after the fact that they did not adhere to their plan, they can begin to consider what times would work better than what they planned or what factors led to their being derailed during that time frame. Again, the more we can encourage and cultivate a sense of mindfulness in our students, the more likely they will be at completing their classroom activities and obligations.

Now, up to this point the students have prepared to do the work and hopefully completed the revisions and edits for their essay. But if you’ve ever had a student tell you they did the work but left it at home, then you understand the difference between being done with writing an essay and getting an assignment done. Ward & Jacobsen (2014) refer to this as the final stage of the process of assignment completion: Getting Done. With this in mind, students will need to identify on their plan HOW they will submit the assignment to their instructor. In some cases, they will submit it electronically; in other instances, it may be that they need to list where they will print the assignment out and how they’ll store the assignment so it gets to class on time for submission.

Many teachers provide students with an assortment of tools for supporting assignment completion, e.g. graphic organizers, checklists, etc. And while I do not want to discourage this, I would challenge faculty to consider that when students develop the tools for work completion themselves, we are better supporting their taking ownership of their learning through helping them internalize the process of getting their work done. The “Plan for Success” that I developed helps students do this through prompting them to come up with the list of work that needs to be done to revise their writing, identify what logistical needs they’ll have, and create a realistic timeline for meeting their instructor’s expectations. It’s more than just a basic checklist; instead, it serves as both a written reflection and opportunity for critical self-reflection that can lead to students completing their work for not only your classes but throughout their academic experience.

Works Referenced

Ward, S., & Jacobsen, K. (2014). A clinical model for developing executive function skills. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 21(2), 72-84.

Dr. Forrest Helvie has served as a developmental English faculty member for the past eleven years at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. In that time, he has coordinated the developmental English program and chaired the Academic Enrichment and First-Year Experience department. Presently, he is beginning a new position as the Connecticut State Community College Interim Director of Professional Development.

My Post-COVID IRW Classroom: Flexibility Remains Key

By Tina Shanahan

I’m scheduled to get my COVID vaccine this week!  The vaccine brings hope of a return to normal.  I can’t wait to see students’ whole faces in class next year and have a cup of coffee with a colleague on campus.  Still, there are some aspects of teaching reading and writing that will not be business as usual next year.  I’ve picked up some new tricks and will retire some old norms for good.  

And, I know I’m not alone.  Writers for Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, or university-specific publications like Duke Today also report that a new normal is in order.  For me, the key feature of my post-COVID IRW classes will be increased flexibility in lesson plans, class policies, and technology. 

More time to slow down and connect

At my college, faculty were given a choice in their modality for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021.  I chose to teach primarily on campus in socially distanced classes with reduced enrollment.  My students told me they chose an in-person class because they couldn’t do online learning.  When my husband got COVID and my family had to quarantine for two weeks, my students and I were surprised at what we were capable of accomplishing via Zoom.  

I set up my Zoom sessions to allow extra time for student-to-student interaction in an attempt to help everyone feel connected.  I started each session with a small-group icebreaker or team-building activity.  I then brought the groups back for a short lesson, followed by an application exercise in the same group they were in for the icebreaker.  We came back to the main room to debrief as a whole class, but I made sure to check on each student individually and make sure everyone had a moment to reflect on the lesson and clarify the next steps in their reading and writing processes.  

This Random Wheel from was one of my classes’ favorite get-to-know you activities.

I admit that I was nervous about how many slides I deleted and how much I shortened my lesson to make space for the extra community-building and group activities.  But, it absolutely paid off as students supported each other and learned effectively in our Zoom sessions.  When we returned to the classroom after my quarantine, students told me they missed the breakout room activities, especially the ones that allowed time to just get to know the people they would be working with each class. 

The changes in class format this year shook the foundation of my teaching style.  But, I needed to be shaken.  Although I always use a lot of group activities in class, I have always felt like I owe it to students to pack every minute of class time with quality educational content.  There were times in my past teaching where I felt the need to charge forth as planned because I had so carefully designed the learning experience and didn’t trust myself enough to veer from the plan. 

A class packed from beginning to end with non-stop activities can be exhausting, and my students need a break to reflect and connect, even when we’re together in person.  I had been taking for granted that the class was a community simply because we were all physically together in the same space.  But, that’s not the case.  To truly establish community and present lessons in a way my students can absorb, I will continue deliberately incorporating more time for connecting and reflecting in class.

More flexible class policies 

I see my students trying to care for children while also calling into class.  I see my students worried about sick loved ones.  I see my students stressed out and overwhelmed.  The pandemic has been brutal.  Everyone has been affected in some way.  It has been uplifting to see the extent to which we have been extending grace to others during these times.  

But, brutal life situations aren’t unique to pandemics.  Students will continue to struggle with childcare, illness, and stress.  The flexible policies I have put in place during the pandemic have saved students from failure, and I will continue to extend grace, understanding, and options post-COVID.  

Most notably, I have given up my late policy and changed the way I talk about late work.  

Before ditching the late policy, I would send emails to students who missed a deadline that said, “I see you didn’t complete your assignment.  Remember that I accept late work for 10% off per day late, up to 5 days late.  At that point, any work will receive half credit.  Let me know if you have any questions on the assignment.  I hope to see your work soon.”  I rarely got a response back and only sometimes got the late assignment. 

I have changed my message entirely.  Instead of emphasizing my late policy, I emphasize the opportunity for learning that students miss out on.  I write something along the lines of, “I haven’t seen your assignment yet.  In this assignment, we’re working on…, which is important because… I’m happy to accept your work still.  Is there anything in particular holding you back from turning it in?”  I have been amazed at the difference in responses I receive with the change in policy and message.  Students have been far more willing to make up work when they know that their assignment is important because it is an essential part of the learning experience of the course and they can still get full credit for it.  In a recent study, students reported that instructor flexibility was the primary factor that motivated them to persist in their classes during the pandemic.  

As a writing teacher, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with an influx of late work at the end of the semester.  Essays require a lot of time to grade and several late essays turned in at once will impact an instructor’s workflow.  However, I have not had students come out of the woodwork to turn in a slew of essays at the end of the semester.  Instead, I have seen students who are incredibly overwhelmed grateful for the opportunity to get caught up.  

More acceptance of changing technological trends

Prior to the pandemic, my classes worked with a lot of printed materials and in-class demonstrations.  I have found that my increased flexibility in technology created opportunities for students.  

I used to print class notes outlines, which students would hand in physically at the end of each week.  To eliminate handing materials back and forth, I started putting class notes on Google Docs.  Students make a copy of our weekly notes outline to guide their engagement in class activities.  I can seamlessly embed links to resources in the class notes so students have all their materials for each week’s lessons in one place.  

Homework was always done through Blackboard, but the assignment instructions were limited to a few lines and an in-class explanation. Homework assignments are now completed on Google Docs that walk students through each step of the assignment with brief instructional videos every step of the way.  By transitioning to Google Docs and embedding instructions and links in the assignments, students can now complete the activities even if they need to miss a class. 

Another change to my standard IRW class practice was the way we annotate.  I had always encouraged students to annotate printed text.  Although not impossible, having students print readings and send scans or pictures of their annotations is inconvenient since many students don’t have a printer at home.  Instead, I started to use Google Drive for annotations.  In some assignments, students annotate a reading on their own or annotate research for an essay.   In other assignments, students all comment on a shared PDF. 

A snapshot of group annotation through Google Drive.  Students click the + in the top right corner to highlight a passage and add a comment. 

The nice thing about Google Drive is that students can access it anywhere and can continue to use it after our class.  Of course, students can continue to annotate print documents outside of class, too.  But, how often do any of our students, or any us for that matter, work with print documents anymore.  In embracing the technology of Google Docs and digital annotations through Google Drive, I hope that I’m providing my students a useful skill they can use in other classes and in their personal online reading.  

Where do we go from here? 

Teaching during a pandemic was stressful and overwhelming.  Many of us were underprepared for the kinds of pedagogical and technological shifts required to teach in varied modalities.  We learned on the fly, and understandably, most of us would say our teaching this year has been far from our best form.  

Nonetheless, we have persevered and come out wiser as a result.  There used to be a common narrative in higher education that certain types of teachers or certain types of students are only cut out for traditional on-campus classrooms. The pandemic has shown us what we’re capable of.  Before being forced to push the limits of traditional teaching and learning, we were setting parameters on education that prevented our seeing what was possible for a new age of education.

Dr. Tina Shanahan is an Instructor of Reading and Writing at Gateway Technical College in Southeast Wisconsin and co-chair of the NOSS IRW Network.  You can connect with her at

The Cycle of Belonging and Culturally Responsive Teaching in IRW

By Tina Shanahan and Phip Ross

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) matters in our classrooms because acknowledging and responding to students’ unique interests, strengths, and needs creates a stronger learning experience for everyone.  In this post, Tina Shanahan and Phip Ross discuss how they incorporate elements of DEI in their IRW classes.  

Tina’s Experience 

A group of colleagues and I recently enrolled in a course from CoopLew called Creating an Equity Minded Framework for Online and Traditional Courses.  CoopLew is a DEI consulting group that worked with our college on a cultural climate survey.  The course prompts educators to examine course design, materials, and instruction with an equity mindset.  

CoopLew’s cycle of belonging (see image below) highlights the relationship between inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging. 

The Cycle of Belonging


Each element of the cycle of belonging is evident in culturally relevant integrated reading and writing (IRW) classrooms.  

Inclusion is a Choice

IRW instructors choose inclusion by valuing the different perspectives and experiences each student brings to the class.  A key component of deep reading is making connections between the text and one’s own schema.  To not only be culturally relevant but also to be an effective IRW teacher, we need to show students how to build bridges between course materials and their lives.  This means we need to invite all students to share their stories.  Stories of resilience, character-building, pride, and other values can provide a starting point from which to make learning relevant to students and build on existing schema.  Even an activity as simple as a Before/During/After reading guide can give students some opportunities to share parts of their stories and include their personal lives, culture, and interests in class. 

Diversity is a Fact 

IRW instructors treat diversity as a fact by noticing and appreciating difference.  One way we can do this is by including a diverse range of voices in our course materials.  I recently realized that my developmental IRW course could represent more diverse voices.  A unit on “The Way We Learn,” includes readings from Carol Dweck about growth mindset and Angela Duckworth about grit, links to articles about student success tips, information on how memory works, and effective study habits.  With a few exceptions, the resources come mostly from white women.  I am deliberately seeking out more diverse voices to include as required reading.  If you have any suggestions, please share them in the comments!   

Equity is an Experience 

IRW instructors can provide an equitable experience for all students by eliminating barriers so all students can experience success.  Offering materials in a variety of formats is one way to be more equitable and allow students to learn in a way that serves them best.  Formats may include a variety of options for class lessons including synchronous instruction (in person or via Zoom, currently), slides and notes for the lesson available online, reading materials, and/or videos with closed captions and transcripts.

Equitable practices also include offering opportunities for student output as well.  For example, why not offer students a voice or video response option to assess reading comprehension?  IRW is effective because it highlights the connection between reading and writing, but sometimes reading competence is hidden by a student’s struggles with writing.  Students who feel more comfortable expressing themselves verbally may be better served by the option to talk through a reading using FlipGrid instead of writing a summary when written communication isn’t the primary learning objective.   

Belonging is a Feeling 

Students feel a sense of belonging when instructors commit to inclusion, appreciate diversity, and provide equitable opportunities.  According to CoopLew’s Cycle of Belonging, students are willing to participate and engage when they feel like they belong.  Engagement is the only way to develop reading and writing skills, so we need to do everything we can in our classrooms to make every student feel like they belong.  The assignment Phip describes in his experience below provides a good example of how we can embed activities that build belonging into IRW coursework.  

Phip’s Experience

The essay, which served as the address to AERA (2006) by Gloria Ladson-Billings, was a two-by-four to my skull. She walloped me with some challenging truths about history and education. “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools” began the wake-up call that continues to roust me. Challenges on the scale she describes—historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral—clearly delineated issues I will always be challenged by in my role as a community college developmental English faculty: What am I learning about and with my students and what space am I providing for that? Ladson-Billings has been one of the first to influence culturally responsive pedagogy. 

Who & What is IRW Curriculum?

Anything is a prized posestion when my uncle gives me something I.e. magnets from their trips to galveston islannds texas myrtle beach south carolina a t shirt from vegas a key ring from mt rushmoore and rio grande in brazil my uncles old 1997 pontiac sunfire key. – fall 2020 student

Students complete a writer’s profile and an interest inventory in most composition classes. I learn about them. They can see themselves in the details they share. They are being asked to add a list of topics they can choose to build on as long as they have a total of a dozen items.

Important people. Most challenging experiences. Skills. Life goals. Important Places. Worst or best jobs.

Students interview one another based on one item from the inventory and write a one-page “mini-essay”. It’s quite a challenge to listen, ask questions, and build the profile. It sets the bar in terms of comprehending instructions, critiquing a sample to guide the process, and using a rubric for assessment. More importantly, I hope the experience makes salient student identity unrelated to their academic history as readers and writers or their placement scores. They are talking, asking, listening to one another. I should be listening, jumping in occasionally with my own questions. Learning.

Early on, over-lapping the structured mini-essay, is the “I am from” or an origin story where this inventory can support this biographical introduction.  I sneak in MLA formatting but the form of the composition is their choice: paragraphs or more poetry/lyric. My examples invite non-English expressions. These are read aloud. Everyone responds in written notes. These opening activities a slam dunk on several levels. So far, the class is being co-authored by students. They are providing the content, their voices are providing most of the noise. Their text is getting the attention. Social and written norms should be taking shape where students are at the center. Students are finding footing on the heels of these successes.

“I am from” was my poem that I had written to describe who I am as a person and who is really [name]. I have put my feelings into words to share with my classmates in class. I have put my feelings into words.

While the big concern in an IRW class is the relationship students can develop with text as readers and writers in-process, consider the first focus on how the instructor can learn to read and start to understand who these individuals are: good readers depend on good background knowledge. We start from scratch on Day 1 every term. Moments will occur when we will be ineffective and that sneaky little “deficit model” tickles the reptile brain, patience drains, frustration climbs up the throat. The very best among us will deny the student. Maybe not three times. To ward against this ultimate personal and professional failing, I have to be the learner myself and figure out a lot more about who I am working with and how I can support them.

This is relational work in terms of building an atmosphere of acceptance that will create a field of brave students willing to ask questions, share their mistakes, read aloud from the book they’re struggling to understand, share their own writing.

It is about building some safe space. No judgment zone. Welcome to the learning party. We are going to know who we are. This is where a growth mindset is a possibility. And it is about well-being in the IRW class.

Finally, part of these initial forays into our lives, reading one another, getting our bearings for the work ahead, is also “mining the text” of our lives and appreciating that experience and what it can teach us. On writing, Charles Wright nails it: “Language is the element of definition  …  It puts the coin between your teeth. It whistles the boat up. It shows us the city of light across the water.” Recognizing places, people, and events, are the coins, the concrete nouns which ring with a truth and help us navigate the path ahead together.

None of this guarantees culturally responsive teaching and inclusion, let’s be clear. It’s an opportunity for students to bring their complicated lives with them to class and know, for themselves, first, that they are not any one test score, stereotype, kind of student, or other demographic that has labeled and threatened them with limitations. 

And if we are going to make meaning moving forward, really making connections to texts we read, we can start with opportunities to connect to one another. 


Universal Design for Learning: What is Culturally Responsive Teaching

The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives

 An Ongoing Process

Resources on culturally responsive teaching are quick to point out that there is no quick-tip guide to transform your teaching in a few simple steps.  Instead, the Cycle of Belonging and Culturally Responsive Teaching are guiding principles.  Equitable instruction is a mindset.  We can never plan for all the differences our individual students bring to our class each semester.  But by examining our teaching through the lens of DEI and CRT, we can create courses where students feel like they belong.  

Tina Shanahan
Dr. Tina Shanahan is a reading and writing instructor at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Her work focuses specifically on teaching and learning in co-requisite models of developmental education and the integration of reading and writing. She lurks on academic Twitter as @TinaTeachesEngl.


An English instructor at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska, Phip Ross is a teacher, writer, activist, and musician. To contact Phip, please email



Your Own Personal Cheerleader:  Helping Developmental Students Advocate for Themselves


By Melanie Ward, M.Ed.

I share a story with my students every semester and it goes like this: 

Growing up, I had an undiagnosed learning disorder that made mathematical concepts very challenging for me.  I attended high school in a small town in Texas, and the school system being what it was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, my mathematical inability was chalked up to nothing in particular and I was placed in lower level math classes. How low, you might ask? I graduated high school without ever taking basic algebra.  

I started college right after graduation. Of course, based on my placement tests, I registered for developmental math. Although I was aware that I lacked many of the skills needed to be successful in math, I sat in the class day in and day out, never asking questions or asking for help when I didn’t understand. Instead, I tried to shrink away to not be noticed; to not be called on and embarrassed. I’m sure you can guess what grade I earned that semester.  

I don’t shy away from telling my students I have an F on my transcript.  I don’t even shy away from telling them I have two F’s on my transcript as a result of doing the exact same thing the following semester. The next part is what is most important. I share with my students that the following semester, after two sobering failures, I finally decided to advocate for my own success. I went to my professor’s tutorial sessions. I asked for help in class. I worked harder to try to understand the concepts. The outcome of that semester was much different, but more important than the improved grade, I learned to stand up for my own success.  

As a professor working with developmental level reading and writing students, I see students who are just like I was when I began college. Many of them have spent a good deal of their lives experiencing failure, and the deep but hidden wounds of those experiences are evident.  Some of these students had an advocate as children and young adults; a parent, guardian, or teacher who stood up for them and helped make decisions for them in their best interest. However, now as adults in college, that safety net has been cut, and students find themselves not knowing how to advocate for their success. 

At the beginning of each new semester, I spend time helping the students understand self-advocacy. We focus on two main points: 1) What do you want? and 2) What do you need to get what you want? As we start to learn about self-advocacy, students create graphic organizers to help them envision how they will advocate for themselves. For example, if a student responds that they want to improve their grade in their math class, they have identified what they want. Next is the harder part. I ask them to determine what they need to do to achieve that “want”, who may help them, or what services they may utilize to help. As these points are discussed and identified, the student creates their “plan” for self-advocacy. The flow chart clearly lays out how they will ask for help, a timeline for their plan, and what services they can use to succeed. 

This practice doesn’t stop there. I would be remiss if I lead you to believe that this is a one and done activity. Clearly this is something that must be done repetitively as issues arise so that the process becomes engrained in the student. As time progresses and the student begins to do this type of self-advocacy on their own, I carefully use language to praise them such as, “You are really working hard to advocate for yourself. I’m proud of you.” 

The ability to advocate for one’s own success is a skill students need to develop. Teaching students to evaluate their situations, identify areas of need, and empowering them to reach out for support are all necessary could be the difference between a student persevering to graduation or skipping out on the dreams that led them to college in the first place. 

Melanie Ward is a Professor of Developmental Reading at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas. You can contact Melanie at


Useful Technology in an IRW Classroom

By Michelle Kaschak

As we ventured into the unknown these many months of the pandemic, we have been inundated with new online teaching tools and aids to help make things easier.  Some are great; some are not.  I am sharing some tools that I have found helpful in my online IRW class.

Google Jamboard is essentially an online white board or bulletin board where students can easily manipulate images and text.  The nice part is that Jamboard is part of the Google suite of apps, and it is very user-friendly.  In my classes this fall, I used Jamboard as a place for students to create Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting two different readings.  In another instance, we read poems, and the students needed to add a word or an image to a shared class Jamboard that shows how they saw the poem or what was most important to them from the poem.  For a short story assignment, students had to add images that told the story of how they viewed one of the main characters. 

Jamboard would be great to add an image or text where students can add virtual sticky notes, highlight important points, add images, change the font, add shapes, use a laser pointer, and more. 

Example of JamBoard Venn Diagram:

Another winner for online classes is Flipgrid.  Flipgrid is a free app (can access on a computer or a phone/ tablet) where students can verbally respond to a discussion question or give feedback to a peer.  In the online environment, I used it as a way for students to introduce themselves to me and their peers, a place where students could comment on a reading, and a place where they could present a project.  The pros of Flipgrid are that you can see your students’ faces and hear their voices without learning new video or editing skills, which makes it less stressful on all. Another pro is that students do not have to buy any software for this, and they can access it on their phones.  It is very easy to set up from the instructor side, and you can share a link or a QR code with students. The con is that it is much more cumbersome to grade than a traditional discussion board.  I would not use a FlipGrid every week because of this.  Flipgrid changes up the traditional online discussion enough to make it interesting.

Whenever this pandemic ends, I am sure that we will all keep using the technology tips and tricks that we learned during this time to enhance our classroom practices.  Both the Jamboard and Flipgrid software will continue to be helpful in my classroom whether we be face-to-face, hybrid, or completely online because of their ease of use.

Michelle Kaschak is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley, Center Valley, PA. You can contact Michelle at

Taking CoReqs Online

By Tina Shanahan

As colleges and universities across the United States close in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, instructors are scrambling to convert their previously face-to-face classes to an online format. This sudden transition has left everyone feeling uncertain about how to proceed, especially those of us teaching developmental education in a co-requisite format.

There is an abundance of advice circulating on Twitter, Inside Higher Ed, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most of the suggestions in these discussions and articles are based on veteran online instructors’ expertise, but there is no precedence for taking co-reqs online.

When people say, “online classes aren’t for everyone,” they’re talking about students like the ones in our co-req classes – students who, for varied and complex reasons, may have low confidence in their academic abilities, struggle with executive functioning skills, suffer from test anxiety, etc. But, I’m convinced that our students CAN be successful through this transition to an online environment and you are capable of helping your students end the semester strong during this stressful time.

Teaching a co-req requires an individualized approach in any format. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to moving co-reqs online, but here are some tips you might consider:

  • If you teach both the college-level class and the support class, focus on transitioning the college-level class first. Getting your head around the changes to the college-level class will help you identify parts of the transition that will likely be most challenging for your co-req students. Then, you can adapt your co-req to offer support in those areas.
  • If you teach a co-req with another instructor, do your best to collaborate. However, communication might not be easy with all of us scrambling to put classes online, take care of kids, stay healthy, etc. If you can’t closely coordinate your support with the other instructor’s online model, use your best judgement to continue working on the skills your students need to practice most.
  • Keep things low tech as much as possible. Publishers’ offers to provide free access to online courseware are generous, but now is not the time for you and your students to learn a new Learning Management System or conferencing tool with all the bells and whistles. Use the technology that you and your students know best, like email and the basic features of your school’s LMS.
  • Be flexible with your typical requirements in the co-requisite.  You might not get to all the activities and assessments you had planned.  Your school may have their own grading policies, but the grade in the co-req should mostly reflect how prepared students are for more advanced academic work rather than their performance on individual co-req assignments. Put a lot of stock in what you have seen your students prove themselves capable of already.
  • Support students’ technology use, time management, and motivation.  Remember, the purpose of co-requisite courses is to help students develop the underlying skills they need to be successful in their academic work.  Basic writing skills are important, of course, but during this transition, they might need different types of support. Make or find quick videos to demonstrate any technology you’re using. Provide timelines or checklists to help students keep track of the remaining work. Find something to celebrate in each piece of work that students are able to complete under these stressful circumstances.
  • Conduct individual check-ins with co-req students.  Depending on the size of your co-req, you may be able to reach out to each student during the time that you would have been in class.  Instead of waiting for students to come to you with questions, check in with them weekly to ask what they’re finding most helpful and most confusing about the week’s materials. Consider giving students the option of communicating with you via email, phone, text, or webcam to make check-ins most convenient for them. 
  • Find ways to personalize communication and connect with students. Leverage the relationships you have already built with your students.  If you joked around with certain students, try to keep things light by using memes or emojis in your communications with them.  If you know certain students struggle with anxiety, check in with them about their stress levels.  Ask your parent-students about their kids and how they’re managing the workload while schools are closed. Remind your students that you know and care about them – not just as students but as people trying to get through this tense time.

Some of these suggestions will be effective for you, and some won’t make sense in your context.  As co-req instructors, we’re familiar with flexibility and personalization.  All we can do is trust what feels right to us as we support our students through the end of the semester.

If you have any other suggestions for co-requisite instructors transitioning to an online format, please share in the comments!


Dr. Tina Shanahan is a reading and writing instructor at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Her work focuses specifically on teaching and learning in co-requisite models of developmental education and the integration of reading and writing. She lurks on academic Twitter as @TinaTeachesEngl.



Text Mining in the IRW Classroom

By Amy Doty

text mining

“What happens when readers are also writers?

And how does reading inform writing?”

Text mining is a metaphor used by Stuart Greene, in Mining Texts in Reading to Write, to describe how writers read with purpose and intention to gather and develop knowledge they can use to accomplish their writing goals. It is composed of three mining strategies: constructing context, inferring or imposing structure, and seeing choices in language. Writers use these strategies to “excavate” what is needed from texts in order for them to develop their own set of tools to employ when composing across a variety of situations and disciplines.

Greene emphasizes the distinction between mining texts and traditional ‘reading like a writer’ or close reading strategies by pointing out that this process encourages students to move beyond observation and imitation to critically analyzing the choices and decisions made by authors across different social situations, thus empowering them to make their own authorial decisions. Greene assumes that our ultimate goal as educators is to help students take control over their own learning and suggests that we can do this by “helping students develop a knowledge of what mining texts means, when to employ these strategies, and how to manage these strategies in order to direct their own reading-writing process.”

3 Strategies for Mining the Text

Reconstructing Context

Students develop a set of tools to help them locate the context or situation that shapes the production of a text.

  • Analyze discourse features to show how writers in a discipline invoke context by establishing the importance of an issue
  • Use comparative analysis of multiple texts to promote the ongoing process of reading, analyzing, and authoring that recognizes the social nature of discourse across a variety of disciplines
  • Encourage students to make judgements about the most appropriate way to make their own contribution in writing, using different strategies in different contextual situations
  • Writers should provide a rationale for their context choices (ex: why I chose to introduce background information when writing my argument)

Inferring or Imposing Structure

Students identify the rhetorical structure that influences the way readers interpret a text.

  • Analyze structure by linking it to the ways of knowing in a particular discipline (ex: the report form structured after the scientific method for science writing)
  • Structure has a fluid nature whereby both readers and writers construct meaning, so students should analyze how a writer structures their ideas and the relationship between ordering principles and rhetorical purpose
  • Readers actively construct meaning and create structure in light of their goals as readers and the prior knowledge they bring to a text which provides a framework for comprehending discourse
  • Students should describe the organizational pattern of essays to demonstrate an awareness of why they approached issues the way that they did and evaluate their patterns of development based on their purposes for writing

Seeing Choices in Language

Students determine the kind of language that is appropriate to a given rhetorical situation.

  • Focus on choices about language and why certain words or phrases might be appropriate or not in both source texts and student’s texts
  • Students can reconstruct the choices and decisions made about language and content in light of the author’s goals and their own
  • Emphasize the importance of developing an awareness of knowing both what students want to say and why certain details and ideas may or may not be appropriate for their goals

text miner

Practical Application in the Classroom

  • Annotation helps students attend to the specific features of the texts they read, selecting, organizing, and connecting ideas for the purpose of writing
  • Reading Logs that include information about how authors in different fields invoke context, structure meaning, and situate themselves linguistically
  • Discussions within their reading/writing community give students the additional purpose during reading of knowing that they will be entering a conversation to demonstrate their knowledge of issues and to add a novel perspective
  • Think Aloud activities go beyond critically observing other authors’ texts to taking on an authorial stance by challenging the text, consulting their own experience, and reflecting on students’ own goals as a writer (moving from a spectator to a participant role)
  • Creating Purpose and Goals for text mining can be encouraged by informing students of the kind of writing they will be asked to do before they read texts, so they can draw upon their reading of other texts and evaluate contextual, structural, and linguistic choices while reading
  • Writing Plans give students an opportunity to shift their focus from the rhetorical plans of other authors to developing their own plans for writing by evaluating information from the source text or prior experiences and reflecting on their different options as they compose a reading in their role as authors
  • Reflective Writing after students re-read their own texts to consider the choices they made and the goals they set as writers and their effectiveness

Amy Doty is a Developmental English instructor at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her current research interests include best practices in online developmental pedagogy and the benefits of embedding executive function/non-cognitive and success coaching into classroom teaching to impact student retention and success. She enjoys building themed courses for first-year students that provide opportunities for them to engage in inquiry and project-based learning with a focus on exploring social issues and civil discourse to promote change through writing.

You can contact Amy at

amy profile

Engage and Change Students through IRW

By Tina Shanahan

I held a human brain in my hands once. A colleague in my college’s nursing program invited me on a field trip to a human cadaver lab, and I am not one to turn down a learning experience like that! As a human, I was fascinated by he body and its organs; it’s awe-inspiring and a bit terrifying to see all the parts that make us work lined up on a table. As a teacher, I couldn’t wait to see the human brain up close. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I work on the human brain every day.

Learning Changes the Brain

Learning is the result of physical changes in the brain. Let’s say a student is sitting in English class and hears the instructor explain genre. While the instructor is showing examples of scenes from various genres of movies and various genres of writing, the neurons in the student’s brain are growing and making connections. At the 2019 NOSS conference, Janet Zadina, an educational neuroscientist, explained that neurons start to physically change within five minutes of learning something new. After twenty minutes of learning, dendrites start to branch out and make synaptic connections with related neurons. The English lesson on genre has laid the groundwork in the student’s brain for what neuroscientists call LTP, long-term potentiation, the strengthening of connections between the neurons. LTP is the physical result of learning.


Tina blog 1

Neurons begin to grow and make connections quickly when we encounter new information, but these changes are not necessarily permanent. Zadina warns that dendrite growth will be re-absorbed if the new connections are not used. Our English student must reinforce the concept of genre from our lesson in order to maintain and strengthen neuronal growth. Each time the student remembers the genre lesson, related neurons fire signals to each other, strengthening synaptic connections and consolidating learning.

brain structure

When we understand the basic physiological elements of learning, we can help students grow their neuronal networks.  In Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, James Lang emphasizes that the work required to wire neuronal networks during learning must be done by the student: “You can’t fire the synapses in your students’ brains.”  However, you still play a vital role.  According to Lang, “Your task is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections.”  What does that environment look like in an integrated reading and writing class?

Engage the Whole Brain

In The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, James Zull identifies four main sections of the brain, which each play a specific role in learning.  These sections and their functions include: the sensory cortex to process concrete experience, the back integrative cortex to engage in reflective observation, the front integrative cortex to form abstract hypotheses, and the motor cortex to actively test knowledge.  Zull counsels teachers to engage all four sections of the brain.

Tina blog 3

The sensory cortex processes what is seen, heard, and felt through concrete experience.  According to Zull, understanding starts in the sensory cortex.  For example, children first hear language, then understand it, and then begin to speak.  Similarly, children often recognize the shape of common words and read them by sight before they are able to decode based on alphabetic principles.  The sensory cortex remains essential in college classrooms.  To incorporate the sensory cortex in class, Zull suggests that instructors give students concrete experiences before developing abstract concepts.

In reading and writing classes, for example, we often start with the rule when teaching grammar, but rules are abstractions.  To first engage the sensory cortex, we could show students sentences with punctuation in different places and read the sentences aloud.  As we discuss which ones look and sound better and why that may be the case, we move naturally to the level of abstraction.  Another way to engage the sensory cortex during editing is using Microsoft Word’s Speak feature.  Students can highlight one sentence at a time and read along as the computer reads the sentence aloud.  When something doesn’t “sound right,” the other brain regions help make sense of it.

The back integrative cortex helps us connect what we’re currently seeing, hearing, or experiencing with what we already know.  In the example above about searching for grammar patterns based on what is seen and heard, you probably recognized that an element of previous experience with spoken and written language is required for that exercise to work effectively.  That’s where the back integrative cortex comes in.

Building on existing knowledge is “the single most important factor in learning,” according to Zadina.  Reading instructors already know the value of building from prior knowledge and often engage this part of the brain through reading aids like anticipation guides and K-W-L charts.  These strategies prime the brain to make connections to new input.  Zull promotes writing activities as a particularly effective way for students to activate prior knowledge and give teachers an idea of individuals’ current understanding of a course concept.  IRW instructors identified using the same topic for reading and writing as a best practice in a 2016 survey.  Themed reading and writing activities help students write to discover prior knowledge and build knowledge through reading.  Typically, then, students also re-construct what they know based on the addition of new knowledge, which requires engaging another section of the brain.

The front integrative cortex generates abstract ideas and explanations.  This is where construction of knowledge happens.  Students use the front integrative cortex when they incorporate information from readings with their own experience to express their own ideas about a topic.

According to Zull, reflection is a pedagogical strategy to engage the front integrative cortex.  Many writing instructors ask students to reflect on their writing experiences and processes.  Students construct their own understanding when they apply concepts from class to their own experience.  Metaphors are a tool to help students reflect on new learning.  Zull recommends asking students to create their own metaphors for course concepts.  In an IRW class, we might have students create a metaphor for the reading and writing processes.  Scarborough’s Reading Rope, for example, is a metaphor for skilled reading.  Having students both draw and explain their metaphor further integrates information in the brain.  Translating between language and image requires further integration that occurs across brain regions.

The motor cortex carries out active testing of ideas.  The motor cortex is involved when students act on or demonstrate their learning.  Zadina suggests giving students options for how to demonstrate learning.  She recommends writing a summary, writing an argument, making a poster, creating a PowerPoint, drawing a cartoon, curating a Pinterest board, completing a service learning project, etc.

IRW students engage the motor cortex as they practice reading and writing.  In reading, a student uses the motor cortex to annotate while reading.  Annotating also requires the other brain areas, of course, but adding a motor function to the cognitive processing of the text means that the student’s brain is making more connections to the material.  Similarly, students are engaging the areas of the brain that process information while writing, but writing also calls on the motor cortex to carry out the activity.

When learning involves the whole brain, students connect to what they learn in multiple ways.  Students gain new concrete experience, build on prior knowledge, construct new ideas, and take action.

Repeat, Rehearse, Remember

Students who engage their whole brain in learning will have a strong foundation for learning, but new knowledge doesn’t always stick.  Some neuronal connections weaken over time while others become firmly wired together.  Repetition and rehearsal initiate neurons to fire together and strengthen learning.  Zadina says students need to “fire it to wire it” by repeating concepts in various ways throughout a course.  Lang calls this technique interleaving.

IRW, by principle, is a course built on interleaving.   For example, although many textbooks discuss main ideas and supporting details in separate chapters, we integrate the concepts repeatedly.  In explaining main ideas, we show students how to check the main idea against the details in the reading.  We distinguish major and minor details by how directly they support the main idea.  Interleaving also occurs naturally when moving between reading and writing activities.  We again discuss main ideas when students write thesis statements and topic sentences.  We talk about the importance of both major and minor details as students write their own paragraphs and essays.  The connections students make to IRW course concepts are more likely to stick when we treat principles of reading and writing recursively.

Teachers can also enhance memory through practice.  Again, the idea of rehearsal is a natural part of IRW as students practice reading and writing in multiple assignments during a course.  The tricky part of practice in IRW is making sure that practice is guided enough that students are making the right kinds of connections.  Lang recommends frequent and focused practice sessions to make the most of in-class practice.  For example, giving students a full class session to read a text or write an essay is less effective than short, focused activities.  A more focused practice session in IRW might involve having students write a sentence for their next essay that mimics the sentence structure of a sentence from a class reading.

Practice needs to be focused on the most important principles for students to remember.  Every assignment reinforces students’ connections to our course and our discipline, which students carry with them in other reading and writing situations.  Have you encountered students who struggle to break the narrative mold because the majority of their previous reading and writing assignments were in a narrative structure?  Or the students who struggle to engage with complex ideas in college writing because the five-paragraph essay model has been become hardwired in their brains?  We influence what students remember through assignment sheets, lessons, rubrics, and feedback.  Use assignments and course materials to reinforce the skills students need most for school and life.

As students practice reading and writing during class and in their assignments, it is important to correct misunderstandings, but according to Zull, “Don’t stress mistakes.  Don’t reinforce neuronal networks that aren’t useful.”  Zull recommends building on what students get right and adding to their understanding instead of drawing unnecessary attention to incorrect information.  In IRW, we can apply this principle by reframing error-correction feedback as additive advice.  For example, we may accidentally reinforce the wrong information if we tell a student, “The thesis statement shouldn’t be the first sentence of your essay.”  Instead, we can build on what students did right and add to their understanding with a comment like, “This thesis statement clearly states your main idea, but in academic essays, the thesis is usually at the end of the introduction.”

Repeating and rehearsing lead to remembering.  If we want students to maintain the neuronal growth that occurs during our class, connections need to be reinforced through practice.  Align opportunities for practice with the reading and writing skills that are most essential for students to remember in college and beyond.

The Brain at Its Best

As I stood in a cadaver lab with my hands cupped around an actual human brain, I was a little disappointed.  The little grey ball of tissue belied human complexity and our potential for learning.  In the classroom, however, I see the brain at its best.  Students process sensory input, integrate what they’re learning with what they already know to create new knowledge, and put that knowledge into action.  Through practice, they get better at reading and writing.  As students become more effective readers and writers, their brains change, which means their understanding of the world changes and they experience personal growth.  And, despite all the value in understanding academic texts and analyzing rhetorical appeals, at the end of the day, isn’t personal growth what reading and writing are all about?

Tina Shanahan

Dr. Tina Shanahan is a reading and writing instructor at Gateway Technical College n Kenosha, WI. Her work focuses specifically on teaching and learning in co-requisite models of developmental education and the integration of reading and writing. She lurks on academic Twitter as @TinaTeachesEngl.