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Research to Practice

What Can We Learn from Developmental Reading Research in Postsecondary Education?

The NCTN Research to Practice Briefs are designed to disseminate emerging college transition research from a variety of sources in a user-friendly format.

Submitted by

Deepa Rao
former Coordinator
New England ABE-to-College Transition Project
World Education, Inc.

What is developmental education?

The term “developmental education” refers to courses and programs that address the needs of underprepared or nontraditional students who lack the reading, writing, or math skills necessary for college-level work (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003). While developmental course work can be a great help to many first year students, research has shown that the number of developmental courses and the kinds of developmental courses that students take makes a difference. The success of underprepared readers in college “is directly and significantly related to taking and passing a reading skills course" (Cox, Friesner, & Khayum, 2003, p. 170) and "deficiencies in reading skills are indicators of comprehensive literacy problems and they significantly lower the odds of a student's completing any degree" (Adelman, 1996, p. 56).

Who takes developmental reading in college?

Each year, the number of students enrolling in developmental level courses in postsecondary education increases. In fact, as of 2004, almost 42 percent of all freshmen enrolled in public 2-year colleges were enrolled in at least one developmental course (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2004).

What can be done to help developmental readers succeed?

Much research has been done on various strategies and techniques to help developmental readers achieve success in college-level work. However, before these strategies are implemented, two things need to happen.

First, students who take the college placement test and place into developmental reading classes should take the recommended courses, even if they have the option to skip them. Research shows that students who skip these courses have a lower persistence rate (Roueche & Roueche, 2000).

Second, developmental reading teachers need to consider their own attitudes toward developmental readers. Teachers “should always begin with the understanding that students who need remediation are not stupid and have an array of literacies to draw upon that can help them interrogate, interpret, and revise dominating discourses" (Weiner, 2002, p. 152). Teachers must let students know that they “bring a wealth of experience and insight to their work and to their peers" (Maloney, 2003, p. 665). Once this sense of self-respect has been established, strategies to improve students' reading skills can be taught more effectively.

Developmental or Remedial? What’s in a name?
While the terms "developmental" and "remedial" are often used interchangeably to describe the courses taken by unprepared or underprepared students, there is a distinction. Remedial often refers to courses that address "deficiencies in prior learning." It addresses academic needs. Developmental education, however, refers to the integration of personal development into the academic coursework. Personal development may include study skills and self-confidence (see Boylan, 2001, p. 1).

What does the research say about developmental reading classes?

Research has found that underprepared students who take and pass a remedial reading skills course "experience significantly greater success in college over the long term compared to similarly underprepared students who either do not take, or do not pass, such a course" (Cox et al., 2003, p. 189). The research also shows that remedial students who "were explicitly taught strategic reading” outperformed remedial students who were not. In addition, students were found to transfer these skills into more reading-intensive courses (Caverly, Nicholson, & Radcliffe, 2004).

What about instruction in basic reading skills, such as phonetics and comprehension?

"Many [developmental] teachers seem to believe that their goal is to focus on basic [reading] skills," but mastering these skills often does not prepare students for college-level work (Maxwell, 1997, p. 11). Research has shown that remediation in reading needs to be more than "phonetic decoding, literal comprehension, and a generic engagement with language and written texts" (Weiner, 2002, p. 152). Assignments must "activate and promote students' thoughtful interaction with textual material for various purposes, such as for story, procedural knowledge, or resource information" (Falk-Ross, 2002, p. 279). Research has also shown what is considered "basic skills" varies from institution to institution.

Who teaches developmental education is another factor.

Developmental courses are often taught by adjunct faculty who do not have the time or the resources to further their professional education. They may "lack training or experience in working with adults, be uninformed about current theory, research, and practice in the college reading field," and they may not be aware of the reading demands of college level work (Maxwell, 1997, p. 9).

What approaches produce strategic readers who are ready for college-level work?

Selecting the text

Developmental reading students should be exposed to the types of texts that they will encounter in college-level courses. Their success in college will depend on their "ability to engage in strategic reading of extensive academic or informational text" (Caverly et. al, 2004, p. 25). In order for the developmental reader to become literate in the "multiple discourses of the academy," he or she must be exposed to various types of readings and the "politics that inform them" (Weiner, 2002, p. 151).

The text should be also relevant to the students; for example, an article covering a topic the students are interested in one that is based on topics being covered in other areas of the curriculum (Fischer, 2003). The texts used in the developmental class should also "address issues and concepts relevant to the core curriculum" of the college (Maloney, 2003, p. 665).

Making connections

Connecting to prior learning. It is import to tap into the student's past knowledge to build a framework for the text. "Make as many connections as you can between the knowledge the students possess and the subject of the text (Fischer, 2003). The texts "must also address topics from the core, serve as exemplars of various genres, and connect to the diversity of students' ‘backgrounds’ and ‘life experiences’" (Maloney, 2003, p. 665). If possible, there should be "closer interaction between discipline-specific college faculty" and developmental reading instructors (Cox et. al, 2003, p. 191). One recommendation from this study is for reading instructors and professors to offer students courses in which the reading curriculum is combined with one or more other course in the core curriculum.

Connecting reading and writing. A developmental reading course is typically concerned with "reading and writing about the texts," which means that "students need to develop the habit of writing in a variety of controlled formats about what they read" (Maloney, 2003, p. 666). Instructors should offer students "complete, contextualized reading and writing experiences" (Lesley, 2001, p. 182). For example, students can write down the answers to all of the questions the instructor asks them about the readings. This allows students to expand their skills because they have to "interpret the question" and then determine how to write a clear answer (Fischer, 2003). Instructors can also engage their developmental reading students in an ongoing daily dialogue about the readings through double entry journal writing (Friedman, 1997). In this strategy, each student creates three columns on their journal page. In the first column (labeled Copy/Notes), the student writes down interesting points about the reading. In the second column (labeled Response), the student records why she finds these points interesting. The third column (labeled Feedback), is reserved for the instructor to make comments and offer feedback to the student. This method should help instructors and students understand the "deeper meaning" of the reading process.

Critical Inquiry

Another component of reading skills is the idea of "critical inquiry." Critical inquiry refers both to the instructor asking questions of the students as well as students asking questions of the readings, other students, the instructor, and themselves. In one developmental class, students were asked two key questions to help sum up the day's class: "What did we do?" and "What did we learn?" (Lesley, 2001) Asking these questions helps instructors figure out how many of the students are "developing skills such as inference, empathy, and critical analysis" (2001, p. 185-186). As part of the critical inquiry process, students should be encouraged to read a piece multiple times, make notes in the margins, and ask questions about what they have read. The goal is to shift the emphasis on questioning from the instructor to the students. This will help them "to use questions as guidelines for thinking about the text" (Maloney, 2003, p.671). Students should also be expected to conduct self-questioning of their own written work and to assist in the monitoring process of writing (El-Hindi, 1996).

Metacognition and Self-Regulation

Metacognition can be defined as "the ability to reflect on one's own cognitive processes" (Baker & Brown, 1984, p. 353). Strong readers typically have a keen awareness of their reading process and problems. As learners, they are “actively engaged and in control of their own learning" (El-Hindi, 1996).

Various research studies have focused on metacognition to assess its effectiveness in helping students become strong readers. In one study, the connections between instruction in metacognitive development and increased awareness of metacognitive skills in order to enhance independent learning were examined. The researcher concluded that greater attention to metacognitive skill development would improve remedial reading programs (El-Hindi, 1996). Another metacognition research study found that "students' metacognitive awareness of effective strategic reading tactics improved after strategic reading instruction” (Caverly et al., 2004, p. 28).

Self-regulated learning, an aspect of metacognition, is another strategy that can be used to create independent and strong readers. Self-regulated learners understand their strengths and weaknesses, set reasonable goals, and create "strategies to realize goals by monitoring themselves rather than relying on the teacher" (Maitland, 2000, p. 26-27). Students with strong self-regulation skills have the ability to check the outcome of their problem-solving, plan their next steps, and monitor the "effectiveness" of their attempts. They also test, revise, and evaluate their learning strategies (Baker & Brown, 1984).

More Resources

For more information on specific reading strategies, see our upcoming Research to Practice publication on Reading Strategies. You may also be interested in a very readable four-part series on “Critical Thinking…and the Art of Close Reading” by Richard Paul and Linda Elder, published in the Journal of Developmental Education (2003-2004). The journal can be accessed online if you have a subscription or at your local community college.

Louisiana State University (LSU) Reading Strategies Course
An online PowerPoint presentation geared towards students who are having reading difficulties, developed by LSU's Learning Assistance Center. It helps students identify specific weakness in their reading strategies and comprehension. It offers examples for students to work through to help them get a better understanding of how the strategies work.

Reading Quest/Strategies
Reading Quest is designed to provide instructors with the philosophical bases for sound comprehension strategy instruction, directions for a range of comprehension and content reading strategies, and printable handouts and masters for transparencies.

Study Guides and Strategies
This frequently-updated website is not affiliated with any particular postsecondary or secondary institution, but it contains an enormous amount of information for the transitioning student. The Reading Strategies section includes information on reading critically, reading difficult texts, and taking notes from a textbook.


Adelman, C. (1996). The truth about remedial work: It's more complex than windy rhetoric and simple solutions suggest. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 43(6), 56.

Baker, L. & Brown, A.L. (1984). Metacognitive skills and reading. In P.D. Pearson, R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, and P. Mosenthal (Eds.) The handbook of reading research (pp. 353-394). New York, NY: Longman.

Boylan, H.R. (2001). Making the case for developmental education. Research in Developmental Education, 12(2), 1-4. Retrieved on January 4, 2005 from

Caverly, D.G., Nicholson,S.A. & Radcliffe, R. (2004). The effectiveness of strategic reading instruction for college developmental readers. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 35(1), 25-46.

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

El-Hindi, A.E. (1996). Enhancing metacognitive awareness of college learners. Reading Horizons, 36, 214-230.

Falk-Ross, F. (2002). Toward the new literacy: Changes in college students' reading comprehension strategies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 45(4), 278-288.

Fischer, C. (2003). Revisiting the reader's rudder: A comprehension strategy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47(3), 248-256.

Friedman, A.R. (1997). Insights into the reading processes of community college developmental readers. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 13(2). (ERIC document EJ544851)

Lesley, M. (2001). Exploring the links between critical literacy and developmental reading. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 45(3), 180-189.

Maitland, L.E. (2000). Self-regulation and metacognition in the reading lab. Journal of Developmental Education, 24(2), 26-36.

Maloney, W.H. (2003). Connecting the texts of their lives to academic literacy: Creating success for at-risk first-year college students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(8), 664-672.

Maxwell, M. (1997). The dismal state of required developmental reading programs: Roots, causes and solutions. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED 415501)

Roueche J. & Roueche, S. (2000). Making remedial education work. Washington, DC: Community College Press.

Stallworth-Clark, R., Scott, J.S., & Nist, S.L. (1996). The teaching-learning process and postsecondary at-risk reading students: Cognitive, metacognitive, affective, and instructional variables explaining academic performance. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York, NY, April 8-13, 1996. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED 394419).

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2003). Remedial Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions in Fall 2000 (NCES 2004-010). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2004). The Condition of Education 2004 (NCES 2004-077). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Weiner, E. J. (2002). Beyond remediation: Ideological literacies of learning in developmental classrooms. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(2), 150-168.


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