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OUR READING TOOLBOX: The Reading-Thinking Connection

Learning Abstract

October 2013, Volume 16, Number 10

By Sylvia Garcia-Navarrete

Students are entering community college and four-year institutions of higher education unprepared to understand and apply much of the reading material presented to them in college-level classes. Further, they are often found to be lacking in the ability to communicate their thoughts in writing. Although students who enter college deficient in basic academic skills are encouraged to enroll in developmental reading courses, more than two thirds fail to do so. Furthermore, many who begin these courses do not complete the full sequence of courses, and a relatively small number of students attain proficiency during their time at a community college (Bailey, 2009; Boggs, 2010; Boggs & Seltzer, 2008).

Concern in Developmental Education

Postsecondary students are increasingly perceived as being unskilled in thinking critically about what they read and write, and in making a connection with learning and life (Gerlaugh, Thompson, Boylan, & Davis, 2007). The nature and role of developmental education classes is under tremendous scrutiny across the U.S. today. Developmental reading programs at community colleges offer a variety of interventions to improve basic reading skills through textbooks, workbooks, and online activities for students who are underprepared. Strategies include self-paced and self-directed practice, rote memorization, peer teaching, tutoring, and others. Many commercially distributed programs “generally have not been strongly supported by empirical research that directly tests them” (Grabe, 2009, p. 231). Effective approaches used for teaching developmental reading at the community college level are essential, and must include opportunities to develop critical thinking skills in addition to learning the mechanics of reading and writing.

OUR READING TOOLBOX: The Reading-Thinking Connection

Using OUR READING TOOLBOX as a thinking-centered intervention in community college developmental reading classes can help students improve their reading comprehension and writing skills. This faculty-created intervention was designed, implemented, and evaluated by faculty in a community college reading class. The goal was fully in keeping with the notion that the purpose of education is to teach students to understand and actively apply new learned knowledge, and to cultivate this knowledge beyond the classroom setting; therefore, OUR READING TOOLBOX was designed to provide teachers with a vehicle to help their students achieve these essential outcomes. It consists of a set of twelve specially designed tools that are systematically used with high-interest readings to engage students’ minds in critical-thinking activities. The tools are designed to help students acquire and generalize the skills they need to understand readings that they encounter in college-level academic courses that are reading-intensive. Each tool is intended to focus the mind so students can independently analyze and interpret what they are reading. Thus, it equates understanding with learning the content at hand, rather than considering comprehension the act of simply recalling or locating decontextualized or isolated facts on multiple choice, matching, or fill-in-the-blank tests. By using OUR READING TOOLBOX in a thinking-centered classroom, students acquire standard comprehension skills such as identifying main ideas, supporting details, and inferences that are cultivated in a natural and holistic way. Examining the effects of OUR READING TOOLBOX provided valuable data on a thinking-centered approach that can be used to address the academic challenges of students arriving to a community college unprepared to succeed in college.

Table 1 provides a brief description of the twelve tools that make up OUR READING TOOLBOX. Each tool is designed and used to engage students’ minds in a specific type of intellectual activity as they read and write.

Table 1



Put sentences that they have read into their own words

Headline Created

Create a headline (title) that expresses the main idea of the selected reading

Significant Sentence Selected

Select sentences they think are most important in what they have read and tell why they selected them

Vital Question Posed

Ask the author, or someone in the reading, questions they would really like to have answered

Issue/Problem Identified

Identify issues or problems raised in the reading


State why they think the reading was written


Dictionary Definition, Own words (paraphrase), eXemplify, and Illustrate words (concepts, ideas) in the reading which they need to better understand


Identify what they think is the most important conclusion the author comes to in what they have read


State what they think the author (or someone else) is taking for granted in what they have read

Implications & Consequences

State what they think will happen if we follow, or do not follow, what the author (or someone else) in the reading is suggesting should be done


State what they think should be done to deal effectively with the issues or problems presented in the reading

Speaking in the Author’s Voice

State ideas or answer questions about what they read as if they were the author or someone else in the reading

This thinking-centered approach was implemented in several developmental reading classes beginning in 2008 at a large urban Hispanic-serving community college in Southern California with an annual fall enrollment of 20,000 students. The overall curriculum of these classes was based on OUR READING TOOLBOX, as it was integrated into all lesson activities, homework assignments, and exams, to guide students and help them practice how to think more deeply about what they read. The series of prompts, each derived from one of the 12 tools from OUR READING TOOLBOX, were designed to direct students’ thinking as they read and varied based on what the students were reading at a given time. The tools were gradually introduced, one or two at a time, to help students gain comfort and competence with the tool in any given lesson before introducing another. The tools helped students approach what they were reading from a variety of directions (e.g., problem, conclusion, solution/recommendation), engaging and stimulating their minds to think about what was being communicated by the author. Further, by responding to the prompts in clear and complete sentences, students then had an opportunity to have their voices heard by expressing their thoughts about what they understood.


During the first week of the semester, a pre-test was administered to each student enrolled in the developmental reading classes that were using this thinking-centered intervention. The purpose of the pre-test was to assess students’ reading comprehension levels as a baseline measure before formally introducing them to OUR READING TOOLBOX. A counter-balanced test design was used to ensure a measure of objectivity when eventually comparing these baseline scores with post-test scores obtained near the end of the semester. After experiencing the intervention for one semester, students took the alternate form of the pre-test, as the post-test. The purpose of the post-test was to assess students’ exit levels of reading comprehension skills after completing the class based on OUR READING TOOLBOX intervention.


As students used OUR READING TOOLBOX, it became clear that traditional skills (e.g., main ideas, supporting details, and inferences) were routinely being practiced by use of the various tools as follows: (1) Issue/Problem Tool - encompassed and fostered main ideas, implied main ideas and inferences; (2) Significant Sentence Selected Tool - encompassed and fostered supporting details, argument, summarizing, and critical reading. Students holistically and systematically acquired the standard comprehension skills with this approach, as they found themselves needing to read and understand the text so that they could provide thoughtful responses to the prompts. Students practiced independent thinking by completing activities to the best of their abilities as they worked on their own so that when they worked collaboratively, they would bring their own ideas to contribute to the group. Students improved their reading performance and ability to think effectively throughout the broad array of readings they encountered as demonstrated by the quality of their responses to the series of prompts for each reading completed as the semester progressed.


As part of the evaluation of OUR READING TOOLBOX, faculty and staff analyzed both quantitative and qualitative data obtained from student survey responses to provide a comprehensive overview concerning the effects on students’ academic performance and their perceptions of the classroom environment and course activities, the art of reading, and of themselves as learners when using OUR READING TOOLBOX. This analysis clearly indicated that students felt they had a very positive learning experience using OUR READING TOOLBOX in that even the lowest scores reported were towards the high end of the scale.

A thematic analysis of students’ open-ended responses to questions concerning their experience of using OUR READING TOOLBOX was another component of the evaluation. The analysis revealed that this approach allowed for deeper instruction as students focused completely on thinking and doing, delving deeper into what was being communicated to them through the various reading and then engaging in collaborative dialogue.


OUR READING TOOLBOX was designed to help students develop thinking skills by utilizing a set of tools that actively engaged their minds in deeper thinking for the purpose of understanding and retaining knowledge beyond the test or duration of the course. OUR READING TOOLBOX supported positive student outcomes and accelerated students’ progress for those enrolled in the developmental reading classes studied. Most importantly, the innovative, thinking-centered curriculum and teaching methods used in this intervention helped students improve their reading abilities. The initial program evaluation provided promising data about the effectiveness of using OUR READING TOOLBOX as a thinking-centered intervention for teaching developmental reading.

Two major conclusions resulted from the analysis of data collected which included pre-test and post-test scores, as well as graded assignments. First, students demonstrated a significantly higher level of reading comprehension and thinking ability at the end of the semester, as compared to what it was at the beginning of the semester, as a result of using OUR READING TOOLBOX. The act of continually applying various tools to substantive readings during class work, on homework assignments, and for exams throughout the semester, gave students an opportunity to learn how to think deeply about and understand what they read. Second, through extensive guided practice using these substantive and meaningful intellectual tools and strategies, students successfully acquired standard comprehension skills such as main ideas, supporting details, and inferences—all of which were cultivated in a thinking-centered reading classroom.   

Overall, OUR READING TOOLBOX contains a set of thought-provoking tools that can be used to strengthen students’ reading comprehension abilities by improving the quality of their thinking about what they are reading. OUR READING TOOLBOX provides educators with an innovative way to meet their students’ diverse skills, needs, and abilities.


Bailey, T. (2009, February). Rethinking developmental education in community college (CCRCBrief, No. 40). New York: Community College Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED504329.pdf

Boggs, G. R. (2010). Democracy’s college: The evolution of the community college in America. Washington DC: American Association of Community Colleges.Retrieved from http://www.aacc.nche.edu/AboutCC/whsummit/Documents/boggs_whsummitbrief.pdf

Boggs, G. R., & Seltzer, M. B. (2008). What to measure and reward at community colleges. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2008/02/25/boggs

Gerlaugh, K., Thompson, L., Boylan, H. R., & Davis, H. (2007). National study of developmental education II: Baseline data for community colleges. Journal of Developmental Education 20(4) 1-4. Retrieved from http://ncde.appstate.edu/sites/ncde.appstate.edu/files/RiDE%2020-4.pdf

Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sylvia Garcia-Navarrete is an assistant professor of Reading at Southwestern College, CA.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 10/01/2013 at 7:10 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -