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Physics professors don’t teach students how to read better. That’s what Lilit Haroyan, a physics instructor at Pasadena City College, thought when she was introduced to a faculty training program called Reading Apprenticeship.

"It's a reading teacher's job," Haroyan said she thought at the time. “The discipline I’m teaching is already complex enough." 

Two years ago the California Community Colleges Success Network (3CSN) paid for her to join other faculty members at a Reading Apprenticeship seminar. The program, which dates back to 1996, has long been managed by WestEd, a nonprofit research group based in San Francisco.

Reading Apprenticeship is an academic method for instructors across academic disciplines to learn how to incorporate reading into their teaching methods. The approach, which was originally designed for K-12 teachers and later adapted for community college instructors, seeks to help students better engage with texts and improve their comprehension of academic material.

Students' inability to read is serious. At least a third of incoming community college students place into remedial English courses, research has found. And many instructors at two-year colleges have a gap in their training, according to Reading Apprenticeship's supporters. Closing that gap is how to improve students' literacy in their disciplines.

In addition, a growing number of students for whom English is a second language are arriving at community colleges. This is particularly true in states with large, young populations, such as California, Texas and Florida.

Although Haroyan was skeptical, she asked her students about their reading comprehension after she returned from the conference. Haroyan was surprised by what she heard.

Some students were struggling to understand even basic parts of assignments. So Haroyan decided to give Reading Apprenticeship a try. It wasn’t easy, she said.

The method requires faculty members to sometimes be more like facilitators, letting students “think aloud” and discuss what they learn from texts in an interactive way. The instructor and students talk about the process of reading, which helps expose comprehension problems and eventually increases understanding.

“I always thought that reading was a passive activity, and we had to be quiet like in the library,” a community college student said in article about the process, which appeared in Techniques, a  publication by the Association for Career and Technical Education. “Maybe that is why I never did well in school.”

Hogan said the process doesn’t patronize or shame students. Instead it encourages them to make sense of reading, often finding their underestimated strengths.

Because faculty members must make a major commitment and shift their teaching styles, Reading Apprenticeship offers more than just one training session. WestEd provides online courses in the instruction techniques, as well as regular in-person meetings.

Monika Hogan, an associate professor of English at Pasadena City College, has been a coordinator for the program. She described a statewide “community of practice” for Reading Apprenticeship that has created an ongoing network for instructors to collaborate and hone their techniques.

“It’s such a deep apprenticeship model,” she said.

Hogan, like Haroyan, wasn’t sold at first. But she came around quickly, in part because of the program’s strong academic grounding. “It was clearly based in the actual literature in the field of literacy,” she said.

Some specialized reading instructors also find Reading Apprenticeship threatening, Hogan and others said. Yet it’s hard to argue with the program’s results.

Last fall every student passed Haroyan’s introductory physics course. She said the 100-percent success rate would not have been possible without the reading program. And fully 90 percent of those students moved on to the next-level course.

So far 1,000 instructors at 86 community colleges in California have participated in the training. Many give Reading Apprenticeship solid reviews.  

“It gives you hope,” said Hogan. “It’s the antidote to burnout.”

Training the Trainers

A few colleges are now requiring that some instructors go through the training and use Reading Apprenticeship in their classrooms.

Pasadena, for example, offers an optional first-year experience course to incoming students. All the instructors for those courses have received the training. College officials have linked the reading program to the higher retention rate of students who take the course.

Another example is a group of instructors in STEM disciplines at the College of San Mateo who are using Reading Apprenticeship.

The teaching method also has crossed state lines. Community colleges in Washington are using it, as are instructors at two-year colleges in Michigan. College-completion oriented groups, like Achieving the Dream and Jobs For the Future, have promoted it.

Renton Technical College, which is located in greater Seattle, has been a major adopter. More than half of students at Renton who are enrolled in workforce-oriented credential tracks receive the reading instruction. College officials credit the program with helping to boost Renton's overall graduation rate.

Faculty members typically are first introduced to Reading Apprenticeship by a traveling workshop on their campus. They can then take a six-week online course in the instruction methods, for a fee of $530. California State University’s East Bay campus offers three continuing education credits for the course, which comes with an additional fee.

For more, instructors can participate in three-day seminars, including one that specializes in STEM instruction. The fee for the seminars is $1,500. The final step is joining the “community in practice.” For $3,500, participants get two in-person sessions, a year-round online course and are trained to spread the techniques on their own campuses.

Funders have stepped up with scholarships to cover the fees in some cases. The program’s supporters are hoping for more support in the future.

For example, Reading Apprenticeship is in the final stages of a multimillion-dollar grant review process with the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to bring its work to 16 California community colleges in STEM fields.

Haroyan is now a believer, and wants to help more faculty members give Reading Apprenticeship a try.

“It redefined how I teach,” she said.

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