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Unleashing freshmen's reading, writing skills

May 17, 2004

Photo of student Shenna Gotong reading the first sentence of her essay while student Jermaine Varian and Lecturer Brian Strang look at the class readerThrough a unique and innovative program developed by English Language and Literature faculty members Helen Gillotte-Tropp and Sugie Goen, many freshmen who need to take remedial English are unleashing their reading and writing skills like never before.

Established in fall 1999, Literacy Unleashed: An Integrated Approach to Reading and Writing features an accelerated, yearlong course that enables freshmen to complete their remedial and first-year English requirements within their first year at SFSU. Normally, incoming freshmen who score in the lowest quartile on the English Placement Test must take two basic writing and reading classes each, in addition to first-year college composition (English 114).

The program, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), was recently one of two to receive the 2004 Conference on Basic Writing Award for Innovation.

The program's results are nothing short of spectacular. In the past three years, 95 to 97 percent of students passed the course with a "C" or better. Between 70 and 75 percent of the students earned a "B-" or better and were advanced to second-year composition (English 214). Data show that these students have continued to excel in second-year composition through the rest of their University careers.

Freshmen this year said they appreciate the rigorous curriculum and have improved their writing and reading skills greatly.

"It's definitely changed from the way I would write in high school," said Kimberly Heppner, a student in Lecturer Patty Baldwin's class. "The writing styles and expectations are all different in this class than what they would be in a remedial class."

Photo of professors Helen Gillotte-Tropp and Sugie GoenIn recent years, freshmen proficiency has become a hot-button issue at California State University campuses. New rules established in 1997 mandate that all freshmen must satisfy remedial requirements in math and English within their first year. Students who fail to do so are not allowed to enroll at any CSU campus until they have satisfied all remedial requirements at a community college.

More than half of the freshmen who entered SFSU in fall 2003 needed remediation in English, and of these about 150 are able to enroll in the Literacy Unleashed classes. Students remain with the same instructor and classmates throughout the entire academic year, creating friendships and a tight-knit community.

"Given a program that is based on sound pedagogy and theory and with a curriculum that is current, these students perform exceptionally well," Gillotte-Tropp said. "They remain here and graduate."

While Goen -- whose dissertation at Stanford centered on remediation in the CSU -- has focused more on developing the structure of Literacy Unleashed, Gillotte-Tropp created the program's integrated approach to reading and writing. Based on 30-plus years of research, the approach aims to engage students in an exploratory study of texts written by members of diverse social, cultural and academic communities, including themselves and their peers.

"We are getting them to think differently," Gillotte-Tropp said. "Students learn that they are experiencing connections between reading and writing. They experience how these two things are connected because they're taught explicitly."

Literacy Unleashed may be on its way to becoming a national model. With the help of the FIPSE grant, Skyline College in San Bruno and Merritt College in Oakland have implemented the program. Goen, Gillotte-Tropp and other faculty have given presentations at professional conferences to great response, with interest from as far away as Minnesota and North Carolina. They plan to apply for a FIPSE national dissemination grant this summer.

Goen said she strongly believes that students’ initial difficulty with English can be overcome with the proper instruction. She is especially proud of Literacy Unleashed because it helps them prove they "are able to do well in college."

"They are a vital part of our community," she said.

-- Matt Itelson


San Francisco State University

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Last modified July 27, 2004 by University Communications