Your student is more likely to avoid pulling all-nighters if he’s prepared and knows the skills necessary to meet the demands of a college curriculum. What’s the best way to be prepared? Stretching reading skills in high school.

When students are prepared to meet the demands of college-level reading, they are more likely to keep up with the workload, gain more from their college experience, and graduate in a timely fashion.

If you think remedial courses in college will make up for inadequate preparation in high school, think again. A recent U.S. Department of Education report noted that 70% of students who took one or more remedial reading courses in college did not attain a college degree or certificate within eight years of enrollment. It’s evident that early preparation is the key to college success, and there are key steps you can help your student take no matter what grade she is in now.

College readiness requires advanced skills

“A significant proportion of incoming college students have difficulty understanding the gist of academic writing at the college level. It’s a challenge for them to see writing from the inside out,” says John Briggs, Associate Professor of English at UC Riverside and a member of the College Board SAT Reading Development Committee. “Students know about topic sentences and main ideas, but they don’t understand the questions the writer is addressing and they don’t have enough experience participating in academic conversations.”

Yet despite the need for students to learn complex skills to succeed in college, more and more high schools across the country are focusing on the achievement of basic skills to prepare students to pass state standardized tests. “There’s a basic conflict schools have between basic skills and college readiness,” notes David Conley, author of College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready. College readiness requires research and writing, and analyzing complex issues – a far cry from filling in bubbles on standardized tests. Currently 26 states have or are considering implementing high school exit exams, many of which require students to have only an eighth or 10th grade ability in reading and math to graduate.

A report by ACT titled “Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals About College Readiness in Reading,” discovered that more students are on track to being ready for college-level reading in eighth and 10th grade than are actually ready in 12th grade. The report also states that only about half of ACT-tested high school students are ready for college-level reading. While middle school classes focus on building reading skills, most high school English classes don’t, says Ed Colby of ACT. “Specific reading instruction is over once students pass out of middle school,” he notes.

The college-bound reader: Make sure your student is prepared

What parents can do

Does your child understand what she reads? This video from our High School Milestones series gives some tips on how to check and how to help.

YouTube video


One way to help your child prepare for college reading is by being a good role model, by encouraging him to read, and by engaging in discussions about reading material. Here are a few tips:

1. Start now and encourage her to read, read, read.

As your child grows, encourage her to read complex texts, read books on the suggested SAT reading list. Encourage her to spend less time on the phone, on the computer, or watching TV, and more time reading. “Take books with you everywhere — in the car, at the doctor’s office. Bring along books for yourself and for them,” says Suzanne Owen, a California high school English teacher and mother of four.

2. Model good reading habits at home.

Students will learn from what they see their parents doing. Take time to read articles and books together, and discuss what’s in them.

3. Spend lots of time in libraries and bookstores.

“Hang out and visit places where books and learning are important. Visit such places on vacations,” says Owen. Alice O’Grady, a California high school English teacher and former school librarian, suggests helping your student to learn how to use the library and making sure he is developing good research skills. “Many schools have done away with professional librarians,” she notes. “Students should know how to find books that they enjoy — and they can independently search for subjects, keywords or authors they have read before. Empowering them to learn to do simple research will help them when it comes to doing research in college. Several times I have heard or read from college librarians that students come to the university without research or library skills.” Students need to learn how to use the Internet properly when doing research and be discerning about what they find. Google is a great tool, but it’s only one small step in the research process.

4. Intervene as soon as you think your child may need extra help.

If you find your child is having difficulty, or other students are having difficulty with reading basics, make sure your school is providing support with a program targeted to a child’s needs. Check with a teacher or school counselor to see if your school has a learning center or after-school tutoring program. If necessary, get professional help outside of school. The sooner you address the problem, the better.

5. Make sure your student is taking challenging courses.

Your child will be more likely to succeed in college if he is taking classes in high school that demand research, writing and reading. Look for courses that require a lot of independent work outside of class and that use class time to integrate and build on basic understanding of the material.

6. Set standards for homework.

It’s not just about getting the assignments done. Ask your child questions like: Did you understand the assignment? How did you decide to approach this topic? Did you have a chance to read over your essay or check your work?

7. Don’t be tempted to do the work for your student.

Be there as a guide. The key to college preparation is to allow your student to accept more and more responsibility for his own success.

8. Ask the principal, teachers and school counselor at your school how the classes your student is taking specifically prepare him for college-level work.

What standards are set in each class? Does the teacher share examples of proficient, college-ready work?

9. Advocate at your school for reading instruction at all levels.

Join with other parents and teachers to find ways to strengthen reading instruction in all high school courses by incorporating complex reading materials into course content.

What students can do

1. Make sure you digest and understand what you read.

The College Board recommends the SQ3R method, which stands for “Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.” You can find information about this reading comprehension method on the College Board Web site.

2. Don’t be afraid to reread what you’ve read.

“Understanding what you’ve read and knowing that you don’t understand something you’ve read are important skills,” notes Conley. He adds that it’s important to realize when you don’t understand something, and train yourself to go back and reread if necessary to gain the understanding. He says he is amazed at how many students don’t do this.

3. Read your textbooks and course material thoroughly.

“I wish that I had tried reading some of my textbooks in high school instead of solely depending on my teachers for information,” says Kimberly Wong, a recent UCLA graduate. “Sometimes in college, a lot of learning is placed on the responsibility of the students. Many times, students need to read their textbooks to learn all the material required of them since there is so little lecture and discussion time. Getting used to learning unfamiliar concepts from textbooks in college took me a while to get used to and I wish I had practiced doing that in high school.”

4. Read independently. Read a variety of material.

Check this College Board list and our 101 books for college-bound students list for some suggestions.

John Briggs believes it’s important for students to “rediscover literature.” He notes,”Students need to discover that there are books that our culture has kept as a legacy and these should not be forgotten. I think we are experiencing a ‘period of forgetting.'” Many schools concentrate on exposing students to contemporary literature, which Briggs feels is a mistake. “It’s like feeding fast food to someone who is starving,” he says. “They deserve a nutritional diet.”

Reading a variety of material helps you adjust your reading skills to different kinds of writing. For example, some writing is straightforward where another writer might have a keen sense of humor. Some writing can be read quickly while other writing requires thorough comprehension of detail. Reading a variety will also introduce you to terms that apply to certain subject areas. For example, if you are reading about music, you might learn terms like “tempo” or “cadence,” and the relationship among words in a particular field.

5. Read challenging material.

Reading more difficult material will help prepare you for college admissions tests and reading college texts. Don’t start out with material that is too difficult, however. For example, if you want to learn how a car engine works, start with a simplified manual with lots of pictures and work your way up to a more technical manual as your vocabulary and understanding grows.

6. Study vocabulary: word roots, stems and etymology — where words come from.

“Generally these skills are taught in remedial classes but not in regular high school classes,” says Conley. If you’re not learning about vocabulary in school, take the initiative to study vocabulary on your own.

The College Board recommends reading frequently outside of class to improve your vocabulary. In their book, College Prep, they offer this advice: “Learning the meaning of a word from a list does not tell you much about its connotation. You usually learn the connotations of such simple words as skinny from hearing them used by people you know. You usually learn connotations of more difficult words such as emaciated by reading.”

It’s important to read a variety of materials: books (both fiction and nonfiction), newspapers, magazines, and to read about subjects that you are not studying in school to broaden your world view and expand your vocabulary.

7. Keep a dictionary close by when you are reading.

Sometimes you can easily figure out the meaning of a word you are unfamiliar with by getting the meaning from the context. But sometimes it helps to have a dictionary at hand to look up unfamiliar words that may not be clear from the context.

8. Take notes and learn proper note-taking techniques.

“Students have a tendency to underline everything,” says Conley. Underlining is a useful technique when it is used effectively but to avoid highlighting everything, try taking notes first. Concentrate on selecting the important points, write commentary in the margins of the text (if the book belongs to you, or in a notebook if the book doesn’t belong to you), write down questions and make observations. You’ll be more likely to actively engage with the text in this way.

9. Take time to read without distractions and concentrate.

“Reading requires a certain disposition to take in print, to stop and concentrate,” says Briggs. “This is an important skill for students to develop.”

10. Form study groups with your friends and join academic clubs at school.

One of the most powerful ways to improve your reading skills is to find ways to discuss what you’ve read with your peers and your teachers. “Seek out academic conversations,” says Briggs. Book clubs, academic clubs and study groups are all good ways to join in serious discussion. Participating in these academic conversations is bound to advance your reading and writing levels. Check The Power of Study Groups on the College Board Web site.