Los Medanos College: A Basic Skills Success Story

Faculty Development Committee Chair

In 1999 Los Medanos College used Title III funds to reorganize their English program based primarily on the pedagogical principles taught by the San Francisco State University composition program. Their reorganization incorporated all the components of their English program from transfer to basic skills, involved all of their faculty both full-time and part-time and was strongly supported by the LMC administration. They knew they had to act to improve their program, and the whole college pitched in.

Since then Los Medanos College has gone from the one of the bottom colleges in the Bay Area to one of the top as measured by student success after transfer and by other measures of student success within their college. I would like to share with you the various aspects of their reorganization that made it such a resounding success.

They knew that for any reorganization to work they had to bring in the part-time faculty as well as the contract faculty who were a part of the reorganization. So they set up a two-hour orientation/department meeting each semester that was mandatory for all faculty who had not attended one in the past. All the new hires took this very seriously since they had to attend to get the classes. From a written manual with sample assignments and suggested texts they went over all aspects of what was expected of the instructors at all levels. They had already worked through the problems associated with getting contract faculty on board, but the part-time contingent was more fluid and thus more focus and effort was required to ensure all aspects of the approach would be followed by as many faculty as possible.

I do not have time or space within the confines of this article to get into a full account of what they had to do to set up this reorganization or to keep it going. But I do think it is important that I stress the discrete elements that made up this systematic approach to their successful methodology, each element an essential component to the integrity of a system that transformed their program into one of the most successful composition programs in the state. To a large extent their plan incorporated the following principles from the San Francisco State composition program:

  1. A top-down approach rather than bottom-up. This means the essay is taught AT ALL LEVELS rather than grammar to sentence to paragraph to essay. This allows students to work in the genre as a whole and learn about good sentences, paragraphs etc. while they are learning about and practicing writing essays. This saves time, contextualizes learning, and is much more efficient.
  2. Combining reading and writing at all levels with the awareness that they are inextricably intertwined (say that three times fast). Neither can be shortchanged or done separately if you want an effective time-efficient program. How you do both in the same class requires a clearly defined, well thought-out and followed systematic plan.
  3. Grammar is systematically integrated into the writing process, utilizing a system of error correction that is graduated and places more emphasis on student learning and responsibility. Explaining how that is done would go against my promise to be brief.
  4. Primarily non-fiction is used to teach expository writing. Reading expository non-fiction allows students to see models of what they are being asked to do so that they can use them to create their own essays. Then in-class group work is done on the reading at the lower levels to ensure that all students are benefitting from the reading assignments and understanding the reading.
  5. Critical thinking is emphasized at all levels. The only difference is that expectations are lowered at the lower levels.
  6. George Hillocks’ research on how to teach composition is followed: procedural rather than declarative teaching, sentence combining for sentence maturity, scales and checklists to make expectations clear, incorporating the reading into the writing process so that students know that they have to do the reading and understand it because they will have to use it in their essays, inquiry topics based on academic expository writing and studies, which prepares students to do the kind of writing that they will encounter in their other classes.
  7. Summaries are used to start off the course in order to internalize certain aspects of the expository mode and to begin working with reading comprehension while at the same time helping them to move beyond the personal mode of writing. Pre-reading exercises and schema connection exercises are used at the lower levels to enhance reading comprehension.

This is just a skeleton of what LMC did, the basis for their research-based systematic approach. But it is a skeleton that will come to life for your students just as it did for LMC if all the elements are respected and applied with care.

Many of our transfer students flounder without a good reading/writing foundation. All the more reason to spread the word through faculty development activities and other resources on effective practices for teaching reading and writing and models such as LMC’s for restructuring English programs based on sound research.