Keeping it Real: Readings for Developmental English

On August 19th, a handful of developmental English instructors at SCC sat around a table and talked books. One was Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Another was Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. We discussed possible assignments and topics for class discussion in our developmental classes if these or others were to be adopted by our department. These books will be central to how we fill our class time in future quarters with a focus on an array of inquiries that lead to formal and informal discussions and writing, so we were moving carefully, scheduling meetings like this over several months. In just a few years, these books and the discussions surrounding them will become more important than textbook selections.

In the spring of 2012, SCC faculty began exploring integrated reading and writing as a developmental English course. It did not combine our reading and writing classes, but re-imagined a new class that began exploring how reading and writing worked together to improve critical thinking and college-level literacy. This work led to changes in our sequence, pedagogy, and curriculum that continue to challenge us to examine our work with students in preparing them for the demands of college.

In terms of curriculum, we follow Chabot College’s model of acceleration in some key ways, such as the selection of books. At SCC, we use three non-fiction books that instructors can choose from to teach each quarter. There are two textbooks that are used as references for instructors as well. This summer, we have begun a process of reviewing our reading resources that have been in use for two years and finding new books to use. Discussing our process of selecting these books in the light of some current research helps identify some important aspects of this process and will perhaps illicit some ideas from some of you. This exploration may give some of our NDEC colleagues ideas.

First of all, as a teacher, I want to “keep it real.” Teachers need to be stimulated by the text and drawn to its inquiry. This helps teachers bring energy into the classroom every day and help model reading and thinking strategies that an IRW class requires. Having a good book can and should inspire and drive student and faculty inquiry into questions we want to explore with the author. This is not a formal guideline to book selection, but teacher interest has become a clear factor during our discussions this summer.

Other guides on our department form used for picking books include the following:

  • Non-fiction more than narrative: Narrative is a plus, but author(s) incorporates what may be considered other academic depth: research, studies, and sources.
  • Reading connects academic subject matter with real-world situations and applications and invites readers to do the same; reading sustains an inquiry into a question or issue; vocabulary and complexity is appropriate


  • One author or theme sustains an exploration of a topic from many angles, complicating the inquiry, building on previously used vocabulary and ideas. Readers can engage deeply on a topic/theme that enables them to build their own expertise in the subject matter, which produces much richer critical thinking and writing as they grow a familiarity with the author and follow that journey, increasingly aware and knowledgeable and perhaps critical of the meaning being constructed in this sustained conversation with the reader-writer.

We are using these guidelines and others in a book proposal form we collaborated on that considers relevance to our students’ lives, readability, and accessibility. From a list that includes about a dozen books, we will select six (three per class) from which instructors can choose starting in 2017. This proposal form encourages instructors to collaborate with other instructors in the selection process.

This process will be replacing books that we used from our first departmental-wide IRW courses. We have found that some of our books, like Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press, are particularly challenging, especially for non-native speakers of English. Some students may struggle particularly with the vocabulary, not to mention the challenging concepts that reference sociological, psychological, and philosophical studies. Other texts we currently use are The Color of Water, Methland, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, The Power of Habit, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Text complexity is an important question, one that a new Center for American Progress report says needs close examination. Here, Lazarin (2016) references many studies that suggest the nation’s high school graduates are coming to college without exposure to complex text, the understanding of which is required in college. The push here is grade-level appropriate text, not instructional level. “Research also indicates that even struggling readers—with some support—demonstrate greater progress in reading when exposed to more challenging texts” (10) and can provide valuable exposure for non-native speakers who have “long lacked access to content rigor” (11).

During our discussions, we have also realized that a variety of topics from other disciplines is a factor. Previously, we might have been heavy on texts that emphasize social justice inquiries. A natural science text is being looked at now.

Such considerations are not the final word on which books to select, of course. Drawing on instructor and tutor experience with students, other institutions’ experiences with IRW, and other research should enter the discussion. We welcome your questions or comments. This is an important time. Book selections for IRW courses bring colleagues together to learn from one another and discuss what IRW teaching is. That’s not a bad way to spend several Friday afternoons.

– Phip Ross





An English teacher at Southeast Community College, Phip Ross (with SSC student Micahel) is a teacher, writer, activist, and musician.  To contact Phip, please email



  1. Susan Dickinson on April 28, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    Phip and All,

    I am inspired by what you have done with your course. I have to prepare a new course for Fall of 2017, but then I am on to re imagining an IRW that “keeps it real”