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Focus Discipline Research and the Internet:
Keys to Academic Literacy for
At-Risk College Students

Loretta F. Kasper, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Kingsborough Community College
Brooklyn, NY, USA

Copyright 1998. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Distributed via the Web by permission of AACE.

Abstract: This paper describes a developmental English course that teaches reading, writing, and research skills using the Internet as a resource for sustained and focused content area study. The activities in this course are designed to provide these at-risk students with a microcosm of the mainstream college experience. Students build reading skill and become familiar with academic discourse through their interactions with electronic texts representing a variety of mainstream disciplines. Each student chooses one of these content areas as a focus discipline and pursues in depth study of that focus discipline over the course of the semester, articulating knowledge through a series of three progressive written reports and a research project.

1. Background

Academic literacy, which encompasses ways of knowing particular content and refers to strategies for understanding, discussing, organizing, and producing texts [Johns 1997], is key to success in college. To be literate in an academic sense, one should be able to understand and to articulate conceptual relationships within, between, and among disciplines. Academic literacy also encompasses critical literacy, that is, the ability to evaluate the credibility and validity of informational sources. In a practical sense, when a student is academically literate, s/he should be able to read and understand interdisciplinary texts, to articulate comprehension through expository written pieces, and to further knowledge through sustained and focused research.

Developing academic literacy is especially difficult for the at-risk student population, which includes both non-native and native English speakers who are struggling to acquire and improve the language and critical thinking skills they need to become full members of the college mainstream community. The needs of these at-risk college students may be met through the creation of a functional language learning environment that engages them in meaningful and authentic language processing through planned, purposeful, and academically-based activities, teaching them how to extract, question, and evaluate the central points and methodology of a range of material, and construct responses using the conventions of academic/expository writing [Pally 1997]. Effective academic writing requires that the student be able to choose appropriate patterns of discourse, which in turn involves knowing sociolinguistic conventions relating to audience and purpose. These skills, acquired through students' attempts to process and produce texts, can be refined over time by having students complete a range of assignments of progressive complexity which derive from the sustained and focused study of one or more academic disciplines.

Sustained content area study is more effectively carried out when an extensive body of instructional and informational resources, such as is found on the Internet, is available. Through its extensive collection of reading materials and numerous contexts for meaningful written communication and analysis of issues, the Internet creates a highly motivating learning environment that encourages at-risk college students to interact with language in new and varied ways. Used as a resource for focus discipline research, the Internet is highly effective in helping these students develop and refine the academic literacy so necessary for a successful college experience.

Used as a tool for sustained content study, the Internet is a powerful resource that offers easier, wider, and more rapid access to interdisciplinary information than do traditional libraries. Using the Internet allows at-risk college students to control the direction of their reading and research, teaches them to think creatively, and increases motivation for learning as students work individually and collaboratively to gather focus discipline information. By allowing easy access to cross-referenced documents and screens, Internet hypertext encourages students to read widely on interdisciplinary topics. This type of reading presents cognitively demanding language, a wide range of linguistic forms, and enables at-risk students to build a wider range of schemata and a broader base of knowledge, which may help them grasp future texts. Additionally, hypermedia provides the benefit of immediate visual reinforcement through pictures and/or slideshows, facilitating comprehension of the often-abstract concepts presented in academic readings.

Academic research skills are often underdeveloped in the at-risk student population making research reports especially frightening and enormously challenging. The research skills students need to complete focus discipline projects are the same skills they need to succeed in college courses. Instruction that targets the development of research skills teaches at-risk students the rhetorical conventions of term papers, which subsequently leads to better writing and hence improved performance in college courses [Mustafa 1995]. Moreover, the research skills acquired through sustained content study and focus discipline research enable students to manage information more effectively, which serves them throughout their college years and into the workforce.

2. Course Description

Focus discipline research may be carried out in any subject area, from the humanities to the social and physical sciences, and activities are described in detail at To illustrate the instructional approach, I will outline a unit on business, a major field of study for many students. In this unit, students are introduced to a number of business concepts, among them product development, consumer behavior, marketing utilities, and market targeting. After reading two print texts and responding to comprehension questions, students search the Internet to find information on advertising. To guide their initial Internet search, students answer questions based upon information presented on the Marketing and the Internet web site. The Internet search engages students in linguistic tasks (reading, vocabulary development, and interpretation of language structures) and in research tasks (searching for, accessing, and evaluating information).

While the entire class studies business as part of the course, students who choose business as a focus discipline continue to research this subject area throughout the semester, reporting on their research in 3 progressive short papers (2-3 pages) and in a longer research project (5-7 pages). Students who choose business as a focus discipline use the Internet to gather information on the following topics: (1) Psychological factors involved in advertising, (2) Television infomercials, and (3) Internet commerce. In the first paper, students discuss how advertisers use the basic determinants of consumer behavior in designing product advertisements; in the second paper, they explain the effectiveness of infomercials; and in the third paper, they explain how the Internet has changed the field of sales and marketing, describing the advantages/disadvantages of selling/buying products over the Internet. As students conduct Internet research, they actively practice searching for, sorting through, and organizing related pieces of information. The written projects encourage them to think critically about information while introducing them to rhetorical conventions common to business and building their linguistic and discipline-specific knowledge in preparation for a longer research report. This research report asks them to use Internet sources to prepare a historical analysis of advertising, beginning with the early 1900's and focusing on how developing technologies have changed advertising.

This course has proven very successful in raising course pass rates (to 92%), thereby enabling students to exit the developmental English sequence and become full members of the college mainstream more quickly. Students find the Internet adds a motivating and valuable component to the course. Overall, student feedback on the course has been quite positive, with students noting improved confidence in their ability to interact critically and analytically with academic material.

3. References

[Johns 1997] Johns, A.M. (1997). Text, role, and context: Developing academic literacies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
[Mustafa 1995] Mustafa, Z. (1995). The effect of genre awareness on linguistic transfer. English for Specific Purposes, 14(3), 247-256.
[Pally 1997] Pally, M. (1997). Critical thinking in ESL: An argument for sustained content. Journal of Second Language Writing, 6(3), 293-311.