College-Level Literacy: An Inventory of Current Practices at Ontario’s Colleges

Research Summary:

Colleges need system-wide approach to help students with reading and wr​​​​​iting deficits to succeed in their studies 

An increasing percentage of Ontario college students enter postsecondary education with a range of reading and writing abilities and often face challenges communicating at the level that is expected of them.  Ontario’s colleges are well on their way to addressing the language proficiency needs of their students, but more could be done to ensure there are consistent practices within and across institutions, according to a new report released jointly by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) and Fanshawe College. 

Identifying students who are at risk of not completing their programs, due to deficits in language proficiency, and providing timely and appropriate strategies to address these deficits, are critical priorities in ensuring students succeed in their programs.  

Project Description 

The study, College-Level Literacy: An Inventory of Current Practices at Ontario Colleges, provides a snapshot of how the language skills of college students are being evaluated and what colleges are doing about students who do not meet the required level of language proficiency.  All 24 of Ontario’s public colleges were surveyed. 


Assessment and upgrading practices for academically underprepared students across institutions are extremely diverse. For assessment of language proficiency, 62 per cent of Ontario’s colleges reported some type of formal language skill assessment for some programs, while only 21 per cent required formal assessment in all of their programs.  The methods and instruments used to conduct the assessments also varied.  Some colleges relied solely on writing samples (33 per cent), others on computerized assessments of reading comprehension and/or sentence skills (20 per cent), while the majority (47 per cent) relied on a combination of the two.

All 24 colleges reported some form of remediation or language upgrading for students who were at risk of dropping out due to language deficits.  But like assessment practices, multiple approaches were used across colleges.  Twenty-nine per cent of colleges relied solely on support services such as learning entres; 25 per cent on for-credit remedial, upgrading or foundations “transcript” courses that do not count toward program completion; 29 per cent on for-credit modified communications courses that do count toward degree completion; and 17 per cent relied on a combination of transcript and modified courses.

Next Steps 

The findings suggest a need for a consistent approach to address the language needs of all students enrolled in Ontario’s colleges.  Shared policies and practices or a provincial strategy would allow for better communication among practitioners and administrators, a framework for interpreting and reporting student achievements, an opportunity for evidence-based decision-making at the college and system levels, system-wide ways to measure the effectiveness and accountability of these programs, and more An Agency of the Government of Ontario seamless possibilities for transfer across institutions, as students would not have to endure unnecessary reassessments.

However, a major obstacle in achieving this consistency is that while colleges recognize the need for, and potential benefits of consistent practices, they also want to maintain their autonomy with language evaluation.  The challenge, as the authors suggest, is to reconcile these divergent approaches for the sake of all stakeholders.

As a follow-up to this project, HEQCO has recently commissioned a group of five Ontario colleges, led by Mohawk College, to evaluate whether their remedial courses improve the development of language skills and overall student outcomes.  

The report was prepared by Dr. Roger Fisher and Whitney Hoth, both from the School of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College.