Problems in College Writing Readiness: National, Regional, Local

A proliferation of research in the past ten years has revealed that student writing problems in grades 8-12 are widespread at the national level.  The ACT (2005) reports, “one-third of high school students who plan to attend college do not meet the readiness standards for college composition courses” (Graham & Perin 2007).  The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) categorized 70% of secondary school students as “low-achieving” writers (Persky, Daane, & Jin 2003); (Graham & Perin 2007).

Students in Texas secondary schools appear to align with these poor results. The STAAR® Statewide Summary Reports 2012-2013 show that  52% of Texas high school students in English I scored unsatisfactory on the English Writing test.  Granted, high school students should improve in writing over the course of their high school careers, but secondary English teachers face a huge challenge in bringing about this improvement. Core curriculum college instructors inherit the challenge of improving student writing skills, and students who do not improve face the prospect of washing out of college altogether.

At Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA), composition instructors are seeing the disturbing statistics on unpreparedness for academic writing borne out by a sizable percent of incoming freshman whose writing skills and readiness for freshman composition classes are severely lacking.  The state of Texas’s THEA writing test should identify underprepared freshman writers who must take and pass a remedial writing class before they are eligible to take regular freshman composition.  However, we routinely see students who pass the THEA test and/or the remedial class but are still not prepared for college writing because of a lack of skills in a number of areas.  Furthermore, we also hear from colleagues across the disciplines that many students who pass freshman composition still lack the writing skills needed to succeed in undergraduate study at the university-level.  In the best case scenarios, our models of teaching composition in East Texas, at the high-school and university level, follow currently recommended practices of composition instruction in the United States (in terms of classroom size; process-based assignment structures; and the rhetorical model of writing for audience and purpose).  In less desirable scenarios, within our high schools particularly, instructional emphasis is on the passing of standardized writing tests.  In either scenario, however, our problems with composition students are in line with a widespread, national problem, pervasive at many levels of academic study.  Like researchers nationwide, we have begun to question the efficacy of our current composition pedagogical model as a whole.

Recent empirical studies have begun to study and measure alternative techniques and models for composition pedagogy.  Research shows that writing labs in the college setting, when used consistently, have proven to enhance student writing ability and their academic success.  Research also suggests that teachers need to scaffold the skills involved in writing, ideally within small interactive groups engaged in work-shopping, multi-layered activities, student-instructor conferencing, and facilitated peer-to-peer support systems, which all have been shown to improve skills in struggling student writers (Callahan and Chumney 2009; Fanetti, Bushrow, and DeWeese 2010).  Approaches to skill instruction that begin with “separated…direct instruction of isolated skills and knowledge,” after which teachers move students to “simulated” instruction involving “application of those concepts and rules within a targeted unit of reading, writing, or oral language” have been proven successful in controlled studies (Langer 856). Coker and Lewis also point to research on the success of “cognitive strategy instruction, in particular, the Self Regulated Strategy Development model” (Harris & Graham 1996), which has also been tested by Mason, Benedek-Wood, and Valasa (2010).  All of this recent work and more being done right now strives to better understand and improve techniques of composition pedagogy, particularly at the secondary level and remedial levels (see Bibliography).

We at SFA want to be involved in this research because freshman composition courses at SFA serve over 1800 students every semester.  We have an ongoing interest in improving our own composition pedagogy.  During the summer of 2010, while conducting an extensive composition research review, we began developing research-based workshop activities and testing them with a summer section of freshman composition students who were in the SFA Pathways program, a program for students who do not meet SFA’s academic standards for enrollment.  Provisionally admitted in the summer, SFA Pathway students are required to complete six hours with a 2.0 average before they can register and enroll for the fall semester.  Working with these students over summer session for two hours a day, four days a week, for five weeks allowed us to simulate the kind of immersion that we believe at-risk writers need.  This opportunity helped us crystallize our thinking about how to work with students who have writing deficiencies so that they can succeed in freshman composition.  Based on these experiences, the SFA English department has developed several new programs.  The first is a summer symposium for training and collaborating with East Texas high school English teachers.  The second program is a joint project with the SFA Academic Assistance Resource Center (AARC) in which writing coaches are paired with composition instructors to coordinate supplemental writing workshops to enhance and reinforce the regular classroom meetings.

References and Bibliography


Applebee, A. N., and J. A. Langer.  “The State of Writing Instruction in America’s Schools:  What Existing Data Tells Us.” Center on English Learning and Achievement, 2006. Web. 30 July 2010.

Brockman, Elizabeth, et al. “Helping Students Cross the Threshold: Implications from a University Writing Assessment.” English Journal 99.3 (2010): 42-49. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 July 2010.

Callahan, M. Kate, and Donalda Chumney. “‘Write Like College’:  How Remedial Writing Courses at a Community College and a Research University Position ‘At-Risk’ Students in the Field of Higher Education.” Teachers College Record 111.7 (2009): 1619-64. Print.

Coker, David, and William E. Lewis. “Beyond writing next: a discussion of writing research and instructional uncertainty.” Harvard Educational Review 78.1 (2008): 231-251. Print.

De La Paz, Susan.  “Managing Cognitive Demands for Writing:  Comparing the Effects of Instructional Components in Strategy Instruction.” Reading and Writing Quarterly 23 (2007): 249-266. Ebsco. Web. 30 July 2010.

Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’.” College Composition and Communication 58.4 (2007): 552-584. Print.

Duncan, Mike. “Whatever Happened to the Paragraph?” College English 69.5 (2007): 470-95.

Fanetti, Susan, Kathy M. Bushrow, and David L. DeWeese. “Closing the Gap between High School Writing Instruction and College Writing Expectations.” English Journal 99.4 (2010): 77-83. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 July 2010.

Fearn, Leif and Nancy Farnan.  “When is a Verb?  Using Functional Grammar to Teach Writing.” Journal of Basic Writing 26.1 (2007): 63-87. Web. 30 July 2010.

Gere, Anne R. “Writing Now: A Policy Research Brief.” National Council of Teachers of English, 2008. Web. 30 July 2010.

Graham, Steve and Delores Perin. “Writing Next:  Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools.” Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2007. Web. 30 July 2010.

Harris, K.R. & Graham, S.  Making the writing process work: Strategies for composition and self-regulation (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Brookline Books, 1996.

Hillocks Jr., George. “Some Practices and Approaches Are Clearly Better Than Others and We Had Better Not Ignore the Differences.” English Journal 98.6 (2009): 23-29. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 May 2010.

Hillocks Jr., George.  Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995.

Kutney, Joshua P. “Will Writing Awareness Transfer to Writing Performance? Response to Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, ‘Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions’.” College Composition and Communication. 59.2 (2007): 276-9. Print

Langer, Judith A. “Beating the Odds:  Teaching Middle and High School Students to Read and Write Well.” American Educational Research Journal 4:38 (2001): 837-880. Web. 3 Aug. 2010.

Mason, Linda H., Elizabeth Benedek-Wood, and Lauren Valasa. “Teaching Low-Achieving Students to Self-Regulate Persuasive Quick Write Responses.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 53.4 (2010): 303-12. Ebsco. Web. 30 Jul. 2010.

Mayer, Melanie.  “On the Ground:  Applying Current Research in a High School Classroom.” English Journal 2(2009): 91. eLibrary. Web. 19 Jul. 2010.

Parks, Steve and Eli Goldblatt. “Writing Beyond the Curriculum:  Fostering New Collaborations in Literacy.” College English 62.5 (2000): 584-606. Jstor. Web. 22 Jul. 2010.

Persky, H.R., Daane, M.C, & Jin, Y. (2003). The nation’s report card: Writing 2002, NCES 2003. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics.

Powell, Pegeen Reichert. “Retention and Writing Instruction:  Implications for Access and Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication. 60.4 (2009): 664-682. Print.

Sommers, Nancy and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert:  Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication 56.1 (2004): 124-149. Jstor. Web. 21 Jul. 2010.

Smagorinsky, Peter. “Is It Time to Abandon the Idea of “Best Practices” in the Teaching of English?.” English Journal 98.6 (2009): 15-22. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 May 2010.

VanDeweghe, Rick. “Writing Next and the Power to Teach.” English Journal 97.5 (2008): 88-92. eLibrary. Web. 19 July 2010.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words:  Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication 56.2 (2004): 297-328. Jstor. Web. 20 July 2010.