A general disconnect between high school and college instruction is well documented. According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford University, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college” (Venezia, Kirst, & Antonio, 2003). In the case of writing, one of the central points of disconnect stems from the fact that high school instruction and college instruction typically are based on different models of writing. As a result, students face a different set of expectations and ideas about writing when they enter college, compared with what they learned in high school.
In the 1970s, advances in writing theory began to move pedagogy from a concentration on the end product of writing to the process of writing. Classroom instruction began to emphasize the “complex of activities out of which all writing emerges” — activities such as planning, drafting, and revising (Bizzell, 1986, p. 49). A highly influential model of writing, developed by Flower and Hayes (1981) in the early eighties, described the process of composition in terms of cognitive functions — the mental processes by which decisions are made, ideas are translated into written language, long-term and working memory are engaged, and so forth (Hayes, 1980). By the 1990s, the process model of writing, grounded in cognitive theory, shaped instruction across primary, secondary, and postsecondary education. Indeed, this model continues to be predominant in pre-college instruction. Applebee and Langer (2011) found that over 90 percent of high school English teachers, when they taught composition, employed process-oriented instruction, teaching specific strategies for planning, organizing, drafting, and revising. (Evidence that these processes are taught using evidence-based instructional practices is mixed, however.)
In higher education, the cognitive theory of writing has been challenged and supplemented by sociocultural theory, a change that has not made its way into most secondary school instruction and assessment. Sociocultural theory accounts for the fact that, whatever cognitive processes are at work in the production of text, writing is always shaped by the particular social and cultural contexts in which it takes place. The writer is always situated within a discourse community, which has its own governing values, shared assumptions, accepted and expected ways of communicating and behaving. In the discourse community of academia, for example, evidence-supported argumentation is a primary, legitimized, and rewarded means for making meaning and persuading others, whereas unsupported opinionating is not. Obtaining an education entails learning to think and communicate in ways established as valuable and acceptable within the academic discourse community.
Each academic discipline, and each classroom, for that matter, forms its own discourse community, while also serving as an instantiation of the larger discourse community of academia. In the most general sense, college equips students for participation in the broader discourse community of educated society, wherein clear, well-reasoned expression and evidence-supported argumentation are effective modes of meaning-making and persuasion.
The sociocultural or “post-process” model of writing does not necessarily reject the cognitive process model, but rather extends it. That is, evidence-based practices grounded in the cognitive model are taught within a broader conceptualization, wherein writing processes are understood to operate within a complex of external factors relating to cultural identities, social norms, linguistic resources, power relations, and familial and environmental influences. Writing, in this conceptualization, is a situated communication practice learned through socialization, not (or not merely) an abstract skill that follows a natural developmental progression within isolated individuals.
Socialization into the discourse community of academia is easier for some students than for others . Every student brings to their education particular linguistic resources, background experiences, assumptions, values, and expectations from their own native culture. The degrees of variance between native and academic culture differ widely, of course. Some students are better able to navigate the culture of academics from the start because it is already relatively familiar to them; the vocabulary and values characteristic of college academics are not so far from what they have grown up with. Thus, they enter college already understanding how to interpret what is being said, and how to discern and meet behavioral and performance expectations. For other students, the culture they come from bears little resemblance to the culture of college academics. Thus, if they have no prior exposure to the norms of behavior, communication, and meaning-making in academic culture, then they likely begin their college careers without apprehending how to conform to expectations or what will count as a successful performance. For example, according to Hassel and Giordano (2013), new college students who struggle with writing tend to lack experience writing in formal academic ways; they therefore do not know how to make appropriate choices given their audience and rhetorical purposes, and they are unfamiliar with academic conventions.
The implications of the sociocultural model of writing on pedagogy, compared with the cognitive model, are manifold. For example, the cognitive model tends to position writing as an isolated discipline comprised of a fixed compendium of process skills applicable irrespective of purposes and contexts. The classroom is the place where a teacher dispenses these skills to individual students, who learn and practice them through mental processes that function similarly from person to person. Instruction tends to deemphasize the cultural perspectives and personal differentiators students bring with them to their studies, and to leave unexamined the social contexts for learning and writing.
In contrast, in the sociocultural model, the classroom is a community wherein it is impossible to separate literacy from the external influences of a student’s environment — the cultural, social, economic, familial and other factors that affect them. These influences inherently produce inequalities among students, particularly students from non-dominant backgrounds. Pedagogy within the sociocultural model, then, seeks to recognize and account for these differences, rather than overlook them.
The instructor serves as a facilitator of students enjoined through their writing and interactions in public conversation — certainly among themselves, but also, in a broader sense, with other authors, critics, readers, and stakeholders engaged with their topics of inquiry. Writing is a social practice learned in concert with reading, speaking, listening, and thinking skills. Metacognition becomes extremely important, as students are given to understand that they are engaged in learning the conventions of a particular culture (academics), and that they themselves are situated within that culture in ways that bring to bear their personal backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, identities, and language resources.
While the cognitive model leads toward the production of writing in which the particulars of students’ identities and experiences are absent, their selves evacuated from the texts they produce, the sociocultural model brings their particular identities into play, examining and emphasizing the agency of writers as participants situated within particular communities. Their identities and backgrounds thus become potential resources that they can leverage in the service of contributing their own perspectives and ideas to ongoing, consequential conversations.
Writing is positioned as an empowering tool for pursuing one’s interests and advancing one’s objectives. Pedagogically, this puts a premium on students choosing and scoping their own projects, discovering the topics and issues they care about, and taking responsibility for their own intellectual engagement. But students succeed in leveraging their backgrounds and advancing their interests only to the degree that they communicate in ways that are valued and persuasive within the community — that is, by thinking logically, reasoning carefully, reading perceptively, discussing knowledgeably, communicating clearly — in short, by acquiring and exercising the literacy skills of an academically educated person.
The sociocultural perspective is closely compatible with principles of rhetoric: both situate the writer in a public context and call upon the skills of persuasion operative within the relevant discourse community. Rhetorical concepts and considerations — awareness of audience; definition of purpose; ethos, logos, and pathos — often are taught in the process-oriented instructional model found in secondary classrooms, but they tend there to be abstract and decontextualized. The sociocultural model, by contrast, comprehends rhetors in terms of their particular cultural identities and social situatedness; it configures purpose in terms of agency, audience in terms of discourse community, position-taking in terms of conversational participation, meaning-making and persuasiveness in terms of rhetorical context.
This model of writing facilitates one of the major goals of college-level writing instruction: to equip each student for effective participation within his or her discipline, with its particular text forms, language styles, customs of presentation, and modes of analysis. Where “rhetorical knowledge” and “knowledge of conventions” are invoked as necessary for college-level writing success, they refers to students’ awareness that they are always situated within specific discourse communities (especially academic disciplines), and that effective communication within those communities entails understanding and adhering to community expectations — such as supporting claims with evidence and practicing standards of academic integrity.
How college-ready writing is conceptualized determines how its instruction is strategized. The disconnect between secondary and post-secondary models of writing results in pedagogical differences that can leave high school graduates unprepared for the writing demands and expectations they encounter in college. The theory of writing operative within an educational community shapes not only teachers’ strategies for instruction, but also students’ understanding of what writing is and is for. The disparity between the models of writing at work in secondary versus college instruction contributes to students’ difficulties in producing the kind of academic writing required for success in college.
College-bound high schoolers need preparation for college-level writing, since writing is a key, foundational skill across disciplines. Most high school classrooms to do not equip students for college writing success, because they do not emphasize extended, research-supported composition, and because their operative model of writing does not align with the concepts and assumptions students encounter in college. Changing the approach to writing instruction in high school to better align with the college writing can help more students prepare for college success.
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First, students need practice with extended, source-based composition. As shown above, an abundance of research indicates that most student writing prior to college is not rigorous enough to prepare them for the demands of college-level academic work. They are not getting enough experience at authentic academic composition and the interpretive reading, analysis, argumentation, and other higher order skills that go with it.
A primary goal of writing instruction early in college is to prepare students for writing in their disciplines later on . General principles of academic writing that are transferable across disciplines, therefore, are important for students to master in their introductory courses. This kind of writing generally requires students to compose multiple-page essays that engage with other sources . The essay types most commonly required in college are persuasive and informational; comparatively little narrative or creative writing is assigned.
First-year composition and other introductory writing courses ask students to produce research-based persuasive essays because they are an essential type of intellectual work that trains students to think and write successfully across a range of other courses — History, Political Science, Communication, Social Science, Business, Culture Studies, and so forth. Such courses themselves require research-supported essays because they are an effective way for students to demonstrate that they have learned about a content area in depth, are thoughtful about it, and can convey their knowledge and ideas clearly and effectively.
Colleges value good writing skills in part because they recognize that students who write well possess an array of high-level competencies that apply across many varieties of subject matter and types of projects. It’s easy for students to regard composing an academic essay as an isolated exercise that will have little value to them beyond a single English or writing course. Instead, they should understand it as an occasion for developing and demonstrating a constellation of highly valued skills and habits of mind that apply no matter their college major or chosen career.
To prepare them for the demands of college writing, high school classrooms should guide students through the process of composing authentic, extended academic essays. That means teaching them to:
● Generate ideas and choose their own writing topic, ideally one they personally care about; ● Identify and clearly define a researchable, debatable issue within their topic, one with a scope that can fit the time and page-length parameters of the task; ● Research their issue by locating and critically reading relevant, credible sources; ● Identify and analyze a range of perspectives within the conversation around their issue; ● Arrive at their own position based on their analysis; ● Craft an argument in support of their position, one made persuasive through evidence and reasoning; ● Anticipate and address relevant counterarguments; ● Skillfully incorporate quotes and citations into their own prose, demonstrating a rigorous respect for standards of academic integrity; ● Make substantive revisions in response to feedback and their own self-critique; ● Proofread and edit their work for spelling, grammar, and mechanics, as well as tone, style, and format; ● Produce a polished, final draft that conforms to the conventions of academic presentation.
Practice at composing an extended, research-supported academic essay provides high school students with an opportunity to learn and demonstrate the full complement of competencies research indicates are needed for college writing readiness. Without instruction and practice at this complex task prior to college, even gifted students can find themselves struggling to succeed.
There is no universal standard of college-ready writing, in part because there are such wide differences in the academic demands of postsecondary institutions, from open-access community colleges to highly selective universities (Marlink & Wahleithner, 2001; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006). Nevertheless, the large number of sources seeking to define competencies needed for college writing success agree that postsecondary students, whatever their institution, must be prepared to produce extended pieces of writing that critically engage with source materials and diverse perspectives, and that conform to academic conventions of style and presentation.
The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project (2011), stresses that, to be ready for college writing, students need the knowledge and skills that go into composing an authentic, extended academic essay:
● Knowledge of writing processes: That is, knowing how to plan, draft, revise, and finalize an academic essay; ● Rhetorical knowledge: Understanding their writing task, their purposes for writing, and their audiences; knowing how to use language and reasoning in ways that are valued and persuasive within college academics; ● Critical Thinking: The ability to insightfully analyze and evaluate ideas, arguments, and perspectives from other sources, and to contribute their own well-reasoned ideas, arguments, and perspectives; ● Knowledge of conventions: Understanding that there are guidelines and expectations for how their academic work should be presented; knowing how to produce an essay that exhibits correct grammar, language mechanics, and formatting, as well as effective organization, appropriate tone and style, and careful attention to accurately representing and citing the work of others.
In addition to knowledge and skills, learning to write at the college level requires certain noncognitive behaviors. Students must, for example, be conscientious in meeting deadlines, must persist at revising and improving their drafts, and must adhere to standards of academic integrity. Appropriate social behaviors are necessary, too, including a willingness to offer thoughtful feedback to peers, and to respond constructively to critiques of their own work.
Successful student writers also exhibit metacognitive awareness. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses as learners, and know what their larger objectives are for acquiring an education. They also recognize how they as individuals are situated in relation to the people, institutions, and society around them.
Unfortunately, research on middle school and high school writing instruction shows that students get little training and practice at the kind of writing that prepares them for college. The vast majority of classroom assignments require little generation of text and no critical thinking. In their analysis of a national survey of high school writing instructional practices, Kiuhara, Graham, and Hawken (2009) report that “the writing activities [high school students] were assigned most frequently by teachers involved little analysis and interpretation,” and that “a sizable proportion of the participating teachers seldom assigned activities that clearly involved writing multiple paragraphs” (p. 151).
A study by Applebee and Langer (2011) found that “. . . the actual writing that goes on in typical classrooms across the United States remains dominated by tasks in which the teacher does all the composing, and students are left only to fill in missing information, whether copying directly from a teacher’s presentation, completing worksheets and chapter summaries, replicating highly formulaic essay structures keyed to the high-stakes tests they will be taking, or writing the particular information the teacher is seeking” (p. 28).
Studies of middle and high school classroom practices further suggest that noncognitive and metacognitive competencies are missing from pre-college writing instruction as well.Accordingly, a great number of students, including gifted students, are not equipped with the full array of abilities needed for successful writing in college. What they learn in high school is not aligned with what is expected of them afterwards.
How, then, might writing be taught in high school to better prepare students for the demands of college?
Too many students find that the kind of writing they were asked to do in high school does not resemble the writing required of them in college. Their high school classes mostly assigned short answer responses, not full-length essays. If they got a chance to write more extended pieces, most were taught to adhere to a formula, such as the five-paragraph essay, and were rewarded more for their mastery of surface features than for the quality of their thinking.
In contrast, college students are required to produce extended compositions that demonstrate critical thinking and the skilled use of sources. They’re expected to generate their own ideas; find and analyze credible information; consider a range of diverse perspectives; craft logical, evidence-based arguments; make substantive revisions in response to feedback; and turn in a polished final product that conforms to the presentational conventions of academic writing.
The skills and knowledge required to produce a successful college-level essay develop only with direct instruction and lots of practice. Unfortunately, few high schoolers get the instruction and practice they need. Even advanced high school courses do not necessarily align with the approach to writing that students encounter in college; AP English, for example, prepares students for a timed exam rather than for authentic academic composition.
Writing is the academic skill most linked to success in college, across disciplines; thus, whatever their abilities or targeted area of study, students are well served by entering college ready for the writing demands, and the approach to writing instruction, they will encounter there.
In this series of posts I propose an approach to writing instruction aimed at bridging the gap between high school and college writing. First, I draw on scholarly surveys and frameworks for success to describe college-ready writing, then identify two key changes to high school instruction that can help college-bound students succeed: an emphasis on authentic academic composition, and a shift toward a sociocultural model of writing.
 cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kirst & Venezia, 2017; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Perin, 2013; Spellings, 2006.
 cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2011; Melzer, 2009; Perin, 2013; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006.
Universities began putting their courses online in the form of “Massively Open Online Courses” (MOOCs) about a decade ago, with the idea of making a wide range of high-quality academic instruction accessible and affordable to people around the world. One famous, early success story was that of Battushig Myanganbayar, a teenager in Mongolia who aced an online MIT engineering course and earned himself a scholarship to the university. Today MOOCs are available by the thousands on marketplace platforms with global reach, such asedX, Udacity, and Coursera.
But there is also another tier of online courses feeding global education, offered not by universities but by individuals. Learning platforms such as Teachable, Thinkific, and Ruzuku have flipped the script on MOOCs: now anyone anywhere can not only take an online course but build and teach one, too. And many thousands do, offering instruction on just about anything you can think of, from business management to blacksmithing, cardio training to calligraphy, leadership to lepidoptery. Online learning is a global bazaar, where anyone can offer up their expertise, enthusiasm, or experience for the whole world’s edification—and earn a rupee (or try to) in the process.
Open online learning platforms are not just for hobbyists and dilettantes; experts of all types are well represented, including plenty of moonlighting school teachers plying lessons in grammar, geometry, chemistry, art, computer science, and every other traditional school subject. In a sense, online learning platforms have given rise to a global gig economy for educators—a way for them to independently leverage their expertise and supplement their income. If the success of these courses demonstrates a worldwide demand for learning not satisfied by conventional schooling, perhaps it also demonstrates how difficult it is for teachers around the planet to make ends meet with just their day job.
Global online learning outside the bounds of institutional education takes a variety of forms. Here are some of the other types of platforms connecting otherwise disconnected students and teachers around the world:
Online Course Marketplaces
Most open platforms require that course developers find and recruit their own students, which generally entails building email lists and working social media channels. If you’re a teacher looking to market your DIY algebra course to ninth-graders, this is a hard pull. Another breed of platform, however, functions as a searchable marketplace, where students come looking for what’s on offer. The largest, Udemy, hosts some 80,000 courses. Your algebra course pops up (along with all your competitors) when an interested student searches the site.
YouTube makes a vast array of instructional videos accessible for free, including videos on every academic subject under the sun. Plenty of schools maintain a presence on YouTube as part of their recruitment and visibility strategy. Likewise, many online teaching entrepreneurs offer free content as lead magnets for the courses they charge for on other platforms.
It’s not all about business, though; plenty of content developers just like to share. One of the most prolific academic presences is Khan Academy, a non-profit that posts hundreds of videos for K-12 students on subjects from literature and civics to calculus and finance. As an instrument of unregulated global education, YouTube is an unsung powerhouse: 37% of users surveyed say they’re looking to improve school or job skills—and YouTube has 1.9 billion active monthly users.
Learning Management Systems
Many K-12 and most higher ed schools now use learning management systems (LMSs) to deliver online courses to their own students. Increasingly, even traditional classroom-based courses incorporate an LMS site that instructors can use to manage their class and post their syllabus, readings, videos, quizzes, and so forth.
But LMS platforms can also be used by individuals and companies to offer courses to the general public—typically courses that are more text-based and extensive than the video-centric offerings commonly found on other types of platform. For example, my company, BetterRhetor, recently launched College-Ready Writing Essentials via Canvas, an LMS widely used by colleges and universities. In contrast to the one-student-at-a-time model, it is a teacher-facilitated resource for high school and college classroom use. Since it is hosted on a Web-accessed LMS, it’s available to any classroom anywhere.
Khan Academy is all over YouTube, as noted above, but they also make all of their videos available through their own website. Any student in the world can, for example, survey 20th Century History through a series of more than 50 video lessons for free on the Khan Academy site. Math, science, humanities, economics—it’s all there.
For-profit learning companies likewise offer education globally on their own dedicated platforms. At VIPKID, for example, home-based teachers located anywhere (again, many of them moonlighting) connect with individual students in China, who learn a traditional curriculum, but in English.
Many of the courses found on these teaching platforms are developed by individuals or entities with no formal accountability for their content—so, it’s buyer beware. Even so, independently developed online courses constitute a busy market connecting eager learners to enterprising teachers worldwide. Online learning platforms spread global education beyond the purview and confines of conventional models and institutions.
In the 1950s, C. P. Snow famously argued that academia had separated into two cultures—the sciences and the humanities—with no commerce between them. As both a novelist and a scientist himself, Snow shuttled between the two worlds, and lamented that they did not combine forces to solve problems neither was equipped to address on its own.
In our time, a separation between the sciences and the humanities is asserted on practical grounds: economic life is dominated by technology, which requires science, engineering, and math, not literature, history, philosophy and the like. College is expensive and the global marketplace competitive. Any individual looking for a serious career—and any country hoping to compete in the world economy—had best forget about the humanities and focus instead on things more practical.
STEM-promoting programs have proliferated throughout education, while the humanities have, in places, become expendable. States across the country offer incentives for students getting degrees in fields such as electrical engineering, while in Kentucky, for example, the governor has gone so far as to propose withholding state funds from schools that produce too many graduates in French literature.
All of this bias in favor of STEM has begun to generate some pushback from people who feel that there is a valuable, even necessary, place for the humanities in today’s world. Some caution against reducing education to career training alone. We should be unwilling, the novelist Marilynne Robinson writes, to “cede… humane freedom to a very uncertain promise of employability.” Rather, she says, we need the humanities for “preparing capable citizens, imaginative and innovative contributors to a full and generous, and largely unmonetizable, national life.”
In contrast to the 1950s, any rift between technical and humanistic fields today seems to be closing on its own anyway. As new technologies integrate themselves ever more thoroughly into all corners of human life, they increasingly require for their success a deeper attunement to the nature of human beings. In education, the evolution of STEM to STEAM (with the A standing for arts) reflects this integration, as does the current interest in design thinking—a recognition that technical things and systems must be responsive to aesthetics, personal preferences, cultural differences, and human behaviors of all sorts.
The digital humanities likewise blend
the two cultures into one, applying methods of quantification and data analysis
to the study of literature, geography, history, and other fields. As such, the
digital humanities provide an excellent avenue for teaching students technical
skills and humanistic modes of inquiry in complementary fashion, perhaps just
the way they’ll be asked to use them in their professional and civic lives down
K-12 teachers and students will find
online a host of digital humanities resources in three primary areas: human
geography, historical archives, and text analysis. Here are some examples:
The visualization of digitized geographical information has created a wealth of opportunities for exploring both historical and contemporary relationships between people and place. ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, for example, provides an interactive map that calculates the time and cost of traveling throughout the Roman Empire by land or sea, even taking into account the seasons.
A Vision of Britain Through Time overlays the geography of Britain with election data, census information, historical maps, and travel writing. Select any district and explore changes through time in its population, social structure, housing, industry, economic conditions, and more.
Google Earth’s Voyager section contains ready-made explorations in travel, culture, and history. Tour famous writers’ homes, explore medieval Europe, or discover tribal government success stories. The Lewis and Clark unit, created with PBS Education, combines videos and text with an interactive Google Earth map of the explorers’ journey to the Pacific and back.
Disciplinary boundaries tend to break down in the digital humanities, so geographically centered resources may also be rich troves of archival information. Civil War Washington, for example, combines historical documents, images, data, and maps, with interpretive essays to provide a thick description of the nation’s capital during the Civil War.
The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media is a repository for a wide mix of projects for studying history, as well as tools for managing citations and organizing and publishing archives. An abundance of teaching resources provide lesson plans organized around rich collections of historical materials. For example, Making the History of 1989 is a project that explores the fall of the communist states in Europe. It includes hundreds of primary sources, along with multi-media interviews with historians.
The Lincoln Telegrams Project is part of “Decoding the Civil War: Engaging the Public with 19th Century Technology and Cryptology through Crowdsourcing,” an effort to transcribe and decode Civil War military telegrams through crowdsourcing. The site includes online access to Lincoln’s wartime telegrams, along with lesson plans for high school students.
American Memory, from the Library of Congress, contains extensive collections of historical materials centered on American life, literature, history, and more. A section for teachers includes classroom materials, professional development resources, and guides for using primary sources.
Sophisticated approaches to text mining
are yielding new scholarly insights in fields from literature to linguistics to
cultural criticism. For the pre-college classroom, some handy text analysis
tools can give students an idea of how digitization opens up modes of inquiry
into language and literature.
Google Books Ngram Viewer finds the number of times user-entered words and phrases occur within the vast number of books Google has digitized up to 2008. The Viewer returns a record of the rise or decline of concepts, names, terms, and events appearing in print over years, decades, or centuries.
Wordleand similar programs generate word clouds from user-entered text. Students can analyze famous speeches, for example, by discovering the words used most or least often. Student essays entered into the program can shed light on word usage perhaps not otherwise obvious to writer or instructor. Here’s a list of classroom lessons using word cloud generators.
Voyant moves beyond word clouds to provide context for the words and phrases found in a text. When a word such as “future“ appears in a transcribed conversation, for example, does it carry a positive or negative connotation? This kind of sentiment analysis is more technically challenging to accomplish than simple word clouds, but for the right teacher or student, it can be a useful tool for examining a wide variety of texts.
In our time, technical and humanistic
domains tend to meld in ways that C. P. Snow could not have anticipated, but
likely would have welcomed. For tomorrow’s students, the very idea that the
sciences and humanities could be separated might seem perplexing, as they’ll
see all around them technical tools in the service of humanistic inquiry, and
human insights shaping the form and application of new technologies.