Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

By Kristen Marakoff and P.L. Thomas

Kristen Marakoff’s journey to becoming a high school English teacher began 7 years ago in Paul Thomas’ foundations course. She completed the certification program at Paul’s university, where he taught English Language Arts teaching methods and supervised her field work.

Paul also teaches first-year writing—after teaching high school English throughout the 1980s and 1990s. During Kristen’s first years of teaching, they have continued a conversation about the gap between what students learn about writing in high school and then what students confront once they enter college.

Below we examine the gaps Paul witnesses each semester in his first-year writing classes and how Kristen seeks to close those gaps in her high school courses.

The View from First-Year Writing (Paul)

A first-year writing student grew exasperated while we discussed citation one semester when I explained most students would never use MLA in college unless they were English majors. She angrily shared that she was taught to “memorize MLA because everyone used that in college.”

That moment sits with me as I teach college students to write, cornering me in an uncomfortable way because as a former high school English teacher, I struggle to explain that much of our work in first-year writing is about unlearning high school lessons.

Below are some of the most common gaps I witness teaching first-year writing:

  • The Citation Gap: Students have narrow backgrounds in MLA, yet most disciplines in college use different citation style sheets. (See Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers.) Thus, students tend to lack broad concepts of citation.
  • The Choice Gap: Students have written to prompts on class assignments as well as A.P. and state accountability exams. Writing as a scholar requires making choices about topic, genre/form, and audiences.
  • The Template Gap: Students enter college with some mechanical version of the 5-paragraph essay. Most college-level writing requires much more complex arguments than 5-paragraph writing and thinking.
  • The Evidence Gap: Students have written literary analysis in English courses and view quoting as the sole type of evidence. Disciplines require different types of evidence, and many disciplines (and citation styles, such as APA) prefer synthesizing multiple sources and rare quoting. (See Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem.)
  • The Style Gap: Students with backgrounds in the essay template produce long paragraphs and determine paragraph lengths by counting sentences. Purposeful writers create sentence and paragraph variety based on meaning.
  • The Mode Gap: Students often see narration, exposition, description, and persuasion as types of essays—instead of modes of expression associated with a wide variety of genres and purposes.
  • The Revision Gap: Student experiences with drafting, teacher and peer conferences, and revision are quite varied, but students often reduce essay revision to editing or correcting. Few students have strong backgrounds in revising and rewriting essays through addressing content, organization, and style.

(See NCTE Position Statement on Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles as grounding for gaps noted here and points noted below by Kristen.)

Students are quite capable of exploring authentic and discipline-based writing early in their schooling, but traditional and inauthentic experiences serve to frustrate students and professors once students enter higher education. Below, Kristen shares her on-going journey to offer students authentic experiences as writers and scholars.

The View from High School (Kristen)

The gaps that Paul highlights in college students’ understanding of writing are the result of misconceptions high school teachers have about college-level writing expectations. As a result, students learn generalized, templated writing that does not demonstrate genre or language awareness, and also removes the locus of control from students by asking them to fulfill a preordained structure, rather than the communicative needs of their content. By interrogating the following misconceptions, high school teachers can reconsider their expectations of high school students and the writing they produce:

  • The AP/IB Misconception: Courses designed to supplant a college course and/or prepare students for college often do not test students in the kinds of thinking or writing expected at the college level, leading to a misunderstanding about the expectations of college courses. Additionally, preparing for assessments often becomes the goal of AP/IB courses, leading to repetitive practice of those tests to the exclusion of more authentic writing tasks.
  • The Literacy Skills Misconception: Students think high school English and composition courses will prepare them for a variety of writing tasks in college. In reality, those students may only be prepared for writing tasks in the English discipline because the writing expectations for each field of study differ.
  • The Discipline-Specific Literacy Misconception: Students cannot be successful in the work of English if they are not engaged in the tasks of the entire English discipline. This means reading not only poetry, novels, and essays, but seminal critical and scholarly texts that contribute to the conversation surrounding those literary works. Otherwise, we mystify the fundamental critical work integral to English, and what we are asking our students to construct.
  • The Student-Centered Misconception: Classes that are student-centered may still require some direct instruction, especially when teachers ask students to grapple with new genres. A 15-minute daily mini-lesson on a specific aspect of a new genre can give students the tools they need to construct self-directed writing. Otherwise, students will repeat the same three-pronged thesis and five paragraph writing they’ve always written.
  • The Scientific Experiment Misconception: Teachers are asked to conduct research on their students by taking data from summative assessments to drive their practice in the following year or units. Although we should constantly reflect on and modify our practice to best suit our students, we should also recognize that our classrooms are not controlled environments and our assessments are not scientifically valid. A student can learn during a unit and still not produce an artifact that demonstrates planned learning, but their experience should be what is valued, not their product. Indications of their learning may not be present for years, but that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t worth doing.

Practical Tips for High School Teachers (Kristen)

Remedying the effects of the misconceptions above is not easy because too often teachers have experienced these very same practices in their own experiences as students. To reorient writing instruction so that it is an authentic representation of the expectations of college, teachers must commit to the following practices:

  • Model discipline-specific work: At all levels of discourse (critically reading, speaking, and writing) the teacher is the exemplar for students.
  • Give students all the work of an English scholar: They lead the class in discussion; they read primary and secondary sources; they write for a variety of authentic purposes (with your explicit guidance about the conventions of each genre they write).
  • Recognize that English is cumulative: Students cannot consistently write like English scholars until they are reading like English scholars, talking like English scholars, and thinking like English scholars. Give students time to demonstrate this, and don’t expect their first papers (or their second, or their third) to be college-level work.

As teachers continue the process of creating, recreating, or revising their own practice of teaching writing, it is easy to feel discouraged, especially when they are not receiving the immediate feedback from students’ work that their teaching is effective. However, we encourage teachers to remember the following, as some perspective on the complex nature of writing and teaching writing:

  • Give students multiple opportunities to practice the skills that matter to an English scholar: Everyone’s first college paper sucked. That’s probably why we wrote three to five of them per semester, per class. Similarly, students may need more than one time to write a critical analysis for it to be good.
  • Think long-term: The growth of students throughout their high school careers (or throughout their education) is more important than the growth one can assess for any given lesson, or within any single unit.
  • Value the process over the product: If students say what a teacher does is helping, believe them, even if you don’t see a big difference in their product. It will take students time to process and use what is given to them.
  • Don’t be fooled by “magic bullets”: There is no inoculation for good writing. If someone says that their students can write phenomenal papers after this “one quick and easy strategy,” they’re either lying or don’t actually know what good writing is.
  • Give everyone a break: There’s a reason college takes four (or five, or eight) years. Very few people walk into college already capable of meeting all of the expectations of scholarly discourse. As long as we’ve introduced students to the academic expectations of a discipline and given them opportunities to practice them, we’re helping students more than they will ever be able to demonstrate.

Purposeful communication between teachers and students is essential in writing instruction. But we have also found that continuous communication among teachers of writing in high school and college creates a much stronger likelihood of a smooth transition for students as they develop as young writers and thinkers.

 

Kristen Marakoff is an English teacher and department chair at Travelers Rest High School in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. She has presented and chaired sessions at the annual conventions of both SCCTE (South Carolina Council of Teachers of English) and NCTE since 2016. In 2017, Kristen Marakoff was the recipient of the Leadership Development Award from SCCTE and then NCTE’s Leadership Development Award in 2018.

P.L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University), taught high school English for 18 years in South Carolina before moving to teacher education and teaching first-year writing. He has been a column editor/co-editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) under two editorships and is author of Beware the Roadbuilders (Garn Press) and Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP). Follow his work at http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/ and @plthomasEdD.

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4 thoughts on “Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

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