Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 2 (What is College-Ready Writing?)


College-Ready Writing

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.[1]

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.[2]  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.[3] 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.[4]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?

[1] cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Conley, 2003; Harris, 1996; Sparks, et al., 2014; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.; also see Zimmerman & Risemberg.

[4] cf. Applebee & Langer, 2006, 2011; Graham, et al., 2014; Kiuhara, Graham, & Harken, 2009; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Troia & Olinghouse, 2013.



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William Bryant, PhD

Dr. Bryant has been a writer, editor, and educator for over three decades. His blogging has been featured on GettingSmart, Curmudgication, and in Bright Magazine. In addition to college-readiness, he writes about education, equity, democracy—and how they fit together. He also writes about his 2yr old’s education in a substack here.


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