Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 3 (Authentic Composition)


Authentic Composition

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.



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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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