Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 4 (A Sociocultural Model of Writing)


A Sociocultural Model

A general disconnect between high school and college instruction is well documented.[1] 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.

[1] cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013; Venezia & Kirst, 2017.


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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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