Every summer for the past decade, we have conducted a writing program for college-bound, low-income minority students. More than 80 percent of them have never written a formal five-page paper. Instead, they’ve churned out short essay after short essay after short essay. When asked to develop an idea or argument beyond two or three pages, they look dumbfounded.
IThe Education Commission of the States reports that only 17 percent of students enrolled in remedial English nationally go on to earn a college degree. That’s a shameful return on what the Gates Foundation estimates to be a $2.3 billion annual investment in remedial programs nationally.
What works? Our 10 years of teaching remedial writing, as well as other research, points to four ways to get students to write better.
• Set specific and understandable goals. Abstract test scores – “You score in the 85th percentile” -- don’t help students, especially first-generation learners, know if they are underprepared to write in college. If students somehow discover they are not good writers, they have no idea what they need to do to improve.
• Teach students how to revise. What students need to understand is how to make the essay they just wrote better. A teacher’s general comments at the end of an essay, the usual practice, are like an autopsy report: They may tell the student why the paper is weak, but they do not help the writer fix the problem.
• Teach summarizing, not analyzing: Critical thinking in and of itself is not a precursor of good writing. Putting thinking into words, sentences and paragraphs is the endgame, and that crucially involves the ability to summarize material, a more concrete and therefore teachable skill. If students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.
These sorts of solutions are not rocket science, but they are, unfortunately, controversial. Adopting them would mean focusing on writing as process rather than as product, an unsettling break for those accustomed to exams and assignments without revision opportunities. But the current remedial writing programs have the dubious distinction of being the first stop on the way to dropping out of college.