Skip to main content

Literature Review

Literature Review

Faculty frequently complain about the quality of freshman writing.  Different approaches and studies have tried to focus on how to make improvements in student writing.  The Writing across the Curriculum and “writing to learn” were only two of the ways in which the problems of freshman writing performance were addressed.  Efforts are still being made to improve student writing in general, as well as writing in the individual disciplines.  Brockman, Taylor, Kreth and Crawford (2010) addressed the assessment of college writing in a 2010 article in English Journal and followed that article with another that addressed the comments writing instructors made about college writing.  One idea from the focus groups suggested that “college writing asked students to read and write about previously unfamiliar topics as a way to learn course content.”

It is important to note that efforts to improve writing by college students does not begin in the students’ freshman year.  High school instructors are aware of the demands on students to read more and to write more than they did in high school.  Fanetti, Bushrow, & DeWeese (2010) explore the gap between writing in high school and in college.  One primary difference they note is that high school education is “standardized and quantifiable” while college education is intended to be “theoretical.”  Since the high school students are usually taught to write to perform well, instruction is often “teaching to the test” or teaching how to write a standard five- paragraph essay.  While this approach works for the school, it is not helpful for student performance in college.    Patterson and Duer (2006) examined “what is taught” in high school composition/ English classes using a 2002-2003 ACT National Curriculum Survey.  The survey addressed the most important reading and writing skills, grammar and usage skills, and higher-order reading skills.  Their article compared the skills taught to college bound and non-college bound students.  VanDeWeghe (2006) also looked at the preparation of high school students for college writing.    He asserts that high school writing instruction should focus less on static styles and more on the students’ development as writers.

There is also some focus on the importance of reading skills and strategies for students at the high school and at the college level.  Fisher and Frey (2003) examined strategies for helping struggling readers improve their reading and their writing.  Alex Poole at Western Kentucky took several looks at student reading strategies.  In 2014, Poole discussed reading strategies by first-year composition students.  This discussion covered instructor attitudes and students’ ability to read.  As part of this examination, Poole suggested additional strategies that could be taught to student to improve.  Another study by Poole (2014) examined reading strategies by upper classmen, and used a combination of demographic information and student completion of the Metacognitive Assessment of Reading Strategies Inventory (MARSI).  Poole’s discussion covered the three basis strategies (read-aloud, skimming, and summarizing), but also included additional strategies to improve success.  A third article by Poole (2013) looked at the reading strategies college readers use to read fiction.  Poole used the MARSI inventory to examine which strategies were used by writers.  One point of examination was the comparison of which strategies students reported they used and the strategies their instructors indicated they should use.  Hooley, Tysseling & Ray (2013) examined the attitudes of high school seniors and instructors toward required academic reading. Using indicators from the SAT for 2012 and the ACT Survey for 2011, the question examined was the “connection between academic reading attitudes and proficiency for older students.”

Three topics that frequently appear in the literature are reading, critical thinking and writing.  If students are to write well, they must be able to read beyond the basic decoding of words.  Indeed, they must be able to evaluate the information they encounter and to integrate useful material into their own work.   Michelle S. Broussard (2017) in Reading, Research and Writing approaches the issue from a librarian’s viewpoint and addresses ways to provide research assignments that build students’ skills in research to improve their writing of research papers.  Broussard notes that in their introduction to How to Read a Book, Adler and Van Doren (1972) indicate that reading instruction in the schools does not extend beyond sixth grade and that the focus of instruction has been on decoding, not on higher reading skills. Horning and Kramer (2013) define reading as “getting meaning from print”, but they also recognize the necessity of additional skills, for they say students should “analyze texts . . . synthesize different readings on the same issue . . . and evaluate the materials they read”.  These same skills are addressed by MacMillan and Rosenblatt (2015), who advocate including academic reading strategies as part of information literacy instruction. Their advocacy is informed by their familiarity with disciplines other than their own, as well as with their familiarity with current scholarship on the subject.    

The importance of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation is recognized by other scholars who refer to these processes as “academic literacy” (Defazio et. al., 2010) or as “critical literacy” (Flower, 1989).  Defazio focuses on the teaching of writing in a “writing across the curriculum” environment.  He provides four case studies from various academic units to illustrate techniques used by four instructors at the undergraduate and graduate levels. DeFazio’s case studies also illustrate how “writing in the disciplines” can improve student writing.   Flower indicates that the critically literate person “questions sources, looks for assumptions and reads for intentions, not just facts.”

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing Program Administrators (WPA)

One strategy to improve student writing was Writing Across the Curriculum, which supported writing assignments in courses outside the usual freshman writing courses.  David R. Russell (2002) focused on the resistance in academe to the “reform of teaching and learning what gets taught and learned.” Countering that resistance, Carol Moskovitz (2011) of Duke University has a “reader’s” program built on a partnership between the Thompson Writing Center and the Alumni Association that pairs students with alumni volunteers who work in a professional field related to the student’s major.  The student is assigned a written project that represents the type of professional writing the student will be asked to produce in a professional setting.  The alumni “reader” acts as a mentor and reflective reader for the student as he/she produces a draft and subsequent revisions in preparation for submission of the final project. 

Longitunial Studies

A number of longitudinal studies have been conducted to follow students’ development as writers or to determine the success of first-year composition (FYC) courses in preparing students for later demands in their academic and professional careers.  Elizabeth Wardle (2007) looked at the transfer of skills in her preliminary discussion of the results of a longitudinal study.  Her observations indicated that there was little research on “transfer” from FYC to later courses.  However, there had been recommendations to abolish FYC because of a lack of evidence that the skills were transferred. Wardle looked at various conceptions of transfer and made a case for the continuing usefulness of FYC to students.  She focused on “generalizations” in the FYC class that could be applied beyond the FYC classroom. Perkins and Salomon (1988) argued that the transfer of skills learned in one context improved if instruction was designed to promote transfer.  Two of the techniques they advocate, “hugging” and “bridging,” employed together could provide some structure to increase transfer, they state.

At Harvard University, Nancy Sommers leads The Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing, which followed a cohort of 400 students from their freshman year to graduation.  Sommers and Saltz (2004) reported that Harvard University’s Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing followed students over a five-year period to trace their development as writers.   In following 400 students through their college careers, she noted that their comments often indicated a greater involvement in the process of learning.  Students felt engaged with their academic courses. 

The Council of Writing Program Administrators passed WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (3.0) in 2014.  In this Statement, the WPA provides outcomes in the following areas:  rhetoric, processes, and knowledge of the writing conventions.  In addition to the outcomes for students, they also provide expectations for what faculty will provide to students to expand their opportunities to learn and also to expand their learning in a faculty member’s discipline.  These requirements for faculty are focused on facilitating student development of reading and writing skills by incorporating both reading and writing strategies into the first-year writing classes.  Lisa Bosley (2008) also explored the idea of teaching critical reading in composition classes.  Her contention is that “just as college students need to be introduced to college level academic writing, so they need to be introduced to college level, academic reading . . . .”  The instructors in her study used different terminology to describe critical reading, but she found that they still provided instruction in reading strategies to assist their students in acquiring the necessary skills to interact effectively with discipline-specific texts.

Ellen Carillo (2016) also discussed Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing In the Discipline (WID), explaining that in such programs the emphasis has been on writing but not on reading.  Carillo provides a snapshot of a process to help students move from reading to writing to research.  Carillo supports the recommendation of Alice Horning (2007) that students be taught reading “alongside” writing.  Carillo further notes the challenge for students in an environment where definitions of literacy expand because of technology.  She notes that with technology students can plagiarize using the “cut and paste” method.   Instruction, then, in both reading and writing must help prevent student use of this method and equip students in all disciplines to read closely and produce original texts enriched with source material.