Writing Across Berkeley

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On High School Literacy Instruction

December 31, 2017

Based on my own experience, research, and analysis, I have come to realize that many entering freshmen are at a disadvantage because of the composition instruction they received in high school.

Although there are courses such as “literacy and language development” that pre-service high school instructors are required to take, most credential programs do not offer, let alone require, a “How to Teach Writing” course.

Because of lack of training, many high school teachers rely on very prescriptive and formulaic models of writing when teaching essay writing, despite efforts, such as the implementation of Common Core Standards for essay writing, to dissuade teachers from teaching this way.

The problem with this type of instruction is that it results in students developing misconceptions of what writing is and what writers do. And these misconceptions result in many students choosing writing behaviors and composing strategies that lead to the kinds of features that place students in a pre-transfer level class at the community colleges or in a developmental course at the University of California. For example, they choose what Bereiter and Scardamalia in the 80’s called a Knowledge-Telling strategy in which students allow the prompt to help them generate content and then they use the content to generate more content, so that their writing process is forward looking, concerned only with what they will say next instead of using a more recursive process that results in a coherent, unified whole. Moreover, these students focus on random, individual “rules,” which they apply, but then also frequently misapply, by rote, instead of engaging with their text on the level of meaning.

This type of  instruction inadvertently

1. causes students to focus on isolated chunks of language or ideas instead of creating an integrated, unified whole, a behavior which leads to coherence violations, the lack of connections between ideas, and the use of association rather than logical reasoning to develop ideas.  

2. causes students to focus on the literal level of a text instead of the interpretive level, resulting in the production of low order claims whose support consists of “telling” rather than encouraging higher order claims, whose support depends on reasoning and an enhanced understanding of text rather than merely reporting it.

3. and causes students to focus on formulaic instead of strategic approaches to writing. This results in their not seeing the need to monitor and evaluate their writing as they compose, or address content and rhetorical concerns, making strategic decisions and intentional choices as they write and revise.

As we all know, writing is, among other things, a problem-solving activity requiring complex cognitive skills, which, I contend, many students did not get opportunities to develop because of the formulaic nature of their high school instruction.

Students who are not prepared for freshmen English do not have low skills that need to be remediated, but rather need to develop a new and more sophisticated conceptual understanding of college level writing, learn how to choose appropriate writing behaviors, and learn how to engage in appropriate cognitive processes, all of which are developmental in nature and require time and scaffolding.

One huge problem with pre-transfer level courses is that, depending on the college and its programs, there might be several semesters of pre-transfer levels where students languish for a lot longer than they really need to. But even if it turns out that they are placed in a pre-transfer level class at the community college or a developmental class at the University of California for only one semester, that class must be structured in a way that provides a developmental scaffold, helping students construct a more useful concept of college writing, which will lead them to develop more appropriate writing behaviors and composing strategies, and to develop, and then engage in, the type of cognitive processes that are necessary to produce good analytic writing. This can be accomplished within one semester, but without this scaffold, students who need this type of pedagogy, will not succeed in subsequent first year composition classes.


Loretta Kane received her doctorate from the Language, Literacy and Culture program in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley. She teaches composition at Berkeley City College, has trained high school teachers pre-service and in-service, and was a respected colleague in the College Writing Programs.