Teaching Remedial Writing (Hint: Mend it, Don’t End It)

November 26, 2013 | Blog

Since I’m in the midst of a sabbatical, for the upcoming months my blog will feature writing by talented colleagues and friendsThe first of these is Mike Rose of UCLA. This post is a reprise of a July 8, 2008 piece that holds a great deal of relevance today, as remedial education–and the students who participate in it–remain under fire.

Kevin had a story similar to a lot of young men from my old neighborhood in South-Central L.A. He was a good student in poor schools, schools with old textbooks, scarce resources for enrichment, high teacher turnover. And like more than a few young men from such neighborhoods, he was seduced by street life, got into trouble, and spent most of his 16th year in a juvenile camp.

Upon release, he went back to school, worked hard, graduated, did miserably on the SAT, and went to college through a special admissions program.

I had helped develop the writing component for that program, and I taught in it. Kevin’s first piece of college writing – the placement exam – was peppered with grammatical errors, and the writing was disorganized and vague. This is the kind of writing we see in media accounts of remedial students, and it is the kind of writing that academics and politicians alike cite as an example of how higher education is being compromised. And such writing is troubling. If Kevin’s writing remained like this, he would probably not make it through college.

The traditional remedial writing course would begin with simple writing assignments and include a fair amount of workbook exercises, mostly focused on grammar and usage. The readings used for such a course would also be fairly basic, both in style and content. Though they might not be articulated, there are powerful – and limiting – assumptions about language, learning, and cognition that drive such a curriculum: that students like Kevin need to go back to linguistic square one, building skill slowly through the elements of grammar; that simpler reading and writing assignments won’t overly tax Kevin’s limited ability and will allow a concentration on correcting linguistic error; that complex, demanding work and big ideas – college work – should be put on hold until Kevin displays mastery of the basics.

No wonder remediation gets such a bad rap.

The program we developed for students like Kevin held to a different set of assumptions, assumptions we had developed from reading current research on language and cognition and from our own experience in the classroom. We certainly acknowledged the trouble Kevin was in and wanted to help him improve his writing on all levels, grammar to organization to style. But we didn’t believe we needed to carve up language into small workbook bits and slowly, slowly build his skill. And in Kevin’s case, we were right. By the end of the twenty-week program, Kevin was writing competent papers explicating poems by Gary Soto and Jim Daniels, comparing the approaches to reading presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, and analyzing the decision making in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Let me explain a bit more about the remedial writing curriculum we fashioned, and then use it to make a broader point about the possibilities of remediation.

My co-workers and I began by surveying a range of lower-division courses to get a sense of the typical kinds of reading and writing assignments faced by students like Kevin in that critical first year. We then found readings from a variety of disciplines that were similar to those in our survey and created writing assignments that helped students develop the skills to write about them. Then we sequenced the assignments from less to more difficult and also so that they were cumulative: what a student learned to do in the first week fed into an assignment on the fifth. So, for example, several early assignments Kevin faced required him to read a passage on the history of Eugenics and write a definition of it and to read a passage with diagrams about income distribution in the U.S. and summarize it. This practice in defining and summarizing would later come into play when Kevin had to systematically compare the descriptions of becoming literate in the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography.

To assist students with assignments like these, we organized instruction so that there was lots of discussion of the readings and a good deal of in-class writing where students could try out ideas and get feedback on their work as it developed.

And because many of our students, like Kevin, did display in their writing all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we did spend a good deal of time on error – in class, in conference, on comments on their papers – but in the context of their academic writing. This is a huge point and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: that writing filled with grammatical error does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material.

Certainly not all students did as well as Kevin, but many did. Those who want to purge college of remedial courses would say that Kevin doesn’t belong. He proved them wrong. And those holding to a traditional remedial model would be fearful that the tasks we assigned would be too difficult, would discourage Kevin. He proved them wrong as well.

Since we mounted those programs, some studies have emerged that confirm the approach we took. Successful remedial programs set high standards; are focused on inquiry and problem solving in a substantial curriculum; utilize a pedagogy that is supportive and interactive; draw on a variety of techniques and approaches; and are in-line with student goals and provide credit for coursework.

Educational researchers Michael Cole, Peg Griffin, Kris Gutierrez, and others have a nice way of talking about successful remediation. They refer to re-mediation – that is, changing the environment and the means through which students are taught the material they had not mastered before. A complaint often leveled at remediation by legislators is that they are “paying twice” for instruction in material that should have been learned earlier. Fair enough, but when remediation, re-mediation, is done well, the material in a sense is encountered anew, in a new context, with new curriculum and new pedagogy. For some students this makes all the difference in the world.

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