Community College Students at the Center: Supporting the Uptake of Academic Discourse in the First-Year Composition Classroom
Jane S. Nazzal
In his seminal essay “Inventing the University,” composition studies scholar David Bartholomae discusses the difficulty experienced by basic writing students in a university setting: they are “shut out from one of the privileged languages of public life, a language they are aware of but cannot control” because of their inability to “appropriate…a specialized discourse” (4,5). This assessment rings true even more so for almost half of the nation’s undergraduates who enroll in community colleges across the country; these students are still further removed or “shut out” from the type of privileged discourse discussed by Bartholomae. Unvetted by the admission requirements of many four-year institutions, they may lack not just an ability to control this specialized discourse, but even an awareness of its existence.
Although many have the goal of transferring to a university, community college students are physically detached from the university space and are not yet immersed in the institutions wherein the “privileged language of public life” is centered. Many of them are situated even farther in the outskirts within two-year institutions when they are considered underprepared for college-level coursework by various placement measures and are placed within a sequence of basic skills writing courses. At some institutions, these sequences can be up to four courses long, and those who are placed in the lower-level courses can spend at least a year taking pre-college level coursework before they reach the transfer-level composition course. Further, some studies show that many students who enroll in these courses do not persist to transfer-level work (Barnett and Reddy; Bailey and Jaggars; Mejia et al.).
Since the first-year composition course is often required as a prerequisite for courses in other disciplines and is also needed for attainment of the associate degree and transfer to a university, these students are essentially blocked from forward movement at the college and ultimately, from meeting their overall educational goals. They attend what is known as a two-year institution, but after five and six years, many have still not achieved their goals of attainment of the associate degree or transfer to a university. Additionally, these students disproportionately represent groups that have historically been most disadvantaged in higher education—those from low-income backgrounds, first generation college students, students with disabilities, and African American and Hispanic undergraduates.
Recent widespread reform in community colleges across the nation intended to expedite students’ attainment of degrees, transfer and certificates has resulted in far more students having unrestricted access to the first year, transfer-level composition courses. The aim of starting almost all students in this course has resulted in movement toward the elimination of both the basic skills course sequences that precede the college level course as well as the placement tests that determine students’ starting point. Although this change allows students direct access to the college level composition course, it has caused apprehension and concern among faculty and stakeholders.
Despite the ongoing debate in the field of composition studies about what it means to be college ready, scholars have identified the integration of reading comprehension and writing skills as a holistic practice that is indicative of college-level literacy (Perin; Sullivan & Tinberg). There is concern that for those who may not have been prepared by their previous experiences to take on such practice, the reform “will not magically make such students prepared for college level work” (Hassel & Giordano 77), that it is “likely to lead to lower standards as teachers are forced to alter their instructional methods and course content in order to deal with a wide range of student skills” (Saxon & Morante 24), and that it can “send a strong message to students that they do not belong—not just in the class, but also in college” (Nazzal et al.). In the face of extensive institutional change and such challenges in community colleges nationwide, I will discuss in this chapter how I place students and the writing they produce at the core of my instructional decision-making to effectively facilitate the appropriation of academic discourse in a first-year community college composition course.
In our multicultural and economically stratified society, knowledge of standard English is closely tethered to social capital and is often regarded as an indicator of social class, parental influence, and even academic potential. Further, it is not only the language of academic and political power in this country—it is a worldwide code of power since it is primarily the language used internationally as a common form of discourse. The code is even more specialized in the academy, where it is used among academics as a distinctive register for responding to the ideas of others, presenting new ideas, and engaging in discussion. It is also useful for civic engagement. For these reasons, I believe it is imperative that students learn the code.
However, the “appropriation,” or acquisition of academic discourse does not need to take place at the expense of the cultural and linguistic capital that students already possess. My experiences as a child of immigrants and as a first-generation college student have provided a lens through which I view my students and classroom practices. In order to avoid a similar exchange of what seems like one language form for another among my students, I try to facilitate learning in ways that uphold and validate students’ cultural and linguistic assets while helping them acquire academic Standard English—and to help them see academic discourse for what it is—an additional language code used for specific purposes rather than a more valuable form of communication that is to replace the codes they use in other contexts.
I explain to students the importance of using different language forms for various social contexts and describe language as a code of communication, emphasizing the importance of being able to switch codes in different situations and contexts. This affirms the value of the language students already have, demonstrating that the use of academic English may not be appropriate for certain situations such as casual visits with friends, and conversely, the use of non-standard language is also not ideal for certain social contexts such as a job interview or in academic writing. Students understand the value of learning standard English and are largely convinced of the benefits thereof and of the real consequences that can result when not learning this code—without devaluing their home languages and cultures.
Bartholomae describes the “difficult, and often violent accommodations that occur when students locate themselves in a discourse that is not 'naturally' or immediately theirs” (7). Although learning a new type of discourse is challenging, I believe this experience can be had more softly. I set forth to accomplish the balance of upholding the language students possess and facilitating the uptake of the additional language code of academic discourse by brining student writing to the center of activity and instruction in the course. I do this by using the writing that students produce to engage them in the language arts—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—and using those texts as the source for generating targeted instruction that directly addresses student needs.
Reading and Writing Groups
Academic writing has been thought of and described as a ‘conversation’ that takes place by drawing upon the works of others and responding to that work (Graff and Birkenstein). Through engaging with their classmates in reading and writing groups, students gain a better understanding of this discourse. In conversation with others, they seek to understand the course texts and to develop their own views in response to those texts as they generate multiple revisions of their written drafts that integrate various perspectives. In the groups, students listen to the ideas of others and provide feedback, share their own work and respond to the comments of their classmates, and revise their thinking and writing as a result of the experience. This activity is held throughout the semester in four units of study that each culminate in a 4-6 page essay. It helps to utilize and to build upon students’ existing knowledge of language and to further develop students’ acquisition of academic discourse by providing them with language and idea development opportunities that are un-intimidating and that allow them to feel safe as they communicate with their classmates in a meaningful context. These conditions are vital for aiding the acquisition of a new language form, especially for students who are adult learners of English.
Without the ability to read and understand challenging course texts, students will likely resort to the survival skill that is often employed by students who are considered underprepared—writing from personal experience and narrative even when assignments ask to focus primarily on course readings (Hassel and Giordano). Reading proficiency is critical to the production of academic writing that calls for thoughtful integration of complex texts (Nazzal et al.). Because the rhetorical strategies expected in college writing are largely unfamiliar to students in community colleges (Hassel and Giordano), support and scaffolding of reading is crucial to the appropriation of academic discourse.
In reading groups, students are immersed in conversation with each other about the assigned course texts and their responses to them. Their annotations of the texts serve as visual representations of their interactions with the text writers. When these are shared, students have a chance to compare their interactions with those of other students. This allows for less proficient readers to be able to contribute to the group and to engage with the course material while learning from those who are more proficient. When sharing summaries of the readings, students quickly realize that their interpretations present a unique view. By listening to the summaries of others, they are challenged to think of the material in different ways and notice gaps of important information in their own summaries. Additionally, when students classify the perspectives of the various text writers in relation to the topic at hand and share those arrangements, they naturally find the need to defend their interpretive choices and to question the choices of others. This conversation, although it is entirely verbal, mirrors the type of academic conversations they will engage in through writing.
In writing groups, students participate further in verbal exchange that allows them to be immersed in language learning as they: communicate the ideas in their drafts to a live audience, even if they had trouble writing them; gain exposure to the ideas of others in answer to the same prompt question, which can help with idea generation and language development; and recognize gaps in their work such as issues with logic, flow, and transitions and providing sufficient detail. In these groups, they are focused on clear communication of ideas rather than on written intricacies such as form and grammar, which can help to ease the apprehension that is faced by those who have writing struggles. They gain constant exposure to other students’ texts as models for their own writing, by which they learn both what and what not to do. Because students write for a real audience, they learn to “imagine the needs and goals of the reader” and to “accommodate their motives to their readers' expectations” (Bartholomae 9, 10). Through this rich engagement in language that situates their work in a meaningful context for a genuine audience, students’ knowledge and understanding of academic discourse is strengthened.
Students revise their papers after each writing group interaction. When they have revised their original written response to the essay prompt at least three times, I read and comment on student papers without grading them. By this time, the drafts I read are far more solid than they would have been otherwise, but often, they still need work. I focus my comments on global issues such as purpose, organization, analysis, and evidence rather than local, sentence-level issues such as diction, grammar, and correctness. I press students’ thinking with questions, asking for more detail and further explanation and I try to point out what they are doing well. When these papers are returned, students revise their work based on my comments to yet another draft.
Targeted Explicit Instruction
As I read through the papers for each class, I, as Bartholomae puts it, “examine the essays. . . to determine more clearly where the problems lie” (12). I note common patterns of local issues that appear repeatedly in student papers that I can address with the whole group by providing explicit instruction. For example, when I notice that several of my students are using the words their and there as well as to, too and two interchangeably in their writing, I provide clarification of these homonyms through instruction. I include a lesson on contractions when there is a reoccurring use of “could of” or “should of” in the place of the contractions could’ve and should’ve that actually come from the two words could have and should have. This then can lead to a discussion about the use of contractions at all in formal writing and how to know when it is appropriate to use them.
Because many of my students are second language learners of standard English, I also provide explicit instruction in phonics, grammar, and vocabulary development. This includes addressing moves they make in their writing that, on the surface, seem to be instances of negligence, but by looking closer, are actually not. For example, in Spanish, the letter ‘i’ makes the long /e/ sound. Therefore, my Spanish-speaking students tend to associate the English letter ‘i’ with a long /e/ sound and can write “I diliver” which they pronounce “I deeleever.” Some of my African American students have trouble hearing the difference between the short vowel /i/ sound, as in the word pin and the short vowel /e/ sound, as in pen. In fact, the two words are homophones according to their home language. When students learn to isolate and recognize distinct phonemes of their home languages that differ from those of standard English, they are equipped to make informed choices moving forward.
I have also seen the need for students to learn differences between the grammar structure of their home language and standard English. For example, it is not uncommon to hear my Spanish-speaking students say or write something like, “In the weekend, I went to church.” This is because they are placing English words onto Spanish grammar. In Spanish, one would say “En el fin de semana, fuí a la íglesia,” which literally translates to “At the end of the week, I went to church.” The difficulty lies in that the single Spanish word en can be translated to any of the three English prepositions in, at, or on. There is not a rule that students can follow to ensure that they make the correct choice—only an increased familiarity with how these words are used in an English context will help them to know which one to use. Unless there is an understanding by faculty that these decisions which lead to “mistakes” are made because of what students do know instead of what they do not know, they can be understood as deficits.
The instruction I provide in this way is group-specific—I keep separate notes for each course section of students I teach. Students typically have an immediate and strong connection to the teaching because it relates to their own work and they know it comes from observations of writing issues that were common among their classmates. By strategically choosing when and when not to correct students’ work, and addressing and validating the language forms that students bring with them, I can know that I am meeting individual needs in an innocuous way while maintaining the security of the classroom as a safe learning place.
Another approach I have to providing targeted, explicit instruction to directly meet student needs is by using student-generated sentences and paragraphs from their writing as samples in whole group discussions to demonstrate writing moves such as: effective use and integration of quotes, proper in-text citations, and the use of ample and relevant evidence to support a point. While reading student writing, I identify and collect several sentences and paragraphs that can be used to address a variety of strengths and weaknesses in a whole group setting. With students’ consent, their work becomes the center of our analysis and classroom discussion. Because the writer is present, they can be questioned about their intentions and goals for the writing as we seek to revise the work, and even for how they would handle and phrase any additions or changes. Students are generally willing to share their work in exchange for specific feedback from the class about how to improve it. In this way, I can provide instruction that is aimed to specifically address students' needs and that engages them in thoughtful discussion around the many decisions that a writer needs to make to achieve written clarity. The instruction is then practiced using the student’s own papers, and at times (when students are comfortable enough to do so), by exchanging papers with others. Through this practice, students can, as Bartholomae states, begin to “mimic” and even “crudely” adopt the “distinctive register of academic discourse,” using a new language code in a non-threatening communicative context (7).
In one of the course units, students formulate their own theses on the topic of human intelligence and how it relates to schooling and work. The following is an unaltered excerpt from a students’ third draft of writing on the topic. The student, an adult learner of English whose home language is Taiwanese Mandarin, a dialect of Chinese, writes:
1 Besides schooling, personal interest is another significant factor
2 of one’s intellectual development. It decides where our specific
3 intelligence aims at, what major we choose to take at college, and
4 what type of work field we will likely be in in the future. When we
5 are interested in a subject, we spontaneously want to explore that area.
6 Just as Polin mentioned, you just can’t stop them from reading for
7 some kids. In the book They say I say, Gerald Graff, the 2008
8 President of the Modern Language Association of America, also
9 emphasizes the importance of personal interest. He proposes that
10 letting student choose their personal interest as a topic and look at it
11 in an academic way promotes learning outcome. (254) This is
12 especially true when their personal interest is mostly related to what
13 they will likely be doing do as their job in the future, and ordinary
14 school subjects are plain and boring and may not cover what students
15 really need in the future. When combining person interest with
16 schooling, students can be self-motivated to learn and acquire
17 specific knowledge of their interested fields, which means both
18 general intelligence and specific intelligence develop simultaneously
19 with even less stress on students. (Duan)
A single paragraph such as this presents a plethora of points for discussion and instruction. I begin by asking the writer of the text to read it out loud to the class while the rest of the students follow along. I then ask students if they notice anything that is done well or that can be improved. Often, the writers themselves, given a broader audience than they had in the groups in addition to having the opportunity for another, more distanced look at their work, will want to make some changes before we even begin.
In facilitating the discussion, I attempt to keep the writers' strengths in balance and at the forefront of our conversation. The writers' classmates do well in pointing out some of these strengths as well as drawing attention to issues to be addressed and even providing suggestions for how to solve them. This helps to acknowledge, draw upon, and solidify students’ strengths, allowing them to view themselves as competent and knowledgeable participants as they make meaningful contributions. I let myself be prompted and led by students’ responses to the work in the feedback I provide, but I am also prepared with specific issues to address. In the above paragraph, some of the strengths I would point out are:
- the overall strong focus of the paragraph, clearly about personal interest and its role in intellectual development. (1-19)
- the attempt at integrating the work of another writer (7-9)
- the successful summary and paraphrasing of another writer’s work (9-11)
- the use of specific verbs to communicate the ideas/actions of a writer (‘emphasizes,' 'proposes,' 9)
- the commentary provided that builds upon that work (11-15)
- the attempt at in-text citation (11)
Some issues I would want to address and provide instruction around are:
- the use of prepositions (“of,” 2) (the two uses of “at,” 3) (double “in,” 4)
- the order of phrasing in a sentence (“for some kids” to be moved earlier in the sentence 6-7)
- making reference to a text (7-8)
- capitalization of titles
- how to cite an article that appears in a larger text (in this case, the article “Hidden Intellectualism” should have been cited in-text rather than the larger work in which it is published)
- introduction of the writer as a credible and relevant source (in this case, stating the title of Gerald Graff as President of the Modern Language Association of America sounds more like a CV item rather than one that would lend credibility to the information at hand. Maybe ‘professor’ or ‘author’ would be more effective)
- possible missing words (before “learning outcome,” 11)
- how to handle in-text citations in MLA (11)
- where to place a period at the end of a sentence that employs in-text citations.
- when to use page numbers
- eliminating unnecessary words/typos (13)
- omitted word endings (‘s’ in student, 10/‘ing’ in look, 10/‘al’ in personal, 15)
This whole group activity, centered on the writing that students produce, effectively demonstrates the complexity of composing and illustrates the multitude of decisions that are involved in producing clear writing. Further, it provides an opportunity for writers to explain the decisions they make, which helps us to discover the thinking behind those decisions and fosters understanding of the linguistic challenges that writing presents. This sometimes results in the realization that what seems to be a mistake in writing is actually good reasoning at play in attempt to negotiate the knowledge of multiple languages or language forms. This approach, which draws upon student writing as the source for instruction, can lead to very different (and deeper, more interconnected) discussions about writing than would instruction that I might prepare based on what I think students need. With the overall goal of improving the work, it can take an entire class period to address a single paragraph such as this one, but students can leave with an understanding that writing is truly an art form (hence the term, ‘the language arts’) and the writer, an artist who has the final say about their work.
Finally, before turning in their final drafts to be graded as a demonstration of what they have learned, students read through each other’s papers, providing comments based on the cumulation of instruction they have received in class, the learning they’ve experienced in groups, and from the assigned readings as model texts. Their learning is further extended by exposure to multiple papers that are written to the same prompt, which allows them to improve their essay before submitting a final draft.
The use of student writings as a teaching focus can be especially helpful for first-year composition students in community colleges. As students spend time in class hearing and reading the work of others—analyzing, discussing, and making valuable contributions—their interest and motivation heightens, and they can begin to “imagine for themselves the privilege of being ‘insiders’…and of being granted a special right to speak” (Bartholomae 7). Through a sequence of activities that model effective language using relevant and concrete examples that provide opportunities for students to apply instruction to their own work, “successive approximations” of the targeted discourse can be achieved (11). Further, by involving students in this type of activity in a way that validates their existing linguistic strengths, students’ work and voices can be brought in from the margins to the center of the classroom as they appropriate a new, specialized discourse.
For many undergraduates in community colleges, whether or not they are able to adopt the specialized discourse of the university can mean the difference between upward social mobility or the propagation of low-income status for themselves and their families. The advanced literacy skills and critical thinking required by this type of “privileged language of public life” (Bartholomae 9) can equip them to succeed in college and to participate in engaged and informed citizenry and can provide a means for their voices to be heard in both public and academic spheres. Students are capable, but are inexperienced. Classrooms ought to be places where students can take risks that are necessary for the uptake of academic discourse to take place. They can feel safe and validated when they and the cultural and linguistic strengths they have are valued, utilized, and built upon as they learn to adopt another form of discourse. The exposure and practice they receive in first year composition courses are just a start as they continue to develop experience with academic writing and take on the discourse in other disciplines.
Bailey, Thomas, and Shanna Smith Jaggars. “When College Students Start Behind.” The Century Foundation, 2 June 2016, tcf.org/content/report/college-students-start-behind.
Barnett, Elisabeth A., and Vikash Reddy. “College Placement Strategies: Evolving Considerations and Practices.” Working paper, Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR), 2017.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Composition in Four Keys: Inquiring into the Field, edited by Mark Wiley, Barbara Gleason and Louise Weatherbee Phelps, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1996, pp.460-79.
Birkenstein, Cathy, and Gerald Graff. They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. 4th ed., WW Norton, 2018.
Duan, Shaochen. “Two Types of Intelligence.” May 2021.
Hassel Holly and Giordano, Joanna B. “The Blurry Borders of College Writing: Remediation and the Assessment of Student Readiness.” College English, vol. 78, no. 1, Sept. 2015, pp. 56-80.
Mejia, Marisol C., et al. “Preparing for Success in California’s Community Colleges.” Public Policy Institute of California, 2016.
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Perin, Dolores. “Literacy Skills Among Academically Underprepared Students.” Community College Review, vol. 41, no. 2, Apr. 2013, pp. 118-36.
Saxon, Patrick D., and Morante, Edward A., Effective Student Assessment and Placement: Challenges and Recommendations. Journal of Developmental Education, vol. 37, no.3, spring 2014, pp.24-30
Sullivan, Patrick, and Howard Tinberg, editors. What is "College-Level" Writing? National Council of Teachers of English, 2006, wac.colostate.edu/books/ncte/collegelevel.