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Not all freshmen are ready for college writing

Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 12:08

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Meredith Klein/Tufts Daily

Professors are finding that incoming freshman are not as prepared to write as their high school teachers thought they were.

The easy "A" your Advanced Placement (AP) English teacher promised you'd get in college writing classes may not pan out as expected.

While honors and AP English programs aim to give high-achieving high school students the preparation they need to write at the college level, university professors are finding that incoming freshmen are not as ready as they should be.

According to a study conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, there exists a "perception gap" between high school teachers' and college professors' assessments of their students' writing skills. The study found that six percent of professors at the college level view their students as very well prepared writers, compared with 36 percent of high school teachers.

The Chronicle's study also revealed that 44 percent of university faculty members say their students are not ready for college-level writing.

In many cases, authorities are pointing fingers towards the nation's high schools, which may not be providing students with a strong enough writing-based curriculum. The National Commission on Writing collaborated with the College Board in 2004 to release a study regarding secondary schools' lack of emphasis on the need for refined writing skills.

According to the study, the American classroom is not devoting enough time to writing skills.

Dave Valdes-Greenwood, an English lecturer and first-year writing teacher at Tufts, said that even AP English courses can leave students' writing skills lacking. Valdes-Greenwood explained that AP writing, though advanced, is still not on the same level as college writing.

"Honestly, the AP students I have had tend to have a greater wealth of references and past models to work from, but many of them still find the adjustment to college writing [to be] hard," Valdes-Greenwood told the Daily in an e-mail.

Even the incoming freshman who've taken such AP courses have difficulty distinguishing between the levels of writing required for high school and those required for college, according to Valdes-Greenwod. "What often trips up an AP student is discovering that good high school writing is still high school writing - I can't tell you the number of students I've had who never got less than an A before their first paper in my class," he said.

Because of the varying educational settings to which incoming freshman have been exposed, writers at Tufts vary in their levels of preparation.

"I have had students tell me they never wrote more than two pages in high school and other students tell me they wrote more per semester than in college," Valdes-Greenwood said. "The main difference is that much high school writing is very unadorned - thesis, a body, a conclusion - while better college writing involves more style and sophistication."

In some cases, students have attended a high school that focused on the need for such style and sophistication in their prose, putting them at a distinct advantage over their peers in first-year writing courses.

Sophomore Andrew Clark, who took AP English at his high school, said the difference can be in whether or not a high school is private or public.

"I've definitely noticed a disparity among certain students' writing capabilities," Clark said. "My roommate went to a private high school that seemed to really focus on teaching basic writing skills, so he seems to have a lot easier time with that sort of thing than a lot of other kids I know."

Locally, public as well as private high schools are trying to help their students develop strong writing skills. Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS), Cambridge's only public high school, recently introduced a program for 11th- and 12th-grade students that focuses on the need to prepare students to write college papers.

According to CRLS's English Language Arts Coordinator Lawrence Blondin, the English elective course entitled "College Writing" was introduced this year to students as an honors-level course focusing on expository research and creative writing. The writing level is thought to be comparable to that expected in a university setting.

"We felt that we needed to focus on the concept of 'college writing' for our 11th and 12th grade students," Blondin said. "The idea came out of a discussion that we've been having for a couple of years here. We accessed a lot of college syllabi in order to put together a course that will cater to the needs of future college students."

Thus far, with approximately 100 students enrolled in the elective, it appears that students at CRLS are displaying a genuine desire to attain the kinds of writing skills that colleges will expect of them.

"There is definitely student interest in the course, it's been really successful so far," Blondin said. "We are hoping to expand our College Writing course next year - we hope to ultimately offer the course to our ninth and tenth grade students as well."

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