Now class, let's get that down in writing

February 14, 2003

Is literacy in decline? Harriet Swain looks at efforts to improve student writing

It has become a common gripe among lecturers that students no longer know how to construct an academic argument in an essay, having arrived at university with a tenuous grasp of grammar, appalling spelling and an inability to read more than a few hundred words at a time.

Academics who have examined the issue closely do not entirely dispute this picture of today's student body. But they do say the situation is a lot more complicated.

Lisa Ganobcsik-Williams, lecturer and coordinator of expository writing at the University of Warwick, is one of the few people to carry out research in the area. She says students now face more reading and writing demands, which change over the course of a university career.

Eric Evans, co-convenor of the History at the Universities Defence Group, is among those who warn against nostalgia for a time when everyone knew the meaning of the future imperfect. "You can tell all sorts of horror stories about students not knowing how to use apostrophes - which they don't, incidentally - but I would say many are more adept at engaging in debate and dialogue verbally. And they remain educable."

To help students, universities have launched specialist writing courses, but many institutions are also taking a wider perspective and beginning to recognise the value of teaching effective reading and writing for the whole learning process.

It used to be up to personal tutors to identify and tackle literacy problems, but rising student-to-staff ratios and extra pressures on academics mean that most lack the time to do so. Instead, many universities now offer centralised - usually voluntary - courses in key skills that help students with essay construction, punctuation and spelling, the use of sources and oral presentations. These are delivered through workshops, one-to-one sessions, study sheets or online packages.

Anglia Polytechnic University offers one-to-one support with essay writing, spelling and grammar; study skills sessions on reading and writing; and worksheets, videos and confidential assessments of students' needs.

Wolverhampton University offers students, from first-years to PhDs, help that includes working through writer's block, brainstorming topics, proof-reading and citing sources. Students can be referred by tutors or refer themselves. Like some other universities, Wolverhampton also offers subject-specific support through schools or faculties.

In some institutions, there are moves to incorporate reading and writing skills directly into subject teaching. This is the aim of "Writing in the Disciplines", a project at Queen Mary, University of London, that emphasises writing as part of learning within a discipline, rather than something to be developed through separate study-skills courses. The project, which is directed at staff rather than at students, has launched a website - "thinking writing", part funded by the Learning and Teaching Support Network generic centre - that offers practical help and a theoretical framework for any lecturer interested in teaching in this way.

Sally Mitchell, project coordinator, says: "Students are thought to learn by sitting in seminars discussing things or taking notes. I'm trying to promote writing as a way of learning." For example, she encourages lecturers to stop in the middle of a discussion and ask students to write down the three things they have found most interesting from the discussion so far. Or she wants them to ask students to write reviews of texts, summaries or abstracts rather than always seeking standard essays from them.

Getting staff to rethink their teaching in this way is a slow process, she says. "They may think about their course in terms of delivery of content, whereas this means that, while the content is there, they also have to think about the processes they want students to go through, and it is quite a radical shift."

She stresses that the project is not about correcting poor reading and writing, but a way of enhancing learning for everyone. In fact, Mitchell argues, it stretches some of the most able students who sometimes coast through their university careers once they have cracked a good essay-writing formula.

Funded until the end of this year through the Higher Education Funding Council for England's teaching and learning quality enhancement fund, "Writing in the Disciplines" was inspired by similar programmes at Cornell and Harvard universities. Alan Evison, director of the project, says a head of department at Queen Mary, who had worked at Cornell, was surprised at how little UK universities did about writing compared with those in the US.

US writing programmes were also part of the inspiration behind the Warwick Writing Programme, which claims to be the largest, most comprehensive programme of its type in Europe. It was started on a small scale in 1995 with help from the Arts Council to encourage good reading and writing, develop expository skills and bridge academic and creative approaches to literature. It now runs 43 courses, which include an expository writing programme that is tailored to undergraduates in biology, computer science, engineering, physics and the Warwick Business School, and small-group tutorials in academic writing. All first-year students are expected to follow a course in the practice of writing. Visiting writers give weekly readings or talks open to all, and resident professional writers - who have included Jonathan Coe, Glyn Maxwell, A. L. Kennedy and Carole Angier - provide one-to-one help for students from any department.

David Morley, a poet and editor who directs the programme, hopes to set up the UK's first academic writing centre, of the type that already exists at Princeton and Harvard. There, students expect to be able to get help with writing in different formats 24 hours a day, and they have easy individual access to postgraduate students trained in teaching essay writing. Again, Morley stresses that the aim is not to help with basic English but "to make the difference between a good 2.1 and an excellent firstI not only to write a good PhD but an excellent PhD that is constructed so that it can be turned into a book more readily".

This is not to say that he dismisses concerns about student literacy. In fact, one aim of the programme was to find out from staff and students whether standards really were slipping. Ganobcsik-Williams, who conducted the research and is still analysing the findings, says that a staff questionnaire revealed that 83 per cent of respondents believed it was necessary to teach writing to university students, and 69 per cent felt there was some validity in media claims that students' proficiency in writing had declined.

But she stresses that the issue is not straightforward. One of the main findings was that students were expected to be adept at a huge number of different writing tasks - 64 to be precise - ranging from business plans to written material to support visual work, classroom notes to text for scientific posters. Another was that demands on student writing change significantly from the first year to the final ones. First-year students do, and are asked to do, much more descriptive writing, while final-year students are expected to do more analysis and tend to gain confidence in their writing and in their ability to evaluate source material critically.

Ganobcsik-Williams has set up an essay bank to assess disciplinary writing conventions. To test the assumption that student writing can be compared across decades, she is also studying student essays written for a particular course from 30 years ago to the present. One immediately noticeable difference between the earlier and later papers, she says, is presentation. Essays from the early 1970s are all handwritten. One downside of students' computers use, says Ganobcsik-Williams, is that their papers look professional and may therefore look finished when they really need more work.

But some factors affecting student literacy are more than superficial.

Evison acknowledges that widening participation has made some impact.

"Students often feel less well prepared; they haven't the family background or school preparation that would make it a seamless move from one type of writing to the type used at university."

Jackie Pieterick, coordinator of the creative and professional writing course at Wolverhampton, suggests that the A-level system no longer prepares students for writing in the university system in the way it once did. "A levels have changed in the past ten years, and the kind of writing they are producing is much more journalistic," she says. "The extended article isn't something they have done much." She says one or two-sentence paragraphs, bullet points and soundbite writing have become more common as the emphasis is now on making enough points to achieve a grade rather than on developing a critical intellectual argument. The rising number of international students also means that staff must deal with work from people writing in a second language and from cultures where writing conventions may differ.

Students are now used to a culture that is predominantly visual. Bill Bell, director of the Centre for the History of the Book, says that books these days are often linked to other types of media, with television tie-ins dominating bestseller lists.

Michael Kelly, director of the Learning and Teaching Support Network subject centre for languages, linguistics and area studies, says modern-language teachers recognise that it will be difficult to get students to read long books and employ different approaches, such as using shorter extracts and texts but studying them in more detail. "There is now a large amount of other media through which students get their information," he says. "If students are used to getting material in screenfuls, that gives them different reading strategies from sitting down and homing in on a long book." He says students now seem to read less for pleasure because they have so many other things competing for their time.

Pieterick warns against too much pessimism, however. Technology has reintroduced writing as an important way of communicating, she says. Emails and websites mean students constantly read to gain information, and they can spend huge amounts of time texting one another. "I think it's wonderful that they are spending more time writing to each other," she says. "They just sometimes need help shifting codes between different kinds of writing."

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