115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Developing Writers: What We Don't See in Classrooms

Anne Ruggles Gere, University of Michigan

In the day-to-day life of the classroom the development of student writers remains largely invisible. We can see the occasional growth spurt across a semester, but we cannot see patterns of development. A longitudinal study of student writers that extends from the first year to graduation makes writerly development visible.


One of the assumptions on which college writing courses stand is that students develop as writers as they move through their undergraduate experiences, that graduating seniors write better—or at least differently—then first-year students.  However, it is very difficult to specify actual changes in student writing, particularly when we are asked to justify or defend writing instruction that extends across multiple years.   It is not something we can see in the space of the classroom.  As individual instructors we can sometimes see how a student develops greater fluency or learns to use a particular genre more effectively, but the ways student writers develop across courses and years remains largely invisible.  In a time when higher education is under attack, and the value of a college education is regularly questioned, the ability to describe students’ gains as writers becomes especially important.


This paper will discuss a longitudinal study of over 150 student writers, considering what can be seen via surveys, interviews, electronic portfolios, and archives of writing from the first year through graduation.  It shows how using methods including statistical analysis of survey results, grounded coding of interviews with student writers as they enter and leave higher education, case studies of individual writers, and corpus linguistics to examine specific features of language employed by many students makes many aspects of writing development visible.  Although there is no one clear and direct developmental path followed by all student writers, it is possible to point to specific ways that writing in multiple college contexts leads students to develop as writers.


Among the findings discussed in this paper are student writers’ development  and deployment of capacity for audience awareness; their growing strategies for calling upon the social dimensions of writing; their deepening understanding and use of multiple genres; their deployment of linguistic structures that shift from relatively un-nuanced to more sophisticated and appropriate to various rhetorical contexts; and their increasing capacity to reflect upon and assess their own abilities as writers.  The paper concludes with an explanation of ways instructors and curricular modifications can enhance students’ development as writers.