Forty percent of college students in the United States attend one of the country’s more than eleven hundred community colleges. About half of these students will find themselves in at least one developmental writing course. Even those who place into a standard writing course may well lack the skills needed to complete it. In my writing classes, a student will say, “I’m a bad writer,” never having learned that drafting, revising, and getting input before revising again are what all writers do. Students are often convinced that they lack whatever allows “real” writers to get it right the first time. (I felt the same way about calculus when I was a first-year college student.)

Teaching these students requires much individual attention, instruction tailored to each student’s needs, flexible deadlines, and scaffolding of assignments. Some students will not succeed. But the ones who do surprise themselves. I’ve found that scaffolding assignments—creating a structure of smaller tasks before and after the first draft—is most effective. Below I offer suggestions for how to create a scaffold for your students.

Begin with a Short Task

Have students begin a writing task—like an autobiography or observation essay, or something more specific, like a restaurant or video game review—by looking at  various examples. The first short scaffolding task might be to write a paragraph about which examples the students preferred, what one technique an author used that they would like to try, and what one choice a writer made that they would never do, then—for all these points—explain why. Students might pick the opening or concluding paragraph, a detail, or even debate the number of sentences that belong in a paragraph. Sometimes the paragraphs are presented in class or discussed in groups and then one chosen to share.

Introduce a Planning Tool

Next, introduce a planning tool, where the students note their topics, their possible main points or examples, and their audience, and then have the students explain why they chose the particular topics and examples. After a class or group discussion, this tool can become the basis for a draft, presented to the class or discussed in groups. Discussing the draft allows students to test their assumptions against an audience, see what questions arise, discover what they have left out or overemphasized, and learn whether the topic appeals at all.

Conduct One-on-One Meetings and Encourage Revision

Try to have a day or two to meet individually with students in class for a few minutes as they are working to see where they are and suggest options for structure or details. After they have written at least one more draft, have the students complete their assignments and hand them in. Although there might be deadlines and length requirements (just as there are in the professional writing world), you can encourage students to revise and expand individual assignments after submission if they are not happy with the results.

Focus on Development

Help students get past the idea that writing must be right the first time. They may then become open to different ways of organizing, gain new insights, and consider additional details that the audience might need to know. Even their grammar may improve. But these changes take time. I suggest to my students that all writers are developmental writers—that we all learn, change, and adapt as we read, write, and live. I also suggest to them that writing is like a sport, that it requires practice, coaching, and time, and that my role is more akin to coach and umpire than teacher.

Use Portfolios for Reflection

At the end of the course, have students complete portfolios and reflect on their work. This last task allows them to decide if they have developed a writing process that they can use in other courses and elsewhere. These reflective essays may be the best writing they do during the semester. Most of my students write that they feel more comfortable (or at least less uncomfortable) taking on a wide variety of rhetorical situations. Many agree that writing is not a solitary activity—that it requires getting advice and attempting multiple drafts in response to that advice—and that developing a process that works for them is vital. A few will push back, arguing that the academic world values high-stakes, structured writing tasks—tasks that focus on the end result rather than the process—in a narrow time period. I think this is true and wish that more instructors outside composition courses would help students develop their writing and not leave that task for writing instructors  alone.

Students usually leave the course with a new sense of empowerment, confident in their ability to succeed. Few call themselves “bad writers.” The scaffolding comes down, but the building remains.

Photo of Mike Burke

Mike Burke

Mike Burke, associate professor of English at St. Louis Community College, Meramec, has taught English at community colleges part-time since 2002 and full-time since 2007. He has also taught at the United States Military Academy and Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. He is on the executive committee of the MLA forum on community colleges.