About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Teaching Remedial Writing

The discussion of underprepared college students over the last few posts leads me to one more entry. This is on teaching remedial writing. I suggested last month that there were a lot of other ways Professor X in that Atlantic Monthly article could have achieved his educational goals. Here is one approach – and I’ll begin it with a student profile different in kind from the ones Professor X presents.

Kevin had a story similar to a lot of young men from my old neighborhood in South-Central L.A. He was a good student in poor schools, schools with old textbooks, scarce resources for enrichment, high teacher turnover. And like more than a few young men from such neighborhoods, he was seduced by street life, got into trouble, and spent most of his 16th year in a juvenile camp.

Upon release, he went back to school, worked hard, graduated, did miserably on the SAT, and went to college through a special admissions program.

I had helped develop the writing component for that program, and I taught in it. Kevin’s first piece of college writing – the placement exam – was peppered with grammatical errors, and the writing was disorganized and vague. This is the kind of writing we see in media accounts of remedial students, and it is the kind of writing that academics and politicians alike cite as an example of how higher education is being compromised. And such writing is troubling. If Kevin’s writing remained like this, he would probably not make it through college.

The traditional remedial writing course would begin with simple writing assignments and include a fair amount of workbook exercises, mostly focused on grammar and usage. The readings used for such a course would also be fairly basic, both in style and content. Though they might not be articulated, there are powerful – and limiting – assumptions about language, learning, and cognition that drive such a curriculum: that students like Kevin need to go back to linguistic square one, building skill slowly through the elements of grammar; that simpler reading and writing assignments won’t overly tax Kevin’s limited ability and will allow a concentration on correcting linguistic error; that complex, demanding work and big ideas – college work – should be put on hold until Kevin displays mastery of the basics.

No wonder remediation gets such a bad rap.

The program we developed for students like Kevin held to a different set of assumptions, assumptions we had developed from reading current research on language and cognition and from our own experience in the classroom. We certainly acknowledged the trouble Kevin was in and wanted to help him improve his writing on all levels, grammar to organization to style. But we didn’t believe we needed to carve up language into small workbook bits and slowly, slowly build his skill. And in Kevin’s case, we were right. By the end of the twenty-week program, Kevin was writing competent papers explicating poems by Gary Soto and Jim Daniels, comparing the approaches to reading presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, and analyzing the decision making in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Let me explain a bit more about the remedial writing curriculum we fashioned, and then use it to make a broader point about the possibilities of remediation.

My co-workers and I began by surveying a range of lower-division courses to get a sense of the typical kinds of reading and writing assignments faced by students like Kevin in that critical first year. We then found readings from a variety of disciplines that were similar to those in our survey and created writing assignments that helped students develop the skills to write about them. Then we sequenced the assignments from less to more difficult and also so that they were cumulative: what a student learned to do in the first week fed into an assignment on the fifth. So, for example, several early assignments Kevin faced required him to read a passage on the history of Eugenics and write a definition of it and to read a passage with diagrams about income distribution in the U.S. and summarize it. This practice in defining and summarizing would later come into play when Kevin had to systematically compare the descriptions of becoming literate in the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography.

To assist students with assignments like these, we organized instruction so that there was lots of discussion of the readings and a good deal of in-class writing where students could try out ideas and get feedback on their work as it developed.

And because many of our students, like Kevin, did display in their writing all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we did spend a good deal of time on error – in class, in conference, on comments on their papers – but in the context of their academic writing. This is a huge point and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: that writing filled with grammatical error does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material.

Certainly not all students did as well as Kevin, but many did. Those who want to purge college of remedial courses would say that Kevin doesn’t belong. He proved them wrong. And those holding to a traditional remedial model would be fearful that the tasks we assigned would be too difficult, would discourage Kevin. He proved them wrong as well.

Since we mounted those programs, some studies have emerged that confirm the approach we took. Successful remedial programs set high standards; are focused on inquiry and problem solving in a substantial curriculum; utilize a pedagogy that is supportive and interactive; draw on a variety of techniques and approaches; and are in-line with student goals and provide credit for coursework.

Educational researchers Michael Cole, Peg Griffin, Kris Gutierrez, and others have a nice way of talking about successful remediation. They refer to re-mediation – that is, changing the environment and the means through which students are taught the material they had not mastered before. A complaint often leveled at remediation by legislators is that they are “paying twice” for instruction in material that should have been learned earlier. Fair enough, but when remediation, re-mediation, is done well, the material in a sense is encountered anew, in a new context, with new curriculum and new pedagogy. For some students this makes all the difference in the world.


  1. A strategically designed semester- or year-long curriculum could effectively use this sequencing technique. You speak of "assignments" and I think units could also be sequenced if they had a writing assignment as a culminating project. For example, teach "Perseverance" in relation to Nelson Mandela. Write about it. Teach "Perseverance" in relation to climbing Everest. Write in comparison of the two types of perseverance. Follow up with a unit about Darfur, New Orleans, Iraq, etc...have students answer Why it's important to persevere.

    It's good to realize that "writing filled with grammatical error does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material". Comments in the teachers' lounge make me believe that not all teachers adhere to this belief.


  2. Like jophus, I have also found that many composition instructors believe students must learn to walk (master grammar rules) before they run (engage with challenging ideas/concepts in their writing).

    Structuring writing exercises, papers, or even entire classes around a theme is an excellent way to encourage writers of all levels to see writing as an extension of critical thinking.

  3. Feedback is the key to improving writing. Without it, the writer will continue with the same mistakes regardless of the complexity of the assignment.

  4. Mike,
    Thanks so much for this blog where you engage such important topics and share your insights and get us all thinking. This post reminds me of your textbook with Kinniry and the activities - sorry I don't have it with me here in Denver at WPA or I would find the right pages. I always liked the way that book sequenced the work to build up. I also connect this with your essay from the 1980's about remedial courses and why we should assign real academic writing activities and not just simple personal narratives, a type of writing rarely expected in academia. In the workshop we have been talking about placement questions - where do writers belong and why and how can we best help them. Your generous curriculum reminds us how we can and should do better.

    Sara Jameson

  5. I have been following Miek & Debbie's conversation for the past couple of days. Although I know I'm entering in the middle of the conversation and don't know the whole of your concerns, it appears that you are talking about the mainstream media's lack of "air time" for education issues.

    I currently teach in Albuquerque, N.M., however I got my start in New York City via the NYC Teaching Fellows program. Prior to teaching, however, I was a journalist and worked for The AP and Reuters. I remember the day I went to my editor at Reuters and told him that I thought we needed a national education reporter. This was December 2001 -- Bush had just recently become president and 9/11 was still fresh in everyone's mind. He chuckled a bit and told me that it wasn't worth the money to pay a reporter to write only about education. I was, of course, welcome to write such stories in my "spare time," but as for being totally committed to such a beat -- it was a no-go. I remember walking out into the bustling hive of Times Square that evening feeling frustrated and angry. Over the next several months I became increasingly critical of the profession in which I worked. I moved from Reuters back to The AP and was once again confronted with "economics" of the news. It seemed like overnight the media were more concerned with their financial well-being than actually reporting on issues that were relevant to the American public. Finally I thought, "Screw it." Two years later I was standing in my first classroom in the South Bronx and loving every minute of it. If I couldn't make a difference as a journalist, I could certainly do it as a teacher.

    I am currently a doctoral student in curriculum & instruction at New Mexico State University (we read Possible Lives for one of our diversity classes) and am in the process of feeling out and narrowing down my various research interests -- one being how the media covers and portrays educational issues. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts and/or experiences with the media as you are both widely known authors and activists.

    I appreciate being able to follow your writings via the Internet. Ms. Meier, I met you very briefly in 2004 at an ISA summer institute on Long Island -- I was working for the Art & Music Academy in Manhattan, an ISA school. Although I cannot remember the details of your speech, I do recall that you and the other leaders of that institute made an impression. I still teach in a small charter school that is now only three years old. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. Still, I feel fortunate that I am involved with a school that maintains an open dialogue about the future of our students and the future of education. Thanks again for allowing us (your blog readers) to be a part of your conversations.

    Warmest Regards,
    Monica M. Kowal

  6. Q-vole, q-vole,

    Hope all are well

    Been a while since I posted to the bloga and the withdrawal was getting too crazy, so I came looking for my fix. It was callin' me homie, it was callin'.

    A ver, there is a beautiful line from Profe Rose's above post that is worth citing:

    "If Kevin’s writing remained like this, he would probably not make it through college."

    Allí está el detalle (or, in other terms: Ay, there's the rub)--the magical "If". As a former remedial student, I can straight identify. (You never stop having writing troubles, problems with style, intonation of language and so forth, pero the possibility of ceasing to be remedial in the institutional sense, escaping the burro track is concrete.) But the "If..." is one of the chief availabilities of public schooling ¿qué no? If you ain't good at something, if your skills are shabby and, at present, you can't roc the mic, pues (in theory) that ain't a problem.

    A few years ago, in a seminar, Profe Rose spoke about room for error and how tight (I say "tight," he said "neat") it would be to begin a writing course with a discussion of error. Interactionally, to begin with error is to create space for error, realize the social fact of error in a space that has come to have the expectation of being error-free. (We actually went on to begin a course like this in our work with high school aged migrant students at UCLA.)

    The chief difficulty--for me--as a social science/writing Profe has always been holding a couple things in tension. The ABC's of literacy with respect to our friend the semi-colon and the ABC's of literacy with respect to the primordial texts of social life--the "sentences" in which the subject is one's own community and the verb is its active disintegration in contemporary society. For us, the "remediation," the re-organization of teaching/learning (not to be confused with dissecting the process so minutely that the dumb kids can finally get it) had everything to do with making the argument that writing was an indispensable social process that could actually strengthen self and community. Wish you all could talk to those migrant students and ask them if we were successful.

    orale, much love


    AKA: Big Happy
    PS to the AKA: !Cálmate!

  7. Remediation is often seen as lowering the bar for students that are behind in a particular subject field; however, I agree with your idea that it should consist of higher standards instead of lower. Just because a student has missed a concept somewhere along the way does not indicate that they are unable to accomplish it with a little guidance. Like Kevin, there are many students who are dealt a difficult hand of cards in life and need direction in order to get back on track. We should never feel that their lack of a particular concept or skill should limit them from a college education. Instead, we should be offering extra explanations and help to them in order to achieve their goals. As teachers, we are here to encourage and help rather than squash the dreams of a brighter future.

    Even though Kevin is in college, I find that his story is relevant to my middle school students that I teach. There are many teachers in middle school that remediate their students using rote drill and memorization through workbook pages and practice sheets. This form of remediation is not relevant to students’ lives and is usually not carried into their writing. I think you put it best when you said, “But we didn’t believe we needed to carve up language into small workbook bits and slowly, slowly build his skill!” Instead of carving up language via workbook pages, I would find your form of writing help more beneficial to the students. Through writing activities that increase with difficulty over time, mini-grammar lessons that are developed in context of academic writing, and frequent feedback on writing, students will master basic grammatical skills while improving their organization of ideas. Ultimately, I feel as if you created a writing workshop in the college setting. Writing workshop is becoming increasingly popular across elementary, middle, and some high schools. It only seems natural that such a workshop should be included in the college setting as well.

    However, I feel that much of Kevin’s experience could have been avoidable. Today’s educational world is driven by standardized testing such as the CRCT. The stress of this test often creates such extreme amounts of pressure on teachers, and students, that they end up drilling students with workbook pages in order to ensure that students are familiar with the format of the test as well as know how to effectively choose the correct multiple choice answer. Even though these tests are a mere snapshot in history, their results determine the fate of many students and educators. Due to the fact that the writing test occurs in 8th grade for middle school, many 6th and 7th grade teachers do not focus on writing in their class but instead teach for their grade’s test. In the end, the focus of writing is taken out of the other grades and students are not nurtured into productive writers. Over years the gap will only continue to increase causing students, like Kevin, to have less than adequate abilities in writing.

    In your post you also mentioned the use of class discussion and feedback. I find that these two factors are huge when helping students generate ideas and organize thoughts for writing. My students often begin the year by saying, “I don’t have anything to write about.” This is never really the case with anyone, especially middle school students. They just need a little help pulling those ideas out of their heads. It is human nature to have opinions and feelings on topics and want to share those ideas. After a few weeks I am able to get to the root of their feelings on writing and frequently find that they have been damaged in the past by previous writing teachers. When they would receive papers back, their writing seemed to be bleeding with red marks without feedback which ultimately caused my students to feel like their opinions were bad or just plain wrong. They were never offered positive or supportive feedback on their writing which resulted in their lack of confidence in writing. It is essential to provide positive feedback in order for a student to feel that their opinion and writing are worthwhile. When they feel that what they are saying is meaningful and respected, they will want to continue to write.

  8. Having taught writing in elementary school and middle school for many years, I will say that I am in strong agreement with what jophus said. "Writing filled with grammatical error does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material."

    In both elementary and middle school, have students write meaningful assignments that they take pride in. Then make sure they read it to at least one other person. While they read it, they will stumble at the grammar errors. Half of the time they will stop to fix them without anyone telling them anything. (This is what they do when they take pride in their work!)

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  9. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

  10. Thanks a lot for a bunch of good tips. I look forward to reading more on the topic in the future. Keep up the good work! This blog is going to be great resource. Love reading it.
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  12. Mike, in explaining your pedagogical techniques, your space here is obviously limited. However, as a teacher of writing on all levels from high school and college to professional and business applications, I have encountered four related deficiencies in many writers: an inability to think logically, to organize ideas, to read proficiently, and to write a simple cogent and accurate declarative sentence. Most remedial writing programs focus on the short essay and the structure of paragraphs while ignoring these four underlying problems, especially the first two. Logic and the ability to think and organize thought clearly are essential preconditions to good writing.

  13. Dear Dr. Rose;

    I'm writing to you , to let you know how proud we are that people like you, take time to improve education and improve non-traditional students lives . It help us to have the opportunity to get our dreams come true.
    It motivates us so much to continue our education and to know there is always help for us, from people who care , Professors like you, thank you so much, with the most deepest gratitude , we appreciate everything you do for students like us.
    thank you,

  14. May 13. 2013

    Dear Mr. Mike Rose
    I am a student at Miramar College, and I am learning in Basic English class. Although my teacher is Mr. Mark Manasse, so I have read three of your articles that there wrote to appeal many truth about nontraditional students. I am very impressive about your second article “Teaching Remedial Writing” and an image of Kevin remind in my mind about many students who have a lot of mistakes in writing. You are not similar Professor X or some people who are traditional students. They think we are the nontraditional students to cannot successfully in college, and they never look back how their teaching. However, you are different. Your experiences teach nontraditional students in many years. You know they are able successful in college, but they need to help from their professor with the good ways as remedial class or build skill the elements of grammar. It is very important for nontraditional students and me. It helps us to make a good organization with our ideas. I am very lucky when I have a great teacher who is similar to you. He is teaching me in reading class. He also teaches nontraditional students similar you do. He gives us a good way which helps us easily understanding of articles as doing follow each small group. Typical a group has 4 peoples, each one in group has a different work as one person makes summary, others choose 2 important lines, others draw picture of article, and last person is making 2 questions. Model group is very good. Moreover, he always creates an open atmosphere in the class. We can to make a lot of questions for him, and we always get from him all clear answers. Not only in the classroom but outside the classroom, we also receive to help from him a lot. Now I can write for you a comment. It has had from my teacher. He is a great teacher who name is Mark Manasse. Given me say “Thank you so much” to Mr. Mark Manasse and you. Both you are great teacher.
    Minhtu Nguyen
    Class ESOL 31

  15. Dear Dr.Rose,
    Thank you for sharing your information about remedial program which have been developing. I recalled myself in the past that how this remedial program helped me to develop my skill from the time I immigrated in the United States until now. Someone are non – traditional students like me wanted to come back to school to improve English skill. We had a lot of passion helps from this program. First to begin was ESOL class in the Campus. We have to stay there in first one year to prepare basically English skills. There are 7 level of English class from less to difficult. I had learned a lot of things a there. Second, I wanted to make a change to college, so I made a challenge test to separate level of English placements. Unfortunately, at that time, I made a wrong choice as I chose English class instead of ESOL class. Some terrible things happened to me at that time because I did not pay attention in my ability and somebody told me about English class. After that, I made a decision to ESOL class that was one of remedial program, which you mentioned in your blog. I really was happier and more confident to take some class ESOL. Those class just were basic skills, it didn’t push me up to pressure. I just learned it for myself and followed direction from this program to me.
    There are always many ways and many methods from college or campus to help remedial student like me to improve basic skill in English. The only one thing I can do is to find some helps from counselor and professors to figure out the way I begin.

  16. Dear Dr.Rose, Reading your blog "Teaching Remedial Writing" made me think about the problems of education. Unfortunately, there are no classes consisting only of successful students. In each classroom, in the school and in college, there are students who are impeded. I think, there are many reasons that lead to this. There are students with medical conditions that prevent them from learning. There are students whose parents and school did not pay enough attention to them. There are lazy students who are just not interested in studying. Of course, the teacher can ignore them and work with only the diligent and intelligent students. You can fulfill your curriculum and don't worry about the future of these students. But I think, that the main task of the teacher is to help all students gain knowledge and help them be successful in both school and life. For this, teachers need not be indifferent to students and need to attitude to their job more creative to make the learning process interesting and successful. They must find new ways of learning and help students believe that they can be successful. Your "program of remedial writing" and experience that you share in their blogs help other teachers. And thanks to you, your research and ,of course, the fact that you are constantly telling about it in his blogs will increase the number of your followers. You are doing a very important work and the success of this student like Kevin is the best proof of this.

    Sincerely, Nadia.

  17. Dear Dr. Rose,
    The blog I am going to respond is the “Teaching Remedial writing “because the blog had been impact to my life. Because I could take some Basic English classes at college before I move up to advance level. Kevin who is the person had similar problem when I took the assignment test at college. I agree that more trade and college school should be an option, and even encouraged, for more students, there is no reasonable excuse for the number of college bound students that are unable to grammar complete sentences. Someone said he should not go to college but I disagree with that idea and I thought they do not want accept the people who had low basic level English at college. Every people had different education before they went to college. When I was reading the Mike’s blog I thought he understood the non-tradition did until today because he had many years’ experience at school. When my professor gave me some Mike’s blog I read and knew about some problem of the students basic skills English. I was feeling happy when Professor Mike understands to nontraditional students general. I thought you make them think again before they want to say something.

  18. Hello Mike, My name is Yuki. I currently taking a ESOL 31(Reading English for non-English speaker) class at Mira Mar College in San Diego. First time my ESOL 31 Professor Manasse introduced your blog in the class, the blog did grab my interest. Because you're talking about me. I am a non-traditional student original from Japan. When I in Japan I never even met any non-traditional students. Maybe there are out there, but it's so unusual. All my family is graduated from college as traditional college students too. When I told my parents about me going to college at my age(I just turned 40!) they have bunch of negative comment about it. They thought It's way too late to go college at my age, and they can't believed there are any college are accepted me. After I told them about there is remedial classes that I can take. My father said, Really? Whose teaching those classes? Are they real professors?? Yes, they are real professors, who have so much passion for teaching. Matter fact, they are best. Because they have way more patience!

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