By Jose San Mateo
Imagine being placed in a situation where you have to learn a new language once you get into university. For a portion of UC Santa Cruz students, learning the nuanced language of academic writing has become a struggle that goes beyond fixing subjects and verbs.
The University of California realized the importance of academic writing when it first instituted the Subject A examination in 1898. After one hundred years, the examination has gone through radical changes and has since been replaced by the UC Analytical Writing Placement Exam (AWPE). The Subject A academic writing requirement has also undergone a facelift and now sports a new name for the modern era: Entry Level Writing Requirement (ELWR).
Despite nominal improvements, 50 percent of students fail their first attempt at the AWPE in early May. After an additional round of tests in September, the percentage of students that enter UCSC without satisfying ELWR is reduced to about 35 to 40 percent. While less than one percent of students—or ten per year—face the prospect of leaving the university for not satisfying the requirement within four quarters, this year the percentage of students that satisfy the ELWR after their first quarter has dipped far below the historical average.
Elizabeth Abrams, chair of the Writing Program at UCSC, said that the historical average hovers around 80 percent, but for now that percentage has gone down drastically.
“Of the 35 to 40 percent of students who have to satisfy ELWR, usually 80 percent pass, but now that is around 60 percent,” Abrams said.
The reason for such a dip could be a combination of many factors. Abrams cited a range of possibilities, from a relatively large freshman class and changing demographics in California, to outside requirements like the national No Child Left Behind policy that may affect high school instruction. However, she cautioned against pointing to any one factor.
“There are just so many variables for each student,” she said.
Regardless of the amount of students that come in without satisfying ELWR, there is a consensus amongst all writing faculty that it is the responsibility of the teachers and student tutors to help students satisfy the requirement.
“This is a system-wide goal,” Abrams said. “Students need to be able to work at a university level.”
Students who cannot pass the ELWR after their first quarter are required to enroll in the Writing 20 class series, beginning winter quarter. In the winter of 2007, Writing 20 had 20 sections with over 400 students enrolled. This spring, however, 132 students are entering their third quarter without satisfying the ELWR.
Maria Cecilia Freeman, a writing lecturer and ELWR coordinator at UCSC, has taught many Writing 21 students. She feels that students she works with are a relatively mixed bag.
“Some are understandably frustrated about being in the class,” Freeman said. “For some, their proficiency in English is lacking.”
After failing to satisfy the ELWR twice, confidence becomes an area of concern for struggling students. Raul Reyes, a first-year student at College Nine, is a Writing 21 student with aspirations of becoming a math teacher.
“I’m not prepared to write at the college level,” Reyes said.
When asked about failing to satisfy the ELWR twice, Reyes was optimistic about the third time around.
“I felt that I have made progress on what I am doing wrong,” he said.
Francisco Devora, a first-year student and classmate of Reyes’s in Writing 21, expressed a similar opinion about his own ability to write, but had a different opinion after failing to satisfy the requirement in his second quarter.
“When I found out that I failed, I was bummed out,” Devora said. “I felt like I was dumbing down and decreasing in skill level.”
There is added pressure on these students because UCSC places a restriction on how long a student can go without satisfying the requirement.
Ellen Newberry, who has been a writing instructor at UCSC for eight years, has taught Writing 21 six times.
“I barely mention the requirement,” Newberry said. “What we’re there to do is work on their writing.”
When asked about the students’ confidence issues, Freeman asserted that the Writing 21 is not a remedial class because it is all university-level work.
“I regard this class as a huge challenge for students,” she said.
In addition to regular class instruction, students are required to attend one-hour sessions with a tutor. Audrey Classick, who is tutoring Writing 21 for the second time, noticed a sense of desperation amongst the students that she has taught.
“[Desperation] definitely comes through in conversations with them,” Classick said. “Usually they say, ‘I just want to get through ELWR’.”
The reason why Writing 21 students sometimes struggle with confidence hinges on their proficiency and familiarity with written English. According to Freeman, language is a more salient issue among Writing 21 students, but that does not mean all of them are English as a Second Language (ESL) students.
“Over the years, more of the population is not strictly ESL, but bilingual,” Freeman said.
Devora, who says he is fluent in both English and Spanish, fits into this mold of students that are bilingual, but struggle with language.
“My mom knew both [Spanish and English], but Dad knew one,” Devora said. “Both know the worth of education.”
Mark Baker, a writing program faculty member, said that in addition to ESL students there is a population of students known as “Generation 1.5,” whom Baker described as students that either came to the US at a very young age or are early second-generation students. These students’ struggles are unique because they generally speak fluent English, but struggle with written English.
“These are students who are literate but it has to do with being an active reader,” Baker said. “Often times they have accumulated a limited vocabulary but sometimes there are certain sentence level issues.”
Devora said that he struggled with “writing fragments and verb tense agreement issues.” These are sentence-level grammatical issues, but thinking in two different languages poses a problem during the writing process.
“Spanish is my first language,” Devora said. “There are certain words I can say in Spanish that I can’t seem to find in English.”
The tendency to think in one language and try to directly translate into English poses problems in areas other than grammar. Newberry said that students who think and write in two different languages struggle with analysis because they are not used to reading and analyzing the English language.
“Translating writing and analysis become two separate steps,” Newberry said.
While being bilingual may become an obstacle to university writing for some students, Freeman feels that there is something to admire about students that work in more than one language.
“I really admire what these students are doing,” Freeman said. “The ability to do university-level work in more than one language is wonderful.”
Renee Nelson, a recent graduate of UCSC, still works as a tutor for both Writing 20 series classes and general writing tutoring. She said that a lot of students that she sees are ESL or Generation 1.5 students that just need a little bit of extra help with the language.
“They’re trying their hardest, but they just need an extra quarter,” Nelson said. “Writing in English is a another language you’re learning and an academic language is even harder.”
The social class issue is another complication for second-language students that have not satisfied ELWR.
“Second-language students and those from California high schools that are under-resourced may be less prepared for university writing,” Freeman said.
Reyes is a student who is aware of both of those worlds. He is a bilingual student in Writing 21 that went to Santa Ana High School in southern California. He described his English class as one where, “the teacher had knowledge.” Reyes also said that students were not motivated to learn.
According to a California Department of Education Accountability Progress Report, Santa Ana High School scored 658 in the Academic Performance Index (API), which is below the California benchmark. The API, which is the state measure for academic performance in schools, lists 800 as the goal for schools in California. In the area of English language learners, the report says that there are 1,634 predominantly Spanish speakers in the school, which is 99 percent of that population of students.
Reyes felt that his high school should have done more to help him learn English. “California high schools always concentrate on tests,” he said, which is problematic because then teachers only teach what students will be tested on.
Freeman said that high school teachers are put into a terrible bind because of the national educational policy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB, which was implemented by President Bush in 2001, places a lot of emphasis on standardized testing to determine funding for schools. “It becomes really hard to balance what students need with the mandated curriculum,” Freeman said.
In order to effectively prepare students for university-level writing, it may be necessary to change the way that writing is taught at the high school level. Freeman, who has worked with high school teachers in the Monterey area, suggested ways they could tailor the curriculum of English classes towards university expectations.
“There should be more emphasis on analytical, critical reading of nonfiction essays and informative prose,” she said.
For the Writing 21 tutors that work closely with students, the influence of a student’s high school education manifests itself in his or her attitude towards writing and how he or she responds to college-level material. Classick noticed that some of her students are so focused on passing that they are not perceptive to the other parts of the writing process.
“They are not used to thinking about themselves the way they have to,” Classick said. “Students are also sometimes reluctant to disagree with an author.”
Yet another layer in the population of non-ELWR satisfied students is the belief that that writing is not relevant to their majors. This is particularly prevalent in students that lean toward the sciences.
Devora, an aspiring astrophysics major at UCSC, does not believe that writing and the ELWR requirement is necessary for science majors, because “science majors don’t require much writing,” he said. “The ELWR should not be extended to them.”
Robert Irion, director of the Science Communication graduate program at UCSC, stressed that writing and communication are important to scientists in two ways: one is communication with other scientists and researchers through memos and reports, and the other is grant proposals.
“Grant money is becoming more precious,” Irion said. “One big part is communicating with scientists and other funding agencies.”
Holly Cordova, the director of Learning Support Services (LSS) at UCSC, stressed the importance of the ELWR and other undergraduate courses at UCSC and contended that writing skills are universally important. LSS is the program at UCSC that handles student tutoring and is responsible for hiring the Writing 21 tutors.
She also said that LSS could provide better services with the benefit of more fundraising.
“LSS at UCSC is the least supported service amongst UC campuses,” Cordova said. “We need more tailored assistance to English language learners and other students developing university writing.”
According to Cordova, it takes about $125,000 to fund writing tutoring on campus. The money is a combination of LSS funds, money from EOP and a $69-per-student fee for core tutoring. Funding tutoring for Writing 21 classes this year cost LSS $20,000.
In an attempt to address future funding issues, student tutors have gotten together and put a referendum on the ballot to help fund LSS. If it passes in the upcoming May elections, a little more than $6 per quarter would be added to student fees.
Freeman said, “Tutoring should be equal access and should be a part of all students’ writing experience.”
Reyes shared a similar opinion with Devora that perhaps the ELWR should not be necessary for all students, but he admitted that writing is a necessary skill.
“Overall, writing is necessary. You are in competition, and the knowledge you have makes you look good,” he said. “There should be more opportunities to improve writing.”