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What Is College-Level Writing? (The Council Chronicle, March 2007)

Moving the Conversation Forward

by Amy Bauman

What is college-level writing?” Ask an educator, and you’ll get a passionate response. Whether the person you ask is a high school teacher preparing students for the challenges of college or a college educator trying to scaffold freshman writing students to the next higher plane, it’s a loaded topic.

College-level writing, educators seem to agree, is not a specific point or an end goal. Rather, it is part of a continuum of knowledge-building—a continuum that affects not only one’s education but one’s entire life, as well as the shared life of our culture.

“This is where the important work of the culture is done,” says Patrick Sullivan, referring to both the writing itself and the time frame in which it begins. “It is where we learn to think, to value and respect others; to be citizens of the world.” Sullivan, who teaches at Manchester Community College in Manchester, Connecticut, is coeditor of the recent National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) book What Is “College-Level” Writing? (NCTE, 2006).

He and coeditor Howard Tinberg knew the question was significant when they first imagined a book on the topic. It ignites conversations. Tinberg, professor of English at Bristol Community College, Fall River, Massachusetts, muses on the experience of having asked the same question for the book. “You’d think that this question would be simple enough to ask and to answer,” he says. “After all, don’t college faculty know expertly what level of written competency they wish their students to demonstrate?”

But, he suggests, it’s more complex than that. “For starters, what characterizes effective college writing—probing, critical thinking or surface-level competency? What forms or genres of writing are appropriately taught in college? Should essay writing be the centerpiece? Should students be able to write scholarly articles in their chosen fields?”

Ultimately, he offers a short list of attributes for good college-level writing. Not surprisingly, the points apply to good writing in general:

  • a clear sense of purpose and audience
  • genre knowledge (knowing what form one is writing in and the conventions required by the form)
  • control over matters of grammar and mechanics to suit a particular rhetorical purpose and audience and genre
  • a depth of reflection and capability of expressing the implications of one’s subject

Chris Jennings Dixon, an educator with experience at middle school, high school, and college levels, delves into the broader concept. “Writing is a way of putting your thinking on paper . . .” she says. “It helps move students to different levels of thinking. As teachers of college-level writing, we are trying to move our students toward what we believe is the epitome of good writing.” Dixon describes her recent endeavors as an attempt to develop “innovative approaches to improving student preparation for college writing.” The author of the upcoming NCTE book Lesson Plans for Teaching Writing, she was also the recent director of a national project, the Writing Coalition, funded by the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). Teachers in the FIPSE project explored the high school-to-college transition of language arts students. Along the way, the project led to the development of collaborative professional liaisons, high school writing centers, portfolio assessment techniques, and a myriad of teaching strategies.

Doug Hesse, past chair of CCCC and current director of writing programs at the University of Denver, Colorado, defines college-level writing as “the ability to contribute to ongoing debates or discussions in ways that reflect both the writer’s understanding of others’ perspectives (what has been said before and is being said now) and of current rhetorical situations. It’s the ability to adapt to audiences and purposes.” But Hesse suggests that the more important conversation focuses not on what is college-level writing, but on what are the types of real-world writing that college students and graduates need to be able to do. “How do those kinds of writing relate to writing in vocational/professional, civic, and personal spheres?” he elaborates. We need continually to reflect on the relationships among writing in the academic, civic, interpersonal, and work spheres.”

The Importance of Defining College-Level Writing

“In the book, we talk about how this question (What is college-level writing?)—determines so much of what we do,” Patrick Sullivan says. “It’s obviously important for practical reasons, but I think these are secondary to human reasons.”

The “human reasons,” as Sullivan noted earlier, have as much to do with the development of the individual as of society. Howard Tinberg concurs: “So much rides on students’ literacy and the role of that literacy in the larger world. In other words, in our information gathering and producing age, the importance of literacy is huge.”

Jane Hunn, a teacher at Everglades High School, Miramar, Florida, agrees, “I think that examining college-level writing, and all writing for that matter, is important, especially in a time that the printed word seems to be taking a backseat to the spoken word,” she says. “Now more than I can ever remember I have to justify the importance of good writing to my students. They live in a world of computers, cell phones, Ipods . . . As educators, I think we need to find ways to show students the importance of writing in today’s world.”

Part of what makes the question and its ensuing discussion so important, Peter Kittle suggests, is “that there is little agreement about what constitutes college-level writing.” Kittle, associate professor at California State University, Chico, is one of the educator-writers featured in Sullivan and Tinberg’s book. His essay, titled “It’s Not the High School Teacher’s Fault: An Alternative to the Blame Game,” argues that teachers need to avoid assigning blame for their students’ achievement levels and focus on what they can do to serve students better. He considers it a necessity for high school and college-level educators to work toward agreement to help “ease the transition from high school to college” (Kittle 144), ultimately contributing to students’ success both in school and beyond.

What Educators Are Saying

As educators talk about the concept of college-level writing, ideas surface about what high school writing should be. Writing and writing instruction, offers Peter Kittle, “[have] to be engaging; students have to be writing about something they care about.” Having spent the first part of his professional life teaching high school, Kittle’s perspective clearly grows out of his experience.

High school writing, adds Sullivan, “should be aimed at variety; some just for fun; some for experiment. High school materially is different from college.”

As it should be, Doug Hesse believes. “There are developmentally appropriate kinds of writing that should happen in high schools that should be valued in their own right. I’d rather we articulate very clearly what kinds of writing are age-appropriate and not be consumed with trying to replicate what can and should happen in a freshman or sophomore level college writing class among fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds in a very different setting.”

Discussing writing in terms of high school and college-level development naturally leads to the idea of aligning one curriculum to lead into the other. This idea, too, is less than black and white. “I’m wary of revising high school standards to align with college expectations,” Doug Hesse responds. [Instead], let’s have a real conversation about what’s appropriate at each developmental level.”

Chris Jennings Dixon’s thoughts on alignment reinforce the idea of a continuum. “Alignment comes from recognizing what is being done at one point and figuring out ways to move students to the next point. To align is a matter of taking it from there to here with the right activities in between; it is an ongoing look at writing process.”

“I think this alignment is always taking place,” Jane Hunn suggests. She cites the work she did with Dixon on the FIPSE project, which was all about the high school to college transition. The project, she says, “allowed for times for the two groups to get together . . . we found that most groups we presented to were very positive about what we were doing, but the time and money were not available to allow the two groups to get together.”

. . . About Moving the Conversation Forward

So how do we keep the conversation moving forward so as to positively affect education? Patrick Sullivan suggests simply that educators need more dialogue about the matter. “Say the question out loud,” he advises. “It is a complicated question. We actually tried to address this—this is where the book began—and we had amazing differences of opinion.”

“College-level teachers and high school teachers need time to talk,” Jane Hunn agrees. “This seems like such an easy plan, but I have found that it is very hard to make the time and get the resources needed for this to happen.”

Howard Tinberg notes that having “more inter-institutional conversations . . . on what makes for college-level writing” was definitely among the conclusions reached by the educators tapped for What Is “College-Level” Writing? “High school teachers, especially, hunger for those conversations with higher education colleagues,” says Tinberg. But, he adds, they also want college faculty to “jettison old and inaccurate notions of what writing is being assigned in high school (e.g. the five- paragraph themed essay). Having said as much, even high school teachers admit that high school writing instruction is “formulaic,” in larger part because of the vast range of student ability and the remarkable pressure to ‘leave no child behind.’”

Coupled with the idea of conversation, Peter Kittle suggests, is the idea of collegiality among educators. “The divide needs to be lessened in material ways,” he states. “There is often fearfulness, especially on part of high school teachers that they are being judged. At the same time, college-level faculty are not well informed about constraints on high school.”

No matter what aspect of the matter is being addressed, Sullivan suggests, the impetus for keeping the conversation moving is with teachers themselves. “There needs to be a thirst for dialogue about this question between high school and college-level teachers,” he says emphatically. “There needs to be a real wish that we can sit down and talk.”

Ordering Information

To order What Is College-Level Writing? ($31.95, NCTE members; $42.95, non-NCTE members), visit the NCTE online store at, call (toll-free) 877-369-6283, or email

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