Writing from A to U: Questions about Writing across the 16-19 Transition: John Hodgson and Ann Harris Argue That We Need to Develop a Fuller Understanding of Students' Writing as They Move from A-Level to University, and Ask Readers to Help

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The quality of students' writing concerns teachers at all levels of education. Studies in higher education have recently raised questions about the relation of students' academic literacies, especially writing, to the culture and pedagogy of the university (Lea and Street, 1998; Lea and Stierer, 2000; Ganobscik-Williams, 2006; Murray et al., 2008; and several others). In this context, the Royal Literary Fund's 2006 report Writing Matters was widely noticed because it was written not by academics but by professional writers. For several years, the Royal Literary Fund has sent its Fellows--published authors--into universities to work with students, mainly by means of one-to-one tutorials. As the Fellows corresponded with each other about their experiences in universities, the Report explains, they found that 'they were all facing the same problems':

Large numbers of students, often very bright, who hadn't the foggiest notion how to write. They had never been taught to do it, and so the conventions of discursive prose were either alien or unknown to them. So many of us found ourselves, week in and week out, teaching the fundamentals of literacy, that the RLF decided to commission this report.

(Davies et al, 2006)

The NATE Post-16 and HE Committee discussed this report and a review appeared in English Drama Media 7 (Hodgson, 2007). Although we did not entirely agree with the line of the report, especially in its opening chapter, the issues it raised have preoccupied us over the last few years, and we feel it is now time to try to answer some key questions about student writing--student writing not only in higher education, but over the transition from pre-university studies. As the RLF report suggests, the responsibility for academic literacy (however defined) belongs to all involved in the progress of students through school and into higher education.

Questions about post-16 writing

We return to the RLF report in the final part of this article. The concerns it raised about student writing are wide, and we shall focus our enquiry on writing in the English subjects. What kinds of writing do students produce as they progress through A Level and commence university courses in English? For whom do they write? And for what purposes? We shall take a broad view of the issues, considering teachers' expectations and students' experiences of writing across levels as the educational escalator moves from A Level towards the first year of university. Deliberately, we shall ask questions, both general and specific, rather than offer definitive answers, as we believe that further research needs to be done on the various processes involved. For example, what kinds of writing are afforded by the various A Level Englishes Literature, Language, and Language and Literature? While, on the other side of the transition, what kinds of writing are required of students of English at university? How do the practices compare? In what ways are they changing as a result of recent curricular initiatives? What is the significance of the differing writing practices in terms of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment? Which theoretical perspectives offer the best approach to understanding what is at stake, and what tentative recommendations might we make to teachers at each level?

Writing in English Literature

We shall focus first on Literature, as this remains the most popular English study at A Level and in higher education, but shall also consider the practices and requirements of language studies, and touch upon creative writing. Historically, literary writing at A Level has focused on the single text, or on two texts studied comparatively. The dominant writing mode has always been the 'critical' essay, in which a proposition (usually supplied by a teacher or examiner) is addressed and argued with close textual reference. Despite the wide availability of published literary criticism and readers' guides, students at A-level have generally been discouraged from making extensive reference to critical studies, although the pressure for 'personal response' to be 'informed' has also tended to curtail some more explicit and honest responses from young people. …