An Examination of At-Risk College Freshmen's Expository Literacy Skills Using Interactive Online Writing Activities

By Mongillo, Geraldine; Wilder, Hilary | Journal of College Reading and Learning, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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An Examination of At-Risk College Freshmen's Expository Literacy Skills Using Interactive Online Writing Activities


Mongillo, Geraldine, Wilder, Hilary, Journal of College Reading and Learning


This qualitative study focused on at-risk college freshmen's ability to read and write expository text using game-like, online expository writing activities. These activities required participants to write descriptions of a target object so that peers could guess what the object was, after which they were given the results of those guesses as feedback on their writing. Findings suggested that these online writing activities can improve at-risk students' expository literacy skills. Specifically, findings emphasized the importance of the writers' description of salient features and word choice when writing for an online (distant) reader, and the importance of knowing the audience they are addressing. The participants' feedback concerning how and why they made a particular choice may provide a lens to view how at-risk readers utilize and apply reading strategies. Further research is recommended to determine if the reading behaviors of at-risk students can be better understood by examining the rationale described in the feedback.

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There is an ongoing need to create educational settings that address the cognitive, social, and emotional needs of at-risk college freshmen who have limited literacy skills. The need for developmental reading instruction is widespread and affects most higher education institutions, disproportionately affecting historically underserved populations including low-income, first-generation, and minority students (Green, 2006; McDonough, 1997). Further, there is a need for systematic research that provides reliable results about interventions in order to inform and guide educators' practice. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2011), 36.2% of students entering American colleges and universities require at least one developmental course and 48% did not meet the reading benchmark for college readiness (ACT, 2010). The cost of remediation at the college level is estimated at a staggering $3.7 billion a year (Wise, 2009). As the research suggests, there is an urgent need to address this issue where a significant number of high school students graduate without the necessary skills to succeed at college-level work. Specifically, attention needs to be paid to the development of higher order reading, writing, and critical thinking skills required to tackle today's ever increasing literacy demands.

This study focused on the ability to read and write expository text, the genre that is generally understood to constitute the majority of college-based reading. Specific skills and strategies are required in order to be an effective and proficient reader and writer within this genre, including knowledge of text structure (Flood, Lapp, & Farnan, 1986; Gunning, 2010). There are several types of expository text structures that serve to organize the material, and the most common are often identified as time sequence, description, explanation/process, comparison-contrast, problem-solution, and cause and effect (Gunning, 2010). This study focused on the ability to comprehend and compose descriptive writing. Descriptive writing is defined as the author's ability to list characteristics, features, and examples to describe the salient features of the selected topic (Blasingame & Bushman, 2005; Tompkins, 2005). This skill is particularly important in today's society where the increased use of online technology heightens the need to understand expository writing because in an online environment the selection of words to create a visual representation is essential to the reader's understanding. Therefore, writers must use appropriate descriptive language to get their message across, using words that would allow the reader to interpret the author's message.

This study builds on previous work done by the authors in which a game-like, online expository writing activity was used to help preservice teachers develop descriptive writing skills (Wilder & Mongillo, 2007).

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