$880,000 grant funds project to help struggling college writers

The National Center for Education Research, a center in the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, has awarded an $880,000 grant to Charles MacArthur, professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, to fund a three-year research project aimed at helping improve the writing skills of college students.

The goal of the project is to develop and evaluate a writing curriculum and instructional methods to aid students in community college developmental English composition courses.

"Every year, hundreds of thousands of students take a basic writing class when they enter community college. These are usually non-credit courses that students are required to take before they can proceed with their degree goals," said MacArthur. "There are well developed instructional approaches for these courses, but there's very little research on what approaches are effective in improving students' writing.

MacArthur is collaborating with Melissa Ianetta, associate professor of English and director of the UD Writing Center, and faculty at Delaware Technical and Community College for the research project.

"This grant gives us a new way to think about postsecondary writing instruction," said Ianetta. "It will help us generate data to better understand what we're doing right and how we can do it even better."

Approximately 45 percent of students who enter one of Delaware Tech's four campuses from high school enroll in basic writing classes.

Researchers will begin this fall with observing the basic writing classes at the Stanton campus. MacArthur says they'll work with Delaware Tech faculty to create a curriculum that will be introduced in the spring semester.

From there, researchers will observe and collect data in the classroom, collect writing samples, assess students, and continue to make adjustments to the curriculum.

The revised curriculum will be taught again in the fall during the second year, and new faculty will be brought in the following spring to teach it again. In the final year of the project, researchers will conduct a pilot study with the fully-developed curriculum.

MacArthur has worked with students with disabilities and other struggling writers from grades 3-12 his entire career. Five years ago, he says he became more interested in working with adult learners in basic education programs and became aware of the lack of research on instruction for struggling adult writers.

"We saw the need and decided we could apply what we knew from working with younger struggling writers to see how effective it could be with this population," said MacArthur.

Struggling writers, according to MacArthur, have difficulties at all different levels, everything from handwriting and spelling and grammar to generating ideas and getting them down on paper in a way that communicates effectively to an audience.

Instead of concentrating on grammar, writing instruction within this curriculum will emphasize composition, helping students learn how to generate ideas and organize them in a way that makes the actual writing process easier. Students will also learn self-regulation strategies like task analysis and goal setting.

MacArthur says he's looking forward to seeing how the students and instructors develop throughout this project. He says he hopes findings from this project will lead to additional research in the future.

"It's all about the students," said MacArthur. "What motivates me is the opportunity to help students to be successful. When the students learn something and feel like they are growing and their motivation develops, I think that's wonderful."

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