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December 2005

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Linda Sweeney

Strategies for Working with Developmental Students: Put it in a Letter

By Linda Sweeney, National-Louis University

Though some of us have taught developmental studies for years and others work with students who have problems academically, we do not always remember that the populations we handle are special. However, as Patricia Bizzell (1986) has pointed out:

. . . for the time being, let me suggest that "basic writers" are those who are least well prepared for college. They may be defined in absolute terms, by features of their writing, or in relative terms, by their placement in a given school's freshman composition sequence, but, either way, their salient characteristic is their "outlandishness" -- their appearance to many teachers and to themselves as the students who are most alien in the college community. (p. 2)

According to multiple intelligence theory, developmental learners usually have intelligences that are more oriented toward the visual, the auditory, or anything other than interaction with traditional black and white text. Developmental students tend to reason in less abstract terms, at least about the material they encounter in college. To link these tendencies to more traditional college learning, some of us in reading believe that connecting "real life" interests, including graphics and the Internet, to the strategic processing of text is more practical than plunging into textbooks right away. In writing, some believe that starting with a personal narrative and working toward the inclusion of outside sources and an academic tone is best (Bartholomae & Petrosky, 1986).

This article purports that writing letters or long notes -- from instructor to student, tutor to student, or vice versa -- is a strategy that can enhance both reading and writing, plus offer a more personalized, real-life approach to the literacy process.

In their book on letter-writing in the English classroom, Dinitz and Fuller (2000) say that letters are one of the most common writing assignments in American culture but one of the least common assignments in the academic world. They suggest allowing letters to take the place of a traditional journal -- letters/journals addressed to the instructor or peers. The student, therefore, has a specific audience in mind and writing will often be more focused. The instructor can also respond to the student in letter form (a short letter, if necessary, or even a note to the student). The authors point out that students often throw out feedback, along with their papers, never reading a word. They are less likely to throw away a letter or a note addressed personally to them.

Fredericksen (2000) asks students in lower level English classes to write letters to individuals or institutions, sometimes to which the student has no intention of sending them: immigration authorities, the editor of a newspaper, famous authors and similar who are no longer alive. Using a time-honored method of communication from their society and having a specific audience in mind helps students develop a natural voice and an appreciation for audience.

Shafer (2000, 2000) has used letter writing with developmental students at both the high school and college level. Seeking a more personal involvement from high school students, he assigned a project during which students wrote advice to a confused young woman who did not know what to do with her life. The students peer-reviewed each other's letters and gave input as far as style and content. At the end of the class, all the letters were self-published in a book titled "Adventure Letters," something every student eagerly read. At the college level, Shafer asked freshmen to write personal letters to people important in their lives and then have peers read them, focusing more on content than style or grammar. The letters, read and revised several times, introduced students to the rewriting process in a less painful and artificial way than writing five paragraph essays.

Jeanne Henry (1995) wrote a book based on her doctoral dissertation about the developmental college reading class she taught with works of fiction and letter exchanges about those texts. I found Henry's book so inspiring that I used letters and novels with second language students and wrote an article about it (Bauer & Sweeney, 2003). Letter exchange served as a method of acculturation for immigrants, as well as a way to improve reading and writing.

Acculturation is not only an issue with second language students, however. As Bizzell (1986) stated, any developmental student is entering a "foreign land" when they come to college. Letter writing between teacher and student or tutor and student, or letters about readings, can be used to encourage higher-level thinking and interaction with readings.
One of the most powerful uses of letter writing can be a student's metacognitive thinking about his or her own learning. I usually ask my graduate students to write letters about their readings, the class in general, their work in developmental classrooms, etc. Doing so encourages students to turn a critical eye on their own processes - they learn simply from explaining things to someone else via their writing.

Moreover, graduate students are encouraged to use letters in their own practice. A student of mine recently asked her advanced developmental reading class to write letters to their language arts instructors in high school telling them what they should have learned about reading strategies years before. From looking over the letters, my student realized that her class understood reading strategies, even if they did not always use them. She next asked her class how to implement their knowledge . . . and got practical and excellent replies.

In conclusion, though it seems simple, we should never forget that the communication exchange between teacher and student or tutor and student can be made more powerful by putting it in writing. Communication also becomes more memorable when it is personalized:

Dear Reader,
Hope you enjoyed this article.
Sincerely - Linda Sweeney


Bartholomae, D., & Petrosky, A. (1986). Facts, artifacts, and counterfacts: Theory and method for a reading and writing course. Boynton/Cook.

Bauer, L., & Sweeney, L. (2003). The use of literary letters with post-secondary, non-native students. In Teaching developmental reading: Historical, theoretical, and practical background readings, Eds. Stahl, N. & Boylan, H. NY: Bedford/St. Martin's Professional Resources, pp. 255-264.

Bizzell, P. (1986). What happens when basic writers come to college? College Composition and Communication, (37)3.

Dinitz, S., & Fulwiler, T. (2000). The letter book: Ideas for teaching college English. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fredericksen, E. (2000). Letter writing in the college classroom. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, March Issue, pp. 278-284.

Henry, J. (1995). If Not Now. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Shafer, G. (2000). Using letters for process and change in the basic writing class. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, March Issue, pp. 285-292.

Shafer, G. (2000). Reading and writing in the developmental English class. English Journal, March Issue, pp. 33-39.

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