President's Teaching Scholars Program


Anne Becher

Senior Instructor
University of Colorado Boulder
College of Arts and Sciences
Department of Spanish and Portuguese

UCB 278, McKenna Languages 30A

Boulder, CO 80309-0278

Assessing improvement in the writing proficiency of students in a new third-year writing course: SPAN 3010, Advanced Rhetoric and Composition

PTLC Project Proposal:

This is the second PTL Collaborative project that I am applying for. I was a participant in 2006-8 with a project entitled “Effective and Time-efficient Feedback to Students on their Second-Language Writing” in which I researched how to promote optimal student growth in second-language writing classes and the best types of instructor feedback on second-language student essays. While that project allowed me to hone my own teaching, share what I learned with the TAs and the pre-service teachers I train and supervise, and give a few presentations at statewide and national conferences, and while it convinced me that the techniques I am now using in my writing classes are effective (and relatively time-efficient), I have not yet focused on how to systematically assess improvement in student writing. That is the goal for my proposed project for this year’s PTLC.

a. What is the central question, issue, or problem you plan to explore in your proposed work?

During Spring 2012 I proposed a new elective course for my Department, SPAN 3010, Advanced Rhetoric and Composition. The course was a converted version of the Advanced Rhetoric and Composition (SPAN 4010) course I have been teaching virtually every semester since Fall 2005; what’s different about it is a new structure that devotes one unit each to the four areas that we teach in our Department (linguistics, social/political reality, international Spanish for the professions and literature) and a beefed-up content-focused reading list (rather than the readings for my 4010 course that were diversified in content but were genre-specific--reviews, expositions, argumentations--the genres that students used for their papers).

The course proposal was accepted by the Arts and Sciences Curriculum Committee and we now have three years to pilot the course. As I teach it over the coming semesters I need to be able to assess whether and how my students’ writing proficiency improves as a result of the different teaching techniques and feedback offered during this course. I would like to find out whether and how students’ research skills and writing in Spanish improves, of course, but given that this course fulfils the Upper Division Written Communication Requirement for the College, it also seems important to explore whether and how their writing in English improves as well.

b. Why is your central question, issue, or problem important to you and to others who might benefit from or build on your findings?

Only in the last year has the Curriculum Committee approved foreign language writing courses as a means to fulfil the Upper Division Written Communication requirement. To my knowledge only our course and a similar course proposed by French and Italian have been approved. Showing whether a focus on a student’s second-language writing in an Upper Division Written Communication course can improve their first language writing is definitely important to all who teach foreign languages and to the Administrators who may be asked to approve other similar courses. The outcome of my research may help determine whether we continue offering this course, whether we convert it into a required course, and whether it can continue to fulfil the Upper Division Written Communication requirement. I also think it will be useful to students, rightly interested in whether and how their writing and research skills are improving.

c. How do you plan to conduct your investigation? What sources of evidence do you plan to examine? What methods might you employ to gather and make sense of this evidence? What literature have you reviewed on your topic?

First I need to learn how to assess student writing in English and Spanish. There are many aspects of student writing at word-level, sentence-level paragraph-level and essay-level that can be examined, such as precision, clarity, complexity or depth, and coherence. My students’ ability to choose reliable sources and effectively integrate information from them into their essays is another possible focus.

I need to review the literature on assessment from the English-language writing and rhetoric field to learn how those teachers and researchers assess their students’ work and then devise my own rubrics, drawing from theirs. I will need to assess student essays from the beginning and the end of the course, and possibly have another teacher do the same for reliability purposes. I will also need to figure out what writing in English to assign to my students to measure possible improvement over the semester in their English writing.

Exactly how to draw conclusions that they are growing specifically because of the teaching and feedback methods I employ is something I must determine.

In terms of literature I have already reviewed, the following book includes 10 chapters about second-language writing research, plus an annotated bibliography. It was the assigned reading for a mini-seminar offered by the Anderson Language Technology Center (ALTEC) during summer 2011. I skimmed most chapters then but plan to re-read them all this summer.

Manchón, Rosa M., ed. Writing in Foreign Language Contexts: Learning, Teaching, and Research, Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters, 2009.

d. How might you make your work available to others in ways that facilitate scholarly critique and review, and that contribute to thought and practice beyond the local? (Keep in mind that coaching/mentoring will be available to invite you to develop these aspects of your proposal, so you need not feel you must present a finished project design at this time.)

I will try to share my findings by submitting papers to scholarly journals in my field and giving presentations at conferences attended by foreign language teaching professionals. I will solicit other ideas from my mentor Mark Knowles and from our campus director, Alison Hicks. Alison and I have worked closely together; I served as her mentor for her PTLC project related to my course and I am hopeful that she will be able to advise me in this respect as well.

e. Include a literature review of the theory and effective teaching practice of the subject of your inquiry in order to locate your research in the literature preceding it.

The following sources from the Writing and Rhetoric field are about assessing student writing in students’ first language.

Condon, William. “Reinventing writing assessment: How the conversation is shifting,” WPA: Writing Program Administration, 34.2, pp. 162-182, 2011.

Inoue, Asao B. Teaching the rhetoric of writing assessment. In Harris, Joseph; John D. Miles; Charles Paine (Eds.), Teaching with student texts: Essays toward an informed practice, Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 46-57, 2010.

Pennington, Jill. Inside the community college writing center: Ten guiding principles, Writing Center Journal 29.1, 130-134, 2009.

O'Neill, Peggy (ed.), Blurring boundaries: Developing writers, researchers and teachers: A tribute to William L. Smith, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2007.


The following sources focus on assessing second-language student writing:

Di Gennaro, Kristen, Assessment of Generation 1.5 Learners for Placement into College Writing Courses, Journal of Basic Writing, Spring 2008, Vol. 27 Issue 1, 61-79.

Becker, Anthony, Examining Rubrics Used to Measure Writing Performance in U.S. Intensive English Programs, CATESOL Journal, 2010, Vol. 22 Issue 1, 113-130.

Johnson, David and Lewis VanBrackle, “Linguistic discrimination in writing assessment: How raters react to African American “errors,” ESL errors, and standard English errors on a state-mandated writing exam,” Assessing Writing, Jan 2012, Vol. 17 Issue 1, 35-54.

Molle, Daniella and Paul Prior, “Multimodal Genre Systems in EAP Writing Pedagogy: Reflecting on a Needs Analysis,” TESOL Quarterly, December 2008, Vol. 42 Issue 4, 541-566.

Vechter, Andrea and Christopher Brierley, “Paper Partners: A Peer-Led Talk-Aloud Academic Writing Program for Students Whose First Language of Academic Study is Not English,” TESL Canada Journal, Spring 2009, Vol. 26 Issue 2, 125-135.

Naeini, Jila, “Self-assessment and the impact on language skills,” Educational Research (2141-5161) , June 2011, Vol. 2 Issue 6, 1225-1231.

f. What is your record of innovation in teaching and/or the assessment of learning?

I use a research-driven process approach to teach writing and I incorporate pedagogically appropriate technology in my course. I feel I have made some important innovations in the teaching of the SPAN 4010 course (process writing, student blogs, wikis, screencasts for presentation of material and for correcting student errors) and I feel that SPAN 3010 will be innovative as well because I am consistently looking for more effective, student-centered options for teaching writing. I ask my students in my writing classes to do metacognitive writing and to share with classmates and with me, as they feel appropriate; I also always implement end-of-semester surveys beyond the FCQs to assess some of the new techniques I have used. I have presented at two conferences devoted to the teaching of foreign languages with technology (CALICO, May 2011 and SOCALLT, April 2012) and I’ve attended COLTT every year it’s been offered at CU. Assessing learning is a constant preoccupation of mine; for this reason I’m applying to the PTLC for support in doing it in the most useful way given my current goal of evaluation my students’ improvement in this new course.

h. Please provide the name and email address for your coach/mentor. Are you willing to set each coach/mentor meeting twice each semester?

Mark Knowles,, and yes I am willing to convoke these meetings.

i. If your project is selected, are you willing to serve as a coach/mentor in PTLC in a future year?