Power Academic Writing: An academic literacy intervention at Ontario Tech University in COVID times

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Power Academic Writing

Power Academic Writing. Image retrieved from the Power Academic Writing program.

The Power Academic Writing program was developed by me while working as a Writing and ESL Specialist in the Student Learning Centre, at Ontario Tech University’s Office of Student Life. It was one of my goals for the 2019-2020 school year, and I received feedback from the other two Writing Specialists with whom I worked and from our team manager throughout the development phase. It was launched in the Spring 2020 term and is expected to run every year in the Spring/Summer terms. In this post I will explain what the program is about, how and why it was conceived, and pose questions as to how the COVID-19 outbreak may have influenced student participation and what is worth keeping in mind regarding our programs even when we get back on campus.

Power Academic Writing aligned with the competencies proposed by The Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), the Council for the Advancement of Standards’ (CAS) Professional Standards for Higher Education learning and development outcomes, and the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the National Writing Project (NWP). The main goal of the program was to provide students, especially English as Second Language learners (ESL) and English as Additional Language learners (EAL), with the opportunity to learn important topics in academic writing and oral presentation in a risk-free environment. The development of this program was justified by the fact that students entering university have different amounts and kinds of prior experience with academic discourse, especially students coming from disadvantaged or minority languages and backgrounds (Duff, 2010), and that research suggests that:

Many instructors do not provide explicit and appropriate scaffolding, modeling, or feedback to support students’ performance of oral assignments (e.g., presentations, critiques, projects; e.g., Zappa-Hollman, 2007a, 2007b). It is simply expected that most students are already familiar with the genres required for academic essays or presentations and the criteria for evaluating them, even though these attributes and criteria may vary greatly from one context to the next (Duff, 2010, p. 181).

Another reason for the development of this program lies in research findings that suggest that the academic language skills that ESL/EAL students find more challenging are the ones which require oral communication or writing (Cheng, 2001, as cited in Fox et al., 2014) and that this population has greater likelihood of academic success when language support is provided (Fox, 2004, 2005, as cited in Fox et al., 2014).

This program did not offer credits, and students voluntarily participated in it, which was the case with all other programs offered in our unit then. However, it had a practical component which our other programs did not have. The program was organized as a series of five modules and eleven workshops, each module being about one specific topic, and students were able to take the whole series or any given module within it according to their own needs and interests, as modules were related to but independent from one another. What was unique about this program was the fact that students were presented with content in the first workshop in each module and were expected to apply the content into practical assignments that would receive thorough feedback from the instructor, based on assignment instructions and rubrics, during the following week.

Language points were included as well in order to call students’ attention to accuracy. This was done because research has shown that the accuracy with which students use language to communicate may go unnoticed, unchecked, and underdeveloped when they are able to understand and meaningfully communicate subject content (Genessee & Lindholm-Leary, 2013, as cited in Basturkmen, 2018, p. 692). This happens because, unless teachers draw students’ attention to language and require them to use it, students tend to draw on language-independent ways of accessing content when the main objective is subject content (Lyster, 2017 as cited in Basturkmen, 2018).

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the program plan was adapted to an online mode of delivery, and the number of students registered exceeded the number of students we had had in previous not in-class workshop programs. The questions that are worth raising for next terms regards the reasons why the program was popular, how to expand it to meet students’ needs, and how to think other programs from now on. It could be that students were attracted to the practical component of this program, in which case we should consider offering more hands-on opportunities. It could also be that in spring and summer they generally have more free time to engage in non-credit programs on campus, which means that Power Academic Writing has the potential to be popular at this time every year and should continue to be developed and offered. Alternatively, the reason for successful student attendance may have been that the workshops were offered online, regardless of the pandemic, in which case we should be looking to develop more virtual programs even in the post-COVID-19 world. Finally, it could be that more students decided to participate because they had free time due to the restrictions imposed to reduce the spread of the virus. If this is the case, the program may not be as appealing next spring if the pandemic is gone. On the other hand, it signals that while we are still emerging from lockdowns, we should think about the social role that offering academic literacy programs such as this -as well as other types of programs- have. These programs are not only risk-free environments for students to develop the skills needed to succeed in university, which by itself is a good enough reason to work towards developing similar initiatives. They are also opportunities for a sense of belonging and community to be built at a time when we are urged to be physically apart and away from campus.

References

Basturkmen, H. (2018). Dealing with language issues during subject teaching in EMI: The perspectives of two accounting lecturers. TESOL Quarterly, 52(3), 692-700. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.460

Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (2015). CAS learning and development outcomes. In J. B. Wells (Ed.), CAS professional standards for higher education (9th ed.). Washington, DC. http://standards.cas.edu/getpdf.cfm?PDF=D87A29DC-D1D6-D014-83AA8667902C480B

Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), & National Writing Project (NWP). (2011). Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. http://wpacouncil.org/aws/CWPA/pt/sd/news_article/242845/_PARENT/layout_details/false

Duff, P. A. (2010). Language socialization into academic discourse communities. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, 169–192. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0267190510000048

Fernandez, D., Fitzgerald, C, Hambler, P., & Mason-Innes, T. (2016). CACUSS Student Affairs and Services Competency Model. http://apps.nacada.ksu.edu/apps/intlconf_media/uploads/handouts/2018/190-H02.pdf

Fox, J., Cheng, L., & Zumbo, B. D. (2014). Do they make a difference? The impact of English language programs on second language students in Canadian universities. TESOL Quarterly, 48(1), 57-85. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.103

About Author(s)

Fernanda has a master’s and a PhD degree in Language and Literature. She has experience teaching ESL in Canada and internationally and is currently working as a Writing Skills Specialist, developing and teaching writing curriculum.

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