First-year composition

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Student writing takes many shapes in freshman writing classes, including handwritten freewriting and notetaking.

First-year composition (sometimes known as first-year writing, freshman composition or freshman writing) is an introductory core curriculum writing course in American colleges and universities. This course focuses on improving students' abilities to write in a university setting and introduces students to writing practices in the disciplines and professions.[1] These courses are traditionally required of incoming students, thus the previous name, "Freshman Composition." Scholars working within the field of composition-rhetoric often have teaching first-year composition (FYC) courses as the practical focus of their scholarly work.

FYC courses are structured in a variety of ways. Some institutions of higher education require only one term of FYC, while others require two or three courses. There are a number of identifiable pedagogies associated with FYC, including: current-traditional, expressivist, social-epistemic, process, post-process and Writing about Writing (WAW). Each of these pedagogies can generate a multitude of curricula.

Composition professionals, including those with degrees in Writing Studies and Rhetoric and Composition, often focus on a rhetorical approach to help students learn how to apply an understanding of audience, purpose, context, invention, and style to their writing processes. This rhetorical approach has shown that real writing, rather than existing as isolated modes, has more to do with a writer choosing from among many approaches to perform rhetorical tasks.[citation needed] In addition to a focus on rhetoric, many first year composition courses also emphasize writing process, where students are encouraged to interact with classmates and receive feedback to be used for revision. These practices can take the form of essay peer review or workshopping. Portfolios are a common way of assessing revised student work.[2]


Since the late nineteenth century, college courses on composition have become increasingly common in American higher education.[3] The German model of "rigorous 'scientific' philology and historical criticism" influenced instruction that caused the research paper to become a staple in first-year composition.[4] Although a longstanding course offering at many colleges, first-year composition remains controversial and marginalized.[5][6]

First-year requirement debate[edit]

The requirement for a first-year composition course has been debated in composition studies. This debate centers around how effective the first-year composition course is and the changes that need to be made to develop the field of composition. While most schools do require some form of the first-year composition course, there are some schools that have decided to abolish the first-year composition requirement. Some scholars, such as Sharon Crowley in Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays, argue that this requirement should be abolished. Crowley does not suggest the course itself be removed, only the requirement that all freshmen take the course. She states that students would still be interested in the course if the requirement was abolished and that removing the requirement would strengthen the field of composition. She implies that composition studies is marginalized within the university because of the view of the first-year composition course as a skill course. Removing the requirement, she states, would remove the association of composition studies with introductory courses, giving more acknowledgement to the field.[7] Crowley's opinion initiated a debate in the composition field, but she is not the only critic who advocates for the removal of this requirement. Scholars Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle also dislike the requirement and instead argue for a writing studies curriculum.[8]

Other scholars, however, do not agree with this stance. They argue that the first-year composition course is needed in the university, and believe that the requirement should remain. Scholar David Smit is one critic who favors keeping the requirement. He suggests that the requirement can be kept and the curriculum and structure of the first-year composition course altered for improvement. Smit explains that many of the developmental goals of those who favor abolishing the requirement can still be achieved by offering more writing experiences. He proposes more genre writing in composition courses with a "scaffolding" progression of discipline writing. If this was done, he suggests, the concerns over the status of composition studies in the university would still be solved, as the course would no longer be seen as skills based.[9]

There has been no consensus reached in composition studies regarding the status of the first-year composition course requirement. The benefits of the course, as well as the drawbacks, continue to be debated and the scholars noted above are only a few of the voices and perspectives involved in this discussion. Despite the debate about the requirement, it remains in effect at a majority of universities.[3][8]

Structure of contemporary first-year composition[edit]

First-year composition is designed to meet the goals for successful completion set forth by the Council of Writing Program Administrators.[10] To reach these goals, students must learn rhetorical conventions, critical thinking skills, information literacy, and the process of writing an academic paper. While there is no American standard curriculum for first-year composition, curriculum is developed at several levels, including the state, institution, department, and writing program.

First-year composition and rhetoric[edit]

With the publication of James Kinneavy's Theory of Discourse in 1971, English departments began incorporating rhetoric into their composition classrooms.[11] In doing this, composition instructors have placed more emphasis on teaching audience analysis, Aristotle's rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos), and teaching Kinneavy's modes of discourse.

According to Brian Sutton in "Writing in the Disciplines, First-Year Composition, and the Research Paper", since 1980, there has been an increasing debate in academic circles as to whether the "generic" approach to writing in first year composition is useful for students whose future writing will be discipline specific.[12]

Basic writing[edit]

First described by Mina Shaughnessy in the 1970s, basic writing is a division of composition studies that strives to bring disadvantaged students entering college to a more complete understanding of the rhetorical aspects of the writing process.[13]


There are a number of different composition theories and pedagogies that educators use to teach first-year composition. The second edition of A Guide to Composition Pedagogies[14] identifies 17 different composition pedagogies, a few of which that relate to first-year composition are summarized below:


Genre pedagogy is meant to focus the student's attention on the purpose of a given piece of text, through the lens of genre. Some perspectives favor instruction on the specific traits of a given established genre, particularly for those who are learning English as a second language. Others espouse the view that students should learn to identify elements of writing—style and conventions, for example—which denote its usefulness in a given setting as genre elements and know when to use them appropriately. Another form of genre pedagogy involves evaluating the characteristics of given genres, including the sensibilities they instantiate and which individuals or perspectives are excluded by them.[15]

Literature and composition[edit]

Literature and composition, as an approach to teaching, is premised upon the integration of literature as the content for a composition course. Literature is strategically threaded through the writing course providing learners with in-depth comprehensive information, empowering their contribution to a variety of literary conversations. In this approach, literature provides learners with a plethora of opportunities for the development of writing skills including topics for debates, arguments, discussions, and general exploration of humanity. Discourses for discovery with this methodology are inclusive of gender, race, ethnicity, culture, feminism, social issues, politics, and religion.[16]


As the name suggests, process pedagogy utilizes classroom time by discussing the entire writing process. A class that implements process pedagogy aims to improve students' skills as writers by working in one or more groups on brainstorming, revising, proofreading, and "workshopping" students' work before they submit a final draft. After first-year composition students will have learned strategies for the skills. Before submitting a final successful draft students would complete multiple drafts.[17] Through the use of process pedagogy, the students' own writing acts as a text for the class which they use and learn from in order to become better writers.[18] Some critics suggest that students will have trouble applying the skills they learned to other contexts.[19]

Researched writing[edit]

The original purpose of assigning research papers in first-year composition was to assist students in developing research skills.[14] Along with these skills came the emphasis of learning to incorporate sources to strengthen a paper's thesis. In recent years, a shift towards teaching information literacy skills and including multimedia has become more common in academia.[14] Traditional research papers assigned to students have been on a decline since the 2000s, a survey from 2009 shows that 6% of research writing in first-year composition were traditional research papers while 94% were an alternative take.[20]


  1. ^ Duffy, John. "Essay on the Value of First-year Writing Courses." Inside Higher Ed. March 16, 2012.
  2. ^ "Principles and Practices in Electronic Portfolios." Conference on College Composition and Communication, 2007.
  3. ^ a b Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press: 1998.
  4. ^ Farris, Christine; Russell, David (1992). "Writing in the Academic Disciplines, 1870–1990: A Curricular History". Academe. 78 (5): 57. doi:10.2307/40250395. ISSN 0190-2946. JSTOR 40250395.
  5. ^ Miller, Susan. Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
  6. ^ Holbrook, Sue Ellen. "Women's Work: The Feminizing of Composition." Rhetoric Review 9(2) 1991: 201–229.
  7. ^ Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. pg 241–43. Print.
  8. ^ a b Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. Teaching About Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning 'First-Year Composition' as 'Introduction to Writing Studies'. College Composition and Communication. 58.4 (2007) 552–584. Web.
  9. ^ Smit, David. The End of Composition Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. pg 183–85. Print.
  10. ^ "WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition (3.0), Approved July 17, 2014 | Council of Writing Program Administrators". Retrieved 2019-03-23.
  11. ^ Clark, Irene. Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. Mahweh, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003. p 6.
  12. ^ Sutton, Brian. "Writing in the Disciplines, First-Year Composition, and the Research Paper." Language and Learning Across the Disciplines 2.1 (1997) 46–57. Web.
  13. ^ Otte, George, and Rebecca Mlynarczyk. "Brief: Basic Writing." National Council of Teachers of English. 2009.
  14. ^ a b c Tate, Gary (2014). A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. v–vi.
  15. ^ Devitt, Amy (2014). A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 146–162.
  16. ^ Tate, Gary (2014). A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (Second ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 163–176. ISBN 978-0-19-992216-1.
  17. ^ Harrington, Susanmarie; Malencyzk, Rita; Peckham, Irv; Rhodes, Keith; Yancey, Kathleen Blake (2001). "WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition". College English. 63 (3): 321. doi:10.2307/378996. ISSN 0010-0994. JSTOR 378996.
  18. ^ Anson, Chris (2014). A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 212–230.
  19. ^ Reiff, Mary Jo; Bawarshi, Anis (2011). "Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition". Written Communication. 28 (3): 312–337. doi:10.1177/0741088311410183. ISSN 0741-0883.
  20. ^ Schweitzer, Leah. Writing in the crossroads : examining first-year composition and creative writing (Thesis). University of Louisville. doi:10.18297/etd/1285.
  • Perryman-Clark, Staci. "Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures (WRA) 125 – Writing: the Ethnic and Racial Experience." Composition Studies 37.2 (Fall 2009): 115–134.

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