Intensity and Sophistication: Basic Skills versus Transfer Level Composition

Students in pre-transfer and transfer-level classes need to develop similar skills: studying, reading, thinking, and writing. The principal distinctions are intensity and sophistication.

Basic skills students need training in how to be college students. To keep them in school, teachers should ask them to consider their motives, discuss reasons students drop out, familiarize them with support services, and require investigation of educational resources. Instructors need to teach how to stage tasks and manage time, working these guidelines into assignments. Transfer level students need the same, but instructors can spend less time on learner training and more on content.

Teachers of a basic skills class should validate the literacies students use outside the classroom and help them transfer reading, thinking, and writing skills they already have to an academic setting. At this level, reading assignments, such as Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” could address the various forms of English people use in different contexts. Rather than invalidating the language students use with family and friends, a composition teacher should stress that “standard” English is one of many forms, all of which are appropriate in certain settings, in this case college and career. Such classes should help students adapt reading and writing skills most students are doing in new media to academic reading and writing, utilizing new technologies as educational tools. In short, a basic skills class should help students to adapt their abilities to college.

In a transfer level course, on the other hand, students are generally better prepared for college-level reading and writing. At this point, they want to see a clear distinction between high school and higher education. They want to know that they are in college. While teachers of transfer-level classes should also validate multiple literacies and encourage students to use new media, they should select material and develop assignments that are clearly more challenging.

Recently, I participated in the revision of Student Learning Outcomes for English courses at College of San Mateo, which has given me a better understanding of continuity and distinctions among courses. The critical thinking group I joined decided skills, such as understanding and making arguments, balancing multiple viewpoints, and analyzing sources, remain constant, but require more scaffolding at earlier stages. Later stages should involve more advanced concepts, but the difference is one of degree.

While pre-transfer and transfer-level students need instruction in reading, the focus shifts. Teachers of basic skills should spend more time on reading strategies, such as exploring what students know about a topic, what they want to know, and what they learned (KWL), or previewing, predicting and confirming (PPC). Basic skills students also need extensive training in underlining and annotation. Transfer level students require these but in condensed versions. They should also be able to analyze the context of a work and extend and challenge an author’s ideas.

With writing, pre-transfer students must know the essentials of an essay: thesis, introduction, topic sentences, and conclusions. They must summarize, paraphrase and quote source material. Transfer-level students should do the same, but also synthesize material from various sources and use MLA formatting. With regards to grammar, pre-transfer level students must be able to manage verb tenses, subject-verb agreement, sentence boundaries, and homonyms. Transfer level students need the same, plus sentence focus, verbal phrases, and parallelism.

These distinctions are useful, yet even students at pre-transfer classes should delve into higher level skills, such as identifying faulty reasoning. On the other hand, if teachers recognize that transfer level students are struggling with sentence boundaries, they must invest time there. In short, a teacher should know the difference between levels, but respond to the class. Teachers cannot just teach curriculum; they must teach the students in front of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *