Putting Students in Control by Redesigning Developmental English

by Brenda Refaei - Associate Professor at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College / Mar 4, 2020

A significant critique of developmental English is that it prevents students from achieving their dream of a college education (Hodara and Smith Jaggars, 2014). What some of these critiques overlook are the students who want and need more literacy support.

What some of these critiques overlook are the students who want and need more literacy support."

For a variety of reasons, some students who attended American high schools did not learn the academic literacy practices helpful in college, and often these are underrepresented racially minoritized students. In order to engage in academic literacy practices commonly used in college, some students can usually benefit from additional instruction and support.

The question facing developmental educators and researchers is what approaches to teaching work best in helping students develop their literacy practices while honoring their home languages and dialects. The National Center for Academic Transformation (2005) described an “emporium model” that is often adopted in mathematics classes where lectures are replaced with on-demand, personalized learning, with accompanying instructors who provide individualized assistance.

My colleague, Dr. Ruth Benander, and I adapted the emporium model to our lowest-level developmental writing course offered at our college. Most students in this course are underrepresented minoritized students who graduated from local high schools. About half of these students are native English speakers and the other half speak English as a second or third language. In our redesigned course, students work through four modules designed to encourage them to apply the academic literacy practices required for the first-year college writing course in the context of their interests.

Each module follows the same basic structure. Students first read the prompt and reflect on what their writing goals are for the module. They then select an expository text from a news outlet such as National Public Radio or The Conversation that interests them. Students read the article or articles they have chosen and complete a reading log, which allows the instructor to work with them to develop their reading comprehension of expository texts. Students then generate ideas about the topic of their article that they want to share with others.

An outlining activity helps students organize their thoughts before they write. They use the outline as they draft their essay in a Google Doc that is shared with the instructor and other students. When students are ready, they ask for peer and instructor feedback on their writing. This process lets the instructor know whether the students are writing to be placed in the next developmental course or if they are writing to place into the first-year composition course. Students use the feedback they receive from their peers and instructor to revise their work. All of their process work for each assignment is collected and displayed in an e-portfolio on Google Sites. The e-portfolio has been identified as a high-impact practice (Eynon and Gambino, 2017) that is especially useful at narrowing achievement gaps for underrepresented minoritized students and their white counterparts.  

This redesign of our lowest-level basic writing course puts students in control of their learning. They determine the topics they read and write about and the way in which they present their knowledge to others, as well as how quickly they progress through the developmental writing sequence. Some students opt to take the next level of developmental writing to hone their language and writing skills, while others are eager to begin their required first-year writing course.

Enthusiastic students who want to start the first-year writing course need to complete a portfolio that demonstrates their readiness for the course. This portfolio is reviewed by a team of composition instructors. Most of the students who want to progress to first-year composition can produce the writing that places them in the course. We know from tracking students that underrepresented minoritized students who place into first-year composition from the developmental course have the same success rates as students who were placed directly into the composition course.


Eynon, B. & Gambino, L.M. (2017). High Impact ePortfolio Practice: A Catalyst for Student, Faculty, and Institutional Learning. Sterling, VA Stylus.

Hodara, M. & Smith Jaggars, S. (2014). An Examination of the Impact of Accelerating Community College Students’ Progression through Developmental Education. The Journal of Higher Education 85.2, 246-276.

National Center for Academic Transformation. (2005). How to Redesign a Developmental Math Program Using the Emporium Model. The National Center for Academic Transformation.


Brenda Refaei is an Engaging Excellence in Equity Fellow who has participated in convenings designed to identify culturally responsive practices and further support-building evidence and capacity for this work. Learn more about this project.