The capacity to write well is among the most universal of skill sets required in the modern workforce. At the same time, preparing students for writing across the multitude of contexts and modalities they will face in the 21st century economy is extremely challenging. It is a challenge worth investing in: Numerous studies over the past decade have demonstrated that raising national literacy rates have a profound effect on the productivity of the Canadian workforce, the quality of life of individual Canadians, and the size of the Canadian economy (Bloom, Burrows, Lafleur & Squires, 1997; TD Bank, 2007; Fisher & Engelman, 2009). TD Bank (2007) found, for example, that a “1% increase in literacy boosts productivity 2.5% and output 1.5%” (p. 14) leading to a $32 billion increase in income for each 1% increase in national literacy rates. Writing ability is an important part of that picture, defined by the National Commission on Writing (2004) as a threshold skill that factors into hiring and promotion decisions at 52% of the companies they surveyed. Further, as the Canadian economy moves toward knowledge-based and information-communication technology industries (Yan, 2005), highly-skilled workers are required to develop and demonstrate “the skills, strategies, dispositions, and social practices necessary to successfully use and adapt to the rapidly changing information and communication technologies and contexts that continuously emerge” (Leu, et al., 2012, p. 22). Most workers (62% of all employed adults in the United States, for example) use these new technologies mainly for job-related research and email (Madden & Jones, 2008). As the array of communications platforms utilized in the 21st century work place continues to expand, so do the learning challenges facing student writers today.
The great challenge of preparing 21st century writers is not to provide them with the skills they need to successfully write specific types of texts. Instead, we need to help them develop the skills necessary to learn how to write across the range of modalities (social media, email), genres (reports, letters) and contexts (social, business) they will be faced with when they transition from high school classrooms to university and college courses, and into the workforce. Historically the attrition rate at North American postsecondary institutions has been between 30-40%. One study in Ontario found that 77% of those students withdraw by the end of their first term, and that a major factor in their withdrawal was academic unpreparedness in literacy and mathematics (Fisher & Engelman, 2009). In fact, learning to write in postsecondary contexts is one of the most significant challenges students face in college. Sommers and Saltz (2004) found that the most important thing students learn about writing during their first year of college was that what made them successful in high school didn’t work for them in college. Beaufort makes similar claims about the challenges students face when transitioning from college to the workforce (Beaufort, 2007). A growing body of research supports their findings, suggesting that writing instruction across the K-postsecondary continuum is more often than not failing to provide students with the transferable knowledge about writing that will enhance how effectively they take up writing required of them in new contexts (Wardle, 2007). If we can learn how to better smooth the learning road as writers move across contexts, we can improve college retention rates, build student academic success, and increase workplace productivity.
This conference brings together representatives from industry, the post-secondary and secondary education systems, and government to discuss the challenges involved in preparing student writers to successfully transition from writing effectively in high school to writing effectively in college, university and the workplace. The ultimate goal of this conference is to map out gaps and synergies in writing curricula across these contexts so that we might begin to develop an approach to writing instruction within the province that better supports the development of student writers.