In the early years of the new millennium, members of California State University's Early Assessment Program had a goal: They wanted to give a boost to 11th-graders who'd been identified as not academically ready for college. The idea was pretty simple: Give these students an effective reading and writing college-prep class as soon as they started their senior year of high school.

But to really prepare the teenagers, teachers needed a curriculum that enabled them to to teach reading and writing effectively.

Enter Nancy Brynelson, co-director of the CSU Center for the Advancement of Reading and Writing, who saw a win-win opportunity to help students and teachers.

The Expository Reading and Writing Task Force, under the leadership of John Edlund, Ph.D., a professor of rhetoric and composition at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, debuted in 2004 in partnership with California high schools, school districts and county offices of education.

After a lengthy period of development, the task force presented teaching materials that  were ready for the new curriculum—now called the Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum (ERWC)—and workshops were created so teachers could learn all about it.

That was 14 years ago. Since then, more than 14,000 educators have taken the four-day workshop, says Brynelson. Even more important: A study measuring the effectiveness of the course concluded that students who took it were more college-ready than those who'd enrolled in other college-prep English courses.

The EWRC, now led by Jennifer Fletcher, Ph.D., is the centerpiece of the CSU's academic preparation efforts in English and literacy and an important part of the CSU's Graduation Initiative 2025, an ambitious program to graduate more students in a timely way at all 23 campuses. 

Why It Works

What makes the EWRC curriculum so successful? It uses something called rhetorical inquiry to encourage critical thinking, Brynelson says: "The elements of a rhetorical inquiry are to ask, who is the audience? What is the purpose of this piece of writing? What is the occasion or context for this particular writing?"

Reading and writing are equally important in the curriculum, which aligns with state standards. "We don't read without writing, and we don't write without writing about something we've read," explains Brynelson, who adds that students also discuss what they're reading and writing.

To interest students and keep them motivated, the texts involve controversial and current topics—whether juveniles should be tried in courts as adults; the politics of food; racial profiling; and the removal of Confederate monuments. "We try to present issues that students can dig their teeth into," Brynelson notes. 

"All writing comes from a perspective," she says. "You have to figure out what the author is doing so that you can understand the context of the writing and decide if you agree or not."

High school teacher Rachel Nguyen, who works near Sacramento, attests to the effectiveness of the program. "The power of the ERWC is that it is designed to reach every student," Nguyen says. "I have had students year after year return to tell me how well the strategies they learned in ERWC helped them thrive in college."

"We're doing high-level thinking, with complex topics that are interesting and engaging, with enough support so that students can be successful," says Brynelson.

The curriculum is so popular that the team has been asked to create a course for grade 11 and units for grades 7 to 10, so students can learn the essentials of reading and writing even earlier.

Learn more about the Expository Reading and Writing Course.