Self-Directed Language Development: A Study of First-Year College Writers


First- Year Composition, FYC, language development, students


Students in first-year composition (FYC) courses are expected to control the mechanics, vocabulary, style, and grammatical accuracy of their writing. Yet language development support, particularly that of grammar instruction in US FYC courses, has largely disappeared in recent decades, due in part to suppositions that students implicitly know grammar. This assumption is problematic given the increasing number of multilingual writers enrolling in US schools with observed needs for explicit language instruction. The present study explores whether first- and second-language writers of English perceived a need for language instruction and whether they wanted or expected it. Students from 12 sections of FYC were asked in surveys and interviews about their prior language learning experiences and current self-perceived language needs and then were asked to complete one of two self-directed language development projects (LDPs): an online, self-selected grammar and usage study project or journal entries focusing on vocabulary/style in texts they had read. Student work was collected, analyzed, and supplemented with students' end-of-term observations and preferences about self-directed LDPs. Our findings reveal that students overwhelmingly wanted and expected language instruction and were largely positive about both types of LDPs, but they felt that language instruction should be offered in multiple delivery methods beyond just self-study. With these findings in mind, we offer pedagogical suggestions for addressing the perceived and real needs for language development of linguistically diverse FYC students.

Original Publication Citation

Ferris, D., Eckstein, G., DeHond, G. (2017). Self-directed language development: A study of first-year college writers. Research in the Teaching of English, 51(4), 418-440.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



National Council of Teachers of English







University Standing at Time of Publication

Associate Professor