Rhetorical Literacy, Writing for Transfer, and the Possibilities of “ePortfolio as Curriculum”

Michelle Henry

For decades, Janet Lauer, Andrea Lunsford, and other compositionists (2000) have shown us that students write to know more and to achieve goals within specific contexts, or “worlds” (everyday, public, academic, and work). To achieve these ends, student writers navigate a process of rhetorical decision-making (invention, discovery, situating/contextualizing, and collaboration), developing deeper learning, self-authorship, and self-efficacy. The decisions that student writers make, from forming questions that begin their inquiries to their final revision plans, help them to recognize themselves as writers in real communities of practice, as agents of change, not just tourists moving passively through a course and its assignment requirements.

The big question is, then, how do we do this? How do we help student writers who are cognizant of their own proficiencies and who have the “ability to repurpose or transform prior knowledge about writing for a new audience, purpose, and context” (Bass & Moore, 2017, p. 2)?  The Rhetoric and Composition Department’s Professional Development Committee, chaired by Doris Jones, has been asking this question for a few years now. The 2019 CLT-RHET Teaching for Transfer workshops helped us to examine threshold concepts and their applications for teaching (Wardle & Adler-Kassner, 2015). In 2020, our department engaged in a series of conversations with powerful young luminaries in the field—Drs. Jesse Moore, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak—who have shared their work and inspired us to examine the question of transfer and its potential for application more closely and develop in our own undergraduate writing program (Yancey, Robertson, & Taczak, 2014; Bass & Moore, 2017).  

During our two-year-long conversation, several references were made to the Elon Statement on Writing Transfer (2014) which identifies some key findings on research in teaching for transfer:

  • Prior knowledge is a complex construct that can benefit or hinder writing transfer. 
  • Individual dispositions and individual identity play key roles in transfer.
  • Successful writing transfer occurs when a writer can transform rhetorical knowledge and rhetorical awareness into performance. 
  • Students’ meta-awareness often plays a key role in transfer, and reflective writing promotes preparation for transfer and transfer-focused thinking.
  • The importance of meta-cognition of available identities, situational awareness, audience awareness, etc., become even more critical in writing transfer between languages… (emphasis mine)

This is not an exhaustive list of findings, but they are the most relevant for this conversation. The implications for successful writing instruction are that our courses and the tasks we assign must help students to synthesis their prior knowledge with what they are learning now; we should explicitly teach rhetorical strategies so that all students, but especially second-language users, can develop greater awareness of the elements of the rhetorical situation and available choices (genre, purpose, audience, writer position/identities, context, etc.); and teaching students how to write reflections and requiring reflective writing are essential to students’ development of “transfer-focused thinking.” While many approaches consider these implications, “ePortfolio as curriculum” is one of the most promising because it not only has a substantial body of literature supporting its implementation and efficacy, but it is highly adaptable to the needs of different programs and students.    

Identified as the 11th High Impact Practice, the ePortfolio in higher education has been around for a while now, and its applications could change the way we think about teaching Rhetoric and Composition. ePortfolio describes an actual genre of academic and professional writing (a product), but it also refers to a set of practices in which instructors and students engage (a discursive process). Yancey and Rhodes (2019) describe it appropriately as “curriculum” which suggests a broader understanding of how students’ learning experiences operate in tandem with their formal delivered course of study. Many studies have illustrated how the process of developing the ePortfolio can help student writers to “document and organize their experiences, strengthening memorability; tease out and perceive connections among the thread of experiences; discern goals and consider development; and develop an intentionally integrated vision for themselves as professionals” (Yancy & Rhodes, 2019, p. 108). It is important to note that not all approaches to ePortfolios will deliver these outcomes. Some have used ePortfolios as a repository of all the student work; others have used “ePortfolios as wrapper,” where learning that happened is represented. The kind of ePortfolio work through which learning happens and writing transfers must by design include:

  • Giving a place for prior knowledge: Students are encouraged to mine their histories, to acknowledge that these form a current identity which informs what writing positions are available to them and how these identities connect to present and future learning.
  • Coherent curation: Students learn and make choices about the selection, placement, and contextualization of artifacts, which are vital to creating a coherent learning narrative.    
  • Critical analysis: Students learn about the dimensions of the genres in context, purpose, and possible audiences (peers, instructor, family, future professors, potential employers, and social networks) and ways that the text may be adapted for different contexts.  
  • Two-fold reflection: Students learn how to reflect on rhetorical choices they made in the document itself (visual layout, written text, artifact curation, etc.), on personal learning, and, more importantly, on application of this knowledge in other contexts.
  • Community collaboration: In conversations with the instructor, with peers, and perhaps with other audiences, student writers explain their choices, reexamine those choices, and make critical decisions for revision, while analyzing and responding to the texts produced by other students.

Through the process of ePortfolio making, students will become more confident about their learning, more cognizant of their available identities, and more adept at navigating various rhetorical contexts, especially in digital spaces.

I cannot imagine a more critical time for us to engage students in practices to help them develop rhetorical literacy through the process of ePortfolios making. Yes, it is a very different product from the traditional academic essay, but it has powerful potential to engage students in “negotiating new knowledge, new identities, and new communities largely through building their portfolios and engaging in the reflection that accompanies this building” (Yancy & Rhodes, 2019, p. 192).



  • Lauer, J. M. et al. (2000). Four worlds of writing: Inquiry and action in context (Fourth ed.). Reading: Pearson Custom Publishing.
  • Wardle, E. A., Adler-Kassner, L., & Project Muse. (2015). Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Utah State University Press.
  • Yancey, K. B., Robertson, L., & Taczak, K. (2014). Writing across contexts: Transfer, composition, and cultures of writing. Utah State University Press.
  • Yancey, K. B., & Rhodes, T. (2019). ePortfolio as curriculum: Models and practices for developing students' ePortfolio literacy (First ed.). Stylus.