Basic writing

Basic writing, or developmental writing, is a discipline of composition studies which focuses on the writing of students sometimes otherwise called "remedial" or "underprepared", usually freshman college students.


Defining Basic Writing

Sometimes called “remedial” or “developmental” writing, basic writing (BW) was developed in the 1970s, generally under the constraints of open admissions policies. Basic writing courses are meant to help students come to a basic understanding and familiarity with formal written English. BW students can be categorized two ways: 1) students coming straight from high school, who did not develop a basic competency in formal written English before graduation and who placed below average on a college writing placement test, and 2) non-traditional students who are older than average college freshman and who are coming to college for the first time in order to further their education in the hopes of gaining the skills necessary for better employment and earning more money. These are generally students that may have full-time jobs, come to classes at night, and may have children, and perhaps be a single parent. In some cases non-native and ESL students are also considered basic writers, because of their unfamiliarity with the English language, let alone formal written English (sometimes identified as standard English).

BW students are usually characterized by a lack of understanding of the rules of formal written English which may manifest itself in non-traditional syntax, grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, mechanics, organization, and clarity. Mina Shaughnessy, a pioneer in the field of basic writing, characterized basic writers as “those that had been left so far behind the others in their formal education that they appeared to have little chance of catching up, students whose difficulty with the written language seemed of a different order from those of the other groups, as if they had come, you might say, from a different country, or at least through different schools, where even modest standards of high-school literacy had not been met."[1] However, BW is also a relative term. What might be considered freshman-level writing at one university might be characterized as basic writing at another, or even advanced writing at another, depending on the ability of the general student population and university standards.

Basic Writing is also a field of study. The research in the field probes into the concerns of teachers and students on the academic margins. Deborah Mutnick explains about Basic Writing:

“It signifies struggles for inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity; debates over standards and linguistic hegemony; the exploitation of faculty and staff on the academic margins; and the policies that opened and not threatened to close higher education’s doors to masses of people. It has played a key role not only in providing opportunities for research on adult literacy but also in illuminating the politics of writing in terms of race, class, ethnicity, and other social structures that would have remained invisible in the mostly white, middle –class classrooms that have traditionally constituted the “mainstream.”


History of Basic Writing

The creation of basic writing courses in colleges across the United States is largely the result of the creation of open-admissions policies that no longer required academic standards be set for entrance into college. The first to start such a program was the City University of New York (CUNY). Before opening their campus to all those who wanted higher education, regardless of previous academic performance, CUNY had instituted the SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) which was designed as a pre-collegiate program that was meant to prepare students, who were not yet ready to enter the university, for full admission. However, with the advent of open admissions in 1970 there was no longer a need for pre-collegiate classes, so the program transformed into a course taken by those admitted to the university who did not place well on admissions placement tests. The writing program that stemmed from this transformation became known as a basic writing course because it dealt not with preparing highly literate students for upper-level course work, but with the teaching the very basics of written communication.

Since the late seventies, many colleges and universities have created open admissions policies, and have in turn created BW programs across the country. However, from the very beginning there has been large opposition to open admissions policies. Open admissions detractors have prevailed at some colleges and universities, overturning open admissions policies. As a result, BW course have either been eliminated entirely from the curriculum or have been relegated to community colleges.

Major theorists

Mina P. Shaughnessy

Mina P. Shaughnessy (pronounced MY-NA SHAWN-ES-EE), involved with the SEEK program at CUNY, was a proponent of open admissions for City College (part of the CUNY system) and became director of the BW program once City College opened its doors to all. Shaughnessy worked hard not only to design a curriculum for students that seemed alien to the professors that literally did not know what to do with students who seemed not to be able to put two words together, in some cases, but to understand and categorize the characteristics of basic writers in order to understand them better, and be able to teach them more effectively. For this purpose, Shaughnessy compiled four-thousand placement essays written by students as part of the entrance process into City College and classified the seeming errors that she found, trying to understand the logic behind spelling, syntax, grammar, etc., that seemed, at best, scattered and, at worst, completely arbitrary. She published her results in the book Errors and Expectations (1977). Her main conclusion is that these writers are not scattered or arbitrary, but that they have created systems of written English based on misunderstood rules, half-understood lessons on punctuation, their own local or familial dialects, among others, and have logically created their own systems of written English. It is not that these students do not understand communication, but they simply have not been taught or have misunderstood the rules of written formal English that are generally accepted. Shaughnessy’s work was considered groundbreaking and Errors and Expectations is still considered the seminal book in the field of BW. And although she died in 1978, and other scholars have made contributions to the field, Shaughnessy remains its leading figure today.

Mina P. Shaughnessy is arguably the most prominent name in the field of BW. She helped create the atmosphere of academic respectability BW needed to become recognized as a legitimate scholarly field. Her 1977 book, Errors and Expectations, set the tone for much (if not all) of the BW scholarship that followed. BW scholars, whether they agree with Shaughnessy or not, are still responding to her.

The ‘‘‘Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing’’’ includes this annotation for Errors and Expectations:

“Shaughnessy takes teachers through writing problems such as poor handwriting and punctuation, syntax, common errors, spelling and vocabulary errors, and lack of idea development. While her focus is primarily on error, it is underscored by a sensitive understanding of the reasons behind the rhetorical and linguistic difficulties discussed and a strong belief in the inherent intelligence of learners described as ‘basic writers.’ Shaughnessy's claims about the difficulties faced by basic writers are supported by examples from thousands of student papers. Examples of many kinds of errors are provided. Each chapter also includes suggestions for the teacher on how to reduce the particular kind of error discussed in that specific chapter. Shaughnessy also explains why these errors occur by examining the rules that are manifested in students' writing. The book also contains an appendix that includes suggestions for placement essay topics and also contains suggested readings for the teacher of basic writing.” [1]

All in all, Shaughnessy saw disadvantaged students as being intelligent (though scholastically under-prepared). She resolutely held that such students could be taught how to effectively write. It is teachers of BW and not BW students that need to radically alter their views toward the teaching and learning of writing. In her 1976 speech, "Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing", she asserted that “teachers (need to) realize and accept the need to remediate themselves regarding the needs and learning styles of basic writers.” [2]

Shaughnessy controversy

From the ‘‘‘Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing’’’:

“Min-Zhan Lu's 1992 article ‘Conflict and Struggle: The Enemies or Preconditions of Basic Writing?’ [3] inspired a flurry of feminist, Marxist, and poststructuralist reexaminations of Mina Shaughnessy's work. These critiqued Shaughnessy on three counts: for forwarding an ‘essentialist’ conception of language that separates thought from expression and views discourse as a transparent vessel for meaning; for promoting basic writers' accommodation to mainstream linguistic standards and thereby minimizing the political dimensions of language use; and for overlooking materialist considerations such as the economic, social, and institutional issues surrounding basic writers and the teaching of basic writing.” [4]

To be fair, we should note that Lu’s critique applied to other big names in the field of BW including Mike Rose (see below).

Other notable scholars of BW, however, like Laura Gray-Rosendale have claimed that such critiques of Shaughnessy do not hold much critical weight. “Shaughnessy’s works,” themselves, she claims, “render ambiguous if not outright defy many such negative characterizations.” [5]. Also, David Bartholomae (see below) has defended Shaughnessy’s emphasis on error in BW students’ writing (though he still advocates refocusing BW to help students learn various academic dialects). Adjusting the focus a bit, “Bartholomae extends Mina Shaughnessy's hope that teachers, especially basic writing teachers, will examine how they view errors in student writing. For example, he suggests that teachers who cannot understand student prose do not read the prose as complex texts and thus do not find the logic at work in many errors.” [6]

David Bartholomae

David Bartholomae is Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Bartholomae’s most-referenced publication about BW is the book chapter “Inventing the University.” The following is a selection from that chapter:

“Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion--invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English. The student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community. Or perhaps I should say the various discourses of our community, since it is in the nature of a liberal arts education that a student, after the first year or two, must learn to try on a variety of voices and interpretive schemes--to write, for example, as a literary critic one day and as an experimental psychologist the next; to work within fields where the rules governing the presentation of examples or the development of an argument are both distinct and, even to the professional, mysterious. The student has to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse, and he has to do this as though he were easily and comfortably one with his audience, as though he were a member of the academy or an historian or an anthropologist or an economist; he has to invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, on the one hand, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline, on the other hand. He must learn to speak our language. Or he must dare to speak it or to carry off the bluff, since speaking and writing will most certainly be required long before the skill is ‘learned.’ And this, understandably, causes problems.” [7]

Bartholomae asserts that (though important) error should not determine the efforts of or relationship between BW teachers and their students. Rather, BW teachers should recognize that the language they demand from their BW students (typically short, direct, non-abstruse sentences) is not the language that they (the teachers) typically write and publish in. Students experience such disconnect between what they learn from their writing classes and what their discipline specific course require of them that they are often left to their own devices to figure out how to write acceptably in any given discipline. To resolve this, Bartholomae believes that BW teachers should immerse their students with academic writing (peer reviewed journal articles, book chapters, etc.). BW students thus get healthy exposure to sufficient sums of “academic” language in a teacher-assisted environment. This, Bartholomae claims, should help BW students make the transition more quickly to start writing “academically.”

Mike Rose

Mike Rose is Professor of Social Research Methodology at UCLA. He is best known in the BW community for his part autobiographical/part pedagogically philosophical book, ‘‘Lives on the Boundary.’’

The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing offers this annotation:

“This examination of the idea of ‘underpreparedness’ in a range of educational schools and systems also explores Rose's own experiences as a student who was erroneously placed in the vocational education track. He suggests that lower-track classes create a self-fulfilling prophesy for most students who might, if challenged to succeed, do well in advanced classes. Among the issues Rose discusses are the problems encountered by students whose improvised backgrounds provide little context for the ideas and language they encounter in the academy. By explaining his personal challenges and his experiences with various mentors, Rose illustrates how he worked to master academic language and ideas. Rose uses his experiences as a student and a teacher as evidence for a critique of conceptions of literacy used in contemporary education. He suggests that students labeled "underprepared" are inexperienced with the expectations of the academy, that literacy crises running through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were manufactured and deflect other concerns, and that schools must work with students differently.” [8]

Rose’s main interests in the study of thinking and learning include the, “study of the factors -- cognitive, linguistic, socio-historical, and cultural -- that enhance or limit people's engagement with written language.” As well as, “The development of pedagogies and materials to enhance critical reading and writing, particularly at the secondary and post-secondary level, and particularly with ‘underprepared’ or ‘at risk’ populations.” [9]

Additionally, Rose has argued for the term basic writing as opposed to the terms "developmental" or "remedial" which have the connotations of medical terminology:

"This atomistic, medical model of language is simply not supported by more recent research in language and cognition. But because the teaching of writing - particularly teaching designated remedial has been conceptually, and [...] administratively segmented from the rich theoretical investigation that characterizes other humanistic study, these assumptions have rarely been subjected to rigorous and comprehensive scrutiny."[3]

See also

External links

Basic Writing E-journal (BWe)]


  1. ^ Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations. New York: Oxford UP, 1977, p. 2
  2. ^ Deborah Mutnick (2001). Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, Kurt Schick. ed. A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Oxford University Press. p. 183. 
  3. ^ Rose, Mike (1989). Lives on the Boundary. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 210–211. ISBN 01401.24039. 

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