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Defining Basic Writing and Writers

Designing Courses

What is Basic Writing and Who Are Basic Writers?

by Elizabeth Moody

Basic writing can be loosely characterized as student writing, usually at the college level, which falls short of some set of expectations established by instructors or administrators. However, different scholars take different views on which expectations must be met in order for a student to avoid characterization as a basic writer. In turn, these different views on what makes certain students basic writers lead to disparate convictions regarding how basic writing should be taught.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, when many American colleges and universities began to loosen or do away entirely with their admissions criteria, instructors and administrators became frustrated at the significant numbers of students who needed “remedial” instruction in composition. Many regarded these students as linguistically deficient, sometimes illiterate to an extent that was irremediable. Early basic writing theorists challenged these notions, characterizing basic writers instead as underprepared for the specific demands of academic writing at the college level.

Many of these early scholars characterized basic writers as those who lacked “basic” skills in standard written English or in academic discourse, such as in grammar, spelling, and mechanics. Mina Shaughnessy envisioned basic writing as a foundation course, upon which students could build skills that would make them capable of doing university work in the future. Shaughnessy recommended that basic writing classes extend over two sequential semesters. The first semester classes would address student writing problems at the paragraph, or even sentence level, focusing upon such issues such as syntax, punctuation, grammar, and vocabulary. Content issues that characterize academic writing like critical reading or using external sources to support a position were taught during the second semester. Foundational course designs commonly reflect current-traditional theories of composition.1

To some extent, many instructors and administrators still adhere to such a definition of basic writers, devoting basic writing courses largely to grammar exercises and related activities, implicitly endorsing the “foundational” or “building block” model proposed by Shaughnessy.

Another view, however, holds that basic writers are students who are unprepared for ‘academic writing,’ although they may understand and use the conventions of standard written English in their writing. For instance, David Bartholomae argued that beginning university students may initially have difficulty with academic writing because they are only beginning to learn to “[mimic] the language and interpretive systems of the privileged community” of academia. According to Bartholomae, students’ writing will tend to improve once students learn to replace their familiar modes of discourse with “the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community.”2

A related, more recent view construes many basic writers as students who are academic outsiders not only because they are new to the academic community and therefore to the conventions of academic writing, but also because their familiar discourses differ from those expected and accepted by academia. Thus, ethnic, racial and linguistic minorities as well as students from lower-class or working-class backgrounds may be placed into basic writing courses both because of their unfamiliarity and/or difficulties with academic language and because their familiar means of thought, expression and understanding are judged within the academy as inferior, “non-academic” modes of expression. Such judgments in turn may lead in turn to the students’ increasing sense of disempowerment as they internalize the perception that their backgrounds, values and discursive practices are not valued in academic contexts. However, while most scholars to address the issue believe that composition instructors should make clear that they value students’ “home languages,” there is much debate about how to go about doing so if, in fact, the business of the academy is to teach academic writing.


1Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

2Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985. 134-65.


Adler-Kassner, Linda. “The Shape of the Form: Working-Class Students and the Academic Essay.” Teaching Working Class. Ed. Sherry Lee Linkon. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1999. 85–105.

Bartholomae, David, and Anthony Petrosky. Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts. Portsmouth: Boynton, 1986.

Bean, Janet, Maryann Cucchiara, Peter Elbow, Rhonda Grego, Rich Haswell, Patricia Irvine, Eileen Kennedy, Ellie Kutz, Al Lehner, and Paul Kei Matsuda. “Should We Invite Students to Write in Home Languages? Complicating the Yes/No Debate.” Composition Studies 31.1 (2003): 25–42.

Bloom, Lynn Z. “Freshman Composition as a Middle Class Enterprise.” College English 58.6 (1996): 654–75.

Fox, Tom. Defending Access: A Critique of Standards in Higher Education. Portsmouth:Boynton, 1999.

Harris, Joseph. “Negotiating the Contact Zone.” Journal of Basic Writing 14.1 (1995): 27–42.

Horner, Bruce. “Rethinking the ‘Sociality’ of Error: Teaching Editing as Negotiation.” Rhetoric Review 11.1 (1992): 172–99.

Lazere, Donald. “Back to Basics: A Force for Oppression or Liberation?” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001. 121-34.

Marinara, Martha. “When Working Class Students ‘Do’ the Academy: How We Negotiate with Alternative Literacies.” Journal of Basic Writing 16: 2 (1997): 3–16.

Rose, Mike. “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University.” College English 47.4 (1985): 341-59.

Young, Morris. “Narratives of Identity: Theorizing the Writer and the Nation.” Journal of Basic Writing 15.2 (1996): 50–75.

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