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How Should Basic Writers be Taught to Write, and What Kind of Writing Should They Do?

by Elizabeth Moody and Alison Bennett

The methods one selects for teaching basic writers to write will depend on one’s views on what makes certain students “basic writers,” what constitutes basic writing, and the purposes of writing instruction in general.

Several approaches to teaching basic writing are outlined below.

Many scholars and instructors adhere to the traditional view that the purpose of writing courses in general, and the basic writing course in particular, is to teach students to produce academic writing.

Others contend that students in basic writing courses may benefit from other types of writing; some believe that an exclusive focus on academic writing may be detrimental.

The Building Block/Foundational Approach

Many of the early treatises on basic writing, assuming the necessity and value of teaching basic writers to produce error-free pieces of academic writing, focused on surface-level errors, “correctness,” and what they considered students’ unpreparedness or underpreparedness for college-level writing. For instance, Mina Shaughnessy’s seminal Errors and Expectations (1970), widely considered to be the first significant work to provide guidelines to teachers of basic writing, contains the following chapter divisions:

1. Handwriting and Punctuation

2. Syntax

3. Common Errors

4. Spelling

5. Vocabulary

6. Beyond the Sentence.

Shaughnessy devotes most of the body of Errors to conformity to surface conventions, an approach to which many scholars, instructors and administrators have since taken exception. However, it should be noted that, as she explains, Shaughnessy felt that while adhering to these conventions was not necessarily the most important component of student writing, many if not most instructors tended to notice error first and above all else. Thus, by teaching students to avoid error in their writing, Shaughnessy felt that instructors were removing a barrier to fair, comprehensive analysis of the quality of their writing. In addition, in this model, which has been called the “linear” or “building block” model, sentence-level concerns are viewed as inherently basic concepts which writers must master before they can successfully proceed to more complex concerns such as voice, style, organization, argumentation, and integration of complex ideas from assigned reading or other sources. Many later scholars, influenced by Shaughnessy’s work, continued the emphasis on remediation of error in student writing.

How Instructors Relying on the Building Block Approach Might Structure Basic Writing Courses

Those who believe that writing should be learned in a linear fashion, beginning with the “basics” of grammar, punctuation, etc., often structure basic writing programs and courses around such assignments as workbooks or worksheets designed to teach students these basics. These assignments may require students to fill in blanks with the word or punctuation mark which renders a sentence grammatically correct; or they may provide students with examples of flawed sentences and ask to generate better or more correct ways of expressing the idea contained in each sentence. Students may also be asked to write simple, brief pieces of narrative or descriptive writing designed to demonstrate their mastery of the fundamental concepts which they have been taught. In these classes, students may be assigned little or no reading other than that which is necessary to teach them the fundamentals of academic language and usage, in keeping with the theory that basic writers are not prepared to articulate or engage with complex ideas until they have mastered the basics of grammar and mechanics.


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

Objections to Foundation/Building Block Models

The efficacy and theoretical underpinnings of the building block model have been challenged by a diverse body of scholars. Some feel that an emphasis on basic skills fails to bolster students’ confidence in their ability to write because they know the work they are producing is not “college-level” writing and thus take little pride in their work, expecting basic writing assignments to be rote and unchallenging. Others take issue with the contention that teaching grammar and mechanics before other topics represents the natural or ideal progression of writing instruction.


Bartholomae, 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.

Farrell, Thomas J. “Literacy, the Basics, and All That Jazz.” College English 38 (1977): 443–45.

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

Universal Design Principles in Basic Writing Course Planning

Foundation/building block models have come to be viewed as obstacles to academic access, especially for culturally marginalized students. Critics view foundationally designed basic writing programs as “gate-keepers” that segregate and stigmatize those who are placed in them because instruction tends to negate cultural literary heritages. Also, while students pay tuition to take these classes, they often are not applicable toward undergraduate degrees. More and more, composition theorists and educators see a need for a basic writing curriculum modeled on the principles of Universal Design theory. Universal Design theory maintains that the best designs have maximum accessibility planned into their structure rather than added in as an appendage. Applied to basic writing, this would envision basic writing courses not as foundational precursors to academic work, but as an organic part of it.

Some Further Discussions about Universal Design in Basic Writing Programs

by Alison Bennett

Bruch, Patrick. “Universality in Basic Writing: Connecting Multicultural Justice, Universal Instructional Design and Classroom Practices.” Basic Writing e-Journal 5.1 (Spring 2004).

McAlexander, Patricia. “Using Principles of Universal Design in College Composition Courses.” Basic Writing e-Journal 5.1 (Spring 2004).

Studio Methods for using Universal Design in Basic Writing Programs:

Attempting to avoid the “segregating” aspects of strictly foundational models, some basic writing programs employ a studio method. Studio models allow basic writing students to enroll in general first-year composition classes but supplement instruction with smaller group tutoring sessions. These smaller groups function like “labs,” their purpose being to work through foundational problems.

Other programs include no courses which are recognizably “basic writing” as such. All first-year students are enrolled in regular first-year composition. Writing centers provide support at the foundational skill level for those who need it.

None of these models isolate basic writers from authentic college work by cordoning them off from the “regular” student body into classes that deal strictly with foundational issues.

Working models of Universal Design Writing Programs:

Department of Kent State University

Integrated Basic Writing at the English Department at the University of South Carolina

Two Semester Sequential Basic Writing Course at the English Depart of Ball State University

General Discussion on Program Models:

Lalicker, William B. “A Basic Introduction To Basic Writing Program Structures: A Baseline and Five Alternative” Basic Writing e-Journal 1.2 (Winter 1999).

Learning by Doing

Contrary to the linear nature of the building block model, other scholars feel that, rather than being judged on, and forced to focus their energy on, adhering to surface conventions, basic writers should be immersed in the discourses of academia in order to learn to incorporate and mimic academic language. For instance, David Bartholomae argues that, while basic writers may lack an understanding of the rules of grammar and mechanics, their unfamiliarity with the rules of academic discourse is of much greater consequence given the high value placed on that discourse in the college context. Thus, he argues, students should be allowed to experiment with academic discourse even when the results fall far short of expectations.

Underlying Bartholomae’s argument is the assumption that, although basic writers are not fluent in academic discourses, they are fluent in other discourses (rather than being non-verbal or linguistically deficient) and thus should learn academic language in the way that other discourses are learned—-through a holistic approach which exposes students to these discourses and allows them to imitate them, developing greater fluency as they progress.

Instructors who wish to employ Bartholomae’s model of basic writing instruction might assign significant amounts of manageable academic reading to their students, treating the classroom as a democratic space in which students learn to decipher academic writing and to recognize and engage differences between their own discourses, experiences and identities and those of the instructor and the academy. Students may critique the conventions of academic discourses rather than simply internalizing them or parroting them. Writing assignments might ask students to respond to pieces of academic writing from a position that takes account of students’ experiences rather than from the supposedly neutral position of an academic insider.


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

Bartholomae, David. “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum.” Journal of Basic Writing 12.1 (1993): 4-21.

Objections to and Perceived Limitations of Academic Writing

Despite profound differences between, the models of writing instruction proposed by Shaughnessy and Bartholomae (along with many others) both assume or argue that teaching academic writing is the rightful business of the academy. However, the view that the goal of the basic writing classroom is to produce students capable of creating academic writing is itself the subject of much debate. Many believe that composition classrooms should focus on academic writing because it emphasizes critical thinking, enables students to participate in academic debates in ways that other discourses would not, and trains students to produce academic work and therefore eventually to become scholars themselves. However, increasingly, other teachers and scholars argue that such an emphasis on academic discourse fails to empower students the students whom it is supposed to help because it strips away the value and emotional power of other discourses, instead emphasizing the technical, bland language of academic writing as authoritative. In addition, treating the language of academia as authoritative may be seen as privileging dominant ideologies.


Bartholomae, David, and Peter Elbow. “Interchanges: Responses to Bartholomae and Elbow.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 84–92.

“Contact Zones”

In a similar vein, Mary Louise Pratt conceives of the college classroom as a potential “contact zone,” which she defines as a “social space where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (34). In the context of the basic writing classroom, a pedagogy based on the notion of the “contact zone,” in which students belonging to marginalized groups can respond to the ways in which they are represented by a dominant group or culture, may best bridge the gap between primary discourses and academic discourses.

This approach may be of particular appeal to instructors of ESOL students? and/or speakers of non-standard varieties of English. Rather than conveying to students that their primary discourses are “wrong” or full of “errors” and therefore in need of “correction,” the “contact zone” validates students’ primary modes of speech, writing, perception and representation while asking them to examine their own discourses alongside others. Since many instructors and scholars feel that what they perceive as students’ resistance to learning academic language for fear of being assimilated into the alien system of academia and of losing their linguistic, ethnic and/or class identities poses as great a challenge to teachers of basic writing as does students’ unfamiliarity with academic conventions, the “contact zone” approach may help to lessen that resistance and break down these students’ internal barriers to improved academic writing.

Another objection to academic writing is the notion that students should learn to develop their own unique voices rather than simply to mimic others’; thus, some scholars feel that students should not be asked to mask their own experiences and discourses in order to produce acceptable academic writing but should be encouraged to draw on them. Although familiar discourses in their pure form may be too non-linear for use in academic writing, students may learn to combine the discourses into a form of academic writing which is sufficiently linear yet more sensitive to multicultural issues and potentially richer and more powerful than the bland language of the academy alone. Thus, some scholars argue that non-academic discourses and/or mixed or hybrid discourses—mixtures of academic and familiar discourses—should be treated by writing instructors as being of equal value to academic discourse.


Bizzell, Patricia. “Basic Writing and the Issue of Correctness, Or, What to Do with ‘Mixed’ Forms of Academic Discourse.” Journal of Basic Writing 19.1 (2000): 4-12.

Bizzell, Patricia. “Cognition, Convention, and Certainty: What We Need to Know about Writing.” Pre/Text 3.3 (1982): 213-43.

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

Maxson, Jeffrey. “‘Government of da Peeps, for da Peeps, and by da Peeps’” Revisiting the Contact Zone.” Journal of Basic Writing 24.1 (2005)

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession 91 (1993): 33–40.

Ribble, Marcia. “Redefining Basic Writing: An Image Shift from Error to Rhizome.” Basic Writing e-Journal 3.1 (2001).

Shor, Ira. “Our Apartheid: Writing Instruction and Inequality.” Journal of Basic Writing 16.1 (1997): 91-104.

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