Recent Changes - Search:

CompFAQs Home

Basic Writing @ CompFAQs

Course (Re)Design

Teaching Strategies

edit SideBar

Utilizing Literature in the Classroom

Frank Perkins

Who are basic writers? What should happen in basic writing classes? Let these following researchers and professors answer this tough question.

  • Mina Shaughnessy
  • David Bartholomae
  • Karen L. Greenberg

Definition of basic writing. What should happen in Basic Writing Classes?

Using Literature in the classroom. How does benefit the students?

What are the best books to use in the basic writing classes?

Who are basic writers? What should happen in basic writing classes? Let the following researchers and professors answer these tough questions.

Mina Shaughnessy argues at the beginning of her book Errors and Expectations that basic writing students are merely beginners; these students are new to the academic setting which college offers these students. Shaughnessy writes the following about basic writing students: “These students are not slow or non-verbal but they are beginners” (Shaughnessy 4). In her book, Shaughnessy includes some information that basic writing teachers should focus on that would benefit their students: (1) syntax—sentence completion, basic word, order, advanced sentences, etc. (2) punctuation—basic quotation, academic quotation, inner punctuation (adverbial and adjective clauses, participles) (3) grammar—basic tense formation, irregular verbs, tense consistency, and pronoun usage (4) spelling-syllabification and basic spelling patterns (5) vocabulary—word class shifts, basic semantic content, formal idioms, and academic terms (6) order and development—sense of structure, spatial order, and basic abstract patterns (7) academic forms—paragraph, essay, review, and research paper (8) process—pre-writing, composing, and proofreading. (Shaughnessy 285).

David Bartholomae refers to basic writers as students who are placed in remedial composition courses (Bartholomae 62). It is hard for them to take on the role, persona, and voice of a more expert writer, they would need these courses to help strengthen their skills in these areas. This excerpt comes from Bartholomae’s essay Inventing the University. In this essay, he argues that each student will write differently throughout their academic career and these basic writing courses can help formulate the students with introductory skills in writing.

Karen Greenbergwrites that basic writing courses should increase students’ understanding of academic language and concepts; helping students develop more sophisticated ways of thinking, and increasing students’ sensitivity to the beauty of language and strengthening their positive attitudes towards reading and writing (Greenberg 90).

Definition of Basic Writing. What should happen in basic writing classes?

Basic writing classes should be viewed as an introduction to collegiate level writing. In basic writing classes, the student should be introduced to the essay as well as other concepts such as grammar, proofreading, syntax, style, and content. In this class, the students would write a number of essays including the narrative essay, the “how-to” essay, review essays (whether they are movie or book reviews), and persuasive essays. Teachers of basic writing prepare students for future academic courses whether these courses are in their specified major or minor area. As stated above by Greenberg, these courses should enhance the student’s “positive attitudes towards reading and writing” (Greenberg 90). This WIKI will serve as an advocate for using literature in the basic writing classes. Using literature in the classroom can help the student with analytical as well as comprehension skills and also in the following areas: grammar, syntax, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and their analytical skills would increase.

Using literature in the classroom: How is it beneficial?

Tate argues in his article, “A Place for Literature in College Composition,” that literature allows students’ creative juices to flow and allows students to further express themselves in a more comfortable and relaxed manner. The idea of using literature in the classroom can help students in what Shaughnessy considers the problematic writing areas and areas that need to be emphasized when teaching writing. For example, if a student is to read a number of short stories or even a couple of novels by different authors, the student would be able to uncover and define more complex words and to a more proper writing style. Miller also argues that “language skills are likely to improve if one is accustomed to reading what deserves to be read” (Miller 54). Miller argues that by using great literary texts, one is able to form better prose Miller later states that he realizes that using literature does not necessarily guarantee that each student would become dynamite writers yet he argues that by teaching writing; language skills are more apt to improve. Even though most dialogue in literature is at times grammatically incorrect and spoken mostly in vernacular, but by reading the author’s description of the locale and characters’ actions, the student can see the way in which this particular writer conducts sentences. All writers have their own style; however, the different styles between all writers allow the students to form their own specialized version of writing. Tate also states that he does not only like to use literature in the classroom; however, he is not opposed to using some literature (i.e. the reading of a novella, or the use of several short stories). I believe that students have the eligibility of finding their voice as well as becoming better acquainted with their own identity whilst reading literature in the classroom. They are able to formulate their own voice with the help of writers to which they can relate.

Authors such as Mary Soliday, as she discusses in her book Politics of Remediation, uses literature when discussing the descriptive essay. It is, with the reading of narratives, the student can see the author’s construction of their own experience. The teacher as well as the class can have a mini discussion about the description or lack thereof and even about the writing style in general. For example, when you choose to discuss narrative writing, pick segments from The Diary of Anne Frank or even Angela’s Ashes and discuss ways the writers described certain situations. Another writer, Barbara Lutz argues the bridging of composition and literature in her article, “The Syncretistic Theory: Bridging Composition and Literature through Immersion.” In this article, she gives the reader an example of her teaching style. She sets aside three weeks on her syllabus for a book. The book itself varies from year to year and as the class reads the book she discusses certain things such as possible historical happenings when the book was written or the book’s setting. She also has, in a way, a mini-book club style discussion. The Common Book Program, as Lutz calls it receives mostly positive feedback from the students. She states that the students have the most fun with certain assigned projects, and it gets them acquainted with literature but in other ways. Her projects thus include role play, journal assignments, and diary assignments. Teachers of basic writing should not spend too much time discussing character representation or symbolism; the discussion of whether they appreciated the read and what they either liked about the book or disliked about the book is more important.

With Lutz’s essay, she includes a quote from Foster: “Reading and writing are reciprocating elements, and one cannot exist without the other” (Foster 47; provided by Lutz). This obviously thus means that in order to write, one must know how to read. Also, writers Tierney, Soter, O’Flahavan, and McGinley found in their studies “that reading and writing in combination are more likely to naturally promote critical thinking when reading and writing are jointed rather than being separated. They believe that the learner has the opportunity to engage in either dialectical or dialogical exchange with the self: Reading may serve as the requisite partner in this exchange, as a source of opposing views or further elaborations on the idea: writing may serve as a mode through which the learner might resolve disputes or allow ideas to come to fruition (Tierney et al).

According to a study done by Idol and Jones, three major intellectual processes are at work while combining some form of literature and writing: (1) self-initiated and self-directed exploration of ideas (2) critical examination of one’s own ideas (3) the pursuit of multiple perspectives (Idol &Jones provided by Lutz 4). In the first exploration, the student can uncover their own personal observations about the literature, and in number two and three, the students can use their observations to discuss with the class. These students may show difference in opinion yet these differences will allow the students to back up their opinion with sufficient evidence, and they will be able to see what other members of the class think about their observations and vice versa.

Other writers including Erika Lindemann believe that by introducing students to imaginative literature would naturally introduce students to imaginative writing thus causing the teachers to ignore other types of writing. By using literature (whether the literature be purely imaginative, biographic, and even autobiographic), teachers of basic writing will be able to educate students on the other types of writing. The idea of basic writing is the building block of other types of writing. One cannot go into class on the first day and demand from their students a six page criticism of a book or a research essay, but by teaching basic literature at the beginning of the course, the teacher may branch out; introducing students to write more complex essays and even introduce the students to more advanced readings. For example, the teacher could start with a small novella and short stories and then later in the semester, pick more advanced literature for the class to read.

What are the best books to use in the basic writing class?

When picking a book or a series of books for your basic writing class, you need to realize that many students have just graduated from high school. You, as the teacher, should not pick a book labeled as a classic or a book that they have perhaps read in high school. Many students were forced to read classics in schools, and the mere mentioning of using a book from a dead nineteenth century writer or a twentieth century post-modernist, will make many of the students cringe with fear. You need to pick a book and author based upon certain qualifications: one; make sure the students are familiar with the author. The students should be acquainted with the author’s works. Two; make sure there is a movie version of the book. The movie does not have to directly correlate with the book yet if there is a movie version, the students can see the differentiation between the movie version and the book as well as provide potential essay topics for the students including comparison and contrast between the book and the movie (i.e. the student can take a character and do further analysis between the said character in the book and the movie) or even a movie review. The idea of them seeing the differentiation would allow for great class discussion. Three; you must pick a book that keeps the reader on their toes. Pick a book that is suspenseful and intriguing to the student. While reading the novel, it is a good idea to make the students write journal and diary entries. Journal entries are in-class timed topics of certain discussions held during the class that day whereas diary entries are outside of class observations. Doing the journal entries would allow the students to write about certain things discussed on that particular day of class and by doing the diary assignments, the students will be able to take the book read and relate it to other areas outside of class. Even after reading the book and watching the movie, include a really interesting group project. For example, let the students get in groups and write a script including the different characters interacting in a complete different area of locale (i.e. movie theatre, bank, grocery store, etc.)

How do I generate classroom discussion with my chosen book? (The list of Do’s and Dont’s)


  1. Include more information about the plot when having class discussion.
  2. Talk about the characters—ask them what characters they like and what characters they don’t like
  3. Discuss what part of the book they liked most.
  4. Discuss what part of the book they liked least.

In order to generate proper classroom discussion, pick certain students from the class each day and ask them to answer the aforementioned questions.


  1. Avoid talking about literary terms (i.e. literary time periods and symbolism).
  2. Avoid giving the student too much information about the author’s biography. Only give out information if it pertains to the certain text. Discuss only the following biographical information: how old the author was when he wrote the novel, discuss where he wrote the novel, and even discuss two or three important major happenings in the author’s life as he or she wrote the novel.
  3. Don’t pick out your favorite passages of the book; let the students pick out some of their favorite passages. By your picking your favorite passages, you are leading the class discussion whereas it should be vice versa.

A Potential List of Books to use in your Basic Writing Class

Gaiman, Neil: Stardust (Roca editorial Novella) Hosseini, Khaled: The Kite Runner King, Stephen: Skeleton Crew Koontz, Dean: Hideaway, Mr. Murder, Intensity Kostova, Elizabeth: The Historian (Does not have movie adaptation) Pullman, Phillip: The Golden Compass Matheson, Richard: I am Legend Quindlen, Anna: One True Thing Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter Sebold, Alice: The Lovely Bones (Does not have movie adaptation) Sparks, Nicholas: The Notebook, A Walk to Remember Tan, Amy: The Joy Luck Club Thompson, Hunter S.: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream Tolkien, J.R.R.: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Wallace, Daniel: Big Fish

(All of these aforementioned novels are in genres ranging from fantasy, horror, romance, memoir, and drama. Some of these novels are lengthy and that is why the teacher should perhaps incorporate one to two of these novels per semester. Most of these novels have been released within the last twenty years. These are novels that are fast paced, intriguing page-turners. With the two that do not have a movie adaptation, there is always the possibility of finding a movie that correlates with the premise of the book. For example, a nice movie to watch with The Lovely Bones would be something like “What Dreams may Come.” Also, a movie to consider watching with The Historian would be “Dracula,” Interview with the Vampire,” or even “30 Days of Night”).

List of Rhetoric Anthologies that include Literature Barnet, Sylvan: Literature for Composition: Essays, Fiction, Poetry, and Drama

Kirszner, Laurie G.: Literature: Reading, Reacting, and Writing

Roberts, Edger V.: Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing

Stanford, Judith: Responding to Literature: Stories, Poems, Essays, and Plays

(These titles naturally include brief short stories as well as rhetoric exercises. These anthologies should be used by the teachers who plan in incorporating a plethora of short stories, essays, and plays in the class. The only downfall to these anthologies is that they include short segments of novels and novellas rather than the complete novel. Also, many of the stories found in these anthologies are ones students may have read in high school).

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.”Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005 60–86.
Greenberg, Karen L. “A Response to Ira Shor’s ‘Our Apartheid: Writing Instruction and Inequality.”
Lindemann, Erika. “Freshman Composition: No Place for Literature.” College English.

Vol. 55, No. 3 (1993)311–316.

Lutz, Barbara Gaal. “The Syncretistic Theory: Bridging Composition and Literature through

Immersion.” The Clearing House. Vol. 96, No. 1 (1995)11–18.

Miller, Robert Keith. “The Use of Literature in English Composition.” The English Journal.

Vol. 69, No. 9 (1980) 54–55.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing.

Oxford University Press, 1979.

Soliday, Mary. The Politics of Remediation: Institutional and Student Needs in Higher Education. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.
Tate, Gary. “A Place for Literature in College Composition.” College English. Vol. 55 (1993)317–321

Further Readings

Elbow, Peter. “Opinion: The Cultures of Literature and Composition: What Could Each Learn

from the Other?” College English. Vol. 64, No. 5 (2002) 533–546.

Gould, Christopher. “Literature in the Basic Writing Course: A Bibliographic Survey.” College English. Vol. 49, No. 5 (1987) 558–574.
Henry, Jeanne. If Not Now: Developmental Readers in the College Classroom.

Boynton Creek Publishers: New Hampshire (2002).

Salvatori, Mariolina. “Reading and Writing a Text: Correlations between Reading and Writing

Patterns.” A Sourcebook for Basic Writing Teachers. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Random House (1987).

Steinberg, Erwin R. “Imaginative Literature in Composition Classrooms?” College English. Vol. 57, No. 3 (1995) 266–280.

COMPPILE TERMS Literature Basic Writing Mina Shaughnessy, David Bartholomae, Mary Soliday Analytical, Syntax, Grammar, and Proofreading Books Short Stories Novella Plays Composition Anthologies

Edit - History - Print - Recent Changes - Search
Page last modified on April 23, 2008, at 10:20 AM