Paper #2 ENGL 810: Basic Writing Pedagogy and Content

Key terms: basic writing, pedagogy, skills/error, confidence, metacognition, literacy

Basic Writing helps students to improve their current writing skills to the point where the students should be able to earn a C or above when taking FYC the first time. Placement tests determine their writing level. In some institutions, students also have to pass an exit exam in order to be eligible to take FYC. The goal is to prepare students who were previously deemed unable to succeed at college work to be ready in 8-32 weeks, depending on the Basic Writing course set-up.

For additional information about placement, visit this site: National Survey of Basic Writing Programs: placement

Initially, BW courses focused almost entirely on basic skills. Although this method of instruction fell out of favor at least 40 years ago, it is still possible to find lower level BW courses that focus on sentences and then sentences to paragraphs and so forth. While the textbooks for the courses are not quite that reductive, the electronic course supplements that are promoted by publishers still have that tendency.

Rhet/comp moved from a current traditionalist focus on product in the 1960s and 1970s to a “linear and reductive conception of the composing process” (Lauer 113). It then got stuck in the modes, particularly EDNA: exposition, description, narration, and argumentation (Crowley qtd. in Lauer 115). Even though Janice Lauer writes of rhet/comp studies, what she says is particularly true of Basic Writing as well:

The reasons for this intransigence are multiple. A huge percentage of composition teachers are unfamiliar with the above work on modes and genres because they have not been educated in the field of rhetoric and composition. Others wish to remain comfortable with a modal and form-based approach to teaching writing with which they are familiar. Textbook companies are also loath to go against this profitable grain. (116)

Although more rhet/comp professors have training in their field today, the same cannot be said of basic writing instruction. Considering basic writing students are an amalgam of unprepared students, teachers frequently retreat to safe assignment designs so there will be enough time to address all levels of error (organization, purpose, mechanics, etc).

Assignments are often course-driven classroom exercises that lack the authenticity of “real college work.” Basic Writing is proverbially stuck in between that rock and a hard place; while not wanting to focus entirely on error, it does have to be addressed for students to function in FYC. Teachers who adopt more complicated writing assignments than the modes often draw time away from mechanics to help students revise what could be messy ideas and complex organizational schemes. “If postmodern thought helped English educators understand the complex dynamics of language, knowledge, discourse, and power, it also helped reveal their vexed role in the normative process that is formal schooling” (Yagelski 304).

If Basic Writing is not supposed to be a skills course and is not to focus on the modes or aims, what should be the content and pedagogy?

Most concur that practice with literacy is needed. In 1996, the New London Group wrote, “The new fast capitalist literature stresses adaptation to constant change through thinking and speaking for oneself, critique and empowerment, innovation and creativity, technical and systems thinking, and learning how to learn” (New London Group 67). In The Way Literacy Lives, Shannon Carter argues that we must give basic writers “the tools they need to experience literacy differently– to look again at the ways in which literacy functions in the multiple and intellectually viable lifeworlds in which they are already full-fledged members” (163). Susan Naomi Bernstein agrees: “a curriculum which foregrounds students’ prior and developing knowledge presents exciting possibilities for basic writing pedagogy” (67).

The core writing assignments should build from worlds familiar to students and gradually introduce them to the discourse of the academy. Pedagogy should also focus on students’ identities as writers and helping them to grow in confidence as student writers. This should be done through a combination of pedagogies: situated practice, overt instruction, critical framing, transformed practice (New London Group 88). In particular, students in BW benefit from the metacognitive work of transformed practice.

Shannon Carter discusses a way in which to show students where they are and where they could be through her pedagogy of rhetorical dexterity: “Rhetorical dexterity treats learning new literacies as a situated activity” (162). Students examine the literacies around them in an effort to become more aware of their multiliteracies and their relationship to them. Students who were previously agitated at the ways in which the rules seemed to change from one course to another could now see the system that creates the different rules and be able to adapt to the change without as much frustration. In a pedagogy like this, students are transformed not only as writers but as students.

A similar conversion occurred when Klages and Clark used ePortfolios with BW students; the students “began to transform their relationship to writing, emerging as confident writers with a new sense of how they can translate their authority onto the page” (47). Klages and Clark’s emphasis on reflective practice, at both the individual level and by commenting on the work created by their peers, enabled students to grow as both readers and writers.

At the heart of this type of pedagogy is concern about social inequality. Students in BW often feel as though others have been given a rule book while they are navigating the world without one of their own or that the rules were created intentionally to benefit a group of people other than them. Through pedagogy, Basic Writing instructors seek to level the playing field and reveal not only the rules but the systems that have created the rules.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Susan Naomi. “Basic Writing: In Search of a New Map.” Modern Language Studies 40.2 (2011): 60-75. JSTOR 24 Sept. 2015. Web.

Carter, Shannon. “The Way Literacy Lives.” Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. 4th ed. Bedford: Boston, 2013. 161-183. Print.

Klages, Marisa A. and J. Elizabeth Clark. “New Worlds of Errors and Expectations: Basic Writers and Digital Assumptions.” Journal of Basic Writing 28.1 (2009): 32-49. ERIC Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Lauer, Janice M. “Rhetoric and Composition.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline. Ed. Bruce McComiskey. NCTE: Urbana, IL, 2006. 106-152. Print.

New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review. 66.1 (1996): 60-92. Print.

Yagelski, Robert P. “English Education.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline. Ed. Bruce McComiskey.NCTE: Urbana, IL, 2006. 275-319. Print.


3 thoughts on “Paper #2 ENGL 810: Basic Writing Pedagogy and Content

  1. As I was reading your paper, I was wondering how conversations surrounding BW may change as more institutions move to co-requisite or integrated reading and writing models or are forced to get rid of developmental education altogether. I was also thinking of former colleagues and remembering some tense conversations about the social justice function of BW. One former colleague would not acknowledge students’ race, believing in colorblindness, and though I understand that people of color have to deal with institutionalized racism ever day, it concerns me that institutions place individuals like this former colleague, who runs the college’s developmental education committee, into positions of power despite the person having no interest in exploring the social justice dimensions and implications of the work. Do you think that a sociology of education type of course would be useful for graduate degrees in comp/rhet to encourage instructors to consider these issues?

    On a completely different train of thought, I’ve tried a number of different approaches to my BW courses, trying to provide the kind of transformative experience described in the articles and experienced that sense of how difficult it can be to embrace the messiness and extra time needed. I wonder about how we can help provide the training needed for adjuncts and others to do that kind of work, given some of the constraints of BW work, including the textbook situation that we were discussing in your recent PAB. Thoughts?


    1. Interesting that you mentioned both co0req programs and training for adjuncts. We piloted ALP 2 years ago with just FT profs instructing and are now amping up our offerings and extending more classes to adjuncts. We just hosted an ALP conference of sorts at our school in an effort to train not only our adjuncts and FTs who haven’t taught it yet but other profs across Illinois. Our Basic Writing program has a communal portfolio assessment, so we’re more normed as BW instructors at our school than in FYC. This overlaps with the conversation Mike has started about dual enrollment on Google+. It also overlaps with our guest speaker last week. There is a disconnect between the courses we take on subject matter and the coursework we need to be good instructors.Too often we teach in scenarios we were never prepared for. A recurring thread for me this semester is that too many of us never train in BW because it is in a precarious position but then it remains precarious because we’re also not researching and communicating with one another. We’re a permanent disciplinary silo that other disciplines ignore.


  2. Hi Nicole, your mention of the “vexed role” (Yagelski) that teachers play once again reminds me of the “critical” environment that we, as teachers, find ourselves in today: we know just enough about critical theory to open our eyes to our own plight. Mike Rose wrote an article early in his career that echoes your (and Yagelski’s) thoughts on BW and its lack of connection with academic work expected elsewhere in the university. Your post is enlightening to me (and your explanation of course guidelines especially so): I’ve worked with BW students, but only at the junior high and high school levels. There is such a difference when it appears that students still have time: time for tutoring, time for modelling, time for more reading and language immersion. I have no experience teaching BW students at the post-secondary level, but I can imagine that the urgency in such a high-stakes situation breeds teacher (and student) frustration. Thank you for all the work you do.


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