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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." 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.

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.


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