Saturday, April 12, 2008

Basic Writing: History and Pedagogical Strategies

Emily Burgess

This annotated bibliography focuses on the history and strategies of teaching basic writing. The original intention was to find research discussing different methods and tips for teaching basic writing. Although there are many handbooks, scholarly articles, and case studies detailing how to teach writing, few of these were specifically geared toward teachers of basic writing. Instead, many sources discussed the history of teaching of basic writing and sprinkled in some general strategies along the way. In determining a source’s credibility, I paid attention to the caliber of the journal in which the author published, the other sources cited by the author, where and what the authors teach, and how often and in what capacity they had published before. This bibliography should appeal to teaching assistants, graduate students, first-year teachers, and even professors interested in teaching basic writing, especially at the community college or open-access university. The following provides an overview of the politics of basic writing and a few potential pedagogical practices.

Fearn, Leif and Nancy Farnan. “When Is a Verb? Using Functional Grammar to Teach Writing.”

Journal of Basic Writing 26.1 (2007): 63-81. This scholarly journal article describes a study determining the differences between traditional grammar instruction – which focuses on identification, description, and definition – and functional grammar instruction. The authors are professors of teacher education at San Diego State University. They ask the question, “What is the effect of teaching grammar in writing rather than for writing?” and conclude that “students in the treatment groups [i.e. the functional grammar instruction] demonstrated enhanced writing performance” (72). They taught one group of students traditional grammar and one functional grammar for five weeks and tested each group using “holistic” measures. They concluded that though the error rates of both groups were the same, students taught functional grammar who learned how to recognize and understand the function of different forms were able to transfer that knowledge to their own writing. One potential flaw of this experiment is that the writing performance tests may have been biased. The authors admit that the scores of such tests are heavily affected by elaboration (i.e. extra adjectives).

Gorrell, Donna. “Controlled Composition for Basic Writers.” College Composition and

Communication 32.3 (1981): 308-316. In this scholarly journal article, Gorrell, who has written two articles and two book reviews for CCC, describes a method of teaching remedial writing, controlled composition, that has proved successful in teaching ESL. It is useful “for students whose biggest writing problem is lack of attention to written forms” (308). Step one is to exactly transcribe a 150-200 word essay. If there are no problems, Step two includes requests to change things like number, case, or tense. In Step three, these grammatical manipulations become more complex. Studies at Illinois State University have been positive. Specifically, “students using controlled composition as a remedial writing technique do not demonstrate the negative, resentful, inhibited attitude toward writing that is usually considered characteristic of the basic writer” (313). This method is not necessarily new, but this article is interesting because it not only describes the strategy but also discusses the original intent, design, and expectations. Opponents argue that the strategy is too behavioristic (314). Feedback is given to students in terms of errors made instead of percentage completed correctly. Gorrell acknowledges these potential drawbacks but insists that the rewriting process “demands a cognitive mediation between a student’s customary writing performance and the desired performance” and is thus not just an example of a stimulus-response scenario.

Hillocks, George. “Some Basics for Thinking about Teaching Writing.” Teaching Writing as

Reflective Practice. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995. 24-38. This book chapter opens with the example of one professor explaining a writing assignment to the class. The author, a professor at the University of Chicago and prolific writer of books on composition pedagogy, spells out the professor’s assignment by explaining at length the difference between assignments and what he is looking for in one in particular. He invites questions and assures students he does not wish to rush or leave anybody not understanding him. The teacher is reflective. Hillocks goes on to describe some different theories of pedagogy that he does not believe to be effective. He asserts that a theory of pedagogy must come from composing processes, written discourse, invention or inquiry, and learning and teaching. Throughout the chapter, Hillocks advocates that teachers be constantly aware of and reflect upon their pedagogical theory and that they teach reflectively, seeing what works in the classroom and going back go perfect the personal theory. He offers a six step program of how to teach reflectively, which includes analyzing student progress relative to course goals, creating possible solutions, creating a strategy, devising specific ways to carry out the strategy, assessing the strategy’s impact, and confirming or changing the pedagogy based on findings. Though Hillocks does not offer many specific strategies, he does echo the sentiments of many others in this bibliography that self-awareness, flexibility, and compassion are required for working with any kind of writers.

Holladay, Sylvia. “Order Out of Chaos: Voices from the Community College.” Composition in

the Twenty-First Century: Crisis and Change. Eds. Bloom, Lynn Z. Lynn Z, Donald A. Daiker, and Edward M. White. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. 29-38. The book’s other contributors include David Bartholomae, Peter Elbrow, Linda Flower, and James Berlin. This book chapter written by a widely published community college professor expresses the author’s views that community college students “desperately need power and control of their language and their lives” (29). These students, and basic writers in general, feel impotent, and it is the teachers’ job to try to free and empower them (30). Though she does not offer any evidence to support this, Holladay includes the testimonials of some of her colleagues, who claim that teachers should employ these three basic strategies in all of their work: care and be invested in the students; share everything possible, from tips and strategies to teachers’ own personalities and selves; and encourage students to do their best and keep testing their boundaries. Holladay stresses that her students represent a variety of backgrounds and goals. It is important to look at each student as an individual and to take into consideration students’ lives outside of school and writing.

Lunsford, Andrea A. “The Content of Basic Writers’ Essays.” College Composition and

Communication 77.8 (1988): 77-79. This short essay by Stanford’s Director of Writing and Rhetoric is a rousing article that summarizes some of the strategies of Bartholomae, Donald Graves, Petrosky, Mike Rose, and Mina Shaughnessy. It calls readers/teachers to be more aware of their students. Lunsford reminds us that students’ submitting texts opens them to vulnerability. She recommends Mike Rose’s idea of expanding the idea of writing for remedial students rather than restricting it (79). In a few pages, she reminds us that basic writers tend to “have less opportunity to read and write” (77) and tells us to encourage students to write often and to practice. Teachers need to allow for the transition between speech discourse and writing discourse; students need to understand the difference between these discourses before they can be successful.

Rigolino, Rachel and Penny Freel. “Re-Modeling Basic Writing.” Journal of Basic Writing 26.2

(2007): 49-72. These two professors at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, an artsy upstate city, describe current pedagogical models for basic writing and their pros and cons. Then they propose their model, the Supplemental Writing Workshop (SWW) which had existed for ten years at the time of their article’s publication (51). The workshop is designed to increase intellectual interaction among faculty and fellow students (57). This program set-up includes a regular classroom setting in which students learn to write in different genres, work with different conventions, and learn how to do research in the Academy. To differentiate this from other programs, though, there is a workshop hour connected to the course which is more student-focused. In this computer lab, faculty members and tutors, usually graduate students, interact with the undergraduates in a less formal environment. Tutors are seen almost as intermediaries. Here the students are encouraged to engage in pre-writing and incubation. Subjective assessments of this program after ten years indicate that students have more confidence, more pride in their work, better voice, and a greater appreciation for the act of writing for its own sake.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. This

is the first seminal work on basic writing and most other authors in this bibliography refer to Shaughnessy. Her book is “mainly an attempt to be precise about the types of difficulties to be found in basic writing (BW) papers at the outset, and beyond that, to demonstrate how the sources of those difficulties can be explained without recourse to such pedagogically empty terms as ‘handicapped’ or ‘disadvantaged’”(4). In each of her chapters – Handwriting and Punctuation, Syntax, Common Errors, Spelling, Vocabulary, and Beyond the Sentence – Shaughnessy 1) gives examples of the range of problems under each heading, 2) determines or guesses at the causes of these problems, and 3) offers suggestions for teachers. She uses a lot of examples, feeling that they can be some of the best teaching tools. She operates under the assumption that for basic writing students, “academic writing is a trap, not a way of saying something to someone” (7). Her tone throughout this major work is knowledgeable, sensitive, flexible, hopeful, and humble.

Soliday, Mary. “Ideologies of Access and the Politics of Agency.” Mainstreaming Basic Writers:

Politics and Pedagogies of Access. Ed. Gerri McNenny. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2001. 55-72. University of Dayton eContent Collection, Net Library. 6 April 2008. . Soliday, a teacher at the City College of New York (CCNY), discusses “the origins of CUNY’s access policy in the context of current debates” and overviews “longitudinal studies of CUNY students’ progress through remedial courses to examine how an ideology of access promotes a politics of agency” (57). Her spin on the situation is clear: she wants to shift responsibility for CUNY’s struggles “toward remediation and away from the devastating economic privatization of public higher education that has affected students’ educational careers” (57). She calls on seminal works by Horner and Lu and Mina Shaughnessy. In the end, Soliday calls for those in power to “abandon our sense of exclusive responsibility, complicate our sense of the politics of agency, and look critically at dominant initiatory models and the particular ideologies of access that such models sustain” (70-71). This article does not offer pedagogical strategies for basic writers; instead, it defends that those strategies are important.

Zeller, Robert. “Developing the Inferential Reasoning of Basic Writers.” College

Composition and Communication 38.2 (1987): 343-346. In this scholarly journal article, Zeller, a professor at Southeast Missouri State and follower of Andrea Lunsford (also in this bibliography) first explains why inferential reasoning is valuable in basic writing courses and then anecdotally talks about how he uses inferential reasoning in his own classroom. “We should not underestimate the cognitive development basic writers bring to the writing class,” he asserts (346). “Most of them are already good at drawing inferences; they just do not realize that they are doing it. What these students need are assignments that build on their ability and give them practice in analyzing and synthesizing.”

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