Basic Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

college students writing
"Basic writers' problems," says Cherryl Armstrong, "are problems basic to writing" ("Reexamining Basic Writing," 1988).

Commercial Eye/Getty Images

Basic writing is a pedagogical term for the writing of "high risk" students who are perceived to be unprepared for conventional college courses in freshman composition. The term basic writing was introduced in the 1970s as an alternative to remedial or developmental writing.

In her ground-breaking book Errors and Expectations (1977), Mina Shaughnessy says that basic writing tends to be represented by "small numbers of words with large numbers of errors." In contrast, David Bartholomae argues that a basic writer "is not necessarily a writer who makes a lot of mistakes" ("Inventing the University," 1985). Elsewhere he observes that "the distinguishing mark of the basic writer is that he works outside the conceptual structures that his more literate counterparts work within" (Writing on the Margins, 2005).

In the article "Who Are Basic Writers?" (1990), Andrea Lunsford and Patricia A. Sullivan conclude that "the population of basic writers continues to resist our best attempts at description and definition."


  • "Mina Shaughnessy had much to do with encouraging the acceptance of basic writing as a distinct area of teaching and research. She named the field and founded in 1975 the Journal of Basic Writing, which continues as one of the most important vehicles for the dissemination of research articles. In 1977, she published one of the most important scholarly books on the subject, Errors and Expectations, a book that remains the most important single study of basic writers and their prose... [O]ne of the values of her book is that she showed teachers how they could, by viewing errors as linguistic misconceptions, determine the causes of writing problems that on the surface might appear confusing and unconnected."
    (Michael G. Moran and Martin J. Jacobi, "Introduction." Research in Basic Writing: A Bibliographic Sourcebook. Greenwood Press, 1990)

Speaking (and Writing) the Language of the University

  • "Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion--invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like History or Anthropology or Economics or English. He has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that defines the discourse of our community...
    "One response to the problems of basic writers, then, would be to determine just what the community's conventions are, so that those conventions can be written out, 'demystified,' and taught in our classrooms, Teachers, as a result, could be more precise and helpful when they ask students to 'think,' 'argue,' 'describe,' or 'define.' Another response would be to examine the essays written by basic writers--their approximations of academic discourse--to determine more clearly where the problems lie. If we look at their writing, and if we look at it in the context of other student writing, we can better see the points of discord when students try to write their way into the university." (David Bartholmae, "Inventing the University." When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems, ed. by Mike Rose. Guilford Press, 1985)
  • "[T]he real challenge for us as teachers of basic writing lies in helping our students become more proficient at abstracting and conceptualizing and hence at producing acceptable academic discourse, without losing the directness many of them now possess." (Andrea Lunsford, quoted by Patricia Bizzell in Academic Discourse and Critical Consciousness. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992)

Where Do Basic Writers Come From?

"[T]he research does not support the view that basic writers come from any single social class or discourse community... Their backgrounds are too complex and rich to support simple generalizations about class and psychology to be particularly useful in helping to understand these students."
(Michael G. Moran and Martin J. Jacobi, Research in Basic Writing. Greenwood, 1990)

The Problem With the Growth Metaphor

"Many early studies of basic writing in the 1970s and 80s drew on the metaphor of growth in order to talk about the difficulties faced by basic writers, encouraging teachers to view such students as inexperienced or immature users of language and defining their task as one of helping students develop their nascent skills in writing... The growth model pulled attention away from the forms of academic discourse and towards what students could or could not do with language. It also encouraged teachers to respect and work with the skills students brought to the classroom. Implicit in this view, though, was the notion that many students, and especially less successful or 'basic' writers, were somehow stuck in an early stage of language development, their growth as language users stalled...

"Yet this conclusion, pretty much forced by the metaphor of growth, ran counter to what many teachers felt they knew about their students--many of whom were returning to school after years of work, most of whom were voluble and bright in conversation, and almost all of whom seemed at least as adept as their teachers in dealing with the ordinary vicissitudes of life... What if the trouble that they were having with writing at college was less a sign of some general failing in their thought or language than evidence of their unfamiliarity with the workings of a specific sort of (academic) discourse?"
(Joseph Harris, "Negotiating the Contact Zone." Journal of Basic Writing, 1995. Reprinted in Landmark Essays on Basic Writing, ed. by Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Basic Writing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Basic Writing. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Basic Writing." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).