Basic writing is a relatively nascent field of research within writing studies, having only been studied seriously since the 1970s. Despite its recent development, basic writing scholarship has provided tremendous insights into both the literacy struggles of developmental writers and composition studies as a whole. In recent years, basic writing programs have faced erosion at four-year and community colleges as a result of declining graduation rates. Many researchers have thus turned their attention to basic writing pedagogies to understand how to better prepare and nurture basic writers.
In his article “Relocating Basic Writing,” Bruce Horner maintains the value of basic writing, as “it rejects simplistic notions of English, language, and literacy, and always insists on searching out the different in what might appear to be the same and the familiar” (Horner 19). Despite this, he acknowledges the second-class status of basic writers within the academy: the prevailing notion of literacy casts basic writers as having arrived too late, either incapable of being able to write at university level or incapable of learning how. This “problematically uniform, linear model” of literacy relies on the conception of an English with rigid rules and conventions (Horner 10). Stanley echoes his claim with a criticism of “linguistic elitism”; so does Smith, who disagrees with the academic gatekeepers who say that her basic writing students “just can’t think” (Stanley 38, Smith 668).
But many basic writers come from multilingual backgrounds, a fact that complicates this monolithic view of literacy. As Horner notes, students bring a “plurality of languages and language varieties” to the basic writing classroom (Horner 11). The idea of multiple Englishes both “chip[s] away at the ideology of English-only monolingualism” and relocates “authority…to language users and their texts as written” (Horner 12, Stanley 38). Thus, what is considered an acceptable or standard discourse is constantly made and remade by those who engage in it. In the same way that you can never step twice in the same river, different Englishes constantly evolve. Horner thus introduces the idea of “traffic” between different modes of communication—such as writing in an English class versus writing in a business setting—to show that literacy is “a diverse set of practices that are fluid and intermingling, rather than discrete and stable” (Horner 15).
This perspective of literacy, known as translingualism, can be seen as a pedagogical resource to draw upon. Stanley advocates for a translingual approach to resolving basic writers’ errors. She draws an important distinction between error and mistake: “a mistake…is readily noticed and resolved when pointed out, and error…is a miss-communication between writer and reader, is able to be noticed, explored, and negotiated” (Stanley 40). When basic writers make errors, professors should practice “noticing” rather than immediately jumping to conclusions about a student’s intended meaning. By “slowing down our response and reading differently,” we can better understand how students pick their words due to translingual contact (Stanley 40). Basic writers who come from multilingual backgrounds then have a space where they can negotiate and deconstruct their methods of meaning-making.
Because most basic writers have different starting points, they must also learn to develop the muscles for critical thinking required by the academy. In her article, Smith describes how best to foster critical thinking in basic writing students. Relying on critical thinking research, she argues that professors of basic writing need to teach their students both the skills and the character of a critical thinker. In other words, “students need to become thinkers who employ skills and strategies in the course of their thinking, not mere practitioners of the thinking skills themselves” (Smith 669).
To do this, instructors must understand and appreciate the specific struggles of basic writers. Many basic writers have difficulty with reading comprehension because of gaps in their cultural literacy that lead them to misunderstand or misinterpret texts. While adept readers can extrapolate meaning from a text without doing much work, basic writers must use higher levels of abstract thinking to access that meaning. Thus, basic writers quickly become frustrated and believe that something is inherently wrong with them, whereas “more prepared students don’t equate the difficulty of a text with a deficiency in themselves” (Smith 671).
To solve this problem, Smith calls for professors to teach metacognition: by learning “to think about their thinking,” students can examine their rhetorical choices and see their work from the audience’s point-of-view (Smith 672). Professors should ask basic writers specific questions about their work, allowing them to see why their writing may be unclear to a reader. In this way, basic writers become better at identifying lack of cohesion or infelicities of diction in their own work. Lay agrees with this idea: “reflection by means of reiterating ideas presented in a text can help basic writing students progress toward more effective written expression” (Lay).
Some scholars and professors advocate for going even further than using just metacognition as a pedagogical tool, such as using multimodal composition. In recent years, writing studies has embraced multimodality as digital natives populate classrooms, but basic writing classes have been slower to adopt these kinds of assignments. In their article, Lauren and Rice observe the difficulty basic writers have with written communication; as Lay observes in her article, basic writers can “explain their ideas out loud but not in writing” (Lay). And the academic essay, which is “not widely used outside the academy,” is also a foreign genre for most of these students (Lauren).
Yet they are familiar with other, mostly digital, forms of communication: basic writers “inhabit these media-rich spaces and use them constantly” (Lauren and Rice). Thus, the authors argue for the remediated photo essay as a basic writing assignment that teaches style, argumentation, and audience awareness through a more accessible mode. Lauren and Rice also provide examples from real basic writers that demonstrate how students studied Romeo and Juliet and used photo essays to analyze themes from the play.
However, introducing multimodality can lead to unexpected outcomes, both positive and negative. Lay delves into some of these in her article. She does argue that basic writing courses should incorporate multimodal projects and pedagogies, which are more accessible and compelling for digital natives and may provide a good starting point for them to becoming writers of text. Furthermore, because “contemporary students live, study and work in a 21st century digital era,” multimodal methods are more representative of students’ lived experiences (Lay).
But she warns of certain electronic burdens—what she calls “e-burdens”—that can impede the learning process. One possible burden is that multimodality comes at the cost of “devalu[ing] written expression” (Lay). She gives an example of a multimodal assignment in her basic writing course, in which a pair of students produced a (well-executed) video and audio commentary without a single written word. Lay wonders if the students have simply sidestepped the writing requirement of basic writing courses, or if what they have produced genuinely fulfills her teaching goals. She laments “the reality that these students are not led towards textuality but rather away from it” by multimodal assignments (Lay). Lay does not provide a clear solution, but she does point out that multimodality can be a good starting point for invention; for example, using a voice recorder to orally brainstorm can be more helpful than producing a written outline.
Basic writers come from a variety of backgrounds, both academic and cultural, which should shape the pedagogies and approaches used by professors. Multilingualism, which is often viewed as an impediment to success, can be drawn upon as a way to understand and negotiate. Basic writers also need guidance for revision so that they can identify the inadequacies or problems in their own work. Some believe that multimodality should also be introduced in the basic writing classroom, though ongoing debate explores the affordances of such assignments. Further research into the burdens and benefits of multimodality could help improve pedagogies and ultimately increase retention of these continuously undervalued and underprivileged students.
Horner, Bruce. “Relocating Basic Writing.” Journal of Basic Writing 30.2 (2011): 5–23.
Lay, Ethna Demsey. “Welcome e-Burdens: New Media Projects in the Basic Writing Classroom.” Basic Writing e-Journal 10.1/11.1 (2011– 2012): n. pag. Web.
Lauren, Ben, and Rich Rice. “Teaching Style in Basic Writing through Remediating Photo Essays.” Basic Writing e-Journal 10.1/11.1 (2011– 2012): n. pag. Web.
Smith, Cheryl Hogue. “‘Diving In Deeper’: Bringing Basic Writers’ Thinking to the Surface.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53.8 (2010): 668–76. Print.
Stanley, Sarah. “Noticing the Way: Translingual Possibility and Basic Writers.” Journal of Basic Writing 32.1 (2013): 37-61.