John L.

Mina Shaughnessy’s article “Basic Writing: Teachers’ Perspectives” defines basic writing from a teacher’s perspective. She defines “writing” as a form of creative reading. She lists certain characteristics that define basic English: handwriting, spelling and punctuation, making sentences, ordering sentences, and grammatical correctness. These are skills basic to writing, although they aren’t necessarily the skills that should be taught in basic writing. Shaughnessy lists the skills necessary for a course of basic writing (eight of them, listed on page 13). Shaughnessy makes a lot of sense, and I am on board with her unorthodox methods of teaching.

In Rich Haswell’s article “Remediality: Bottom and Top,” Dr. Haswell argues very convincingly that teaching students differently based upon a supposed subnormality of language is harmful to those students. Shooting for the bottom produces bottom-feeders. Haswell argues that “developmental” students may have a great grasp of English in its beauty and wit than those who focus on correcting and avoiding mistakes. Makes sense to me.

Holly C.


Dr. Haswell’s writing was somewhat difficult to understand, but I did vehemently agree with one of the statements he made on page 276 of the article. On that page, he states of the basic writer that, “Thinking of oneself as out of competition prompts the freedom and devil-may-care attitude and the unhurriedness from which issues writing characterized by introspection, humor, laconism, and that pithy irony with which the rustic jives the city-goer” (276). Basically, what I take this to mean is that a basic writer often fails to perform simply because they are labeled as a basic writer and, therefore, do not see themselves as a part of the academy. Even if they aren’t labeled specifically a basic writer, they are very well aware of the fact that they are not writing in the same manner that other entering college freshmen are writing. I also appreciated Dr. Haswell’s attempt to make a definition of a basic writer. By saying that a student “at the bottom [is] only someone who needs to learn a lot” (283), he is certainly making an attempt to lessen the severity of the label.


I very much agreed with the part of Shaughnessy’s article where she says that “some students learn how to write in strange ways” (2). I completely agree, and do not think that I have found anyone way to teach all of my students how to write. I also liked the statement that “writing is the act of creative reading” (3). I understand this very well, but I feel that I only understand this because (at least I believe) that I am a fair writer. My students and students of basic writing do not understand this because they are caught up in the cycle of different and inconsistent definitions of what good writing should be. Shaughnessy also says that helping writers requires that “a teacher must know what skills are implied in the ability to write what is called basic English and he must understand the nature of the difficulties students seem to have with each of them”(5). This to me sounds like Shaughnessy believes that a teacher of basic writing should know very well know the specific problems that each of their students have with writing so that they can improve writing ability.

Darcy L.

Haswell makes some good points about how we define basic writers. For one, he advises against defining a student’s intelligence by the fact that he or she has been deemed a basic writer, to “keep teachers from confusing ‘slow’ minds with what is just slow writing.” He echoes much of what we’ve read about the underlying thought processes behind certain error patterns in Rose and others. His examples of lean and stout writing and the methodology behind each captured the truth behind academic writing—that it is merely a learned convention as opposed to a reflection of intelligence or maturity as a writer. Haswell suggests that perhaps the emphasis should be more on “truth and accuracy” as a necessity while allowing the student to choose the surface form for herself. His point is well taken that the use of simpler subjects and/or a greater use of first person doesn’t designate a bad writer but one who has not yet been given the “rules” of which to work within the academy.

His idea about “cognitive reductionism” underscores our difficulty in pinpointing a definition for basic writers. He lists off many words used to describe BWs? (slow, beginning, disabled, deficient, remedial, basic, novice, unprepared, and developmental) and makes some interesting connections in what those terms suggest…in general, deficiency, lacking, in need of intervention. Inherent in none of these labels is the idea that there is intelligence, purpose, and an exercise of choice behind the alleged errors. And I also liked Haswell’s point that BWs? tend to write with more verbal wit, introspection, and humor than their “higher-level” counterparts. This is symptomatic of a system (i.e. being inculcated with academicese) that beats the individual out of the writing. I’m sure most of us can think of countless times in which we wrote a really great sentence with a bit of sarcasm, irony, or humor only to backspace back to the beginning because we know we’ll never get away with it in a paper.

Shaughnessy raises some interesting ideas about the discrepancies between speech, thinking, and writing and where students can get confused or unconfident when trying to get their thoughts or speech onto paper. She talks about how difficult it can be for writers to master the skill of organizing, which she says “seems to require a kind of balance between the demand that a piece of writing get someplace along a route that is sufficiently marked for a reader to follow and the demand that there be freedom for the writer to explore his subject and follow where his questions and inventions take him. The achievement of this balance produces much of the ‘mess’ in writing” (9). I think this is something that takes time and experience to “master” (if we ever master it at all), and the basic or beginning writer should be given some latitude to experiment and develop without the anxiety of surface-level errors becoming all consuming. Equally, the students should be taken for individuals with individual approaches to writing and unique developments and needs.

Jennifer G

We noted in class that we were going to shoot for shorter and more concise postings; so here goes nothing...

I found the articles interesting and helpful. I will admit that I had some trouble sorting through Dr. Haswells points analysis, but the rest of the article was very clear. I have to agree that the use of the language and his breakdown of the way we present remediation is damaging to students. I also was intrigued by his breaking down of the student writing, and how he showed the process that was there, despite the apparent lack of process originally. I seemed to come back to seeing the intelligence in the error and finding where students are coming from, although I think the idea of testing the students to find out which ones are slow writers and which ones are slow (slow thinkers?) might be a bit beyond me as of yet.It gave me a lot to think about in formulating my portfolio for next week, and into the future. As for Shaughnessey, I found her information on how some of the instruction should take place fairly practical. I especially liked the thoughts on organization and the struggle students have with it, as well as the insight into the fact that students lack depth in their writing and why. I think there is a lot that can be taken from her correlation between speaking skills and writing and it gives me an idea for an and additional exercise for the portfolio. (you can see where my focus is at the moment.)


Shaughnessy writes in her article that "everything about the teacher-student encounter should encourage a respect for...individuality...even though the conditions under which we must teach in large institutions often obscure it" (13). To me, this seemed to mirror a lot of what we've read, especially Rose's Lives on the Boundary. We have to look at the individual issues that students struggle with when they are writing to discover how we can help them out.Shaughnessy emphasizes the importance of the teacher knowing "what skills are implied in the ability to write what is called basic English." While I agree, this statement made me think about Delpit's "Silenced Dialogue" article and also Basic Writing as a Political Act. These two works not only draw the same point and Shaughnessy, but bring it further by pointing out that the teacher should also make the students aware of what the expectations are and what is "implied" in requirements for entering academic discourse, thereby making it a "political act" (as implied in the Adler-Kassner/Harrington title). Although I feel the state of basic writing has changed since shaughnessy wrote this, and scholars and teachers have discovered new methods and ideas for teaching BW classes, I think that Shaughnessy was making a great start in 1970 with this article, especially with the concept that its not that the students are "unskilled but rather inexperienced" (2).

Although, honestly, I wasn't quite sure where Haswell was going at parts of the article, I like the overall premise (or at least what I think it is). He concludes: "...the transformative recommneds one basic or beginning developmental step: to forget the expectation that there will be a remedial group, sui generis and unstratified, and to try to see the group placed in neither cubicle individually, as eccentric and diverse as any other group" (284). What I got from this was that you can't lump basic writing students all into one category (you just can't lump any students, really), which I think connects with Shaughnessy's idea about individuality. I also thought his analogy of the definition of a pauper interesting; it pointed out how we can't just say exactly what a "student at the bottom" is; they don't always share the exact same characteristics...which is obvious, considering how much difficulty we have had in this class labeling who basic writers are! I liked the idea of the transformative, especially Haswell's description of how "mixing students will also give bottom students the opportunity to help the ones on top" (280). This makes sense to me because a "bottom student" in writing might have increased skills in other areas, which can be put to good use in various situations. Giving these students the opportunities to work with students who are "top students" in writing can lead to overall improvement for all students.


Mina Shaughnessy basically outlines the meaning of how basic writing came to be, along with some of the issues that accompany them. One of her major points is the necessity to understand “the connections to and distinctions between speech, writing, and reading…” (3). It’s also important that teachers have or know what “feedback” means because if they write very negative comments, instead of suggestions, then they are not doing their job as teachers. It is also imperative that students learn from their own mistakes, “learn how to make his own mess…” (4). The chapter embodies a lot of the discussions we have had in class, such as how teachers tend to look for grammar, sentence structure first before anything, instead of looking at an essay holistically.

In relation, Haswell, writes that teachers negative attitudes towards responding to students’ essays have be detrimental. He questions the notion of writers being called developmental, in which he emphasizes with quotations. It is, in my opinion, a term that is highly debated and as long as it exists, disagreements will continue in the field of English. I was curious about the exact definition, so I looked it up in Merriam-Webster and it defines developmental as “designed to assist growth or bring about improvement (as of a skill)” and the example used is “developmental toys.” Although, I can see how it can be applied to college student writers, except, it happens to be a touchy word because as Haswell demonstrates in several of the essays, it’s a term like basic writers that is too broad or vague to describe, at least in one sentence. I think his emphasis is leaned towards terminology used for beginning writers and how they are categorized by mostly teachers or graders (standardized exam graders); and the terms they use to label a students’ progress in his/her writing. As Shaughnessy mentioned, a teacher’s feedback is very important, but more importantly it should be helpful and not negative and discouraging to the point where the student does not learn from his/her mistake.

Andrea M :)


Shaughnessy talks about how the "term basic writing implies that there is a place to begin learning to write...I am not certain this is so. Students learn to write in strange ways" (2). I thought this was interesting and accurate to a certain degree because each student is unique and to assume they all learn to write in the same way at the same place is wrong. She feels that teachers need to be aware of the skills students need in order to write basic English: handwriting, spelling and punctuation, making and ordering sentences and grammatical correctedness. She mentions that teachers need to help students refine these skills in order to make sense of their "mess" (writing). I like the comparison of a "mess" because many students know what they want to say and write about, however without proper instruction they are unsure of how to organize their writing into a coherent product. Shaughnessy also feels that basic writing teachers are responsible for teaching students how to write expository essays as well. She defines this style as "a semiformal analytical prose in which the connections between sentences and paragraphs surface in the form of conjunctive adverbs and transitional sentences" (12).


In this article, Haswell feels that labeling students as "developmental" is inaccurate because he has a different view of development. He notes, "The way certain students are judged as 'developmental' I take to be a travesty of current knowledge about human allows for no dialogue between subject and program, and it misunderstands normal postadolescent maturing..." (268). He includes samples of essays that are evaulated using the Sample as a placement test and a holistic procedure used by fourteen composition instructors. As I read through the article, I came the understanding that Haswell feels, like Shaughnessy, that teachers need to provide constructive feedback to students, rather than merely relying on some standard or rubric to determine whether or not they are in fact "developmental."

Amanda Hartman


I like the way that Shaughnessy defines writing through reading. I think that there is an important connection between the two that is not often focused on within classrooms. I pulled a couple of quotes that I found interesting.

"…the goal in writing is not simply to repeat speech but to overcome certain disadvantages that the medium of sound imposes upon speech"(3). I think that this is a pretty way of saying the writing is a way of sanitizing or standardizing speech. I think that it is hypocritical to condemn in writing what we find acceptable in speaking.

"…the only generalization that seems safe to make about students is the one they persistently make about themselves--that they are individuals, not types, and that the way to each student's development is a way the teacher has never taken before."(13) I think that this is a daunting idea, but not far from the truth. Each student has a unique set of "problems" that have to be addressed, and I don't think that most BW teachers are prepared to adequately/fairly deal with them.


Basic writers are typically pushed into one group. The irony of " why so unstratified a block of our population has attracted such a diversity of labels: "slow", "beginning," "beginning," "disabled," "deficient," "remedial," "basic," "novice," "developmental" is clear to everyone. I think Haswell brings up the same idea that Shaughnessy does. Each student has their own series of problems that prompt them to be classified as "basic" writers. Though there are many issues, there is only one classification. Maybe more attention should be paid to the nature of their issues? >>>>>>>


Shaughnessy’s statement, “The writing teacher has but one simple advantage to offer: he can save the student time…” made me think about Lindemann’s idea that the instructor should be a physician and not a judge. While I did not necessarily agree with the order of importance of these issues, I can agree that mastering many of the following will improve writing skills: handwriting, spelling and punctuation, making sentences, ordering sentences, and grammatical correctness. As instructors, we must decide where in the writing process to guide students toward repairing these particular problems. If instructors start nit picking about punctuation in the first draft, students might think the re-writing process is complete and give up on the content – the most important part of the writing. Basic writers need to feel that they are able to compose sentences and paragraphs that are in a proper order – the “flow” that Haswell mentions should be present in the writing. Instructors should tackle that issue first. I can see why the issue of grammar is controversial because incorrect grammar can disrupt the flow of writing. However, it seems that the more pressing issue should be whether the basic writing is able to get ideas on paper.


The two articles seem to agree that writing that shows a fecundity of thought is naturally a "messy" process. I think of Shaugnessy saying that writing, as the process of getting ideas out, is messy; however, what is written is not. In comparison, Haswell notes through example and analysis that the "lean" style of writing, where thoughts flow rapidly in pursuit of the logical conclusion that the writer is trying to get to, often displays the very same type of messiness.

One other key similarity is that both tend to view basic writers as individuals with individual reasons for being categorized as "basic" writers. Shaugnessy identifies this in her listing of different types of shortcomings "basic" writers may or may not have. Haswell even rejects the idea of a system of categorization and favors a system of placement which makes a whole lot of sense. The root "category" implies a sense of permanent occupancy whereas the root word "place" gives a sense of mobility, and since all writers (including but not limited to "basic" ones) are either progressing or regressing, this terminology makes far more sense.

On another interesting note (for me), Haswell's article really gave me a sense of relief in some thoughts I had about holistic assessment because I always had trouble with the notion of the system of holistic assessment (which, for TAKS, goes from just 1 to 4). It always seemed wrong that all raters should be getting scores within one point of each other (the "experts" even tell you something like that in the training) and that "the 1's should be obvious" (sounds suspiciously like the 10-15% of college basic writers being obvious).

Anyway, Haswell's article gives some well-grounded research to a thought and feeling I had that the holistic system is a cleverly disguised way of discriminating against students who don't display surface convention in their writing. I also like that he questioned the true nature of that discrimination which he strongly implied may be disguised as evaluative and may have roots in something much more devious. That is something I often felt as well, and, although it is sad, it is good to know that my undeveloped thoughts and feelings were not completely unfounded.

Jennifer Marciniak

Shaughnessy’s article brought two other readings to mind: Rose’s Lives on the Boundary” and that article by the lesbian teacher whose name I can’t remember right now and whose questioning was condescending and too personal. As teachers we have to be objective to our student’s ideas. We are guides, not workers pumping subjective ideas into their heads. If you think of the long term effects of – I guess there is no way around it – a sort of sub genre of the “banking method,” making the personal political is pretty damaging. I think she is right on the mark when she says that students are not unskilled, they are inexperienced (2). Skill takes practice. Haswell fits here because how do you define “a student at the bottom” (280), if the skills they have are different and come from different areas? Just because the knowledge the inexperienced students have is different than the experience does not mean it is not helpful. It does not mean that the experienced students can’t take away something from the unskilled. I see it happen twice a week in my classes with my ESL and my NES students.

On another note, if they were passed through high school for one reason or another and never got to practice or got any coaching, then of course they are not going to have the necessary skills to succeed at a higher level. Here is a good place to start the conversation of whether or not these students should be mixed in with the experienced students. Does it shut them down or does it help them succeed by making them work hard to catch up? I think it has a lot to do with culture and demographic. I feel like I am repeating myself here from 5 other past posts as well as recirculating my rhetoric. So end.

4/1/09 Response – Tammy Graham

Haswell argues that the “interpretive frames” for judging “correct” from “incorrect” writing are themselves flawed and should be questioned. Much of the premise for his argument convincingly stems from the often erroneous conceptions of human cognitive development. The “holistic” assessment methods and criteria follow the principle that errors are developmental deficits instead of developmental opportunities; conversely, the “transformative” approach focuses on the assets, or what is positive, and not what is “lacking,” in student writing. Haswell suggests that “teachers should deeply question any inference about intellectual maturity based only on skill in following writing conventions” (281). I think that, at first, the reality of what he is saying might sound a bit utopian in scope, but more and more scholars are beginning to question the criteria that make up writing assessments and placement exams which, in turn, are responsible for what amounts to discrimination against some students. It seems that in the quest for scientific explanations and universals about human cognitive development, we sometimes forget that humans are not machines with similarly predictable calibrations, but instead we are uniquely evolving organisms which should not be subjected to mechanistic treatment. As Haswell warns, there are both “healthy” and unhealthy sides to teaching conventions, and a “price paid” for blindly following them (281). Personally, I have seen examples of “stout” and “lean” papers like Haswell discusses which may be error-free, but lack any creative element (stout), and then there are those papers where some unique, interesting, or analytical message is hidden under a lot of mechanical errors (lean). While I certainly like the ease of grading the stout ones, I actually appreciate and enjoy reading the lean ones more.

Shaughnessy supports Haswell’s position on many fronts: students’ mistakes should be seen as a place to start teaching and build from; teachers must be able to see past surface errors to the hidden potential and the “skills the student already possesses;” also, students are seen as individuals here, too. Although Shaughnessy is very practical, or “pragmatic,” as Haswell refers to those teaching conventions, in many ways, the article makes sense because the skills are taught in a manner which allows “each student a chance to discover other things about writing and about his individual powers as a writer” without a strict adherence to rules and conventions. The ideologies are the same—to empower students in their own individual writing by giving them the proper tools to work with. I think that in many ways Shaughnessy challenges the “interpretive frames” Haswell discusses.

Ben Howard


Shaugnessy made a few points that I thought were interesting but a lot of this is more of the same, said differently. The first thing that caught my attention was the focus on handwriting. This is the first, I believe, of our readings that has brought up students' having trouble with handwriting being a possible cause for label as basic writers. Obviously, we don't do a whole lot of handwriting anymore, but I'm going to assume it's still pretty prevalent in grade schools and middle schools. It's just funny hearing about actual physical writing muscles.

She also discusses the rules of grammar either confusing students or just not sinking in. This is a problem that I always had, but I usually found that the rules I didn't get were irrelevant anyway. Diagramming sentences never helped me to write well, and I'm still not sure I know what predicate conjunctive anythings are. These long lists of third party, past tense, conjugal whatnots are more confusing than anything, and it would be a lot easier to understand "if I'm writing about something that happens in the past, I use the past version of the word. I 'did' something, not I 'will did.' Maybe if we tried teaching kids using words and phrases that are relevant to kids, they'd learn more weller.

Also, I don't approve of her use of "Richard Wright" as a good sentence. It's like using e.e. cummings to demonstrate good use of punctuation and capitalization.

Haswell Too... many... big words. "Perhaps remedial writing is easy for evaluators to categorize because it bears, or bares, its earmarks flagrantly, on the surface" (269). Isn't this exactly what I've been saying? I also found it interesting that he says the individuality of the author's stood out more in the bad papers than in the good ones. He doesn't say whether this is a good thing or not though.


Haswell's discussion of the transformative reminded me of the challenges I have faced with some students in my classroom whose writing is what I have, in my own thoughts, considered "non-standard" writing. By this, I mean writing that, on the surface, just doesn't appear to meet the preconceived notion I have formed for the assignment I have given. When examined more closely (something I always do with writing of this kind), I often find evidence that there has been a significant amount of critical thought incorporated into the document. The challenges in finding these things are various and manifold, but usually lead to much more successful discussions with those particular students. In this sense, I feel as though Shaughnessy's declaration in Errors and Expectations that students respond in surprisingly positive ways to assessment which finds intelligence in the mistakes they make is given further credence; the possibility for competetiveness under transformative assessment induces the kind of response that she predicted and championed.

I also considered Gardner's Multiple Intelligences when reading Haswell's article, because of the way he describes the meanings for the different labels assigned to remediality (277). In order to address this multiplicity of needs, we must understand that there is not "a single method of evaluation" that accomodates all varieties. Because people learn in different ways, we cannot assume that competency in any particular skill is prerequisite for critical thought, or that because one skill is lacking that there is an automatic deficiency in some category or group of skills that relate to it (278). In other words, as Haswell points out, we must first find the skills that are evident in order to best motivate successful learning in other areas. If we focus on the skills that need improvement (which the students probably already have had criticism of), we pigeonhole them into the generalized "remedial" or whatever other term might apply, lump of lesser quality writing. And as Haswell also points out, this lumping of writing often credits more technically accomplished writing with a level of thought that it may not have fully demonstrated. I think that there are probably many instances where, because of time or haste, writing that "jumps the hurdles", so to speak, gets passed or given high marks when it doesn't actually succeed in developing "truth and accuracy" (282).

Along those same lines, Shaughnessy gives us specific ways in which we might address student choices with more careful understanding and inquisitiveness. Donald Murray proposed and Erika Lindemann elaborated in Responding to Student Writing that teachers should attempt to be physicians, not judges. By developing a deeper understanding of why students make the mistakes they do, we are diagnosing in a more sophisticated way the true nature of their needs. When we judge them and don't explain these observations, we create in them the same sense of defeatism that Haswell notes as epidemic among these types of writers. Shaughnessy connects successful speech to the kinds of writing decisions that students are capable of, but sometimes dont translate to the page. I think that by observing and pointing these kinds of things to our students, they may better be able to "teach themselves", if you will. Some lessons are implicitly understood, but not successfully accomplished and if we can show students why those kinds of things are not successfully performed in their writing, we can achieve the kind of experience building that Shaughnessy advocates.

P.S. after posting this, I was reading some other responses and I noticed that Liza was reminded of the same Lindemann article that I was. I was not intentionally trying to be as cool as Liza, no matter how much she might argue otherwise. :)

Garrett's Post


I always Haswell’s writing interesting due to the scientific take he has on composition, and how he often tries to give those we call “basic” a second look. I do agree with Joanna that I wasn’t sure where he was going all the time I was reading, but I think I got the basic gist. And while I agree that “perhaps remedial writing is easy for evaluators to categorize because it bears, or bares, its earmarks flagrantly, on the surface,” I still think some of the work he discusses here with the “bottom” rated writers is a little generalized. Can we really say that these essays are full of writing “characterized by introspection, humor, laconism, and that pithy irony with which the rustic jives the city-goer” (276)? And after that, conclude that these writers are “as eccentric and diverse as any group”? It seems too sweeping to me, but of course, I haven’t read more than the samples he offers here. I do think there’s something to the competition aspect: when you’ve got nothing to lose, and don’t consider yourself part of the discourse from the outset, why write for anyone else? Why not entertain yourself in your writing? I imagine the distinction he was making here between the bottom and top essays was a matter of “voice” within the writing, something that unfortunately often goes out the window as academic writing improves. And then, is there really any difference between a writer whose work is marred with surface errors but is brimming with difficult concepts, and a work that is flawless on the surface but empty inside? Somehow, I think we do need to make this distinction more often.


I dig this article just for the sheer quoteability of it (did I make up a word? Well, Haswell did it already with “remediality”): “Writing is an act of creative reading,” or “Somehow students have to discover that the mess is writing; the published book is written,” or “There is a kind of carpentry in sentence making,” or “One cannot be said to have had an idea until he has made his way through this maze.” Apart from that, more than any article I’ve read in a while, this makes you appreciate the writing process. We always talk about “process over product” and the importance of it, but rarely do you see it the way Shaughnessy presents it here: “Learning to write statements, therefore, is at first a matter of getting the ear to ‘hear’ script” (6). There’s the all important “internal voice” that we as students have, but don’t often think about, that is so necessary for writing. When she discusses the notion that students often have an easier time talking out a paper with a teacher than actually writing it, which I’ve seen numerous times in my class, the whole process becomes a manner of translation, and of giving students the necessary skills to competently put down their ideas. The carpentry metaphor makes much more sense in this respect: you can envision a porch all you want, but if you don’t have some 2x4’s, some nails, a hammer, a saw, a measuring tape, and a level, you’ll never get it done. Now thinking about that, imagine how frustrating it must be for the students who have ideas that are permanently trapped on the route to translation because they aren’t adequately equipped, for whatever reason. As a songwriter, its like having a song idea in your head, and never being able to do it justice because your guitar is not properly strung.