Thoughts on Basic (and Not-So-Basic) Writing

So far in my graduate course this semester, among other readings, I've assigned Mina Shaughnessy's introduction to Errors and Expectations, an excerpt from Robert Connors' Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy, an excerpt from Ken Macrorie's Telling Writing, and David Bartholomae's "Inventing the University." These four I mention are really forming a constellation in my mind about teaching academic writing to beginners, especially the place of grammar, that dude who just will not leave the party.

For one thing -- as I'm pleased the students in class picked up on -- when most people say "grammar," they don't mean only grammar. It's a shorthand, umbrella term for a lot of organizational, rhetorical, and stylistic conventions that the user of the term "grammar" doesn't know how to articulate. Every time I read Bartholomae's essay (PDF), I'm re-impressed with how well he describes and demystifies the gestures and postures in academic writing.

I'm interested in looking at these readings with the question in mind of how basic writing should be taught. The approaches in the article I linked here are categorized well, but I have been thinking of two basic categories:

1. The Sequential Method

This approach has the goal of getting rid of sentence-level errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation (GSP). When the writing is clearer in this regard, the instruction can then proceed to issues of genre, argument, etc. Proponents, at least the ones I've talked to, sometimes make the "you have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk" comparison, which, by the way, isn't true for babies. Writing assignments may be sentences or paragraphs as well as essays; there's a pretty well-established collection of "paragraphs and essays" writing textbooks, many with GSP worksheets and exercises, tailored for this approach.

2. The Tandem Method

This approach, which seems to be favored in the scholarship I've read, calls for students to learn GSP and conventions of academic writing concurrently, so students would learn about making claims with reasons supported by credible evidence, analyzing audience, academic genres like annotated bibliographies, etc.* while learning GSP, but only the GSP the specific student needs to learn. The student may have subject-verb agreement mastered, so no sense spending time on that, but still need help in semicolon usage, for instance.

*OK, so maybe not a lot of Basic Writing teachers are assigning full-on annotated bibliographies. But still, the tandem method does have students focus on content and organization of whole essays from the beginning of the course.

I have more to say on this topic, but right now I'd rather go to sleep. I'm interested in exploring the possible advantages of each of the two methods. So far I have, for the sequential method: maybe the students whose GSP is improved after a course taught this way (and the research suggests there aren't many of those) are in a better position because some of the teachers they'll have in the future will be more positively predisposed toward them, more willing to believe that these students have intelligence and are not lost causes, and more willing to make the effort to teach the argument, analytical skills, genre conventions, and so forth.


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BW and Annotated Bib

2 Board Alley

I teach the lower of two levels of Basic Writing at a community college, and here's what I've learned over the years. I teach "grammar" in tandem--or context with their writing. Otherwise, I wind up with students who can recognize error on tests but not in their own work. Whenever we go over a concept in grammar, I immediately ask the class to either write their own examples or open a file and find examples of what we've gone over. It's the ability to apply the concept or recognize the patterns in their own work that I'm after.

It's also tricky to teach "grammar" to students whose definition of "revision" means "handing over a paper to a teacher who will make all of the corrections so that you can correct your mistakes." In that context, real revision (as well as responsibility for the paper)seems like busywork, and the only valuable, important learning is in the worksheets.

Some of this behavior may also be rooted in the fact that it is far easier to fill out a worksheet than it is to puzzle out a paper.

And, I don't know if your university-level basic writers are the same as the ones I teach, which would make all of the above irrelevant.

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