CBW Logo bwe_summer1999
Basic Writing e-Journal

Volume 1        Number 1        Summer 1999
Published 6/16/99

Co-editors: Linda Adler-Kassner and Gregory R. Glau

The following papers were presented at the All-Day Workshop, "Teaching Basic Writing at the Point of Need," on March 24, 1999, at CCCC in Atlanta, Georgia.  The Co-Chairs of this workshop were Gerri McNenny and Sallyanne H. Fitzgerald.

Many thanks to the Co-Chairs and presenters for allowing us to publish their work.

Basic Writing e-Journal

Table of contents

Editors' Page

1. Linda Adler-Kassner

2. Kathleen Blake Yancey

3. George Otte and Terence Collins

4. Marcia Dickson

Basic Writing e-Journal

Editors' Page

        Welcome to the first issue of Basic Writing E-Journal, or BWe.  This new e-journal is intended to complement the already rich resources available to basic writing instructors and researchers:  the Conference on Basic Writing home page, the CBW listserv, and of course, the Journal of Basic Writing.
        This seems a particularly important moment in the history of basic writing, and we hope that BWe becomes a forum where many of the issues circulating in and around the field can be aired and discussed.  Within the last three years, we've witness basic writing programs from New York to California (with Minnesota's General College in between) come under fire.  In some form or another, they've emerged from that round of the battle.  But if the situation at CUNY is any indication - and historically, it has been - round two is about to begin.
        Last week, with the release of the report of The Mayor's Advisory Task Force on CUNY (unfortunately titled, "The City University of New York: An Institution Adrift"), "remedial" classes like those in basic writing occupied the headlines in New York and around the nation.  Reporting that "CUNY's commitment to providing remedial education is laudable," the document goes on to say that CUNY has not demonstrated that its approach to remediation is effective.  Resorting to the language of clinical medicine, it charges that "CUNY does not carefully diagnose students' remedial needs.  It does not measure objectively what students have actually accomplished in remediation, nor has it promulgated systematic and valid standards to determine when students may exit remediation" (7).  The committee then recommends that CUNY continue to offer remediation at the community college level, and then imposes stipulations on that recommendation, including the suggestion that "students who require remediation should be gien a range of remediation options funded by education and training vouchers from a mix of public sources, so they can obtain remedial services from the provider of heir choice without depleting their college financial aid" (7).
        Needless to say, the language of the CUNY report does additional damage to basic writing students and basic writing programs.  Remedial students, already at a disadvantage when they enter the community college to which they are now sent, may now have their abilities further measured by the same "objective" testing measures that promulgate inappropriate tracking in many K-12 schools.  Instructors of classes for underprepared students, like basic writing, will find themselves in competition with one another, and with for-profit educational institutions (many of which offer sub-standard courses via distance education technologies).  If the recommendations of the committee are implemented (and New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani is no fan of CUNY), they will go one step further toward alienating basic writing instructors from one another, and stigmatizing basic writing students who may ultimately decide that education "isn't for them."
        As the CUNY report illustrates, these are troubling times.  They're especially troubling for those of us who see education generally, and writing specifically, as something more than a skill that can be measured with "objective" tests.  It's time for those of us who teach basic courses - basic writing, and perhaps also basic math and all of the other courses labeled "remedial" to come together and fight back.  Two years ago, in the Conference on Basic Writing Preconference Workshop (at CCCC), Terry Collins did a workshop on amassing data to fight the good fight, walking attendees through the ways in which General College was able to fend off efforts by the administration to eliminate the college by providing better data than that used by the administration.  Certainly, these efforts to collect data are important.  Equally important is communication across campuses, and perhaps across disciplines, so that we can cite successful efforts on other campuses, and know where to find good resources when we need them.
        As a forum that's not bound by some of the same strictures as print media (for instance, we don't have to worry about printing time or mailing costs), we hope that BWe will become an additional resource in our work. If you, readers, have suggestions for the e-journal, please let us know.  In the meantime, keep fighting the good fight.

Work Cited

Schmidt, Benno et. al.  "The City University of New York: An Institution Adrift."  Report of  the
        Mayor's Advisory Task Force on The City University of New York.  15 June 1999

Basic Writing e-Journal

1. Linda Adler-Kassner
University of Michigan--Dearborn

        Service-learning has become a remarkably popular strategy in writing courses across the curriculum.  But in their excitement over developing a pedagogical strategy which seems so effective, sometimes instructors forget that it is vital to carefully plan and articulate the intersections between the approach toward service-learning in the class, and the more general writing goals that shape the course (and/or the program in which the course is situated).  The focus of this session was to help basic writing instructors think about ways that service-learning might complement and advance the goals of their courses; to imagine possible service-learning assignments; and to discuss potential solutions to problems that might arise in a basic writing course that incorporated service-learning.
        Edward Zlotkowski has developed a matrix to describe the factors that must be balanced in a successful service-learning course.  On one end of the horizontal axis, he positions "academic expertise," or disciplinary knowledge.  On the other end of that exit is "concern for the common good," or the civic/democratic concerns that motivate many service-learning practitioners.  At the top of the vertical axis is "student-centered work;" at the bottom is "mentor-centered work" (work which primarily benefits the agency).  I opened the session with a brief discussion of these points, suggesting that the successful course must be careful situated between all of them.
        The session was divided into several working sessions.  First, I asked instructors to write down and share with one another the broad goals for their basic writing course(s), and what they did in the course(s) to achieve those goals.  Next, we reviewed some definitions for service-learning (see below), and looked at three models for service-learning in composition classes developed by Tom Dean, from his unpublished doctoral dissertation, Writing Partnerships.

Here is Tom Dean's matrix:

3 Paradigms for Community-based writing
Writing for the community
Writing about the community
Writing with the community
Primary site of learning
Non-profit agency
Community center
Privileged literacy
Academic and non-profit agency literacies
Academic and critical literacies
Academic, community, and hybrid literacies
Most highly valued discourse
Workplace discourse
Academic discourse
Hybrid discourses
Primary learning relationship
Student-agency contact (instructor as facilitator)
Student-instructor (service work as facilitator)
Student mentor-community member (instructor as facilitator)
Primary instructional relationship
Instructor-non-profit agency contact person
Instructor-community site contact person
University department-community center
(1) Students learn non-academic writing practices & reflect on differences b/t academic and workplace literacies   (2) Needed writing product provided for agency 
(3) Students reflect on their work & attain critical awareness of community needs
(1) Students develop critical consciousness and habits of and intellectual tools for critique
(2) Students provide some sort of service, observe the context & reflect on their work
(3) Students write academic essays and journals on social forces that put people in need
(1) University and community members use writing & rhetoric as part of a systematic social action effort to collaboratively and strategically identify and address local problems 
(2) Forge intercultural and hybrid discourses
(3) University and community share inquiry and research
Did the student write a document that will be of use to the agency, and critically reflect on the writing and service process?  Can the student move between academic and workplace discourses?
How sophisticated a critique of society / social issues can the student demonstrate in classroom performance and academic writing?  Have students provided adequate service to the community site?
Is the local problem negotiated / addressed / solved?  Have both community members and mentors engaged in successful written and oral rhetorical performances using hybrid discourses?

        Equipped with broad goals for their individual classes, and goals for service-learning in composition courses, I asked participants to find intersections between their course goals and service-learning goals, and to develop a possible assignment that might fulfill course goals through service-learning.  Some terrific ideas:

        Each instructor was also extremely articulate about how the service-learning assignments they thought of would also accomplish the composition-related goals of their courses.
        We also had a long discussion about solutions to potential problems that might arise in a service-learning course.  Ultimately, we developed an (informal) list of things to remember:

Service-Learning:  Some Quick Definitions
(Harvested from the Service-Learning Archive:

My shorthand definition:
Service-learning is a pedagogical strategy that involves linking the subject of a class with work in a non-profit and/or community organization.
Other Definitions of Service-Learning:
"Service-learning means a method under which students learn and develop through thoughtfully-organized service that: is conducted in and meets the needs of a community and is coordinated with an institution of higher education, and with the community; helps foster civic responsibility; is integrated into and enhances the academic curriculum of the students enrolled; and includes structured time for students to reflect on the service experience."  -American Association of Higher Education (developed to contextualize the AAHE "Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in the Disciplines" series)

"Service-learning is the various pedagogies that link community service and academic study so that each strengthens the other. The basic theory of service-learning is Dewey's: the interaction of knowledge and skills with experience is key to learning. Students learn best not by reading the Great Books in a closed room but by opening the doors and windows of experience. Learning starts with a problem and continues with the application of increasingly complex ideas and increasingly sophisticated skills to increasingly complicated problems."   -Thomas Ehrlich, Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices (Jossey-Bass, 1996)
"Service-learning is a method through which citizenship, academic subjects, skills, and values are taught. It involves active learning--drawing lessons from the experience of performing service work. Though service-learning is most often discussed in the context of elementary and secondary or higher education, it is a useful strategy as well for programs not based in schools.

There are three basic components to effective service-learning:

Thinking about the service creates a greater understanding of the experience and the way service addresses the needs of the community. It promotes a concern about community issues and a commitment to being involved that mark an active citizen. At the same time the analysis and thought allow the participants to identify and absorb what they have learned.   --Corporation on National and Community Service

Basic Writing e-Journal

2. Kathleen Blake Yancey
University of North Carolina at Charlotte


Assessing Basic Writing Programs:
A Very Quick E-Primer

        A key issue these days, for teachers as well as program directors, is how well a course or academic program "works."  Based on the idea that a program works, of course, institutions award budgets, staff courses, and teach students.  Obviously, given these stakes--which can include the very existence of the program or course--it's in our own interest to demonstrate success.  At the same time, too frequently we don't define what we mean by success, or what I'm taking as its synonym, "works."   My point?   It would be wise to assess our own programs, and when we do, we need to think in terms of (1) how those programs work and (2) what we mean by that expression.
        The good news here is that defining how programs work is an interesting intellectual task that goes to the heart of what we think we do and how our students learn.  Likewise, there are more ways to proceed than we will be able to pursue, so there are choices to be made; those choices dictate what we'll learn about our own programs.  I've listed below some scenarios, with accompanying references, that illustrate some of what's possible.
        As you'll see from a quick glance, the scenarios emphasize method.  Method's important, of course, but it's not a good starting point, no matter how comfortable it feels.  Rather, method wants to come after other considerations, not before.  Taken together, those considerations compose what I think of as the "Rhetorical Situation of Program Assessment" and include answers to the following questions:


        Let's look at some options in the context of a particular task.  Let's thus assume that you have instituted a new curriculum for your basic writing course, and you want to know the effect it is having on your students--in personal as well as in institutional terms.  Such an assessment will help you improve your program as it will help you document that your program is "working."  Which of the following options looks most promising to you, and why?   How do those options translate into the rhetorical situation of writing assessment?  What can be learned?  And what will the tradeoffs be?


        As the title suggests, this is a quick primer. For additional information, you can find lots of different sources. Although the two below don't address basic writing specifically, they do offer  questions, models and references you're likely to find useful.

Richard Haswell's and Pam Moss' exchange in the first 1996 issue of Assessing Writing:
"Multiple Inquiry in the Validation of Writing Tests," and "Response: Testing the Test of the Test."

 Kathleen Blake Yancey and Brian Huot's 1996 Assessing Writing across the Curriculum: Diverse Approaches and Practices (Ablex).


Basic Writing e-Journal

3. George Otte and Terence Collins


Where Do You (Really) Want to Go Today?
Terence Collins
Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Writing and Literature
General College-University of Minnesota

        For two years, my colleague Susan Stan and I surveyed everything we could get our hands on about ways in which developmental writing programs were taking best advantage of computer and internet technologies.  We reported our results at length in "Basic Writing: Curricular Interactions with New Technology," Journal of Basic Writing 17.1, Spring, 1998.  Several factors--the historical confluence of reform in Composition Studies, the availability of new, relatively inexpensive computer and networking technology, and Basic Writings growth in sophistication over three decades of open-admissions--have sponsored a great deal of change in the writing curriculum for developmental students, change involving a variety of technologies and uses.
        In spite of widely reported problems with equitable access to the strong new technologies among basic writing teachers, we were surprised, even sometimes astounded, by the achievements of individual teachers and colleagues in departments who work in BW.  As captured in detail at our searchable web site <www.gen.umn.edu/research/currtran>, dozens of site-specific innovations and transformative practices in basic writing courses are in place in a range of institutions around the country (we invite your submissions to further this work
        Using the web site is quite easy.  If you link to www.gen.umn.edu/research/currtran/
you will find a simple search tool (this perpetually in progress site is updated only annually due to limited funding).  You can use this tool to put yourself in contact with colleagues who struggle with issues of how best to use technology in support of basic writing courses and their students.  For instance, a person using the advanced search function, looking for "writing" and limiting the search to local colleagues in, say, Arizona would be led to a set of entries from the database, some of them responses to a mail survey, some of them the result of a literature search.  (I urge you to go the site and testy drive it as you read.)
        By selecting any of the entries with the "view" function, one is led to a page which abstracts the work selected.  If the initial author of the entry provided a link or an e-mail address, that is presented for your use.  Many entries contain links to active web sites which are used in writing courses.  By grouping the entries by topic, geographic location, and other features, we hoped to make it easy for practitioners to contact each other.
        A second search, this time for colleagues working in ESL regardless of location, yields a number of hits.  Selecting entry 6, say, from the output screen takes you to Dave Sperling's ESL page ( http://www.guidetoonlineschools.com/tips-and-tools/esl-resources-students ) , a very rich web site, full of resources from grammar support ideas for students, to pen pals, to a job board for ESL teachers.  Overall, we were impressed by the really fine work by practitioners and researchers available to support colleagues in basic writing looking at ways in which technology might enhance their curriculum.
Among the many things we learned in doing our survey, we were struck by the power of local adaptation.  As we think about site-specific needs among basic writing programs in adopting technology, we offer the following prompt as a brainstorming tool for colleagues.

Teaching goal Technology Resources needed
To get students to collaborate more meaningfully at the front end of an assignment cycle LAN-based chat 
Internet Chat 
Cross-site e-mail groups with colleagues' classes 
Course and work-group listserv
LAN and cb 
application such as 
Internet hookups 
Listserv support
We hope that by working with the needs of your curriculum for your students in your site, you can fashion a set of technologies which support the work you do best on behalf of students who are too often last in line for academic riches.

Resources from George Otte
Director, BPP -- Baruch (College) Preparatory Program
Director, Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute
Baruch College ~~ The City University of New York

The World Wide Web is a wonderful place - a place to get stuff and (better yet) a place to do stuff.  With the work on the CUNY Online Writing Lab (which we're calling the WriteSite, and which you can get to at http://writesite.cuny.edu/), we're emphasizing the latter.  The whole approach there is to maximize interactivity - partly by using an inductive approach to all the instruction presented, partly by making computer-mediated communication a prominent feature.  That's the sort of thing that really requires a hands-on demo, so it plays less well as show-and-tell, still less well as a written retrospective.  What I can do in this context is emphasize the "get stuff" aspect, if only by touching the topmost tip of the iceberg.  Partly because they're underrated and undervalued, I thought I'd call attention to some of the "grammar" sites out there.  (I use the term loosely but advisedly, as a way of acknowledging all sorts of things people are doing to help students grapple with language issues besides fluency building.)  If you back out of many of these and step into their larger settings, you'll find yourself in impressive repositories of writing resources.  I also include a "webliography" I have started handing out to new teachers, most of it focusing on e-publications available on the Internet.

Grammar Sites (note that this is not intended to be a comprehensive list and that these links worked at the time of publication):

Useful Stuff on the World Wide Web

Cyber-Journals and E-Publications

Other resources  
Basic Writing e-Journal

4. Marcia Dickson
Associate Professor of English
The Ohio State University at Marion


        My basic writing students know how to read, at least most of them do.  Vocabulary words aren't a problem, neither is dyslexia.  My students-designated basic writers by the placement test at my campus-regularly  read newspapers, magazines, and, occasionally, novels.  They, however, don't know how to read the non-fiction articles and books assigned in colleges and universities, and they don't know the differences between major and minor points or, in some cases, how to distinguish between the views of authors and the sources they quote.1   This gap in the basic writer's knowledge makes it difficult for them to be successful in college or in any field where critical thinking and applied knowledge is a requisite.
        Most basic writing teachers know that basic writers are also basic readers.  Knowing that students cannot read, however, does not necessarily make it easier to teach them writing.  Few of us who teach basic writing were trained as reading teachers.  The texts that purport to teach "college" level reading skills, reduce the problem to one of identifying vocabulary words, locating topic sentences, and making outlines of important points.  Much like the old approach to writing-learn the word, the sentence, the paragraph before you tackle a whole essay-these reading books think of reading as a matter of mechanics.  Unfortunately, as with most of the neat mechanical formulas we dream up to explain everything from grammar to essay structure (remember the "key hole" method that dominated freshman composition for decades), the formulas do not necessarily apply to sophisticated discourse.
        Take, for instance, this passage from Susan Douglas's Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media:

The truth is that growing up female with the mass media helped make me a feminist, and it helped make millions of other women feminists, too, whether they take on that label or not.  I'm not supposed to admit I'm a feminist, and neither are you, for this portion of our history evokes as much derision as what preceded it.  the moment the women's movement emerged in 1970, feminism once again became a dirty word, with considerable help from the mainstream news media.  News reports and opinion columnists created a new stereotype, of fanatics, "braless bubbleheads," Amazons, "the angries," and "a  band of wild lesbians."  The results is that we all know what feminists are.  They are shrill, overly aggressive, man-hating, ball-busting, selfish, hairy, extremist, deliberately unattractive women with absolutely no sense of humor who see sexism at every turn.  They make men's testicles shrivel up to the size of peas, they detest the family and think all children should be deported or drowned.  Feminists are relentless, unforgiving, and unwilling to bend or compromise;  they are single-handedly responsible for the high divorce rate, the shortage of decent men, and the unfortunate proliferation of Birkenstocks in America.
        Given all this baggage, it's best to say, "I'm not a feminist, but." before putting forward a feminist position.  As recently as 1989, Time announced that "hairy legs haunt the feminist movement" and concluded that the women's movement was hopelessly dated."  We all saw what happened to Hillary Clinton in the 1992 campaign, a full ten years after she changed her name to Bill's so voters wouldn't think she was too independent of anything.  Excoriated by the Republicans as a "feminazi" because she has only one child and has argued (in print, no less) that children have a right to be protected against abusive parents, Hillary was forced to prove she could operate a hand mixer and impersonate a deaf-mute.  When, as first lady, she testified before Congress about health care, congressmen and pundits alike expressed dumbfounded shock that a woman like this-you know, assertive, independent, brainy-could be witty and charming.  (Once the mikes were off, you could see them saying to each other, "Sheeit, Bob, I didn't know them fem-nist bitches knew how to laugh!")  This is what happens to you in America if you dare to identify yourself with the F word. (7-8)
        The year my colleague, Lynda Behan, and I used Douglas's book in our basic writing class (officially named Intensive Basic Reading and Writing), this passage caused the most confusion and consternation.2   Students accused Douglas of being a hypocrite.         We didn't understand why they didn't get it until we examined the section with them carefully and discovered that several formulas they used for deciphering Douglas's words-and quite a few they didn't-interfered with their understanding of the passage.
        What formula led to this misreading?  What rules led the students to the conclusion that Douglas "contradicted herself"?   The first reading rule they operate under is the one that claims that the topic of every paragraph is always in the first sentence.  They have forgotten or never knew that topic sentences can be found at other locations in the paragraph.  As a results, they read the first sentence in each paragraph:         And come up with a contradiction that does sound a bit like hypocrisy.  The other problem, however, concerns a different type of misreading.  In the material that follows those two "topic" sentences, Douglas comments rather sarcastically on the derision with which feminists and feminism have faced.  The student, operating under the other "paragraph" rule they remember from high school, see this commentary as evidence to support the topic sentences and, missing the tone completely, see it as Douglas's condemnation of the feminist movement.  They pick up on the vivid image of  "shrill, overly aggressive, man-hating, ball-busting, selfish, hairy, extremist, deliberately unattractive women with absolutely no sense of humor." feminists, descriptions which were and still are present in the media, without pausing to consider that Douglas might be explaining the obstacles feminist face in declaring their political stance.
        Douglas's book is typical of texts used in college-level courses.  Like other social science and humanities texts, it investigates a specific topic in depth, spending twelve chapters on a topic that basic readers want to summarize in a few sentences.   It is this desire to reduce every subject to a few choice lines that makes reading difficulty for novices to the academy.  Unless they can come to understand not only the words of their texts but also the approach to ideas taken by more experienced learners and teachers.  If they do not come to understand an academic approach to learning, they will not succeed in their classes, and many of them will leave college altogether.

Characteristics of Basic Readers

[What follows is a brief description of what my colleagues and I have learned a about basic readers during the ten years that we taught them at the OSU Marion campus.  Since the 1999 CCCC workshop from which this paper is derived focused on practical rather than theoretical considerations of teaching reading, and since I've covered the same material more thoroughly in my book, It's Not Like That Here:  Teaching Reading and Writing to Novice Readers (Heinemann Boynton-Cook) I'm going to be brief rather than all conclusive in the remarks that follow.  Consider this an extension of the "What I Did in My Class" genre-a form that I find much maligned, particularly when I am struggling with the reality of teaching those who don't fit the usual description of college student.]
        Basic readers pile together bits and pieces of paragraphs which they consume without regard to transitions, tone of voice, or the overall argument or picture that an author is creating in the expanded rhetorical construction known as a chapter.  They read a college text like they read their high school history books, for easily discovered facts that must be memorized and absorbed.  The subtle and the sarcastic have no place in their reading strategies.  And that's only one of the problems that characterize basic reader's misunderstanding of texts and their functions.  The following represent a more extensive list of reading problems that prevent basic readers from understanding the non-fiction texts.  When they read, they tend to have a combination of the following problems: Diagnosing Basic Readers:

        If we take the time to look, we can identify a basic reader in several ways because there are distinct manners in which they read, mark, and interpret texts.  The first of my strategies for identifying reading problems requires a bit of class set up.  I ask them to read while in class-usually to prepare for an in-class activity.  Some students read intently for a few minutes and then begin to lose attention, try to strike up conversations, or want to leave the room.  Others push on through until they come upon a particularly difficult passage, where upon they shove the book back and declare it stupid.  Some keep reading all the way through, but when questioned cant remember what they've read.
        To get an understanding of what they've understood and absorbed, we check for highlighting and notes in their texts.  Most of the texts will have no notes whatsoever; some, however, will be covered with the yellow, pink, or green lines of highlighter, evidence usually that they don't really know what they should be looking for.
        The most obvious way to discover what they learned from their reading is to ask them questions about reading as well as about the contents of the text. What we are looking for in this series of activities is not to pin-point that they have reading difficulties-we know that.  What we are looking for is a pattern of misreading, a pattern that is usually no less distinct than the pattern of error present in their writing.
        It also helps to ask them to summarize the text because summaries indicate what they consider to be the most important elements of what they've read.

Teaching Writing In a Research Context:

        While teachers at our campus don't claim to have all the answers, we have learned a few things about helping students learn to decipher their texts.  Most important of those things is something that compositionists should take for granted:  reading cant be taught out of context for the same reasons grammar cant be out of context-students don't naturally carry over and apply ideas from worksheets into their own work.  So we found it necessary to create a context for reading.
        The context we create features a strong element of field research on a subject that is familiar to the students and their families.  Our goal is to let the students read about and test the theories of various authors against their own community and family experiences.  For example, none of our students can complain that they know nothing about high school.  Even those who have dropped out of school and returned after receiving their GEDs-and we do frequently have those students in our classes-can claim they don't know anything about the subject.  Most of the time they dropped out because they have experienced first hand the problems the authors in our education series describe. (For more information about texts, see the list at the end of this essay.)
        Juxtapositioning the personal with the academic, what I have called in other publications the Distanced-Personal, pushes the students to read so that they develop a bases for the questions they will ask in their interviews and the papers they will write on their findings.  It sounds simple as I write the words, but it is far from easy.  We have, over the nine years we've been developing our course of study, found that there are several elements that help us teach reading.  Here's what we've learned:

Use difficult texts

        Students don't necessarily learn to read by giving them simplified and frequently unchallenging texts.  Many texts for basic writing students offer short essays or newspaper articles which simplify arguments.  The language is competent but unsophisticated; sometimes even the print is larger than that found in "regular" readers for freshmen students.  Offering students more complex texts-books, not essays-introduces them to a type of reading that they frequently have not experienced.  High schools seldom have students read non-fiction texts.  In a recent look at several senior English books the only non-fiction offering was "A Modest Proposal" by Johnathan Swift, hardly a non-fiction text to engage readers who don't usually read for pleasure.

Model critical reading

        The reading problem the students most face is learning to make meaning out of the words they encounter on the page.  They have not, as Deborah Brant suggest, learned that books are the ways that literate communities discover and converse with each other.  For those people who have the luxury (or fortitude) of team teaching, modeling how academics make knowledge out of what they read and research is simple.  Lynda and I spent a great deal of time leading discussions by taking sides with the students.  When the conversation threatened to drift into querulous opposition or die from lack of insight, we would find an as yet undeveloped set of ideas from the writer and start a new conversation.  Puzzled as to why we would care so passionately about ideas in a book, our students view us with skepticism at first, but gradually come to understand that debate is a most interesting game to play.  Once they are willing to engage in debate with us, we can lead them to enter into debate with the authors of the books, who they previously would dismiss as having the right to his or her opinion.  The process of modeling works so well that even when we cant team teach, we make efforts to at least have visitors to help stimulate and model the kind of critical thinking valued in the academy.

Discuss the purpose of every textual convention from quotations to page breaks

        At the beginning of each book, we do a pre-reading exercise, starting with the title of the book, paying particular attention to the table of contents and going into the arrangement of text on the page.  We assume nothing.  As I stated above, students do not have schemata for reading.  They often do not realize that the title is important or that the titles of chapters are clues to what is within.  Neither do they recognize that books are arranged carefully to lead readers through an extended argument.  By pointing out the way the book "works" on the reader, we help them discover ways into other texts as well as the ones we assign.

Have them do focused journals

        Since we do firmly believe that writing is learning, we devise journals entries that require the students to apply what they have read to their own experiences.  It takes a bit of coaching at the beginning of the course, but eventually they understand that it's not enough to just spout off an unfounded opinion.   They learn to use the author's words to support their ideas or as a point from which to diverge.  It's important that these topics for journals-or responses-not resemble in either form or nature the dreaded "questions at the end of the chapter" which only ask for right and wrong answers about facts.  The goal is to promote thinking and application of those thoughts.

Ask them to outline/summarize some or all of the text
        I have become an unqualified supporter of the summary as a means of checking a student's understanding of texts and as a way to teach them to make clear and concise statements.  We ask the students to create summaries individually and then to revise them in groups.  The negotiation that group work requires usually insures that students get the major points (not always, of course) and the task of wording the revised summary helps them to develop a more precise set of statements.

Have them teach the text

        As those of us who teach well know, nothing makes you learn a subject like having to teach it.  After students get comfortable with the class and with us, we ask them to be responsible for presenting chapters or parts of chapters to the rest of the class.  Once again they work in groups, pooling their knowledge to give a complete picture.  These teaching sessions range from casual in-class assignments to more elaborate PowerPoint presentations.

Let them fight with the author

        We take issue with authors and we encourage the students to do so as well.  At first, students place an author's words somewhere between sacrosanct and irrelevant.  As we model academic dispute, they come to understand that it is their right and privilege to disagree with material that we bring to class.  This allows them a sense of agency in their dealings with authors.  We do require that they be specific when they argue against an author's position-name names, give examples, quote from the text.  As they become more proficient at raising objections, we can lead them to a greater understanding of the art of academic argument.

A Final-Positive-Note

        It's easy to become discouraged about the reading ability many of our basic writers exhibit.  It's even easier to blame everything from television to their secondary education for the problem.  However, in the long run, knowing who or what to blame doesn't help the students or us.  In my experience, most basic writers want to be competent members of their college community.3  In many ways being a good student is more important to them than to their more prepared counterparts who place directly into first-year-composition.  They have been told that college is hard and they expect to be pushed.  Unless they are derailed by financial or emotional crises, they finish school, often with the comfort brought about by the extra time spent in their basic writing classes.  Both anecdotal and campus research indicate that students who complete the two course basic reading and writing sequence make steady and good progress toward completing their degrees.  Many of our students end up on the Dean's list and in honors programs.  Although we cannot take credit for the industry that the students bring to their courses,  we believe, and more importantly the students believe, that the reading, responses to reading, and arguments about readings that students do in their OSU Marion basic writing classes contributes to their understanding of how to read in other contexts.  Teaching reading is well worth the effort.

Choosing a Text

When choosing topics for a reading/writing/research class, we make the following considerations:
We pick a topic

Some Texts That Meet Our Goals:

The following books have met the goals above and provide an academic view of a problem interlaced with personal narrative examples.

Education-Sometimes a Shining Moment:  The Foxfire Experience (Eliot Wigginton), Horace's Compromise:  The Dilemma of the American High School (Theodore Sizer), Lives on the Boundary:  The Struggle and Achievements of America's Underprepared (Mike Rose).  These texts all explore issues related to current teaching practices and programs.  The students can reflect upon their own experiences with the educational rather than the personal side of high school, interview their high school teachers and administrators, and apply what the authors say to "real life" educational systems.

Feminism-Where the Girls Are:  Images of Feminism in Mass Media  (Susan B. Douglas).  Douglas's book allows students to look at gender roles as they are represented in all forms of media, particularly television, from the 1950s to the 1990s.  They interview their mothers, grandmothers, and other women of their acquaintance to determine if these images did, indeed, affect how they thought of themselves and their role in society.

Economy-Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream  (Katherine S. Newman).  This text looks at what has happened to the economy during the years between World War II and the present and how the changes in the economy have had a very real effect on those who wish to obtain the "American Dream."  Students interview their grandparents and parents as well as members of their own generation in order to determine whether or not Americans are "better off" than they were in the past.

History-Lies My Teacher Told Me:  Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong  (James Loewen).  Loewen's book is based on a study he did of twelve of the leading high school American history books.  Students interview their high school history teachers about such subjects as including issues such as race and politics in a course intended for young people.

Science-The Demon Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark (Carl Sagon).  This book looks at the basis for scientific method and the sometimes misplaced faith that today's generations have come to place in it.  Students interview both high school and college teachers of science and look at present attitudes toward science in the media.


1.  Because not all colleges and universities serve the same basic writers, let me describe ours.  At OSU-Marion, the basic writers tend to fall into two categories, students who were in what is euphemistically called the "regular college prep" and vocational high school classes, and returning students who have been out of high school for any where from three to twenty years.  We are a rural community, and most of our students attend county schools, some of which are excellent and some of which leave much to be desired.  Eighty-five percent of our students work full time as well as attend school full time;  without the income from their jobs, they could not attend college at all.
2.  Let me take a moment to praise and thank Lynda Behan, friend and colleague, whose insights into teaching reading and writing have been of the utmost importance in the courses we developed at OSU Marion.
3.  There are exceptions.  We do encounter students who are in our midst because they don't know what else to do with their lives or because they didn't get the job they wanted and had to do something.

Works Cited

Douglas, Susan B.  Where the Girls Are:  Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New
        York: Random House, 1994

Basic Writing e-Journal

Click here to go to the Conference on Basic Writing page

Please send any questions or comments to either Linda Adler-Kassner or Greg Glau