Discussion: Defining Basic Writing


It is hard to disagree that all people are different. Even when educated in the same class and similar environment, children may have lower or higher classroom performance and develop their skills differently. While the accepted curriculum is effective for most kids, some of them still graduate from school without gaining proper writing communication skills: they cannot compose long sentences or texts, make mistakes in simple words, and lack vocabulary. This issue was addressed earlier in the 1970s, and since then, such a discipline has been called basic writing. Though it has many advantages, there was and still is opposition to this subdiscipline.

Current Definitions of Basic Writing

Basic writing is a composition study subdiscipline that has several proper definitions. In order to explore the debate around this discipline and propose a newer understanding of its essence, it is necessary to examine some current views on it. As noticed by “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” (Nordquist, 2018, para. 1). Further, researchers also state that “basic writing refers to courses taught to developmental students—students who fail college entrance examinations and/or are otherwise unprepared for academic life” (IGI Global, n.d., para. 1). Overall, modern definitions are focused on the essence of basic writing, which generally focuses on cultivating written communication skills in those students who cannot write as effectively and correctly as their peers.

How the Field Developed Over Time

Basic writing is not a modern discipline; it has undergone some changes and debates over the years. As stated by Nordquist (2018), this term “was introduced in the 1970s as an alternative to remedial or developmental writing,” and it was offered by Mina Shaughnessy (para. 1). Precisely Ms. Shaughnessy tried to encourage the acceptance of basic writing and basic writers, promoted the research and teaching of this subdiscipline, and, in 1975, founded the Journal of Basic Writing (Nordquist, 2018). It is also vital to notice that more attention had been brought to this concept even before the efforts of Mina Shaughnessy. For example, in 1966, a pre-collegiate Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) program was created by the City University of New York (Harrington & Adler-Kassner, 1998). Its aim was to prepare those students who lacked writing skills and were not ready to enter the university. Of course, there were some changes introduced to the field. For example, nowadays, technologies are included in most programs, and students can enhance their writing communication skills with the help of computer programs and various applications.

How the Definition Changed Over the Years

The first definitions of this subdiscipline were not very effective and could even prevent students with poor writing skills from improving their performance. According to Otte & Mlynarczyk (2010), Mina Shaughnessy decided to rename the field in order to save it from being associated with “‘remedial’ or ‘bonehead’ English” (p. 42). Therefore, the early definitions included these stigmatizing words, which were rather harmful to the essence of the discipline itself and the desire of such students to improve their knowledge. Thanks to Shaughnessy, the term basic writing was partly freed from the stigmata of remediation.

Debates Over Basic Writing

It is essential to mention that not all educators and researchers agree with the general views on basic writing. Some say that this discipline should include an implicit notion that such students are still in the early stage of writing skills and language development (White & DeGenaro, 2016). Others state that those students who attend basic writing courses are actually rather vivid and skilled real-life communicators who simply need help putting their words on paper (Nordquist, 2018). Additionally, as noticed by VanHaitsma (2010), “central to this debate are questions about basic writing’s politics and ethics, about whether it is in service of or an impediment to social justice for students” (p. 100). Indeed, it is still unclear whether the initial aim of basic writing, which is to support students, is a priority for politicians, academics, and educators.

Proposed Definition

Considering the information outlined in the previous paragraphs, I find it fundamental to offer a new view on basic writing. Overall, I define this term in the following way: Basic writing is a composition studies subdiscipline that has the aim of supporting those students who, for some reason and to some extent, were let down by the education system, failing to give them the necessary writing skills. I believe that this definition has several serious reasons for being accepted. First of all, it is essential to shift the focus in the definition from students to the education system. Indeed, the latter is not perfect, and if so many students do not develop proper writing skills, it is vital to raise awareness of the shortcomings of modern K-12 education. Second, it is required to finally remove from the definition the accusation towards students and their ‘poor development’ compared to their peers. This is because such stigmatization can weaken the student’s desire to improve their skills and go to university.


Harrington, S., & Adler-Kassner, L. (1998). The dilemma that still counts”: Basic writing at a political crossroads. Journal of Basic Writing, 17(2), 3-24.

IGI Global. (n.d.). What is basic writing? Web.

Nordquist, R. (2018). Basic writing. ThoughtCo. Web.

Otte, G., & Mlynarczyk, R. W. (2010). Basic writing. Parlor Press.

VanHaitsma, P. (2010). More talk about “basic writers”: A category of rhetorical value for teachers. Journal of Basic Writing, 29(1), 99-124.

White, E. M., & DeGenaro, W. (2016). Basic writing and disciplinary maturation: How chance conversations continue to shape the field. Journal of Basic Writing, 35(1), 5-22.