On Shaughnessy, Syntax, and Students

The introductory chapter of Mina P. Shaughnessy: Her Life and Work by Jane Maher is filled with so much emotional energy that it threatens to chase off the timid graduate student preparing to teach composition in community college.  Faced with the new policy of open enrollment in New York City, in 1966, Shaughnessy was tasked with creating a basic writing program that was inclusive of all the dialects and writing ability levels of the previously underserved students of poor and immigrant New York City neighborhoods.  Ever a politically charged issue, in 1998, New York mayor Giuliani wages war against what he sees as a waste of money and class space.  Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Jeff Sommers, in their article “Professing at the Fault Lines:  Composition at Open Admissions Institutions,” paraphrase the attack:

Incoming students who do not pass gateway placement exams in reading, writing, and math will be barred entrance, ending the open admissions policy established in 1970. During this public campaign of ridicule, confusion and duplicity abound as the mayor first attacks the community colleges, then the senior colleges.  No one is quite sure what will happen at the city’s community colleges . . .

Currently, open enrollment is policy in Virginia’s community colleges, and once again controversy simmers over the poor quality of college writing.  Nobody seems happy, teachers are demoralized because they are “torn between their knowledge that teaching writing is important and challenging the harsh public voices attacking their enterprise” (442).  I must admit that I too have been noncommittal about what environment I believe is best for teaching BW courses that sometimes don’t carry college credit, use up tight funds, and often result in students never graduating.   The cost to students is more than economical though; their dreams are often shattered.  I questioned a while back when a student I was tutoring at Tidewater Literacy was accepted into the local community college, but I also knew that this student had goals that wouldn’t be met by the rudimentary reading assignments TL’s adult literacy curriculum espoused.  Besides, learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Education is cultural and participitory, requiring the embedding of habits of mind as well as academic skills, so I’m gratified to find that there are many teachers today equally as committed as Shaughnessy was back in 1966 to finding new (and old) ways to reach Basic Writing students in college. I hope the changes that are now taking place, combining the reading and writing programs, defining twenty-first century literacy skills, among others, will do teachers and students justice.

Errors and Expectations, written before computer classrooms were a reality, is still relevant for its skill at confronting another, still controversial issue; grammar correction. Shaughnessy, however, confronts both grammar correction and  the nay-sayers who think teaching writing process is “a little soft” by pointing out that even though grammar errors are plentiful and therefore shouldn’t be ignored, there are discernable patterns of error in most basic writing that are explainable and manageable.  Shaughnessy’s point that “the issue is not [the student’s] capacity to master the unfamiliar forms of formal English . . . but to write,” emphasizes voice over code.  The four most important syntax issues she recommends addressing with BW s are:

  • Sentences
  • Inflection
  • Tense
  • Agreement

Shaughnessy also places a lot of responsibility on students to self-correct grammar errors through the use of handbooks and handouts chosen for specific problems so that the writing process can remain the dominant focus of class time.  This is the approach I would like to take to teaching grammar as I develop my Basic Writing course outline. The key issue will be how to assess grammar and mechanics as an “important to know” rather than a “core task.” This may be one of those areas where Dr. Phelp’s (2012 ODU Faculty Summer Institute) suggestion for daily quizzes might come in handy – maybe a cell phone quiz would work.


Bowler, Mike. “Dropouts Loom Large for Schools.” Retrieved from www.usnews.com

Maher, Jane. Mina Shaughnessy: Her Life and Work. Urbana: NCTE, 1998. Web. URL

Open Admission. Retrieved from The New York Times Article Archives.  URL

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.


Posted on June 13, 2012, in Independent Study and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I’ll push you further along the idea of the mobile device…by having students engage with content there, you are getting them to transfer their learning outside of the classroom and trying to apply it in a real world environment.

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