Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing

Cover of Errors & Expectations (red background, black and white text)Errors and Expectations is one of those books that I feel like I know really well (because it’s so strongly situated in the field) but had never read past the introduction. I was surprised to see how much of what Shaughnessy was saying about basic writing (BW) students was still relevant 35 years later—minus more of the current-traditionally focused stuff on spelling and vocabulary.

The historical context for the book is CUNY’s decision in 1970 to adopt an open admissions policy, allowing any city resident with a high school diploma the opportunity to attend any of the system’s 18 tuition-free colleges (1). The influx in students saw a rise in “those who had been left so far behind the others in their formal education that they appeared to have little chance of catching up” (2). These students were “strangers in academia,” many from different (ie. non-white) racial and ethnic backgrounds and who spoke other languages and dialects (3). Teachers didn’t know how to teach these students, and there weren’t any resources to help them, so in part this book is a guide for the basic writing (remedial, developmental writing) teacher. Specifically, “The book is mainly an attempt to be precise about the types of difficulties to be found in basic writing (BW) papers at the outset, and beyond that, to demonstrate how the sources of those difficulties can be explained without recourse to such pedagogically empty terms as ‘handicapped’ or ‘disadvantaged’” (4).

Drawing on over 4,000 examples from CUNY student placement essays between 1970 and 1974, Shaughnessy wants to illustrate the difficulties BW students face, not because they are slow, indifferent, or incapable “but because they are beginners and must like all beginners, learn by making mistakes” (5). Errors is a guide for BW teachers because Shaughnessy argues that it is the teachers who are the answers to students’ problem:

[This book] assumes that programs are not the answers to the learning problems of students but that teachers are and that, indeed, good teachers create good programs, that the best programs are developed in situ, in response to the needs of individual student populations and as reflections of the particular histories and resources of individual colleges. (6)

The book focuses on errors because teachers often equate “good” writing with “correct” writing (8). This preoccupation is exacerbated by the development of remedial programs—teachers who are impatient with error, students who want grammar instruction to meet the criteria, universities who want remedial programs to quickly produce efficient writers in order to secure funds (8-9).

With its focus on non-native speakers and students who are more familiar with non-academic dialect, this book has interesting implications for language diversity and the way we treat students with different linguistic backgrounds. Shaughnessy argues that BW students prefer vernacular to standard American English largely because these students have bad (humiliating) experiences with trying to learn formal written English in school and associate more pleasurable experiences with speaking to peers and neighbors (10). Shaughnessy argues that these students have lost confidence in their ability to identify the underlying patterns that structure language and are afraid to make mistakes. So despite their experiences with it, students demand prescriptive grammar because “grammar still symbolizes for some students one last chance to understand what is going on with written language so that they can control it rather than be controlled by it” (11). That is, by learning grammar, BW students hope to learn the dominant codes because “a person who does not control the dominant code of literacy in a society that generates more writing than any society in history is likely to be pitched against more obstacles than are apparent to those who have already mastered that code” (13)

Chapter Breakdown.

Because it is a guide for teachers, Shaughnessy breaks down the book into key issues that BW students struggle with and that teachers must address. Chapter 2 focuses on handwriting and punctuation as indicators of students’ (lack of) practice with writing. Shaughnessy writes, “The single most important fact about BW students is that, although they have been talking every day for a good many years, they have been writing infrequently, and then only in such artificial and strained situations that the communicative purpose of writing has rarely if ever seemed real” (14). Handwriting and punctuation are important because they signal whether or not a student has experience with writing and, she argues, whether or not students have had an outlet for expressive or critical thinking (15). Handwriting is not an indication of bad writing as much as an indication that “the writer is not at home with this skill” (16).

Similarly, punctuation errors indicate a lack of experience, which means BW students often don’t understand the structural, semantic, or rhetorical meanings involved with punctuation (16). And because of their unfamiliarity, students frequently default to commas and periods, which limits them both semantically and rhetorically (18). This is the difference between speaking and analytical writing, which requires those textual indications of the relationships between sentences and ideas (32). Students need to be taught about both the grammatical and rhetorical importance of punctuation, and teachers must take the time to do more than point out punctuation errors—they must try to understand the student’s individual code so that the student may become more self-aware as a writer.

Chapter 3’s focus on syntax extends the ideas that BW students are more concerned with competence (writing correctly) than style (writing better) and that the teacher should classify issues in order to plan classes that will meet students’ individual needs. Shaughnessy defines syntax loosely as the “‘big’ problems in sentences—problems that keep a sentence from ‘working’ or being understood” (47). Although she categorizes these issues, what I find most useful about this chapter is the attention to spoken dialect and complexity. Shaughnessy argues that students incorporate spoken dialect into their writing because it’s familiar to them. This is an issue, though, because speech allows more for redundancies and loose coordination, which can be worked out through the interaction of dialogue. When translated into writing, though, these utterances are unbalanced. Related to this, she argues that BW students mismanage complexity—indicated in the sentences they produce—and there are multiple explanations for this (the student hasn’t internationalized linguistic patterns, is unfamiliar with the composing process, or is unsure of herself academically). Each of these explanations corresponds with a different pedagogy: current-traditional, process, and expressivist. Importantly, Shaughnessy argues against choosing a particular pedagogy because each addresses only one part of the problem (73). She does, however, advocate for a classroom where teachers move beyond simply correcting student papers and that allow students to see writing as a social act—“a kind of synthesis that is reached through the dialectic of discussion” (82)—which allows students to engage in dialogue with their peers and to gain confidence to think, speak, and write for themselves (83).

Chapter 4’s focus on “common errors”—those errors that don’t seriously impair meaning—arguably has the most interesting social implications with its focus on errors that “cut across the ‘Englishness’ of English” (91) and often surface in the writing of ELL, international students, and students of color (e.g., Black English vernacular). It becomes clear in this chapter that Open Admissions really affected the racial/ethnic politics and the student population of universities as she notes that “the teacher is in the position, first, of having to teach features of English he has seldom had to think about” (92). Shaughnessy focuses a lot of attention here on whether or not to teach “correctness” and the arguments made for and against it: for example, the insistence that error is a central problem to writing vs. the belief that a focus on error will produce self-conscious writing vs. the idea that students must master a common code in order to develop their own voices. From these debates, Shaughnessy draws two claims: one, that error is important but not as much as we think (120); and two, that the teacher should weigh the costs and benefits of this type of instruction and be willing to cut out a focus on error if it’s not helping students (122). Whether a student can improve these common argues, she argues, is highly dependent on motivation, which she breaks into three different factors:

  1. “If students understand why they are being asked to learn something and if the reasons given do not conflict with deeper needs for self-respect and loyalty to their group (whether that be an economic, racial, or ethnic group), they are disposed to learn it” (126).
  2. “Linguistic data are interesting to students in and of themselves” (127).
  3. “The discovery by a student that he can do something he thought he couldn’t releases the energy to do it” (127).

Some of this seems a bit more romanticized than practical, but I like the attention to the teacher’s role in showing the different social and transactional potentials of English and carefully (and respectfully) understanding different dialects/languages and the values associated with them. Finally, Shaughnessy asks us to rethink grammar not as memorizing rules but “of thinking through problems as they arise. Since the composition process allows time for correcting and perfecting, there is no need for students to load their memories with information that can be found in a handbook or in charts or guides designed for their use” (137).

Chapter 5’s focus on spelling is one that reflects the book’s publication date. Shaughnessy writes, “Of all the encoding skills, spelling tends to be viewed by teachers and students alike as the most arbitrary, the most resistant to instruction, and the least related to intelligence (a myth that has comforted many bad spellers)” (161, emphasis added). I read this passage a few times to try to figure out whether I was reading it out of context, but there’s an assumption here that spelling is related to intelligence. I did find her breakdown of the causes for misspelling useful, though, which include the spelling system, the differences between spoken and written English, and a lack of familiarity with the words (175). And although this isn’t one she identifies, I think carelessness is also an important factor here because—with the help of computers letting us know when we’ve made errors—most of the spelling errors I encounter in student work have more to do with carelessness and a lack of proofreading, which likely speaks back to motivation.

Like the focus on spelling, chapter 6’s focus on vocabulary seems less useful to me. Shaughnessy compares vocabulary issues to punctuation and syntax errors, arguing that students have a basic stockpile of words that they apply generally (187). This part seems useful because—among other things—it could connect to the students’ experiences with reading, which is how we slowly begin to develop our vocabularies. She also breaks down the three kinds of learning that are involved with vocabulary: learning about words (understanding their physical, grammatical, and semantic purposes), learning words (actually incorporating new words into our vocabularies), and learning a sensitivity to words (becoming rhetorically aware when making choices about word use) (211). She ends the chapter by noting that vocabulary is “the one part of writing instruction that needs no sales talk” (224). I’m not sure how true that is, but it’s interesting since—out of all the other errors—she describes developing vocabulary as the slowest process and, thus, probably the least likely to achieve in the time constraints of a BW course.

Chapter 7 moves beyond the sentence and explores the way BW students connect and develop their ideas. Shaughnessy notes that mature (non-basic? advanced?) writers are not necessarily those who can craft really beautiful sentences but are writers who create flow and can critically develop their ideas (226). She uses the thesis statement as an example here, explaining that it’s not the thesis statement itself that matters but the ideas leading up to and following it that indicate a “good” idea. The points BW students make are often the same as those of more advanced writers, but the only differences are the style and how well they’re developed. Shaughnessy makes a really compelling point in this chapter about intellectual growth. She writes, “The ability to hold larger and larger units of discourse together (from paragraph to essay to term paper to research paper) is in fact an important measure of a student’s intellectual growth, and writing can be viewed in part as a technology for holding vast and complex units of thought together” (233). When students write their essays before they have an idea, then, the essay becomes a record of the developing idea rather than the actual development of the idea (234), which I frequently see in summer semester papers where the deadlines are shorter and the curriculum gets crammed into six weeks. In order to address this challenge, Shaughnessy argues against thinking pedagogies that rationalize the importance of teaching students to think (which implies an unfair correspondence between the ability to think and the ability to represent those thoughts textually) but rather to engage students with conceptual maps and to recognize that, like the issues with vocabulary, developing as intellectuals takes more time than a BW course can allow.

Concluding Thoughts.

Shaughnessy concludes by reflecting on expectations. She notes that expectations powerfully affect the learning process. When we label students as “basic writers” and have lower expectations for their academic ability, they tend to (slowly) fulfill those expectations, “causing students to lag behind their peers a little more each year until the gap that separates the groups begins to seem vast and permanent” (275). More positively, she also argues that we can expect clear improvement over errors (particularly those related to punctuation and grammar) within a semester if we directly address them and recognize that the errors will still exist in some form—they will just likely be residual instead of dominant (276). Finally, Shaughnessy reminds us that BW students have been ignored by dominant society and that, even though they may be new to academic culture and make a lot of errors, we need to do more than offer “begrudging accommodation to this unpreparedness,” genuinely addressing issues instead of attempting to remediate and “fix” students who aren’t broken (293).



Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for The Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.


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