Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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Although I do not claim that the exchange with my student led to a better piece of writing, our conversation took place around a wider notion of revision than what would generally be described by writing process theory. In fact, though, such conversations do make students better writers by enlarging their knowledge of the contexts that shape the writing done at the college level and by joining the context of the student’s life to a deeper, more informed sense of audience. In Lundell and Collins’ (1999) words, “the acquisition of a new Discourse is easiest when the process assists the learner in coming to know better what it is that he already knows on related matters, to know better what it is one has already mastered in the primary or other extant Discourses” (p. 16).

Application to
Developmental Education

Higbee and Dwinell (1997) have performed research that shows how successful developmental education students point to smaller classes as meaningful to them when looking back on their experiences in the University of Georgia Developmental Studies program. I believe that such conversations like the one I describe here, and which are made possible in those smaller classes, play a large role in establishing lasting connections to educational institutions more generally. Bakhtin’s formulation of the utterance as a thoroughly social construct gives a theoretical basis for making such a move.

Moreover, my interaction with the student also demonstrates how it is possible to engage the larger project pointed to by Lundell and Collins (1999) of disclosing the nature and values of higher education. Douglass’ story of self-education, my student’s story of meaningful education happening for him in his job, and my assignment all point to a reading not only of Douglass’ text but of the education available to Americans. Our discussions made use of and discussed the terminology of education as a social construction. Not simply a matter of what might “fit” or “fix” his paper, we talked about educators acting with specific interests in mind, politicians acting within a debate over school funding, and about the role of students in maintaining the system. Establishing communication at this level, above the immediate tasks of the class, is important if students are to understand that Discourses operate within and as systems of power. Lundell and Collins also point out that awareness of primary and secondary Discourses as such allows students to see their relative strengths within each and presumably make appropriate decisions based on that knowledge. One can imagine, as well, how this “metadiscourse” might extend into the areas of student services.

In addition to the above, Bakhtin’s rich formulation of the concept of the utterance provides a possible underpinning to the Discourse theory task of building on student knowledge. According to Bakhtin, the utterance is best conceived of as an act that is not originary, but rather responsive. In Michael Holquist’s (1990) words, it “is always an answer to another utterance that precedes it, and is therefore always conditioned by, and in turn qualifies, the prior utterance to a greater or lesser degree” (p. 60). Bakhtin emphasizes the responsive quality of utterances in order to disengage readers from the idea that any piece of language holds meaning in itself.

Responsivity is important for a number of reasons related to teaching developmental students. One is that communication of and between student and teacher takes place within a frame understood to be one of constant exchange. When students seek to gain knowledge of and practice a secondary Discourse, the expectation that there will be back-and-forth communication assures students that the promise of education is real. Teachers who see communication as primarily one-way toward students ignore the need for clarification, explanation, and other communicative acts that are essentially two-way processes. This is especially important when considering that the language of a secondary Discourse is arrived at only by way of the primary one. If teachers are to understand and appreciate students as fully able communicators, then responsivity is important to build into a model of communication.

Another side of responsivity is that it frames language events as essentially historical. For teachers and students to understand that utterances obtain meaning through the long line of utterances that came before is to open up the act of teaching to historical scrutiny. Bakhtin (1981) is emphatic on the point that much is available to be read into language utterances:

All words have the “taste” of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions. (p. 293)

This is a potentially powerful view of language for developmental education. When communicating the expectations of the secondary discourse, for example, teachers need to hear the many utterances of past years that reside within those expectations. In the field of writing, it would involve the repeated statement of rules for correct language use as announced by speakers able to define it for others, for example. From the student perspective, it might involve the confusion, anger, and resentment over past exclusionary educational practices, whether through explicit utterances of the past or through silences that speak as loudly. Such deep reading into the significance of particular utterances is not beyond what Bakhtin theorizes as the full, and really limitless, range of social factors that lie behind an utterance.


Bakhtin’s model of communication enables developmental education practices to be conceived as more fluid, layered acts. Assumptions of an always-active communication network and a deep social significance encourage and facilitate the act of acquiring new Discourses. Although much more could be drawn from Bakhtin’s theory and applied to the model, the basic design of the model demonstrates its usefulness to developmental education theory.


Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays (C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans.). Austin, TX: University of Texas.

Bakhtin, M. (1985). The formal method in literary scholarship: A critical introduction to sociological poetics (A.J. Wehrle, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Bakhtin, M./Volosinov, V.N. (1989). Discourse in life and discourse in art (concerning sociological poetics) (I.R. Titunik, Trans.). In R.C. Davis & R. Schleifer (Eds.), Contemporary literary criticism (2nd ed.) (pp. 392-410). New York: Longman.

Berlin, J. (1987). Rhetoric and reality: Writing instruction in American colleges, 1900-1985. New York: St. Martin’s.

Douglass, F. (1993). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. In D. Blight (Ed.), Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. (pp. 25-115). Boston: Bedford.

Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (2nd ed.). Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.

Gee, J. P. (1998, May). Language learning and latecomers: Discourses in education. Paper presented at the Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy, General College, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.

Gee, J. P. (1999, March). Learning language as a matter of learning social languages within discourses. Paper presented at the Annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, Atlanta, GA.

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University.

Higbee, J.L., & Dwinell, P.L. (1997). Do developmental education programs really enhance retention? In P.L. Dwinell & J.L. Higbee (Eds.), Developmental education: Enhancing student retention (pp. 55-60). Morrow, GA: National Association for Developmental Education.

Holquist, M. (1990). Dialogism: Bakhtin and his world. New York: Routledge.

Lundell, D. & Collins, T. (1999). Toward a theory of developmental education: The centrality of discourse. In J.L. Higbee & P.L. Dwinell (Eds.), The expanding role of developmental education (pp. 3-20). Morrow, GA: National Association for Developmental Education.

Payne, E.M., & Lyman B.G. (1996). Issues affecting the definition of developmental education. In J.L. Higbee & P.L. Dwinell (Eds.), Defining developmental education: Theory, research, & pedagogy (pp. 11-20). Morrow, GA: National Association for Developmental Education.

Recchio, T. (1998). A Bakhtinian reading of student writing. In F. Farmer (Ed.), Landmark essays on Bakhtin, rhetoric and writing (pp.197-204). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Rose, M. (1985). The language of exclusion: Writing instruction at the university. College English, 47, 341-359.

Schuster, C. (1998). Mikhail Bakhtin as rhetorical theorist. In F. Farmer (Ed.), Landmark essays on Bakhtin, rhetoric and writing (pp. 1-14). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Welch, N. (1998). One student’s many voices: reading, writing and responding with Bakhtin. In F. Farmer (Ed.), Landmark essays on Bakhtin, rhetoric and writing (pp. 215-224). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Writing Instruction: The Intersection of Basic Writing, ESL Writing, and Traditional College Composition

Ditlev S. Larsen, Graduate Teaching Assistant


Basic writing programs as well as English as a Second Language (ESL) writing programs are increasing in number at state colleges and universities throughout the country. Freshmen who enter composition classes in these programs have received little attention in research compared to traditional freshman writers. Students in developmental writing programs are frequently assumed as having to acquire academic skills that traditional college freshmen students already have mastered. However, by stressing basic writing skills, we may end up doing these students a disservice in their academic writing development by removing them further from traditional freshman writers, which is the exact opposite of the ultimate purpose of basic and ESL writing programs. The composition skills needed to communicate effectively in an academic context are acquired slowly through acculturation, which is a process that is likely to be very similar for all freshman writers.
One of the major problems in the field of college composition and academic writing in general is that English as a Second Language (ESL or L2) composition and native English freshman composition (first language or L1) traditionally have been treated as two entirely separate fields of ideology, pedagogy, and research. Additionally, L1 college freshman composition has recently divided into the sub-areas of traditional college composition and developmental or basic writing. This development is partly due to the current influx of less traditional college students entering the academy and needing to learn how to participate in academic written discourse. Traditionally, English (L1) composition has been associated with typical English studies involving literature and traditional rhetoric, whereas ESL (L2) writing has been part of applied linguistics, accommodating itself to the prevailing standards of research in that field (Santos, 1992). However, in the cross-cultural context of the English language, we cannot afford to keep these areas so sharply divided in the college composition classroom, and it may be that we need a consensus about how to approach the teaching of English composition cross-culturally, whether that is L1 or L2 (Connor, 1996, 1997; Larsen, 1997; Lisle & Mano, 1997; Santos, 1992; Severino, 1997; Smith, 1981; Sternglass, 1998). In short, although composing and second language acquisition usually are considered two separate fields of research and pedagogy, they will have to merge for teachers and learners of English composition in the college classroom (Raimes, 1985, 1987).

This chapter will synthesize some ideas from traditional theories of rhetoric and college composition, as well as contrastive rhetoric and the acquisition of secondary academic discourses, and discuss how we possibly, through the intersection of these areas, can bring together the fields of traditional composition, basic or developmental writing, and ESL writing. These sub-areas of writing and composition research have been treated too exclusively—almost as entirely different fields. However, the current focus on language as communication should bring the study of rhetoric and traditional composition closer to both ESL writing and basic writing. This should be the case as communicative competence in a given language, or language variety for that matter, involves social and cultural skills as well as traditional linguistic skills (Prior, 1998; Sternglass, 1998). For this purpose a certain knowledge of the theories behind such concepts as culture, reality, and audience seems important in all sub-fields of writing instruction. Within traditional rhetoric studies language is universally acknowledged as an ambiguous system, which is not surprising given the interactive relationship between culture, language, and rhetoric.

This chapter will by no means attempt to provide an ultimate explanation or conclusion as to how the study of rhetoric and the teaching and learning of traditional composition, basic writing, and ESL writing are related. It will, however, offer some views on how different theories of rhetoric can be used successfully in writing instruction in all these areas. In other words, the very common and much debated theory of contrastive rhetoric, an ESL writing stalwart, can and should successfully merge with the more traditional rhetorical theories of L1 composition research for the benefit of the field of college writing in general (i.e., traditional freshman composition, basic writing, and ESL writing). Ultimately, the convergence of these sub-fields seems only a natural development given the status of English as the world’s lingua franca for international and cross-cultural communication.

Troyka (1987) has bemoaned the fact that basic writers have been overlooked in college composition research, and it seems that the same can be said of ESL writers (Kim, 2000; Raimes, 1991). Troyka (1987) partly attributes this to the fact that these groups represent a nontraditional population of college students. However, with the surge of interest in and need for developmental programs at state universities, whether it is basic writing or ESL, this population now constitutes a very large part of the total number of freshman composition students, and therefore it is important to explore whether these students have similar problems and concerns in the acquisition of academic writing skills (Kim, 2000). Consequently, composition instructors need to consult a broad spectrum of the literature and research in order to fully explore the issues related to the intersection of traditional college composition, basic writing, and ESL writing. This will involve research on contrastive rhetoric and ESL writing (L2 context), as well as traditional rhetoric and its influence on native English college composition, and especially how it affects the recently emerged basic writing (L1 context).

Rhetoric and Contrastive Rhetoric in Writing Instruction

We know from previous research within the field of contrastive rhetoric that different languages and cultures exhibit a range of rhetorical styles and structures for presenting ideas in writing (Connor, 1996, 1997; Grabe & Kaplan, 1989, 1996; Kaplan, 1966, 1987, 1988). Some awareness of such rhetorical differences is important and valuable for any composition teacher. Professionals within the area of ESL teaching are likely to be familiar with the characteristics of different rhetorical patterns of composition, dominating in different cultures, which were first identified by Kaplan (1966) more than 30 years ago. Those patterns seemed to convince teachers and researchers that there is such a thing as “second rhetoric acquisition” involved in the process of learning to write in a second language. But at the same time, literature on World Englishes (Kachru, 1984, 1990; Smith, 1981) has presented a different perspective on the issue of contrastive rhetoric and ESL writing as well as L1 English composition. Seen in the light of English as the world’s lingua franca, it might be that we should start considering the entire field of composition, L1 and L2, as much more integrated. English is in the process of becoming “deethnicized” and “denationalized,” and this seems a very important aspect to consider in composition research, as this deethnicization is likely to influence both research and teaching on ESL writing and native English writing (Loveday, 1982).

Consequently, such knowledge of different rhetorical patterns should not be limited to differences between languages. This can be illustrated by Gee (1996), for instance, who has argued that secondary discourses within the L1 can present just as many obstacles and complications for students as can second language differences. Gee defines secondary discourses as “those [discourses] to which people are apprenticed as part of their socializations within various local, state, and national groups and institutions outside early home and peer-group socialization” (p. 137). According to Gee, these secondary discourses are often the more formal ones, such as the ones required in academic settings, and consequently also college composition. This view is supported by Geisler (1994), who has stated that academic fields usually move student writers away from their “home culture toward the more formal culture of the Academy” (p. 168). As many basic or developmental writers often are referred to as latecomers to academia, they will need training in such formal second discourses, much like the ESL writer will need training in the second language.

These are important issues with which many researchers in the basic writing field find themselves wrestling today. As a matter of fact, as early as 20 years ago, David Bartholomae (1980) went as far as to compare basic writers with second language learners in the way that they can be considered to be at a certain stage on the interlanguage continuum. This theory is supported by Lisle and Mano (1997), who have argued that distinctions traditionally drawn between ESL students, speakers of nonstandard English, basic writing students in general, and more traditional college composition students are inadequate and much too simplified. These distinctions are too simplified because even monolingual native English speaking students use a “contact variety of English” (p. 13) that does not necessarily work for academic purposes. Consequently, most freshman student writers, regardless of background, share the process of acquiring a secondary discourse for academia or academic culture.

At the same time, Connor (1996) has stated that as the globalization of discourse patterns occurs, composition teachers and researchers should learn more about levels of adequacy and acceptability of both first and second language writing and the inevitable intersection of these two areas. Contrastive writing research will benefit extensively from the insights of researchers of cross-cultural English, regardless of whether that is between languages or between different social or cultural groups within the same language. Many researchers and scholars (Connor, 1996, 1997; Kachru, 1984, 1990; Leki, 1997; Silva, 1997; Smith, 1981) have argued that more of this kind of cross-cultural composition research on expository, argumentative, and persuasive styles is needed on a larger scale, in order to possibly be able to define what is an appropriate goal for written English composition for cross-cultural academic purposes. This may also help foster a general or universal acceptance and understanding of multiple or alternative rhetorics and culturally different rhetorical styles.

Contrastive Rhetoric and the College Composition Classroom

It is by now a generally accepted fact in cross-cultural composition research that the writing of a non-native speaker can present a different rhetorical pattern from traditional English prose. As rhetoric is a mode of thinking for the achievement of a designated end, it is concerned with what goes on in the mind in terms of analysis, data gathering, and interpretation, and therefore rhetoric is predetermined to a certain degree by norms and values, which may appear differently in different cultures (Connor, 1997; Kaplan, 1966, 1987). In other words, it is the writer’s frame of reference that determines what is written down on the paper in a composition situation.

Kaplan’s (1966, 1987) ideas, it should be mentioned, have been widely contested and debated, although their influence and importance in taking contrasting analyses from the sentence level to the more universal paragraph and full text level cannot be underestimated. For example, one of the criticisms of contrastive rhetoric has been that Kaplan’s identification of discourse patterns in different cultures could seem somewhat ethnocentric, as it was based on Western or American rhetorical patterns as the norm. However, most of the criticism explains that it is not the theory itself that should be contested, but rather the way it often has been misinterpreted by language and writing teachers (Leki, 1991). For example, Raimes (1991) and Connor (1996) have argued that Kaplan’s initial or original theory of contrastive rhetoric erroneously made teachers infer that transfer from a first language usually was a negative influence on second language writing, which is not necessarily always the case. As Connor (1996) argues: “It is time to analyze the achievements of contrastive analyses of composition in order to determine its universals as well as its cross-cultural particulars” (p. 6).

With above implications in mind, it seems most valid that Loveday (1982) has called for a degree of mutual tolerance and willingness to accept different rhetorical patterns. This is supported by Raimes (1991), who has stated that with both native and non-native English composition, we will have to stop and question “the value of prescribing one form of text . . . as the one privileged form of text, presented as the most logical and desirable, with which other learned systems interfere” (p. 418). We may need to move away from composition as colonization and recognize the value of the alternative rhetorics that non-native English writers and other culturally diverse students may bring to the college composition classroom and not “treat them only as features that interfere with effective communication” (Raimes, 1991, p. 418). Lisle and Mano (1997) also champion this view, and go on to say that even though we may already have acknowledged the new multicultural and multiethnic background of our students, and consequently a similar multicultural nature of rhetoric and composition, there seems to be a gap between professional talk and professional practice—the practice being what goes on daily in the composition classroom. According to Lisle and Mano (1997) “most composition and rhetoric instruction remains monologic and ethnocentric” (p. 12), mostly because the majority of rhetoric textbooks still ignore the interests or even existence of culturally diverse students.

Furthermore, second language writers are often told that the problem with their writing is that it is “out of focus,” “lacks organization,” or “lacks cohesion,” as they simply violate the expectations of a native English speaking reader (Kaplan, 1966, p. 45). These are phrases originating in the initial theory of contrastive rhetoric, but given the complications discussed above, the problem facing an updated or more current theory of contrastive rhetoric, then, is to question who exactly this native English speaking reader is. It seems that such a reader too often is assumed to be a representative of the Anglo-European majority culture of the academic world, most often because, as Lisle and Mano (1997) point out, the majority of rhetoric and composition textbooks “uncritically endorse familiar Euro-American rhetorical conventions. Although they demonstrate a desire for fresh approaches, they seem trapped by tradition, failing to address the serious challenges that ethnic diversity poses to our assumptions about language and rhetoric” (p. 13). As a consequence of this national and ethnic diversity of logic and language, Prior (1998) calls for more research in the world of academic writing that provides “close attention to, and progress in, studies of communication, discourse and rhetoric” (p. 3).

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