Curriculum Development and Course Design

By Terence Collins
Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor
Director of Academic Affairs and Curriculum
General College
University of Minnesota


I was lucky enough to begin teaching in open admissions and in Basic Writing in 1976, a year prior to the publication of Shaughnessy's Errors and Expectations. In fact, what I was doing then wasn't yet captured under the new term "basic writing." Instead, I worked in the tradition of the General College Writing Lab. Writing Lab was - and remains - a year-long core writing course in our open-admissions, lower division college. It dates from 1932. The then-44-year-old course I inherited in 1976 was grounded in the democratic pragmatism of the Dewey general education movement. Writing Lab's founders stipulated in the early catalogs of the college small gems of writing pedagogy: "In the writing lab there shall be no theme writing." "Students shall write on those subjects that are important to them." "Students shall not be made to learn those things they already know." The Writing Lab course of the 1930s was to be held in a classroom "furnished with comfortable tables and chairs" where teachers and students could talk about the students' writing while it was taking place. My coming into composition research and into teaching in open-admissions and the rich diversity of students who enroll under it was grounded, then, in an ethic and pedagogy of direct conversations with students about their writing in classes which are laboratories. And while my practice has certainly grown and changed in the intervening years, my thinking about curriculum and course design is in many ways grounded in the whole-text process focus and optimism of the Writing Lab course.

Our Discussion

William DeGenaro & Ed White open their essay "Assessment and the Basic Writer" ( with the reminder that all basic writing courses and all basic writers are defined in relationship to the specific institutional settings in which the students study and write. As they put it, "How we define the "basic writer" is always contingent upon institutional conditions." Since basic writing courses are nearly universally embricated with assessment of writers for placement and exit, our consideration of basic writing curriculum development and basic writing course design will benefit from review of the DeGenaro and White essay. While the local assessment context in which you find yourself working will necessarily guide some of the decisions you make about your basic writing curriculum, that consideration won't be featured here so as not to replicate the prior discussion.

Given the variety of institutional settings in which basic writing courses have been construed, the range of curricula is very broad. This is both frustrating and liberating. It is frustrating for the new practitioner in that there are few set pieces which can provide meaningful local models (perhaps the closest the basic writing community ever came to curricular homogeneity was David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky's Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts; a range of courses have been archived at the website of the Conference on Basic Writing [] for reference). Curriculum development in basic writing is liberating, no doubt, for the same reason-there are neither formulas nor quick patches in curriculum development and course design (Bill Lalicker covers some of this ground in "A Basic Introduction to Basic Writing Program Structures: A Baseline and Five Alternatives" []).

Some considerations

When we think about the basic writing curriculum, what is that we think about? As the discussion on the Teaching_Basic_Writing mailing list has already shown (see list archives at ), institutional practices too often drive our thinking about basic writing toward simplistic, ineffective, and demeaning curricular practices, including rote grammar instruction through drill and practice (most eloquently critiqued in a thread called "Getting at Grammar" or "Basic Writing Text" in the Conference on Basic Writing discussion list CBW-L during late September to early October, 2001; to access CBW-L archives, follow the instructions at, and then request CBW-L LOG0109 and CBW-L LOG0110). Lately, I have found it most useful to think about basic writing curriculum development in light of sociolinguist James Paul Gee's notion of Discourses (Lundell and Collins, "Toward a Theory of Developmental Education: the Centrality of Discourse" [p, 33-46 ]). Gee asserts-and he is by no means the first or only one to do so-that effective work with people unschooled in the intellectual and linguistic forms of the academy resembles most closely an immersive apprenticeship in the specific literacy practices valued in postsecondary education. The role of basic writing courses thus becomes disclosure of and practice in the ways of speaking, writing, arguing, reporting, or explaining that are valued in higher education. In such a basic writing curriculum, the focus becomes frequent and recursive practice developing the student's capacity to imagine academic ways of working with an intellectual task or a problem, a range of appropriate writing in which the task or problem might be addressed, and processes for self-management in writing across a range of intellectual work. And, Gee would argue, this basic writing apprenticeship must build on the language and literacy practices the student already values and is proficient at.

The basic writing curriculum, when viewed complexly from a Gee-informed perspective, is built on situated readings of our best research. Such a curriculum certainly extends in logical ways the best of Shaughnessy's early work (i.e. pay attention to the individual student's writing, ask her to write and to get feedback daily, and introduce her to the ways of the academy as you invite her to imagine complex writing contexts; see Errors and Expectations, Ch 8.). It also serves to reinforce findings from Hillocks' extensive review of research in composition, which focuses our curricular thinking on inquiry-based, structured writing workshops (see Research on Written Composition, pp, 246 ff). In all of this, we are led to imagine our basic writing courses as intellectually engaged immersions in the real writing practices of people learning new ways of expressing their ideas, their delight, and their critical inquiry, for new audiences. To demand less of our curriculum, of ourselves as teachers, and of our students is to sell ourselves short, and our work with it.

Some questions

So how does this work in your context? By now, it is a commonplace that each of us devises basic writing curricula and courses in the specific context of the institution or system in which we work. But if our best research guides curriculum development and course design within that given context, our courses will have the common features of being engaged with students' recursive production of extended texts within an intellectually meaningful context; providing instruction and practice in processes of inquiry, drafting, revising, and editing; and organizing supports appropriate to the relative experience or inexperience of the students we work with.

Site Specificity: Before you can think coherently about basic writing curriculum and course design, you need to take time to do an inventory of questions you'll need to answer as a starting point:

· What are the institutional functions to be served by your basic writing curriculum? Is basic writing in your school seen as a "gate-keeper" course that determines the matriculation status of students who place into it? Is it your college's version of the Freshman seminar? Who gets to say?

· How is basic writing located where you work? Is basic writing specifically tied to another writing course? Is basic writing tied to a disciplinary content course in some form of course articulation? Do individual instructors have the responsibility of making up their curriculum from scratch? Or is there a core syllabus tied to departmental goals?

· Is formal exit assessment something you need to consider as you think about your curriculum? Is there a way to make meaningful ties to the exit assessment as you build your curriculum (e.g. portfolios)? Or is the assessment free-standing and unrelated to what one might do conscientiously in a writing course?

· Who teaches your basic writing course? Who trains the teachers? Who get to say? Personnel pools and authority structures create real opportunities or real limits on the kinds of curriculum you can think about. (See Tom Reynolds' fine piece "Teacher Training and Basic Writing" at ).

· What are the typical academic paths your students take? Whether your program is articulated with a traditional liberal arts program or is set in a four-year engineering school or in an open-admissions community college serving transfer students will set you in some specific directions. If most of your students are aimed at limited-duration technical programs, that might change the nature of what you do. In any event, the basic writing course you design should be functional for the students and their aspirations as best you can determine them.

· What information do you have about your students? Without essentializing populations unduly, you'll want to know program patterns for things like the mix of recent ESL users, BEV users, age patterns that might signify breaks from or continuity with prior education, or prevalence of students with disabilities that affect writing. You'll want to know, generally, about access to technology away from class. Where does your institution gather and disseminate information like this?

Individual course considerations: As you work with program goals and institutional situation to design the specific basic writing course you teach, you might want to ask additional questions to make design of that course section most functional:

· How tied to an agreed upon curriculum are you? How much freedom and responsibility do you have to build your own course? Apart from any received curriculum, what individual goals do you have for the sections you teach?

· What is your class size and what is your course load? Clearly, the amount of writing you can ask students to do is related to the amount of writing you can read and respond to (although it is naïve to assume that you need to respond to everything).

· What human supports do you have for your course? Is there a writing center or learning center? Can you help train the tutors there in responding to your students' drafts? How accessible are the tutors?

· What technology supports your course, and how can you take best advantage of it? Can you expect students to routinely use good text-editing and production software? Do you and your students have ready access to technological resources to support draft sharing online and online inquiry tools? Who teaches you and them to take best advantage of the available resources?

You are not alone in struggling with these and other questions. Colleagues from around the country have made information on their courses accessible through the CBW website at This site also has a fairly current reading list and information on the Journal of Basic Writing to support your reading and thinking as you engage the questions related to curriculum and course design.


Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky, Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course (Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook, 1986).

DeGenero, William and Ed White, "Assessment and the Basic Writer." (checked September 20, 2001.

Hillocks, George, Jr., Research on Written Composition (Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1986).

Lalicker, Bill, "A Basic Introduction to Basic Writing Program Structures: A Baseline and Five Alternatives," (checked September 15, 2001).

Lundell, Dana B. and Terence G. Collins, "Toward a Theory of Developmental Education: the Centrality of Discourse," 33-46 (checked September 11, 2001).

Reynolds, Thomas, "Teacher Training and Basic Writing," (checked October 3, 2001).

Shaughnessy, Mina P., Errors and Expectations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).