Teaching Basic English: Time for a Rethink?

by Jonathan Tang


The problem that motivated this reflection came from an email from a student of mine in a course I was teaching for the first time. The course was a proficiency course in basic English with emphasis on grammar particularly as regards assessment. The student concerned was an undergraduate from the People’s Republic of China. For ethical reasons the email will not be reproduced here, but to render my reflection some essential context the contents of the email may be summarized as follows.

The student was upset that his paragraph writing assignment was returned with a tad too numerous annotations on issues of grammar and meaning. He disagreed with some of the ‘mistakes’ as he had referred to the dictionary which instructed him that he was using his words correctly. He also felt discouraged that he had invested much time and effort into his assignment but the result seemed to let him down. Worse, he felt I had been prejudiced towards foreign learners as he felt I had not given due credit to his ideas, and by my overzealous flagging of his grammatical mistakes I was disallowing him from expressing his identity.

The matter obviously called for a rather urgent consultation that must take place much sooner than scheduled. It was resolved easily with some honest two-way communication, but I knew the episode also constituted a critical incident which would provide fodder for some serious reflection on my teaching for a number of reasons.

First, I’ve long read and learnt about second and foreign language learners’ resistance towards learning academic English (Canagarajah, 2002; Connor, 1999; Pennycook, 1994; Tang, 2012). It has been well documented in various literature that some of these learners have felt they’ve been forced to suppress, suspend or give up their identity when learning the culture and conventions of academic English. And so, as a theoretically informed educator I’ve always been mindful not to present discourse conventions as cold, hard facts in my classes. But here was a student, a live example, not just a faceless name encountered in the readings, telling me that I have not allowed him to be himself. Knowing is quite different from confirming, as the theoretical physicists who recently ‘saw’ gravitational waves say. Besides, who would’ve thought those readings (some of which I first encountered some two decades ago) to still find such practical relevance today given that our global village would have rendered issues of identity and linguistic imperialism stale and sterile?

Second, the email presented me with an internal conflict of some sort. Discrimination, after all, was a serious charge. In my 15 years of teaching I’ve never once received such high ‘praise’. Had I really done wrong? What led him to think so unremarkably of me? Was it really and entirely my fault? Even if I was really to blame, might the charge be too harsh? After all, it was my debut at teaching a basic English course. Furthermore, I’ve never graded assignments this way, with such testing eyes for grammar. That was not how I’ve been trained as a teacher; neither was grammar policing my teaching philosophy. Demystifying English academic writing as an institutional practice of mystery (Lillis, 2001) has been my training and modus operandi. But the assessment rubrics were such that grammatical accuracy counted for up to 60% of the assignment grade. By pointing out accuracy and meaning clarity issues I was suspending my teaching philosophy (and MY identity, hello!) and my comfort zone, playing to the unique conditions of the course context, and most importantly, being responsible to my students, I thought. If I insisted on my philosophy and my way, wouldn’t I be torn between irresponsibility (how are my students going to pass this course, where the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences is crucial for success?) and jadedness (hasn’t much been said about how much a teaching philosophy matters? So ultimately it may not matter very much since it is a luxury to be able to live it?) I thus felt unappreciated and wronged to receive the student’s email. Or maybe I should appreciate the fact that he had been so sincere and honest in communicating his thoughts to me? To be fair, his was not meant to be a complaint email, as he professed. I guess the matter really bothered him enough for him to want to initiate a conversation.

Reflection on this critical incident thus yielded three implications for my teaching: first, I should have considered my students’ emotions and morale a bit more when giving feedback on drafts, in this case perhaps by being more selective in flagging grammatical errors. Perhaps highlight only those that are meaning damaging and leave alone those that aren’t, or maybe focus only on errors that pertain strictly to grammatical rules taught in the course.

Second, I should have educated students on how my feedback was to be taken — not as prescriptions but recommendations for their consideration. They should be taught that they have a choice to accept or reject a recommendation, and they could negotiate issues, including conventions, with me during consultations.

Third and perhaps most importantly, there may be a need to re-examine our familiar notions of proficiency and how it is best taught. Research has shown that how teachers teach is very often influenced by how they’ve been taught as students (Tay, 2013), deficit assumptions about the nature of learners and learning (Kramer-Dahl & Kwek, 2010) and simplistic notions about learner proficiencies. But our unexamined experience and assumptions aren’t always the best teacher.

Traditionally (and very much still in current institutional realities), basic level proficiency courses in universities all around the world have been “built around retrograde assumptions about students’ struggles with writing and overwhelmingly informed by skills-based, current-traditional instructional practices” (Ostergaard & Allan, 2016) privileging instruction in grammar, sentence and paragraph development. However, as Lee (2012) argues, “basic competencies such as grammatical accuracy with which most teachers are preoccupied, need not be ‘sacrificed’ in favour of higher literacy skills” (p.279). There is a need to take heed of developments in research and best practices in writing studies to acknowledge that basic English does not have to be so ‘basic’; that basic learners can and should engage with rhetorical analysis, critical response, research, and synthesis of sources to develop an argument (Allan, Driscoll, Hammontree, Kitchens, & Ostergaard, 2015; Ostergaard & Allan, 2016).

Ostergaard and Allan’s (2016) story of how they’ve transformed their basic writing program has been an inspiring one for me. They recount how they’ve worked to replace a traditional “prerequisite” or deficit model with a multi-layered support model of basic writing instruction that challenges the historical and institutional-cultural perception of the basic writing course and its students as “separate from, and clearly not equal to, the academic mainstream” (p.53). Another story, personally communicated to me by an experienced professor and no less instructive, was about how grammar instruction (if it is/has to remain) can be taken to a whole new level, by situating grammar correction in the context of students’ disciplinary or content course assignments.


Allan, E. G., Driscoll, D. L., Hammontree, D. R., Kitchens, M., & Ostergaard, L. (2015). The source of our ethos: using evidence-based practices to affect a program-wide shift from “I think” to “we know.” Composition Forum, 32. Retrieved from http://compositionforum.com/issue/32/oakland.php

Canagarajah, A. S. (2002). Critical academic writing and multilingual students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Connor, U. (1999). Learning to write academic prose in a second language: a literacy autobiography. In George Braine (ed.), Nonnative educators in English language teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kramer-Dahl, A., & Kwek, D. (2010). Reading the home and reading in school: framing deficit constructions as learning difficulties in Singapore English classrooms. In C. Wyatt-Smith, J. Elkin, & S. Gunn (Eds.), Multiple perspectives on difficulties in learning literacy and numeracy. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Lee, R. N. F. (2012). Writing as literacy development for low achievers: the case of a neighbourhood school in Singapore. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. The University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Lillis, T. M. (2001). Student writing: access, regulation, desire. London: Routledge.

Ostergaard, L., & Allan, E. G. (2016). From falling through the cracks to pulling through: moving from a traditional remediation model toward a multi-layered support model for basic writing. Journal of Basic Writing, 35(1), 23-62.

Pennycook, A. (1994). The cultural politics of English as an international language. London New York: Longman.

Tang, R. (2012). Academic writing in a second or foreign language: issues and challenges facing ESL/EFL academic writers in higher education contexts. London: Continuum.

Tay, M. Y. (2013). The ebb and flow of professional practice : case studies of language arts teachers as school-based curriculum developers in Singapore schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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