Adult Learners in Basic Writing

deadline for submissions: 
September 10, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Basic Writing Electronic Journal (BWe)


Call for Papers

BWe Special Issue

Theme: Adult Learners in Basic Writing

Guest Editors:Sonia Feder-Lewis and Christine Photinos

Submissions due September 10, 2017



This special issue of BWe will focus on adult learners in basic writing. Sharan Merriam and her colleagues ask a crucial question in their essential text, Learning in Adulthood: “Why is it important that educators of adults recognize that learning happens in so many and varied places in the lives of adults?” (27).  Catherine Hansmen argues that, as educators, we must embrace the richness of adult students’ prior learning and recognize the locations of this learning through what she terms context-based learning: “Theories of context-based learning provide a powerful and egalitarian way of viewing knowledge production.” (49). Adult learners make up more than a third of all college students (“More Than One-Third of College Students Are Over 25” 1) and bring the strengths of their lived experiences to enrich our writing classrooms. However, they also face the challenges of living as adults while being students, and many are first generation college students who come from underserved populations. They are a diverse group, defined not necessarily by age, but by many characteristics, including such qualities as  responsibilities for themselves and often children, an educational journey with frequent stop-outs and transfers, economic hardships, and varied life experiences, including often work and military service. While they have in the past been labeled as “non-traditional students,” we choose now to use the term adult learner to recognize that they are a defined group in their own right. A significant number of these adult learners are also assessed as underprepared.

Adult students in composition, while not figuring as prominently in flagship composition journals as their “traditional” age counterparts, have nevertheless been the focus of a rich and diverse body of scholarship. The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Adult Learners (Gleason and Nuckles) provides a broad survey of books and articles on adult learners spanning multiple categories (e.g., military and veteran students, English language learners, returning/reentry students, and students with disabilities) as well as in multiple contexts (e.g., colleges, workplaces, adult education programs, adult literacy programs, ELL programs, online environments, and prisons). Notably, many of the writers and researchers included in The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Adult Learners also appear in The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing. Not all adult learners are basic writers (and vice versa), but the overlap between these two groups is substantial and demands our ongoing attention. This special issue of BWe seeks to contribute to the scholarship on both basic writing and adult learners, focusing especially on the present moment and emerging challenges and trends. This issue seeks  practical and theoretical submissions reflecting both studies of students and studies of the experience of teaching these students in basic writing classes.


BWe is a peer-reviewed online journal that welcomes both traditional and multi-modal texts. Submission guidelines for formatting print essays and webtexts appear on the BWe Website: .  Guest editors welcome pre-submission queries from prospective authors.

Sonia Feder-Lewis     Christine Photinos


Suggested topics:


  •  Many textbooks, written to an assumed audience of 18-22 year olds, create additional difficulties for instructors working with adult basic writers (Connors; Jones).  What alternatives are available to basic writing instructors facing a textbook market that emphasizes youth-oriented materials?  In what ways can we use materials not traditionally considered as course texts to be more relevant to all our diverse learners?


  • A primary motivation for many adult learners is career advancement and or a greater ability to act meaningfully in their communities, which are also sites of experiential learning for them. In what ways can basic writing engage with those many and varied places of learning? Can we leverage these learners’ lives outside the classroom to propel their development as writers?


  • As the nature of college campuses continues to change, basic writing will need to continue to evolve with these changes.  What might the curriculum and delivery of basic writing look like in 10 or 15 years, as the majority of students become more experienced learners with increasingly diverse backgrounds? How might it capitalize on their unique qualities?


  • Many colleges are now pursuing alternatives to remediation, to accelerate students’ progress towards a degree and prevent overuse of financial aid for non-credit bearing coursework. However, many accelerated learning and alternative remediation programs require an intensive day-time commitment which is not possible for adults with work and family responsibilities. How might basic writing programs develop alternatives ways of delivering intensive learning that respond to the needs and situation of adults? Is it possible to develop ways to incorporate technology, for example, or engage with non-traditional sites of learning to offer these adult learners the remediation they need while honoring their other commitments?



  • In Retention and Resistance: Writing Instruction and Students Who Leave, Pegeen Reichert Powell asks,  “What is going on in my students’ lives right now to which we might use writing as a meaningful response?" (50).   Adult learners are often experiencing a great deal “right now.”  How can we create curriculum that will help adult learners find relevance in their basic writing classes?


  • Some adult learners pursue education later in life for humanistic reasons,  to achieve greater self-fulfillment (Elias and Merriam.). Basic writing instruction can play a transformational role for these students, opening many new possibilities. In what ways can we use basic writing instruction to empower life-long learners?


  • While some programs exist specifically for adult learners, the trend is simply for more adult learners to be present in every classroom. For teachers, these mixed groups can present challenges, as learners with greater life experience interact with traditional students. In what ways can we capitalize on this interaction, rather than considering it as a problem?
  • Originally a method by which adult learners demonstrated acquisition of specialized and generally job-related competencies, competency-based education is gaining attention as a potential alternative to existing developmental education programs. A recent Jobs for the Future report focuses specifically on adult basic writers (Crew).  How might a competency based approach in basic writing pedagogy affect adult learners?


  • Increasingly, students who need basic writing instruction are accessing lower-cost online non-campus based alternatives such as StraighterLine (,) or the University System of Georgia’s eCore program (, What are the potential risks and benefits of these models for adult learners? How might they create a potential for a different type of digital divide that disproportionately affects adult learners trying to use these tools, and how might the tools be adapted to better serve adult learners?


  • “Basic writing” has come to refer to a large variety of approaches (see Hassel et al; Lalicker; Otte and Mlynarczyk).  Alongside the traditional stand-alone non-credit-bearing preparatory course we find stretch, integration, modularization, accelerated learning, and writing studio programs, for example. What are some recent models—or adaptations to existing models—that have proven effective with adult learners?


  • Linda Stine has observed the many challenges to be confronted at “the intersection of adult education, basic writing, and online learning” and called for continued research into methods for working with adult basic writing students in online environments.  How can online basic writing instruction be designed to successfully reach adult learners?  Are there successes from which we can learn?



  • Increasingly, major publishing and technology companies are proposing their products as replacements, in whole or part, for teachers and tutors.   Teachers are less sanguine about the potential of these products ( Blumenstyk; Kim; Richtel). But the potential risks and benefits are not the same for all areas of study, all students, or all types of writing instruction.  What are the particular implications of the adaptive learning trend for adult basic writing students?


  • What approaches have proven successful for working with specific categories of adult learners in specific basic writing teaching contexts? How have you worked with veterans, or women in prison, or other unique groups that might apply more broadly?



Works Cited


Blumenstyk, Goldie. “As Big-Data Companies Come to Teaching, a Pioneer Issues a Warning.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 Feb. 2016,


Connors, Robert J. "Basic Writing Textbooks: History and Current Avatars." A Sourcebook for Basic Writing Teachers, edited by Theresa Enos, McGraw-Hill, 1987, pp.  259-274.


Crew, Rachel. "Three Ways CBE Could Turn Underprepared Learners into College Graduates." Jobs for the Future, 13 July 2016,


Elias, John L. and Sharan B. Merriam. Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education 3rd. Ed. Krieger Publishing, 2005.


Gleason, Barbara and Kimme Nuckles. The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Adult Learners. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2014.


Hassel, Holly, et al. "TYCA White Paper on Developmental Education Reforms." Teaching English in the Two Year College, vol. 42, no. 3, 2015, pp. 227-243.



Hansman, Catherine A. “Context Based Learning.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 89, Spring 2001, 43-51. Ebscohost. AN 9178903.


Jones, Billie J. "Are You Using? Textbook Dependency and Breaking the Cycle." BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 2, no. 1, 2000,



Kasworm, Carol E. “Adult Learners in a Research University: Negotiating Undergraduate Student Identity.” Adult Education Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 2, pp. 143-160. EbscoHost AN 47875271.

Kim, Joshua. “The Gap Between Liberal Arts Values and EdTech Practices.” Inside Higher Ed, 29 Mar. 2016,


Lalicker, William B. “A Basic Introduction to Basic Writing Program Structures:
A Baseline and Five Alternatives.” BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal, vol. 1, no. 2, 1999,


Merriam, Sharan B., et al. . Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd Ed. Josse-Bass Publishing, 2007.

Mezirow, Jack. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. Josse-Bass Publishing, 1991.


National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “More Than One‐Third of College Students Are Over 25.” National Student Clearinghouse, 19 Apr. 2012,


Otte, George, and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk. "The Future of Basic Writing." Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 5-32.

Powell, Pegeen Reichert. Retention and resistance: Writing Instruction and Students Who Leave. U of Colorado P, 2014.


Richtel, Matt. "In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores." New York Times, 3 Sept. 2011,

Stine, Linda. "Basically Unheard: Developmental Writers and the Conversation on Online Learning." Teaching English in the Two Year College, vol. 38, no. 2, 2010, pp. 132-148.