Academic Writing 101

Academic Writing 101

Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

For many students, the first time they communicate in actual academic writing is in their first semester of college. There, for the first time, students understand that what they had been writing was a very “forgiven” form of academic writing, nurtured by kind instructors. Now, in an ultra-competitive college environment, they are expected, in fact required, to display and excel in the only acceptable form of higher education writing. This is often difficult and frustrating for both students and instructors. But there are ways to make the transition easier.

Teaching students to become fluent academic writers can be a challenge. As educators, we know that good readers are much more likely to become good writers. Introducing students to well-written examples before teaching academic writing helps them understand the process and how to use academic writing for various purposes. Academic writing comes in many forms: rhetorical, logical, argumentative, and the dreaded essay, to name a few. Helping students discover and understand better writing begins with helping them discover and understand how to be better readers. And let’s face it — better writing means less red ink and more sighs of relief. The transition is often easier for good readers because they usually have a wider vocabulary and better context awareness, draw on background knowledge, recognize sentence structure, and understand why they are reading. These skills seem obvious, but they are lacking in, and are even foreign to, many readers.

Approximately one in six individuals cannot do what you are doing now — read. Of those able to read, many do not do so on a regular basis predominately because of lack of opportunity. This means that exposure to academic written examples may be lacking.

We want students to have strong, well-organized papers, and that means helping them understand reading, speaking, grammar, and writing in academic terms. Sometimes asking students to speak in logical, fluent sentences is a good way to have them begin the process of writing in fluent, logical sentences. The end result of academic writing is to teach, to help us understand something better than we did before, or to add insight into previously studied material. Information is wonderful, but what is more important is how we can use the information in practical ways. If the information is not presented in a fluent, logical sequence, it is useless.

People read what they are interested in, so let your students experience and benefit from appropriate material that engages their imagination, interest, and learning style. Elicit and introduce new vocabulary, idioms, and collocations so that hearing and using them becomes part of students’ background knowledge. Then ask them to relate the information orally before writing. Give them a purpose for their writing. This means asking them to read with a motive for writing. Is it to refute, to inform, to incite? If their motive is clear, their writing will probably be clear. Have them analyze word structure and usage. Is the writing straightforward or rambling? As students listen to themselves speaking, most of them will self-correct and realize there is a better way to express ideas, phrases, or facts. And the beautiful part is that they will love the process so that it becomes standard practice.

These generalizations get us started. In the following articles, we will examine specific examples to help students understand, apply, and master academic writing.

References

http://schoolimprovement.com

http://ThoughtCo.com

About the Author

John Caine is the author of several books, (Waldo and the Wackos, The Story of Pig and Giraffe, La Historia de Cerdo y Jirafa, My Name Sir?, In the Time of Big Trains, 4:56) short stories and poetry. He teaches English where he currently lives on Long Island, NY with his family

Pearson’s University Success: Breaking It Down and Dishing It Out into Bite-Sized Chunks for EAP Student Success

By Mary Kay Seales, University of Washington

Note: This review was first submitted to the TESOL Higher Education Interest Section in December 2017.

Lockwood, R.B., Sokolik, M. & Zwier, L.J. (Eds.) (2017) University Success Series. Hoboken, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.

Abstract

Pearson’s University Success series for EAP students brings together, and skillfully breaks down, the complex skills needed by English language learners at the university level.

Full Text

Anyone who has taught university-level English language learners knows that no matter how well they may have performed in their English language courses, they are usually not prepared for the shock of the real university classroom, which includes massive amounts of reading, competing in a classroom of native speakers, listening to hour-long lectures, and writing papers without their helpful English teachers nearby. How to help EAP students bridge this gap has been a subject of research and experimentation by English language teaching professionals for the last several decades, myself included. Delineating, and then breaking down those necessary skills that native English-speaking students take for granted has been a struggle for those of us working with this student population.

So here’s some good news. University Success, a new three-level series from Pearson, gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to helping students cross this bridge between their English language courses and life in a real university classroom. Each of the levels – Intermediate to High-Intermediate, Advanced, Transitional – is divided into Reading, Writing and Oral Communication skills, so three separate standalone textbooks at each of the three levels.

Each of the textbooks is also consistently divided into five content areas – Biology, Humanities, Engineering, Sociology, and Economics – as well as three sub-skill areas – Fundamental Skills, Critical Thinking Skills, and Authentic Extended Content. This consistency across textbooks and levels would make this an excellent series for an integrated Academic English Program, and the up-to-date topics, readings, and lectures by Stanford University professors give the series the authenticity they need.

Although there are myriad EAP textbooks, many of which I have used in my thirty-two-year teaching career at the University of Washington, this series brings together the best ideas from those texts into one book.  For example, in the Transitional level’s Oral Communication text, you can find activities covering everything from how to elaborate on a point you are trying to make to creating and communicating a visual, such as a graph or diagram. The critical thinking section of this particular text in the series includes a section on “interpreting and utilizing hedging devices,” something you might not think to teach but extremely useful. Finally, in the Authentic Content section of this textbook, students listen to authentic lectures by one of five experts while they practice using all the note-taking and listening skills they have learned in previous units. Even for experienced teachers, this helps break down the complex mix of skills need for understanding what’s going on in the classroom and taking a more active role as a student.

Another feature unique to this series is the level of attention given to the metacognition of language learning, which again is a nice feature for both teachers and students. Each mini-skill in every unit is explained clearly and succinctly, so students, and equally importantly, teachers can understand why they need to master it.  Although further research into the extent of the value of metacognition in language learning is needed, it has been shown to be a valuable enough tool to warrant adding it to our teaching strategies. “It is very worthwhile for teachers to understand the importance of metacognition in language learning because it helps learners to become autonomous and self-regulated language learners…teachers should focus on both teaching language content and teaching the ways and processes of learning” (Raoofi, Chan, Mukundan & Rashid, 2014, p.45). University Success textbooks operate on this assumption.

One other factor that I always look for in a textbook is the layout and design. I want something that is not too ESL-ish looking when I’m working with students who are serious college-level English language learners. The pages of the Transitional level of University Success are dense, the print is small, and the units are one to two pages in length. There are plenty of visuals to break up the pages – tables, photos, graphs, cultural notes in boxes – all making this, at least for me, a respectable-looking book to bring to the table for my graduate and undergraduate students.

In terms of support materials, the University Success series is accompanied by the online MyEnglishLab, where students go for the listening component of various activities throughout the textbooks, including the lectures and a self-assessment component at the beginning of each chapter.

As usual with textbooks, there is more than enough, maybe too much material. I would be hard put to get through all the activities in one textbook in the ten-week quarters we have in our English language programs at the UW.  Still, as an experienced teacher I would pick and choose from this text, and could put together a solid ten-week course using just this resource. I also think it is an excellent series for a new teacher who is trying to wrap their heads around the how to help their university-level students bridge that gap between their English classes and their university courses.

As one of the three series editors, Lawrence Zwier, an associate director of the English Language Center at Michigan State University puts it, this series provides an “academic onramp” for students, and I think it is definitely worth a look for your EAP courses.

References

Raoofi, S., Chan, S., Mukundan, J. & Rashid, S.M. (2014). Metacognition and Second/Foreign Langauge Learning. English Language Teaching, Vol. 7, (1), p.45.

www.PearsonELTUSA.com/UniversitySuccess


Mary Kay Seales has been an English language instructor at the University of Washington for over 30 years, specializing in instruction for EAP students. She also has extensive experience in teacher training in the U.S. and abroad.

Including Editing Practice in the Writing Classroom

By Joyce Cain

As writing teachers of English language learners, we are often so focused on helping our students master the structure and content expectations of academic writing that the final editing stage of the writing process may get little attention. This is understandable as our students must learn the conventions of academic writing if they are to succeed in college and beyond. However, they must also be able to successfully edit their own written work if their instructors, peers, and eventual bosses and colleagues are to fully understand their writing. For many students to achieve this level of competency, class and homework time must be devoted to practicing this important skill.  In this article, I’d like to offer some ideas that take students’ editing skills to the next level and can easily be integrated into writing lessons with little additional time and few extra resources.

Students create their own exercises from authentic pieces of writing

When a teacher notices that students are struggling with a particular grammar structure in their writing, he/she might ask the class to create grammar editing exercises similar to those found in their grammar textbooks. By writing original editing exercises, students not only further their understanding of the problematic structure but also provide additional practice for their fellow students. An added benefit is the topic of the exercise can be directly related to the writing topic students are currently working on.

The first time this kind of assignment is used, the teacher should provide a relevant article with several examples of the grammar structure that students are struggling with. Students locate all of the uses of this structure in the article and together create “mistakes” that will later be used for editing practice. Once students are familiar with this process, they can locate articles that use the target structure in the magazines, newspapers, and books they are already reading for their writing class. From these, students develop editing exercises for further classroom practice or homework. The process of identifying a target structure in a piece of writing, creating “mistakes,” and later editing for those grammar errors develops a strong understanding of not only the grammar structure but also the topic that they are reading about in these articles.

Students create exercises from their own pieces of writing

A similar activity can be integrated into the writing classroom by using students’ own writing rather than published pieces. Again, the exercises will be based on a topic that students are currently writing about in their classes. The creation of these exercises will be most easy if the teacher has been using grammar correction symbols to mark student writing. Once a problematic grammar structure such as word forms, verb forms, or articles has been identified in student writing, students can create sentence or paragraph level grammar editing exercises from their own writing. The creation of exercises reinforces a student’s understanding of the particular structures and also helps the teacher by providing authentic classroom and homework practice on grammar structures that are being used in a particular writing assignment.

Students read aloud to identify areas of weakness

Another way that teachers can integrate editing practice into the writing classroom is to have students read their own writing aloud. This is most effective once students are quite familiar with English and are able to hear what sounds correct. Students should bring an extra copy or copies of a writing assignment that they are currently working on to class. With their partner(s), each student will read his or her paper as the other(s) follows along on the extra copy. As the writer and his or her classmates notice areas in the writing that they are uncertain about, the errors can be immediately corrected or noted for later discussion. As an alternative, students can read their partners’ piece of writing while the writer listens along and makes corrections as needed. This exercise might be most effective if students focus on only the grammar structure or writing point that is under discussion during that class period.

Students use an editing log to focus their editing

Students often lament the fact that editing takes a long time and they cannot locate their own errors. One way to focus their editing task is for the teacher to use correction symbols as he or she marks papers and later require students to complete an editing log where they record each of the grammar errors that the teacher has marked with a correction symbol. Only if used sparingly will editing logs be an effective way for students to become aware of the errors that they make the most frequently. It shouldn’t be until about half way through the semester or at a point where students have several completed writing assignments that they complete their first editing log. By reviewing all of the writing they have done to that point in the semester and recording the errors on an editing log, they may see a pattern of errors. This should provide them with enough information to focus their editing on their weakest areas for the remaining weeks or months of the semester. A second editing log can be assigned at the end of the semester for students to further focus their editing and hopefully see the editing improvements that they have made over the past months.

Students do the teaching

As all teachers know, the best way to learn something is to teach it. In this way, students might truly learn a grammar point if they have to teach that point to their classmates. In a writing class, this may be the only grammar instruction that an instructor has time for. At the beginning of the semester, teams of students can be given different grammar structures that they will be presenting on a particular date in the future. Just as instructors would do, each team should present a 15-20 minute lesson that includes practice, assessment, and homework. This might be an appropriate time for students to use the grammar exercises they have previously developed from their own writing or the writing they have located in magazines, newspapers, and books. This allows all students the opportunity to examine a grammar point in depth and to hone their presentation skills by teaching one lesson during the course.

While writing teachers may feel overwhelmed with the quantity of information that they have to teach during a semester, it’s important that they not leave out lessons and practice on the final stage of the writing process: editing. By using students as a resource and their writing assignments as teaching tools, the development of editing skills can be integrated into a writing course without much extra time and effort for the teacher.


Joyce Cain has taught English language learners at the community college and university levels for over 20 years. She started her career at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she received her M.A. in TESL and also served as a teaching assistant. She is currently a professor of ESL at Fullerton College in southern California. She is the author of Grammar for Writing and Eye on Editing 1 and 2.

Why Experience Matters When Teaching Critical Thinking

Why Experience Matters When Teaching Critical Thinking

A Conversation with the NorthStar Series Editors, Carol Numrich and Frances Boyd

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

In this Q&A with NorthStar Series Editors Carol Numrich and Frances Boyd, you will discover why the NorthStar idea – engaging content, integrated skills, and critical thinking- has been the touchstone of the classic series for more than 20 years.

Click here to read the entire article

Q is for Questions

Q is for Questions

by Dr. Ken Beatty

When is a question not a question?

This is not a zen koan, or mystery meant to make you to reflect on the meaning of life; the answer is “When it’s a rhetorical question.”

Rhetorical questions are one of many question types that language learners find challenging both to understand and, in this case, to answer. It does not seem to help that the students will likely have been exposed to rhetorical questions in their first languages; there is often little or no transfer. This is perhaps because an intense focus on trying to understand and participate in conversations distracts language learners. They struggle to give an answer to a rhetorical question when none is expected.

Like other question types, rhetorical questions have a range of specific purposes. The first of these purposes is to stimulate the listener into considering the answer and, if the speaker is successful, coming to a common conclusion. Consider these examples of rhetorical questions, all of which can be confusing to the second language learner:

  • Do cows fly?
  • What will the future bring?
  • Why are some people still ignorant about climate change?

The first example is used to indicate that the answer to the question being asked is obvious. If someone asked you, “Are you hungry?” and you replied, “Do cows fly?” it would be perceived as a clever way of saying no. This is because the answer to your question — “No, cows do not fly.” — is both obvious and in the negative, so it says no by extension.

“Why didn’t you just say ‘no’?” the frustrated language learner might ask.

The second rhetorical question has a different purpose. It’s an example of a question for which the answer is either unknowable or so broad as to be unanswerable. Instead, this type of rhetorical question is often used to set up ideas that follow. It ensures that speaker and listeners have a common focus. In this case, the common focus is on the future and listeners can expect the speaker to share additional questions and ideas on that topic.

The third example, about climate change, narrows the topic by setting out a point of view. Listeners will recognize that the speaker will likely follow the question with criticisms of some people’s ignorance of science. The question may pique your interest in the topic but, if you are neither intrigued nor of the same opinion, you might decide that you do not want to hear any more and stop listening.

As the above questions show, wh‑ words are often used to front questions, as do forms of the verbs be, do, and have. In particular, be, do, and have are often used in tag questions, where a statement is followed by a couple of words to check agreement.

  • That’s a flying cow, isn’t it?
  • Cows fly, don’t they? (Note that do after cows is understood and can be omitted.)
  • You’ve seen cows fly, haven’t you?

Tag questions also have negative forms. Note how the affirmative and negative forms of the verb are balanced in opposition at either end of the sentence in the examples above and below.

  • There aren’t any flying cows, are there?
  • You don’t ever see cows fly, do you?
  • You haven’t seen cows fly, have you?

Modals, such as can, could, may, might, should, and would are also used to form tag questions.

  • You should be careful around flying cows, shouldn’t you?

Along with who, what, when, where, why, and how, modals are used to form questions, but language learners often think the only purpose of such questions is an earnest request for information.

Wrong.

Questions have many purposes, and understanding speakers’ intentions is necessary for true comprehension of deeper meanings.

Like rhetorical questions, an impolite question such as, “Are you a fool?” neither needs an answer, nor does it deserve one. Instead, a listener has to understand that the speaker’s intention is to criticize, reprimand, or ridicule. Similarly, when I was young, a common question in my home was a rhetorical question used to reprimand me, “If your brother jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff too?” referencing my somewhat wilder older brother’s tendency to do excitingly dangerous things that I would often imitate. Though two years younger, I was somehow expected to be more sensible (but I probably would have jumped off a cliff if my brother did it first).

Less offensive questions include hypothetical questions. These resemble rhetorical questions because they sometimes deal with obscure or impossible ideas but often have another purpose: they may be thought experiments. Consider this question:

  • What would chairs look like if our knees bent in the opposite direction?

Hearing this, you might be tempted to reject the question altogether. But this was an actual task at a leading design school, and the purpose was to get students to think outside of the box, testing their design skills against a novel problem. It was meant to break the habit of recycling old ideas of, in this case, what a chair should look like and do.

With all questions, and perhaps particularly with hypothetical questions, it’s common to ask follow-up questions, which, in interviews, are sometimes called probing questions. Language learners often struggle with asking follow-up questions. In a conversation, they may ask a question, get an answer they do not understand, and then worry that everyone else does understand. So they remain quiet rather than take the risk of embarrassing themselves. Of course, this happens to many native speakers as well, but it’s especially unfortunate in the language classroom, which should be a welcoming space where students feel comfortable asking questions and making mistakes. However, at the same time, conversational etiquette discourages someone from asking so many questions that overly interrupt a speaker’s flow during a speech or lecture.

  • Hypothetical question: What would farms look like if cows could fly?
  • Question: Do you mean that cows would have wings?
  • Answer: Yes!
  • Follow-up tag question: Then, in terms of physics, the wings would have to be enormous, wouldn’t they?

Follow-up questions are often clarification questions, where only one detail needs to be confirmed:

  • By wings, do you mean like bat wings or feathered bird wings?

This clarification question is an example of one of the two most common question types: closed-ended questions. Closed-ended questions are ones for which there are only one or two basic answers such as yes or no:

  • Would you like to see a flying cow?
  • Yes! / No!

Open-ended questions give the speaker more of an opportunity to share ideas:

  • Why do you think cows might want to fly?

With open-ended questions, a simple binary answer is not possible, and the conversational expectation is that you will think more deeply on the question.

Another type of question that can be troubling for language learners is reduced-form questions. These questions assume that both people in a conversation understand the context, so one or two words can take the place of a question.

  • I just saw a flying cow!
  • Where?

The full form of the question would be “Where did you just see a flying cow?” but the reduced form makes for more efficient discourse and, if other speakers do not understand, then they can always ask a clarification question.

With so many question types, it’s important for language teachers to use a mix in their classrooms and that students get the opportunities to ask and answer them.

Just be careful about flying cows.

Tasks for Teachers

  1. Record one or more of your classes. Then check how many questions you have asked and whether they are spread across a range of question types or whether they are more limited to factual questions and closed-ended questions. Do you give students time to answer the questions you ask? Check how many seconds typically elapse before you volunteer an answer yourself.
  2. Before a class, consider your topic and prepare a list of questions using each of the types listed above. Try fitting them into the class and see how natural or difficult it is to do so. Consider Bloom’s Taxonomy and ask more creative and analytical questions rather than just factual ones.

Tasks for Learners

  1. The Feynman Technique is an approach to learning that starts with asking yourself what you know about a topic and then listing all the questions you have. Try this at the start of a week in one of your classes and see how many of your questions are answered. Ask other students and your teacher for answers to your remaining questions.
  2. Play a follow-up question game. One group begins with a simple statement, such as “There are many stars in the universe.” One student from the second group asks a question, such as, “How many stars are there in the universe?” Another student from the first group has to guess or answer (more than 100 billion), and the third student asks a follow-up question about the answer. The game continues until one of three things happens: the first group cannot think of an answer; the second group cannot think of a question; or either an answer or a question is repeated. Keep score!

Dr. Ken Beatty, teacher trainer, writer, and TESOL Professor, has promoted best teaching and learning practices from primary through university levels in 300+ sessions in 33 countries. Ken is author of 140+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).