Academic Writing 101 – Part 2 – “What should I write about?”

Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

Academic Writing 101 Part 2

 

One question I can guarantee every writing teacher has been asked is,

“What should I write about?”

This question often means students are having a hard time with focus and clarity not just subject material. Students ask the question, but what they often mean is, “How do I start?” Indeed, this has been the key question for the most well-known writers. Lewis Carroll offers us the obvious answer in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. 
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

How many English teachers have been tempted to quote these lines?

Academic writing is all about focus and clarity, so the question demands an answer, and the answer is a major component of well-written papers. The answer is, “May I see your outline, please?” This one question often brings students to the realization that academic writing is like making a nice dinner not a quick (text) snack.

If we’ve gotten to the writing section of the course, then we have already taught students various outline techniques, whether clustering, free-writing, or some other method. We teach them the process of creating an outline and then assume they will just naturally use the process, but do they? Academic writing can be a frightful procedure for many students. They view the procedure as if they were walking through a minefield filled with corrections (Bang), edits (Boom), and rewrites (Ouch).

Here is where so many instructors shine and inspire. Instead of land mines, they turn the landscape into a garden. Corrections become pleasant additions, rewrites become new ways to express and retell. Each edit brings rewards and satisfaction in learning to master a new language. And there is mutual joy in sharing this growth.

Most students are naturally anxious to do well, but they are unaware how this arduous process will affect their lives in the long term for employment applications, résumés, employment interviews, and much more. Asking students for an outline helps them to slow down and begin to focus. Now they must go back to their notes and choose a method to create an outline, knowing you will ask again. Does it matter if they use a formal or informal outline? For me it depends on the subject and depth of the subject. Some essays may require a formal outline simply because of the complexity of the subject, but most essays need only an informal one. But they must have an outline.

Here is where the academic process starts for students. “What should I write about?” becomes a mantra of focus and clarity. They will produce an outline using one of the methods they’ve been taught. As the outline forms, their focus sets and their clarity becomes sharp. Focus and clarity lets them answer their own question, “What should I write about?” They now have a topic, and with a topic they can develop a topic sentence, and that will lead them to a coherent paragraph. I’ve got goose bumps!

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.

Literature in ELT: Integrating Literature into Language Learning

2014_Sybil_MarcusSybil Marcus

This content first appeared on the TESOL Blog. © TESOL International Association. Reprinted with permission.

We’re all wired to enjoy a good story with intriguing plot lines and an individual prose style. So, it’s a pity that many teachers either ignore or are unaware of the creative possibilities that literature offers for language learning.

In this post, I’ll talk about some of the ways I use stories to teach critical thinking; encourage animated discussion; and hone vocabulary, grammar, and writing practice. Continue reading

Teaching Consonant Blends, Digraphs, and Trigraphs

John_Caine
Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

More than any other request, my students ask me to help them with pronunciation and vocabulary. After my first few semesters, I realized that a key factor in helping them was to start with consonant blends.

A consonant blend (also called a consonant cluster) is a group of two or three consonants in words that makes a distinct consonant sound, such as bl, br, cl, cr, dr, fl, fr, gl, gr, pl, pr, qu, sc, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, sw, tr, and tw, We can group these into “l” and “r” blends, which are the most frequent and convenient to categorize.

A digraph is a single sound, or phoneme, that is represented by two letters. A trigraph is a phoneme that consists of three letters.

Consonant digraphs include ch, ck, gh, kn, mb, ng, ph, sh, th, wh, and wr. Some of these create a new sound, as in ch, sh, and th. Some, however, are just different spellings for already familiar sounds. Some consonants have “silent partners”: for example gh is a different spelling for “f” and mb is “m” while wr is still the “r” sound.

Sometimes reframing the concept in familiar terms lowers the affective filter encouraging self-scaffolding. Our goal is to encourage students to use the language they’re learning, and making the language fun to use is a great way to do that. Blends are fairly straightforward because they keep their phonemic structure. But sometimes helping students to vocalize these blends can be daunting. Teaching decoding helps them recognize and form new words.

But, there are so many blends and digraphs in English. Where to begin? Ah, the one reliable go-to connection for teaching—food. This is something familiar, something students can relate to, and something they can practice using since they come in contact with these items every day. Continue reading