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Teaching Academic Writing
by Kendall Peet
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The essay

In undergraduate academic writing, students are, in the majority of circumstances, asked to present their ideas in the form of an essay, which is described by Irmscher as a text possessing a clearly definable “outer shape” with equally identifiable “inner parts” (1979: 97).

From the outside, an essay appears to possess three distinct parts, namely a beginning, middle, and an end, which we refer to in academic terms as the introduction, body, and conclusion. Within the essay, each of these parts performs a specific function, which students need to be made aware of if they are to conform to acceptable writing behaviour. It is generally expected that the introduction, for instance, should (1) gain the reader’s interest and (2) state the purpose of the essay, which is to say, the thesis; (7) the body, following on from the introduction, should take the thesis and develop it in a logical and coherent manner; and the conclusion should complete the text in a way that leaves the reader with the clear impression that the purpose of the essay has been achieved. Students who apply this formula are in most instances rewarded with better marks than those who do not.

In addition to gaining a working understanding of the outer shape of an essay, students also need to acquire an inherent understanding of how the inner parts of an essay work. This means focusing learner attention on the paragraph, which is considered to be the fundamental building block of the essay. That more paragraph work is needed is evident in comments made by examiners, which all too often state that “even linguistically strong candidates appear…unaware of the importance of paragraphing…” (8) This view is supported by Grabe and Kaplan, who write that “The development of organised and logical paragraphs cannot be assumed even for advanced writers…since this aspect of writing is often ignored or treated in a simple way at lower levels…” (1996: 353). It is therefore incumbent on teachers that more time be spent on paragraphing, with far greater attention paid to the various components of the paragraph, such as the topic sentence, supporting sentence, concluding sentence, details, examples, and transition words. What this means in practical terms is that teachers need to ensure that students gain a proficient understanding of how these basic academic writing components work in orchestration within a given text to achieve the overall effect intended by the writer, and be able to produce these components in various combinations effectively according to their particular need.

Part 2: A brief summary of some of the common problems L2 learners face when attempting to produce acceptable content in academic writing

In my experience of teaching academic writing, the problems faced by both native and L2 learners in regard to content are not greatly dissimilar, and can be grouped into four general areas: attitude, planning, writing both at the paragraph and essay level, and evaluating.

1. Attitude

One of the common problems that both native and L2 learners have in the classroom, when it comes to academic writing, is that they are often self-defeated, overly self-critical, and easily distracted. By self-defeated, I mean that they bring to the language learning classroom an attitude that they cannot write well and that it is useless to even try; by self-critical, I mean that they feel what they write is worthless. These two attitudes have a significant effect in the classroom and are in part largely responsible for any lack of student focus. One of the most important roles of the teacher, therefore, is to work on improving student attitudes toward writing in general, and their writing in particular, which may mean focusing on special areas, such as improving handwriting.(9)

2. Planning

Another problem that teachers regularly come across is an absence of planning, or at best an inadequate level of planning; this includes both preplanning (idea generating) and planning (selection and ordering of ideas). More often than not, what occurs when a learner is assigned a writing task is that the learner sits for a while looking somewhat blank and then, on account of time, picks up the pen and starts to write. In this situation, it is not surprise that what is produced is usually of little academic merit. Planning, for most students, is a key area to focus on, as the time invested usually leads to significant improvement in the quality of their academic writing.

3. Writing

The third problem- more so for L2 students who lack fluency- is the actual writing. For most learners, this is the area requiring the greatest amount of work, as in many cases, even if a student has some idea of what to write, they often struggle to get their ideas across effectively. One of the main reasons for this, according to Flower (1979), is the inability of students to move from “writer based” to “read-based” text, which is in part due to the fact that audience theory in L1 literature has in general been neglected in ESL teaching (Johns: 30). Therefore, to help avoid writing text that bores with too much detail, or frustrates with too little, students need to learn to write with an awareness of audience, which may require substantial classroom focus in non writer-responsible languages. (10)

4. Evaluating

The final problem that learners have difficulty with is self-evaluation. Here, students need to be provided with the necessary tools to enable them to evaluate a text’s strengths and weaknesses – especially their own. This means that students need to understand how language works at both the paragraph level and essay level and to develop a feeling for the language. In particular, students need to be encouraged to rewrite, and to be guided in the process as studies show that positive feedback on content from teachers helps students to develop their writing abilities (Fathman and Whalley: 186).

Taken together

What becomes evidently clear is the fact that any approach to teaching academic writing will need to deal with the problems that arise when learning to write directly. Furthermore, to cultivate intrinsic learner motivation, students will need to be made aware of where they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there, which means that a systematic approach to academic writing is needed.

7. Corbett, E. (1990). Pp 282-288
8. This excerpt was taken from the 2005 IGCSE Examiners Report on the Cambridge Website www.cie.or.uk
9. I have found that many students do not like the way they write and that simply helping some students to improve their hand-writing is enough to completely change their attitude to writing composition.
10. Hinds, J. (1987). Points out that English is a “writer-responsible language”, whilst in others countries such as Japan, Korea, and China, it is the responsibility of the reader to understand what the author is trying to say.

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