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Teaching Academic Writing
by Kendall Peet
- 3

Part 3: A systematic approach to help learners produce acceptable content in academic writing

The approach that I would like to advocate in teaching academic writing builds on the top-down approach presented by White and McGovern (1994) and is alluded to by Grabe and Kaplan (1996: 353). Grabe and Kaplan argue that patterns of organisation need to be “made explicit” to students through “critical readings, outlines, visual displays, model texts, and group analysis of student texts…[and]…through the use of systematic mapping…[in order]…to raise student awareness” (1996:353). One way to do this effectively in through the use of colour-coding.


From the very beginning I advocate the use of colour in the teaching of academic writing. I have developed a colour-code for academic writing that enables learners to clearly identify each part of the essay and paragraph and in so doing have provided learners with an effective tool with which to analyse an academic text. The colour code I use is as follows:

General introduction (in the introduction paragraph) - No colour

General Conclusion (in the concluding paragraph) - No colour

Thesis Statement - Green

Concluding sentence in concluding paragraph - Green

Transition words - Green

Topic sentences - Yellow

Concluding sentences in body paragraphs (if required) - Yellow

Supporting sentences in body paragraphs - Orange

Details and examples, etc. - Blue

Background Overview

The inspiration for colour-coding, like most good inventions, was born of necessity. I had been teaching academic writing at a Turkish university for a few months and felt that I was getting nowhere fast. Students were making the same mistakes and continually handing in essays lacking in support with insufficient detail. So to try to make their structural mistakes more apparent, I began to colour-code their work, using some paragraphs in class as models to highlight certain points and to indicate the types of structures I was looking for. (11) Finally, to get my point across, and to include the students in the lesson more, I organised colour coding activities in class and required students to hand in all work colour-coded so that I could see at a glance that the structures I was looking for were present; such as the number of supporting sentences, sufficient detail, and transition words.

I also had the students colour code most of the class text. The text we were using was Writing Academic English, by Hague and Oshima, and in all fairness the text did a good job of explaining the key elements of both the paragraph and the essay; and what it lacked in practice exercises I made up using other texts, such as Bridges to Academic Writing, by Ann Strauch. What both texts lacked, however, was a consistent visual approach: and indeed all texts I have looked at use the same method, requiring students to underline or circle whatever point is being focused on at the time. Unfortunately, this method does nothing to build up a picture in the students mind, as the student text becomes a blur of lines and circles that cannot be deciphered at a glance. However, when they flick back through their course book, which has been colour-coded, they can see at a glance what each part of any given text is, and this reinforces their learning.

I have also started to use the colour-code in other ways. I have discovered, for instance, that colour-coding can help identify the type of supporting sentence, as the amount of blue following an orange supporting sentence can tell you a lot about the nature of that supporting sentence. For example, an important or personal idea tends to have a lot more blue following it than when a tertiary point is being made. Also, a lack of transition signals in a published text generally indicates a far more complex piece of writing, as does a paragraph with a single supporting idea (One brief orange section followed by a lot of blue). Colour-coding is also particularly effective in highlighting a “sense of incompleteness in an essay…due to a lack of balance between the generalisations and the particulars.”, which is a common problem in student essays (12). This brings me to my next point, which is that I can honestly say that my understanding of structure in writing has improved immensely through the use of this system, as I now spend far more time analysing text than I did before I used the colour-coding system and so I am now able to discern far more complex, subtle patterns than I first did, and in doing so can point these out to my students.

However, what I find most appealing about the system, as a teacher, is that it generates clear results. The students like the system, can understand it, can see the use in it, and became as good at colour-coding as me in a very short time. It also allows us as a group to more clearly see the relationship between sentences, as colour coding effectively breaks up each homogenous block of symbols into rather more manageable pieces of text that students can focus on more effectively. Finally, colour-coding provides students with a tool to assess their own work and to tackle the problems discussed in Part 2: they plan more carefully, as they can see the plan in their essay- in orange; they write more confidently, because they understand how the parts relate to each other better; they self-evaluate more effectively, as they know what to look for- which reduces teacher marking time; and as a result, their attitude to academic writing improves significantly, and for me as a teacher this is the most enjoyable aspect as it makes teaching that much more gratifying.


Though highly unorthodox, I shall conclude this paper with a quote, for it aptly sums up the point that this paper set out to convey, which is the basis for the use of colour-coding:

If writers have a clear sense of direction, based on an explicit understanding of the text they are going to write and on the preparation they have carried out in the context of this understanding, composition itself can cease to be dependent on invention alone and become much more a process of systematic assembly.

(Tribble. 1994: 111)

11. See Appendix 2 for a sample of a set of work sheets that I have developed using colour-coding to highlight structure.
12. Irmscher, w. (1979). Irmscher argues that this is one of the key problems in student essays. P. 103


Barry, M. (2000). Practice Tests for IGCSE in ESL. New York: Georgian Press Ltd. Pp. 130-1

Anesco, G. and Byrd, P. (1989). Writing required in graduate courses in business administration.

TESOL Quarterly, 23. Pp. 305-316 Fatham, A. K. & Whalley, E. (1990). Teacher response to student writing: focus on form versus content.

In Barbara Kroll (Ed.), Second Language Learning. CUP. Pp. 178-190

Flower, L. (1979). Writer based prose: A cognitive basis for problems in writing. College English, 48. Pp. 19-48

Grabe, W. & Kaplan, R.B. (1996). Theory & Practice of Writing. New York: Longman. Pp 341-75

Hague, A. & Oshima, A. (1998). Writing Academic English, 3 rd edn. New York: Addison-Wesley. P.102

Horowitz, D. (1986a). What professors actually require: Academic tasks for the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 20. Pp. 445-462 (1986b). The author responds to Liebman-Kleine. TESOL Quarterly, 20. Pp. 788-790

Irmscher, W.F. (1979). Teaching Expository Writing. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winstone.

Johns, A. (1986). Coherence and academic writing: some definitions and suggestions for teaching.

TESOL Quarterly, 20. Pp. 247-266 Johns, A. (1990). L1 composition theories: implications for developing theories of L2 composition.

In Barbara Kroll (Ed.), Second Language Learning . CUP. Pp. 24-35

Kaplan, R. (1966). Cultural thought patterns in intercultural education. Language Learning, 16. Pp. 1-20.

Kroll, B. Ed. (1990). Second Language Writing. CUP. Pp. 11-35, 178-190

Nation, I. S. P. 1990. Teaching and learning vocabulary. Newbury House.

Raimes, A. (1992). Exploring through writing: A process approach to ESL composition, 2 nd edn. New York: St Martins Press.

Reid, J. (1984). ESL Composition: The linear product of American thought. College Composition and Communication, 35. Pp. 449-452 (1985). The author responds. TESOL Quarterly, 19. Pp. 398-400

(1987). ESL composition: the expectations of the academic audience. TESOL Newsletter, 21 (2). P. 34

(1989). English as a second language composition in higher education: The expectations of the academic audience.

In D. Johnson and D. Roen (Eds.), Richness in writing: Empowering ESL students. New York: Longman. Pp. 220-234

Roberts, D. (1997). The Students’ Guide to Writing Essays. London: Kogan Page Ltd. Pp. 49-51

Shih, M. (1986). Content based approaches to teaching academic writing. TESOL Quarterly, 20. Pp. 617-648

Smith, M. (1995). Teaching College Writing. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Pp. 103-121

Strauch, A. (1997). Bridges to Academic Writing. New York: St martins Press.

Tribble, C. (1996). Writing. OUP. Pp. 130-1

White, R. & McGovern, D. (1994). English for Academic Study: Student’s Book. London: Prentice Hall.


Kendall Peet has taught in Thailand, South Korea, and Turkey, and is currently teaching at FIBSB in Bucharest. He has completed the RSA DELTA and is presently completing his MA in Applied Linguistics. His key interests include teaching academic writing and developing a needs-based (learner-led) approach that encourages greater learner autonomy. Kendall can be contacted at: Kendall

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