Teaching Academic Writing
by Kendall Peet
One of the increasingly voiced complaints of university professors today is that matriculating students lack the necessary academic writing skills that are considered to be a prerequisite for tertiary education. In regard to L1 students matriculating, it is clear in the majority of circumstances that students have acquired the necessary language- in that they possess a productive knowledge of the minimum level of vocabulary required at university level (1) and are grammatically fluent- but that they lack the necessary academic writing skills. In the case of L2 students, however, the situation is more complex, as it can neither be assumed that they have the necessary language, nor the necessary academic writing skills. This worrying trend in regard to L1 students should, therefore, indicate the mammoth nature of the task charged to English teachers teaching academic writing to L2 learners, for whatever difficulties there may be facing L1 teachers, they will no doubt be compounded by the additional problems faced by L2 teachers. It is with this current situation in mind that I have chosen to write a paper on teaching academic writing skills, in regard to the common problem shared by both L1 and L2 students, being that of developing in the learner the ability to structure writing so to “ensure that student writing falls within…[the] range…of acceptable writing behaviours dictated by the academic community” (Horowitz, 1986b:789).
This article will deal with the topic of teaching content (2) in academic writing in three parts. Part 1 will attempt to answer the question, “What is acceptable writing behaviour?” in specific regard to academic content. Part 2 will briefly examine some common problems learners face in attempting to produce acceptable content. Finally, Part 3 will present an approach to help learners produce acceptable content and a rationale to support the adoption of this approach by teachers teaching English for academic purposes.
Part 1: What is Acceptable Writing Behaviour in Academic Writing?
To begin, we first need to access whether or not there is in fact a standard that we can refer to as acceptable writing behaviour in academic writing. Cneanseco and Bryd (1989), Horowitz (1986a, b), Johns (1986), Reid (1984, 1985, 1987, 1989), Shih (1986), Strauch (1997), Raimes (1992), Grabe and Kaplan (1996) and a long list of other authors, concur that there is a standard of acceptable writing behaviour. That there is standard is also evident in the various marking rubrics used to assess academic writing at different levels of development.
If we look, for example, at the marking guidelines used in IGCSE exams, which I take to be the unofficial entry point of formally assessed academic writing, we can see that there are already clear expectations in regard to content:
1. Answering the question
… Does the student make their answer interesting using colourful detail, personal experiences and/or facts?
Has the student organised his/her work into paragraphs? Are the paragraphs in the right sequence and accurately linked together so the writing makes a coherent whole?
8. Subject matter
How well does the student deal with the topic? Does s/he get straight into the topic and seem interested in it, and also make the reader interested in it?
10. Sense of argument
Is the argument set out clearly and logically and does the writer come to a clear conclusion? … Does the writer give clear examples? Are linking words (e.g. however, moreover) used, and do these help make the meaning clear?(3)
At A Level, content in academic writing again plays a significant role, with the top band (22-25) requiring the following:
… content relevant to the topic; accurate detail; fluent expression; ideas clearly stated and supported; appropriately organized paragraphs; logical sequencing (coherence); and appropriately used connectives(cohesion).(4)
For the IELTS university entrance exam, we also find a direct reference to content in the marking rubric. The following is taken from Band 9 of the IELTS marking key used by assessors:
It [the writing] displays a completely logical organisational structure which enables the message to be followed effortlessly.Relevant arguments are presented in an interesting way, with main ideas prominently and clearly stated, with effective supporting material.
Finally, at tertiary level education, university rubric for essay writing again places firm importance on content (refer to Appendix 1 for the Victoria University Essay Rubric). (5)
In sum, the mere fact that academic writing is evaluated in accordance with clear criteria at each level of development, explicitly categorising what is expected of students, in terms of content, when writing academic essays, requires teachers “to provide the student with a form within which…[to] … operate” (6) in order to best enable the student to achieve desirable results (Horowitz, 1986b:144).
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.
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)
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.
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)
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).
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.
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
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)
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