Dr Chris Lima offers advice on ways to teach academic writing in EAP classes.
Of the four skills EAP students need to develop, academic writing is perhaps the most complex. Besides good vocabulary and control of the language, students need to be able to develop a series of general and discipline-specific skills. Above all, good academic writing is fundamentally dependent on extensive, critical and reflective reading.
In general, students need to:
- be able to use direct quotes from books and articles;
- paraphrase and summarize other writers’ ideas;
- analyse passages and whole texts from particular theoretical points of view;
- critically discuss a topic.
Academic writing also requires:
- honesty, as students must be responsible for producing their own work and learn the importance of acknowledging the work of others;
- familiarity with the writing genres and conventions in their discipline, including referencing systems;
- the self-discipline to read, draft, redraft, proofread and meet deadlines.
Academic writing is hard work and demands time, dedication and persistence.
In the fields of Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences, the most frequent form of assessment is still the academic essay. Essays can vary from 1,500 to 5,000 words. Besides that, as part of the final assessment, students are usually required to write dissertations and theses that vary in word count from about 8,000 (BAs) to 20,000 (MAs) to 100,000 (PhDs). This is a considerable amount of writing, especially for international students and English language learners who are used to producing pieces of writing in their pre-sessional courses that often range from 300 to 1,000 words at the most. To get students from this initial point to the more advanced stages in academic writing, EAP tutors employ a range of strategies that may include classroom instruction and practice, a progressive increase in the word count, writing-practice workshops, draft feedback provided by the tutor, student peer review and writing tutorials.
There is a considerable body of literature about academic writing and universities usually have student guides on their websites to help students understand the demands of writing at university. In this article, I want to focus on four aspects I believe EAP teachers should discuss with their students right from the beginning of their courses.
1. The importance of reading
First of all, students need to be aware that there are no good academic writers who are not also good academic readers. Reading is the essence of writing: it feeds it, illuminates it and enables writers to connect and develop ideas. The idealized view of a gifted writer who is able to sit in front of a blank piece of paper, or screen, and produce outstanding essays based only on his or her own opinion and imagination is highly unrealistic. It is important that students understand that writing will demand time and effort.
2. Language awareness
Second, students need to develop their language awareness. This means paying attention to the kind of language writers in their field use: the most frequent terms; the most frequent verb tenses; the balance between active and passive voice; the balance between long and short sentences; the use of noun phases and verb clauses; the use of capitalization and punctuation.
3. How texts are organized
Third, good academic writers know their readers and write for them. This means that they also become part of an academic writing community that has its own values, standards and conventions. Students need to observe how writers in their discipline go about crafting their papers. This means that they have to pay attention to how writers build a piece of writing, both in terms of overall organization and paragraph organization: how the argument develops from paragraph to paragraph; how these paragraphs are linked; how paragraphs are organized internally; how often and why direct quotes are used; how much summarizing and paraphrasing is required; how citations are inserted in the text and in the reference list.
4. Critical thinking
Last but not least, a very important aspect is the development of critical thinking. As discussed in this article on critical thinking, it is crucial that students understand that academic writing goes beyond description. It must include analysis and the development of ideas as well as a discussion of their implications and applications.
To conclude, academic writing is in many aspects different from the everyday writing communication as it requires writers to be concise and precise in their choice of language to clearly communicate their ideas. It requires time, practice and a good amount of work. Students may not find it enjoyable or immediately gratifying but when they get positive feedback on their writing and good marks, the sense of achievement is considerable and it can be really motivating.
Here are some links in case you want to explore academic writing in more depth:
Journal of Academic Writing
European Association of Teaching Academic Writing
Tips for academic writing and other formal writing