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The need for academic writing

March 08, 2006

How well prepared are foreign students to follow degree courses in English-speaking universities?

Hello again,

I am sure there is a real need for EAP courses. The last time I taught English for Academic Purposes in a British university, what struck me about the problems students faced in writing was not so much their deficiencies in language structure (although they were serious enough) as their almost total lack of awareness about what an academic paper is.

Academic writing must be firmly grounded in demonstrable fact; sources must therefore be cited to prove the authenticity of the facts and to avoid any suggestion of plagiarism. Students need to learn how to cite these references using one of the accepted style manuals . . .

. . . The academic essay is not the platform for personal opinion but for reasoned argument. If the student has a point to make, it must be made only as a considered conclusion that follows logical argument after consideration of the available evidence.

The academic essay will usually comprise some of the following elements:
• description
• narrative
• summary
• exposition
• argument
• classification
• enumeration
• illustration
• comparison/contrast
• cause-effect/problem-solution
• definition
• analysis.

Each of these elements has typical language structures that students
need to learn.

For the essay to be coherent, students have to be able to link the
various sections with clear signposts and discourse markers. The use of connecting devices is often a real problem for English language learners and is one of the main features of academic writing for them to practise.

Style should be objective and with precise use of language. Many
students have difficulty in sorting out opinion from fact, generalization from detail, vagueness from precision. For example, they might use a phrase such as 'it is well known that...' or 'research has shown that...' to introduce a point. They might talk about 'the majority of people...' when they have no evidence about the majority or they may use passive forms to convey a general consensus when none exists: 'it is widely believed that....' Vague terminology is also endemic: 'several studies', 'a number of experiments'. Of course, there are times when it is not possible to be precise, but students must be encouraged to be accurate wherever possible.

It is hard enough for native speakers to write acceptable academic essays but for non-native speakers the problems are twofold: first the language difficulty and then the western culture of the objective essay.
I think schools who can develop a high-quality academic writing program should be able to attract a lot of students. However, I wonder if teachers of the right caliber for such programs are readily available.

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  1. Marl Says:

    Hi Brenda,

    I taught writing for the first time a few years ago and quickly found it to be the most enjoyable of all EFL classes that I've taught. I approached the class (for English majors) as if I were teaching Native Speakers and asked students to practice most of the essay types you've mentioned.

    I focused more on the principle behind the essay rather than perfect language use; I wanted to see that students could differ between and accurately write cause/effect vs classification, for example. I dare say that we all had a great time, using everything from photos to personal experience to inpsire us.

    At every step of the way, I was writing essays right alongside of them, literally, and feel that being able to do so added a new dimension to our classes...students could follow my process and see how I "put it all together". I think this kind of participation by the instructor can make a huge impact on the learning experience for the students.

    What do you think?


  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Sounds as if you were able to inspire their trust and thus motivate them to improve.

  1. Lee Says:

    Hi Brenda,

    I just wanted to comment on the last line of your entry which asked, "I wonder if teachers of the right caliber for such programs are readily available [?]"

    This particular area of instruction is something I'm presently undertaking (as is evidenced on my own blog) and one of the things that I've noticed is how common it is in the U.S. (I won't name which schools) for some baccalaureate programs to have non-English-department faculty teach these types of classes to college freshmen (non-English majors). For example, a history professor or an art instructor alike might teach academic writing in some institutions (not mine).

    I believe the argument is that, by the time a higher education degree is completed (apparently in any arts & sciences area), the astute scholar has written enough papers in the academic style that he/she has somehow become qualified to teach it too.

    Of course, I can see the reasoning in the part about a degreed person being well-versed in academic writing strategy/technique by the time of graduation, but without having been taught or even exposed to conventional teaching-writing theory (or even basic teaching theory, for that matter), isn't this situation a little like the idea that simply being a native-speaker qualifies one to teach ESL? I only ask because this age-old myth seems to still proliferate on the jobs-forum in some threads.

    With that said, some of the best linguists and English grammarians I've ever been exposed to at the university level were not native-speakers at all but persons who learned English as a second language, inside and out, front and backwards.

    In other matters, I like your methodology of "writing essays right alongside of them." I've heard of this technique before, it was once suggested by a mentor, but have yet to attempt it. Thanks for sharing your success story with us, this inspires me to finally give it a try.

    Great article!


  1. ahmed badareen Says:

    I read you article, and it is very interesting.
    I want to ask if you could explain the best ways for citing.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hello Ahmed. For information on citing references, I suggest you look at:http://library.uww.edu/GUIDES/apacite.htm/ and http://library.uww.edu/GUIDES/mlacite.htm/.
    APA and MLA styles are the most commonly used by western universities.

  1. yang jin Says:

    hi, brenda.
    your article on the need for academic writing came just right for me. I am now teaching sophomore English reading and one of my goals of teaching students reading is to encourage their critical thinking by reading newspaper articles. yet one of the thorny issue is that students in china seem not to be able to differentiate between academic writing and personal writing. what i can see out of their feedback essays are mostly summaries of the material, or some associations of the text with their own experiences. in other words, students are still lingering around diary writing. they simply don't have any awareness of objective writing. your description of "students have difficulty in sorting out opinion from fact, generalization from detail, vagueness from precision." is just what many of my students are having toubles with. by reading your essay, i am now more confident and more ready to train students' skill in academic writing. Would you offer me some more relevant teaching aids in this repect?
    thank you!

  1. Btownsend Says:

    I am glad you find my points useful. Try this URL for some helpful advice:http://www.utoronto.ca/writing/advise.html

    Also, put the phrase "academic writing" into a search engine and you will find a lot of useful resources out there. Good luck!

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