The many challenges of academic writing for ESL
This month I will be teaching a new academic writing course for second language students at my university. I am thus thinking a lot about writing these days and looking forward to helping my students become better academic writers. I’ve promised a lot in my course proposal. I will:
- Cover characteristics of expository writing and help students apply them to their own academic disciplines;
- guide them through a cycle of awareness and analysis leading to self-assessment; expose them to different text types (e.g. problemsolutions, methods, discussion sections) and genres (e.g. critiques, case studies, literature reviews, research papers);
- help them improve their sentence and discourse-level grammar and be better proofreaders of their own writing.
In addition, I am determined to go outside the traditional boundaries of a writing class because I think that writing cannot and should not be taught in isolation from the other skills that students need in order to be effective writers. Therefore, I have added academic vocabulary and strategic reading skill components. I also plan to integrate critical thinking skills so my students improve their abilities to make inferences, synthesize, develop arguments and counter-arguments, and evaluate sources in their writing. My task feels a little overwhelming right now, but also helps me as the instructor appreciate the complexities of academic writing and understand better the challenges our second language students face.
Finding the writer’s voice
Stepping back from the details of my new course, let’s consider the big picture of what writing entails. Writing is a complex language form practiced by users of all languages (both native and non-native) for everyday social and communicative purposes and, for many, for vocational, educational, and professional needs. It has been variously described as a product– a piece of writing with a particular form and the expectation of “correctness.” And as aprocess – a journey that takes writers through stages where they discover they have something to say and find their “voice.” From the cognitive perspective, it is seen as a set of skills and knowledge that resides within the individual writer and from the sociocultural perspective as a socially and culturally situated set of literacy practices shared by a particular community (Weigle, 2014). With these perspectives in mind, all teachers of writing must ask: How can I help my students improve their writing and what are best practices in the classroom? As I design my new course I am asking myself these same questions.
An important first step is undertaking a needs assessment, whether informal or formal, to learn what kinds of writing students need. From this assessment, a syllabus or curriculum can be developed or a textbook series selected that is a good match with your students’ needs. Typically, the instructional sequence starts with personal/narrative writing in which students have to describe or reflect on an experience or event. This usually leads to expository writing in which students learn to develop a thesis statement and support this controlling idea in the body of their writing. Analytic or persuasive writing is the most challenging type of academic writing because students must learn to state and defend a position or opinion using appropriate evidence (Ferris, 2009). These kinds of academic writing tasks require students to become familiar with a variety of text types and genres, one of my course goals.
Improving vocabulary and grammar
The academic writing class also provides the opportunity for students to fine-tune their grammar and expand their academic language vocabulary. Typically, by the time our second language students are engaged in academic writing, they have been exposed to the majority of grammatical structures in English (e.g. complete tense system; complex constructions such as relative clauses and conditionals), but they still may need to learn how to integrate these structures into their writing. They also need to match text types with the kinds of grammatical structures needed. For example, in order to write a cause/effect essay, students need to use subordinating clauses with because and since and they need to use the appropriate transitional expressions like therefore and as such. Student will most likely have learned these structures in isolation but now need extensive practice and feedback to use them accurately in their writing. In terms of academic vocabulary, students need to differentiate the types of vocabulary found in everyday usage (e.g. the verbs meet and get) with their more formal academic counter-parts encounter and obtain (see Zimmerman, 2009, for many other examples).
In sum, the English for Academic Purposes curriculum must integrate reading and writing skills, and, as mentioned, grammar and vocabulary. Cumming (2006) points out that a focus on reading can lead to writing improvement and an opportunity to learn discipline-specific vocabulary. It also gives students something to write about. Combining reading and writing also provides needed practice in analyzing different text types so students see the features of these models. These kinds of activities create opportunities for more complex tasks such as summarizing and synthesizing multiple sources. A curriculum that integrates reading and writing also exposes students to graphic organizers for reading comprehension which student can recycle for pre-writing (Grabe, 2001). Finally, students need many exposures to similar tasks in order to master the complexities of academic writing and build confidence in their abilities. I look forward to teaching my new academic writing course and I hope this brief glimpse inspires others to undertake this challenge as well.
References and Further Reading:
Ferris, D. (2009). Teaching college writing to diverse student populations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Grabe, W. (2001). Reading-writing relations: Theoretical perspectives and instructional practices. In D. Belcher & A. Hirvela, (Eds.), Linking literacies: Perspectives on L2 readingwriting connections. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Weigle, S. C. (2014). Considerations for teaching second language writing. In M. Celce-Murcia, D. M. Brinton, & M. A. Snow (Eds.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language(4th ed., pp. 222- 237). Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning Heinle Cengage.
Zimmerman, C. (2009). Work knowledge: A vocabulary teacher’s handbook. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.