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Feedback on academic writing – Part Three

proofreading for English language students in EAPThis is the final article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares some proofreading tips to help students to reduce careless errors and spelling mistakes.

How often do you remind your students to check their work carefully before they hand it in, then despair of all the careless errors and spelling mistakes that still pepper their writing, especially in a world with spellcheckers? But is proofreading your own writing really that easy?

The importance of accuracy

Accuracy in academic writing is particularly valued. In an academic context, an argument or a piece of research that contains errors and inaccuracies will not be seen as credible. Similarly, it can be difficult for subject tutors reading a piece of student writing to judge whether inaccuracies from a non-native speaker student are a product of flawed thinking or simply a result of language weaknesses. A long text full of minor language errors puts pressure on the reader, as they have to keep reprocessing sentences to extract the correct meaning. In this case, it’s easy to lose the thread of the argument or for the writer’s message to get lost, thus detracting from the academic content.

Teaching proofreading techniques

There’s no simple solution to eliminating those frustrating surface errors, but you can help students by explicitly teaching a few techniques they can use to proofread their writing.

A first step is to raise students’ awareness of their own specific weak points. It’s easy to assume that students know where they make the most mistakes, but often their attention is elsewhere. With every class I teach, I have a session where I ask them to bring in as many pieces of writing they’ve had feedback on (from me or other teachers) as possible. I then get them to go through and systematically count up and classify their error types (with articles, prepositions, noun-verb agreement, etc.) They pick out their top 3 or 4 error types and we work on ways that they can systematically search for and identify those errors in their writing.

This short activity from Oxford EAP Advanced is really useful for highlighting and discussing practical proofreading techniques:

feedback_academic_part3

 

It amazes me every time how many of them don’t have their computer spell-check set to English!

Dictionary skills

With a background in lexicography, I’m a big fan of teaching dictionary skills and encouraging students to use a dictionary and thesaurus both when they’re writing and when they’re checking their work. In class, I jump at any opportunity to turn to the dictionary to demonstrate to students how they can use it to check not just meaning, but collocations, dependent prepositions, following clause structures, etc. I’m particularly looking forward to using the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English with my classes which focuses specifically on the academic uses of words.

I also try to find time to introduce students to using a thesaurus. Often when they try reading something they’ve written aloud (a useful technique for checking that a text flows), they notice they’ve repeated a particular word or phrase too often. I point students in the direction of the Oxford Learner’s Thesauruswhich explains the similarities and subtle differences between sets of synonyms, helping them to choose an appropriate alternative to avoid those awkward repetitions.

Armed with a few simple tools and techniques, I hope that by the end of their EAP course, my students are better equipped to improve their academic writing style and to tidy up their own final drafts. Many of them are incredibly bright cookies in their own disciplines and I’d hate for them to let themselves down with a few awkward collocations or misplaced prepositions!

This article first appeared in the March 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Feedback on academic writing – Part Two

Teacher helping adult studentThis is the second article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares her thoughts on how teachers can encourage students to act on feedback.

In my last article, I wrote about how overwhelming it can be for new student writers to get back a piece of writing covered in feedback. They can often feel like getting their writing up to scratch is going to be such an uphill battle that they just give up and ignore the feedback altogether. I suggested that by giving less feedback and breaking it down into more manageable chunks, students can focus on a specific area at a time and make realistic progress. With my own EAP students last summer, I started off by focusing on the content of their writing, ignoring language errors and giving feedback on whether they’d answered the question, whether they’d provided sufficient support for their arguments, or whether their overall message was clear.

Copy-editing

Once we’d established what they were expected to write, I turned next to the how. Many students new to EAP arrive with what I describe as a high-school style of essay-writing. That is, their language is rather simplistic: it is not sophisticated enough to communicate the more subtle details and perspectives involved especially at higher levels of academic study. The purpose of teaching students to write in a more academic style is not to make them sound more ‘fancy’ or ‘impressive’, but to give them the tools to do justice to their subject knowledge and ideas. Explaining the why of features of academic style is as important as demonstrating the how.

Group feedback

As you read through writing that a class has handed in, you’ll often find that a particular task has thrown up the same issue for a lot of students, in which case, group feedback is the most efficient way to address it. One rule I always try to stick to is to work on the feedback activity before I hand back students’ individual writing. That way you’re more likely to have their attention, they’re not so caught up in their individual feedback and more concerned about some other feature you’ve mentioned on their paper.

One problem for my students centred around the use of impersonal language in academic writing. In early writing tasks, many of them were still using a lot of personal pronouns to refer to people in general (we, you):

If we restrict access to media like internet for young people, it is possible that they will find another way to gain related information.

So I started off with this example from a student essay on the board (anonymously) and asked who the ‘we’ referred to. Of course, the class came back with various different answers – society, the government, parents, ISPs – so identifying the problem for themselves (i.e. vagueness). Next, we looked back at the text we’d read as input for the writing task (from an academic textbook) and picked out the subject of each sentence. We found that these were invariably noun phrases (often plural nouns to refer to specific groups), thus identifying how expert academic writers deal with this situation. Then in small groups, students looked at some more similar examples from their own writing, identified the problem in each case and suggested rewrites.

Responding to feedback

As well as staging group activities to highlight problems and features, I also tried to get students to engage more actively with individual feedback. So I’d focus on two or three key errors in a piece of writing and frame my feedback in the form of a question to be answered. I then asked students to email me their rewrites of just the highlighted sentences. For example, this was an exchange with a business studies student just after we’d been talking about hedging and the appropriate use of confident and tentative language:

Student’s first draft: This paper demonstrates how the main management methods…

My feedback comment: Is demonstrate the best verb here – a little too confident?

Student redraft: This paper attempts to argue that the main management methods…

My feedback: Great! This is really good and sounds just right for a student writer.

By making feedback a collaborative process between student writer and you as editor – rather than a passive one – you can help students to better understand why we use certain linguistic features in academic writing and hopefully, help them to find their own voice as a novice academic writer.

In my next article, I’ll talk about teaching proofreading techniques to help students polish up their final draft.

This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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Feedback on academic writing – Part One

EAP feedback to EFL students

Image courtesy of Giulia Forsythe

This is the first article of a three-part series on giving EAP students effective feedback. Julie Moore, an ELT writer and researcher, shares her thoughts on how to give your students constructive feedback on their writing.

Although I’ve been working in ELT publishing for some 15 years, co-authoring Oxford EAP Advanced was the first time I’ve been involved in writing a whole coursebook. It was a very steep learning curve in all kinds of ways, but perhaps one of the most challenging parts of the whole experience was the process of having my writing edited. I’d spend long hours at my desk writing a unit, then I’d email my completed draft off to my editor and wait with trepidation for her feedback. When I opened up her reply, my heart would often sink at the sight of those tightly-packed comments squeezed down the margin of every page and the prospect of ploughing my way through them!

So when I finally got away from my desk and back into the classroom again last summer to teach on a pre-sessional EAP course, I approached giving feedback on my students’ own writing with a fresh perspective. But what lessons had I learnt?

Less is more

In an EAP context, writing is a key skill and as teachers, we have a tendency to want to give as much feedback on written work as possible. Our intentions are good – we want to help our students improve – but the effect can sometimes be the opposite. Students are so overwhelmed by all the feedback that they either get demotivated and lose confidence, or they skim through to find the grade or the final comment and then file away all our careful feedback, largely unread.

Having experienced how daunting masses of feedback can be for a writer, I was determined to make the process less scary and more productive for my students. I turned to publishing again for a way of breaking it down into more manageable steps:

  • content editing – focus on what is written, rather than how
  • copyediting – focus on style, voice, flow, etc.
  • proofreading – tidying up surface errors

In this article, I’m going to talk about the first stage of the editing/feedback process:

Focus on content

For many students new to EAP, their experience of writing in English has been mostly of short, functional letters and emails, and if they have written essays, they’ll have been of the rather simple, formulaic kind which are designed essentially to practise or test the student’s language abilities. In an ELT context, the focus is often not really on what you write so much as the language you manage to display. A student can produce a fairly inane piece of writing, saying really very little of any substance, but if they show a range of vocabulary, reasonably accurate grammar and throw in a few nice discourse markers, they can get a good mark. This simply won’t cut it in an academic context where: “After all, we teach college students to write not because we expect them to become writers, but because writing is the evidence that they are mastering intellectual concepts.” (McBride, 2012).

So in the first few writing activities I did with my EAP students, I focused very much on content: on what they were expected to write. In my feedback, I ignored the surface language issues and commented only on how well they’d tackled the task. Had they answered the question? Had they put forward a clear argument and supporting evidence? Had they offered analysis and evaluation as well as simple description?

As we worked on some of these key principles of academic writing, I encouraged students to evaluate the content of their own writing, establishing routines and checklists they could use to edit their writing in the future. For example, the following criteria to check a main body paragraph of an essay:

  1. Have you stated the main argument clearly?
  2. Do supporting points flow logically?
  3. Are key concepts/terms clearly defined and/or explained?
  4. Does the evidence support the main argument?
  5. Have you included comment and/or evaluation to make your own stance clear?
    (Adapted from Oxford EAP Advanced)

The initial reaction from some students was uneasy – surely it was my job to correct all their language errors, wasn’t it? It was important that I explained clearly what I was doing and why. I kept copies of students’ writing to use examples (anonymously) as part of other activities on specific language points. I also reassured them that I’d be giving feedback at a more micro-level on their individual writing as the course went on.

And did the approach work? Overall, I think it did. By concentrating first on what they were expected to write, it laid a solid base on which to build the details of how to write as the course went on.

In my next article, I’ll talk about copy-editing and feedback techniques for helping students achieve that all-important academic style.

References

de Chazal & Moore (2013) Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 (OUP)
McBride (2012) ‘Patchwriting’ is more common than plagiarism, just as dishonest http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/everyday-ethics/188789/patchwriting-is-more- common-than-plagiarism-just-as-dishonest/

 

This article first appeared in the January 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults, subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.


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EAP in the classroom Part Three – Developing student independence

EAP in the classroom  - Developing student independenceIn the last of a three-part series on teaching EAP, Edward de Chazal, a freelance consultant, author and presenter, looks at effective strategies to help students work more independently. 

In English language teaching in general, and EAP in particular, independence is talked about a lot. Teachers say they want their students to ‘be more independent’ and ‘work more independently’. But what does this mean, and how can it happen?

Student independence is a major aim of EAP – eventually, when they are studying in their departments, students need a significant degree of independence in order to function effectively and succeed. Typically, most of their EAP input takes place before they start their academic programme, so EAP teachers need to use materials which lead to independence. For instance, rather than presenting one particular reading text for intensive focus – an inward-looking task – a more outward-looking task would enable students to learn skills and techniques which they can independently apply to other texts.

Independence is both an abstract concept – a ‘state of mind’ perhaps – and a physical concept. Ultimately, students need to become independent of their (EAP) teachers, the timetabled lessons, and the materials. Put simply, the independent student no longer needs to be told when to study, how to learn, and what to focus on. They have become skilled at searching for source texts, selecting and evaluating what they read, and processing parts of the material into their own new texts such as essays and presentations. Linguistically, cognitively, and academically, these are complex processes.

Relying on teacher input

A key point about independence is that for many students it doesn’t just happen. The role of the EAP teacher is vital: paradoxically, significant teacher input is needed for student independence to develop, especially in its early stages.

To illustrate this, I’d like to use an example from my own education. When I was studying English Literature at grammar school (an old-fashioned type of secondary school; there aren’t many grammar schools left now), we had to analyse poems. We had never seen these poems before (they were known as ‘unseen’), and they were quite difficult. Early on in the process, our teacher would try to elicit meanings, using questions like ‘What does this mean?’, ‘Why is the poet using this word here?’, and ‘What does this line suggest to you?’ Yet at this stage the teacher did most of the explaining – we listened carefully and read closely, and by the end of the lesson we were able to understand the poem pretty well. However, I remember wondering how I would ever be able to analyse a poem myself – independently – it just seemed too difficult without the support of the teacher. This story has a happy ending: gradually we did learn how to analyse an unseen poem, and most of us in the class achieved a very high grade in our A-level exam. Significantly, this skill is transferable: poems are not the only things I can analyse.

This example tells us several things. The teacher has a key role to play, and they need to use appropriate yet challenging materials. There has to be sufficient support and staging, particularly earlier on in the process of becoming more independent. Independence takes time to develop, and students will develop at different speeds and in different ways.

Developing student independence

Conversely, if the teacher continues to do too much, their students might remain over-reliant and excessively dependent. In order to become more independent, students need to be engaged with the material, and become more responsible. In this context responsibility means taking the initiative – finding new texts, and using the available resources and technologies.

We’ve incorporated many of these ideas into Oxford EAP. The theme of the final unit in Oxford EAP Upper-Intermediate/B2 is ‘Independence’, and the lecture in this unit presents many of the ideas in this article. Integrated throughout the different levels of the Oxford EAP series are Independent Study tasks, which ask students to go and find out something new. Similarly, the sequences of tasks in the skills modules are designed to be transferable, so that the student can apply the similar techniques to new contexts. The independent student has an initiating approach to their learning; they are resourceful, reflective, and critical. They like to go beyond what the teacher and the materials require them to do. In short, the ultimate goal of EAP is independence, and with good materials and teaching, it is highly achievable.

 

This article first appeared in the February 2014 edition of the Teaching Adults Newsletter – a round-up of news, interviews and resources specifically for teachers of adults. If you teach adults,subscribe to the Teaching Adults Newsletter now.

 


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Help! My students think their course book is too easy

ESL course book too easyWhat can you do if some of your students find the course book you are using too easy? Ken Wilson, the main author of Smart Choice Second Edition, shares his ideas.

I recently got this message from a teacher:

Hello Ken. I was wondering if you could answer a question. How can a teacher deal with using a course book that the students find too easy? My colleague is using Smart Choice Starter (an excellent series, by the way), but some of the students think it’s too easy. What advice do you have for her? Thanks in advance!

I imagine a lot of teachers find the book they are using too easy or too difficult for their class. Or for some of the class. So here are a couple of ideas to do something about it, assuming that changing the book or moving certain students to a different level are not options.

The book seems too easy for all/most of the class

Let’s imagine that you realise after a couple of weeks that the book you are using seems to be ‘too easy’, which basically means that the students already ‘know’ the new vocabulary and grammar content, or at least they think they do. A possible solution may be for pairs or groups of students to take responsibility for presenting some of the ‘new’ material to the rest of the class. Let’s say there are twelve units in the book and you’ve reached Unit 2, so there are ten to go. It’s clear by now that the book isn’t challenging them enough. Tell them – in their own language if necessary – that from now on, you would like them to be responsible for the presentation of some of the new material in the remaining units.

Put the students in pairs or groups of three, you decide which is best. Ask them to work together in their groups and look at all the remaining units in the book – give them 10-15 minutes to do this. Tell them to choose a unit that they would like to present. They should then tell the rest of the class what the new vocabulary is and POSSIBLY what the new grammar point is. It really doesn’t matter if there are too many or not enough students for each pair/group to have their own unit to present. The process is more important than the end product.

I have met teachers who express concern about their students looking at units later in the book. What if they’re too difficult? To these teachers I say – do you REALLY think you students haven’t already looked at every page in the book? They usually do it as soon as they get it, mainly to see if there are any interesting images. So stop worrying about that.

After they’ve had a chance to look at all the units, ask them which one they would like to present. Often more than one group will want to present the same unit, so they have to decide who does it. Let them decide by tossing a coin, arm-wrestling, whatever.  There will be some units that no one wants to present. Ask them why. If the answer is that the material looks boring, then you are well within your rights not to do those units. You should find alternative material to present the lexis, grammar and skills practice. And send a note to the publisher telling them what your students thought. Authors and publishers need lots of feedback, and teacher feedback is an essential part of the process of improving material for the next edition. It’s even better if the teachers are passing on the thoughts of their students. But let’s imagine at least some of the groups agree to present the material in different units. How should they do it? My suggestion is that they do it without the book.

In Smart Choice, the first page of each unit is devoted to presenting a new lexical set. Ask the students to find images of the key vocabulary from another source – Google images is a good place to start. Another excellent source of freely available photographic material is ELTpics (http://www.eltpics.com), a collection of thematically arranged photographs compiled and curated by ELT professionals. The point is, you should encourage your students to start the presentation with some graphics as back-up, preferably using PowerPoint, keynote or Prezi – whatever the students are familiar with. Some of the lexical sets may be more easily presented using mime or acting out techniques. Encourage the students to explore that possibility, too.

Let’s imagine a group of students have agreed to present the vocabulary from the next unit. Remind them at the end of the previous class and check that they have prepared the material for their presentation. The class begins. You ask the two or three students to take over. It’s an interesting moment – the presenters are a bit nervous and the rest of the class are a bit curious. The atmosphere is already much more interesting than it might be if you were doing all the teaching yourself! For guidance, tell the presenters to try to find out what the other students already know, showing them images or acting out/miming to illustrate the new words. Explain that ‘eliciting’ new words/phrases is a good way to start.

If the class is a monolingual class, there is every chance that the presenters will occasionally use L1 as part of their presentation. My feeling is that this is fine, particularly at lower levels. You may have a different opinion, but I feel that the occasional use of translation is very helpful, especially for beginners. If the presenters struggle at any point, step in and help them. But give them a chance to do it themselves. They will never forget the experience.

Objections

When I have presented these ideas in a talk or workshop, teachers have the following objections.

  1. You’re asking people to teach who have not been trained to teach.
  2. Some students might think – you’re the teacher, I’m the student, YOU should be teaching ME. There could be a rebellion.
  3. In a PLS or other institution where the students are paying, they may object and ask for their money back!

These are important issues to deal with. Regarding the first point, the fact is that your students may not do a very good job of presentation, in which case you have to step in and help. Don’t take over the class, just add some ideas and help to elicit information from the rest of the class. Regarding the second and third points, in the end it’s all about belief and trust. If you believe that what you’re doing is right and the students trust that you are doing things because they will benefit from them, they will accept any of the crazy methods you’re using. I tried this method of students teaching their peers many times when I was a teacher at a PLS, and I never had a single complaint from students about my methods. I hope it will work for you too!

The book is too easy or too difficult for a proportion of the class

This is a classic mixed-ability class scenario. In this case, I’m going to suggest that you get your best students to help you with the less able ones. Let’s imagine again there are fifteen people in the class. When you have a new class, how long does it take you to decide who are the ‘good’ students? Not long, right? So here’s an idea.

During the first two or three classes, make a mental note of who the top third of the students are. In a class of fifteen, this means five students. Ask them to see you at the end of the class. When the rest of the students have left the room, you tell the top third that they are really good – the best in the class. This is very nice for them to hear. But, you go on to explain, with this ability comes a responsibility. From now on, when you do group work, these ‘good’ students will make a group of three with two of the other students, ie not with another ‘good’ one.

So now, one ‘good’ student is helping two more challenged students. Three is much better than two, because the two can learn together from the better student. Meanwhile, you go from group to group, monitoring the work they are doing.

I hate to use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to describe students, because all students bring something positive to the classroom, but I think you will see the advantage of this idea. At no point have I indicated to the class why the five are taking over, it will just happen.

Final thought

If the book is too difficult for ALL the class, then you do have a problem. If your feedback suggests that this is something that happens, and there is nothing you can do to change the book, then I will come back with some ideas to help with that situation, too.

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