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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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Academic writing and the grammar of words

Julie MooreClose-up of Dicionary entry in dictionary, a lexicographer for the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, looks at the benefit of using dictionary skills in academic writing.

In ELT, we tend to approach grammar and vocabulary as two quite separate strands, mostly for the convenience of teaching. Of course, we all know that, in reality, they’re closely interwoven. And perhaps nowhere more so than in EAP (English for Academic Purposes), where complex constructions and the importance of appropriate vocabulary choices often make an understanding of lexicogrammar (the grammar of words) absolutely key to writing clearly and persuasively.

Consider the underlined phrases in the following three examples of student writing – are they issues of vocabulary or grammar?

  • This essay aims to exploring how children’s lifestyles can both cause and address the issue of increasing child obesity.
  • Some of these areas are located in seismic belts and encounter with the risk of strong earthquake.
  • In order to better understand the construction of a photoelectric sensor, a brief explanation to the working principle is given here.

In each case, it’s the grammatical features or typical grammatical patterns of these specific vocabulary items that have caused problems; the following verb pattern, the need for a direct object, and the dependent preposition respectively. This is tough for the learner because it means that it’s not enough to learn general grammatical principles and bolt on a list of appropriate academic vocabulary; they also need to get to grips with the grammatical characteristics of each individual word.

Of course, a lot of this comes from exposure to academic writing; students noticing recurrent patterns as they read and getting a feel for how particular words are typically used in context. But to me as a teacher, that always seems like rather a superficial piece of advice, a bit vague and with no obvious concrete steps that students can take to improve their next piece of writing. The process of learning how vocabulary is used doesn’t have to be a passive one though – students can be encouraged to be proactive when it comes to lexicogrammar.

Each of the students above could be pointed in the direction of a dictionary to see where they’ve gone wrong. Below are extracts from the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, which provides a wealth of information targeted specifically at how vocabulary items are used in an academic context, both in terms of meaning and grammar.

aim (verb) … 2 [I,T] to try or plan to achieve sth: … ~to do sth The project aimed to investigate Earth history by drilling the deep ocean floor.

encounter (verb) 1 ~sth to experience sth, especially sth unpleasant or difficult, while you are trying to do sth else: One problem commonly encountered by customers ordering products over the Internet is difficulty with delivery … to encounter difficulties/obstacles/opposition

explanation (noun) … 2 [C] ~(of sth) a statement or piece of writing that tells you how sth works or makes sth easier to understand: … The author provides a brief explanation of his oral history process.

By pointing out in class how this type of information is shown in the dictionary (in each case here by expressions in bold showing the pattern and then reinforced in example sentences), students can start to see how they can learn about how words work for themselves.

Dictionary skills can be incorporated into activities where students edit their own writing (as in the above examples) or it can simply provide a regular interlude when an issue over a particular word or expression crops up in class. And as an added bonus, the processes involved in looking up the word and analysing the information they find, will help this new knowledge stick.


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5 ways to use a dictionary for academic writing

Oxford Learner's Dictionary of Academic English book coverJulie Moore, a lexicographer for the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, shares her top 5 ways to use a dictionary to teach academic writing skills.

With my background in lexicography, I’m a big fan of encouraging dictionary skills in the classroom. And as a teacher of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), I’m really looking forward to using the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English with my students.

Rather than teach planned dictionary skills lessons, I tend to slip in dictionary usage at every possible opportunity. In particular, I’ll often send students to the dictionary in a writing skills lesson. Here are my top five areas of academic vocabulary to focus on:

Collocation

One thing that can make student writing sound awkward is an odd choice of collocation. Sometimes a choice that would be fine in everyday English or spoken academic contexts, such as do research stands out as too informal in academic writing, where conduct or undertake research might fit better. Checking a key word in the dictionary will provide students with a number of appropriate academic collocations, not just for the most common meanings of a word, but also sometimes more specialist uses too, e.g. a power = an influential country: a colonial/imperial/sovereign/global etc. power.

Dependent prepositions

A wrong choice of preposition may seem like a trivial error, and in speech it will usually be overlooked. But in academic discourse, where precision is highly valued, frequent minor errors can give the impression of intellectual sloppiness and inaccuracy. Next time your students are handing in a piece of writing, try this quick self-editing activity. Before they give you their texts, get them to go through and underline all the prepositions they’ve used, then identify those that depend on a content word (a noun, verb, or adjective) either just before (on impact, under the influence of) or just after (reliant on, consistent with). Next, they choose a handful (3 to 5) that they’re least confident about and look up the content words in the dictionary. Point out that typical prepositions are shown in bold before examples. They can then correct any errors they find before handing in their work.

Following constructions

You can do a similar thing with the constructions that typically follow particular words (focus on doing, demonstrate how/what …). I tend to highlight examples like this when they come up in class, just taking a couple of minutes to raise students’ awareness of how this type of information is shown in the dictionary, again in bold before examples. Students can then use it as a reference source themselves when they’re hesitating over a construction in their writing.

Parts of speech

EAP students need to develop a particular dexterity in swapping between parts of speech, whether they’re trying to find an appropriate paraphrase or construct a complex noun phrase. As different parts of speech typically start with the same combination of letters, they’re generally together in the dictionary, making for a quick and easy look-up. And to help further, the different parts of speech of many key words are even grouped together in word family boxes, allowing learners to see the options at a glance, including non-adjacent words such as antonyms too, e.g. conclude, conclusion, conclusive, conclusively, inconclusive.

Synonyms

For students writing longer academic texts, repetition of key words can become an issue. Finding a few appropriate synonyms can help to improve the flow and style of their writing enormously. With a class of students preparing for a writing task on a particular topic, you might pick out a few key topic words and get students to look them up in the dictionary to search for possible synonyms. These are shown after each definition, e.g. at practicable you’ll find SYN feasible, workable. Of course, synonyms rarely have identical meanings and usage, so get students to look up the synonyms too and decide which might be substitutable and what adjustments they might need to make grammatically (e.g. vary from x to y, but range between x and y).

By incorporating regular dictionary usage into classroom practice, you raise students’ awareness of the type of information they can find in the dictionary, how they can use it to improve their academic writing and become more autonomous learners. What’s more, by proactively doing something with a word (looking it up, thinking about it, then using it), they’ll also broaden and deepen their vocabulary knowledge.


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Helping your students to become effective writers

Professor speaking to studentJulie Moore, co-author of the recently launched Oxford EAP Advanced / C1 level, looks at ways of teaching writing skills more effectively. Julie will be hosting a webinar on the same topic on 26th and 27th November.

In ELT, we often talk about teaching the four skills; reading, writing, listening, and speaking. But how much class time do we actually devote to teaching writing skills?

I know that for many years in my own teaching career, my ‘teaching’ of writing skills amounted to little more than five minutes going through a homework task at the end of the lesson. The task might be linked to the topic of the lesson and there might be a bit of useful vocabulary, a few key words or phrases in a nice shaded box, but otherwise, I think my students were pretty much left to their own devices.

I’d then collect in their writing to ‘mark’, largely on the basis of their language, or more to the point, their language errors. I’d use this collected language – much more convenient than the ephemeral spoken language in class – to help decide what areas I might need to revisit in future lessons and to give students individual feedback that there wasn’t always time for in class.

On reflection, I realise that my aim in setting these writing tasks was not really about teaching writing skills, because it involved very little actual teaching and no work on any specific skills. It was really just a chance for me to capture samples of my students’ language in a form that allowed me time for analysis and reflection. Now that’s a perfectly legitimate aim, but I don’t think it really qualifies as “teaching writing skills”.

It was only when I moved into teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to students preparing to study at university, who need to do lots of writing, that I really came across materials and activities that focused on teaching the skills needed to write effectively.

Some of these activities were specific to academic writing, but many are actually about skills that are applicable much more widely to writing in everyday contexts. We do activities around summarising, conveying key information clearly and concisely. There are tasks aimed at structuring more complex information in a logical way (coherence), using language that flows well to make it easy for your reader to follow (cohesion). We look at how to express evaluation, being appropriately confident or tentative (hedging), how to be persuasive, to argue your case, and to engage your reader.

We analyse texts from different genres by expert writers to see what lessons we can learn about their style and approach. I also spend time in class addressing editing and proofreading skills, because in real life, we don’t just hand in a piece of writing to be marked and graded, we use tools and techniques to check and redraft until we’re happy with the final result.

In my webinar, we’ll look at some of these practical techniques and activities that you can use to help your students become more effective writers – whatever their writing aims.

Register now to take part.


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Style and Substance: Teaching EAP at Advanced Level

Lecturer assisting students during classJulie Moore, co-author of the recently launched Oxford EAP Advanced / C1 level, looks at how to prepare students for the challenges of postgraduate study.

A proportion of students arrive on an EAP course with an already very high level of general English, especially those planning to study at postgraduate level. In the class I taught this summer at Bristol University, for example, all the students arrived with a score of 7.0 at IELTS. Yes, they were good, and some of them were clearly very smart cookies, but that didn’t mean they were quite ready to cope with demanding postgraduate courses in law or economics which require a really high level of language skill.

Academic style

One of the most obvious areas in which many of these students fall down is the style of their writing. They may be able to write about simple, everyday topics relatively clearly and fluently, but their style is often far from academic. Their first attempts at writing are more akin to a high school essay, full of short simple sentences, rather informal language and awkward fixed phrases and formulae learnt in high-school English classes.

The task of making their style more academic involves a two-pronged strategy.  Firstly, they need to look at just what it is that academic writers do that makes them sound academic. By analysing specific features in reading texts, they start to get a feel for what academic style is all about. You might, for example, take a short section of a text which you’ve already worked with and get students to first underline all the verbs, then identify and classify the subject of each verb. Chances are they’ll find lots of impersonal, non-human subjects, often expressed as noun phrases – recent research findings show…, more flexible working practices allow… – or where people are subjects, they’re more likely to be presented as a general group, expressed through a plural noun: consumers, critics of this approach, the majority of hospital outpatients, etc.

The next step is to work on transferring these features to students’ own writing. This will involve some nitty-gritty language work on, say, constructing noun phrases, a key feature of academic English that recurs through several units of Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 in the form of academic language boxes followed by practice activities. This process of raising awareness followed by practice helps students to develop the skills to move from:

As new media develop so fast, we are bombarded by a huge amount of information and we don’t even have time to filter them.” (example from a student essay)

To:

With the rapid development of new media, the public are bombarded by a huge amount of information, from news media, TV, social networking and online advertising, which is becoming increasingly difficult to filter.” (edited version rewritten in class)

Content

But style is nothing without substance. At this level, students really need to be challenged cognitively as well as linguistically. In an academic context, what you say is as important as how you say it. So it’s vital to give students real content to work with, not just in receptive tasks, but in productive activities as well. You can’t expect a student to produce an intelligent, well-argued piece of writing if they’re simply coming up with ideas off the top of their head.

Academic writing is not about personal opinions and experiences, it’s about drawing on academic arguments backed up by evidence from sources, and that means writing and speaking tasks based on meaty academic input. For this reason, the writing and speaking modules in Oxford EAP Advanced/C1 all build on authentic input sources on a wide range of topics, from drugs in sport to teamwork in academic research.Students work with these in a structured way towards an output task (an essay, a summary, a discussion or a presentation), incorporating evidence from these sources to support their points at every stage, just as they will be expected to do in their postgraduate studies.

And of course, the added bonus of challenging students intellectually is that it should not only prepare them for their future studies, but also make it more likely that the language they encounter will stick. The deeper mental processing required by these higher-level thinking skills has been shown to aid language acquisition, which makes really stretching these students at the top end a win-win situation.

To find out more about Oxford EAP C1/Advanced, watch Julie Moore’s video interview.