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The Many Challenges of Academic Writing for ESL

The challenges of academic writing in ESLDr. Ann Snow, writing consultant for Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, discusses the particular challenges of writing in an academic context.

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. problem-solutions, 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 a process – 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.

Needs assessment

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 reading-writing 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.


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Why Language Learners Should Take Notes

Why Language Learners Should Take NotesMargaret Brooks, a co-author of Q: Skills for Success, Second Edition, offers some tips to help your students take notes in class.

Whether in the context of taking a phone message or listening to an academic lecture, note-taking is an essential skill for most language learners. In order to help learners acquire this skill, it is important to consider first the special challenges language learners face when trying to listen and take notes.

Short-term memory

One of the most self-evident issues is that it takes a language learner longer to process audio input than it does a native speaker.  One reason for this is that a person’s short-term memory is shorter in L2 than in L1. People employ short-term memory (usually measured in seconds) when processing audio materials. For example, when listening to a long sentence, the listener may need to hold the whole utterance in his mind and review it in order to comprehend it adequately. For the L1 listener this happens naturally, without the person being aware of it.  However, for the language learner, this mental review process may not always be possible in the available time.1

Language structure

Another factor is the need for a mental map of the language, an internalized knowledge of the vocabulary and structures. A native speaker is grounded from childhood in the structures of the language and knows what to expect. We know, in fact, that people do not actually hear every word when they listen. But they hear enough to be able to parse out the meaning or reconstruct the sense quickly.  They can “fill in the blanks” with words not actually heard.

Cultural expectations

Finally, in addition to being familiar with the semantic and syntactic aspects of the language, a listener may need to know of certain cultural expectations. Names of people and places and knowledge of events or history familiar to the average native speaker may be unfamiliar to the learner.  All of these are things that may cause the listener to hesitate, stop listening, and try to think about what was said, while in the meantime the speaker continues.  The listener then loses the thread and finds it difficult to bring attention back to the task.

How note-taking can help

In the face of these challenges, it may seem that adding note-taking to the listening tasks in the classroom may be a step too far for many. How, for example, can we expect high beginning students to listen and write at the same time? However, when the tasks are appropriate for the learners’ level and carefully implemented, note-taking can actually improve comprehension.

Taking notes helps the student maintain focus and attention. It encourages a more engaged posture, such as sitting forward in the seat. The act of handwriting also aids in attention. Interestingly, studies have shown that students taking handwritten notes performed better on comprehension tests than those taking notes with an electronic medium such as a laptop or tablet.  The reason for this is that handwriting is slower than typing. The writer has to summarize content, which involves more mental processing than faster typing. This in turn leads to better understanding and retention.2

The following are some examples of note-taking practice activities for the language classroom:

  • Preparing to listen: Although this is not a note-taking skill in itself, it is a necessary first step in the classroom. In real life, people do not usually approach something like a lecture or other listening context without some idea of what they will hear. They will have read assignments leading up to a lecture, received the agenda for a meeting, or at the very least know something about the topic.  We often put learners at an unfair disadvantage by starting a listening task by just saying, “OK, now listen to this.” Pre-listening activities level the playing field by giving learners realistic preparation for the task. These can consist of things like pre-teaching key words, exploring students’ prior knowledge of the topic, or short reading selections related to the topic.
  • Focusing on main ideas and key words: Some students have a tendency to equate note-taking with dictation and set out to try to write every word – something impossible even in L1. Activities that focus on writing only main ideas and key content words address this issue and help develop short-term as a well as long-term memory. When students write down a few important words as they listen, seeing the words is a memory aid and helps them follow the flow of the ideas.  This strategy is essential when dealing with authentic listening texts at higher levels of language study and, by extension, in real world situations. Authentic texts are likely to contain chunks of unfamiliar language that become “roadblocks” if students are not able to move past them and keep listening for key words.
  • Using a variety of organizational systems such as outlining, the Cornell Method, or even word webs: This enables students to follow the development of a speaker’s ideas and “remember” them from start to finish as they listen. Presenting several ways of organizing notes shows that note-taking is essentially a personal task. Each person has to find a system that works for them.
  • Reviewing and adding to notes soon after a lecture or presentation: The purpose of note-taking in an academic setting is to provide students with a tool for study and review. In a business setting, notes from a meeting might be used to write a report or prepare a task list for a project. Notes consisting of just words and short phrases will not serve the purpose as the note-taker will quickly forget how to put these together into a coherent record of a lecture or meeting, for example.  In the classroom, students can review notes and expand what they have written. Also, even though there is no “rewind” function in a real-world lecture hall, it is useful practice for students to listen again and add to their notes.
  • Collaborating with others: Students often suffer from the mistaken notion that asking questions or getting help from others somehow diminishes them, makes them seem “stupid.” They forget that even native speakers do this all the time and it probably comes naturally to them in their first language. In the classroom, students can compare notes with classmates, ask questions about things they didn’t understand, and listen again to verify information.

Providing students with an opportunity to practice note-taking in a controlled and “safe” environment not only gives them a skill that will be useful in a variety of settings from the lecture hall to the meeting room, or even a doctor’s office but also helps them become more attentive listeners and improves general comprehension.

References and Further Reading

1Rost, Michael. Research in Second Language Processes and Development in Eli Hinkel (Ed). Handbook of Research on Second Language Learning and Teaching, Part IV. , Chapter 35: L2 Listening, Routledge, Nov. 11, 2005.

2Mueller, Pam A and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking. in Psychological Science, published on line 23 April, 2014.

Martin, Katherine I and Nick Ellis. The Roles of Phonological Short-term Memory and Working Memory in L2 Grammar and Vocabulary Learning. in Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Vol. 34, Issue 03, September 2012, Cambridge University Press, 2012.


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Get ready for the 2015 Cambridge English: First exam

Open water by mountain rangeSage Stevens, Assessment Support Manager in the Assessment Materials division of ELT at OUP, looks at the main changes to the 2015 specifications of the Cambridge English: First exams. Sage will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 23rd May.

As many of you will be aware, the specifications for Cambridge English: First (FCE) and Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) are changing in 2015. For those of you feeling somewhat at sea about just how these changes will impact on your teaching I will be hosting a webinar which will hopefully leave you feeling less ‘Lost at Sea’ and more ‘Fancy a swim?’. In other words, I hope to help navigate you through the changes so that you can prepare your students with confidence to sit these examinations in 2015 and beyond.

I am an Assessment Support Manager in the Assessment Materials division at OUP, but prior to this role I was a writing examiner for Cambridge ESOL CAE, FCE, BEC (Vantage) and others for a number of years.

I hope to share with you my experience in assessment and also my knowledge of Oxford’s new preparation and practice materials for the Cambridge English: First exam from 2015, which I have been actively involved in developing.

My webinar on the 23rd May will cover the following areas:

  • An overview of the main changes to the 2015 FCE exam. This will include looking at how the previously separate Reading and Use of English papers have been combined into one, without losing any of the integrity of the separate papers.
  • We will then focus in a bit more on changes to the Writing and Speaking papers. We will explore what teachers and candidates can expect with the new format, word count and rubric for the Writing paper, and we’ll look at the changes to interaction patterns and stimuli in the Speaking paper.
  • Throughout, I’ll be using examples of activities from the new editions of Cambridge English: First Masterclass and Result Student’s Books, and the Online Practice material that accompanies these courses – all designed to help you to prepare your students successfully for the tasks in the 2015 exam.

The webinar will be vibrant and informative. Participants will have the opportunity to put forward their views, participate in polling activities, and answer questions to ensure that the information is understood and clear. I look forward to meeting you!

To find out more about the changes to the Cambridge English: First exams, register for Sage’s webinar on 23rd May.


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#qskills – Should I teach only grammar when my students have only written tests in exams?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: Should I teach only grammar when my students have only written tests in exams?

Colin Ward responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


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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.