Category: How To’s

Competency-based planning and assessing

Competency-based planning and assessing

Earlier this week, I attended a workshop on competency-based (or competency-oriented) planning and assessing held by Dr Stefan Brall at Trier University, and would like to share some of the insights here.

The workshop was aimed at university-level teachers from various subject areas, and so concentrated generally on Competency-Based Education (CBE). According to Richards and Rogers (2001), the principles of CBE can be applied to the teaching of foreign languages (-> CBLT: Competency-Based Language Teaching), making the topic of interest to ELT professionals.

What is a competency?

In everyday language, we talk of people being ‘competent’ when they have the knowledge, qualification(s), or capacity to fulfil the expectations of a particular situation. They have the ability to apply the relevant skills appropriately and effectively. In the area of education, then, these skills are the individual competencies that students need to acquire and develop. Another important distinction here is between declarative knowledge, the theoretical understanding of something, and procedural knowledge, the ability to actually do it. In language teaching, I would argue, our focus is necessarily on the procedural side of things, on getting students to be able to actually communicate in the target langauge. The overarching goal of  CBLT is for learners to be able to apply and transfer this procedural knowledge in various settings, appropriately and effectively.

Literature on CBE explains how the approach can enhance learning, by

  • Focusing on the key competencies needed for success in the field
  • Providing standards for measuring performance and capabilities
  • Providing frameworks for identifying learners’ needs
  • Providing standards for measuring what learning has occurred

What are key competencies?

In the realm of tertiary education, a useful study to look at here is the Tuning Project. This is an EU-wide study which explored the most important competencies that students should develop at university. Although the specific ranking of the competencies may be debated, some of the capabilities that came out as very important include: the application of theory, problem solving, the adaptation of procedural knowledge to new situations, analytical thinking, synthesising information, and creativity (Gonzalez & Wagenaar, 2003). These kinds of skills are those often found at the top ends of taxonomies of learning. Compare, for example, with Bloom’s taxonomy:

bloom

Other taxonomies of learning use comparable sequential units to describe cognitive learning. For example, the SOLO model (Structure of Observed Learning Outcome, see Biggs & Tang, 2007) includes a quantitative phase of uni-structural and multi-strucutal learning (e.g. identyfing, describing, combining), and then a quantitative phase of relational (e.g. comparing, analysing causes, applying) and extended abstract learning (e.g. generalising, hypothesising). Seeing these important skills in a hierarchically organised scheme highlights how they build upon each other, and are themselves the products of mastering many sub-skills or competencies.

In language teaching, people have long since spoken of “the four skills”, i.e. skills covering the oral, aural, reading and writing domains. To this we might also add learning competencies. In CBLT, language is taught as a function of communicating about concrete tasks; learners are taught the langauge forms/skills they will need to use in various situations in which they will need to function. Scales such as the Common European Reference Framework for Languages help to break down these skills into distinct competences, whereby learners move up through the levels of mastery in each skill area, from elementary performance in a competency to proficient performance.

cefr

Competency-based Learning Outcomes

If we take scales of learning as the foundation for our planning, then, formulating statements of learning outcomes becomes quite a straightforward process. We will of course need to know the current level and needs of our students, especially in terms of competencies still to be learnt and competencies requiring further development. Associated with such learning taxonomies, we can easily find lists of action verbs which denote the skills associated with each developmental level of thinking skills. Based on the SOLO model, for example, we might find the following verbs:

Level Verbs
Uni-structural learning (knowledge of one aspect) count, define, find, identify, imitate, name, recognize, repeat, replicate
Multi-structural learning  (knowledge of several, unconnected aspects) calculate, classify, describe, illustrate, order, outline, summarise, translate
Relational learning (knowledge of aspects is integrated and connected) analyse, apply, compare, contrast, discuss, evaluate, examine, explain, integrate, organise, paraphrase, predict
Extended abstract learning (knowledge transferred to new situations) argue, compose, construct, create, deduce, design, generalize, hypothesise, imagine, invent, produce, prove, reflect, synthesise

Based on our understanding of students’ current learning levels, students’ needs, and the general framework within which our lessons/courses are taking place (in terms of contact time, resources, etc), and with these action verbs, we can then formulate realistic learning goals. In most cases, there will be a primary learning outcome we hope to reach, which may consist of several sub-goals – this should be made clear.

For example, an academic writing course aimed at C1-level students (on the CEFR) might set the main learning outcome as:

By the end of this course, students should be able to produce a coherent analytical essay following the Anglo-American conventions for the genre.

A couple of the sub-goals might include:

  • Students should be familiar with Anglo-American essay-writing conventions and able to apply these to their own compositions.
  • Students should understand various cohesive devices and employ these appropriately within their writing.
  • Students should understand the functions of Topic Sentences and Thesis Statements and be able to formulate these suitably in their own writing. 

Formulating clear learning outcomes in this way, and making them public, helps students to reflect on their own progress and may be motivating for them, and helps teachers to choose activities and materials with a clear focus, as well as helping to devise assessment tasks and grading rubrics.

Competency-based Assessment

Of course, most teachers will need to aim for economical assessment, in terms of time and resources. As far as possible, CBE advocates on-going assessment, so that students continue to work on the competency until they achieve the desired level of mastery. Competency-based assessment may thus require more effort and organisation on the part of the assessor – but it is able to provide a more accurate picture of students’ current stage of learning and performance.

Take multiple-choice tasks, for example; they can be marked very economically, but in reality they tend only to test the lower-level thinking skills, which may not have been the desired learning outcome. To test competency-based learning, we need to base our assessment tasks on the learning outcomes we have set, perhaps using the same action verbs in the task instructions. The focus is shifted to learners’ ability to demonstrate, not simply talk theoretically about, the behaviours noted in the learning outcomes. Still, especially in the realm of langauge teaching, there are some tasks we can easily set in written assignments which will also allow us to assess the higher levels of competencies more economically than oral presentations or practical assignments. If our learning outcome is the ability to apply a theory, for example, we could set a question such as ‘Describe a situation that illustrates the principles of xyz‘. Or, if we want to assess whether learners can discuss and evaluate, we might set a task like ‘Explain whether and why you agree or disagree with the following statement.‘ These kinds of tasks require learners to apply their acquired or developed competencies on a more qualitative level.

To enable objective assessments of students’ learning, we will need to devise a matrix based on the various levels of mastery of the competencies detailed in the learning outcomes. As a basis, we might start with something like this:

Grade Description
A An outstanding performance.
B A performance considerably better than the average standard.
C A performance that reaches the average standard.
D Despite short-comings, the performance just about reaches the minimum standard required.
E Because of considerable short-comings, the performance does not reach the minimum standard required.

For each sub-skill of the competencies we are aiming for students to achieve, we will need to state specifically, for instance, which ‘short-comings’ are ‘considerable’, e.g. if the students cannot demonstrate the desired level of mastery even with the tutor’s assistance. Also, it is important in CBE and CBLT that students’ performance is measured against their peers, especially to ascertain the ‘average standard,’ and not against the mastery of the tutor.

To return to the essay writing, example, a student’s composition might receive a B grade on the sub-competence of using cohesive devices if they employ several techniques to create cohesion in their work, but occasionally use one technique where another might be more effective. A student’s essay might receive a D grade on this competency if they repeatedly use the same cohesive device, or employ the techniques indiscriminately and inappropriately. An E grade might mean that the student has not tried to employ any cohesive devices. In this manner, the primary learning outcome is broken down into sub-skills, on which students’ performance can be objectively measured using a detailed grading matrix.

In a nutshell, then, CBE and CBLT aim for ‘Yes we can!’ rather than ‘We know’. Competency-based teaching and learning have become a staple in further education and language instruction in many places around the world. If you would like to implement the approach in your own classrooms, I hope this post has given you some useful insights on how to do so!

References

Biggs, J. & C. Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Maidenhead: Open University, 2007).

Brall, S., “Kompetenzorientiert planen und prüfen”, Workshop at Trier University, 21.2.17.

Gonzalez, J. & R. Wagenaar, Tuning Educational Structures in Europe: Final Report Phase One (Bilbao, 2003)

Richards, J.C. & T.S. Rodgers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (Cambridge: CUP, 2001).

“What is the CEFR?”, English Profile, Cambridge University Press, http://www.englishprofile.org/the-cefr, accessed 24.2.17

Peer Presentation Feedback

Peer Presentation Feedback

I teach an EAP module which focusses on language and study skills. It’s aimed at first-semester students starting an English Studies degree where English is a foreign language for almost all students. They’re at the B2+ level.

In a 15-week semester, we spend the first five weeks or so looking at what makes a good academic presentation in English. We cover topics such as narrowing down a topic to make a point, logically building up an argument, linking pieces of information, maintaining the audience’s attention, formal langauge and appropriate use of register, body language and eye contact, volume and pacing, using sources effectively, and lots of sub-skills and langauge features that are relevant for presentations. In the second 2/3 of the semester, students give presentations (in groups of 3) on a topic of their choice related to the English-speaking world, and we discuss feedback altogether so that the others can learn from what was good or could be improved in the presentation they have watched.

This blog post describes my journey through trialling different ways of getting the best feedback to fulfil our overall learning aim. 

(Note: Don’t worry, we also use class time to practise other study skills pertaining to listening and speaking!)

1. ‘Who would like to give some feedback?’

I have experimented with various ways of getting audience members to give feedback. When I first started teaching on this module, I used to ask after the presentation ‘Who would like to give some feedback?’, which was usually qualified by saying something like ‘Remember the points we’ve covered on what makes a presentation good.’ Usually, only a few people commented, and they focussed mainly on the good things. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is important to highlight what students have done well! But the overall goal of having students give presentations was that we could constructively critique all aspects of these presentations. I had hoped that we could use these ‘real’ examples to review what we had learnt about good academic presentations. So this approach wasn’t as effective as I had hoped.

2. Feedback questions

It seemed that requiring students to keep in mind all of the features of a good academic presentation was asking a bit too much. And so, together with a colleague, I drew up a list of questions students could ask themselves about the presentation. Example questions include: Was all of the information relevant? Was the speech loud and clear, and easy to understand? Students were given the list before the first presentation and instructed to bring it each week to help them to give presentation feedback. Most people brought them most of the time. Still, students were pretty selective about which questions they wanted to answer, and (tactfully?) avoided the points where it was clear that the presentation group needed to improve. So we still weren’t getting the full range of constructive feedback that I was hoping for.

3. Feedback sandwich

sandwich.jpgIt was clear to me that students wanted to be nice to each other. We were giving feedback in plenum, and no one wanted to be the ‘bad guy’. This is a good thing per se, but it meant that they were slightly hindered in giving constructive criticism and thus achieving the learning aims I had set for the course. So, before the first presentation, I set up an activity looking at how to give feedback politely and without offending the individual presenters. We explored the psychological and linguistic concepts behind ‘face saving’ and how people may become defensive if they feel their ‘face’ is attacked, and then psychologically ‘block out’ any criticism – so the feedback doesn’t help them improve their presentation; nor does it make for good student-student relationships! I explained the idea of a ‘feedback sandwich’ in which the positive comments form the bread, and the negative comments are the filling. This idea is said to ease any feelings of ‘attack’, thus making the feedback more effective. Students embraced this idea, and did their best to ‘sandwich’ their feedback. Overall, this was a helpful step in moving the class feedback towards waht I thought would be most effective for the learning aims.

4. Feedback tickets

Since I noticed we still weren’t always getting feedback on all aspects of the presentation, a colleague and I decided to make ‘feedback tickets’, each with one question from the list we had previously prepared. The tickets were handed out before a presentation, and each student was then responsible for giving feedback on that point. Combined with the ‘sandwich’ approach, this overall worked pretty well. The minor drawbacks were that sometimes the presenters had really done a good job on a certain aspect and there wasn’t much ‘filling’ to go with the ‘bread’; however, sometimes the ‘filling’ was important, but students seemed to counteract their constructive criticisms by emphasizing their lack of importance, especially compared to the positive comments. For me, though, the major downside to using these tickets was the time factor. Running through a set of ~15 feedback tickets (and feedback sandwiches!) after each presentation was productive for students’ presentation skills, but ate into the time in class that should have been used for practising other oral/aural skills. In extreme cases, with two 30-minute presentations plus Q&A in a 90-minute lesson, we simply ran out of time for feedback! Those poor presenters got no feedback on their presentations, and we as class were not able to learn anything from the example they had delivered.

5. Google forms

google form.JPG

Actually, I first used Google Forms to collect feedback after one of these lessons where our time was up before we’d got through the plenary feedback round. I copied all of the feedback questions into a Google form (using the ‘quiz’ template) and emailed the link to the students. I was positively surprised by the results! Perhaps aided by the anonymity of the form, students used the ‘sandwich’ idea very effectively – suitably praising good aspects of the presentation, and taking time to explain their criticisms carefully and specifically. Wow – helpful feedback! I printed out the feedback to give to the presenters, along with my own written feedback, and also picked out a couple of poignant comments to discuss in plenum in the next lesson. Right from the off, this way of collecting and giving feedback seemed very effective, both in terms of time taken and achieving learning aims. It seemed presenters had some time to reflect on their own performance and were able to join in the feedback discussions more openly, and focussing on just a couple of key aspects meant it was time-eficient, too. I immediately decided to use the Google form for the next couple of weeks, and have continued to find it extremely useful. Sadly, we’re at the end of our semester now, so these are just very short-term observations. Still, I’m encouraged to use the online form in future semesters.

Just goes to show how important reflecting on our classroom practices can be!

I wonder if anyone else has had similar experiences, or can share other inspirational ways of collecting feedback on presentations? I’d love to hear from you!

MaWSIG Meetup – Questions from teachers/writers

MaWSIG Meetup – Questions from teachers/writers

Are you an ELT teacher looking to move into materials writing? This post is for you!

On Saturday 14th January, I hosted a Meetup for the Materials Writing Special Interest Group of IATEFL. The idea was to enable some informal networking for anyone in the area who is involved in writing ELT materials.

One of the activities we did involved editors/publishers and teachers/writers posing questions for each other on posters, and then discussing their answers to the “other side’s” poster. IMAG0050[1].jpg

To share some of the insights beyond our cosy meetup in Germany, I also posed the questions from teachers/writers questions to some editors and other people who work in ELT publishing, and here are their answers:

  • Is there any interest in / a market for writing smaller-scale projects? (e.g. topic worksheets / individual lessons)?

Yes. Generally when we commission these sorts of projects, they’re supplementary materials supporting a book, and there are specific things we need, generally things we feel the target group needs but the book has not provided. So if you regularly use a book and notice a gap, you should definitely let the publisher know, and perhaps send examples of supplementary worksheets you have created.

Yes, definitely, but I suggest a system of crowdsourcing. Writers can produce modules or collections of individual lessons (they need to be substantial lessons) and these can be sold as individual modules (after there are ten or so they can be made into a book).

There is a market, but not really so much for individual worksheets. Find something that links your materials together, a thread that flows though several worksheets or lesson plans. Sets of lesson materials which form a coherent unit are probably of more interest to potential publishers.

  • Is it possible to have more access to writers to discuss objectives etc?

We can’t give out contact information, but we’re not secretive about who writes for us; just look in the copyright pages.

The teacher’s books often give more detail on the overall approach and aims of the activities than the student’s books, so maybe have a look there.

  • How can we get into proof-reading / copy-editing work?

A good way to get a foot in the door is to offer to write readers’ reports on first drafts of material. Publishers are always happy to have readers, and I have personally seen examples of readers then getting writing work because they’ve made an impression.

About proofreading work: the best place to start is with your own materials, then offer to check worksheets or materials that are being written for your school/shared bank of materials. Create a style sheet that will give you consistency across the whole collection of materials. If you find you enjoy this kind of work, you could contact your local publishers’ office and express an interest, or you could consider doing a recognised proofreading course somewhere like The Publishing Training Centre or joining an organisation like the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP).

Definitely get some kind of recognised training if you want to do copy editing and/or proofreading professionally. It not only gives you credibility, it will teach you a lot. I did my training in Canada, and I went into it thinking ‘I teach grammar… this is just a formality.’ Not so. I learned so much about the process of editing a text that I would never have got by myself.

For anyone interested in ELT editing, follow the White Ink FB page for tips, tricks and work opportunities. Facebook.com/WhiteInkLimited.com

  • How can (potential) writers make themselves known to you and/or find out about upcoming projects?

Send editors/publishers your CV and a couple of sample materials you’ve made.

Submit your work to materials writing competitions – most publishers and lesson sharing websites host competitions.

Most publishers have an email address or contact form for potential writers. It’s really important to make clear what kind of materials you can write – whoever processes the emails will want to forward it quickly to the relevant editorial department – so put ‘English’ and ‘Business / Primary / EAP / etc.’ in a prominent place in the email.

You can always email our editorial teams to discuss any potential opportunities.

To make yourself ‘findable’, make sure you join ELT Teacher 2 Writer. All of the publishers listed on the homepage use the database to find writers.

Most people suggest starting a blog where you share materials you have made for your classes more widely. Likewise, if you create something innovative then share it by presenting at conferences etc. This can get your name known, and if you do contact a publisher then you have a portfolio to show them.

If you can commit to piloting and reviewing material, you can impress editors that way and may then be offered writing work.

  • What can teachers do if we notice a gap in the market?

Yes, if you spot a gap in the market that is innovative, get in touch  and most editors will send you a proposal document, or check the publisher’s website for an electronic proposal from. Make sure you approach the right kind of publisher, though.

Get in touch via the website of a relevant publisher – There’s ususally a list of details you should include on there.

Do your research! If the gap you find is very niche, publishers might be less interested, so you’ll need to ‘prove’ that your gap is relevant to a wider audience than just one of your classes.

  • Is experience/expertise in digital materials writing essential nowadays?

I would say no, not yet, but a willingness and an interest is helpful.

Not essential – the vast majority of educational material sold is still print. However, it’s becoming increasingly relevant and we’re always on the lookout for people who can write this kind of content.

Depends what you want to write and who for. If you specifically want to write digital materials, then some experience will clearly help, but training will probably be provided if you’re new to the area – especially as different publishers use different digital platforms anyway.

  • And if so, is there capacity for advice/training to produce this type of material?

I think it’s a case of learning by doing. Let your publisher know you’re interested. Probably the best “training” you can do is to get yourself familiar with the apps and things that are on the market, and try to imagine what had to be taken into consideration when the content was created.

I would say this is out there if you look hard enough. Nellie Deutsch runs courses on MOODLE for Teachers. And some organisations run Writers Retreats which might be relevant.

I think most producers of educational material are still learning what makes good digital content in our industry. In my opinion, the best thing to do is to learn and work with everything yourself (particularly the apps and websites that are successful, like Duolingo, Babbel, The Day, PlayPosit, etc. – or even brain training apps like Elevate) to get a better idea of what kind of content works well on a smartphone, tablet or PC.

For digital training, you could have a look at what ELTjam offer.

Are you involved in ELT materials writing? Do you have more questions from the teacher’s/writer’s perspective? Or answers to these questions from an editor’s/publisher’s perspective? Add your thoughts in the comments below!

MaWSIG Meetup – Questions from Editors

MaWSIG Meetup – Questions from Editors

On Saturday 14th January, I hosted a Meetup for the Materials Writing Special Interest Group of IATEFL. The idea was to enable some informal networking for anyone in the area who is involved in writing ELT materials.

One of the activities we did involved editors/publishers and teachers/writers posing questions for each other on posters, and then adding their individual answers to the “other side’s” poster.

IMAG0051[1].jpgTo share some of the insights beyond our cosy meetup in Germany, I’ve decided to type up the questions and answers here on my blog. So let’s start with the questions posed by editors and publishers:

  • How regularly would you like to have contact with the editor(s) of a project you’re working on? And what’s the best way to keep in touch?

– by email, or phone calls at pre-arranged times.

– by email, not via CMS!

  • What makes a schedule achieveable?

– advanced planning

– involve writer in negotiating deadlines

– time of year – respect teachers’ other commitments during term time

  • What characterizes the optimal brief?

– sample of how material should be submitted, or a template

– realistic and clear

– not too many stakeholders

– best to talk through together, not just send document

  • How can we help you find out more about the target audience?

– provide contact o teachers/schools/advisors

– set up focus groups

– provide info on curriculum, or previously published materials

  • How can we encourage teachers to use our materials?

– poss. make videos of example lessons showing how the materials can be employed or adapted

– specific materials in terms of students’ content learning (rather than general textbooks), e.g. for us on literature/linuistics/culture studies

– make mix & match units available

– attractive design for learners – put less on a page instead of cramming in as much as possible

– make them adaptable

– provide pdfs

  • What can a publisher or an editor do to make you want to keep working for them (besides pay you lots of money)?

– regular work

– reasonable workload & deadlines

– no projects at busy times of year

– pay in advance for work, rather than on the basis of books sold

– make communication as efficient as possible

– show appreciation & respect for writers’ time and work

IMAG0046[1].jpg

Are you involved in ELT materials writing? Do you have more questions from the editors’/publishers’ perspective? Or answers to these questions from a teacher’s/writer’s perspective? Add your thoughts in the comments below!

It’s boring only hearing from the same few students! – Encouraging Oral Participation

It’s boring only hearing from the same few students! – Encouraging Oral Participation

Recently, a colleague observed my grammar class. The 30 learners are B2-C1 level and the class is required for their degree programme (English Studies). I usually set up my gramamr classes so that the activities build on each other to move from re-capping basic points to more advanced fineties of certain structures, so we discuss answers to exercises together to check everyone has understood before we move forward.

Usually, I do think-pair-share, or check answers in plenum. But often only a few students volunteer to share their answers with the class and I end up trying to coax the others into speaking.

I’d never really noticed before, but my colleague pointed out that I often say “It’s boring only hearing from the same few students!” He suggested that this might make those who volunteer to contribute feel that they are boring or should not put their hands up so often: the opposite effect of what I’m trying to achieve. And so I am trying to think of new things to say, of new ways to encourage the others to share their answers. 

So far, I’ve tried “Let’s hear from someone new” and things like “Let’s hear from someone in the back row”. I sometimes also call on individual students, but I often have the feeling that they don’t like being put on the spot like that…

And so this blog post is rather a plea – please help! What else can I say or do to encourage other students to volunteer to share their answers in plenum?? Please write your suggestions below!!

British Council Teaching for Success – My Webinar

British Council Teaching for Success – My Webinar

Here are the slides (inc. references) from my talk yesterday as part of the British Council’s “Teaching for Success” online conference. This talk takes research into feedback practices & translates it into practical ideas for classroom application!

Click here for Slides.

Link to the recorded talk: http://britishcouncil.adobeconnect.com/p424b8xlubb/

Abstract: Providing meticulous correction of errors and hand-written summaries on each student’s text can be time-consuming, and often seems less effective than desired. However, many teachers cannot access relevant publications discussing alternative feedback strategies, and remain unsure about which more time-efficient procedures might be applicable in their context. For this reason, this talk aims to discuss various strategies for assessing and giving feedback on EFL learners’ written work, which I have collected from recent publications, have applied and evaluated in my own teaching, and would like to share with fellow ELT practitioners.

This talk will demonstrate practicable strategies including ways of marking learners’ errors (underlining, correction codes, margin comments), as well as conducting successful peer review, delivering feedback with technology, and making the student-teacher feedback dialogue more constructive and efficient. For each strategy demonstrated, I will summarise recently published relevant research on its employment in various contexts, and briefly present discussions from the literature on the mechanisms underpinning its efficacy, with the main aim of aiding teachers in making informed choices pertaining to their specific learners and contexts. These factors include learner autonomy, motivation, learning styles, receptivity, learner-centredness and individualism.

The talk therefore encourages CPD within the British Council’s professional practices rubric of ‘Assessing Learning’, a topic of interest and relevance to a broad audience, provide practical ideas which can be immediately trialled in a wide range of teaching contexts, and will encourage open discussion on feedback practices among participants.

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-6-18-21-am

Review: Writing – Learn to write better academic essays

Review: Writing – Learn to write better academic essays

I teach a lot of EAP and particularly essay writing classes, but have as yet not found a textbook to work with that I’m entirely happy with. Ever on the look-out, I came across the Collins EAP series, winner of the ELTon 2014 Innovation in Learner Resources Award, and more specifically:

Van Geyte, E., Writing: Learn to write better academic essays (Collins, 2013)

As we can see from the title, this is actually a self-study guide (with an answer key), but it seemed suitable for my students as it’s aimed at those on pre-sessional EAP courses or in their first year of undergraduate study. The word ‘better’ in the title also highlights that this is a book aimed at building students’ writing skills, for example moving from tests like IELTS or TOEFL to ‘proper’ academic papers.

The book is set up so that students, or classes, can work through it from start to finish, or dip in to the chapters most relevant for their current learning goals. In total, there are 11 chapters, which cover various study skills related to academic writing and language points relevant for written expression. The chapters are consistently structured, which makes for easy orientation, each including brief aims, a self-evaluation quiz, information on the chapter’s writing focus, practical exercises, and key reminders. Throughout the chapters, there are also ‘Tips’, and some more advanced vocabulary is explained in glossary boxes. The author estimates that it would take about 3-4 hours to complete one chapter. There are also lists of useful phrases and annotated sample essays at the end of the book, which are authentic examples of students’ work from a variety of subject areas.

Overall, this book takes a process approach to composition, though it also includes sections on evaluating and improving essays as a product. There is a nice emphasis on the development of learning and growing as an academic, fitting writing in to the students’ progression through their degree. It’s also good that the author highlights the importance of students informing themselves about the requirements and expectations at their specific institution / within their specific department, and not merely relying on this book for reference. I find this particularly important with regard to certain conventions. For example, the ‘Thesis Statements’ shown in the book are more statements of intention and outline, which may not be in-keeping with some disciplines and stand in contrast to most American published writing textbooks.

Within the chapters, the practical exercises, e.g. re-capping key terms, analysing example texts, are neatly spread throughout the sections, so they’re not only at the ends of the complete chapters. Nonetheless, these exercises are sometime rather short and perhaps slightly too specific, so they don’t always seem to be checking understanding of the whole section. Many of the example texts included are students’ answers to IELTS/TEOFL-type exams, and are authentic student-written texts, though I worry that these are not necessarily the best models for the ‘real’ academic papers students will have to write at university.

From the very first chapters, the focus is on writing essays, thus mimicking the process students will likely follow when dealing with coursework writing tasks. However, paragraph structure is touched on only briefly, and elements such as Topic Sentences and ‘one main idea per paragraph’ are somewhat lacking emphasis for my liking. Likewise, the ‘narrowing down the topic’ in an essay’s introduction, or the functions of a good conclusion (vs. summary) are not really emphasized. I think this is where we can see that the book is really aimed at those students who have some initial academic writing experience, perhaps in their main language, and need to expand on this to be successful at university. For an introductory EAP course there may be too little emphasis on these aspects of writing, though this might be less problematic if the book is used to supplement other teaching materials, as it could then function as homework preparation or a summary of the points covered in class.

A definite advantage of this book over composition textbooks aimed at native-speaker undergraduates is the good level of focus on the language of academic writing. I particularly like the ‘modesty’ (=cautious language) section and the ‘Authority’ chapter, though students will need some understanding of the metalanguage used to talk about language in this way. I have to say, I’m not entirely convinced that the general ‘Accuracy’ chapter is necessary in a book on writing, since these are language points that perhaps belong more in general EFL textbooks or other reference works. Instead, the critical thinking section may warrant more attention, and it also is important to note that the ‘Reading Comprehension’ chapter focuses mainly on sentence structures. Still, the ‘Research’ chapter does a very good job at clearly explaining and demonstrating note-taking from sources and making decisions about what information to include in an essay. Similarly commendable is the chapter on ‘Integrity’, which takes a more positive approach to using sources effectively for one’s writing, rather than simply avoiding plagiarism. It frames citing, quoting, and paraphrasing as one of many academic conventions to follow, thus removing students’ fear of plagiarism.

At the end of the book, chapter 11  – ‘Essay process and presentation’ – came as a slight surprise, as the entire book leads the students through the process of writing, though it does include some further information on drafting (which could come earlier?) and using tutors’ feedback – though this last point is also covered in Appendix 2. Appendix 1 presents full sample essays annotated with positive and negative comments, which are undoubtedly useful models for students. In Appendix 3, we find a list of ‘Useful Phrases’. I’m not generally a fan of such lists, as I prefer to encourage students to notice useful language from the source texts they read in their field/subject area, though these phrases may provide comforting scaffolding for students writing their first academic papers.

In general, then, this book provides a clearly-written and practical guide through the process of writing a university essay. I’m not convinced that it would be most effectively employed as the main text of an essay writing class, though it definitely includes elements very beneficial helping students to develop into academic writers, and I would absolutely recommend it as a supplementary resource for EAP learners.