Tag: Academic Work

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.

Critical Reading Skills & Academic Vocabulary – Authentic Text

Critical Reading Skills & Academic Vocabulary – Authentic Text

Students’ worksheet: click here. .

Teacher’s notes: click here..


A speaking warm-up activity that allows learners to speak about themselves provides the input for them to start analysing the difference between facts, opinions and stances. The analysis is prompted by guiding questions, which avoid a too theoretical approach. The three terms are then introduced explicitly and students asked to match then up with their own analysis of different types of information.  In the following task, this understanding is applied to a reading text – an authentic excerpt from an academic paper on English as a Lingua Franca, an interesting and relevant topic to most ESOL learners – where learners seek out facts and stance in a demonstration of their understanding of the terms and their critical reading ability.

As extension tasks, students are guided to decide which reporting verbs would be appropriate for reporting facts and stance information, and then find and correct mistakes with citing information from the English as a Lingua Franca text. (Note: These mistakes are taken from actual students’ work in my classes.) Finally, they are asked to paraphrase facts and stance statements from the ELF text, using reporting verbs appropriately.

Referring to Sources in Academic Work

This basic guide is aimed particularly at (EFL) students beginning their university studies. Teachers could also provide this post as a guide to their students – just don’t forget to cite the source! 🙂

When you are asked to prepare a presentation, a handout, or an essay during your university studies, you will probably need to research the topic and use the information you find. It’s good to use information (including examples, anecdotes, statistics, quotations, etc) from other sources in your work, because it can help you:

  • Support your overall message and make it more believable
  • Show how your work fits in with other research or academic work in that area
  • Give examples of different opinions, beliefs or research on the topic
  • Draw attention to a point of view that you particularly agree or disagree with
  • Make your writing more detailed and insightful

To find sources for your work, you can search your university’s library catalogue, search engines like google-scholar. Beware of searching the internet using standard search engines, and try not to rely solely on web sources – some of these will be inappropriate for academic work. Some teachers also dislike work that is based only on internet sources. Check with your lecturer if you’re unsure.

The key premise to bear in mind is: If you include information from other sources in your academic work (either as a direct quote OR the ideas expressed in your own words), you should show where you have taken it from by referring to the original author. Even if you use another author’s structure or way of arguing, you should include a reference to the source. If you don’t include these reference, it is plagiarism and can have very serious consequences.

There are various ways, often called “styles”, in which you can give the references to your sources. The guidelines for referencing are given by various organisations (e.g. “American Psychological Association” or “APA” see here for a tutorial in this style http://www.apastyle.org/learn/tutorials/basics-tutorial.aspx). These different styles are common in different faculties and subjects. For example, one of the common “styles” in humanities and arts subjects, especially English studies, is given by the “Modern Language Association”, or “MLA” (see their website: http://www.mla.org/style). Another one is the “Chicago Manual of Style” which can be found here: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/contents.html. You should check your course guidelines or ask your lecturer which style and guidelines they would like you to follow. When you choose one style, make sure you are consistent and do not swap between different styles within your work.

These guidelines for referencing sources protect students and academics from plagiarising, which is when you use other people’s ideas or information without showing the source. Plagiarism can have serious negative consequences for your studies.

Referencing Within the Text

Within the body of  your text, you have two decisions to make when it comes to referring to your sources.

1. Do you want to use a direct quotation or an indirect one?

2. How do you want to include the reference information within your text?

1. If you use a direct quotation, you should copy the exact words from the original text and place them in inverted commas (speech marks). The quotation should be integrated as part of the flow of your text and you should use it to support what you are saying. The quotation should be followed by a specific reference to the original source. Different styles recommend different types of inverted comma, and give guidelines on how long a direct quote should be before it needs different formatting from the rest of the text. Overall, a maximum of about 10% of your work should consist of direct quotations.

If you do not use the exact words and put them inverted commas, but still use the information, organisation or way of arguing of another source, we call this an indirect quotation. You need to make sure that you change the language and structure significantly, so that it is not plagiarism. You also need to include a reference to the original source, which you can do in the ways shown below.


2. To refer to a source within your essay or on a printed handout, after both direct and indirect quotations, you can:

–          Give the author’s name within the flow of your text, and put the specific reference information (e.g. year and page number) in brackets after the end of your sentence. The punctuation used depends on the style that you are following.

e.g. As Smith states, a recent survey showed that 45% of the population holds the belief that abortion is wrong on moral grounds (2010, 26).

–          Give the author’s name, the page number and sometimes the year all in brackets at the end of your sentence. The punctuation used in these parenthetical citations depends on the style that you are following.

e.g. In a recent survey, 45% of the population stated their belief that abortion was wrong on moral grounds (Smith, 2010, 26).

–          Or give the full reference in a footnote or endnote. Again the way you set out your footnote or endnote should follow the guidelines of the style you are following.

e.g. In a recent survey, 45% of the population stated their belief that abortion was wrong on moral grounds.1

1. Smith, J. Abortion Beliefs: Report on a recent survey (Dublin: Dublin U.P., 2010), p. 26.


NOTE: You should be consistent with how you reference – do not mix parenthetical citations with references in footnotes or endnotes.

The Bibliography or “Works Cited

You should always include a “bibliography” or “works cited” section at the end of your work, where you list (in alphabetical order) the sources you have used and referred to within your text. You need this even if you have use footnotes or endnotes where the full references are shown. Each style prescribes different ways of formatting the references listed in the bibliography, so make sure you check carefully how to punctuate, use brackets and italics correctly.

Example Bibliographies can be found here:

In MLA Style: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/

In APA Style: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/01/

In Chicago Style: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/717/01/