Tag: EFL writing

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.

Learner-Driven Feedback in Essay Writing

Learner-Driven Feedback in Essay Writing

A recent focus of work into feedback in ELT looks at ways of increasing students’ openness to teachers’ feedback and how students can be stimulated to engage more thoroughly with the feedback they receive. Learner-Driven Feedback (LDF) seems to be a promising practice here, and below is a summary of some research done in this area.

LDF is usually taken to mean responding to learners’ individual queries to make the feedback process more dialogic in nature, particularly in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) settings. For example, Bloxham and Campbell (2010)’s study of ‘Interactive Coversheets’, which require students to pose questions about their work when submitting essay drafts. Overall, they report good levels of uptake of the feedback provided, demonstrating that these Interactive Coversheets prompted their students to evaluate their writing in more detail, and that students responded positively to receiving this individualised feedback. Tutors in their study also found it quicker to give feedback based on the Interactive Coversheets, as students’ individual questions helped them focus their thoughts. However, Bloxham and Campbell noted that, if students had not put much effort into the draft or Interactive Coversheet, they were less able to make use of the formative feedback, for example if they only submitted an outline, or scribbled paragraph, instead of a properly formulated draft. This leads to the idea that the better organised or more autonomous students may be more likely to receive and engage with formative feedback, and Bloxham and Campbell thus note the limitation that this feedback procedure may merely help better students to perform even better.

Working within a similar framework, Campbell and Schumm-Fauster (2013) devised ‘Learner-Centred Feedback’, which also required their students to pose questions to direct tutors to give feedback on certain aspects of their writing when reading drafts, here in footnotes or as comments in the margins to their essays. They were interested in how students react to being asked/allowed to ‘drive’ the feedback they receive. Their survey showed that students were open to the dialogical feedback and reported finding it motivating and personal, and particularly helpful in working on their individual essay-writing weaknesses.

Studies on feedback on essay writing have also begun to explore the use of various delivery modes for feedback and has shown that this, too, may deepen students’ engagement with the feedback and may increase uptake. Technology-based modes can be used to deliver feedback on essays digitally, for example as in-text changes, as comments added to a document, as a feedback email, or as an audio recording. The focus here is on computer-mediated teacher feedback, i.e. not automated feedback.

In the field of language teaching, Cloete (2014) investigated the new multifaceted options for feedback which are afforded by EAP students submitting their work through online platforms. His study focused on the Turnitin platform, which his team of tutors used to give feedback by inserting comments into text’s margins or in separate columns, highlighting text in different colours, and recording audio feedback. Based on teachers’ evaluations of using Turnitin in this way, he notes that the time-efficiency of delivering feedback in electronic modes depends on tutors’ typing speed and general comfort with using the feedback functions of the software, but that the added value of such electronic modes stems from the scope and amount of multi-m feedback that can be given, and the option to provide feedback in various modes simultaneously. Students in his study also showed heightened engagement with the feedback they received.

My own, very recent, study (Fielder, 2016) focused on an LDF procedure I devised which combines and adapts these previously published ideas and allows learners to determine the feedback they receive. In my LDF, the feedback is given by the teacher, but learners ‘drive’  how and on what they receive feedback: they can choose between various formats (e.g. hand-written, email, audio recording), and are required to pose questions about their work to which the teacher responds (e.g. on grammar, vocabulary/register, referencing, organisation). The study is an initial exploration of students’ receptivity towards Learner-Driven Feedback in EAP. The findings from the detailed survey data highlight a high level of student receptivity towards the procedure, and that students perceive it as a useful tool for improving their general language accuracy and study skills related to essay writing. However, it seems from the survey responses that the specific skills which can be significantly improved by my LDF may depend on which skills have already been trained by students’ previous academic experience.  Nonetheless, this and the studies described above demonstrate compelling reasons for piloting LDF on EAP writing courses; many of which may also justify trialling the approach in other ELT classrooms.

 

References

  • Bloxham, S. & L. Campbell, “Generating dialogue in assessment feedback: exploring the use of interactive cover sheets”, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol 35 (2010), 291–300.
  • Campbell, N. and J. Schumm-Fauster (2013). Learner-centred Feedback on Writing: Feedback as Dialogue. In M. Reitbauer, N. Campbell, S. Mercer, J. Schumm and R. Vaupetitsch (Eds) Feedback Matters (pp. 55–68). Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
  • Cloete, R., “Blending offline and online feedback on EAP writing”, The Journal of Teaching English for Specific and Academic Purposes, Vol. 2, No. 4 (2014), pp. 559-
  • Fielder, C., “Receptivity to Learner-Driven Feedback in EAP”, ELT Journal [Advanced access 2016 – print issue Maas, C. in 2017]

How to Mark Written Work Effectively – Involving the Learners

Peer Correction

Learners proof read their classmates’ work and give feedback on language (if their own abilities are strong enough), structure and/or content. One problem here is that many students are not yet able to identify such errors on their own, although this method does provide practice in proof reading which may benefit their own future writing, and they will still be able to take on the role of “real audience” to make comments on structure and content. Feedback can be given orally, based on notes students make whilst reading, or they can write a letter expressing their feedback. Example peer feedback guidelines and questions are:

  • When giving feedback on peers’ work, please consider the questions below and write your responses on a separate sheet in a letter to the author. There’s no need to answer the question individually, but please respond to them in one text. Remember, you are not expected to be an expert, but simply to offer as much constructive criticism and helpful feedback as possible.
  •  What are the words, phrases or sentences that stand out to you as strong points in the piece of work?
  • Does the introductory sentence / paragraph tell you what the piece of writing is about? Is it clear what to expect from the work when you read the opening lines? Do they inspire you to read on?
  • Are you confused by anything in the paper? Or is there anything you think the author should phrase differently to make it clearer?
  • Does the piece of writing end with a sense of completion, having logically moved through the points and tying up the main ideas of the paper in a conclusion?
  • Are there any spelling or grammar inaccuracies the author should be aware of?
  • What do you like best about this piece of writing?

(These guidelines are adapted from Guidelines for Giving Peer Feedback by L. Hutchinson)

Re-drafting based on the feedback is the most logical next step – and means that by the time the writing reaches the tutor, it’s already been proof read by the author and one peer. This should save time in two ways: a) the tutor doesn’t have read the drafts, only the final versions b) there should be fewer areas of difficulty since they will have had feedback on the most obvious weaknesses already.

Respond to Students’ Individual Queries

  1. Many errors students make are due to ‘experimenting’ with new language, which is part of the learning process. Getting students to write a number of questions (poss. 3-5) on their essay when handing it and responding in particular to these when marking the draft, helps them make the most of their own learning. Example questions might be, “I wasn’t sure how to join these paragraphs, does this transitional phrase really work here, or are there better alternatives?”
  2. This approach may be particularly useful if students are required to submit drafts of their essays, and also helps tutors save time marking drafts and re-drafts in detail.

(Cottrell, S., Teaching Study Skills & Supporting Learning (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001))

Start a feedback dialogue

The dialogue can be based on students’ individual questions (above) and can take a number of forms, for example by email, audio recordings, face-to-face meetings. This method allows the student writer to maintain control over their piece of writing and ensures that their ‘voice’ is not co-opted by the teacher reformulating their phrasing and sentences. The aim of the dialogue should focus less on ‘correcting’ and more on guiding the learner to identify and fix the problems in their writing, to check their new ideas and edits, and to grow in confidence as an independent writer.