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Teaching Academic Writing
by Kendall Peet
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One of the increasingly voiced complaints of university professors today is that matriculating students lack the necessary academic writing skills that are considered to be a prerequisite for tertiary education. In regard to L1 students matriculating, it is clear in the majority of circumstances that students have acquired the necessary language- in that they possess a productive knowledge of the minimum level of vocabulary required at university level (1) and are grammatically fluent- but that they lack the necessary academic writing skills. In the case of L2 students, however, the situation is more complex, as it can neither be assumed that they have the necessary language, nor the necessary academic writing skills. This worrying trend in regard to L1 students should, therefore, indicate the mammoth nature of the task charged to English teachers teaching academic writing to L2 learners, for whatever difficulties there may be facing L1 teachers, they will no doubt be compounded by the additional problems faced by L2 teachers. It is with this current situation in mind that I have chosen to write a paper on teaching academic writing skills, in regard to the common problem shared by both L1 and L2 students, being that of developing in the learner the ability to structure writing so to “ensure that student writing falls within…[the] range…of acceptable writing behaviours dictated by the academic community” (Horowitz, 1986b:789).

This article will deal with the topic of teaching content (2) in academic writing in three parts. Part 1 will attempt to answer the question, “What is acceptable writing behaviour?” in specific regard to academic content. Part 2 will briefly examine some common problems learners face in attempting to produce acceptable content. Finally, Part 3 will present an approach to help learners produce acceptable content and a rationale to support the adoption of this approach by teachers teaching English for academic purposes.

Part 1: What is Acceptable Writing Behaviour in Academic Writing?

To begin, we first need to access whether or not there is in fact a standard that we can refer to as acceptable writing behaviour in academic writing. Cneanseco and Bryd (1989), Horowitz (1986a, b), Johns (1986), Reid (1984, 1985, 1987, 1989), Shih (1986), Strauch (1997), Raimes (1992), Grabe and Kaplan (1996) and a long list of other authors, concur that there is a standard of acceptable writing behaviour. That there is standard is also evident in the various marking rubrics used to assess academic writing at different levels of development.

If we look, for example, at the marking guidelines used in IGCSE exams, which I take to be the unofficial entry point of formally assessed academic writing, we can see that there are already clear expectations in regard to content:

1. Answering the question

… Does the student make their answer interesting using colourful detail, personal experiences and/or facts?

7. Paragraphing

Has the student organised his/her work into paragraphs? Are the paragraphs in the right sequence and accurately linked together so the writing makes a coherent whole?

8. Subject matter

How well does the student deal with the topic? Does s/he get straight into the topic and seem interested in it, and also make the reader interested in it?

10. Sense of argument

Is the argument set out clearly and logically and does the writer come to a clear conclusion? … Does the writer give clear examples? Are linking words (e.g. however, moreover) used, and do these help make the meaning clear?(3)

At A Level, content in academic writing again plays a significant role, with the top band (22-25) requiring the following:

… content relevant to the topic; accurate detail; fluent expression; ideas clearly stated and supported; appropriately organized paragraphs; logical sequencing (coherence); and appropriately used connectives(cohesion).(4)

For the IELTS university entrance exam, we also find a direct reference to content in the marking rubric. The following is taken from Band 9 of the IELTS marking key used by assessors:

It [the writing] displays a completely logical organisational structure which enables the message to be followed effortlessly.Relevant arguments are presented in an interesting way, with main ideas prominently and clearly stated, with effective supporting material.

Finally, at tertiary level education, university rubric for essay writing again places firm importance on content (refer to Appendix 1 for the Victoria University Essay Rubric). (5)

In sum, the mere fact that academic writing is evaluated in accordance with clear criteria at each level of development, explicitly categorising what is expected of students, in terms of content, when writing academic essays, requires teachers “to provide the student with a form within which…[to] … operate” (6) in order to best enable the student to achieve desirable results (Horowitz, 1986b:144).

1. Nation, I. S. P. (1990). The average L1 student matriculating possesses a vocabulary of approx. 20,000 base words.
2. Fatham, A. K. & Whalley, E. (1990). Content is defined in terms of the selection and organisation of information, and is presented in contrast to form, which focuses more on the language used. p.178
3. Barry, M. (2000). Th ese guidelines, based on IGCSE marking criteria, are listed in Practice Tests for IGCSE in ESL
4. Tribble, C. (1996). Pp. 130-1.
5. Roberts, P. (1997. Roberts lists criteria used to determine A, B, C, D, E, and F essays at university level. Pp. 49-51
6. Kaplan, R. (1966). p.20

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