The challenge of academic writing

What usually strikes faculty as the most obvious and troubling feature of language learners’ writing is surface errors and mistakes such as misuse of articles (a, an, the), awkward syntax, and incorrect punctuation.However, the challenges that language learners face when producing academic writing go much deeper.

To begin with, the role that writing plays in the K-12 curriculum in many countries that our students come from is very different from here in the US. Our schools have long recognized the importance of writing to learn, writing across the curriculum, and the process approach to writing (brainstorm, draft, revise, edit, share—in a recursive process). American students are accustomed to producing short and extended narratives, arguments, and informative papers. As early as 5th grade students are taught critical thinking skills to distinguish fact from opinion so that eventually they can state their individual perspective while incorporating and indicating information from other people and texts. (This is not to say that American students enter college as professional writers, but that all of them have been exposed to these ideas for many years.)

These are culturally enmeshed approaches that emphasize analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creativity, arguably to the detriment of amassing stored knowledge. While school systems in other countries typically encourage younger students to write real and imagined narratives, writing at upper levels is largely used for short summaries that repackage the information students are taught.

Likewise the rhetorical structure of essays may differ. In many non-European traditions it is considered obtuse to state a thesis up front or directly; the more nuanced writer will provide the right balance of examples for the reader to infer the main point. What to us may seem like indirectness, talking around the point, or beating around the bush, is well-crafted prose in other languages. The same is true for acceptable degrees of digression. Where we would advise to stick to the point, teachers in other countries might praise for an enlightening addition. Note that we are talking about academic discourse, not journalism or creative non-fiction—these English genres do make use of the techniques mentioned above.

American academic writing also requires that broad generalizations be supported by specific examples whereas in other traditions general truths may be accepted at face value. This acceptance of shared knowledge can also transfer to the use of outside sources of information. Quotations or paraphrases of famous scholars, well-known texts, and even information gleaned from websites are part of shared cultural capital that can be used freely with little expectation of explicit referencing.

In addition to all of these differences (not to mention the vocabulary and grammar of English), the visual format of our papers is new to most international students. Most Middle Eastern and Asian countries use A4 (8.27 x 11.69 inch) paper rather than our letter sized (8.5 x 11 inch). Students who bring laptop computers from their own country will often have odd-looking margins because they don’t know (or know how) to change the document size. More significantly, not only do they not know what we expect of standard font, font size, margins, line spacing, and indenting, but it is likely that they’ve never learned the words ‘margin,’ ‘spacing,’ or ‘indent’.

In summary, much of what we take for granted about our student’s writing, aside from being in English, may not be familiar to international student writers.

In language learning (as with much learning in general) it is useful to consider a continuum from errors to mistakes. Pure errors are caused by ignorance and are not the fault of the learner—they signal opportunities for learning something new. Mistakes are missteps that learners make because they are attending to other aspects of the task at hand—when given the chance, we can correct our mistakes ourselves.

Language learning does not progress in a lock-step, linear manner: teaching a discrete skill (for example, when to use the articles aanthe and when to not mark a noun phrase with an article or how to write an effective introduction and thesis) does not immediately lead to the elimination of all errors and mistakes. Language learning is better thought of as the development of automaticity over time. When learners acquire a ‘rule’ of English (whether through explicit instruction or incidental uptake), it will likely be overgeneralized and misapplied until the intricacies of its use are worked out through extensive production that includes noticing one’s mistakes in comparison to the usage that students are attempting (whether that is standard writing, formal speech, or the grammar and pronunciation of casual speech).

The point here is that when a student produces learner English, it is a good idea to determine whether you are seeing an error or a mistake. Errors will require instruction and some aspects of English are more difficult to learn than others. Mistakes, however, especially in writing, can be corrected by the student if given time to revise. Revision is an important step in the process of noticing differences and making language more standard, but it takes a great deal of exposure and practice to go from learning to making many mistakes and consciously fixing them, to making few mistakes to automatically producing the target language.

Hopefully by the time international students reach your class they will have passed WR115 for International Students in which all of the above aspects of English academic writing are taught while vocabulary and grammar are strengthened. But 10 weeks, and a handful of formal and informal essays and papers is only a start. WR135 and the newly required LING 136 will provide another term of practice, but it is likely that most international students will still exhibit a range of mistakes in their writing throughout their college career. With this in mind, here are some tips for helping students write better and dealing with students’ papers.

Tips for students (writing)

    • First and foremost, understand the assignment. If you have any doubt about what the instructor expects, ask him or her, and/or take the assignment to the Writing Center for help.
    • Writing a good paper requires much more than one night of work. Plan to finish a draft several days before it’s due so that you can visit the Writing Center at least once. Save the last day before the paper is due for editing: read every sentence carefully. Print your paper the day before it is due—never just before class.
    • Take a copy of the assignment, any class notes, and any outside sources with you to the Writing Center.
    • Carefully compare your paper to any examples that the instructor provides.
    • You may have been told that academic sentences are long and complicated. This may be true often and on average (compared to the language of newspapers, fiction, and conversation), but these sentences are produced by experienced writers who understand the connections between all of the information in their sentences. If you tend to write long sentences but are not sure about their grammar and punctuation, your reader may not understand you. It might be better to use shorter sentences to make the meaning clear. On the other hand, if you write nearly all short sentences with no mistakes, you should work on combing the information of some sentences into others so that the writing is more efficient and the most important information is in the subjects and verbs of sentences with extra details in the adjectives, prepositional phrases, relative clauses, and adverbial phrases. 

Tips for teachers (writing)

    • For any written assignment, provide an explicit set of instructions for handout or download.
    • Provide at least one example of a final product (the same or similar assignment) and discuss it carefully in class.
    • Emphasize the importance of budgeting time in the writing process—including a checklist with dates on the assignment sheet is even better.
    • When reading and commenting on papers, focus on content.
    • Realize that rhetorical structure is not a universal (see above)—students may need help organizing the paper the way you want it, but this may not be a sign that they do not understand the content.
    • Try not to be distracted by surface errors and mistakes with articles, prepositions, punctuation, spelling, and grammar that do not obscure meaning. This is not to say that these misuses are ok, but that they should not be of primary importance.
    • Know a little about morphology. Many languages either lack prefixes and suffixes entirely (Chinese) or use them quite differently (Spanish). English learners will naturally focus on the root or stem of a word and may not even realize that they have not used the correct suffix for a given context. The addition of the –s to verbs to ‘agree’ with third person singular subjects (I explain. He explains.) and the –ed past tense marker and marking for plurals actually provide little meaning to a sentence, and their misuse rarely causes confusion. On the other hand, readers may be thrown off by a sentence like:

      The company manage practice are insufficiently for successful.

      Based on this sentence, you may think that the student has only a vague notion of their ideas. But simply correcting the suffixes yields:

      The company’s management practices are insufficient for success.

      Students who are directing their attention the core meaning and the message they are trying to convey may not notice those tiny endings of words. Remember that the form of the student’s English may not match a complex and nuanced understanding of the topic.

    • It bears repeating that knowledge of English does not correlate to intelligence or potential.
  • Encourage use of the Writing Center, but teach students how to use it in productive ways. If the topic or form of the assignment is especially challenging, advise international students to take any class materials to the Writing Center with a very early draft. Too many students assume that the Writing Center is the place you go on the night before a paper is due in order to fix mistakes. When the Writing Center tutor is confronted with a paper that possibly or obviously does not fit the assigned topic, but the paper is due tomorrow and the student only wants sentence level corrections… students end up turning corrected papers that are irrelevant. The best use of the Writing Center is for students to first check that the content and organization of the paper are appropriate, then at a later appointment, after the student has tried to eliminate all of their mistakes themselves, get help with editing. Writing Center tutors are trained to focus on repeated errors and mistakes and teach students to fix them themselves in the future. If a tutor simply corrects every problem, the student will be so focused on mechanical surface changes that they won’t actually learn anything from their corrections. This is why papers that have been seen by tutors often still contain mistakes. It will be helpful if faculty emphasize these points to international students.

Note: the language acquisition principle at work here was formulated by Stephen Krashen as the “I+1” rule. The “I” stands for the learner, and the “+1” is the zone of maximum learning, meaning linguistic elements that are comprehensible to a student, but just beyond their current abilities. If students don’t attempt to correct their own mistakes before visiting the Writing Center, the tutor will only be pointing out mistakes that the learners could have fixed themselves if they’d given the time and effort. Thus, the learner is stuck at their current level with little opportunity for learning. On the other hand, if the tutor corrects errors that are beyond the comprehension of the learner (I+2, 3, 4, etc.), not only will the more advanced levels not be understood, but they will detract so much from the +1 level, that no learning will occur.