Tag Archives: Academic writing

On trial and error

St Andrews is a very special place indeed for a number of quite obvious reasons and I was lucky to be able to come back this year to present at the annual EAP Conference that takes place at the University of St Andrews. A well-deserved word of praise is due here to Kerry Tavakoli for superbly organizing the event.

The theme this year was the balance between language and content and I presented a paper on combining literature and language. I started my presentation looking at the some of what I call the ‘EAP mantras’, i.e. some of the ideas and concepts that seem to have taken root in our approach to language teaching at HE and that generally go uncontested and unscrutinized. I have for a couple of years repeated these ‘mantras’ myself because they do seem, at a first glance, to make a lot of sense and there are for sure some grain of truth in them.  These are the kind of principles that have been instilled into my professional thought and practice when I started designing EAP lessons and materials:

  • ‘There must be a specific grammar and/or vocabulary focus in each lesson.’
  • ‘There must be a language output activity in each lesson.’
  • ‘Our job is to teach English language, not disciplinary knowledge.’
  • ‘These are international students. They are here to improve their English.’

Yet, when teaching literature and language I soon found out that these ‘mantras’ profoundly conflicted with my students’ needs and expectations and with my own understanding of what it means to work with literature in English language teaching. For two years I tried to find a compromise between those ideas and the reality of my classroom. I failed. I failed, especially in relation to the place of language in the syllabus and in the materials.

My first attempt was to focus on grammar and vocabulary. This was based on a selection of specific ‘advanced’ language discrete points informed by the CAE syllabus. Then I selected literary extracts where these pre-determined language items appeared and the language work was then as controlled language practice and activities that required students to summarize and paraphrase the extracts of the literary text using the target language. The problem with this approach is that Literature then becomes a mere source of grammar and vocabulary examples. The text becomes an ‘excuse’ for language use and practice and the language tasks are disconnected from literary analysis. Moreover, all too often students’ previous familiarity with selected grammar structures and vocabulary rendered the activities dull and there was no sense of linguistic improvement. The biggest issue, however, is that students ended up the term feeling that in fact they have studied very little of literature and there was no observed improvement in their essay writing skills.

My second attempt to address the language issue led me to  focus on ‘academic language’. Instead of working with generic grammar and vocabulary, I designed the language component of the units around academic language functions, such as hedging, causality, compare and contrast, signposting, style and register. Most work was done on literary criticism and again the activities involved controlled language practice and, as such, there was a fair amount of writing about the literary text using the model language. With hindsight, it is easy to see that this was also doomed to be a failure: Literature took a second place to criticism, there was a lack of engagement with the language in the primary text, and the language tasks were disconnected from literary analysis. Students tended towards a mechanical use of academic phraseology by using isolated expressions or vocabulary items in their writing. Once again there was no significant improvement in their essay writing skills.

It was at this point that I decided to turn the table and start it all over. My first step into this change process was to go back to the fundamentals and draw on my core understanding of what language and literature are. The mantras had to be rejected. They had to go because essentially they are based on a dualistic view of literature and language as two distinct entities or, in a less metaphysical phraseology, two discrete threads in the course syllabus: a language focus and a literary focus. Basically, this is wrong. My argument is that when teaching literature and language we don’t need to add a distinctive language component to a course or lessons because studying literature means to study how language creates characters, places, situations, themes, plots and responses from the reader. Literature is language in meaningful and memorable contexts. What we need to do is to focus on the literary text and go back to close reading – the old-fashioned technique employed by both structuralist and post-structuralist oriented literary critics.

By focusing on the text we are able to help students develop their language awareness, look at meaning in context, identify multiple voices in the text, look at how grammar generates meaning and how vocabulary choices shape the reader’s understanding of the characters and plot as well as give us the opportunity to explore figurative and dramatic language. I propose to replace those EAP mantras by the principles below:

  • There is no need to ‘add a language component to each lesson’ when you work with literature. Studying literature means to study language.
  • Writing output in the field of literary studies requires extensive reading and thinking – most output should thus be done as an independent learning activity outside the classroom.
  • Our job is to create opportunities for students to improve their language, study skills and critical thinking as well as give them the tools to expand their subject knowledge.
  • These are international students. They are here to improve their English, their knowledge of the subject matter, and to learn what it takes to be part of their academic community.

I don’t claim here to have found the perfect balance between language and content also because saying that would be to fall again into the trap of seeing both as distinct things, which may be the case with other subjects but not with Literature. In my courses, the most important aspect is to find a balance between input and output and between the reading of primary and secondary texts, but this is stuff for future blog posts.

Further reading

  • Cook, G. (1994) Discourse and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1891) The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Translated by V.W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Crystal, D. (2008) Think of my Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Davis, P. (2013) Reading and the Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Garrett-Petts, W. F. (2013) Writing About Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic. London: Broadview Press.
  • Johnson, K. (2013) Shakespeare’s English. Harlow: Pearson.
  • Hall, G. (2015) Literature in Language Education. 2nd Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Smith, E. (2013) Macbeth: Language & Writing. London: Bloomsbury.

The old gods and the new

Sometimes when characters in Game of Thrones feel the need to have their words backed-up by a higher authority than themselves, they swear ‘by the old gods and the new.’ Invoking someone with superior knowledge to attest for the veracity of what you are saying does not only happen when you call for a god; we do exactly the same in academic writing. Academic writing is, by its own nature, full of references to people we believe have some knowledge on the topic we are discussing, even when we dispute the accuracy and relevance of such knowledge. We refer to other thinkers and researchers because we need backup for what we are saying or want to contest their arguments in order to advance ours. Either way, we do need to invoke others’ ideas and research findings to strengthen our positions.

When it comes to the use of references one of the most common questions students have is ‘how old’ a source can be. Simply there is not one right answer for this question but students often comment that their supervisors constantly ask them to ‘update’ their literature review and to get rid of anything that has been published more than 10 years ago. What students, and sometimes EAP tutors, do not understand it there is a need to discriminate between the different kinds of references and the purposes for which they are being invoked. I find it hard to believe that any lecturer would indiscriminately banish sources because they are two-digit old.

I cannot speak for all the disciplines but I can reassure my students and trainee teachers that in education and in literary studies there must be space for both the old and the new. If we are looking for empirical studies that give us specific data on the phenomena we are interested in, the newer the better. For example, there is little point in citing a piece of research on the use of technology in English language teaching that was published in 1990 because this was before the expansion of the internet, the creation of social media and the invention of mobile technology. In this case, you’d better look for research articles that describe more recent studies in the field; unless you happen to be writing about the historical development of CALL. However, I would also expect to find in such a paper a theoretical discussion on how people learn and for that you cannot do without referring to writers like Vygotsky (1978), Bordieu (1990) and Bruner (1979), to mention just the basics. Indeed, it is all a matter of going back to the basics as key ideas and seminal papers are not written every each year. In fact, sometimes it takes decades or even centuries for ideas and concepts to evolve and disseminate among us, especially in the field of the Humanities.

Actually,  I confess that one of the things that irritates me considerably is to see students citing writers who wrote about people to whom they should be directly referring. Apologies for the self-reference here but if, for instance, if you want to discuss Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism don’t cite Lima 2013 but go and read Bakhtin 1981 instead! You may want to refer to Lima 2013 if you are looking for an example of how to apply the concept of dialogism to the analysis of communicative interactions among readers and texts. In Literary Studies, for example, if you want to discuss the Novel, your literature review is very likely to contain sources that have been published quite a while ago, such as Eagleton (2005), Parrinder (2008) and Watt (1987), not to mention Bakhtin (1981) himself. If a student submits such a paper to me and it only contains sources that are ‘updated’ and newer than 5 years old, I will certainly send him/her packing back to the library to do some ‘proper reading’.

When calling others to back your ideas and arguments, what matters the most is not date of publication, but authority and relevance. We are still looking for someone that can say something more relevant on literature than Aristotle (n.d). As I said before, there is no easy answer to the question of how old a source can be as we need to consider the discipline in question and the topic addressed in the paper. Having said that, a rule of thumb is ‘use more recent articles for empirical studies and examples of applied theory and seminal papers for theoretical principles and key ideas in the field, no matter when they were written’. A good paper would have a proper balance between both as there should be space in your writing for both the old gods and the new.

With a new cohort of students starting in the first week of October I have decided to revisit some of the books I believe are works we still have to turn to if we are looking for influential and inspiring ideas in the field of literary studies. I am calling this the ‘Seminal Papers Series’ and I will be posting on them on My Literature Blog from time to time. I hope my students read them…

• Aristotle, n.d. Poetics. 1996 ed. London: Penguin.
• Bakhtin, M.M., 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
• Bourdieu, P., 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Translated by J.C. Passeron. London: SAGE.
• Bruner, J., 1986. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
• Eagleton, T., 2005. The English Novel: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
• Lima, C., 2013. Accounts from an Online Reading Group for English Language Teachers Worldwide. PhD. Open University.
• Parrinder, P., 2008. Nation and Novel: The English Novel from its Origins to the Present Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Vygotsky, L.S., 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
• Watt, I.P., 1987. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: Hogarth Press.

Using blogs with language learners

Blogs have long been used by educators as a means of promoting reading and writing and English language teachers have also been using them not only as a way of helping learners develop such skills but also as tools to improve their language awareness.

There are different ways in which blogs can be used and different online platforms available which give bloggers a variety of options and a wide online readership. However, there are also blog applications on Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) which restrict the audience to students and instructors enrolled in particular courses on the VLE. In this post, I discuss the way in which I have been using blogs with my EAP students and I hope this will give you some ideas about how to explore such tool in your own teaching practice.

Blogs in VLEs, such as Blackboard, can in principle have two disadvantages in relation to web2 blog platforms: they do look definitely plain and unattractive compared with the visual resources and tools open access online blogs offer, and they do restrict the readership to the ones enrolled in the system. However, when explored for specific purposes and in particular contexts, VLE blogs may, in fact, offer a couple of advantages. First of all, the limited editing functions may make them less daunting to users who are not particularly well-acquainted with web page construction and design and for whom having to learn how to build a site would actually require another whole set of tech skills. Because they do not have to look pretty, blogs in VLEs may free students to focus more on the content of their posts instead of worrying too much about adding aesthetic elements to them. Secondly, although posters’ ideas will be shared with fewer readers, some bloggers, particularly if they are language learners, may actually feel more confident to write knowing that if they make a mistake or do not express themselves as they would like to, this will only be seen by their tutor and other language learners like themselves. It can be less intimidating posting to a restricted, familiar readership than knowing that your writing will be open to scrutiny and criticism on the whole internet.

I have been using blogs on Blackboard with my language and literature students for about two years now and the results have been quite positive. Although their blog entries are usually short, I have observed that some of them really enjoying posting and value this as an opportunity for a bit of extra writing practice without the burden of been assessed for it. In this particular case, the blog entries are not part of their module assessment but are assigned to them as pieces of homework. Making blogging part of their homework is a very important aspect of it and typically I assign blog posting to:

  • flip a lesson, i.e. students have to search information on a particular aspect related to a literary work that we will be studying in the following sessions;
  • build collaborative learning, i.e. no student is asked to blog about exactly the same thing so each one of them has to contribute with something to the group learning and also acquire some knowledge from what their classmates post;
  • practise paraphrasing. Since this is a notorious difficult skill for learners of academic English, reading articles in literary criticism and posting their summaries and paraphrasing of some paragraphs can help students practise their writing at the same time they get to grips with the concepts and ideas in the articles and with the genre conventions in literary criticism.

An important aspect of using blogs with such learners is to give them some space to make decisions about what to post and how to post it. Although I do assign them a very specific task – for example, ‘find a description of a character in the novel, copy and paste the passage, and comment on it’- they still have the autonomy to decide which character they will choose, which passage to copy and analyse, and also decide whether they want to add pictures or video links to illustrate their analysis. A certain degree of autonomy is important to give students a sense of ownership over the task and make it less as a piece of homework and more like an intellectual exploration of the aspect discussed.

Another significant aspect is feedback. More often than I would wish so, I do not have time to comment on each individual post, but I do write my own blog entry with general comments on what they produced as a way to wrap up the activity. I also make sure I show their blogs on the screen in class and verbally comment on them.

Using blogs with my students has considerably increased their amount of writing and reading practice, with groups of 20 students producing per term around 120 posts of about 150-200 words each. It has also increased their engagement with and understanding of the literary texts and provided invaluable practice towards the essay writing assignment.

Below are some suggestions for further reading on using blogs in education.

  • Amir, Z., Ismail, K. and Hussin, S., 2011. Blogs in Language Learning: Maximizing Students’ Collaborative Writing. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 18, pp.537–543.
  • Blau, I., Mor, N. and Neuthal, T., 2009. Open the windows of communication: promoting interpersonal and group interactions using blogs in higher education. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 5(1), pp.233–246.
  • Churchill, D., 2009. Educational applications of Web 2.0: using blogs to support teaching and learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(1), pp.179–183.
  • Hourigan, T. and Murray, L., 2010. Using blogs to help language students to develop reflective learning strategies: Towards a pedagogical framework. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 26(2).
  • Kajder, S., Bull, G. and Van Noy, E., 2004. A Space for ‘Writing without Writing’ Blogs In The Language Arts Classroom. Mining the Internet. Learning & Leading with Technology, 31(6), pp.32–35.
  • Kim, H.N., 2008. The phenomenon of blogs and theoretical model of blog use in educational contexts. Computers & Education, 51(3), pp.1342–1352.
  • Trajtemberg, C. and Yiakoumetti, A., 2011. Weblogs: a tool for EFL interaction, expression, and self-evaluation. ELT Journal, 65(4), pp.437–445.
  • Williams, J.B. and Jacobs, J., 2004. Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 20(2).

Review: Writing About Literature

image.phpW.F. Garrett-Petts’ second edition of Writing About Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic is exactly what the title proposes: a manual to help undergraduate students to write more critically informed essays on literature. Although there is quite a lot of such supposed guides available both in book form and on the internet, most of them fall short of addressing the real issues behind the composition of essays, being no more than lists of formulae and tips on academic writing.

The author’s comment right on the introduction of the book definitely rings a bell for me and my literature and language students. He points out that the ‘great irony of our field’ is that students ‘spend a great deal of time discussing literature’ whereas ‘relatively little direct instruction is offered in how to write about literature (Garrett-Petts, 2013, p. xiii). Last term I tried to minimize the problem by introducing a writing tutorial done via our VLE right in the first week of the course; however, reading his book made me realise that there are still aspects that need to be addressed and that are missing in the course.

Particularly relevant is the concept of the four contexts for learning or the four critical stances proposed by the author and which serve as a framework for writing a critical response to texts: the social, institutional, textual and field stances (pp.1-11). First, the social stance is taken when students compare and discuss with other students their personal reactions to the text, their notes on vocabulary, metaphors, themes and issues raised by their reading. The institutional stance requires students to learn the series of writing conventions we adopt in academic writing, such as what constitute evidence, and attitude and tone expected by the department. The textual stance requires students to become familiar with the tools of trade in literary criticism, such as  the features of an academic essay, the organization of a paper, the use of quotations and the field vocabulary. Finally, the field stance means that students have to learn how to think critically about literature by adopting a critical approach to their analysis.

The writer adopts throughout the book a quite clear and didactic approach to writing  and carefully maps the terrain of literary criticism scaffolding the writing process so that students can have a solid basis to start with. The proposed six common places of literary criticism (pp.51-57) and his summary of the critical approaches to text (pp.57-68) could be considered reductionist and boarding oversimplification but for dazzled undergraduate students they can prove to be quite helpful and a clear starting point for future explorations. This is especially true for international students who may come from academic cultures that have a different approach to literary academic writing.

Clear examples and samples of students writing based on a sample text provided in the book help readers to see how the theory and the strategies suggested are put into practice. The section on poetry at the end is not as well-developed as the one on prose analysis but insightful nonetheless. A glossary and suggestions for further reading at the end can also prove useful to students wishing to go further in their understanding of academic writing in the field of literary studies.

All in all, I found the book a welcome addition to the field and I will definitely review the writing tutorial I offer to my students next term and incorporate to it some of its ideas and tasks.

Garrett-Petts, W. F. (2013) Writing About Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic. London: Broadview Press.