How to Improve Academic Writing?

In this blog post, I will discuss the methods of developing general academic writing.  
By general academic writing, I mean roughly writing for IELTS/TOEFL exams and short essays. It is approximately the level of writing required for undergraduate studies.
Academic writing on the postgraduate level (master’s and doctoral studies) is different,
so I will talk about it in a subsequent blog post.

Today, I will tell you a bit about these differences, then I will explain where the problems with academic writing originate and finally, I will provide some practical suggestions to improve academic writing.

How different is writing for IELTS/TOEFL from writing on a postgraduate level?

Firstly, IELTS/TOEFL essays are shorter (about 300 words) than postgraduate writing projects (3.000-5.000 words). On a postgraduate level students need to read more, more demanding materials, collect more notes, organize more information, paragraphs and references.  The longer projects can quickly become unmanageable. Postgraduate students need to have great research and organizational skills to manage successfully an extended piece of writing.

Apart from the striking quantitative differences between writing for ILETS/TOEFL test and postgraduate level, there are also qualitative differences. Students not only need to write more, they also need to write better (‘critical writing’).

IELTS/TOEFL essays are usually descriptive or analytical. Students write to provide information and facts, present and convey ideas. Students also write to compare, organise, categorise and prioritise information.

Writing on a postgraduate level is more persuasive. Students need to take a stance, make or defend a claim. That sort of academic writing is sometimes expected on IELTS/TOEFL tests too but it is omnipresent at university. Academic examiners want to hear students’ voices in their writing.

Also, critical writing is mandatory at Masters and Ph.D. levels. Students need to evaluate, debate, weigh alternatives, and synthesise sources. It is pretty challenging level of writing. Producing a decent piece of critical academic writing is a formidable task for many researchers. It requires excellent reading, writing, research, and organizational skills.
No surprise many students struggle with it. Learning postgraduate academic writing requires language skills, lots of practice, deliberate effort, and good feedback from experienced academic tutors.

Despite the differences, many elements of writing discussed in this blog post apply to writing on postgraduate students. Before students can embark on writing longer academic projects, they should be able to write short 250-300 words essays.
Therefore, I encourage all students to read this blog post.

Do academic writing skills matter at university more than speaking skills?

Definitely! Firstly, students need to develop excellent writing skills in order to get good scores on standardized tests (IELTS/TOEFL). These exams open the door to the university. Importantly, students’ progress and performance at English-speaking universities are often assessed through writing tasks. During university studies, students write a variety of academic projects e.g. assignments, term papers, literature reviews, research papers, reports, dissertations, and theses. These projects can be anything between 3,000 words (undergraduate assignment) to 100,000 words (Ph.D. thesis). Students who cannot write well risk failing at university. In a sentence, writing matters a lot.

What are the problems with general academic writing?

Despite its importance writing is often the most neglected language skill. Writing is rarely practiced in a primary school and pretty uncommon in a secondary school English classroom. English teachers tend to focus more on grammar and speaking. Writing is a bit of Cinderella skill. It is largely ignored. Consequently, many prospective international students have very limited experience with writing in English in general and academic writing in particular.  

Teachers who dedicate more time on writing instruction often tend to force students to write stuff unrelated to students’ goals and interests.  Also, some teachers focus on correcting errors in writing instead of teaching the writing process, writing tools, and effective strategies supporting the development of writing. Few teachers explain to students the factors affecting writing performance. Consequently,  many students erroneously believe their writing is mainly affected by knowledge of grammar rules.  

Only few students know that writing is more affected by cognitive factors (attention, working, and long-term memory) and emotional (affective) processes (e.g. motivation, enjoyment, self-confidence, growth mindset). How students can select good strategies to improve writing skills if they don’t understand the factors affecting writing?

It would be unfair to say that only teachers cause students’ writing problems. There are many factors beyond teachers’ immediate influence that affect student’s writing. I have mentioned working memory and attention. Students with a weaker working memory might not able to juggle and process the information needed to write a well-constructed and readable essay. Although remedial strategies limiting multitasking, increasing depth of processing do help, they don’t solve the problem entirely. Teachers cannot be blamed for that.  

Also, few students display real enthusiasm for writing. Students are usually more interested in developing speaking skills. Students who can speak fluently are often lulled in a sense of complacency about their language skills.  Since they speak fluently, they tend to overestimate their writing skills.  

Anyway, limited exposure to writing affects students’ writing skills, motivation, and confidence.

At the same time, lack of practice is only part of the problem.  There are other important factors affecting writing performance.  

Some examples.  Many students are poor writers in their first language. It is impossible to be a good writer in English if writing in L1 (first language) is inhibited. Our thinking is the foundation for our writing. If our thinking does not work in L1, it won’t work in English either.

Furthermore, many problems with academic writing originate in reading difficulties. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. One cannot learn to sing if he/she has not listened to good songs in the first place. The same principle works for reading and writing.  

There is convincing evidence showing that only about 10% of students are proficient readers in their first language. Although most of the students can read well, it does not mean students can read very well –  on an academic level. The problems with reading don’t manifest themselves when reading text messages or reading light online content for pleasure or information but are obvious when students are confronted with cognitively demanding texts. Few students have the ability to critically apply, analyse, synthesise information from more advanced sources.  If merely 10% of students can do well on reading in L1, how many students can do it well in English?   

Furthermore, reading comprehension in English depends on reading comprehension in L1. Even if students speak languages unrelated to English (e.g. Chinese or Arabic). Why is that?

Our reading comprehension depends also on our knowledge of the subject we read about. If a student knows the rules of football, reading the text about the last match is a breeze. If s/he doesn’t, the text doesn’t make sense. Even if the student knows most of the words in the texts. The same principle works for academic reading.

Another factor related to reading is the fact that fewer and fewer students are avid readers who can sustain their attention on challenging text for a prolonged amount of time.  Reading on a screen (typical mode of reading) requires less attention and forces students to interact and process the information on a very shallow level.  Switching between pages, jumping between links, quick scanning for relevant bits of information. This is how students tend to read nowadays.

Academic writing is the inverse of it. It requires full attention and deep interaction with the text. Few students have the ability to interact deeply with challenging texts beyond their comfort zone for hours. It affects the quality of writing. 

Of course, motivation, writing enjoyment, understanding of the mechanics of writing matter too.  All these factors (and many more) are on my mind whenever I work with a student who wants to improve his/her writing.  Teachers who want to improve academic writing only by improving language proficiency in L2 (e.g. vocabulary knowledge and grammar) are likely to miss the point.

Given, that writing is the most difficult skill for second or foreign language learners to master,  few international students can write a well-research argumentative essay.  Even students on the C1-C2 level often produce grammatically incorrect sentences, have problems with generating and organizing ideas. The writing difficulties become conspicuous if students’ language proficiency is lower (between B1-B2).

IELTS/TOEFL writing is sometimes easier than postgraduate level writing

It might surprise many students but writing 250 -300 words on  IELTS/TOFEL writing component can be harder than writing 5,000 essays on a postgraduate level.  At least for some students. It is a paradoxical situation.  Let me explain. Firstly, IELTS/TOFEL requires timed writing. Students have about 60 minutes to write an essay. It is enough time for students with great lexical resources, good general knowledge, strong working memory, and lots of practice in writing essays.  Unfortunately,  not all students have the same knowledge and ability, so for some students, 60 minutes is too little. Also, some brilliant students can struggle with IELTS/TOEFL essays. Now when students write at university, the written projects are longer but also students have more time to write them. Students with weaker working memory need to simply spend more time on a project and they will get good scores. IELTS/TOEFL does not allow it.

There is another important reason why IELTS/TOEFL might be more difficult than writing long postgraduate projects. Students who take IELTS/TOEFL need to write essays on different topics (e.g. environment, nature, IT, economy, health, society, technology, transportation, smoking). It is hard to predict what topic will pop out on the test.  To write well, students need to have vocabulary related to a particular topic and some background knowledge about the topic. Now, some students have been equipped through years of education in a shallow but wide knowledge of different subjects. These students might have spent years in English language classrooms where they covered many IELTS/TOEFL topics. Such students are likely to do well on tests.

However, many students taking IELTS/TOEFL are interested in a particular topic they want to study.  Let’s imagine a student who is interested in ornithology and will be studying Zoology in the UK.  Such a student might not have the interest, vocabulary, and knowledge required by IELTS/TOEFL. Consequently, s/he is likely to struggle on the tests. The same student might do very well at the Masters’ or doctoral level since he/she has knowledge of the field, statistics, and specialised vocabulary. At university, students write about subjects they are interested in.  Also, IELTS/TOEFL writing is writing about what students know, what is in their heads. Postgraduate writing is about the stuff students have read. It makes a huge difference.  Writing from sources is easier providing students read and understand what they read.  Also, students are penalized on ILETS/TOEFL for spelling mistakes which can be easily corrected in MS Word. It is possible at the postgraduate level but not on IELTS/TOEFL.

How to improve academic writing for IELTS/TOEFL?

Easy fixes for academic writing don’t exist.  Miracles are not expected. It does not mean that writing skills cannot be improved. They can be. However, the progress requires thoughtful instruction, considerable time investment, and good strategies. One has to be realistic. Academic wiring is a craft that can be learned.  In the same way, almost anyone can learn how to build a house. However, it takes time, understanding the process, tools, and the help of someone who has built several houses before.

I can suggest several effective writing activities/strategies.

Develop Vocabulary
Students need to know 10,000 relevant root words for studying at the postgraduate level. Probably, the same number of words for ILETS/TOEFL tests. That is the level of vocabulary knowledge that allows effortless retrieval of words needed for writing about different topics. Students need to know good academic words.  Idiomatic language, phrasal verbs, colloquial language are not needed for academic study. Of course, if students know fewer words than 10.000, they can still write but it will be harder. How to select vocabulary for learning and how to learn these words? That will be discussed in a separate blog post.  It is a big, important topic.  What else? Well,  students should improve spelling and punctuation.  These skills matter for IELTS/TOEFL.  Students should use spelling and grammar software to check for potential issues. Grammar software (e.g. Grammarly) is not perfect but it is very helpful and draws students’ attention to potential issues.

Lots of wide reading
Wide reading means reading relevant books, magazines, blog posts, and other resources for an extended period of time. As I said reading the right material is fundamental for writing. Frequent exposure to real, authentic academic materials or even semi-academic materials (IELTS/TOFEL textbooks) is necessary to learn vocabulary, how words work in a sentence, collocations, sentence structure, getting acquainted with academic style, developing grammar, etc.

Some teachers say that students can use dictionaries, thesauruses to make up for the lexical deficiencies but these tools can be hard to use if students have not had extensive exposure to reading. The more students read the better. I would suggest one hour a day complemented with one hour of listening.  I am aware that many students need to get into the habit of daily reading. Forming a new habit takes time. So students can start with 15 minutes sessions and extend them to 30 minutes. Students should read the stuff related to the exams and the planned course. Reading unrelated stuff e.g. next Stephen King’s book is not a good time investment. Simply, vocabulary and language in such books is different  from the language needed at university

Improve Grammar

I will discuss the topic of grammar later. However, I need to say a few words. Many students spend countless hours improving grammar in the hope it will improve their writing. Research suggests that it is not the best way to improve writing.  Still, grammar matters. It is hard to communicate effectively in academic contexts without an excellent grasp of grammar. So the question is how to improve grammar quickly and painlessly (without boring exercises). In my opinion, students who read a lot, learn 70% of grammar subconsciously (implicitly). They don’t need special grammar lessons to learn how to structure sentences in academic writing.  So learning grammar becomes a by-product of extensive reading or listening.  Unfortunately, painless, subconscious learning of grammar works only to some extent. Students who read a lot still might miss important features of grammar. Students can read many books in English and they might not notice that at times no ‘s’ is added in 3rd person singular e.g. ‘it is essential that everyone register’. Students might also not be able to explain why it happens. They might not see subtle a difference in meaning between ‘it is essential that everyone register’ and ‘‘it is essential that everyone registers’. Many immigrants who arrived to the UK/USA as adults learn English implicitly by listening and speaking the language. They are able to learn tenses, passive voice, but they often miss smaller features of language e.g. usage of articles (which are harder to notice and thus lean implicitly). In the same way, few students reading academic books learn implicitly the order of adjectives in a sentence. We say ‘it is a beautiful hot day’ and not ‘it is a hot beautiful day’ because adjectives in English should follow the order: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. In the same way, students might never notice the difference between em-dash, en-dash, and hyphen, if they are not told where the difference lies.  Therefore, I suggest reading a chapter in a good grammar book once a week. Students can become aware of certain problems and issues and are better at noticing these features in their writing and incorporating them in text. Also, ask for feedback from more experienced writers/students or teachers. They might tell you about the problems with sentence structures, subject-verb agreement, the unjustified shift in tense, missing apostrophes, ambiguous pronouns, compound sentences, sequencing information, indirect speech. Implicit learning of grammar needs to be complemented with direct learning.

Some good grammar books

Practical Grammar Usage Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English

Basic English Grammar, B. Azar (Prentice Hall Regents)

Grammar for IELTS, D. Hopkins, P. Cullens (Cambridge)
Academic Writing: A Handbook for International Students by Stephen Bailey  
Practical English Usage, 4th edition: Paperback: Michael Swan’s guide to problems in English
Advanced Grammar in Use with Answers by Martin Hewings (app)

Write more

Writing improvement depends on the time spent on the task. The more students write, the better they get. Up to the point. Then, students hit the plateau and deliberate practice needs to be introduced. I know it sounds cryptical but I will explain deliberate practice on a different occasion.

Students might have heard the advice ‘write 500 words every day and your writing will improve. It is the rule I am skeptical about in the context of advanced writers. However, the rule works great for beginner/intermediate writers. Writing regularly is crucial. Students should make it a habit. Many students postpone writing to the moment when they feel they are ready. This is a mistake. Students need to start writing early. Writing needs to be purposeful, meaningful. Students need to be engaged in authentic tasks which are aligned with IELTS/TOEFL writing module and university requirements (e.g. essay, report). Developing students’ confidence and self-efficacy is crucial. Students who have been writing successfully shorter essays are more likely to be successful on bigger projects.  Generally, I would suggest students regular blogging about subjects they are interested in. Since not everybody wants to blog, also regular written discussions on Facebook groups, forums help.

It is hard to be good at anything without a lot of practice. It counts for singing, running, it also counts for writing.

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Use Dictogloss

As I said, frequent writing is important and improves the quality of students’ work. However, it is not the remedy for all writing woes. Students preparing for IELTS/TOFEL test can benefit from a technique I learned pretty during my studies. It is called dictogloss. How does it work? Students read a short article or listen to a podcast section. At the same time, they note down keywords, interesting vocabulary, short grammar structures.  Students collect information selectively, focusing on the most important information only. After students finished reading/listening to, they try to reconstruct the article/episode in writing.  They can use the vocabulary they noted down and the facts they remember. It is usually pretty easy since little time elapsed between reading/listening to and writing. The quality of writing is better than normal since writing is enriched with the vocabulary students noted down. As a next step, students compare the written text with the original. So they take the article they read or re-listen to the podcast and see how the text they wrote could be improved.  They can check their comprehension and improve further their writing. The reconstruction doesn’t need to be exact, but as close to the original as possible.  Dictogloss has many benefits: helps students deal with the limitation of attention (students focus on what matters) and working memory (noting down), improves notetaking skills (important for university lecturers), teaches paraphrasing (crucial for academic writing). It also improves summarising skills, syntax, grammar, vocabulary and comprehension.  It also facilitates collocation learning  and lexical chunks acquisition.

Students are more likely to notice small grammatical features, they would normally ignore. Importantly, it does not cost a penny and does not require a teacher. We know that feedback is important part of learning. Students who are independent learners, cannot afford a teacher to get feedback on their writing when they compare the reconstructed texts with the original version. Furthermore, dictogloss mirrors academic writing since students’ writing depends on a source they are reading or listening to.  I would also suggest my students recording the reconstructed text. Students should simply retell the article they read/listen to/summarised in writing. Since students have already had several encounters with the content, speaking is easier. Also, students’ speech is of better quality. They tend to use the more sophisticated vocabulary they previously noted down and more complex grammatical structures they noticed.  Thus, dictogloss integrates the four language skills: reading, listening, writing, and speaking. The strategies applied in dictogloss can be used in IELTS/TOEFL test. All in all, dictogloss has enormous benefits for language development in general and academic wring in particular. Constructing written summaries, paying attention to the text, gradually improving the written text, using paraphrasing is extremely helpful for academic writing. The method is great and it works. Problem is that not many students are happy to adopt it.  In my observations, dictogloss is more effective than direct Instruction to teach writing. It is free and within the reach of all students.

The better students can write the better scores they get on IELTS/TOEFL and the more likely they are to be successful in higher education (university) and work.  The less time students need to spend on writing the more time they can have on more satisfying aspects of studying abroad (e.g. social interaction). Writing is an important skill. Improving writing is not easy but is possible.  I will revisit the topic of writing in the context of postgraduate writing.