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Developing academic English

Develop your writing

Your written assignments may include reports, short answers and essays, each with their own organisation and layout. You may also have to write an exam under timed conditions. The ability to write in clear, well-structured English can make a big difference to your assignment and exam marks.

For many subjects you will need to show that you can

  • structure an essay so that it has a clear beginning, middle and end (i.e. introduction, body and conclusion)
  • draw information and evidence from your course materials and other sources
  • write in your own words, using the vocabulary and expressions relevant to your subject
  • link your ideas in a logical way
  • produce sentences in grammatical English with accurate spelling so that your meaning is clear.

In these videos, find out about the challenges of writing and how other students have tackled them.

Range of writing tasks

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Zoe Doye: The level 1 Technology course has a range of different sorts of writing which it asks students to do in their assignments. That may range from a very basic answer to a slightly more involved piece of writing, I would say a paragraph, and then following onto that, to a short essay which, with an introduction, a conclusion and perhaps three paragraphs. And then, perhaps not so much on the level 1 courses that I teach but certainly coming on to the level 2 courses, the more extended essays.

Chris Lee: In my course, in the introduction to social science, they would start with a rather short observation piece which is partly description but has to be linked to concepts. Then there are pieces which involve some statistical matter, and I think sometimes for students for whom English isn't their first language, that's an easier piece because describing the statistics is for some reason not quite so complicated perhaps. Then we have a report writing piece. But I think the real challenge for many students is the first big essay when things aren't in, sort of, manageable chunks; I think that's a real challenge for many.

Darron Board: The courses that I teach, students sometimes they might be writing a summary, they might be asked to write an analysis, a business analysis for example; they might be asked to write short answers, traditional style essays, and then with essays, they are going to have essays which require them to do different things.

Zoe Doye: Within essay writing there are the sort of, you know, 'compare, contrast', the 'explain', the 'discuss', the 'set out', the 'outline'. All of those process words ask students to do quite different things and that obviously, changes how they, therefore, approach that piece of writing.

Darren Board: Students don't necessarily grasp the idea that each type of text has to be tackled slightly differently and certainly on the academic English course that I teach on, we look at a whole range of different academic texts so students are able to differentiate between the requirements of the tasks.

Challenges in writing

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Aneta: When I use English, I use it to just communicate everyday with my colleagues at work, with my friends so it's very colloquial, very simple, in a sense, English.

But if you write in academic style, you actually have to remember about the spelling, grammar, appropriate form of sentence. You are expected to use a lot of new vocabulary that comes with the topic that you are actually writing about.

Moungru: The question in assignments sometimes can be very daunting because they use a lot of jargon language. It's quite difficult to understand, especially if you do not come from that sort of culture background, it is quite difficult to perceive what the question means.

Anna: The first assignment was a preparatory one, for the tutor to see maybe where you need improving and vice-versa. When I read the question, I was really, really terrified.

Later when the first shock is over and you actually look in the preparatory material course books, everything is explained, so it's actually nothing to worry about.

Moungru: Writing in a second language in English, it is quite different from my own language. Our grammatical terms are very different.

In English writing, writing a past tense, you have past simple, past participle. You use a different form to write to indicate different times but in Chinese it's very simple. We just simply add one word to make it past tense and that 'le' can be used in almost all past tense form.

Alexa: In France, you have to follow a certain type of template, if I can call it this way, in writing and you've got to follow those rules otherwise you might not be marked well.

While in English writing and this is what I have experienced over the last 5 years, is that, if you argue your case successfully and well, though the corrector might not agree with you, you will get a good mark.

Kafula: It was difficult to put on paper what I was thinking and how I wanted it to reflect in terms of the question that I was being asked to write an essay about.

Aneta: I focus on the challenge of using academic-style writing in English, which is actually the biggest challenge here and as it turns out it's not a challenge only for foreign people, apparently English people struggle with academic style writing as well.

Improve your writing

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Anna: Before I started my course, I knew that there would be a lot of writing involved so I start to write a diary in English instead of Polish, because that gave me the confidence to put words on the paper. So I think to start with simple sentences and just write what's happened in a day, it's a really good preparatory thing to do.

Aneta: There are different forms of writing expected and fortunately Open University provides very good booklet about how they should be done, not only in theory, what is expected in each section, but also there is a given example of a written piece. What is brilliant about it, it's not that this is an example written by a tutor or some academic, no, it's actually written by a previous Open University student.

Alexa: It takes me a few hours to write an essay, about 10 to 15 hours. Once I've finished the essay, I tend to read it and see whether there are any points, grammatical points, that I may have completely missed. My husband is English and is a journalist which helps a little bit when it comes to reading my essay. He helps me go through my essay and tells me if there are any grammatical points I have to rewrite.

Kafula: When I started writing essays, I felt that the more you put in, the better. Through the comments that I was getting from my tutor, you know, I was learning to start structuring my essays better and I think the way I did them from the beginning, I answered the question for myself but later on I was able to learn that it was about, you know, the other person understanding. It was about the reader. The question was about the reader understanding the meaning of what I'd written and I found that very helpful because then when I was writing I wasn't thinking about myself,I was thinking about the person who was reading and if they would understand what I was explaining.

Aneta: The more I read, the more I'm aware of what is expected, how the language, how the sentences should be constructed in order to flow and have this academic feeling to it.

A checklist for academic writing

When you produce a piece of academic writing, it's helpful to think about four key areas:

  1. Use of source material - have you selected and evaluated the relevant information?
  2. Structure of the text - have you organised your response in an appropriate way?
  3. Academic writing style - have you used language that's appropriate to your audience and your assignment task?
  4. Grammar, spelling and punctuation - have you checked these to ensure that your work is well-presented?

These four areas can form the basis of a practical tool to help you develop your academic writing. It is a checklist that has been adapted from a framework called MASUS (Measuring Academic Skills of University Students) developed at the University of Sydney.

As you go through the rest of these pages, you will explore these four areas of the checklist in more detail. The activity below, from the University of Southampton, gives you some ideas of what you need to think about when revising your writing.

Revising your written work activity

The following activity, from the University of Southampton, gives you some ideas of what you need to think about when revising your writing.

Last updated 2 months ago