Published in Journal of Nanzan Junior College. Vol. 30. Jan. 2003. (p. 99 - 120)

Helping EFL students acquire academic writing skills

by Tim Newfields

The ability to write in-depth academic essays is widely regarded as one of the hallmarks of a higher education. It is essential that university students be able to write clearly about topics related to their research fields. However, as Hirayanagi (1998, p. 21) and Takagi (2001, pp. 5-9) note Asian EFL students often find it difficult to produce academic papers of the quality and speed most overseas universities demand. Language difficulties are only part of the problem; often students are also unfamiliar with the conventions of English academic reports. Therefore, ESP writing programs should seek to elucidate the macroscopic features of academic writing as well as the paragraph-level and sentence-level aspects of expressing ideas in a foreign language.
After examining some common problems Asian EFL students have with academic reports, this paper focuses on a one semester EFL academic writing course, mentioning some teaching tips for academic writing.

Previous EFL Academic Writing Studies

Numerous studies about the problems students face when writing have been conducted. Shih (1999) provides a good overview of some recent research. Three studies relevant to Japan will briefly be mentioned.
"the need to organize ideas clearly should be emphasized throughout any academic writing course."

A 1998-2002 study by Izzo revealed some of the most common sentence-level errors of Japanese university students writing in English. He noted how many university EFL writing courses do not teach academic writing skills. As a result, student essays tend to lack organization and contain features inappropriate for academic writing.
Another study by Hirose (1998, pp. 51-64) showed how Japanese EFL students have difficulty to writing cohesive paragraphs in English since most high school EFL classes focus on sentence-level translations. Using a textbook designed by Kitao and Kitao (1988), she noted that many students with CELT Form A scores of under 125 showed overall improvement in their writing. One feature which didn't change was organization: students did not become more adept at knitting together sentences in accepted structural forms. In full-length research reports, the organization of concepts is a crucial feature of successful writing. For this reason, the need to organize ideas clearly should be emphasized throughout any academic writing course.
Fujioka (2001, pp. 185-194) also surveyed how Asian EFL students acquired academic writing skills. Most respondents in her study indicated that their writing instruction had a strong grammar focus and concern with paragraph-level form. Critical thinking skills were seldom taught. The value of extensively reading academic papers was underscored by Fujioka. Extensive reading may enable respondents to gradually gain a sense of what the features of academic writing.

The Author's Experience

While teaching academic writing to Asian EFL students, I noticed how certain problems came up constantly. This prompted me to reflect on how to overcome them. Seven consistent problems noted in my writing classes – and some advice about how to resolve them – are listed below.

1. Inappropriate genre – Many Asian EFL students fail to understand how academic writing is a distinct genre; too often they write the same way the speak – in a casual tone. One of the first tasks for teachers should be to point out how academic writing differs from other writing forms. One way to achieve this is to show concrete examples of academic essays and contrast them with other types of writing.

2. Errors of Logic – If students focus on sentence-level grammar, they often disregard discourse level features such as cohesion and coherence. Four particularly frequent logical errors in student writing are: (1) overgeneralization – making broad, sweeping statements, (2) contradiction – making one statement which is refuted later, (3) errors of causality – mistaking cause, correlation, and effect, and (4) unsupported claims – making statements that lack adequate supporting evidence. In order to help students overcome such problems, I ask them to outline the key ideas in their papers, as in Appendix 1. Outlining key ideas can help students better visualize how well those ideas are supported and organized.

3. Lack of balance – Academic essays should strive for balance, a semblance of objectivity, and fairness. Many student writers have a tendency to present just one perspective and/or rely on a single information source. In short, their papers lack critical balance. To help students gain more balanced perspectives, sometimes it is useful to ask them to add plus and minus signs to their outlines and then make sure they mention at least two sides to any key issue. One-sided writing is acceptable in some genres, but not in academic essays.

4. Redundancy / pleonasm – If teachers require compositions to have minimum word lengths, excessive redundancy is apt to occur. Some students repeat information needlessly to fill up space. A related problem concerns superflousity – it is all too easy to inflate essays with trivial details. A way to overcome these problems is to show students poorly written essay passages and ask them to eliminate the non-essential parts. Another way is to have them outline their essays and graphically represent the central themes. Concepts that seem unrelated to those main themes should be deleted.

5. Time management issues – Writing semester-length research reports is very much like running a marathon. Many students, however, imagine it to be like a 50-meter dash. When working on full-length reports it is essential to maintain a steady pace. I advise students to spend twenty minutes a day on their research projects rather than attempting to make a frantic dash at the end f the semester. Unfortunately, too many students start writing/researching in earnest only a week or so before the paper is due. This last minute rush syndrome results in incomplete or shoddy papers. Time management, Van Blerkom (1997, pp. 43-47) adds, is a prerequisite to success in many academic endeavors.

6. Plagiarism – Some students don't seem to realize how much writing is like a fingerprint. Once a baseline writing pattern is established, it is usually easy to detect passages from other sources. The need to avoid plagiarism has become especially salient since students can easily electronically cut-and-paste passages into their texts. MacGregor (2002, pp. 11-14) has provided useful, detailed guidelines concerning what plagiarism is and how to overcome it. In one lesson of the class described in this paper, examples of plagiarized works are shown, and then ways to avoid this form of intellectual theft through direct quotes, summaries, and paraphrases are mentioned.

7. Lack of clear citations – The custom of keeping detailed citations when writing academic reports is by no means universal in Asia. Student writers often omit references entirely or else neglect key details. Teachers need to train students to cite detailed information. For this reason I have students bring printed copies of all materials to class. The citations in their papers often need to be crosschecked. Also, many Asian EFL writers over-rely on direct quotes because they are not confident about being able to summarize or paraphrase. I therefore make a rule that direct quotes not exceed 20% of any total report.

A Revised Academic Writing Course

Reflecting on the problems mentioned previously in the previous section well as some of the ideas about writing espoused by Reyes (1970), Widdowson (1978), Tomilison (1983), McDonough (1985), and Steven (1985) I devised a 12-step process to teach academic writing skills, as depicted in Figure 1:

Fig. 1. Suggested steps involved in an academic writing cycle.

Fig. 1
Let us describe these in detail.

1. Task clarification

The first step is to give students a clear idea of what they are expected to produce within the timeframe available. As Nunan (1993) points out, task clarification should be one of the first things accomplished in any educational setting. Students should know what the minimum criteria are for specific courses, and also understand the grading benchmarks for each level.
Myth: There is no need to define tasks clearly at first – it's better to be fuzzy and flexible.
Each student in my class is required to produce one academic essay by the end of the semester and deliver a 5-minute presentation about that essay in English. The grading benchmarks for the course are defined in Table 1:
Table 1. Benchmark Grading Criteria for an EFL Academic Writing Class.
	Grade   Word Length         References          Stds./ Project      Oral Presentation
	  A+    2500+ words         9+ references            1             5+ minutes (no reading) 
	  A     2000+ words         7+ references          1 - 2           4+ minutes (no reading)
	  B     1500+ words         5+  references         1 - 2           3+ minutes (no reading)
	  C     1000+ words         3+ references          1 - 3           2+ minute (some reading)
To make this more explicit, I give each student a CD-ROM with sample essays by previous students. To protect the confidentiality of those students, pseudonyms are used unless they consent to having their names revealed. You can find some sample essays by students online at The CD-ROM offers a broad variety of student essays of sundry quality. Students can examine these and start to formulate concrete goals for their course.

2. Genre clarification

By the end of the first class, students should have a clear idea that they need to produce an academic essay, but most do not know what an academic essay actually is. The first few lessons of the course are thus devoted to teaching the key features of academic writing.
Myth: Academic essays are basically the same as other essays.
As Misser (n.d.) and points out, academic writing differs from others genres in a number of ways. Table 2 summarizes some of key features of academic writing.

Table 2. Some Characteristics of Contemporary Academic Writing.

  1. a clear distinction between fact and opinion – Academic essays draw a clear line between fact and conjecture and use different rhetorical devices to express both kinds of statements. Students need to learn to use those rhetorical devices.

  2. a sense of balance – Writers should be able to present information on a topic from diverse viewpoints and try to present a range of contrasting views.

  3. respect for diverse views – Though academic essays can advocate specific viewpoints, they generally do not lambaste opinions which differ. Academic writing maintains a fairly cool emotional tone and avoids both extreme praise or disparaging criticism. Writers should be willing to acknowledge potential limitations of their views and concede the strengths of differing perspectives.

  4. precise organization – Academic papers generally follow a fixed pattern with an introduction, body, and conclusion. They also often use headings and sub-sections in very specific ways.

  5. logical consistency – The ideas in academic essays should at least seem to have logical validity and be supported by hard data and/or citations when possible.

  6. focus – Academic writing should have a tight focus. Academic reports generally address specific research questions and avoid digressions unrelated to the primary research themes.

  7. corroborating support – An academic report should represent more than the opinions of one individual. Authors should seek corroborative support from other sources to reinforce their positions.

3. Topic & title selection

After students have an idea of what an essay is, the next step is to select a researchable topic. My experience is that many students are apt to choose topics that are too vague, too simple, or too hackneyed. A few choose topics which are too specialized.
Myth: If a student is interested in a topic, any topic is OK.
I therefore recommend applying the four criteria listed in Table 3 when defining research topics –
Table 3. Suggested Criteria for Selecting Academic Research Topics
  1. Appropriate specificity – Research themes which are too broad are often hard to cover in depth. However, if a theme is too narrow it may be hard to find adequate material. To help students formulate research topics with appropriate breadth, I provide them with a list of possible topics and ask them to strike out those that seem inappropriate, then reword them to make them more suitable. That handout appears in Appendix 2.

  2. Appropriate difficulty – Research topics should expand the writer's knowledge and be informative for intended readers. Ambitious students may attempt to research themes beyond their ability. For example, if a junior college student wanted to investigate the phospholipid metabolism of endoplasmic reticulums it would probably be too difficult. Though any topic can be explored in a scholarly fashion, simple ones tend to be already well researched.

  3. Appropriate novelty – Ideally, a research paper should offer a unique contribution to the existing field of knowledge. In reality, many student papers rehash previously covered themes. However, teachers can encourage a degree of originality by having students write about topics with a local focus.

  4. Information access – Sometimes students come up with interesting topics, but unfortunately their library resources are inadequate. For example, one student wanted to do research on how juvenile crime patterns in the U.S.A. changed from 1945 - 1995. The research question was well formulated, but materials were not readily available. I therefore suggested she change the theme to a local topic so she could utilize the resources of her library.
Once a topic is clear, it is important to make sure the title is congruent with the topic it. In well-designed papers, topic, title, and research question(s) fit together smoothly. In many student papers, however, some of these elements mismatch.

4. Research question formulation

Each paper should address at least one research question. Although some academic essays do not have explicit research questions, academic reports often do. I believe that research questions provide a useful focus for writers: they are rhetorical devices to increase the likelihood that a paper will address specified issues.
Myth: Academic papers don't need research questions as long as a topic is covered somehow.
Research questions should be closely related to the paper topic. Many students have is coming up with sufficiently precise questions which are answerable. Some questions involving matters of personal preference may be hard to answer in any academic fashion. To give students a better idea of what sort of questions are appropriate for academic papers and which aren't, I ask them to complete the worksheet on Appendix 3.

5. Research methodology clarification

After students come up with tentative research questions, I ask them to consider how those can be answered. Are there sufficient library resources to answer the questions that are raised? If they are doing a quantitative study, it is also important to make sure the survey questions will provide enough information to adequately address the research themes. I require students to have at least three information sources for each research question. Students seldom realize how profoundly information sources influence research outcomes.
Myth: One reference related to a research question is enough; it's a hassle tracking down further references.

Since EFL students tend to rely heavily on native language resources, I insist that at least one-third of the reference sources be in English.

6. Working hypothesis formulation

A working hypothesis should provide a tentative answer to the research question(s) raised in a paper. For example, if the research question is, "How have convenience stores influenced Japanese shopping patterns?" a working hypothesis might be, "They have had a significant impact on Japanese shopping patterns."
It is not necessary, and often not desirable, to state working hypotheses explicitly at the onset of a paper. However, it does provide a useful focus while doing research. Moreover, in the final section of most academic reports, the working hypothesis (or a revised version thereof) is expounded clearly. In fact, working hypotheses (or subsequent revisions thereof) often evolve into concluding statements.
Myth: A working hypothesis compromises objectivity. To avoid bias, it is best to work without any hypothesis.
One thing to understand is that a working hypothesis is a tentative conjecture - not a fixed conclusion. In the course of researching a topic, it is quite acceptable to revise a working hypothesis. Indeed, that is a valuable indicator new ideas are emerging or discoveries are being made.

7. Conducting research

At this stage students should be reading materials to help them answer their research question(s). Materials might consist of books, journal articles, newspaper articles, live interviews, online information, or original data. Since more and more students have a tendency of over-rely on materials from the World Wide Web, I insist that half of their materials come from non-digital sources. The reason for this is that web pages change frequently and often lack the veracity of printed sources.
A point to emphasize is the need to keep clear notes on what is read so it can be incorporated into a paper appropriately. Students who don't keep appropriate notes tend to be more prone to plagiarism.
Myth: It doesn't matter where information comes from.
To increase the likelihood that students will cite sources correctly, I acquaint them with the APA Style Guide (Corio & Sokolik, 1997) and show them papers where information is not cited correctly, then ask them to revise it.

8. Revising (3) - (7) as needed

As Foster (1999) notes, the process of writing needn't be unilinear; it is a multilinear proposition involving many elements.

Myth: Reevaluating research components is a waste of time – just move forward and do the best you can!
Mid-way through the course I ask students to take a look at their topic, research question(s), methods of investigation, and working hypothesis and – in light of the research material they have read so far – see if anything needs revision. Quite often, at least one element of the study needs to change. At this point the key issue is congruence: making sure the various elements of a paper fit together smoothly.

9. Producing draft(s)

It is important students produce successive drafts on schedule. Most think they can fudge deadlines and hand in drafts late. Writing instructors need to stress the importance of advance planning and make deadlines clear. Some penalize late papers. Others simply refuse to accept any papers that are late. I do not punish late papers in terms of grading, but do remind students that there will be less time for subsequent revisions. Novice writers often fail to realize how revision is an integral part of the writing process.
Myth: It is OK to submit a paper's first draft just before the final version is due.
Before students submit drafts, I ask them to use their computer spelling and grammar checkers to catch low-level errors. Since some do not know how to do this (or many other functions that their computers are capable of), it is often necessary to teach basic computer literacy concepts in class. A concept to emphasize at this point is backing up files. Invariably, one or two students in each class fail to back up their information properly and lose all data. To reduce the risk of total data loss, I ask students to print out their papers periodically in addition to backing up their files.

10. Revision(s)

Many EFL students need to realize that most academic papers need to go through a series of revisions. I therefore tell my students to expect 3-5 revisions of their papers.
Myth: Once a paper is written, it is done.
Tagg (2000) has pointed out how three processes are involved in revision: (1) accretion, (2) tuning, and (3) restructuring. Whereas accretion consists of adding new information and tuning consists of making slight editorial changes to improve a paper's quality, restructuring involves reconceptualizing information and/or making fundamental shifts in the structure of a composition. Whereas most student writers tend to focus on the first two processes while revising, it is the third process that results in intellectually stimulating and deeper essays. EFL students in particular have a hard time restructuring information since it involves focusing on macroscopic level ideas rather than sentence or paragraph level elements. To help student writers restructure their ideas, I believe the outlining and idea mapping procedures expounded by Buzan (1974) are of value.

11. Presentation

As McCrimmon (1950: 3-4), Li (2000), and Snow (1996: 177) point out, most students write best when they have a clear purpose and audience. In the final lesson of my class, students present their research orally and receive peer feedback.
Myth: To present a paper, all you need to do is read it.
Many EFL students don't seem to know how to present academic papers. Typically, most are apt to read sections of their paper in a drab, monotone voice. To remedy this, I devote part of lesson 13 and 14 to oral presentation skills and cover the points mentioned in Table 5.
Table 5. Hints for effective oral presentations.
  1. Content – Make sure the information is closely related to the topic and that it is accurate and understandable.

  2. Organization – Organize your presentation clearly so there is an interesting opening, some distinct main points, and a clear conclusion.

  3. Voice tone/speed – Speak with a loud, clear voice and vary your delivery speed. Avoid rushing or long silences.

  4. Eye contact – Keep frequent eye contact and avoid reading from a paper.

  5. Visual aids – Use clear, simple visual aids to underscore key points.

  6. Practice – Rehearse your presentation once or twice times before giving it. Practice is essential.

12. Feedback and future research

After each oral presentation, I ask students to offer anonymous feedback in the language of their choice. On the feedback sheet, I ask listeners to mention these four points: (i) at least one thing they liked, (ii) at least one think they felt could be improved, (iii) at least one question which arose from the presentation, and (iv) at least one topic they would like to see a future paper on.
In this way, the final step of the academic writing cycle outlined in Figure 1 connects to the first step: ideas for new papers come out as students report on previous research. As soon as writers finish one paper, they should receive fresh ideas for the next.
To give a concrete idea of how these steps can be implemented in a one-semester academic writing/research methods course, please refer to Table 6.
Table 6. Outline of a One Semester Academic Writing Class.

Lesson    Primary learning tasks                                 Instructional Mode
   1.     task clarification,    genre clarification             lecture, Q& A
   2.     genre clarification,  topic & title selection          lecture, brainstorming
   3.     genre clarification, research question formulation     lecture, small group work
   4.     research methodology clarification,                    lecture, library tour 
   5.     working hypothesis formulation                         lecture, online tour
   6.     conducting research, antiplaigerism practice           lecture, S-T conferences
   7.     conducting research, antiredundancy practice           lecture, S-T conferences
   8.     conducting research, logic practice                    lecture, S-T conferences
   9.     revising (3) - (7) as  needed                          S-T conferences
  10.     1st draft                                              S-T conferences
  11.     revision                                               lecture, homework presentations
  12.     2nd draft                                              lecture, small group work
  13.     revision,  introduce oral presentation skills          lecture, brainstorming
  14.     final draft, oral presentation skills                  lecture, small group work
  15.     oral presentations, feedback &  future research        presentation, large group work


This paper has described some of the problems Asian EFL learners often have in writing academic reports and then one mentioned possible way to address those problems in the context of a one-semester research methods course.
In the process of writing this paper, the following areas for further research became evident: (1) ways to assess the expectations and ability of students as they enter the course should be developed, (2) quantitative and qualitative ways to measure the effectiveness of this course should be investigated further, and (3) ways that other EFL teachers teach academic writing skills should also be explored and contrasted at greater length.


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