Alice Savage

Effective Academic Writing and the Learning Process


Last year, Stanford professor and AI researcher Andrew Ng told Harvard Business Review that if a typical person can do a mental task with less than one second of thought, it can probably be automated by using artificial intelligence. With this in mind, perhaps we should be thankful that teaching writing presents such an enormous cognitive challenge. We still have job security, at least as long as writing a college paper remains an important tool for learning.

In fact, we might rethink the academic assignment as not so much a writing process as a learning process. Effective teachers are able to manage writing lessons in a way that provides both linguistic and rhetorical support but also fosters a sense of discovery. In order to meet all these challenges, one of the best things that students can do is have a very natural and organic learning experience. They can read.

Our field is in constant motion, and the growing influence of genre studies has added a new layer to writing pedagogy. In simple terms, a genre approach gives students the opportunity to learn from texts before they begin formulating their plan for writing. This can be in the form of excerpts of work by mainstream writers at higher levels, adapted texts at lower levels, or even writing by other learners.

When students read about a topic for the first time, particularly a topic that presents different sides of an issue, they potentially evaluate what they already know in a new light. To support this cognitive activity, teachers can provide critical thinking support in the form of questions or agree/disagree statements so students can articulate their responses in discussions or journaling. If the experience goes according to plan, the result is increased motivation to write because students feel that they have something worth saying.

Reading can also develop rhetorical intuition. A second read can help students get a sense of how writers use paragraphs to set up and explain their points: new point, new paragraph; a different perspective, a different paragraph; a challenge to popular belief, a contrasting paragraph. Guided exposure to these paragraphing decisions reveals how writers sort ideas into a cognitive path for the reader to follow. In early stages, the paragraphs are necessarily shorter, with one or two supporting details that correspond to the level of language development. Then as confidence and language skills emerge, a writer can go deeper. The outcome may be a paragraph that goes beyond the obvious and into new intellectual territory.

Finally, reading supports language development by providing students with topic-related words and grammar in a natural environment. In a third read, they can select and use  lexico-grammatical chunks in their own writing. For example, the concept of “conventionally grown vegetables” is potentially easy to grasp in a meaningful environment in which it is contrasted with “organically grown vegetables.” Once read and absorbed, these two phrases are useful for writing about the politics of food.

As reading gains ground in the writing classroom, it is important to note that texts and course books must be carefully selected for level. Well-prepared students can handle difficult articles and make the leaps that lead to successful academic writing. However, some students need more scaffolding. Graded reading and writing materials for this population may feel simple or even formulaic at times, but they have the potential to demystify the reading to writing process, and in this way help students feel successful.

While the benefits of bringing reading into the writing classroom seem obvious, it has been somewhat lacking in traditional discussions of process writing. For many teachers, it is difficult to add something new to an already time-consuming course, but what if reading helped make those papers stronger? Spending time on reading may seem counter-intuitive in some ways, but all the best new ideas usually are.


2 replies »

  1. I think reading is critical to the process of becoming a better writer. By exposing students to a variety of authors and writing styles, the student can find their own voice and thus their own style of writing. As a teacher I am learning that I have to teach the process of writing by starting with the very basic concepts of a thesis statement and topic sentences. One way I do this is by showing the students good writing.


    • Cool! Having students identify main idea and thesis statements in different kinds of writing is good for both reading and writing! You’ve just given me an idea. I wonder what would happen if we took the thesis and main idea statements of a model in outline form and then had students work in pairs to fill in their own details. Then we could show them the full original and they could compare. Or we could separate the first sentences of paragraphs from the text and have them find the matches. Perhaps that would raise awareness of how writers make paragraphing decisions. I think it would work with the models in Effective Academic Writing.


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