Academic Writing

Markin4, editing software for EFL/ESL teachers

Most of my classes are of the “Oral English” type, but I also teach some classes in which students are required to produce academic writing in English. At first, I assumed that my students were getting basic instruction in academic writing in their native language (Japanese) in other classes, e.g. their seminar classes. They probably are. However, I have discovered that they don’t have much of a grasp of references, reporting and citations. Basically, they either don’t quote anybody at all, or when they do, they don’t indicate where they are quoting and where they are not (although a sudden switch from pidgin English to something perfectly comprehensible is the usual indicator).

After much ranting from me, they are now beginning to refer to other writers, and to include the references at the end of their writing. I think their problem was partly a language one, and partly cultural: they simply did not know how to refer to another writer.  So I gave them some examples (with the help of this very useful website by Andy Gillett, UK), such as “According to Krashen (2003)”, or “Krashen (2003) writes that… ” and so on. Actually giving them examples seemed to increase the frequency with which they referred to other writers in their essays.

They are still not clearly signaling when they are referring to another writer’s ideas or words: they seem to think that bunging a couple of references at the end is enough. Reading several examples of such student essays prompted the following, earth-shaking insights:

  1. they may not have read any academic essays in English, which would account for a lot;
  2. they may not be familiar with the English academic or formal register;
  3. it might be of more help for their academic and linguistic development if they actually read (samples of) English academic essays, rather than reading a bunch of explanations about academic writing;
  4. #3 above seems kinda obvious after reading Krashen on the subject of language acquisition (the only way language is acquired is by lots and lots of comprehensible input).

I’ve been using a software program called Markin4 to correct and mark my students’ electronic files electronically. I use this because it’s quicker than doing it by hand (and when you’ve got 40 students writing assignments twice a week, you welcome anything that saves you time), and because I am teaching some students at a distance (i.e., they take the class but they don’t come to the actual classroom). It is very easy to install and use, and you can output the edited student writing as a RTF file and a html file. It is quite good, however it focuses on the sub-paragraph level of writing, and has no functions specifically for academic essays, so I started to look for academic-essay editing/evaluating software, and after ages and ages of backbreaking slog typing search items into Google and what have you, I can now announce to the world the results of my labours, thereby saving you, dear Reader, absolutely tons of man-hours of useless toil.

I came across StyleEase, and downloaded the free demo version. It works as a plugin for MSWord (or OpenOffice, I believe), and uses macros. I followed the instructions carefully about configuring MSWord to allow StyleEase macros to work, particularly as the ReadMe file states that problems with this are the most frequent problems encountered by would-be users of StyleEase. However… I was unable to get StyleEase to work, despite following all the instructions. So, too bad: out it goes. Perhaps you will have better luck (it could be that I am using a Japanese version of Windows and of MS Office, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered to spend more time tinkering to see if that was in fact the case: even if it’s free, if it don’t work first time like it should, then it gets the boot. Life is short).

Here’s another one: StyleWriter. This looks good, but the company, White Smoke, don’t offer a free trial download. I can’t tell from the brief popup video if it will do what I want. It also seems to come bundled with lots of stuff that I’m not sure I’ll need like lots of letter templates, and an “international dictionary”. (I also didn’t like the fact that I had to type in all my details before I could find out how much the damned thing cost.)

I also came across this useful list of software programs and the writing process, although it includes software designed for writing other than academic writing. In that list was a link to Merit Software and two programs called Paragraph Punch and Essay Punch. Both of these, you’ll be glad to know, have their own web pages which include a link to a price-list, for which Merit Software earns serious Brownie points. Both Paragraph and Essay Punches have online editions, and they also have free trial downloads (more Brownie points). I’ll be downloading these and test-driving them, so come back later to read my results.

Google search also brought up this interesting newsletter entry about an academic writing website by another British academic, Dr. Gavin Budge at Birmingham University. The newsletter gives the link to the actual website, a wiki called Writing for the Reader: I was not able to access the site from a university-campus computer, but from home, no problem. It’s all text-based, but it looks useful, and it seems to do what Dr Budge claims in the newsletter:

My interest in creating an essay-writing website stemmed from the perception that most books on essay-writing, while making a lot of sense to university lecturers, who already know how to write, tend not to make all that much sense to students, who typically seize on one or two pieces of essay-writing advice in a one-sided way because they have no grasp of the essay-writing process as a whole: common examples from my own experience include the student whose writing goes through incredible syntactic contortions in order to avoid using the word ‘I’ in any context whatever, and the student whose writing is unintelligible because they have replaced all key words with what they assume are more impressive ‘synonyms’ from a thesaurus. Truly understanding a book on essay writing involves appreciating that its writer has reduced the complex reflexivity of the actual writing process into an essentially linear form; but since such a representation of what is multi-dimensional by a one-dimensional line of argument is precisely what students who are learning about essay-writing have yet to learn to do, it is hardly surprising if they misinterpret essay-writing guides presented in the form of a book.

The wiki itself contains some good advice and each page is short (screen length). There’s a lot there, and I’m still exploring it. My only gripes so far are:

  1. There should be more graphics (tho Budge does use the Axion mindmapping software to add a few small graphics, I’m not sure how helpful they are)
  2. I’d like to see more examples of actual academic writing: I think it is reading lots of academic essays that allows people to “acquire” a good academic writing style; this, more than carefully worded examples, is what is needed, especially for students whose first language is not English
  3. how about using video? Maybe not to replace the text pages but to re-inforce them and to offer a different medium, and to break up the tedium of page after page of text.

(Budge links to three different mindmapping software programs. I discovered mindmapping in my last year of grammar school (sixth-form) while preparing for university entrance exams and A-levels: my dad lent me one of Tony Buzan’s first books.

  1. FreeMind
  2. CmapTools
  3. Axon Idea Processor (the one he ended up actually using in the wiki)

Another couple of interesting, academic-writing-related websites were these two online essay-evaluating services:

To be continued…

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