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How to Improve your English Academic Writing for University Study

Find out more about academic writing in UK higher education with our guest post by Brian Turner, an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) lecturer for the International Study and Language Institute (ISLI) at the University of Reading. He is also the lead educator of two popular and highly-rated FutureLearn courses that help learners improve their academic English writing skills.

Guest Blog Post

By Brian Turner, University of Reading

Academic writing can be very different from other types of written English – and this can be problematic for students. Indeed, during university study at UK higher education institutions, many students – both native speakers and international students whose first language is not English – struggle with academic writing and academic English in general. 

If that describes you, then read on to learn about two FutureLearn courses we have created here in the International Study and Language Institute (ISLI) that have been designed to give learners a head start in their studies. Our courses will give you an overview of academic writing, highlight many aspects of English essay writing skills, and help you feel more confident as you prepare to study in the UK.

My experience as an academic English educator

As a lecturer in English for Academic Purposes (EAP), I work with students to develop their academic English language skills. Some of my expertise is in teaching many aspects of English essay writing skills, as well as vocabulary and key areas of academic grammar. This is a perfect match for the two courses and working as Lead Educator on them is a great part of my job at the University of Reading.

Over the years at ISLI, we’ve supported thousands of students to improve their English language skills for university study. In my ten years here, I’ve been a big part of that. We know that starting at university can be both an exciting and a daunting experience, and you’ll be looking for ways you can prepare. Having studied at two different universities for my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I’ve also lived this experience and want to help as many students as I can on their study journey.

What are the two courses on academic writing?

Here at ISLI in the University of Reading we have developed A Beginner’s Guide to Writing in English for University Study and An Intermediate Guide to Writing in English for University Study. The two guides are both stand-alone academic writing courses, but you can also study them in sequence, that is, one after another. Taking one of the courses or, even better, both of them, will help your English writing skills and English essay writing.

If you think about it, when a student begins any course, they are not just learning the subject content. They also have to learn how to write assignments within that subject. Seeing that need, we designed the two guides to give learners a head start on their studies.

Our two courses are for anyone thinking about studying in the UK. We designed them to give you confidence in your academic writing and build your English essay writing skills. You could be a prospective undergraduate or postgraduate student, for example. Or you might be someone who has only recently begun studying at an English-speaking university. But the courses aren’t just for those starting out. They can serve as boosters if you are already studying at degree level and can be a good refresher if you are returning to study after time out.

The Beginner’s Guide is aimed primarily at non-English speakers who have some English language skills, and to join this course you should have a minimum level of IELTS 4.5 or the equivalent.

The Intermediate Guide, on the other hand, is for learners of a slightly higher level of English, and you will need IELTS 5.5 and above to get the most out of it.

As well as the language level difference, the content between the two courses varies in difficulty too, with the Beginner’s Guide naturally covering simpler concepts than the Intermediate Guide. However, both courses are taught using a similar set of tasks, including watching videos, reading articles and taking review quizzes – and this variety of activity really helps the learner remain engaged and stimulated through the course.

How long is each course on academic writing and when do they run?

Each course has five weeks of study material and each week requires about three hours of study. You will have to work quite hard, but we feel that there is not a huge time commitment – so it is manageable (and time management is an important academic skill in itself, of course!). All the effort is worth it, though, because with maximum engagement you can see your academic writing skills improve very quickly.

Both courses run continually, but to get the most out of the content it is best to join them during the facilitation periods when the Mentor Team is monitoring the course discussions. I will say more about the Mentor Team a little later. These facilitation periods happen twice a year, so keep an eye out for the dates on both course description pages and the University of Reading’s Online Courses Team twitter account

What academic writing skills does the Beginners Guide teach to prepare learners for university and UK higher education?

The Beginner’s Guide provides fundamental knowledge and strategies for coping with academic writing on a degree-level course. It also draws on the experiences and feedback of students who have studied at the University of Reading.

As you progress through the Beginner’s Guide you will study the stages of essay writing from planning to the final version, and explore how to organise your essay into a coherent, cogent piece. You will learn how to write a good single paragraph and then build on it to complete your own basic academic essay. Particularly valuable here is that you are encouraged to give feedback on other learners’ essays, so you will gain useful experience in peer review and hopefully some peer feedback too. This is a common process in UK higher education, so this is a nice way to try your hand at the practice.

The course also teaches the basics of how to write in an impersonal and academic style, including useful  grammar and vocabulary, such as tenses, sentence types and linking words. On top of all that, you’ll also learn the tools to evaluate your own writing and the writing of other learners, and you will analyse a real student essay.

Overall, the course covers the basics of academic writing and many essential English essay writing skills. It’s a great place to start preparing for university in the UK higher education system, but again, it can help you if you are already on that journey. I think this quote from a learner’s review says it well:

‘If you’re a student and essay writing is one of your skills that is being assessed, then this course is definitely for you. I’ve liked it. The basics are explained simply and concisely, with different examples. Of course, I’ve written an essay before, but now I’ll do it not intuitively, but more consciously, understanding exactly what and for what [purpose].

What academic writing skills does the Intermediate Guide teach?

For those of you who want more of a challenge and a bit more depth, the Intermediate Guide takes things to a higher level in both concepts and language. You can expand your academic English skills and consider what academic writing is. You will write an essay on the course, but this time it is longer and of a higher standard of English writing.

Over the five weeks’ worth of content, you will go through various essential stages in English essay writing. This begins with analysing an essay question and generating ideas. It also deals with planning, developing and supporting an argument, as well as tips on developing an introduction, main body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Further, you will learn about searching for credible sources, proof-reading and avoiding plagiarism through summarising, paraphrasing, quotation and correct referencing. 

You also have the opportunity to practise researching and writing your own paragraphs for an essay, as well as giving and receiving feedback from your peers. The course also covers reading strategies, note-taking and there is an abundance of highly useful language work. 

The social element of the academic writing courses

At most stages of each course there is a discussion thread where you can post your comments, engage with other learners and share your ideas. These comments are often in response to direct questions and tasks set. This is one of the great things about FutureLearn courses in general: Learners interact and learn from each other as well as the course itself. It’s also a great opportunity to practice some of your English writing skills as posts are English-only! 

We also have regular facilitation periods on both courses when our Mentor Team posts on the discussions too. The Mentor Team consists of myself, the lead educator, and two or three current students from the University of Reading. We sometimes even have an ISLI academic colleague on board too. This blend of different voices and experience adds a great deal to your learning journey. 

We interact with learners on the discussion thread at specific times for a five week period of the courses. We support and stimulate discussion, give advice on academic English, encourage learners, and signpost to other helpful sources, such as links to language websites. I also like to ask a lot of reflective questions to really get learners thinking about their learning, study habits, and academic writing. 

It is essential that our courses provide a welcoming, pleasant and fun learning environment. The discussion threads are a major part of that. We use them to develop a sense of community, collegiality and engagement. We also promote kindness and politeness at all times. And English use, of course. 

In fact, the discussion threads are one of my favourite things about the two courses. I am essentially a people person and interacting with learners from all over the world is extremely enjoyable and fulfilling. I particularly like the different ideas, perspectives and enthusiasm that learners bring, as well as any feedback that we receive in the discussions and at the end of the courses too.

The success of the courses

We are extremely happy with the positive feedback we’ve had about both courses. 

Indeed, we believe that the feedback shows that the courses are a great success and our learners are really benefiting from studying with us. If nothing else, the fact that we have been running the courses since 2014 and 2017 respectively is a testament to their success. 

For me, it has been wonderful to bring all my academic writing experience to the course. I’m still learning too and enjoy our ongoing improvements to the course which keep fresh, useful and beneficial to our learners.

How we keep the courses fresh

I work closely with the University of Reading’s Online Courses Team to continually check the courses for anything that might be out of date or inaccurate. We also study feedback to refresh the courses from the learner perspective. Further, we respond to trends in academic English and UK higher education and change elements of the courses accordingly. Just last year in 2021, in fact, we reviewed both courses in their entirety over a six month period. They were good before, of course, but we made them even better! 

Also, I am excited to reveal that over the next facilitated periods of each course we are adding specific end-of-the-week reflective questions which I ask in my pinned comments to add to a personal touch. These questions may relate to an element of the learning in the week or will perhaps ask learners to comment on what was most valuable to them. We are hoping that this will really get our learners thinking about academic writing and their lived experience of English essay writing. 

In fact, we are already seeing some great responses, and these will also help us keep reviewing our courses. Your ideas give us ideas. It’s a wonderful and never-ending cycle of learning and development.

‘Developing academic writing and English essay writing skills is always an ongoing process. Both of our courses teach so many useful concepts and strategies, and so much useful language.’

Final words

As you progress through the courses, make sure to focus on absorbing each point as accurately as possible. But at the same time, don’t worry too much about making mistakes. ‘My best teacher is my last mistake,’ as the saying goes. It’s completely normal to make mistakes, but the best thing is to learn from them so you can improve.

One essential strategy here is that all important process of reflection. Always review the material and think about what you have been doing. Some simple questions are very helpful too: 

  • What was easy? 
  • What was hard?
  • What will I do next?

You can also ask yourself questions like: 

  • What was it?
  • What does it mean?
  • What will I do next?

This sort of reflection will make your learning deeper. It’s also a useful process in life, not only for academic writing and English essay writing.

Developing academic writing and English essay writing skills is always an ongoing process. Both of our courses teach so many useful concepts and strategies, and so much useful language. Over time and with practice and reflection, you can internalise them and they will become skills that you can use every day and in every piece of academic writing. They become a part of you, they become habitual, and that is so very valuable.

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