Writing for the World / A World of Writing Skills: A Wikipedia Project

The following blog post is written to explore why and how I had my students writing articles for Wikipedia. It’s a somewhat long read, so I have broken it into the following sections:

RATIONALE

Writing is one of my favorite skills to teach, especially at the advanced level. However, I always feel like I am cheating the students. They spend hours planning, drafting, revising, and polishing. I read their work several times during drafting and for assessment – maybe 30 minutes total. After that, I their work never sees the light of day again. Rarely do I look at their work again unless I am building a student corpora. Rarely do students return to their own work. Their hard work, their effort, the audience (i.e. me) all of it is so disposable. Peer editing and peer review was not really an audience, and even student blogging offers an imaginary audience (no one really reads the posts except me and other students if they are required to do so). So, even these types of assignments feel disposable. This is not only something I have noticed. I first came across this concept in this article by Christina Hendricks called “Renewable assignments: Student work adding value to the world” (see also this blog post).

The idea of renewable assignments – something that was authentic, had an audience, and had a persistent quality that could be revisited time and time again – appealed to me. However, such an assignment was hard to design, hard to figure out, especially for the types of writing my students have to do: paragraphs, essays, research papers.

Earlier this year, I happened to stumble upon just the solution to my conundrum: “Writing for the World: Wikipedia as an Introduction to Academic Writing” by Christine Tardy writing in English Teaching Forum. The article argued that writing a Wikipedia article is the perfect context in which to teach and practice academic literacy and writing skills. These include the ability to find research, evaluate sources, summarize, paraphrase, and avoid plagiarism while writing from a position of “expertise”. In addition, Tardy touches on concepts of genre awareness as another skill such a writing project would require students to develop. Being able to understand and then join an academic discourse community is a vital skill. Beyond the benefits that Tardy mentions, there are several others that become clear when thinking this project through. It allows students to have a greater focus on considering audience, writing for an authentic audience who may actually read their work, and having the ability for themselves or others to return to their work to edit or improve upon it in some way, making this Wikipedia writing project a very renewable one indeed.

I recently had the chance to employ this project in my own class. This blog post will detail what I did and offer some reflections on the process, benefits, and student reactions.

PROCEDURE

Context

This project was included as part of an advanced 8-week writing course. Whereas Tardy promotes this project as one that teachers important academic skills such as the research process, I used this project as a capstone after group and individual research papers, which was where a majority of the academic skills students would need for a Wikipedia article were taught.

Genre Analysis

Before beginning any writing or even learning the details of the assignment, I followed Tardy’s advice of examining Wikipedia. We did this by first discussing what they knew about Wikipedia, what they knew about encyclopedias (very little), discussing the various meanings of free in Wikipedia’s subtitle “the free encyclopedia”, and general guidelines of what Wikipedia expects.

Next, I select a few topics that were roughly of the same genre (e.g. coffee, tea, beer) and had students analyze the article following genre analysis questions similar to what Tardy presents:

  • What kind of information is included in the article? What kind of information is excluded?
  • Using several sample articles in your category, look for any patterns in the organization of the articles.
    • How are the articles organized?
    • What information is typically included first? Next?
    • If there are sections in the articles, do you notice any that are commonly used?
    • How much background knowledge of the topic do readers need to understand the article?
    • Is any specialized language used? If so, is it defined?
    • What kind of information has citations?

This allowed for a great discussion of what Wikipedia articles contain and how different topics might suggest different information to be included. This was my students’ first attempts at analyzing genre. Incidentally, it was also my first attempt at teaching genre analysis.

Next, I told students about the assignment and gave them the task of selecting a topic for homework. We met in a lab the next day and I gave them a “Wikipedia Article Analysis” assignment for which they had to select several topics similar to theirs and answer analysis questions like they had the day before. The goal of this assignment was to allow students to examine how topics such as theirs are written and to gather ideas for their own article’s organization, including any specialized language or even formatting they would have to include.

Assignment and Topic Selection

The assignment was to write a Wikipedia article on a topic that has not been written on before. This assignment was to include at least 3 sections of text beyond the basic background information. Because so much is already included in Wikipedia, and because some students still struggled with basic English mechanics such as grammar and spelling, I gave students the option of using either regular English Wikipedia or Simple English Wikipedia. The benefit of Simple English Wikipedia is that there are far less topics written about, making topic selection much easier.

To help students choose a topic, I gave students a few tips. First, they could choose a topic they already knew well (many of my students are former professional athletes, so sports was a natural topic) and follow articles until they find red links (i.e. Wikipedia articles without content) they could write about. Another method was to choose an aspect of their own culture to write about. If it was not included on Wikipedia already, it would make for a great article. In the end, I had a combination of both types of topics.

Drafting and Publishing

Students brought their laptops to class for the drafting process. I broke the writing into several different stages of analysis followed by writing. As students worked on each stage, I visited with each student to give feedback. This lessened the amount of feedback I would need to give later. We didn’t move on to one stage until a majority of the students had finished the first.

We began the way all Wikipedia articles begin, with the topic sentence, which consists of a definition that follows a formulaic pattern: “[Topic] is a [definition].”

Examples of topic sentences from Wikipedia:

Students’ first jobs were to write a clear definition of their topic. Writing a straight-forward definition turned out to be harder than thought and some students struggled with this more than any other part of the writing process. To help students, we drafted a sentence about our institution, including definition, together. This, combined with the Wikipedia exemplars, were very important in giving students a framework for composition.

Next, we looked at several full paragraphs from Wikipedia articles in order to determine what kind of background knowledge was needed. Students made a bullet-point outline for their background, to which I gave feedback. We also planned and wrote one together, using the definition we had written earlier about our institution. And then spent the rest of the class time (~20 mins) writing that section. Like the topic sentence, writing the background information was quite challenging, as students really had to divorce themselves from their own knowledge in order to see their topic the way a reader may see it. As I was unfamiliar with many of their topics (especially cricket), my feedback was crucial here. Students were expected to finish their background paragraphs for homework.

The next day, we met again and began looking at sections from different Wikipedia articles. We also looked at the differences between section and subsection. I had students write a list of sections and subsections that could be included in their articles. I then had them choose two or three to focus on for this particular project. I gave feedback on their section selection and then gave them the rest of class to research and write their sections.

I read each of their articles and provided content and grammar feedback. We met again to work on revising their work. In the next session, I introduced them to the Wikipedia Visual Editor. I showed them how to sign-up, use the sandbox (a practice writing area), and create a page. I also showed them how to write, link, and cite. They were very impressed with what the visual editor could do, and loved the fact that Wikipedia automatically looked up internal links to other Wikipedia articles, and that citation only required inputting information and not formatting in-text citations or a reference list (these are automatic). They also liked the ease with which you could create sections, and that the Wikipedia content box was also automatically created. I demonstrated all of these features by including my own practice article based on the paragraph we had written previously. I then gave them the remained of class time to work on their own pages.

We met in the lab one final time to clean up any formatting or language issues and finish the publication process. Some students were surprised to see warning boxes (such as issues of clarity, the article being an orphan, missing links, etc.) already on their articles. I showed students how to see the history of their article, explained that the changes could be from a person or from a bot (I honestly did not know), and that once they make the edits, they can delete the boxes). We spent the rest of the class time working on their articles. Finally, when they were satisfied and felt it was finished, students shared a link to their page with the rest of class.

REFLECTION

Tardy, author of the original article that inspired this project, meant for this to be an introduction to research. However, I used it as a capstone project. After completing this project, I feel I made the right decision. The genre analysis, very technical writing, and a new publishing environment already made students apprehensive of this project. If I had to tack on teaching about how to research, evaluate, summarize, paraphrase, and do citation as well, students would have definitely been overwhelmed. Academic writing, especially of the encyclopedic nature, requires a world of writing skills. Having this project at the end of the course allowed students to apply the skills they had already learned (and in the case of citations, modify) while being able to put more focus on genre analysis and even model text analysis. By foregrounding those skills in other assignments, students were more prepared for the challenges of writing for Wikipedia and could easily assimilate new ideas into existing conceptions of composition.

A definite major benefit of this approach was the emphasis on audience. Not only did writing for a real audience of potentially millions serve as a motivational (and stress) factor, but being able to consider their audience’s ability to understand their topic forced students to rethink clarity, background information, and conciseness. Many students struggled with this at first, which shows me that notions of audience had not been dealt with much in their writing experience.

Students also struggled with the semi-technical nature of the writing, that is, the very matter-of-fact, straight forward, just the facts ma’am, encyclopedic style that  Wikipedia requires. Many students struggled with not interjecting their own opinion into their topics, while a few more had issues with the lack of prose of a Wikipedia article. They had wanted to add the little flourishes of language that make things like essays interesting to read – things they had been taught to use time and time again. I truly believe this was their first non-essay assignment in English ever. Conveying the idea that this was not an essay was difficult because that is much of what we teach in our institute. This emphasizes an important point, one that is not new to many: that the essay is but one genre of many and that a well-rounded EAP students should have experience writing in multiple genres (e.g. essay, summary, literature review, case report). For my own teaching, and perhaps my own program, this also highlights the need for moving beyond an essay focus and branching out to other genres, especially at the upper levels.

Finally, the idea of genre analysis in general was new to both my students and myself. As I stated above, my program focuses mostly on essays, as did my previous university. However, there are other genres of importance that students should learn about. Genre analysis, the reading of multiple exemplars of a text and then striving to write one’s own text that fits within the discourse community being studied, is, as Christine Tardy mentioned during a workshop of hers that I attended, “…complicated and nuanced and it takes a lot of time”. (At this point, I’d like to say that I just realized the author of the Wikipedia article and the speaker at this presentation I attended were the same person, but I had no clue. I literally had a “Holy shit” moment as I looked at the workshop flyer and saw the speaker’s name!). Both my and my students’ lack of experience with it did present a challenge, but given that the encyclopedia/Wikipedia genre isn’t such a deviation from the essay genre, we were able to understand its different features. Like the above reflection regarding the need for multiple genres, this also shows that not only do students need more exposure to multiple genres, but they to learn a framework for analysis. Likewise, instructors need to not only offer opportunities for genre analysis but to better learn how to deliver such opportunities in the classroom. In other words, they need more training in genre analysis.

Finally, my students themselves regarded this project as very interesting and worthwhile. I could tell many of them were motivated to explain the topics that interested them. In a follow-up survey, I asked students several questions about the project. Here is how they responded:

  • Do you think it [this project] was beneficial to you? All students answered “yes”.
  • Do you think a reader will find it useful? Every student but one answered “yes”. The other students answered “maybe”.
  • Are you satisfied with your article? Same results.
  • Will you tell other people about the article you wrote? All students answered “yes”.
  • Any comments about the Wikipedia project? Only three students left comments:
    • “It was very difficult to me, I don’t know how to use technologies I guess but I know I need it and it was challenging but at the end you feel ok with things you did”
    • “It was really interesting project, but I am still not sure that what I wrote is really useful ^^;;;;”
    • “It was very useful and good experience.”

The survey questions themselves show me that this was a positive and beneficial experience. The open-ended questions lead me to believe students did not really feel finished with their work. “At the end you feel OK with things you did” actually sounds quite negative, but I’m not sure if it can be interpreted like that. “I am still not sure what I wrote is really useful” shows me the student is still considering their readers, and although they may not feel it is useful, what they wrote adds to a greater body of knowledge in the world, which is something I think all students who completed this project should realize. They not only wrote something and put it online for the world to see, but they actually added knowledge to the world in some way. Perhaps this was something I should have stressed more in class.I learned a lot from the topics that they wrote about, things I would not have learned or heard about otherwise.

All in all, I feel that I have learned so much from this process and from the students. I feel it was extremely beneficial to both of us and it is a project I will definitely repeat in the future.

 

Links to Student Articles

Below are links to my students’ actual Wikipedia article. I consider many of the articles to be of very good quality, though there are several that need to be cleaned up in terms of their grammar or citations. At least one needs more clarity and clarification. The nature of Wikipedia, however, is that, because it is free and open, others can come along and add, subtract, and rework what my students have done, reaffirming that this Wikipedia project is truly renewable.

 

The Coming War in EAP (Writing)

I write this post at a time where Donald Trump has just won the 2016 presidential election and the future of international education is uncertain. Perhaps this has got me thinking in terms of politics and political metaphors, but the war I am talking about is more detached and niche from the current state of American politics, and even international education.

In fact, the notion of a “war” itself comes from one of Christopher Tribble’s (2016) latest articles in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes, called “ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?”. It deals with the current tensions within English for Academic Purposes Writing Instruction (EAPWI, or what we could call #eapacrwri for cool hashtag purposes). The article has a particular emphasis on the native vs. non-native speaker dichotomy and its (mis)application to EAPWI, but I will save that for a future ELT Research Bites post.

In his article, Tribble outlines four major EAPWI paradigms that are now being placed at odds against each other:

  • Intellectual/Rhetorical, based on North Americans freshman comp classes, process writing, and the “essayist” tradition. Think your typical 3.5 paragraph essay.
  • Social/Genre, based on genre analysis, reading exemplar texts, and writing based on disciplinary conventions of moves and stages.
  • Academic Literacies / Critical EAP, based on challenging existing power structures (e.g. professor vs student, university vs student), “subversive discourse” (see Bensch, 2009), and assuming “alternative identities” (see Canagarajah, 2009).
  • English as a Lingua Franca Academic (ELFA), based on the rejection the unequal power structure in which students are forced to conform to native-speaker norms.

While reading the descriptions of these, I couldn’t help but notice loose parallels to major political ideologies in America. For example, the Intellectual/Rhetorical approach seems to share similar ideas to libertarianism, where individual rights are priority and only minor interventions from government are tolerated. In terms of writing, as Tribble argues (p. 31), the Intellectual/Rhetorical tradition favors “individual inventiveness” in the essayist tradition, and follows rhetorical conventions without concern for discipline (read: greater society). The Social/Genre approach seems to be aligned with conservatism, favoring tradition (i.e. genre conventions) over individual inventiveness. However, it also promotes analysis, emphasis on audience, and eventually challenged , mirroring more liberal and democratic socialist approaches. The Critical EAP approach is akin to social activism or Marxism, focusing on and challenging power structures. Finally, the EFLA approach parallels anarchism, the absence of authority. Here, all native-speakers and their linguistic products are seen as overly authoritative, and any English that is to flourish must do so without any authority. Again, these are loose parallels drawn while reading with the previous election season still burning in the back of my mind.

Where social activism/anarchism and these EAPWI paradigms really depart is in, as Tribble points out, Critical EAP and EFLA having made little to no impact on pedagogy and instruction (unlike these approaches, social activism and anarchism have made important impacts on society). In fact, he wonders whether it is even worthwhile to critique from the context of pedagogy such approaches that may exist solely to raise issues rather than to be instructional. However, as ELF is making some (and what Tribble considers positive) effects on pronunciation instruction, it must mean EFLA is trying to affect pedagogy in some way. How it is doing so is unclear at this point.

Tribbles explains that Jenkins has put these approaches into a hierarchy, where the Intellectual/Rhetorical and Social/Genre approaches are seen as conforming and therefore lowest on the hierarchy and easiest to negate; Critical EAP is seen as challenging but worthy of the top-tier (Tribbles muses it may be because challenge is doomed to fail), and ELFA is at the pinnacle, seen as a paradigm shift even though, as Tribble points out, it offers no pedagogical applications, and, therefore, what paradigms are actually to be changed is quite opaque.

So, ELFA is setting itself up as the ultimate challenger and is hoping to cause disruptions in other (conformist, challenging) writing approaches. This is mostly achieved by focusing on dichotomies, especially the native vs non-native dichotomy. Tribble does a great job taking apart this notion of native vs. non-native dichotomies in EAPWI. While this is something I will write about in a future post on ELT Research Bites, I’d like to shift back to the “paradigm war” that Tribble refers to.

ELFA is not a sign of a coming war; the war has already been waging for years. The real war here is that the war between the Intellectual/Rhetorical (I/R) and the Social/Genre (S/G) approaches that have been raging for quite some time. Not only is the I/R approach winning in terms of published materials (most major EAP writing coursebooks follow the process writing and I/R approach), but they are still the dominant approach in many university-based English language programs and ESL courses (perhaps because of the coursebooks?).

What’s interesting is that the very foundation of the I/R approach, that is, freshman composition, is actually moving away from essayism and a focus on literature, and instead moving towards the genre-approach. I recently attended a talk by Christine Tardy from the University of Arizona. She talked about the rise of the genre analysis approach in freshman comp, and what is preventing it from flourishing. The subtitle of her talk, based on her research with graduate students teaching English courses, sums it up: “It’s complicated and nuanced, and it takes a lot of time.”

How do you teach genre awareness and genre-based writing if students do not know their major, are from vastly different majors, will have to write in a variety of genres during the beginning of their academic career, or have issues in their language skills that may be better addressed by more traditional approaches to writing? Is the I/R approach more generalizable than the S/G approach? Some research has pointed to the inadequacy of the I/R tradition for preparing students for academic writing. However, S/G may not effectively address these concerns.

Critical EAP and ELF (but not ELFA) have raised valid issues, but don’t seem to be offering anything in the way of real solutions or pedagogical implications. As Tribble points out, “it is necessary to adopt paradigms that will help to meet the needs of our students, rather than attempting to introduce new paradigms which do not appear to be premised on an understanding of how academic written communication differs from speaking” (p. 40). As the new war wages in the distance, mostly in academic journals, the old war still burns bright in the hearts and minds (and hands) of teachers and students, reminding us that the search continues for the best method, even if there is no best method.

References

Benesch, S. (2009). Theorizing and practicing critical English for academic purposes. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(2), 81-85.

Canagarajah, S. (2004). Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses, and critical learning. In B. Norton, & K. Toohey (Eds.), Critical pedagogies and language
learning (pp. 116-137). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tribble, C. (2017). ELFA vs. Genre: A new paradigm war in EAP writing instruction?. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 25, 30-44.

Reading with a Purpose: Practical Ideas for Connecting Reading and Writing

There have been a number of scholars who have not only called on pursuing a more connected relationship between reading and writing, but facilitating this through reading with a purpose. If you assign reading, especially if you teach classes that focus on reading (I teach reading-only classes, you may have noticed that often the only purpose of reading is to read, maybe answer a few questions (multiple choice, true false), and maybe use the text as a springboard for related discussion or writing.

The problem here is that this approach neither represents academic reading nor serious or critical engagement with the text. Academic reading rarely approaches reading from a comprehension-check point of vue. Instead, it requires serious engagement with the text in order to learn knowledge, apply knowledge, or critically evaluate related content. In addition, academic reading is often intimately connected with writing.

Even if you do not teach English for academic purposes, our everyday purposes for reading are typically are also not represented by the coursebook. Rarely do we read to check our comprehension. We always read for a purpose: learn something new, support or refute and opinion, apply something we read to a new situation or solve a problem, and even write a blog post about what we read.

Therefore, I’ve made a more focused goal of giving as much purpose as possible to the readings we do in class. For this post, I’m going to focus on an intermediate and advanced reading classes to exemplify some of the assignments I have given and the purposes they fulfill.

Summary – Prove your understanding

Have you ever read an interesting article and then told your friend about it? Have you ever read an anger-inducing article and then wrote about it, but had to boil down the main ideas before you could pick them apart? That is summary at work. It is a very basic writing (and speaking) skill that is applicable in all sorts of situations, especially academic ones.

I make it an effort to stress summary writing for many of our readings. I tell students the purpose of their reading is to explain the article or arguments to another person using their own words and through writing. Summary writing is a very general assignment and, while it may seem like a very didactic and teacher-focused assignment (which, to a large extent it is) it is still a base skill that is needed for many other types of writing. And, it is a gentle way to introduce students to reading with a purpose.

I like to teach summarizing by having students take notes on what they are reading, and reconfigure those notes into bullet-point summaries. Once they have bullet-point summaries down, I show how they can transform those summaries into paragraph summaries. This can further be trimmed to three sentence, one sentence, and Twitter summaries!

Evaluation – Prove your point

Getting students to read and then state their opinion is nice, but it really is not making them responsible for the text. It is simply using the text as an inspiration, or what Leki and Carson (1997) call “non-text responsible writing” – something that serves “to infantilize our students, denying them a stance of engagement with serious and compelling subject matter”.

Instead of offering their opinion of a text, idea, or argument, what students can do is critically evaluate that text, or the idea from another text. For example, students in my intermediate reading class read a bland article about fast food that you could find in pretty much any coursebook. One of the paragraphs focused on the negative health effects of fast food and contained a single sentence that stated fast food restaurants are trying to address these effects by introducing healthier food. My students also read this LA Times article (from Newsela, at a slightly lower level) that presented research which claimed “that the location where foods are obtained may not be as important as the nutritional quality of the foods consumed;” in other words, overall diet played a more important role than fast food restaurants, and in fact, often influenced a person’s choice about eating fast food.

I didn’t assign any questions or quizzes about this article. I simply told students we are going to use this research-based argue to evaluate whether fast food restaurants offering healthy choices would be effective for reducing obesity. Students had to write a paragraph explaining their evaluation of this move, and support their evaluation with evidence from the reading. Some students struggled because they did not know how to use an article as support (another crucial skill). Others simply wanted to give their opinion unrelated to the article. But, after working with students, there were many successful assignments completed.

Student Example

Almost all the customers tend to choose meals that are include a lot of fats, sugar, and salt if the restaurants offer fruits, salad, and yogurt. In addition, we don’t gain weight or become obese just because we eat fast-food. According to the research, people who eat non-fast food are also overweight or obese. Therefore, fast-food restaurants that offer healthy meals would not be effective for avoiding overweight and obese. Because not only fast-foods but also other high calorie foods are the reason why we become overweight or obese.

 

Comparison – Show the connection

Being able to compare and contrast two arguments, two ideas, or two texts gives student great practice in summary, evaluation, and explanation. However, trying to find a text that is similar to the generic ones in most coursebooks is often difficult, but not impossible. In one of my advanced reading classes, the coursebook an excerpt from two books: Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman and The Struggle to Be an All-American Girl by Elizabeth Wong. These excerpts focused on students adapting to different cultures and gave my readers a great chance to explore comparison and contrast. They read both articles with the purpose of comparing the authors’ experiences. Not only did this give them a realistic purpose for reading, but it also helped them focus their reading skills, making them pay attention to things they could compare and contrast.

Student Example

Eva Hoffman and Elizabeth Wong have two similar and two different experiences with each other. The first similarity between them is adapting to a new language and culture. For example, just as  Eva became cold in her language and more careful in speaking, such as trying not to be direct and loud or using gestures closely as Canadians, so did Elizabeth. Chinese was embarrassing for her and “[her] favorite heroine never spoke Chinese”, so she probably did not like any Chinese heroines. The second similarity between Eva and Elizabeth is the loss of their mother’s authority over their children. In the same way that Eva’s mother lost her sureness of controlling her children and did not know the new rules to know what they were are doing, Elizabeth’s mother failed at in controlling her children to be Chinese and they felt more American and multicultural.

 

Students can also compare ideas within a text. Newsela offers a great number of PRO/CON articles that offer two expert perspectives on an issue. For an upcoming reading test in an advanced class, students will read this article about the $15 minimum wage controversy. Their purpose for reading this is to understand the two authors’ arguments and choose one to support based on which argument is presented the most persuasively. Their writing assignment requires them to summarize the main arguments by comparing and contrasting them, and then based on the arguments, explain which position they support.

Application – Apply your understanding

These are often my most creative assignments in terms of academic writing. They ask students to take what they have read and learned and apply it to a new situation, often offering suggestions or recommendations. This works especially well for articles that discuss research. For example, intermediate level students just read an article on the different effects of music. Instead of simply answering questions about the article (which we did do for intensive reading practice), students also had to take the research in the books and apply it to our institute. I asked students to suggest how we could use music to improve student experiences. It was made explicit that they needed to use the article to support their suggestion. This require them to read the article with a view on what is practical and could potentially apply to their (student) lives. Here is a writing that I got:

Student Example

I think ELI could use music to improve students experiences. According to the reading passage, music can affect humans in different ways. Also, it can help students when they study and have to relieve stress. If students have problem about memorizing, music can help them. Because music has strong influence on memory. For example, if ELI teachers make songs that relate with English words, students who have hard time to remember English words can memorize that more easily. Also, listening to music is good way for releasing stress and relaxing body. Research in the article The Power of Music shows that lots of doctors utilize music to reduce stress. So it is useful to ELI students who are stressful because of studying or preparing exam. And if we find songs that make us relax and feel better, it will be good for students or teachers too.

 

These are but a few examples of the different ways we can transform generic readings, ones which often have a reading-only focus, into purpose-driven writing assignments that ask students to engage with the text. This approach to reading/writing gives students crucial practice in important skills and makes reading more authentic, and in my opinion, more enjoyable.

References
Leki, I., & Carson, J. (1997). “Completely different worlds”: EAP and the writing experiences of ESL students in university courses. TESOL quarterly,31(1), 39-69.

Adapting Close Reading Questions for the ARC Highlighter Role

The Highlighter role of Academic Reading Circles is language focused. A great deal of research in academic reading and writing has stressed the need for building academic vocabulary (see my previous post for an example of this research). Academic vocabulary is not so easily defined, however. Academic vocabulary differs depending on genre, purpose, audience, and discipline among other factors. Still, there are some commonly used words that apply across most disciplines. Learning these is essential, but a good reader needs to also be able to grasp one-off discipline specific vocabulary. By doing so, it is hoped that they build not only the skills to handle this vocabulary, but actually add it to their own mental lexicon.

The Highlighter role for ARCs does a good job at addressing both types of vocabulary in learner-centered, intensive, and collaborative ways. Students discuss and explore both discipline-specific and academic or general vocabulary, looking at its meaning, usage, and related words. Through discussion, association, and repeated encounters, students are more likely to assimilate, remember, or recall the vocabulary.

However, there is a lot more to vocabulary than a word or phrase’s meaning. It’s usage in context at the sentence- and paragraph-level, its connotation, and the decision to use one word as opposed to another are also important. What’s more, a sentence or group of sentences can affect how a word’s meaning and purpose is understood and interpreted by a reader. While the Highlighter role does stress looking at context and even language usage (“tonal language”), I have found that this focus has either been too vague or too lexically/locally focused. This may not be true for ARC users, but in my experience, unless I am closely monitoring a group, even after much modelling, there still remains a superficial focus for most students.

To address vocabulary and meaning from a difference perspective, I recently experimented with integrating strategies of close reading into the Highlighter role, with great success. I had students keep their focus on topical vocabulary and keywords. However, instead of the “tonal language,” I had students apply close reading questions for specific words, sentences, or passages of the text. These questions were adapted from a close reading guide discussed in a previous post. Each question starts with “Look at ______”, in which line numbers would be written. I asked students to choose three interesting phrases, sentences, quotes, or passages, and apply the questions to them. The questions I adapted are:

  • Quotes or citations: What is their purpose? Are they credible?
  • Language Usage: Look at ______. Why has the author used one word rather than another? How could change the words change the sentence’s meaning?
  • Transitions: Look at ______. What connections do the transitions words or phrases represent?
  • Statements: Look at ______. When you read a particular statement, how does its meaning change? What can you infer from the statement?
  • Background: Look at ______. What are the author’s beliefs or assumptions? How do you know this?
  • Organization: Look at ______. How has the author organized their points?
  • Numerical Data: Why is this data here? Could it be understood differently? Is it believable?

Questions such as these gave students a greater focus on trying to understand how and why language was used – important skills for developing academic reading. I also found that by having students ask these questions, the discussions became a bit more interesting, and involved students really working with the language to try to interpret the author’s meaning. To me, it revealed those who are still struggling with superficial reading based on mental translation or very shallow processing of a passage.

My first few attempts at using these have convinced me that they are worth exploring further. I am wondering what other questions and what other ways would be useful to build a stronger focus on language usage during independent intensive reading and group discussion. In what other ways can the Highlighter role be strengthened?

Research Bites: Using Close Reading for Academic Texts and Writing

Freedman, L. (2015). Using close reading as a course theme in a multilingual disciplinary classroom. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(2), 262. [link]

Leora Freedman, from the University of Toronto, describes a 300-level university Asian Studies class (taught by Janet Poole), consisting of domestic and international students and their approach to reading academic texts, especially theoretical texts from authors such as Foucault, de Certeau, and others. This course was organized around close reading, “a simplified method of reading, sections of a text iteratively and critically” (p. 263). It was argued that such an approach would benefit all students, and both L1 and L2 readers have difficulties with academic texts.

The approach in this course relied heavily on modeling, paraphrase, thinking aloud, and questioning. The course instructor would choose sections of the text that contained key ideas. She would then paraphrase the section, helping students understand the academic vocabulary and expressions. She would analyze statements, look at ambiguities, look at author purpose or perspective, or contrast a statement with something earlier or by another author. In addition, individual words and phrases were analyzed for how nuances of meaning depending on context, purpose, or perspective. After students were familiar with this process, the instructor gave students a worksheet to help them approach texts in the same way, following ideas of close reading:

  1. Organization of points: What seems to be the author’s persuasive strategy? Is it convincing?
  2. Author’s theoretical tendency: Is it stated or unstated? What are the author’s underlying assumptions? What evidence do you see for this?
  3. Quotations: What is their purpose? Are these sources credible? 
  4. Comparisons: How is this idea treated in other texts on this subject?
  5. Diction: Why has the author used one word rather than another? How would changing the diction of a sentence change its meaning?
  6. Terminology: What disciplinary vocabulary is used here? How are these words used differently in other texts?
  7. Details: What is the significance of this detail? How does it relate to the larger purpose of the text?
  8. Numerical data: Why is it here? Could it be interpreted differently? Is it believable? 
  9. Transitions: Where do you see transitional words or phrases? What logical connections do they suggest?
  10. Relationship of parts to whole: How does this passage relate to the overarching purpose of the text or its overall argument?
  11. Further implications: When you reflect on a particular statement, how does its meaning change? What can you infer, even if it’s not directly stated?
  12. Remaining questions: What questions are not answered by this passage or text? Did the author intend to answer them?

(Reproduced from Freedman, 2015)

The instructor moved from reading to writing by explaining (through think aloud) how students can use concepts and readings in their own writings. This part of the course focused on critical thinking and reflection, which was seen as an important starting place for writing.

The author offers anecdotal evidence that this approach does in fact improve students’ reading and writing abilities. This evidence comes from other colleagues in the department who have these students after completing Poole’s course.


 

In a previous Research Bites post of mine, Leki argued that reading does not have to be an individual activity. Rather, there is more benefit to the social (de)construction of texts. By working together to read, paraphrase, and question key aspects of a text (following some of the principles of close reading) we are more likely to engender really good critical reading behavior in students who typically do not read at a critical or academic level. He approach to dissecting a text, paraphrasing, looking at context, looking at the polysemy of vocabulary – all of these are critical skills. This article shows how they can be tied together in a way that is scaffolded and which easily transfers to writing.

(Academic Reading Circles is another great method that employs many of these close reading strategies.)

 

Close Reading Resources

  • http://nieonline.com/tbtimes/downloads/CCSS_reading.pdf

 

Integrating Reading and Writing At Lower Levels

In my last few posts on Research Bites, I have focused on the integration of reading and writing. Few would probably argue against this. Writing based on reading is a vital skill, especially in EAP. However, I have heard concerns that this cannot be done at lower levels because students are still working with the basic language and mechanics of writing in English, academic or otherwise.

However, unless they are writing entirely based on their personal experiences and histories, they are likely already using reading to influence their writing. In other words, they are already doing research. The problem, however, is that this research often enters their writing either as plagiarism or as ideas without veracity. Let me explain:

Even at low levels where students are just learning to write paragraphs, students turn to the internet for ideas. While they could generate their own ideas through discussion and conversation, using the internet for research is a fundamental skill and is therefore not necessarily bad. However, it’s the type of sites they use that poses the problem.

A students who is writing about the advantages or disadvantages of social media may brainstorm their own ideas, but they are also just as likely to google it, finding pages from sites like loveetoknow.com, Quora, and even Yahoo! Answers. Without a framework for both generating their own ideas and evaluating ideas they find on the internet, students are treading dangerous territory. Even if they paraphrase the material, they are reinforcing poor habits of integrating reading with writing.

The good news is that there is at least a framework to start from, even if is not one of citation and attribution as is common in Western academia. This is the place to start, even at lower levels. Because they are already in the habit of doing this, it provides us an opportunity to instill a tradition of evaluating sources, paraphrasing, and eventually acknowledgment. The key, I think, to integrating reading, at any level, is scaffolding.

I have just begun to do this in my own classes and will continue to develop a method to ease students into the habit of properly using reading for writing. Below is a rough outline of what such a method could look like.

 

1. Choosing the topic

First, students need to choose a broad topic to write about. They might be chosen by a coursebook, the teacher, students, etc. For example, the 2016 Olympics might be an interesting topic to write about.

2. Doing basic research

There are a lot of places to find research, but for lower level students, I’d start with a source such as Newsela, which offers news articles and reports at multiple different levels, including very easily levels that are accessible to beginning learners. My search for “Olympics” turned up these articles related to the 2016 games:

Before reading, students can brainstorm a list of places to find information. Here, you can help students understand what is a good source and what is a poor source and why. It is a chance to teach the basics of source evaluation, which will hopefully help them avoid using sites like netessays.net and its ilk. In fact, I’d explicitly bring such websites up and explain why and how to avoid them.

3. Reading and discussion

Students should read the articles (here’s an opportunity to teach summary writing if you’d like). and discuss their articles with a partner or group. In this way, they can talk about their topic and set their sights on something interesting within their topic.

4. Questioning

Have students write questions about their topic. The readings should have already influenced their thinking and their questions will likely reflect both the topic and the readings. Here, you can help students write questions and draw the connections between the questions and the organization of their writing (and even the language required for each question). For example, I might want to focus on the negative effects of the 2016 Olympic games. I could ask: “What are the negative effects of the 2016 Olympic games?” This type of question calls for a cause-effect focus, which will require words such as “cause,” “effect,” “As a result,” and so on – language related to that particular rhetorical function.

5. Brainstorming and outlining

Have students put their readings away. This is very important because you do not their readings to be the main influence on their writing. If they focus too much on the readings, their writing will become a summary instead of a well-thought out cause-effect argument. With their articles away, students should start brainstorming any ideas related to the topic. You should stress that they do not have to focus on the articles but instead make their own ideas. Once they have enough ideas, you can help them outline their writing. This can be done however you usually do it. You could read a model and outline that, or you could write one together as a class – however you see fit.

6. Integration

This is where scaffolding and feedback will be very important. You will have to help students determine the best places to integrate the ideas they read about. It will be important for them to understand right away that the ideas they read are not the main ideas of their writing but rather support. This will be easier if students already understand the basic organizational structure of writing (e.g. topic sentence, major support, minor support for a paragraph – evidence often appears as minor support, but works well as major support in an essay or longer writing). This is a good time to teach phrases like “for example” or “for instance”. The point here is students should see where and where not to use their readings in the outline, before writing.

7. Scaffolding citation

It should be made clear that all writing should be students’ own words. Simple paraphrasing activities could help them avoid copy and pasting phrases or sentences into the article. Quoting can also be taught. Because students are still learning basic English writing skills, the idea of citation should be scaffolded so as to not overburden students with work. The way I would start is to have students simply supply the links for any ideas used for the articles. They can do so on those parts using the comment feature in Word or Google Docs or make a simple not of it on paper. After students are used to providing links and paraphrasing, you can teach attribution phrases like “According to person” or “In ‘Article Title’, Author says…”. Phrases that help link using evidence to their sources. As students’ writing abilities progress and as their work becomes longer, more advanced citation skills can be taught.

Method to Practice

In this example, I had students in a high-beginner/lower-intermediate writing course do readings first before picking a topic. I asked students to search Newsela for an article that showed cause, effect, or both. They had to read the article, summarize it, and then discuss it with a partner in class. One student read about the causes of an epidemic of star fish deaths on the West coast. Another student read about invasive rats in Australia. I had students think about their topic in a broader way: the death of coral reefs, invasive species. Students came up with their own ideas about their topics. Others did more research on Newsela to find articles that could help them generate ideas. Students outlined their essays and wrote about their topics. When they outlined their essays, I helped them see (through whole-class modeling and one on one feedback) where and how they could use evidence. The student writing about coral reefs discussed the effects of dying coral on tourism, sea life, and the world. She was able to use the star fish article to add examples of the negative effects on sea life. The student writing about invasive species used the article on rats both in the introduction to provide an example of invasive species and in a paragraph about invasive animals, using rats as one example. These essays turned out quite well, especially being one of the first times integrating reading with their writing. In fact, it was the first time I experimented with the method above.

The method outlined above can be changed and modified in many ways. The goal of this method is simply to find an easy way to scaffold the proper use of sources and help students learn the vital skill of integrating reading with writing. It will definitely help if you model this process with them, reading, brainstorming, outlining, and writing an example together. This way, your expectations are clear. At any step along the way, there are numerous different linguistic, mechanical, and rhetorical skills that can be taught, so there are a lot of ways to expand on the basic method I have outlined.

I hope it is clear that integrating writing with reading at lower levels is not only a good idea, but is feasible. As I continue to work with my lower-level writing classes, I will apply, tweak, and refine the method. Students are already wanting to use the internet to help them write their essays. I want to make sure that they do so in a way that is conducive to good writing and helps them avoid engendering bad habits. In this way, I hope to make their through the complex world of EAP writing a little bit easier.

Principled Washback: Integrating Test Prep to Foster Academic Skills

(This post is a companion to the presentation I gave at the 2016 Toronto TESOL Conference. To download my presentation click here. To download my handout, click here.)

DEFINITIONS

washback (n.) the impact of a test on teaching

“Washback is considered harmful…when there is a serious disjunct between a test’s construct…and the broader demands of real world or target language tasks” (Moore, Morton, & Price, p. 6)

principled (adj.) 1. based on the principles of pedagogy 2. based on research

“Principled pragmatism is based on the pragmatics of pedagogy…Principled pragmatism thus focuses on how classroom learning can be shaped and managed by teachers as a result of informed teaching and critical appraisal” (Kumaravadivelu, 1994)

principled washback (n.) focuses on how test preparation can be shaped and managed by teachers as a result of informed teaching (through research and pedagogy) and critical appraisal (of both tests and academic skills)

INTRODUCTION

Many educators in EAP have the dual role of preparing students for success in the university classroom as well as preparing them for high-stakes gatekeeping tests like IELTS and TOEFL. Whether we like these tests or not, that students’ entrance into the academic world depends on these tests makes our job makes our job both more important and more difficult. If we focus too much on the test, we are sacrificing important long-term skills students will need to survive in academia. If we focus solely on academic skills, students might be OK, but they may not feel prepared for the test or satisfied with their classes, which are perceived as not meeting their (short-term) needs. Principled washback is meant to find a happy middle ground that addresses test prep skills en route to addressing academic skills.

Principled washback considers the academic demands of the classroom, the academic demands of the test, and then looks for overlaps in order to focus and frame instruction. These overlaps serve as starting points of instruction that reference test skills and perhaps emulate test questions but actually move students along to important work academic areas not addressed by these tests.

The IELTS and TOEFL are broken up into four parts: speaking, reading, listening, and writing. The IELTS treats these as separate (which speaks to its validity a bit) while the TOEFL iBT separates them AND integrates them. For my presentation and this blog post, I will separate them and then offer some ideas for integration. Continue reading