Taiwanese, Buddhist Nun, PhD student, educator, author, friend … the multiple identities of a truly inspirational woman

It’s not every day a Taiwanese Buddhist nun walks into your office and asks if she can study with you.  But this is exactly what happened to me six years ago.  Not only is she remarkable in every way, as you will read below, but she has this warm, calming quality about her that just makes you feel blessed to be in her presence.  I’ve chosen to feature her story on this blog to celebrate her and all the wonderful international students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching over the years. 

If you’ve ever been curious about mindfulness or about returning to education as a mature student or about studying in a second language or about doing a PhD, then read on.  This interview may just provide you with the inspiration you need to make a change in your life.

 

What made you decide to return to education and pursue a Master’s degree in the UK?

Two reasons really. First, I really wanted to improve my English to a level that I can use the language really well across all four skills.  Secondly, I wanted to return to higher education to extend my knowledge and to see how it could help me increase my potential or create opportunities for me to impact positively on society and help me fulfill my dreams.

 

Did you have any initial concerns/worries returning as a mature student?

I had quite severe self-doubt and lack of confidence because it had been 10 years since I left school. 

 

And did any of these concerns materialize? If so, how did you overcome them?

Yes! I struggled so much with my first presentation. My lecturer encouraged us to talk instead of read from a script so I practised in front of the mirror over and over. But I remember very clearly that once I finished one slide and had to turn to another, my mind went completely blank. I couldn’t remember any content at all on the next slide. 

My essays were also difficult. I had no idea how to approach my first essay. And because the essay question was so open, that really made me feel like I didn’t know how to do it. I was used to a very specific and structured question and this openness made me feel intimidated.

But through tutor feedback, I gradually started to understand what was required and how knowledge was constructed and presented.

You know, looking back, I realise that we should never underestimate people’s potential.  Just look how far I’ve come since that first presentation. Now, I’ve given so many talks and at prestigious conferences and my last one was to an audience of around 60-70 people and it was received really well and everybody was engaged.  I spoke very confidently and even went off-script for about 50% of it. So really, I’ve improved a lot.  Now, I’m much more able to talk freely.  I feel amazed.  My presentations have undergone such a dramatic change.  And now when I see my audience and they understand me and they are engaged and ask me questions, I feel a great sense of achievement.

 

What is your PhD topic?

I’m exploring how mindfulness is perceived and practised in my Buddhist tradition, which is Chinese Chan Buddhism.

 

What sort of impact do you hope your completed thesis will have in the fields of education or religion or philosophy?

I truly believe that a lot of concepts or practice in relation to mindfulness in my tradition can be widely inspiring for many people in different fields. No matter where you come from or what your job is, we all need to deal with our manners, our minds, we all have the space to improve how we react to events, how we deal with certain phenomena and how we calm ourselves down.  After a busy day, we need to know how to recalibrate. And I think, or at least I’m hoping, my research can add some new insights or add more layers to our current understanding of mindfulness practice.

 

I wonder if you think that mindfulness can be useful to teachers, lecturers and students in everyday classrooms? And, if so, how can we build mindfulness into our lessons?

 Of course! First of all, I think we need a very clear target of what it is we want our students to improve.  Mindfulness is all about the quality of the mind. We believe that if we improve the quality of our minds – the concentration, the tranquility, the calmness and the clarity - we can have a real positive impact on students’ learning. 

So the first thing to do is to make it clear what our aim is and then we can design small tasks to address these aims. For example, one aim might be to boost students’ concentration or another aim might be to have students focus on their breathing in order to detach from unnecessary noises in their minds. 

Currently, I run a seminar on campus and at the start of each seminar I get students to stand up and do some tai chi. By getting them to pay attention to their breathing and focus on different movements, this shifts their attention to another level and helps them understand themselves.

Our minds are always active; by stopping this activity and increasing our level of awareness and knowing what we are doing, this is the beginning of disconnecting ourselves, temporarily, from threads of thought that consume our energy and are not really meaningful or constructive.

 

A PhD is a journey. There are ups and downs and periods of self-doubt and isolation.  I wonder what you’ve learned about yourself going on this kind of journey?

I really appreciate PhD study because it not only helps me enhance my analytical, cognitive and academic skills, but it also helps me understand my limitations and shortcomings and also my emotional patterns. You know, when you encounter difficulties, you start to see how you react. Do you react by solving problems constructively or do you self-pity or do you procrastinate? It’s like good practice, monitoring how you deal with issues.  I understand myself more through this journey. It’s a little bit like a meditation retreat in a way. You constantly try to challenge the boundaries in your mind, your limitations, and you try to push yourself beyond these things.

 

I know that you’ve also experienced some personal tragedy, sadly, on two occasions, whilst you’ve been studying here in the UK.  I wonder if you might be able to tell us how you managed to cope with these events and to re-focus on your studies?

I think it’s down to your perception. It’s interesting you call them ‘tragedies.’ I don’t perceive them as tragedies. I perceive them as phenomena and they are expected phenomena. Death is natural and everybody will encounter it. It’s also down to my training in the past. I know that it is something inescapable; it’s just a matter of time. It’s just a natural phenomenon. When you change your perception, you don’t define it as tragedy. It’s just an event you need to deal with. Then you need to ask yourself how you can learn most from this phenomenon and how you can do your best in helping yourself and in helping others experience this event in a beautiful way.

 

The reason I wanted to talk to you is because you’re probably the best learner I’ve ever encountered.  You take every opportunity to learn in every aspect of your life and you’re always looking for opportunities to better yourself.  Is that fair to say?

I feel like everything in your life is a reflection of yourself; it’s a mirror for you to learn more about yourself. I just try to see everything as an opportunity to understand who I am and how I can be a better person. For me everything has meaning and value.  I want to know who I am, the meaning of being here, how to be a better person and how to benefit others.

 

What advice would you give other international students considering post-graduate study in the UK?

I think the best advice I would give is for everyone to recognize his or her own uniqueness.  Just because you come from a different cultural or linguistic background, it doesn’t mean you are inferior. Everyone has a valuable contribution to make.  Together we can bring together our knowledge and experiences, learn from each other and contribute to a body of knowledge or even create new knowledge, new strategies and new solutions.

 

And finally, what advice would you give to lecturers and supervisors re: teaching/supervising learners with diverse cultural, educational and linguistic backgrounds?

I think one fundamental thing is not forgetting that ultimately we are teaching human beings.  Genuine interaction between human beings is what is important. Seeing students not as customers but as human beings with emotions, life experiences, families, dreams, etc.  Each person is dynamic and constantly evolving. It’s about seeing a person holistically. They are more than a grade or an English score.  If we can remember this and engage in genuine interaction -  one person to another person - then hopefully we can create a better quality of education.

Ya Chu Lee is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Lancaster University (y.lee16@lancaster.ac.uk)

How to plan and deliver your first presentation

Oral presentations (given either individually or in groups) are a common form of assessment at British universities. If you're not used to them (and even if you are!), they can be a nerve-wracking experience.  Here is some simple yet effective advice to guide you through the process. Remember - the more you do the easier they become, so practise and repeat!

Preparation

  • Plan the content of your talk carefully keeping in mind your audience (e.g. if your audience is not familiar with key/technical vocabulary you will need to explain it).
  • Think about the structure of your talk.  Make sure it has a clear introduction, a main body and a conclusion. Try to think of a way to grab the audience’s attention when you start and a way to keep them thinking about your content after you’ve finished (e.g. a rhetorical question or image to start and maybe a different question or piece of advice or warning to end).
  • Make your talk easy to understand and use visual aids effectively (i.e. use bullet points of main ideas only, or use simple diagrams, graphs, pictures to illustrate key points).
  • Make your talk interesting, e.g. use humour, anecdotes, metaphors, repetition, tripling, etc., as appropriate.
  • Don’t write down your talk word for word.  Use small cards with key words and phrases to help you remember.  Number the cards so that if you drop them you don’t ruin your talk.
  • Practise giving your talk in advance.  Stand in front of a mirror or video record yourself.  Notice your posture, facial expressions, gestures, pace, pausing, intonation etc.
  • Time your talk.

 

Presentation

  • Don’t panic! If you’ve done your preparation well, you will know more about the topic than anyone else in the room.  This should give you confidence.
  • Stand tall, feet about shoulder width apart (or less), and where you can be seen by everyone. Try not to fidget.  Check you’re not blocking your visual aids.
  • Your talk should be SAID not READ. Talk around the bullet points on your visual aids, giving more details, examples and explanation.
  • Maintain eye contact with your audience. Naturally shift your gaze from one person to another around the room.
  • Try to avoid fillers (e.g. umm, ahhh, like, etc.) and overly long pauses (unless used purposely for dramatic effect).
  • Pitch your voice to the people at the back of the room and don’t talk too quickly. If you hear yourself speeding up, make a conscious effort to slow down.
  • Look as though you are enjoying what you’re doing.  Enjoyment is like measles; it’s infectious!
  • If you get nervous, a couple of deep breaths and a smile will help.  If you’ve brought a bottle of water, take a sip.
  • At the end of your presentation, ask if anyone has any questions.  Allow the audience a couple of minutes to think of some.

 

Fielding Questions

  • When answering questions, look at the questioner as s/he speaks, but address your response to the whole room.  Look at the questioner roughly 25% of the time; the other 75% look at the other audience members.
  • Don’t engage in a battle.  If one person tries to monopolise the questioning, give your view briefly, then thank the person and say: ‘That’s an interesting point. I wonder if anyone else would like to comment?’
  • If you’re not sure how to answer or if you’re running out of time, you can say, ‘I haven’t considered that fully. Maybe we can talk about that later, one-to-one.’

 

Ten tips for sustaining verb tenses in writing

Recently I had an opportunity to respond to a request on the NALDIC EAL-Bilingual email list with regard to the above, i.e. how to help EAL learners sustain tenses in their writing.  Here is the response I gave. I hope you find it useful.

Obviously I don’t have a clear picture of the lesson aims/teaching contexts and age groups, but as a teacher trainer (TESOL) for many years, I might be able to provide something of use.

First, I think I’d ask the teachers what the aim of their lesson was. If it’s to write an interesting/creative story, then tenses wouldn’t really matter, provided meaning was communicated.  If the aim, however, was to raise awareness of or produce accurate forms of a variety of tenses/aspect, then, yes, accuracy across the writing would be important.  And, linking to this aim is the marking of such work. Again, marking and feedback (in the latter case) would need to focus only on accurate use of tenses/aspect rather than other grammatical structures or content.  So, what I’m saying is that if sustaining verb tenses in writing is the issue, this needs to be addressed in the aim of the lesson and the marking of the writing.  But, I’m sure teachers already know this and I really don’t want to come across as patronising here!


So, ideas … off the top of my head, I’d say the following:

The work really needs to be done at the planning (pre-writing) and editing (post-content creation) stages of the lesson. During the actual writing, learners need space to get ideas down on paper - content over form, as it’s too challenging trying to focus on both.  

At the planning stage, here are some ideas for raising awareness:

  1. Cut up and re-order similar texts, asking learners how they figured out how to put it back together with a specific focus on tenses and their connection with other linguistic devices, e.g. adverbs of time.
  2. Talk about tenses with regard to the particular genre (e.g. story telling/narration) - pick out common tenses/aspect - past simple for completed actions in past, present perfect for bringing past together with present (e.g. when past has an impact on present), past perfect (when one action happens before another - both in the past), past continuous for temporary states in the past.
  3. Dictogloss - read a short text that is abundant in the tenses you want to focus on. Get students to listen first, only for content (gist).  For the second listening, get them to number piece of paper with the number of sentences. Read each one aloud at normal speed and get students to write down what they can (e.g. key words). Read only once. When finished, get students to work together (pairs or threes) to reconstruct the entire text.  Tell them they should discuss which versions might be better and why.   When feeding back, take ideas from all groups, discuss why some might be better options than others (again, in terms of tenses). Compare with the original. Continue sentence by sentence, highlighting tenses/aspect and doing some language work here in preparation for their own writing.
  4. Use graphic organisers for planning purposes - sequencing charts, for example, or timelines.  Give students time to plan.
  5. Talk about how learners indicate past, present, future in their own languages (e.g. through context or through adverbs of time etc). Compare other languages with English.

All of the above can be supported with timelines (i.e. visual representations of tenses) and with carefully planned questioning for scaffolding purposes.


At the editing stage, here are some ideas for noticing and correcting:

  1. Get learners to read their work aloud. Often we don’t notice mistakes in writing but we do when listening.  They can do this individually or in pairs.
  2. Peer editing - get learners to ask each other concept-checking questions, e.g. (Did this event happen in the past? Is it finished? Was it temporary? Did this action happen before this one? etc. Again, supported by timelines and grammar rules/books - referring back to/connecting with the raising awareness activities you did at the planning stage.)
  3. Whole class feedback - take a learner’s text (anonymous - one from a previous year even) and analyse tenses throughout asking the types of questions above.
  4. Tense Detectives’ - this is a slightly different take on School 21’s ‘Talk Detectives’ (used for checking that learners are using agreed discussion guidelines).  Nominate 2 or 3 students whose job it is to sample some of the work looking specifically at accurate use/continuity of tenses in their peers’ work and feed back to the class good examples, possible problems, questions etc.  
  5. Reformulation - rewrite a learner’s text and get learners to compare your version to the original, noticing and discussing different forms (e.g. tenses) throughout.

Then, after editing, give learners an opportunity to make changes/re-write and implement feedback. Make sure learners refer to feedback on previous work before embarking on a new piece (e.g. feed forward).

I'd love to hear how you may have adopted or adapted some of these ideas and the extent to which they worked in your context, so do leave a comment.

 

Activating Prior Knowledge

Here is the short presentation I gave at the ELT Well Open day on 30 September for those who missed it.  It gives a variety of different ways teachers can activate prior knowledge at the pre-reading / pre-listening stage of a lesson.  If you have questions or if you would like further advice or to book a workshop, please get in touch.

ELT Well Open Day and taster sessions

In celebration of the opening of the new ELT well premises in Morecambe, Anne Margaret and colleagues (including myself) are offering a range of mini sessions aimed at supporting teachers support their learners. Please come along and discover what we can offer you, your school and your learners. I look forward to seeing you there!

 

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Why are there not more ESL/EFL teachers working in schools? A case for collaborative professional development

Years ago I was sitting in an informal training session with fellow English as a Second/Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) teachers listening to a talk on ways to support dyslexic students.  I remember thinking to myself at that time the talk should be retitled ‘Good Practice in Teaching’, for the strategies the trainer was suggesting were ones from which all students would benefit. For example, I remember her telling us that we need to make sure that we state clearly the aims of our lesson at the start, put key terminology on the board and check students’ understanding of it; and recap main points at regular intervals. 

Fifteen years on, and several dyslexia training courses later, I not only remain convinced that all students would benefit from teachers being trained in techniques to support students with specific learning differences (SpLDs), but also that language teachers, and ESL teachers in particular, have much to offer teachers across the curriculum in terms of classroom support strategies.

The reasons for this are multiple. First, ESL teachers are trained to use techniques that support meaning when understanding may be limited by linguistic and/or cultural knowledge. This means that we support what we say in the classroom with visual aids, gestures and also written instructions. We’ve also been trained to avoid asking ‘do you understand?’ in favour of concept checking questions like ‘when is the essay due? And how many words do you have to write?’ We tend to use demonstrations (e.g. two students showing the class what is required to carry out a task) and models of finished products (e.g. an essay) so that students can see clearly what is expected. 

Second, we are very conscious of the need to facilitate students’ processing. We monitor our own language very carefully, editing out, when required, slang, idioms, colloquialism, jokes and obscure cultural references. We aim to speak more slowly and clearly at times, we paraphrase, and we reformulate others’ contributions.  We understand the importance of silence; it gives students time to process information and a chance to formulate a response in a second language. We use techniques like think-pair-share or check your understanding with a partner (even in their first language) and give opportunities for students to clarify requests.

Third, we know not to introduce too many new words or grammatical items in one lesson, thus overloading students’ working memories. We also value repetition and recycling, particularly for vocabulary learning. Likewise, we break down our instructions into manageable chunks, giving information only when it is needed, one step at a time. And, again, these oral instructions are normally reinforced in multiple ways via demonstrations and written support.

Fourth, we teach skills – reading, writing, listening, speaking, organization, study, exam, proofreading, editing etc.  Skills teaching and learning is normally embedded into each and every language lesson, but it’s normal for entire courses (e.g. English for Academic Purposes (EAP)) to focus on just one skill, e.g. reading for university, in which we teach strategies like SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Respond, Review), again, useful for all students, not just ESL and dyslexic ones. In a similar vein, we teach note-taking and note-making skills, using abbreviations, symbols and mind-maps, equally purposeful for supporting dyslexic students’ auditory skills.

Finally, we emphasize the importance of metacognition (i.e. thinking about learning), asking students to think about how they’ve successfully approached skills-based tasks or grammar/vocabulary learning in the past and getting them to apply their knowledge and strategies to similar tasks and, ideally, sharing strategies with peers.

This list is by no means exhaustive and I have no doubt that SpLD specialists and ESL teachers have a lot to learn from each other. In fact, ESL teachers could also be of great benefit to schools supporting EAL learners (for all of the same arguments presented above and many more, not least of which is our second language acquisition knowledge), but this is probably just stating the obvious.  And don’t even get me started on oracy … I’m saving that for another post!

For so long now, though, school teachers and ESL teachers have inhabited their own worlds, drawing on the same educational theories but applying these in different contexts. But I’d argue that our worlds are becoming less distinct as our learners’ profiles change. We are both teaching more and more learners with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and who may also have more complex needs, including SpLDs. And as we are each constrained by limited funding, wouldn’t it make sense to pool our resources and engage in some collaborative professional development?

A good starting point for collaboration is asking in-school language teachers to offer input at training days on the type of language teaching strategies and techniques mentioned above. Sharing good practice at TeachMeets and Pedagoos would also be valuable, so too would inviting ESL specialists into schools to run workshops, ideally working alongside SpLD specialists.

And, then, of course, there is the insight that can be gained from consulting one of the rare specialists who span both spheres (SpLDs and ESL).  Colleagues like Dr Anne Margaret Smith at ELT Well offer a wealth of knowledge and also materials to support teachers in schools in identifying and teaching EAL learners with SpLDs. 

As our learners change, so must we. Recognising that we have a lot to learn from each other and engaging in collaborative professional development can only be viewed as steps in the right direction.

A comprehensive editing checklist

For those of you currently working on dissertations or theses, here's an editing checklist that you can use to in your final stages, before you send off your work to be proofread or printed.

Although it's comprehensive in nature, it's not tailor-made for you. In other words, you need to be self-aware and read your own work for the types of errors you tend to make.  

Remember also that if you're going to employ a proofreader, you need to do this in plenty of time, working back from the submission deadline and leaving enough time for the proofreader to read and for you to make the necessary changes.

Make sure you vet the proofreader properly, ideally getting a recommendation from your Department. A reputable proofreader will NOT rewrite your work for you; instead, they may do any or all of the following: ask you to clarify parts they don't understand; draw your attention to any redundancy, repetition and wordiness; suggest alternative methods of organisation or alternative vocabulary to improve structure and coherence; point out errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, academic style or in use of academic conventions; and offer partial reformulations to improve sentence structure and coherence.  

Good proofreaders will use software like Track Changes in Word so that you can see clearly your original piece of work and the suggested changes.  When your work is returned to you, there will be a considerable amount of your own rewriting that you will have to do, so, again, make sure you plan for this and build it in to your own dissertation/thesis timeline.

With all that in mind, we hope you find the editing checklist below useful to you. Remember, if you need any help with your work, do get in touch. If you are a postgraduate student, we offer a principled proofreading service, designed to support you in developing your academic writing skills.  If you are an academic, aiming to publish a journal article, we are experienced article writers ourselves and can offer editing, proofreading and advice on approaching/responding to peer review comments. 

The Editing Checklist

Content

  • Is all information relevant to the essay title/question?
  • Has sufficient space (or words) been given to the most important points?
  • Is the main line of argument clear throughout the entire essay?

 

Structure and Organization

Overall Structure:

  • Is the structure of the essay appropriate for the title/question?
  • Does the essay address all parts of the title/question?

Introduction:

  • Does the introduction set the context and provide enough background information for the reader?
  • Does the introduction include a thesis statement (i.e. a statement that tells the reader the purpose of the essay and possibly your position)?
  • Does the introduction include a map of the paper (i.e. does it tell the reader what to expect in the rest of the paper, usually using language like: In this essay I will firstly/first of all describe/define/discuss/examine/analyse… and then …’ or ‘This essay will first of all… and then…)

Main Body:

  • Does each paragraph begin with a clear topic sentence, indicating the (one) main idea of the paragraph?
  • Are paragraphs well developed with enough support/evidence for the main idea? (note: paragraphs that are only 2 to 3 sentences in length are usually under-developed)
  • Are connections between ideas within the paragraph made explicit to the reader (i.e. are there cohesive devices like ‘also’, ‘for example’, ‘furthermore’, ‘whereas’, ‘first’, ‘finally’, etc?)

 

If support in the form of paraphrases and quotations is used:

  • Have they been chosen carefully and do they indeed support/illustrate the point you want to make?
  • Has the significance/implication of the paraphrase/quote to the main argument/thesis/topic been made explicit (usually using language like: ‘Thus it can be seen that…’ / ‘It is clear, therefore, that …’ )
  • Is it clear how each paragraph links to the one before and to the one that comes after and to the essay title/question?

 

Conclusion:

  • Does the conclusion summarise the key points made in the paper?
  • Does it leave the reader with some food for thought (e.g. a warning, a recommendation, an indication that further research/investigation needs to be done, etc.)?

 

Quotations, Paraphrases and References

Direct quotations:

  • Are they referenced accurately (with author’s last name, year of publication and page number for the Harvard Referencing system e.g. (Jones, 2010, p. 33))?  For other referencing systems, please check your Departmental handbook.
  • Are quotation marks used (‘….’)?
  • Are they introduced appropriately (e.g. As Jones (2010, p. 33) states/writes/observes/claims/points out, … or According to Jones (2010, p. 33), …)
  • Are they used sparingly (ie. only when the point being made is done so brilliantly or poignantly by the original author and only when you couldn’t have said it better yourself)?

Paraphrases:

  • Are they referenced accurately (with the author’s last name + year of publication)?
  • Are they appropriate (i.e. not too close to the original but still capture the meaning of the original)?
  • Are they introduced appropriately (e.g. In Jones’s (2010) opinion, … / Jones (2010) reports that … / As Jones (2010) points out… )?

End-of-text References:

  • Are all sources cited in the body of the text listed here in alphabetical order?
  • Are they accurate (according to your Department’s guidelines)?

 

Style, Clarity, Grammar and Punctuation

Style and clarity:

  • Is the essay appropriately academic in terms of style (i.e. no informal language, slang, colloquialisms or contracted forms (e.g. don’t/isn’t)?
  • Are statements tentative rather than dogmatic (e.g. It would seem that …/ It may/could be that…/perhaps/possibly…/One possibility might be … etc)?
  • Are the words used your own (apart from quotations) and are your own ideas/opinions made clear to the reader?  In other words, does your own voice come through?
  • Are sentences of reasonable length (not too long; not too short) and not overly complicated?
  • Is the text repetitive? (it shouldn’t be!)
  • Can the essay be read aloud easily? (it should be!)

Grammar and punctuation:

Are the following accurate?:

  • Articles (e.g. the UK, the financial crisis)
  • Subject-verb agreement (e.g. The financial crisis has (not have wide-ranging repercussions.)
  • Verb forms (e.g. the government has been trying to … (not the government has been try to …); This could damage … (not this could to damage …)
  • Verb tense (e.g. In 2010, the government announced new measures…(not In 2010, the government have announced…)
  • Prepositions (e.g. Big banks were interested in … (not: big banks were interested at …)
  • Parts of speech (e.g. This was a destructive measure (not: this was a destruction measure)
  • Sentence connectors (e.g. The big banks acted irresponsibly. However, it was the average family that suffered. (not: The big banks acted irresponsibly, however, it was the average family that suffered.)
  • Full stops separating sentences = a subject + main verb (e.g. The full impact of the crisis has yet to be determined. We will be feeling the effects for years to come. (not: The full impact of the crisis has yet to be determined, we will be feeling the effects for years to come.)

**Finally, check for spelling mistakes and typos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Essay Essentials: Part 3

Language and Academic Style

This is our last post in a series of the essentials of essay writing and here we focus on language and academic style.  If you're new to producing academic essays in English, then it's a very good idea to ask your Department to let you read some former students' essays, and, of course, you'll want to read journal articles as well so that you can get a good feel for the structure and the language used.  We've dealt with the structure and academic conventions (like citing, paraphrasing and referencing) in our last posts, but now we'd like to turn our attention to the language used.  It's likely that you've noticed that the language used in academic writing is very different from the language you see and hear around you every day.  That's because the academic essay is characterised by a number of stylistic and linguistic features that set it apart as a specific genre.  It's safe to say that academic writing should:

 

1. Be formal

This means that, generally speaking, you should: avoid contracted forms (e.g. instead of can't use cannot; instead of don't use do not); avoid slang and colloquialisms (e.g. instead of kids use children; instead of lots use a lot or many); avoid abbreviations (e.g. instead of e.g. use for example); write in complete sentences (e.g. bullet points and note form are not normally used and neither is anything else that gives the impression of an incomplete thought, e.g  putting etc at the end of your sentence.); write full forms the first time followed by acronym in brackets and then acronym alone thereafter (e.g. the United Nations (UN) and then the UN throughout thereafter); and avoid overusing the pronoun 'I' (make sure to ask your Department about using the first person in your academic essays; they may have strong views one way or the other). 

 

2. Be tentative rather than dogmatic

Tentative statements are ones that show your reader you know nothing is 100% certain. Knowledge is fluid and contestable and your statements should reflect this.  So, instead of writing something like 'all international students have difficulty paraphrasing', you might write 'depending on the linguistic and educational backgrounds of international students, some may experience difficulty with paraphrasing.' Other useful phrases are: It would seem that.../It may/could be that.../perhaps/possibly .../One possibility might be.../The evidence suggests that ... 

 

3. Be evidence-based

Academic writing draws on and evaluates other sources of information and evidence.  You'll know this if you've seen the long list of references at the end of an essay or journal article.  Most writers read widely and use their reading to support the ideas they want to develop in their writing.  If you make a claim, you'll need to justify it (say why you believe this to be the case) and then provide the evidence to convince your writer of the validity of your claim.  Overly personal and/or emotive accounts are not normally valued in academic writing. 

 

4. Be explicit

In English, the onus is on the writer to give reasons and/or explanations and/or examples for ideas presented and to show clearly, through the language used, how ideas relate and connect to each other. The reader should never have to read between the lines or infer your meaning.  You can use language like: One/Another reason for this is.../As a result/thus/therefore ... /In other words .../In addition/Moreover .../ For example...

 

5. Be sufficiently (not overly!) complex in terms of argument and language

Academic writing is characterised by a degree of complexity, both in terms of the arguments presented and the language used.  With regard to arguments, generally speaking you'll need to show your reader that you've considered the other side (the counter-argument) and convince your reader why your argument is just as good or better. With regard to language, you'll need to vary your sentence structure (use simple, compound and complex sentences), use a wide range of vocabulary and probably use more noun forms than verb forms (e.g. The major effects of the globalisation of the economy are ...).

 

6. Be accurate

Accuracy is important not just in terms of the language you use, but also in terms of representing and reporting other people's ideas/work.  First, with regard to language, it's important to edit and proofread your work.  If you are aware of the types of mistakes you make in writing, read your work specifically for these mistakes and ask a friend to do the same.  One useful technique for proofreading (so that content doesn't interfere) is to start at the end of your essay and read back to the beginning sentence by sentence.  Reading your essay aloud can also alert you to mistakes you didn't pick up when reading silently.  Second, with regard to reporting other's ideas/work, you need to make sure you not only do this accurately (e.g. correct citations and references and accurate representations of others' ideas), but also faithfully (e.g. always acknowledge where your information/ideas come from). 

 

7. Be gender neutral

All sexist language, stereotypes and cliches should be avoided.  Referring specifically to authors is done via surnames only and referring to 3rd person should be via she/he or he/she or s/he or they.  

 

It's a good idea to check your own work against the list above.  If you have any questions or concerns or would like us to look at your work, then do please get in touch.  Our next post brings together all our Essay Essentials advice in a comprehensive editing checklist, so make sure to look out for this useful tool. 

Essay essentials: Part 2

In Part 2 of this 3-part blog, we’ll look at quotations, paraphrases and citations, references and conclusions. 

Again, this is a simple and fairly prescriptive overview, which we hope will help any student new to writing essays in English. We know that there is no magic formula for writing essays. But, we do believe that some elements are, to a certain extent, formulaic. In other words, if you follow the advice below, you shouldn’t be breaking any UK academic norms or conventions. Once you’ve written several essays and understand the ‘rules of the game’, so to speak, then by all means feel free to bend them and exercise to the full your academic literacies. 

1.  Quotations, paraphrases and citations

We said in our last post that every topic sentence (main idea) of every paragraph needs to be developed and supported fully within the paragraph.  The way we support our ideas is through use of explanation, examples, experience, facts/figures/statistics and reference to authority (i.e. reporting other people’s words, ideas and evidence).  Reference to authority can come in the form of direct quotations or paraphrases.

Direct quotations

These are the author’s exact words (unchanged by you).  Whenever you include a quotation you MUST use quotation marks (normally single in the UK, as per example below) and provide a citation. A citation is an acknowledgement of the origin of the quotation. In other words, you are telling your reader that you borrowed these words from someone else. Citations are done slightly differently according to different referencing systems (e.g. Harvard, APA, MLA) and you will need to check with your own Department which system they use and then follow their guidelines. Below is an example using the Harvard system.

Paraphrases

These involve rephrasing an extract from another author in your own words and are more common in academic writing than using direct quotations. Paraphrasing ideas in your own words shows your reader that you’ve read the information, processed it, and can reproduce it in a way that makes sense for you, i.e. your own words. Writing a paraphrase is challenging for L1 and L2 speakers alike.  So here are some tips:

  • Read, re-read and understand the original

  • Make brief notes using symbols, abbreviations etc.

  • Put the original (and your pen) to one side and try to express the meaning orally in your own words (even record yourself if you want)

  • Now write your paraphrase from memory or from the recording

  • Check against the original text. Make sure you’ve got the main idea but that you haven’t used too much of the original’s phrasing

  • Make sure you’ve acknowledged the source by including a citation

What you CAN change: vocabulary (e.g. use synonyms); sentence structure (e.g. change active voice to passive voice or vice versa); grammar (e.g. change verbs to nouns).

What you CAN’T change: the meaning!

Compare the original on the left with the paraphrase on the right and note down what was changed.  Also notice the citation. With the Harvard referencing system, you do not need to include a page number for paraphrases, just the author’s last name and year of publication.  Again, please check with your own Department and follow their guidelines. 

2.  References 

At the end of your essay list, in alphabetical order according to authors’ last names, all the sources you have referred to in your essay and provide full bibliographical details for each.

Note: a list of References is different from a Bibliography. The latter includes everything you’ve read and that which has informed your thinking for your essay.  Therefore, you may have more bibliography entries than sources cited in your essay.  A Reference List, however, has the exact same number of entries as the number of sources cited in your essay.

Make sure you consult your Department’s guidelines about whether to include a list of References or a Bibliography at the end of your essay and make sure you know and adhere strictly to the guidelines for the referencing system in use.

Here is a short example of a Reference List according to the Harvard Referencing System. Note: the first entry is a book; the second is a website; and the third is a journal article.

Example:

Allsop, J. (2002) Test Your Verbs.  Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

British Council (2017) English for University Students. Available from: http://www.britishcouncil.org/english/academics [Accessed 23 May 2017].

Hu, X., Ackermann, H., Martin, J.A., Erb, M., Winkler, S. & Reiterer, S.M. (2013) ‘Language aptitude for pronunciation in advanced second language (L2) learners: Behaviour predictors and neural substrates.’ Brain and Language, Vol. 127, pp. 366-376.

 

3.   Conclusions

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We hope this has helped you with your own writing. Our next post will cover academic language and style. If you have any questions about any of the information above or would like advice on your own essay, then please do get in touch.  We can help you gain confidence in your academic writing. 

 

 

Essay essentials: Part 1

In this 3-part blog, we focus on the essentials of essay writing in English.  In Part 1, we look at the essay structure, the introduction and paragraphing.  In Part 2, we look at quotations, citations, paraphrases, references and conclusions.  In Part 3, we look at language, including academic style and grammar.

This is a simple and fairly prescriptive overview, which we hope will help any student new to writing essays in English. We know that there is no magic formula for writing essays. But, we do believe that some elements are, to a certain extent, formulaic.  In other words, if you follow the advice below, you shouldn’t be breaking any UK academic norms or conventions. Once you’ve written several essays and understand the ‘rules of the game’, so to speak, then by all means feel free to bend them and exercise to the full your academic literacies. 

 

1.      Essay structure

Essays normally contain the following sections (unmarked by headings/sub-headings within the essay):

  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Conclusion

 

2.      The introduction

Ways of introducing the essay structure:

In this essay I will firstly … and then …

This essay will first of all … and then …

In the first section of this essay I will …

 

Here is an example introduction from a student with the key features above colour-coded:

3. Paragraphing the main body

A paragraph should have

  • Unity (one main idea)
  • Coherence (ideas follow logically and are understandable to your reader)

Here is an example paragraph from a student with the key features above colour-coded:

 

Between paragraphs

Within the context of an essay, the topic sentences and concluding sentences will have to perform additional tasks:

  • show how paragraphs are related to each other (using transition signals, e.g. ‘In addition’ / ‘A further example of … is…’ / ‘Furthermore’ / ‘However’ / ‘On the other hand’ /’While this may be true…’
  • show how a new topic is related to the essay title.  This is often done through quoting key words from the essay title.  E.g. ‘In terms of the  benefits of studying abroad…’ / ‘With reference to developing real English …’
  • sum up how the content has contributed to your argument.  E.g. ‘Thus, it is clear that…’ / ‘Thus, it can be seen that…’ / ‘Therefore,…’ / ‘Clearly, then…’

 

If you have any questions about any of the above or if you'd like us to look at your work and give you feedback, then do get in touch with us.  

8 Golden rules for note-making

I’d like to think that the skill of making notes (actually putting pen to paper) hasn’t died with the development of new technology.  But, I may be rather naïve.  The last time I was in the classroom, 23 adult students took out their Smartphones to take a photo of the homework tasks that I had written on the board.  Not one actually wrote anything in their books or put a note in their calendar (not even their iCal!).  Taking and making notes in English is an important academic skill that, like any other, needs to be developed through practice.  Clarifying your purpose, selecting important information, identifying main and supporting points, representing ideas in your own words, questioning/evaluating ideas and relating these to your own and others', using short forms, abbreviations and symbols, and finding and citing bibliographical information are all part and parcel of interacting with reading texts, which is a fundamental precursor to any essay you’ll have to produce.  Not only that, but making notes is a good way to help consolidate information in your memory. With all this in mind, here are some top tips for making notes from your reading.

Golden Rule 1:  Clarify your purpose

Before you begin, ask yourself:

  • Why am I making notes?
  • Do I need to make notes on the whole text, e.g. on what I already know, or just part of the text?

Golden Rule 2:  Write all your notes on the same sized paper

  • Any size of paper or even cue cards – just make sure they are all the same size so they’re easier to store and retrieve
  • If your notes are neat, you will be more likely to use them later

Golden Rule 3:  Record your sources

Make a full record of the original source at the top of the first page.  You will need:

  • Name of author
  • Date of publication
  • Title
  • Name of publisher / place published (volume, issue, pages if journal article)
  • Page numbers
  • URL address (if website)
  • Date you accessed the site

Golden Rule 4: Divide your page

  • Do not write in the left-hand margin (or create a left-hand margin with a ruler)
  • Use this space to record page numbers or if an edited book, chapter title, author and page numbers
  • Number your pages at the bottom in case they get mixed up

Golden Rule 5: Use your own words

  • Identify and summarise main ideas in your own words
  • A good idea is to put your pen down while you read and only summarise information when you get to the end of a section
  • Another idea is to summarise the information orally first before you make your notes

Golden Rule 6: Identify clearly which ideas are yours and which are not

  • Use a different coloured pen to indicate a quotation or write a big ‘Q’ beside quotations and use quotation marks
  • Note down quotations exactly as they are written, along with the page number
  • Use a different coloured pen to indicate your own ideas or write ‘ME’ beside your own ideas

Golden Rule 7:  Make connections and draw comparisons

  • Whenever you read a new source, think about how it relates to your own knowledge and to what you’ve read before
  • Cross-reference information from different sources (e.g. ‘Similar to X’, ‘Opposed to X’)
  • Note down your own agreement ✓, disagreement ✗ and questions ?

Golden Rule 8:  Store all of your notes from one source together

  • Staple your notes from the same source together or file in a folder together.  This way you are less likely to misplace pages.

Now you should be ready to use your notes to write your essay.  Essay writing will be the subject of our next blog post, so if you need help with producing an academic essay in English, watch this space!

 

A week of workshops for language teachers

Personal ELT, in collaboration with ELT Well and Lancaster Languages, is offering a week of workshops in Lancaster Monday 5 June - Friday 9 June and we'd love to see you! A different theme is explored each day of the week and you can choose which day you'd like to attend or, better yet, you can attend all five days.

It's an ideal CPD opportunity for teachers who are interested in making their lessons more interactive and inclusive.  We also provide plenty of useful teaching tips and resources. Take a look at the programme below and then contact me if you'd like more information.

We hope to see you in June! 

Keeping in English: why it's sometimes difficult and what tutors can do to help

A little while ago I carried out a small-scale piece of research in a monolingual class of study abroad students at a UK university, asking for reasons why they consistently switched to their L1 and their advice for facilitating English. The results are interestingly honest and might just provide some food for thought for language teachers and university tutors. 

Reasons for speaking L1

·       Easier to express myself/ideas, understand and be understood x 14

·       It’s a bit weird to speak English with friends / unnatural x 3

·       Others are doing the same x 3

·       It’s natural x 3; my brain has not switched to English yet (unintentional)

·       Feel more confident and comfortable x 2

·       I don’t know the vocabulary for some terms x 2

·       Lazy

·       Feel happy and have more fun

·       We can chat ‘off topic’

·       Sometimes I need a translation because I haven’t understood

·       Reduces misunderstanding

·       Makes sure confident English speakers don't dominate 

·       Boosts communication and discussion

·       There are no rules to prevent us from speaking English

·       Some words are more explicit when expressed in L1

·       If you’re asked a question in L1, it’s awkward to answer in English

·       People would think you’re showing off your English

·       It’s embarrassing to say something wrong

·       I will not make so many grammatical mistakes

·       I do not feel confident enough to speak in English

 

Would you like to speak only English in class?

Y = 11                           N = 4

 

If no, when do you feel you’d like to/need to use English?

·       When talking to tutors/English native speakers/anyone who can’t speak L1

·       When there are no classmates around

 

What can tutors/classmates do to encourage more use of English in the classroom?

·       Remind us/ask us/encourage us to use English x 8

·       I would say it’s our problem. We can use English all the time; it’s just weird.

·       Ask us more questions / give us more tasks

·       Maybe friends shouldn’t sit together. Then we might be more serious.

·       Actually, we’re willing to speak in English but we’re just lazy and ‘tempted’

·       Provide notes so we can follow your pace and won’t need to ask friends

·       Speak slower

·       Explain difficult words

·       Devise some rules/games to prevent speaking L1 (e.g. 10p penalty). 

·       Give more pressure

·       Just say you don’t like hearing L1

·       Give us a break so that we can use L1 in break times

What has your own research told you about this topic? What are your and your students' tips? 

12 Top Tips for Tutors: facilitating international student engagement

1.     Many study abroad and exchange students will be joining groups of students who have worked together for a year or two. Build into your first session an icebreaker activity, ideally one that helps students find commonalities, not just differences. Some of my favourites are:

  • Numbers, symbols and pictures: give everyone a large sticky label and ask them to write their names in the middle.  Around their names they should use numbers, symbols and pictures to represent their lives (e.g. age, hobbies, family members, nationality, languages spoken etc.).  Once finished and label is firmly stuck to chest, everyone mixes and mingles, asking questions of each other to find out the meaning behind the numbers, symbols and pictures.
  •  ‘Never ever have I …’:  I think this might be a drinking game originally (!), but a former student teacher rather cleverly adapted it for classroom use.  Put students into small groups of about 6-8. Each student starts with all five fingers raised.  One student starts by saying something they’ve never ever done.  If the other students have done this, then they have to lower one figure. The winner is the last student with any remaining fingers raised.
  • 3 Truths, 1 Lie: Again, in small groups, get students to think of 3 truths about themselves and 1 lie. Tell them to keep this secret. When they’re ready, they should present all four statements about themselves as fact.  The other students need to listen and, through further questioning, figure out which one is the lie.

2.     Students may need help understanding your expectations around the module reading list. At the beginning of the module especially, explicit instructions/advice re: what textbooks/articles to read, in what order of priority and how particular ones link to and support assessment tasks will be helpful.

3.     Don’t assume that all chatter is off task; sometimes international students are asking each other for definitions of key terminology or for clarification of certain concepts. Do check with students (sensitively) and put key terminology on board for students to see the written form (or provide a list of key terms before the session). Consider building in time for checking understanding in pairs or small groups and organizing a question time at the end of the lecture. Think-pair-share activities are useful for international students to check their understanding with classmates.

4.     Provide written support for lectures, whether PowerPoint slides or handouts, preferably before the lecture (maybe even flip your classroom), so students can do some reading around the topic, look up key terminology, and hopefully come to class with the some background knowledge and feeling more prepared to contribute to classroom discussions.  Encourage students to access notes/reading before the lesson, give them some questions to focus their reading or encourage them to use a reading strategy like SQ3R.

5.     Try to avoid overly colloquial and jokey language in lectures/sessions, or, if used, be prepared to paraphrase or explain meaning. Cultural references may also need to be explained.

6.     Be conscious of the speed of delivery. Be prepared to slow down a bit and pause more.

7.     Try not to go off topic during the lecture. Stick to an organized structure with plenty of signposting, repetition of key points and frequent summaries.  Again, build in some thinking/reflection time or checking understanding with a partner.

8.     Consider allowing students to record lectures, so they can listen back in their own time, pause, re-listen and fill in gaps in their notes.

9.     Positively encourage (and sometimes physically move students into) mixed-nationality seating arrangements and group-work.  Students who lack confidence in their English may be reluctant to join mixed nationality groups even though they may want to. Sometimes they just want the tutor to decide who’s working with whom.

10.  Many students come from educational backgrounds with different grading systems and can be shocked and disappointed when they don’t receive A-grades. It’s useful to explain the grading system and explain that a mark in the 60s is considered a ‘good’ mark in the UK and one in the 80s is considered exceptional (depending on level, university context and subject area).  Build into your module time to analyse example assignments, tutor feedback and marking criteria and get students to apply the criteria to example assignments from former students.

11.  Set written assignments as early as possible. Aim to give formative feedback on a draft or a proposal (even if just a few paragraphs) and encourage peer reviewing.

12.  An essay title that is broad in scope and allows a lot room for interpretation and freedom in terms of approach can be perceived by some international students as unhelpful and as ‘trying to catch them out’.  Clear, explicit and sometimes prescriptive essay titles can be more helpful, especially early on, when students are trying to get to grips with both the language and the content.

I know many tutors are already doing the things in the list above and have many more and even better ideas for inclusive teaching. I’d love to hear and share them, so please add your suggestions and comments (just click on the title to open blog and to comment).