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. Use Icebreakers   

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.  Make expectations explicit  

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.  Help students understand

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

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.  Be mindful of your language

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 venture off topic

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.   Allow students to record

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.  Choose student pairings and groupings

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.  Explain, analyse and apply marking criteria

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.  Provide early formative feedback

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.  Consider being more prescriptive early on

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).