How to teach academic writing in 160 pages or less…


Here’s another thing that I’ve been reluctant to throw out until now…

Twenty years ago I took over coordinating an academic writing course for speakers of English as a second language at the university where I had just been employed.

The academic writing course they had was OK, but it was kind of hard to teach. And because I didn’t know any better I spent all my time rewriting the entire course so that I could teach it.

And then because I didn’t know any better I created a system to make it easy to mark including avoiding plagiarism without high-tech software.

Then I rolled this out to the half dozen or so other tutors who delivered the programme.

I prepared all the lessons. Standardised the delivery. And wrote the exams. Everyone seemed pretty happy and the students figured out how to write university-style essays.

Eventually, I just compiled everything and put it in a book. That turned out to be around 160 pages.

I think it’s still a pretty good course. Anything topical in the examples are now 20 years out of date, but the teaching ideas and structure still works.

I’d probably do things a bit differently if I got the chance to do this over again. Like a one-page poster, for example.

But I think I’m OK posting it here for free for anyone who wants it. If not, I’ll wait for the cease and desist letters.

I’ve taken the name of my former employer off the front.

Mostly, this is my work. It remained unchanged as the course book for at least 5 or 6 years after I left, at which point I lost track of things.

And while it is my work it does draw on a whole bunch of other stuff that others have done. Some of this is referenced. Some of it is not.

If I’ve missed something, sorry. I’m not going back to fix it. I just want to release it into the wild.

If you’re looking for a basic text on how to teach academic writing there are probably lots of good ones out there now.

If not, feel free to use and adapt this one. With or without citations.





How I accidentally became a published writer in 1998 by authoring a book filled with blank pages


Four score and seven years ago in 1998, I became a published author. It was an accident and I didn’t mean to.

The published book was filled with (mostly) blank pages. That’s the cover up above.

I found a copy yesterday because I have this banana box in my office that I’ve been trying to tidy. Like, for years.

Hashtag relatable, right?

It’s a tricky box full of stuff that I find difficult to throw away. It’s all actually crap. But I have a sentimental attachment to some of the crap. Actually, all of it.

But I’m determined to try and live a more minimalistic lifestyle. You know… have less stuff. Be more zen etc.

Aside from meditating and eating Lima beans, one strategy then, it would seem, is to get rid of all the stuff.

This is much harder than it sounds.

For example, at the moment, I can fit everything I need to run my business and do my work in a 35L backpack. And there’s still room for clothes for a couple of days away.

It’s a great bag. It’s a new one. I got it for my birthday.

I also have too many bags. I need a separate closet just for bags.

But what if I wanted to go away for a long time? That’s what I’ve been mulling over. What about all the other dross that has accumulated? What kinds of bags would I need?

More importantly, what about the box of crap that I can’t seem to unload?

A few years back I when I seemed to be moving house every 18 months I realised that I had more than 25 banana and apple boxes full of books on applied linguistics and language teaching and other stuff that I didn’t really care about anymore.

I don’t even know where I got most of the books from. Some of them I bought. But others just seemed to find me. Piles of them.

I think I read one or two. But mainly they made me feel good.

They looked great on the shelves. It’s another dirty little pleasure of mine. Interesting books on bookshelves.

You can tell a lot about someone by the books on their shelves. That’s what we book snobs tell ourselves.

But really, it’s about as accurate as trying to psychoanalyse your friends by reading meaning into the titles of the songs they listen to on Spotify (yes, I’m watching you).

I tried to sell the 25+ boxes of books to the second-hand university bookshop close to my old university. All I wanted was a hundred bucks.

They just laughed at me. And eventually, they had to ask me to leave the premises. The books had no value they said.

So I dried my tears and went back to the department where I used to work and offloaded all of the boxes of books to Carmen the secretary.

They were, of course, very grateful.

No one said anything, not even Carmen who was of course very happy to see me after so many years and who tried to re-recruit me to the academic staff.

It hadn’t been the same since I left, you see.

It’s also possible that many of the books were actually theirs to start with.

Mea culpa.

I was still a student at the same university in the same department when I accidentally became a published writer of the book with blank pages.

No, it wasn’t a diary.

But that must be a similar kind of thing. I mean, if you write diaries for a living and they’re published, then aren’t you a published writer as well?

Diary writer at a party: “Yeah, man… I usually put a book out every year… Last year, though… that was a toughy. Nearly missed the deadline… But you should see what I’m working on for next year…”

Diaries don’t usually have the author’s name on the front, however. So I’m a step above a writer of diaries.

The cause of my accidental publishing was my students. It was, at least, partially their fault.

As an ESOL teacher, I needed ways of filling in time. You know, in the classes.

Sometimes these fillers also had the added benefit of having pedagogical value. That means people learned as a result.

I had stumbled onto the idea of getting my students to do a journal writing exercise every class for 10 minutes.

Hardly original, but it was brilliant. I set the time and patrolled the class. They stopped talking and started writing.

We had some rules. Such as there were no rules. Apart from the rule that there were no rules.

And they could also ignore pesky things like spelling and grammar. Also a kind of non-rule, rule.

The idea was to focus on pure fluency.

If I still had the 25 banana and apple boxes full of second language acquisition theory and research I could probably justify it some way.

But on a purely pragmatic level, it worked beautifully. That’s all I really care about these days. If something works, do I need to know why?

Not only did the journal writing use up at least 20 minutes by the time they had come in, said hello, settled down, got started, written a bunch, done a word count and graphed their output… but it actually improved their writing.

I had the data to prove it.

And then when I was wracking my brains on what to submit for one of my assignments for the degree I was completing, I decided to write up my journal writing activity.

The lecturer liked it so much that she sent it to a national organisation that worked with refugees and migrants. And they liked it so much that they made a few suggestions and published it.

I was so happy. Especially when I received royalty cheques for years after too.

Once I got a cheque for $1.43.

That must have covered the envelope, paper AND the stamp costs.

If you’ve never received a royalty cheque you wouldn’t understand. Even though it cost me around $10 in fuel to get to the bank and back, I loved depositing those royalty cheques.

Happiness can’t last forever though. And a few years ago I asked them to keep the royalties and donate them to a good cause. Namely themselves.

And today I realised that if I scan and post the last remaining copy here, I can get rid of the last remaining paper copy from the banana box of crap on my floor.

There might be one more copy though, slipped deviously into one of those 25 boxes of books off-loaded to Carmen at the university.

Workbook for Learners of English and their Tutors by Graeme Smith





The Pragmatist’s Guide to Essay Writing, AKA The Underground English Manual


This is a picture of my hand holding a picture of my hand. How’s that for meta?

When I went to university, I was a slow learner. I had to write essays. I was a poor BA student.

And I mean metaphorically and literally.

No multichoice for me. Things may have changed, but I doubt it. C’est la vie…

I didn’t even take film studies. Close though. English literature major.

Nothing wrong with BA students, mind you.

Bob Jones always liked BAs because they could write. That meant that they could think. And that meant he could train them to run his businesses.

That was back in the days when he used to fly in commercial airlines, but after he punched the journalist in the face who disturbed him trout fishing in Turangi.

And long before he was called out for racist comments in a national newspaper.


It took me three years to learn how to write. I was totally unprepared. This is mainly due to the fact that I thought I was above average at English at High School and I thought I had above average teachers.

I got a scholarship in English in 7th form, you see. It was worth an extra $150 towards my studies at the time I think. IKR…?

So I declined. I grew my hair long and joined a rock and roll band. Actual about 5 different bands. It’s a blur now.

And after three years of selling guitar strings in Taupo, I realised that my best years were probably behind me now.

That international tour to Norfolk Island with the Wairakei Country Music Club.

Those cassette tape recordings of the original music my friend in the goth band wrote and we performed.

Coming second in a talent contest with another mate who sounded exactly like Dave Dobbyn but was never gonna win because the winner and the judges were all family members.

Those drunken 21sts.

The biker club in the industrial area with the spiked corrugated iron fence (whose idea was the whipped cream…?).

Good times, but my best years were behind me and I needed to move on, find another life, settle down.

Get a haircut, eventually. Regrow those brain cells.

So I had to learn to write essays about 21st-century literature.

And I could read but I couldn’t write.

It turns out that my scholarship in English was suspect as well. Possibly fraudulent.

I blame the NZQA. And my high school. It was their fault.

My test results for English had been scaled as part of rather dodgy norm-referenced testing.

In other words, my score was almost above average. But not exceptional.

It was just that everyone else in my cohort was crap and I was the least crap. Plus they had already allocated a scholarship to the school from the year before that had to be used.

Ka pai me…!

But back to the writing. I got Bs. I got the occasional B+. It was hard to rise above this level of mediocracy.

In the end, I got help. Professional help. From someone who KNEW.

Her name with Judith. She was very old. And she had her own office. I think the university had forgotten about her, because it was in a really obscure location.

I’m not sure what she was supposed to do. And I can’t remember how I met her. Or if she was paid.

But she would interpret the scratching on the bottom of my essays and tell me what they meant. It was like reading tea leaves. She was my medium.

And it worked like magic. Judith was my saviour.

One of my lecturers would write something like “This is Ok, but lacks cohesion”… I was always “Whuh…?

But even when you go and talk to these pillocks in their office hours they just say more of the same thing. Meaningless drivel.

That’s when I began to develop a deep-seated suspicion of academics. I mean, as a species they are kind of cute. But we should be sceptical of them. Just sayin’.

Thanks to Judith, though, I started to learn how to write. She showed me the basics.

Like how to understand the topic or question. How to plan. And then how to write.

And then… Dulce decorum est…! I started getting As and then A+s. It was a freaking miracle.

To be honest, it was a little mindless after a while.

To start with I was so jazzed, I’d print out every A+ on a sheet of golden A4 paper on my new Cannon Bubble Jet printer that I’d paid ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS for.

And I’d put them up on my wall.

Soon the whole wall was covered. And by soon I mean relatively speaking.

But it got embarrassing so I took them down and wrote a book about how to write essays instead.

And this book, I got designed and commercially printed. And I even sold a bunch at the unofficial student bookshop where they always had all the second-hand books that no one really wanted.

That’s the cover in the picture up above. I kinda feel that I started to find my voice when I wrote this book.

Unfortunately, that was the voice of a snarky arrogant git. Funny though.

Here is one pearl:

Always give a monkey a banana

…your tutor, teacher, lecture – whoever set the assignment – is a monkey. What you have to do is give them a banana – that’s your essay. What’s important is that you give them the right kind of banana. Probably, this person is an academic. An academic is just a monkey with a degree and it’s the job of these monkeys to make difficult things more complicated. He or she won’t just come out and tell you what kind of banana they want. However, as you work through our method, you can increase your chance of dishing out the right kind of banana.

It’s a bit cringy now.

But I wanted to share it because it illustrates a point. And this is… that this is what is wrong with our education system.

The current situation with NCEA comes to mind. This kind of strategy still works. You can try it out.

The skills you need to get through are not the same as learning the content that you’re learning to navigate.

But don’t let that stop you from getting those A+s… Download link below for the full unexpurgated version.

BEFORE: More examples – Diagnostics for writing

Screenshot 2017-05-09 16.50.06

Teaching Adults to Write to communicate

We also mentioned this resource in Collection 3. If you need it, you can download it here.

There are three ideas for diagnostic writing assessments that you can use or adapt to your trade or another training context. If you already know what you’re doing for your contextualised literacy assessment you can skip this.

Attitude to writing learner self-assessment

  • Here you’ll find attitudes to writing self-assessment questions. We’d recommend just focusing on what you need and cutting out the rest. At three pages long, it’s more likely to intimate learners with anxieties about writing in its current format.
  • You can find the self-assessment survey instructions on pages 14 and the full version of on pages 61-63.

Using writing portfolios or journals

  • There’s only a short write up here on using portfolios, but it’s a good idea. If you use the level 1 literacy unit standards you’ll notice that they take a similar approach. If you need to embed anything on writing, you should look at using a portfolio approach for part of it.
  • The description is on page 15.

Mapping samples of learners’ writing using Learning Progressions

  • We didn’t discuss it in Collection 4, but there is a writing assessment option in the TEC Assessment Tool. If you need to assess and teach writing in a serious way you should investigate that option and then come back to this.
  • The Assessment Tool writing option is not marked by the computer, but relies on having a tutor is trained in assessing writing.
  • Pages 15-23 tell you how to set up a writing assessment and then use the Writing Progressions to assess your learners’ writing.
  • Like some of the other ideas in these resources, this is a time-intensive process so it won’t work for everyone.
  • There are also writing frame template on pages 65 to 66 that you could experiment with if you did try this.

Next, we switch over to numeracy.


Developing a Writing Frame For Report Writing

How to write your Task 1 report - NCALNE (Voc) Assessment 1 Report Structure

A while back I redeveloped the writing frame we use to teach people how to write their report for the first part of our course.

If you want a better copy of this to print out, there is a PDF version you can download here.

I contextualised the writing frame above to the content that we teach in the first part of the course. But you can adapt this idea to your own context.

My students need to write a 1500 word report. This means that the writing frame is complicated. It’s very possible to create much simpler writing frames for much less demanding tasks.

An interesting aside (at least for me) is that this handout condenses a one semester course that I use to teach at the University of Auckland.

How To Improve Your Writing? Use the Hemingway App


My daughter told me she’s just started using an app called Hemingway to help her edit her writing.

I’d heard of it before, but never tried it. It sounded like a glorified spell checker.

And it turns out it is.

But it’s cool and I like it. A lot.

I used the free online version to to edit my last blog post. And now I’ve downloaded the desktop app which costs $9.99 and I used it to write this post.

If I was still teaching academic writing, I could think of a dozen applications for this in a computer lab.

What a great little application and I’d encourage you to have a play with it here. There’s also more info available here.

You can toggle the editing functions on and off for a distraction free environment if you want.

I’ve posted in a couple of screen shots below so you can see how it works. The first shot is of this post, which you can see is plain English.

Screenshot 2015-08-19 13.47.10

The second screen shot shows an earlier blog post of mine. You can see  my long winded writing style highlighted in various colours.

Screenshot 2015-08-19 13.50.20

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with this company

How do I get started on Assessment 5 of the NCALNE (Voc) and demonstrating that I’m actually embedding literacy and numeracy into my training?

embedding 02

If you’re up to this stage, you’re actually about, or even over, half way. This section is a big chunk… but it’s also the teaching component of the qualification.

Basically, after having mapped the literacy and numeracy demands, and diagnosed your learners literacy and numeracy needs, you actually need to get out there and do some embedded literacy and numeracy teaching.

These are your interventions, in other words. You have to come up with embedded literacy and numeracy focused learning outcomes, activities, and strategies. We’ve got a very specific format for doing this, so make sure you pay attention to what’s in your Assessment Guide or in Pathways Awarua in Assessment Module 5.

Here’s a list of various links and articles that might support you through this part of the training:

  1. As always, if you haven’t already, all of our course content is available for free in interactive modules on the Pathways Awarua literacy and numeracy learning platform. You can find the instructions on how to register here if you haven’t already. We have a unique ALEC join code so email us for it if you need it (
  2. I know I said it already, but don’t forget to check what’s already in your ALEC Study Guide and Assessment Guide for this part of the course.
  3. We’ve also got a great one-page handout that summarises the connections between assessments 4, 5, 6 – email us for a copy if you haven’t got it already.
  4. You can listen to an audio-only podcast of me talking through Assessment 5 here if you need a refresh on the requirements.
  5. There are video clips on Section 5 of the NCALNE (Voc) here on our Youtube channel.
  6. If you need ideas for activities for reading, writing, listening, speaking, and numeracy there is a wealth of material including teaching points, guided learning sequences, and resources in your ALEC Study Pack in the Learning Progressions support guides. Much of that is also online here if you want to go in and find it.
    • Unfortunately, this great content tends to be buried inside the other content so you have to click through a sequence like this to find an activity: Go to website >> Click Explore the learning progressions for Make Sense of Number to Solve Problems >> this takes you to a page from the learning progressions for multiplicative strategies where you can click on an activity like Multiplication Strategies where you get the actual activity or can download it as a PDF. The alternative is just to turn to page 39 in the Teaching Adults to Make Sense of Number book. I’m going to have a go a progressively dealing with this issue and liberating this material, but it might have to wait until another time.
  7. As well as the massive amount of content and ideas provided in the support materials to the Learning Progressions there is also a wealth of information on LN activities online. For this reason, I haven’t focused so much on the activities on my blog or in the ALEC Study Guide. However, I have posted a few bits and pieces here that are useful. First though you need to make sure that you understand how to write really focused embedded literacy and numeracy learning outcomes. If you need them, please refer to:
  8. Here are a few numeracy activities that, while they aren’t particularly contextualised, they are fun and they work:
  9. I did also start looking at some ideas for designing independent reading activities based on literacy unit standards 26622 and 26624 here if that’s of interest. There’s a downloadable cover sheet that you could adapt or cannibalise in any way you like here. Just a caution though, if you’re just doing a couple of embedded reading activities for your NCALNE (Voc) and you don’t care about US 26622 and 26624, you’d be well advised to strip back my suggestions to only what you think you really need.
  10. In terms of writing, I also started developing some ideas for a writing workshop here which I did flesh out in a bit more detail here. But again, just pick and choose what you want. If you’re just doing a couple of embedded writing activities for the NCALNE (Voc) you can be very selective here.
  11. Lastly:
    • Don’t forget to collect actual evidence of your learners actually doing the learning that you’ve designed. Think about using the digital camera on your phone. Scan copies of their completed work or drafts. Take a photo of what on the whiteboard at different stages. And send all of this together with your write up of Assessment 5 and copies of the activities that you used.
    • Don’t forget to make at least one of your embedded LN teaching interventions some kind of independent learning activity, i.e. where your learners do it without you (whether at home, in class, or wherever).
    • Don’t forget to think about where and when you will re-assess your learners using the contextualised LN tools you used earlier. You’ll need this for Assessment 6.
    • Don’t forget to build in some kind of evaluation component. You’ll need this for Assessment 7.
  12. If you’re working on this through the Pathways Awarua MOOC, your employer will need to have paid your course fee in order to unlock assessment modules (3 – 7)
  13. And if you’re a paid up student and you’re not completing this through the Pathways Awarua MOOC, you can email us ( for the latest version of the template for assessment Task 5.
  14. Otherwise, give us a call to discuss (0800-ALEC-1-2) or email us anyway ( and we’ll be in touch to help explain or clarify.