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 Anything topical in the examples are now 20 years out of date, but the teaching ideas and structure still works.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





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.