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 Anything topical in the examples are now 20 years out of date, but the teaching ideas and structure still works.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





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.

TEACH: Cheat sheet for writing activities from the Learning Progressions

Screenshot 2017-05-09 16.50.06

You may already have downloaded this resource. If you haven’t and you want to click the link below:

These resources are filled with activities and ideas that you can use or adapt. But navigating them can be tricky. So we designed a cheat sheet.

Cheat Sheet for Write to Communicate Activities

Here’s how to use it. Just look down the list at the second column. This tells you in one sentence what learners actually have to do in the activity.

From there, you can look at the name of the activity, find the page number in the resource, and see which progressions it lines up with.

Things to remember:

  • Most activities cut across multiple progressions. This is fine. Just make sure you know what your focus is. Refer back to your learning outcomes.
  • The level of difficulty for the activity depends on how you pitch it to your learners. That’s why there’s no list of which steps a particular activity applies to. For example, if you choose a text with easy words, it’s going to be steps 1 to 3. If you choose a text with more academic or technical words, it’s going to be steps 4 to 6 depending on the words.
  • Not all the activities will be useful to you and your situation. If you do decide to take the time to look through these, you might want to rate them for yourself. In other words, can you use this?
  • You don’t have to use these. If you have your own ideas then go with that. But remember, if you need inspiration or want to look at activities that were written by experts then look here.

You can download it here as PDF or just read below.


What do learners do?

Which progressions does it focus on?

Where do I find it?

Can I use it?
Rate: ✓ ? ✗

Using a shared approach to writing Work together with the tutor to brainstorm, outline, and draft a piece of writing for a purpose. Purpose and audience, spelling, vocabulary, language and text features, planning and composing, revising and editing. P. 28  
Sharing quality work Use a guide to evaluate a text in order to identify features of good writing Purpose and audience, spelling, vocabulary, language and text features, planning and composing, revising and editing. P. 30  
Using writing frames Use an outline with prompts to write a text Purpose and audience, spelling, vocabulary, language and text features, planning and composing, revising and editing. P. 31  
Organising and linking ideas Use a list of connecting and linking words to link sentences and paragraphs in a text Spelling, vocabulary, language and text features, planning and composing P. 32  
Using templates and acronyms Use a template or acronym with prompts for a piece of writing like an explanation, argument, description or discussion Vocabulary, language and text features, planning and composing P. 33  
Shared paragraph writing Work in groups to write paragraphs using prompts Language and text features, planning and composing


P. 35  
Word maps Brainstorm and mind map other words that relate to a single focus word to extend vocabulary Vocabulary, planning and composing P. 36  
Clustering Group words into meaningful clusters Vocabulary, planning and composing P. 38  
Structured overviews Organise words into a hierarchy (e.g. like an chart describing all the roles in an organisation) Vocabulary, language and text features, Planning and composing P. 40  
Clines Arrange words into a sequence that shows shades of meaning (e.g. like words expressing temperature) Vocabulary, P. 42  
Concept circles Explain concepts and relationships that link related words Vocabulary, Planning and composing P. 43  
Pair definitions Write a definition and someone else has to guess the original word Vocabulary, P. 44  
Brainstorming Activate prior knowledge about a topic before writing Vocabulary, Planning and composing P. 46  
Suggestions for teaching the writing process A selection of activity ideas for teaching writing across the steps and progressions in the Write to Communicate strand Planning and composing, revising and editing P. 47  
Suggestions for teaching spelling A selection of activity ideas for spelling across steps 1 to 5 Vocabulary, Spelling P. 48


TEACH: I have my own ideas for literacy and numeracy activities… What should I do?

TEACH (17)

If you’ve got your own ideas, you should experiment…! Go for it. Consider this your express permission to try new things.

Here’s the catch though:

  • Sometimes things don’t work out as planned. Even with the best plans.

But that’s ok. It’s just feedback. It’s not a failure if you try something and it doesn’t work. That’s super helpful for what you do after that. Which might be amazing.

If you teach trades, do some kind of vocational training, or teach ESOL learners, you probably have lots of great ideas for literacy activities already. We’d like to encourage you to develop and use your own ideas based on the work that you’ve done already.

You’re now well equipped to make a judgement call on what kinds of embedded literacy and numeracy suit your learners best. After all, you have:

  1. Made a detailed examination of your own context for teaching and embedding.
  2. Looked at a range of frameworks, approaches and concepts that will help you teach better.
  3. Analysed your programme and some teaching resources in depth to see what the literacy and numeracy demands are.
  4. Developed both high-level programme strategies for embedding as well as specific learning outcomes to focus on key areas that your learners need to work on.
  5. Gathered broad and specific diagnostic information about your learners.

If you have an idea, you should feel confident pursuing it…! Even if it’s just to rule it out as an option.

That said, we can point you to a whole lot of great ideas that you can use or adapt in the Learning Progressions resources. We’re heading in that direction next.

TEACH: Can I see an example of some planning for a literacy activity?

TEACH (16)

Embedding reading comprehension strategies into a foundation hair and beauty class

Here’s a scenario and example of some planning for an activity that embeds a reading comprehension strategy into a foundation learning course in a hair and beauty context. First, read through the scenario, learning outcome, and resources. Then have a look at the activity planned at the end.

You teach a foundation learning course with a focus on hair and beauty. It’s a trades academy course at a local Polytech, but your students come from high schools around the region. You know from their Assessment Tool scores that some struggle with reading comprehension. So, you’ve decided to focus on some different strategies for strengthening this aspect of their literacy knowledge and abilities.

There are no workbooks for the taster course that you’re doing with your current class. However, you’ve been teaching this kind of content for several years. So you know where to find several readings for the course that provide the right information.

You’re happy with the texts because they contain most of the concepts and terminology that you need to teach. The texts are not too long or dense, but you think they also provide a great opportunity to shift the focus to strategies that your learners can use to improve not just their understanding of these texts, but how they approach other reading texts as well.

Learning outcome

Based on your mapping, diagnostic assessment and work with these learners you decided on the following as your intended learning outcome for your first attempt at teaching a reading comprehension strategy:

  • Use reading comprehension strategies in the context of an introduction to dermatology for hair and beauty professionals.

This focus on dermatology lines up with a new unit that you have to start teaching. There are several texts that your learners will need to read anyway in order to understand the basics and to prepare for the assessment.


You’ve decided to try teaching and practising a number of different reading comprehension strategies over this semester. But the first one that you want to try is related to activating prior knowledge.

You know that good readers use and apply the knowledge that they already have about the world, words and text to help them understand a new text.

Because it’s also the start of a new unit, you decide you’ll try out something you learned in a professional development class a few weeks ago called a KWL activity.

The activity helps learners:

  • Recall prior knowledge (K) of the topic.
  • Generate motivation by identifying what they want (W) to learn.
  • Identify relevant information and monitor what they have learned (L) through the process.


Here are the resources that you know you need:

  • Two texts introducing dermatology for hair and beauty professionals
  • Whiteboard and markers
  • KWL chart for each learner
K: What we know W: What we want to know L: What we learned





Here’s what your actual planning might look like for one activity. This is adapted from the guided teaching and learning sequence on page 47 of Teaching Adults to Read with Understanding: Using the Learning Progressions:


Activity 1: Intro to Dermatology – KWL Brainstorming Activity

  1. Draw a KWL chart on the whiteboard.
  2. Brainstorm what the learners know about dermatology and related topics, writing their ideas in the first column ( K ).
  3. Discuss what information they feel they need to know about the topic. Write these ideas in the second column ( W ) of the chart.
  4. Explain that, as they read the text, the learners will make notes about what they have learned in the third column ( L ).
  5. Give the learners individual copies of KWL charts for them to record their own ideas in the first two columns.
  6. The learners read the text and make notes in the third column (L) as they read.
  7. The learners share their notes with a partner or the whole group to finish.

TEACH: How should I plan my teaching sessions and activities?

TEACH (15)

Every teacher, trainer or tutor involved in foundation education needs to plan ways they can meet their learners’ literacy and numeracy needs within the constraints of the limited amounts of time they have together.

Planning happens in lots of different ways. Let’s have a look at a few different ways that tutors actually manage their planning.

“It’s in my head”

Sometimes we plan things without writing them down. This is something that experienced teachers do. Sometimes the plan might be a few scribbled notes on a piece of paper, but the planning happens mentally.

This kind of planning is usually based on what the educator knows will work from doing the same things on other occasions with the same kinds of learners.

Needs-based or improvised

This kind of planning is when you develop an idea on the spot when a need arises or an opportunity presents itself. This is also something good teachers do automatically and intuitively.

Experienced teachers can improvise a plan based on what kind of feedback they’re getting from their learners and what they know the learners need to do next.


In some teaching situations, it makes more sense to keep a record of what actually happened, rather than to plan extensively beforehand. This is often the case where the learners and teaching contexts are more dynamic.

One example might be an ESOL workplace literacy course where it’s uncertain which learners may turn up. In this case, the teacher might have a loose plan when they start, but then record the session details afterwards only noting what they covered.


A plan can also be a deliberate, written guide for what to do in one or a series of teaching sessions.

This is something that all new teachers do when they’re getting started. Some keep the practice, but just get better at it or find ways to plan faster. Others find that after a time they can shift to planning in their heads or improvising.

For most teachers though, the actual reality of planning reflects some combination of all of these methods. For our purposes, we’re going to focus on written planning. This means that if you are used to planning everything in your head, you’ll need to write some of this down.

If you’re a teacher or a trainer who is used to improvising, you’ll still need to develop a written plan. But there’s an opportunity after each of the three teaching sessions to reflect and review what actually happened.

What are some guidelines for writing up my teaching plans?

Our criteria are simple when it comes to what to include in your teaching plans. If you can answer yes to the following question, you’re likely to include everything we need:

  • If you were away for a day, could a colleague with similar training pick up your planning and resources and teach your class?

We don’t think you need to include any more details than are necessary. Aside from knowing your learning outcomes and having copies of any resources, all your colleague should need is a set of instructions to follow for the activities.

TEACH: What does it look like when you use teaching strategies in context?

TEACH (14)

What does it look like when you use teaching strategies in context?

Here’s an example from a practical horticulture training course for adults. The tutor’s learning outcome is to get the students to:

  • Estimate and then measure out a raised planting bed in the context of a learning to grow vegetables.

The relevant numeracy, in this case, relates to estimation and measurement in metres and millimetres as well as working out area in m2.

Here are some possibilities for the kinds of teaching strategies that the tutor might use:

  • Discuss what participants already know about measuring out a rectangle or other area for building a raised vegetable planting bed.
  • Prompt learners to make links to work they did previously with her using a tape measure to measure length in metres and millimetres.
  • Question learners about what they needed to know in order to use the tape and actually do the measuring.
  • Explain how to use the tape measure, as well as how to develop a personal benchmark for estimating and measuring length, such as your stride or the length of your boot.
  • Give feedback on the group’s ideas on the best way to estimate and then measure out the planting bed.
  • Model how to work out an area calculation on the whiteboard.

Now let’s put it into action

In your assessment for this part of the course, you have to show that you’ve planned what teaching strategies you intend to use. You should already have an idea of your learning outcomes.

Take some time to brainstorm how you will use any of these strategies across the different activities that you are planning for your project work.

  • Discuss…
  • Prompt learners to make links to their prior knowledge by…
  • Question learners about what they needed to know in order to…
  • Explain how to…
  • Give feedback on…
  • Model how to…

These prompts are the same as the ones in your assessment template. If you want to take notes right now, you can download a worksheet for this.