Academic Writing With ‘Non’ Academic Learners

Academic Writing With ‘Non’ Academic Learners

Saadet Pınar Çalgan and Zeynep Cansever, Turkey

Saadet Pınar Çalgan and Zeynep Cansever work at the English Preparatory School at the Bahçeşehir University, where they prepare ESL students for studies in their departments, equipping with necessary English skills required for higher education at International standards. They are both interested in assisted language learning and academic writing.
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Conclusions: the facts beyond the act of writing


We, teachers of English Language, have been struggling with the difficulties of teaching how to THINK, how to EXPRESS and how to WRITE for centuries. In this presentation we aim to focus on common and legendary problems which give English teachers a really big headache in language teaching, especially in academic writing. However, we, two beloved teachers, strongly believe that we can come up with some ideas that will help us sort these problems out to some extent without losing our and students’ PATIENCE, BELIEF and ENTHUSIASM.
In this article we will look at the problems confronted by the English preparatory school teachers while teaching Academic Writing to the students that have had no academic background. First, the problems will be set with the participants using different kinds of teaching techniques. After categorizing the problems, we will have a big picture to discuss the suggested solutions and writing model which is currently applied by the Bahcesehir University Preparatory program instructors. While doing this, the importance of letting the students be aware of the writing criteria and assessment will be pointed out. The article will end with some suggestions on setting the criteria so as to have objective results.


What is academic writing?

Academic writing is the way through which university students communicate with their lecturers or which academicians communicate with their colleagues. They use specific styles and genres in order to communicate their ideas, thesis, solutions and statements. Its objective is to inform the audience rather than to entertain. There are six main features of academic writing that are often discussed: Complex, formal, objective, explicit, hedged, and responsible.

Why is academic writing in our curriculum?

In our institution, we aim to teach English which is the language through which the students are instructed, tested and expected to do research and submit their projects and thesis during their education at university. However, we are aware that knowing the language per se is not the only concern. The students should be able to use it in the way that academia approves. With academic writing classes, we aim to prepare our students for the fore-mentioned academic environment and its requirements in terms of academic ways and its style of writing. Therefore we want to make sure that our students are equipped with the necessary skills to be able to succeed in transmitting their ideas and solutions with an appropriate way and style as required.

Who is a ‘non’ academic learner?

The term ‘non’ academic may sound like a learner who learns the second or foreign language only for communication purposes rather than academic ones. However, we decided to use this term to imply the idea that our learners are high school graduate young adults who have never been to or experienced an academic environment and therefore may not be able to meet the requirements of academia and are not mature, knowledgeable and critical enough to overcome the difficulties that academic writing presents.

As we all know, writing is a productive skill that requires the learners to be able to generate ideas, and express these ideas in a certain way. Apart from the language skills that the learners should have, the learners’ ability to have or generate an idea, to discuss and prove it is also a must. This leads us to the term ‘critical thinking’. But what is critical thinking? The description of critical thinking on wikipedia is as below:


‘Critical thinking is the purposeful and reflective judgement about what to believe or what to do in response to observations, experience, verbal or written expressions….. Critical thinking can occur whenever one judges, decides or solves a problem; in general whenever one must figure out what to believe or what to do and do so in a reasonable and reflective way.’

As the definition suggests, critical thinking requires ‘judgement’, ‘problem solving’ and ‘decision-making’ skills which are not learned from someone else directly but gained through questioning and interpreting information by oneself. Fisher ‘unpacks’ Dewey’s definition of critical thinking which is;


‘Active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds which support it and the further conclusions to which it tends’ (Dewey, 1909, 9)

by highlighting the term ‘active’ which is thinking through for yourself by raising questions (inquiry), finding relevant information yourself and is the fundamental component of critical thinking, and by contrasting it with the ‘passive’ which is learned from someone else (Fisher, 2001:2). In the light of the questionnaire we conducted in preparatory school, it can be claimed that our learners are not capable of questioning, generating ideas and proving them or taking risks which we should admit to be the key aspects of critical thinking Nuray Alagozlu from Baskent University also states in her article reminding us of the other researches in Turkey.


” There are several other studies that pinpoint many university students lacked necessary critical thinking and reflection skills to cope with the requirements of academic life such as skills of how to plan, conduct and evaluate research (Karasar, 1984; Buyukozturk, 1996; Karagul, 1996; Öner, 1999; Buyukozturk, 1999; Koklu and Buyukozturk, 1999).” (Alagöz, 2007, 123)

In this situation, students’ experience in writing would be a great help to both the student and the teacher before, during and after the writing process. However, it was also found that they had had almost no experience of even free writing in the target language. Therefore, the students are to gain both academic writing skills and the skills that critical thinking requires in the time that is allocated for academic writing lessons only. Since so many of our acquisitions are based on what our learners do not know and what critical thinkers should have, it should not be ignored that their attitude towards second language learning and academic writing is not professional enough to perceive and gain critical thinking strategies. As a solution to these problems, we endeavour to design our curriculum to have interdisciplinary subjects. This way, students get ideas from the reading texts, audio or visual materials and transfer this knowledge to their writing.

Another issue that should be pointed out is that the learners do not have critical thinking abilities due to their age. In the survey that we conducted in our school, we found out that our students range from 18 to 24 years of age and this is also another reason why they do not have improved critical thinking abilities. Bilgin and Eldeleklioğlu proved it as a result of their research as below;


‘The results showed that the late adolescent university students, ranging in age from 19-22 years old, had a tendency towards using emotional sentences more frequently (43.27 %) during their discussions. This was followed, in decreasing frequency, by rational speech (31.28 %), speaking based on some documents (20.88 %), and speaking as referencing somebody (5.5 %).’ (Bilgin & Eldeleklioğlu, 2007, p.58).

As a result, it can be said that the ‘non’ academic learners do not have the improved critical thinking skills which are needed to be able to do academic writing, owing to lack of experience and their age.

Conclusions: the facts beyond the act of writing

Although the problems that we have set forth prevent the learners from being perfect writers, we – as the instructors or curriculum designers – can provide the learners with simple yet effective solutions so as to help them be successful in the academic writing lessons. These solutions do not eradicate their deficiency in critical thinking but minimize its effects by providing back-up and improving other skills such as using the correct format and appropriate language for a specific style.

  • First of all, when we first start to introduce a type of a paragraph or an essay, it is quite beneficial to show an example and exploit it for several purposes. First of all, the students can find out the outline of the text which can be used as a guideline for their own work. Students tend to view outlining as drudgery and they just want to start writing and finish it as soon as possible without ‘unnecessary’ brainstorming or outlining process. As a result, by the help of the sample text, it is possible to highlight the importance of creating an outline and making use of it while we are writing. They also deduce a lot from the sample text and get familiar with particular expressions and vocabulary dedicated to the given genre.
  • Writing a sample paragraph or an essay with the students from the very beginning with brainstorming and outlining to the conclusion is also advantageous. They witness each and every step of the process by generating ideas, putting these ideas in an appropriate form, and using the correct linkers and vocabulary with the guidance of the teacher. Alternatively, the teacher can ask the students to write in groups or pairs and the teacher can monitor them.
  • We found out that if the students are aware of the criteria, they become more successful in writing. We carry out the writing lessons with an array of process writings where the students get detailed feedback and a writing task where the students submit their final product respectively. The teachers use criteria in order to assess the writing tasks. We also attach a checklist to their process writings so that they can see whether they are weak or strong at a specific skill such as style, use of English, vocabulary / word formation and organisation. This raises the students’ awareness. Their grades also prove this idea as well as the result of the survey. Almost 90% of the students admitted that getting the criteria before or during the process writings helped them be more successful.
  • Another issue that supports the students in writing is being involved in the assessment. In other words, we asked them to be a teacher for just one class hour and assess a paper written by another student. They also got the criteria and marked the paper according to the criteria. This lesson not only created enthusiasm among the students because of ‘being a teacher’ for a while but also gave the opportunity to be able to evaluate their performance comparing the sample with their own writing. Moreover, seeing mistakes on the paper is also good practice for them, which means that they will try not to make the same mistake in their own writing.

As a result, There is no doubt that the solutions that we stated above are not sufficient enough to sort these learners’ problems out but it is still possible to get these learners to be successful in ‘academic writing’ by providing them with sample texts, useful expressions and involving them to the assessment process gradually.
As we are drawing the big picture of what critical thinking is, We, as teachers, should also have these critical thinking skills. This is the only way of being a model and leading the students along this writing adventure.


Alagozlu, N. (2007) Critical Thinking and Voice in EFL Writing Asian EFL Journal Volume 9. Issue 3 Article 6, 122-136, 123

Bilgin, A. & Eldeleklioğlu, J.( 2007) An investigation into the critical thinking skills of University Students Hacettepe University Journal of Education,. 33: 55–67, 58.

Fisher, A.(2001) Critical Thinking An Introduction, Cambridge University Press ,2

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