Teaching English Academic Writing in the Second Language Classroom and Beyond

by Anna Wing-bo Tso and Winnie Siu-yee Ho


Anna Wing-bo Tso received her PhD in Applied Linguistics from The University of Birmingham, U.K. She is associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at The Open University of Hong Kong, where she directs the Digital Humanities Research Centre and heads the Master of Arts in Applied English Linguistics. Her most recent books include Teaching Shakespeare to ESL Students (Springer, 2017) and Academic Writing for Arts and Humanities Students (McGraw-Hill Education, 2016).

Winnie Siu-yee Ho obtained her PhD in Applied Linguistics at Lancaster University, U.K. She has been teaching Linguistics and English for Specific and Academic Purposes courses to undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University of Hong Kong, the Open University of Hong Kong and Chu Hai College of Higher Education.



Academic language is classroom-specific language all students must comprehend and use to achieve academic success (Cummins, 1980). Starting as early as the primary grades, students around the world are expected to learn how to use language in academic settings. In the elementary grades, “written essays in persuasive or analytic genres are often graded using criteria that refer implicitly to academic-language forms” (Snow and Uccelli, 2009, p. 112). When learners reach the pre-university level, academic writing, in particular English academic writing, becomes more important than ever.

Across all cultures, English academic writing is taught in high schools and institutions in the tertiary sector. Yet, recent studies on academic English writing and learners’ literacies, including Flowerdew and Miller (2008), Grabe (2001), Hyland (2003) and Prior (2006), have criticized generic writing courses for ignoring socio-cultural contexts and individual learners’ needs and motivation, let alone the variation of writing tasks in different disciplines. Our research indicates that students need more than just grammatical knowledge and mechanical skills training (Tso and Chung, 2016). The development of academic literacy, now an increasingly popular area of study, comes under the spotlight. Having over ten years of experience teaching English as a second language (ESL), we will overview the current pedagogical approaches for teaching academic writing to ESL students, a fast-growing population all over the world owing to globalization. We will also share teaching materials we have designed based on our understanding of academic literacies.



Whether in ESL or other school contexts, the ability to articulate ideas clearly and convincingly is crucial to academic studies. It is commonly known that students who excel at academic writing are likely to perform well in their studies and become successful students. In light of this, most high schools, community colleges, and universities run compulsory pre-university and/or year-one English academic writing courses to improve the academic writing ability of their students. According to Hamilton (2000), academic literacies are closely associated with dominant literacies, which are highly valued and standardized literacies with controlled knowledge and bounded communities of practice. They are found in authoritative institutional settings, such as government, schools, and workplaces. Within these formal social institutions, norms and regulations exist to govern the behaviour of citizens, students, and staff members, respectively.

It is difficult to teach academic literacies in the classroom setting. The crux of the matter is that many students, parents, and even teachers believe English language proficiency simply means academic writing skills, and many have mistakenly equated academic writing skills with academic literacies. However, Bhatia (2004, p.144) explains that there are in fact three levels of discursive competence:

Textual competence refers to the ability to both master language (i.e. sounds, words, grammar, word meanings, discourse) and to use textual, contextual, and pragmatic knowledge to construct and interpret texts.

Generic competence is the ability to respond to recurrent and new communicative situations by producing, interpreting, and use generic conventions in the disciplines.

Social competence refers to the ability to use language more widely to participate effectively in a wide variety of social and institutional contexts to give expression to their social identity.

Simply put, at the textual competence level, the focus is on linguistic accuracy; while, at the generic competence level, the focus is no longer on grammar and vocabulary, but on academic skills including: (a) Using academic conventions, (b) Referring to sources, (c) Quoting and paraphrasing, (d) Note-taking and summarizing, (e) Planning, drafting and editing, (f) Writing clear and well-structured paragraphs, (g) Improving text organization, (h) Ensuring that texts ‘flow,’ and (i) Improving grammar and accuracy.

A student with good English language proficiency (i.e. textual competence) may not have a mastery of academic writing skills, or what Bhatia calls “generic competence”. Likewise, a student with excellent English and academic writing skills can lack the social competence required by a specific discipline, such as English for Law or English for Science.


New Literacy Studies

Social competence, or more specifically, academic literacies, is beyond reading and writing. It is a set of situated practices. Traditionally, the definition of ‘literacy’ concerns “people’s ability to read and write particular forms of texts” (Ivanic, Edwards, Barton, Martin-Jones, Fowler, Hughes, Mannion, Miller, Satchwell & Smith, 2009, p.19). However, literacy is no longer limited to reading and writing. Within the tradition of New Literacy Studies (NLS), a term coined by Gee (1990), Street (1984) rejects the argument that literacy is a set of discrete skills and emphasizes the importance of context. Lankshear (1999) also disagrees with the traditional view of skills-based literacy and proposes a sociocultural approach to literacy. In other words, in addition to linguistic competence and academic skills, teachers and students should also pay special attention to literary practices.


Literacy Practices

Literacy practices are common patterns found in reading and writing texts for social activities, cultural values, and ideological purposes. Street (1995) further reinforces the importance of the social nature of literacy and the multiple characters of literacy practices by coining the term “Social Literacies” (p. 2). Literacy practices are “regularly occurring ways of doing things with texts” (Ivanic et al., 2009, p.21). They are also “general cultural ways of using reading and writing” (Barton, 2012, p.1) “which people draw upon in particular situations” (Barton, 2001, p.96).

What is at issue for academic writing training in ESL classrooms and beyond is that learners need academic socialization where they improve their English proficiency and become familiarized with the academic skills, writing style, and conventions.


Our Case Study at The Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK)

OUHK is a typical Asian university that provides programs for both local and international students. A case study at the OUHK both sheds light on how literacy practices of students and gives insights into the teaching of English academic writing in ESL classrooms and beyond. Through the OUHK academic writing class’s student questionnaire survey, written assignments, and external examiner’s comments, our study reveals that few ESL students managed to attain a high level of English proficiency. Multiple grammatical mistakes such as fragments and run-on sentences can often be spotted in students’ written assignments. Here is a typical example:

Such grammatical and vocabulary mistakes reveal that some academic writing class students have weak English foundations and need more exposure to the academic texts. Similarly, the external examiner (a professor working for the Department of English at another university in Hong Kong) made the following comment in the end-of-course report:

The external examiner’s professional advice further affirms that students, especially ESL students, should learn to observe the academic writing style and conventions.


Corpus-based Teaching Materials

 With a view to helping students improve their academic English proficiency and academic literacies, we designed a series of corpus-based teaching toolkits tailored for arts and social sciences students, be they EFL, ESL or native English students. For example, we show the following concordance lines to highlight the difference between ‘interrelationship’ and ‘relationship’, two commonly confused words in the academic discourse (Tso, Ho and Chung, 2016, p. 102):

Exercise One. Study the concordance lines in the following and answer questions 1-2.

  1. What are the parts of speech and words used after ‘interrelationship’ and ‘relationship’?
  2. Based on the above, define the meanings of the words –interrelationship and relationship.

Authentic Text-based Teaching Materials

To draw students’ attention to the common sentence structures in academic writing, we also write simple notes and design authentic text-based exercises in the learning kit (Tso, Ho and Chung, 2016, p. 123):

Prepositional phrases as the post-modifiers of nouns

Complex noun phrases are common in the written registers. They are formed because of pre-modifiers and post-modifiers.

To most learners, pre-modifiers of nouns are comparatively less difficult than post-modifiers. Learners need to pay attention to post-modification by prepositional phrases, which are the major type of post-modifiers of nouns in academic writings. The post-modifying prepositional phrases begin with a preposition and give more information about the nouns.

Exercise One. Read the paragraph below and answer the following questions.

  1. Find out nouns with prepositional phrases (Give at least three examples).
  2. Explain the function of prepositional phrases.
  3. Write down nouns with prepositional phrases (3 examples) in your discipline and share them with your partner.

Contextual Content-based Teaching Materials

In addition, contextual content-based texts have also been used to illustrate academic essay structure and organization. For instance, when teaching students methods of writing a good introduction, we show various annotated introductions excerpted from authentic academic texts (Tso, Ho and Chung, 2016, p. 85-6):

Introductions with contents about literacies are deliberately chosen to give students a better contextual view of their own academic literacy development.



According to the findings of our small case study, students’ performance in academic writing has steadily improved since teachers of the writing class started using the specially designed corpus-based, authentic text-based and contextual content-based learning and teaching materials mentioned above. Indeed, English language proficiency, academic writing skills, and academic literacies are equally important for good academic writing at the pre-university and university levels. For better socialization into the academic writing discourse, starting from grade 12 onwards, teachers of academic writing are advised to provide students with more situated practices relevant to academic writing.



This research project is supported by the FDS grant from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (UGC/FDS16/H01/15).



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Tso, W. B. and Chung, S. K. (2016). Academic Literacy Development: University Students' Perceptions and Experiences of English Academic Writing in Southeast Asia. Pacific-Asian Education. 28(1), 51-61.

Tso, W. B., Ho, S. Y. and Chung, S. K. (2016). Academic Writing for Arts and Humanities Students. Singapore: McGraw-Hill Education. 


Keywords: Academic literacies, dominant literacies, ESL academic writing