Academic Writing Tips 5: Useful expressions for writing

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Academic Writing Tips 5: Useful expressions for writing

Post  Jason Renshaw on Mon May 05 2008, 15:26

Below you will see the report I compiled for our classroom interactive survey on tips for the various English skill areas. I have highlighted parts of the writing in blue to demonstrate for you some of the useful expression formulae that you might like to try in your own writing.

On April 29, 2008, our composition class conducted an in-class survey investigating simple tips and recommendations for becoming better at English according to a variety of English skills. The skills were broken down into categories including reading ability, writing proficiency, listening skills, speaking ability, grammar skills, and vocabulary.

First of all, in terms of top tips for improving reading ability, the most common recommendation I found related to volume of reading. Hee-young, In-kab and myself all indicated we thought it is important to read as much as possible. In-kab added that it is important to summarize what is read, while my opinion was that it is crucial to also read widely across text types, using material that is personally interesting to the reader. Hwan-Ki made the interesting recommendation that it is important to read out loud as often as possible, while Hyun-A's opinion was that memorizing lots of vocabulary and idioms is the best way to improve English reading ability. Hyun-A's tip in particular strikes me as very common in the Korean context, where reading ability is often considered synonymous with vocabulary and idiom study and memorization. Personally, I think the recommendations about reading out loud, summarizing and developing vocabulary awareness are useful additional tips. However, at the core of improving reading skills is the basic requirement that we read a lot as often as possible, and reading material must be of personal interest to the readers involved.

Recommendations for improving writing proficiency followed on from the tips about reading ability. Interestingly, Nam-sook and Se-ra both thought that doing a lot of reading is the most important consideration in becoming better at writing, though Se-ra also added that it is important to think about the writer's method while reading something. Jong-woo made the observation that it is beneficial to write as much as possible under timed conditions, perhaps based on his own current situation where he is preparing for a specific kind of timed writing test. Kang-hoon's position was that it is best to write about anything you like as often as possible, hinting that freedom of topic choice and expression are important to him. From my own perspective, I recommended keeping a personal journal and doing different kinds of writing in it every week. On reflection, although everyone's opinions differed on this topic somewhat, I think they are all equally relevant and useful recommendations for improving writing ability. Jong-woo's recommendation was slightly specific and specialized, but in combination with the other advice I think it could be valuable to your average ESL writer. The recommendations for this part of the survey were particularly interesting considering that all of the people involved are taking a specific course in academic composition.

The next English skill investigated was listening. Hyun-A and Su-jin both thought it is best to listen to English TV programs, and Hyun-A gave the specific example of watching news programs. This was parallel to my own idea that it is best to watch video news articles every day, though I also added it is important to concentrate on just getting the main ideas while watching/listening. The interesting common thread across the three of us was that we think genuine audio-visual (rather than just pure audio) materials are the best resources to draw on. Nam-sook agreed with my point about regular listening habits, but her opinion was that it is best to be exposed to any English listening input rather than any particular type. Se-ra also made the interesting point that it is important to speak and repeat after listening, hinting at the idea it can be beneficial to establish and practice the link between listening and speaking. I think she has a good point here, though in my opinion talking through discussion or reporting might be a better way to follow up listening rather than just parroting what was heard, as it may be more like real-world reactions to genuine listening activity.

Our class then moved on to discuss what we all thought was the number one priority in becoming a more able speaker of English. Hwan-Ki, Jong-woo and myself were united in the opinion that it is important not to be too worried about making mistakes when speaking English. This appears to be such a major issue in Korea in particular, where a colossal fear of mistakes can cause learners of English to completely cramp up when it comes to any kind of speaking or interaction in English. I also added it is also important to be a risk-taker and not be sensitive about misunderstandings that can happen through conversation in a second language. Hyun-A's opinion had some similarity to these ideas in that she thought the biggest priority is feeling comfortable and having an open mind to communicate with anyone. I think this was an interesting addition to our ideas so far, because it reflects the importance of mind-set and personality when it comes to successful communication. Hee-young's number one priority for speaking ability was having a lot of vocabulary proficiency. Her focus on a linguistic aspect contrasted somewhat with the other opinions gathered, which could be summarized as being affective in nature. I think, to some degree, she had a valid point that can still bear relation to the other priorities mentioned. A learner of English with no fear of mistakes may still not be able to communicate very well at all if there is no basic foundation of words to understand and use. However, I think while Hee-young was considering a linguistic foundation, the rest of us were perhaps more sensitive about what appears to prohibit fluent and effective speaking skills in Korea in particular. Even with a big bank of vocabulary (which many students in Korea do in fact have), many Koreans still can't summon up enough courage to try and use them.

As a class, we then proceeded to tackle the issue of grammar skills and what we all thought was most necessary to gain a better understanding of the rules and patterns involved in English. In-kab's opinion was that it most necessary to master an easy grammar book. Hwan-Ki appeared to agree with In-kab's take on things somewhat when he mentioned that it is important to start with basic grammar. Se-young also outlined a similar perspective in terms of her opinion that it is crucial to choose the right reference material. Su-jin and myself had a different take on things, in that we both focussed on learning from genuine language usage. Su-jin stated that it was most necessary to learn from one's own writing and speaking situation, which perhaps indicated that she thought it is important to reflect on one's own natural language output or else consider grammar based on what we intend to say or write. From my own perspective, I indicated that it is most necessary to notice patterns in genuine language input (like listening and reading) and then attempt to apply them in one's own productive processes like speaking and writing. Personally, I found this aspect (grammar) one of the most interesting ones, because of the clear differentiation in the responses. Three class members basically focussed on having easy grammar through reference-style materials, while two others specifically targeted analysis of genuine language usage as the essential pathway to a better understanding of grammar.

The last skill investigated was vocabulary, where we had to report what we would say to someone who was looking to improve this aspect of their English in particular. Nam-sook and Hwan-Ki shared the perspective that it is most important to learn words that are personally relevant to you, though Nam-sook clarified this further as meaning words related to your daily life. Hyun-A made the interesting recommendation that a person should avoid using a dictionary and just guess the meanings of news words found in reading passages. What interested me about Hyun-A's view was that it is quite unique compared to standard attitudes to vocabulary learning in Korea, where dictionaries (and increasingly, electronic dictionaries) are all the rage. Se-ra's suggestion appeared to be more strategic, in that she specifically recommended learning groups of synonyms, or words according to prefix or suffix. My own view was that it is a good idea to keep a "new words" diary, and in addition to writing the words down, record and listen to the words on an ongoing basis. On reflection, I think the suggestions gathered for this question are all potentially useful if applied in combination. Strategic suggestions like mine and Se-ra's, in combination with a focus on personally relevant and useful words (as recommended by Nam-sook and Hwan-Ki), and a willingness to make educated guesses without relying on bilingual dictionaries (Hyun-A's suggestion), can all be successfully utilized together as an overall approach to improving vocabulary skills.

Doing this survey was an interesting experience on a couple of different counts. For one, it was motivating to think about the best ways to improve English according to six very essential aspects of the language (reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar and vocabulary). By the end of the survey I thought I and other class members had considered English in a very comprehensive way. For another, I personally found it very entertaining and thought-provoking to hear so many different perspectives from different people. It was interesting to see how different opinions correlated with or differed from others. This certainly helped me to consider my own opinion from a variety of new angles and gave me a unique insight into the minds and attitudes of my own students.


Jason Renshaw
Kyungpook National University, Teachers' College, Department of English Education
Daegu City, Republic of Korea 702-701

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Jason Renshaw

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