Academic Writing in a Second or Foreign Language: Issues and Challenges

Tiffany Ip, Hong Kong Baptist University

Writing in academic contexts is an indispensable skill for scholars and college students, many of whom face growing pressure to write and publish in English. It is deemed the language of scholarship, hence, it has become a tool for writers to demonstrate their knowledge in a particular discipline. Given that English academic writing presents a tremendous challenge for those whose native language is not English, it seems fitting to explore the issue of academic writing in a second or foreign language and its potential difficulties.

Why Is Academic Writing in a Second/Foreign Language Challenging?

Many ESL/EFL writers, upon entering college, find academic writing particularly challenging. They usually have received minimal exposure to formal instruction of academic writing during their middle and high school education. Even if writing courses are offered in some high schools and tertiary institutions, most courses prove to be generic, namely, they fail to teach to the students’ individual needs or give them the writing skills they will need for their future discipline. One college student, whose opinion might represent other students’, said that her major difficulties in writing for her discipline had not been fully addressed in any of the writing courses she had taken throughout her study in college:

When I encountered problems in writing, I would approach my tutors. However, I was only given advice on the essential components I should include in my writing. No specific guidance on how I may improve my academic expressive ability was given…Our department does not value academic writing skills, and tutors only focus on the content (Ip & Lee, 2015, p.19).

Sometimes, writers or teachers believe that if someone has a high proficiency in English that it also implies having good academic writing skills. Although academic writing proficiency is somewhat related to general language proficiency, improvements in the latter do not necessarily lead to improvements in the former. 

Bhatia (2004) informed us that at the textual competence level, the focus is on linguistic accuracy, such as, how well one has mastered grammar and vocabulary and can construct and interpret texts; whereas, at the generic competence level, the focus is on academic skills including: 1) using academic conventions, 2) referring to sources, 3) quoting and paraphrasing, 4) note-taking and summarizing, 5) planning, drafting and editing, 6) writing clear and well-structured paragraphs, 7) improving text organization, 8) ensuring that the text ‘flows’, and 9) improving grammar and accuracy.

Due to the differentiation between textual competence and generic competence, writers can face different issues. A major issue of ESL/EFL student writing is grammatical inaccuracy, resulting from low English proficiency at the word or sentence level. On the other hand, even native English speakers can have unsatisfactory academic writing skills. They may have difficulty in applying the rules and styles of academic writing, and hence have complications in writing within a specific discipline. Others have experienced difficulty in writing for a publication, and have found tasks such as making proper references to the published literature, structuring arguments, and textual organization troublesome. 

For those whose first language is not English, not only do they struggle with the aforementioned nine generic competence writing skills, they also lack familiarity with the language features of English, its rhetorical structures, and its socio-cultural dynamics. Additionally, bilingual or multilingual writers tend to use a set writing approach when writing in different languages, without considering each language-specific approach, thus hampering their ability to write at an adequate academic level.

Extracts from Student Research Proposals

The following two extracts provide qualitative illustrations of several common problems encountered by ESL/EFL writers, and offer hints of what appropriate academic writing should be like.

Extract 1: Today extra-curricular activities have become an integral part of school life. Living in residential halls can be considered as one of the most popular off-campus learning activities in universities. It has provided vast diversity of experiences to students. In order to train themselves to be all-rounded students and sharpen their interpersonal skills, students no longer limit themselves to classroom settings only, but also maximize their exposure to various opportunities. It is believed that hall living to a certain extent has an impact on student’s development. In the west, many scholars have touched on the impact of dormitory living on academic performance of students (Reynolds, 2012; Terenzini, Pascarella, & Blimling, 1999). However, the history of investigating hall living in the East is relatively short, therefore not many studies have been done in the Asian context. Apart from the academic aspect, mental health among undergraduates has become a growing concern.

The above extract is from the only paragraph in the introduction section of a proposal about the impact of residence hall living, and it is directly followed by the method section. The literature review is vaguely embedded within this paragraph. Most are cliché statements without much reference to previous literature. For instance, the thesis statement generalizes the assumption that extra-curricular activities have become an integral part of school life. Phrases such as ‘one of the most popular off-campus learning activities’, ‘vast diversity of experiences’, ‘various opportunities’, and ‘to a certain extent’ are not well based in any literature. Sources are cited only when the student attempts to identify the research gap. All these demonstrate a weakness in material synthesis; academic writing requires not only mastering grammar and vocabulary at the sentence level, but also organizing a piece of writing at the discourse level.

Extract 2: Imagine the following scenario: A young woman notices that her boyfriend seems to be a little bit off recently and she is afraid that something is going on between them. Preoccupied with worries and uncertainty, she opens her boyfriend’s Facebook page only to find several ambiguous messages posted by other girls on his wall. She also finds him tagged in a photo with another pretty girl yesterday afternoon, when he told her he was visiting his parents. After reading through his page, she feels jealous, anxious and insecure. She logs on an hour later to check his page again (adapted from Marshall, Bejanyan, Di Castro & Lee, 2013).

Extract two illustrates another common problem of novice writers. The imaginary scenario is the beginning to a research proposal which aims to investigate Facebook surveillance and relationship dissatisfaction. While the use of a casual scenario may be appropriate if writing a psychology magazine article, it does not fit well into the genre of academic research. Although the student successfully maintains an academic tone in the remaining sections of the research proposal, the blending of academic and casual writing style implies the writer’s lack of awareness of appropriate academic stylistics.

How Should We Approach Academic Writing?

1) What Can Writers Do?

Two pieces of advice are offered to ESL/EFL writers, especially novices. First, they should expose themselves to academic texts as much as possible. The ability to write well academically is a skill that has to be developed. Learning through experience allows a writer to become familiarized with the academic writing style and what an essay structure typically looks like. 

Second, during the writing process, writers may refer to the following steps:

Stage 1: Pre-Writing

  • Critical evaluation of literature
  • Formulation of problems/research questions

Stage 2: Writing

  • Critical synthesis of literature to support arguments
  • Appropriate use of linguistic and discourse features in accordance with discipline-specific requirements

Stage 3: Post-Writing

  • Editing and proofreading, especially checking if academic conventions are followed and sources are appropriately cited

2) What Can Teachers Do?

It is generally assumed that writing skills are teachable. Studies have suggested that the features associated with academic register in writing change, with an increase in impersonality, formality and hedging in student writing, after the completion of an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course. With a better understanding of the rules and style of academic writing, students will refrain from using a generic English writing style they have adopted for a variety of writing purposes, and will instead write within the parameters of the genre.

In response to students’ concern with the lack of emphasis on academic writing in most courses, language teachers are encouraged to employ genre-based pedagogy, which is characterized by switching the emphasis from the ‘study skills approach’ to the ‘academic literacies approach’. The focus of the former lies in identifying and rectifying explicit language problems such as grammatical and spelling errors, while the latter is more about demystifying the rhetorical structure of a text with reference to its writing genre.

Using this genre-based approach with an aim of raising students’ awareness to appropriate academic writing stylistics, students uncover and interpret the writing conventions of the genre they are learning. Teachers need to be careful though, with using a standardized template for writing with students, as it may harm the fluidity of students’ academic discourses. Students also need to be able to transfer the skills they have acquired from writing in one genre to another. For instance, the ‘report genre’ within the social science discipline is comprised of various report sub-genres. The laboratory report, written in the field of psychology, presents the procedural steps, major findings and implications of an experimental study. The assessment case report used in social work serves record-keeping and evaluation purposes. A journalistic news report documents newsworthy events. All of these report sub-genres, while sharing common features of documenting a past event, have rhetorical structures substantially different because of their contrasting communicative purposes, writing contexts, and intended readers.

Concluding Remarks

Academic writing goes beyond a general understanding of simple English language rules, to a higher level of understanding which involves interpreting and delivering subject content in writing. It is not an easy task for students, especially ESL/EFL students, to master, even with a few years of training during college. It is hoped that this article provides some insights for writers with English as a second or foreign language, who are looking to develop their writing to academic level standards. 


Bhatia, V. K. (2004). Worlds of written discourse: A genre-based view. London, UK: Continuum.

Ip, T., & Lee, J. (2015). Difficulties in mastering psychology writing: A student perspective. Frontiers of Language and Teaching, 6, 12–21.