Tips for Teaching Academic Writing

Tiernan L. Tensai

Dear TLT,

I’ve been teaching in Japan for a few years, and from this April I’ll be starting a new job at a university near my home. I’m really excited about this opportunity overall, but one thing I’m worried about is this academic writing class they have me teaching. While I have lots of experience in teaching conversation, I’ve never actually had the chance to teach writing skills. I’m feeling kind of lost, so I’m hoping you can help me out! What are some best practices for teaching academic writing to Japanese university students? You know, stuff that I should definitely keep in mind when I’m planning and conducting the course…

(Writer’s) Blocked in Beppu

Dear Blocked,

Thanks for your message. Our first thought upon reading it was “wow, great topic–but also huge.” As a result, we’ll take up this subject in two parts. In this issue we’ll give you a broad overview of the writing process and a few tips and tricks for your writing classes that have worked really well for us. In the next issue, we’ll take a closer look at the issues of error correction and assessment. 

Of the four skills, writing seems to be the hardest. Just because you’re good at speaking English doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be good at writing it. The reverse is also true–those who have trouble speaking or don’t like to speak in front of others may find they shine when it comes to writing. In fact, from our experience, it’s usually the more quiet and reserved students who turn out to be better writers, while gregarious, extroverted types have more trouble expressing themselves in the written word. 

As you know, there are differences between spoken and written English. Writing is a slow process, and you have to be much more careful about grammar. When we speak, however, we can instantly make corrections, and the person listening can make adjustments. While this may seem like a basic point, it’s something that many of our students have not fully realized yet. It’s therefore important to disabuse them from the notion that spoken and written English are the same. 

At its core, academic writing is a process of thinking, planning, writing, and revising. In the first stage, it’s helpful to get your students working in groups to brainstorm ideas. This can be an informal thing, or you could organize peer workshops where students share their research, ideas, goals, and frustrations. If need be, these groups could function in Japanese if you are able to monitor them to make sure they are on-task. By working with a partner or in a group, students can more easily create a list of as many ideas as possible that fit whatever genre of writing you happen to be working on at that moment. Alternatively, students could create mind maps centered on a general theme. Mind mapping is a proven technique for brainstorming and generating ideas that is featured in many writing textbooks. Students could also use their smartphones to access important background information online. Finally, if you’re lucky, your textbook may be of help at this stage, with various idea-generation activities and lists of suitable ideas. Finding the right topic off the bat is a key point! If a student goes down a wrong alley, they will waste their time and yours. So, vet their topic choices carefully! Give them freedom, but within certain parameters.  

In the planning stage, using some sort of graphic organizer or essay map can really help the students organize their ideas. It’s important that students understand the correct shape and structure they’ll need to follow, primarily because western academic prose differs greatly from typical Japanese patterns. In addition, a clear structure will give them guidance and confidence. The aim should be for all of your students to be crystal clear on what they need to write and where. For example, if you want them to do a compare & contrast paragraph, they will need to understand how to create an effective hook (interesting first sentence), topic sentence, body sentences, and conclusion. If they are writing a short essay, they will need to know what each paragraph should consist of. For example, if they need to write a three-paragraph for & against essay, they should know that in the first paragraph they will need to introduce the issue and provide some background, focus on arguments in favor in the middle, and end by surveying arguments against and providing their own opinion. A good exercise to do for learning proper structure is to have students read a passage and try to reproduce it from memory. This will draw their attention to finer organizational details. 

Personally, we think these thinking and planning stages are the most important, especially with lower level students. At this point, it’s all about process over product. A final composition does not just appear, but requires lots of weeding out, tweaking, clarifying, and restructuring. The final product makes itself known throughout the process, and it is not always arrived at in a strictly linear manner. As a result, it may be helpful to repeat the thinking and planning stages several times with different topics before students actually begin writing full compositions. Be aware that some students may rush through these steps and want to finish quickly, either because they are busy or simply just want to finish the assignment as soon as possible. However, students who rush always produce terrible stuff. In writing, one of the primary lessons is patience. 

Once a suitable topic has been thoroughly brainstormed and planned, the next step is to begin writing. Here it’s important to remind students that they’ll be going through a number of drafts–at least two, and maybe more. Once they produce a first draft you’ll be able to see if they are on the right track. It may help to not be so strict with minor errors at this stage. Priority should be on the quality and development of ideas and opinions. Nevertheless, it’s vital to flag incomprehensible bits at this point. 

Once a first draft has been submitted, the next step is revision. This is basically all about polishing the composition until it’s smooth and as error-free as possible. The amount of revision is up to you–ideally you’d like to go through as many drafts as needed, but it’s also important to keep your workload manageable. If you are constantly taking papers home to mark during your off time, it may be a sign you need to rethink your marking approach to make it more practical. 

How you end up handling the revision process is directly linked to your course objectives. If it’s a lower-level class, you could have your students go for volume by producing many short compositions. With a higher-level group, you may want to emphasize process and quality by doing only one or two very polished papers that each require multiple drafts. To what degree you correct their errors is a big topic that we’ll take up in more depth next time, but for now, one quick thing we can recommend is creating a handout of editor marks. This will greatly speed up your marking process and also give students something to think about. For example, WW stands for Wrong Word, Sp equals a Spelling mistake, and VT indicates a Verb Tense error. Again, these kinds of marks draw attention to errors but force the student to reflect on them, thus supporting the learning process. 

Beyond the overall process of academic writing, there are a number of things you can do to help your students learn. Here are a few ideas for you that have worked really well for us over the years: 

Begin each class with freewriting exercises. Freewriting, if you don’t know, is the process of writing stream-of-consciousness style for a short period of time without any thought given to accuracy. The idea is to write as much as possible to empty the mind and enhance creativity. It’s also a great technique for generating ideas or getting through a bout of writer’s block. Five or ten minutes is enough if done regularly. Word counts can be tracked, and you can vary topics or keep them the same. No dictionaries should be allowed during this activity. 

End each class with some reflection writing, preferably in a journal. Topics for this sort of writing could include what was done in class, something new or interesting that was learned, or identifying and overcoming any difficulties. 

Encourage your students to write every day in their journal. Shoot for small goals, such as 100 words a day. Students can X out the days on a calendar in red ink to help them stay motivated. Also, having students talk about what they are writing about will help them establish and maintain this habit. Perhaps some of your class time could be given over to this.

Have your students read their writing aloud. This can be done alone to help spot errors during the revision stages, and it’s also a great way to share finished projects with classmates. To facilitate some group discussions, require students to write three discussion questions at the end of their papers. 

Get your students to generate some good model paragraphs. This can be done in groups of four. For homework, each student writes their own version on a given topic or theme. Then, in the next class, they share their work with their group, and they all decide on the best one. Best paragraphs from each group get put up on a screen. Each one can then be analyzed and learned from. 

Show students some early drafts of your writing projects to show how far things evolved from first to final draft. 

Learn about peer-assessment techniques and utilize them with your students. Teaching them how to assess others’ writing will help them become better writers. 

Show students how to paraphrase and cite sources correctly in order to avoid plagiarism. We recommend following APA standards, but there are other viable ways to go. The Purdue Online Writing Lab ( is a great resource for this issue. 

So, these are a few of the things we have done that have brought us a lot of success in our academic writing classes. There is still a lot more to say about this subject, so we’re going to revisit it in our next column. Until then, good luck, and may you and your students write smoothly!