Academic Writing for Non-Native Speakers

Recently, a lot of my sessions have been with ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Many of these students have provided information prior to the session, and indicated that they are struggling with “writing skills” or “academic writing”. I have found in many of these cases, when we really start to discuss the problem, the issue is often that the student is not confident in their ability to effectively communicate their ideas in English.

I have found an interesting book from the University of Helsinki called “Academic Writing in English”. It is, as it says, an academic writing resource for writers where English is not their first language. This book covers lots of subjects in detail, and is great to pick up helpful tips and techniques for mentoring ESL students. This book is available in the “Resources” folder on the U Drive (U:\Service Departments\Student Support Services\Study Skills\Tutorials\Resources\ESL), and also by following this link: academic-writing-in-english-for-non-native-speakers.

Below is a help sheet that I have created which is essentially a summary of (potentially!) useful books, websites and university resources. This document is also available in the “Resources” folder on the U Drive (U:\Service Departments\Student Support Services\Study Skills\Tutorials\Resources\ESL).

Resources for Improving Academic Writing Skills, and Writing in English as a Second Language.

Below are some resources which may be useful to explore to help improve postgraduate academic writing skills, as well as helpful information for studying/writing in English when it is not your first language.


  • Crème, P. and Lea, M.R. 2012. Writing at University: A Guide for Students. 3rd Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
  • Murray, R. and Moore, S. 2006. The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
  • Osmond, A. 2013. Academic Writing and Grammar for Students. London, England: Sage Publications Ltd.

Online Resources

University Resources

ELCOS – The English Language Centre for Overseas Students (ELCOS) provides English language and study skills courses to overseas students at Bangor University. ELCOS have their own Writing Advice Service.

“ELCOS runs Writing Advice Sessions for international students on degree courses at the University. The purpose of these sessions is to help students improve their written English and become more independent learners. Students can have up to three hours of individual, consultation with an ELCOS tutor per semester. Students should bring to the session the written work they want help with and it would be helpful if they have some general ideas about the kind of help they need with that work (for example, with organisation, coherence, paragraph structure, grammar, referencing, etc.). Tutors will work with the student, make corrections, offer advice on how to make improvements in structure and form and enable the student recognise and be able to correct errors in the rest of the written work themselves.”

Contact – “E-mail the ELCOS office on to request an appointment for that day and time, giving your name, School, level of study (undergraduate, Masters or PhD student). An appointment will be made for that time and day if available or you will be offered some alternatives; you will also be given the name of the tutor and told where to meet him/her. (Usually Neuadd Rathbone on College Road).”






Encouraging Reflection

Lately, I have needed to reflect on my actions, research, and experiences in order to learn lessons for the future.  This is a tricky skill I am slowly developing, and it is a skill that I believe would be useful for Mentees, as it promotes active learning, rather than relying on teaching.

To that end, I have found a couple of entertaining and helpful academic blog posts on how to encourage reflection, which I wanted to share:




Academic feedback can seem scarier, and sometimes be more telling, than the mark on an assignment handed back by a Tutor.   It tends to be a lengthy breakdown of everything we as writers did wrong, pinpointing writing that was vague or misinterpreted a fact, and sometimes the feedback even includes confusing comments that pertain only for that piece of work.  Feedback can feel even less useful if there is sparkling percentage on the page which tells us that we obviously know what we’re doing.  However, in all cases, it is necessary not only to read the feedback but to utilise as much of it as possible, so that, regardless of the mark for this particular piece, we ensure glittering grades in the future.  For this blog, I’ve looked into the topic at a range of universities and organisation websites and books, including advice gleaned from my own experience too.

What is feedback?

To answer this question, it’s easier to start with what feedback is not.   Feedback is not advice, and so does not include comments about how we could rewrite a passage, add a reference, or change the structure of an argument.  Nor is feedback a value judgement.  Feedback does not tell us whether the work is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, recommend we never publish this in a Journal, or evaluate if the work could win us a Nobel prize.  These go hand in hand with feedback, of course, but they are not one and the same, which even Tutors may muddle up at times.

Feedback is actually just information conveying the effects of what we’re doing as relating to a goal (ASCD website).  So it would include comments such as ‘I, as a reader, do/do not understand the point being expressed here’ as relating to the clarity of the writing.  When playing tennis, we want to know first and foremost if our serve caused the ball to land within the court or not.  Similarly, an audience either does or does not laugh at a comedian, while a driving instructor will state whether we did or did not just hit a lamppost upon reversing the car.  Once we have this information, about whether we hit the target or not (hopefully not in the case of the lamppost!), we can then make use of any advice as to how to improve, or repeat our success, which is why it matters to read the feedback regardless of the mark achieved.

Why is feedback important?

It offers clear indications of whether we are achieving goals such as clarity of expression, avoiding plagiarism, logically arguing our point and so forth.  It also helps give us a better idea of what the Tutor expects, as they have probably not just taught the module, but set and marked the questions too.  All in all, it acts as a kind of ‘You Are Here’ on a map of our educational experience, so that we can orient ourselves as to how we move forward to our chosen destination: whether that’s passing the course, or passing with a Distinction.  The importance of feedback is well-established in education (Merry and Orsmond, 2008) but, at the same time, to be effective, it needs to be conveyed by the Tutor with detail and accuracy, and then be employed by the writer.

Giving feedback:

From a study by Merry and Orsmond, there seems to be a student preference for verbal feedback, through audio files or in person, to allow for discussion and a chance to ask questions.  Verbal feedback, it was found, has the added benefit that Tutors are able to get more information across, in terms of both examples of how feedback could be utilised, as well as elements like tone of voice conveying more than a tick or a ‘good comment’, especially if the feedback was usually handwritten and often illegible.  Meanwhile, Tutors also found it a positive experience, though there were technological issues and therefore there are arguments both ways for how time-effective this process is.  Not to mention the fact that every institution will have their own methods for aspects like giving feedback.

However, what can be taken away from the study is that students want a bit more personalisation, and a blend of positive and negative comments in the feedback.  They want comments to be goal-referenced, with examples where possible.  The amount of feedback also needs to be manageable, as no one wants their work handed back looking like a crime scene of red pen mania.

Beyond this, it is of course ideal if there were to be more consistency across the relevant department in terms of teaching style, assignment requirements, and feedback offered, to avoid giving students mixed messages.  It could be useful for a Tutor, who sees a regular problem occurring, to address it in class in order to help everyone.  But the most important aspect, possibly, is that the feedback illustrates effective ‘listening’ on the part of the Tutor, both in terms of what was written in the essay, and any debriefing that occurs thereafter if the student approaches the Tutor for advice on how to improve.

All of this, unfortunately, is more the ideal situation than a constant reality; but as writers are entitled to this kind of support, if we don’t get it initially, we can certainly go to office hours and ask for it!


This topic is tricky, and a constant issue for students.  It is time-consuming for Tutors to read and feedback on assignments, of course, but it needs to be done according to a set-out framework of time, so that everyone knows what to expect.  Therefore, if this does not happen, the student has every right to ask for assistance from the department.  The matter of overlapping assignments is unfortunate, as feedback cannot be used until much later work needs to have been handed in.  However, practically, I doubt this can be helped.

Using feedback:

The Study Skills Handbook advises that feedback be put aside for a few days after it has been received, to allow the mind to settle, and to feel less emotionally attached.  To be fair to the Tutor, they have taken time to consider the work and offer their comments.

Moreover, we need to move away from the notion that feedback signals failure, error, weakness, or anything else debilitating and horrid.  We need to view feedback, and our marks, with a rational, not emotional, point of view.  I was often told by my parents during my undergrad: if I had come to uni knowing everything already, what would be the point of me attending?  And then look at musicians or ballerinas, athletes or chefs.  Practice makes perfect.  Mistakes enable them to see how to turn a great performance into a phenomenal one.  They cannot do that without feedback.

So it’s time to dive into those comments and soak up the information.  The Handbook advises that the feedback be divided into major and minor issues, and that we are realistic about what to take forward for future work: not everything is possible all at once.  For instance, is the comment about content or structure?  How do the comments relate to the Learning Outcomes set out at the start of the course?  The reason for this being that writers need to move away from trying to make Tutors happy towards demonstrating independent learning, and the attainment of specific skills that the module is expected to teach.  Also, how much work would the adjustments really take?  Improvements can be a lot less significant than at first believed: taking care over a slip in the use of a term, a hastily written and therefore overly complex sentence, or a missed example.

In any case, we need to take the time to think the feedback through and reassess our submissions for future reference, and not rush through the comments resulting in possible misninterpretation.  If the comments aren’t clear, we could try chatting it over with peers, going to the Tutor, or even rewriting the work as a practice exercise and seeing if the Tutor would be happy glancing over it to check for improvement.  Most of all, we need to concentrate on the next assignment: it’ll be a new topic, and another chance.



Cottrell, Stella (2013). The Study Skills Handbook, 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Merry, Stephen & Paul Orsmond (2008). Students’ Attitudes to and Usage of Academic Feedback Provided Via Audio Files, Bioscience Education, [E-journal] 11:1, pp1-11, DOI: 10.3108/beej.11.3, accessed 10th February 2016.

Creating academic/empirical posters

Hi guys,

I’ve had an interesting session on poster presentations and I’ve released that we have little information for how to format these or a basic outline for them in our resources.

Posters provide a way to give a clear and interesting summary of findings in a specific research area, usually produced to paper size A0

From doing a bit of research into this I have found that the key is to produce something:

  • Visually appealing – yet professional. It needs to attract visitors in a non garish manner.
  • Well organised – it should hold the audiences attention.
  • Informative – it should be something memorable.

On an A0 poster you should aim for no more than 1000-1100 words as a rough guide. The whole thing should be readable within 10 minutes.

Producing a sequence of columns will aid the reader’s progression through the research:

  • Introduction – typically the left-most column that should consist of brief background information and a specific hypothesis and research question.
  • Method – the second progression within the columns, containing the significant detail only – graphics may be useful here.
  • Results – these should lie in the middle, often being the largest section. Very important to visualize your data in figures and tables.
  • Conclusions – Reminder of the hypotheses and determination as to whether the findings were consistent with this. Mention of any future directions.

You may wish to include:

  • A crest or logo of the company/association the research is affiliated with
  • A reference list
  • Acknowledgements
  • Further contact details

In terms of style:

  • The poster should be easy to read
  • Sans serif font for large titles/figures
  • Serif font for body of text and figure captions
  • Stick to 2-3 colours and keep these consistent
  • The colours must create contrast to aid clarity

I’ll put these details into a document and save it as a resource. I have no internet link or reference for this information as it is adapted from a resource I was provided with in my course.

I hope it proves useful for someone if this comes up in any sessions again.

Ask and you shall receive.

The topic of how and when to approach a Lecturer – or Tutor – about academic issues has come up in both of my mentoring sessions so far. While the queries were of a specific and easily answered nature, in these instances, I felt it worthwhile to write up a small summary in response to the more general question for future reference.

All students know that Tutors give lectures and classes, set and mark student assignments, as well as organize course content. Beyond this, it is my feeling that too many students are unaware of how much more guidance Tutors can offer. It almost seems taboo at times to go and ask for clarification on a topic just covered, or to find out specifics about an upcoming assignment.

Not only, then, are students possibly missing out on this important resource, and not making the most of the University fees they’re paying, but they also risk their academic success and their future for want of knowing that it’s absolutely ok to ask for help sometimes.

So what is a Tutor’s office hour for?

It’s the time that Tutors have allotted solely for their students’ individual needs. Appointments are not required, though this means, of course, that other students may need to see the Tutor too. Therefore, if it is a long complicated matter, or of a very serious nature, it might be best for students to make an appointment rather than simply dropping by.

What is a Personal Tutor?

A Personal Tutor will be assigned at the beginning of a student’s course. The role covers advice and support on both academic and non-academic matters. This includes help with managing issues that are current or crop up during the course, which will ultimately affect concentration, study timetables and extensions, as well as the quality of work handed in for assessment. They can assist with module choices, signpost for further information or resources, and encourage students to become more active in the academic community and in building their career. They can also write letters of recommendation for job applications.

What is a Course Tutor?

Beyond simply teaching a module, these Tutors can offer confirmation of module document and assignment requirements. They can answer specific questions about the material taught on the course. They can discuss feedback for improvement purposes, or discuss student outlines for upcoming essays. They can also give advice on background and wider reading. It may be tricky to catch them immediately after lectures, though, due to busy timetables and rooms. So students are advised to pop in during office hours, or to send an email with a quick overview of the issue. This allows the Tutor to prepare, and to arrange a convenient time for you both to discuss the topic properly.

Things to remember when asking Tutors for help:

• Ask about the problem right away. It gives Tutors plenty of time to help and it gives the student less time to worry about it!
• Tutors are authority figures to be respected, and their office hour is just that – not round the clock service for any individual. But they are very happy to offer guidance and would much prefer students ask about something they’re unsure of than the problem be left to grow unchecked.
• Be prepared for the meeting with a particular question or a list of specific points to discuss, a notepad for any advice or suggestions the Tutor may have, and a relevant module document or textbook etc. This makes the most of the time.
• Appreciate that a Tutor will not discuss actual answers for assignments, but will elaborate on what the word limit is, how many references they expect and so forth.
• Don’t hesitate to request a follow-up meeting if there is a need to check back on the matter or if the information does not sink in. There are also no stupid questions, while it’s not a Tutor’s job to judge at any rate.
• Give feedback on the help where possible, especially which parts are most appreciated and how the help can be utilised. This is not just a sign of respect for the Tutor but enables them to cater their service to other students who approach them too.
• And remember that, while Tutors are more than willing to guide, teach, and repeat, independence in study and in living is one of most vital lessons to learn at university.

Any questions? Just ask your Tutor!

On a side note, whilst browsing for this blog, I came across a handy little service run by Bangor University: In the University’s words: ‘Who better to answer your questions about Bangor life, the courses, accommodation or location than our very own experts…our students. Choose a student…and click on “ask a question” to send them an email.’ It’s very positive to know that Bangor offers so many different kinds of support for its students!

Peer vs. teacher feedback

Rachel Ruegg is an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher in Japan. Her recent study published in 2015 explores whether peer or teacher feedback is more effective in helping students become better writers.

The study

Over a one year period all of Ruegg’s EFL students received teacher or peer feedback on every preliminary draft they wrote. The students were split into two groups, one received only teacher feedback and the other only peer feedback. A pre-and post-test was used to measure the students progress over the year. This test was the writing section of the institutions proficiency.


Ruegg found that the group who received teacher-only feedback improved significantly more in their grammar than the group who received peer feedback. She suggests this could be due to the fact that the teacher provided more feedback focused on meaning-level issues and content than the peers did. She concludes however, that perhaps the best method is to use both teacher and peer feedback to help students improve.

How can this help us?

Obviously, in our writing centre we are all native speakers of English or Welsh so when giving feedback we might not have the same issues that some of the peers in this research had (they were native Japanese speakers, learning English and giving feedback on written English work). Additionally, not all of the students who come to see us will be EFL learners but this paper still offers a useful insight into feedback in general and the benefits to the student of receiving both peer and lecture/teacher feedback. An interesting aspect of this study was how the feedback was given. Each student was given a feedback form where they were allowed to detail four questions which they wanted the peer or teacher to give them feedback on. The final fifth question was for the person giving feedback to give the writer something constructive to work on. This way of structuring the feedback is very similar to how we work. Writers come to us and they tell us what they want to work on or what they feel their issues are and then we work with them on that.

In summary then Ruegg’s research provides a useful insight into how we can individualize feedback for writers and the benefits of having feedback on writing from both teachers and peers. Although, her study is focused on the benefits to EFL students her findings about feedback in general can be applied to native-speakers and their writing.

Reference: Ruegg, R. (2015). The relative effects of peer and teacher feedback on improvement in EFL students’ writing ability. Linguistics and Education, 29, pp. 73 – 82

Getting Started

Writers can often be apprehensive when meeting with a writing mentor, especially if this is their first visit to the Study Skills Centre. It is important to make your writer feel comfortable and in control of their session. Below are some key points adapted from “The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors” about starting your writing session.

Introduce yourself. If the writer is apprehensive about their session then the last thing they need is an intimidating mentor! It is important to be friendly, welcoming and polite. Address your writer by their name, offer them a seat and then once you are both comfortable you can engage in conservation. Begin simply by asking about the assignment, how the writer feels about it and how much progress they feel they are making. If you have worked with the writer before, ask how the last assignment went and how they have improved since. This shows an interest in personal development and builds rapport. An exchange of pleasantries at the beginning of a session helps put the writer at ease and gets the session off to a good start.

Give the student control. Keep the paper or piece of work in front of the student as much as possible. If you are working at a computer, a good idea is to let the writer control the keyboard and monitor. This serves as a reminder to the writer that this is their writing and they are in control of it – and is sometimes a useful reminder to the tutor too! This also allows you to act as the audience whilst the writer leads the session as much as they are comfortable with.

Keep resources and tools nearby. It is useful to have paper and pens to hand, and this should not be overlooked. As much as you want the mentee to do most of the writing, sometimes it may be necessary to demonstrate a point or provide an example. It is also useful if you are familiar with the help sheets or resources that you have, so you are able to share these with the writer when this is necessary.

Reference: Ryan, L. and Zimmerelli, L. (2010). The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. Fifth Edition. Boston, New York: Bedford/ St. Martins.


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