What students need to know and do
Students need to recognise that scholarly communication in English has two main components. One is the more general skill of communicating in an academic register and the other is communicating in the language particular to the English discipline.
First year students need to recognise the importance of writing or presenting for different types of audiences across a range of media. Writing remains a crucial form of communication in English, and students should practise writing in a range of genres or forms. They need also to learn the importance of editing, in other words, of reading their own work for correctness, coherence and clarity.
Student barriers to learning
Many students who choose to enrol in English subjects enjoy reading and have relatively developed literacy skills, but may have problems adjusting to the more complex and unfamiliar tasks associated with tertiary studies in English.
Students may not have the skills to look at their own writing through the lens of an audience. They may find it difficult to organise their ideas and order their material, and to focus their analysis (rather than mention everything in their notes or in a secondary source). They may find it difficult to convert their thoughts (feelings, reactions to a text) into clear written expression and may need help with grammar and other more technical aspects of writing.
They may also not expect to have to draft and re-draft written work. Forms of communication other than writing may also present difficulties for first year students. Some may be very competent in online forms of communication, while others may struggle with both these and oral forms.
Our teaching strategies
As teachers, we need to be explicit about writing practices and invite class discussion about the relationship between writing skills and employability.
We need to show students how to draft and edit their own writing to improve its coherence and clarity, and help students learn to translate “impressions” into written responses. While this can be achieved by lecturers providing feedback on drafts, it is also effective for peers to provide this support. This will also help to give them a sense of audience and confidence in their writing.
Teachers can set assessment tasks or activities that involve writing about or in different genres using a variety of writing practices, and writing tasks that require attention to structure.
Essay-writing techniques and exemplar essays need to be presented and discussed to help students understand unfamiliar forms of academic discourse. We should both describe, and enable students to practice, how to analyse and write critically.
An exemplar essay may be an (anonymous) student work from a prior semester annotated to indicate what teachers are looking for. However, exemplars do need to be carefully introduced and framed to minimise the risk of students’ over-reliance on them.
Opening the forms of communication
Students should be given opportunities to practise online and oral forms of communication. Teachers should encourage all students to speak in tutorials and engage in clear, structured arguments focused on the literary texts (such engagement is related to strategies for TLO4, related to encouraging and enabling students to complete the reading required). Class activities can include lecturers and/or students in role-play as panellists being questioned about a text.
There is scope for peer critique of student work and indeed for group research and presentation tasks. The core classroom agenda is to build an environment that sustains non-emotive argument in which students can disagree without rancour.
Students can be given opportunities to present their work in online forms such as web-page/blogs, in an in-house and on-line journal or via short-structured visual-oral formats such as Pecha-Kuchas (http://www.pechakucha.org/). It’s possible that learning to use different forms and formats for communication may also help students to develop their thinking skills in English.