I find the challenges of teaching EAP multifaceted, especially with respect to academic writing. This article aims to provide a short overview of some of the different ideas and resources that have supported me as a teacher in a multilingual EAP context, and the global learners I have had the pleasure of teaching.

The mechanics of writing are complex even for those who speak English as their first language (L1); add academic to the equation and the puzzle becomes even more complicated. Now consider asking a learner with English as a second language (L2) to produce a piece of written academic discourse, and it is no wonder that the prospect becomes daunting. What I am trying to say here is that I think it is easy to lose sight of the challenges we as EAP teachers are presenting our learners with, without sometimes fully considering the magnitude of the hurdles they encounter: culturally, linguistically and academically.

Identifying weakness and traditions

Before expecting our learners to be able to produce a coherent piece of academic writing, I find it essential to understand what the features and norms of academic writing are in their home countries. This enables you to predetermine the obstacles your learners will face during the course, and enable you to prepare for them. Without a doubt, one of these obstacles is academic integrity: read plagiarism, citation and referencing. If in the home country, learners have been taught that evidence from source texts needs to be copied verbatim when used in an essay, so as not to discredit the author, this ingrained practice will be difficult to change. However, if you know this before you begin supporting your learners with their writing, you can prepare for it by showing sample pieces of academic writing, which highlight the differences between what is acceptable in the UK, and by using the Harvard referencing system (or alternative), and a sample of writing from their home country so learners can see and discover the differences for themselves.

Despite knowledge of our learners’ IELTS scores, I find another important exercise is to get them to produce a piece of writing right at the beginning of the course, so you can gauge where they are with features such as structure, lexical range and resource, and register, before you try explaining skills like topic sentences, thesis statements, critical thinking and paraphrasing. The writing will provide a real needs analysis so you can pitch your lessons accordingly, and both you and the learners can refer back to it to see the progress, which needs to be, and hopefully has been, made.

To approach thesis statements and topic sentences, I provide learners with short (1,500 words) academic essay examples from previous students, with the thesis statements and topic sentences removed. Firstly the whole essay is read to get a feel for the essay and the content. Learners identify and make a note of key words related to the content that will be used to write the thesis statement. Each individual paragraph is read and the same exercise carried out in preparation for writing topic sentences. Once this has been done, learners compare their topic sentences, then proceed to write their thesis statements for the essay using the key words identified from the whole essay, and the topic sentences. It is only after this stage that I reveal the essay question for learners to analyse and decide if the essay has successfully answered the given question, and if their thesis statements reflect the essay content. A discussion is held open class to discuss if the essay has answered the question, and if the thesis statement can be improved in response to the question. This activity can be repeated again during the course, with learners sharing their own essays, and discussing the efficacy of their thesis statements and topic sentences. More practice can also be given by providing an essay question first, and for learners to discuss in groups how best to answer the question and to collaboratively write thesis statements. It is a good idea to provide some key phrases and language to support learners.

One thing at a time

Any skill takes time to work on all the individual components until it is executed with a degree of mastery, and the same is true of academic writing. Try to break down the features the syllabus requires you teach into bite-sized tangible chunks, and give learners time to grasp the concepts by adopting an iterative approach whereby when you move on to another aspect of academic writing, you remind them that you expect the previously taught features to be included. Create a quiz, or better still, get learners to create quizzes for each other to revise the aspects of academic writing they have already covered. Together you can create a checklist or an audit of the features that they need to consider before submitting their writing for feedback, so they are fully aware of what is expected of them and can self-check.


Feedback needs to be clearly presented and explained so it is useful to the learner, and it needs to be followed up to see if the learner is engaging with it. This can be done by reflective practice on the part of the learner who, by this stage, should be taking ownership for their learning because they will be expected to do this on their degree courses. It is also useful to explain feedback orally to learners when you return written work, so they learn to understand your approach to feedback, and can act on it accordingly. Explain the difference between micro feedback at the sentence level, and macro feedback at the paragraph and essay level. Remind them that if they are able to write a succinct and coherent paragraph, then they are able to put several of those together to compile a longer piece of academic writing. This is where the importance of the topic sentence will come to light. It is also a good idea to emphasise the importance of the thesis statement and to keep referring to it in order to check they are on track.

The mechanics

I have already mentioned academic integrity, and because a literature review is essential to any piece of academic writing, in the same way that presenting evidence from previous studies and explaining theory needs to be correctly referenced, I would consider it one of the most important aspects of academic written discourse. Based on the idea behind academic word lists, I encourage learners to keep a vocabulary logbook so new (and useful) lexis can be noted down and used as a regular part of their practice, when they encounter it through their engagement with academic texts and through their own writing; this also helps with paraphrasing activities.

To help learners with paraphrasing, I board a sentence and ask them to find synonyms for the verbs and nouns using online dictionaries. We discuss the various ideas open class and each word is added to the sentence in brackets after the identified verbs and nouns. Learners then write their own paraphrased versions of the sentences and these are shared in a discussion. By discussing the options openly, it enables learners to understand why some lexical items are more appropriate to use in academic writing than others, and makes an academic writing activity less dense. Once paraphrasing has been approached at the sentence level, I provide short excerpts (2–3 sentences) from articles to be paraphrased using the same strategy. I allow learners to work together and discuss their ideas so they can learn from each other. This also encourages them to ask each other for feedback on their efforts.

I also encourage them to experiment with synonyms in the writing they submit to me, to gain a sense of what is considered academic style language. Learners eventually discover they can create a personalised academic word list applicable to their field from exposure to high-frequency lexical items. This leads to the relationship between academic reading and academic writing. The greater the exposure to academic texts, the better! Journal articles provide a good source of examples for how to approach academic writing and demonstrate one of its most essential components: critical thinking. This is probably the one aspect that I find most challenging to impart with learners. I would encourage any writing tutor to make sure their learners get as much reading exposure as possible although I appreciate this is often easier said than done!

Further reading

McCarter S & Jakes P (2009) Uncovering EAP: How to Teach Academic Writing and Reading. Oxford: Macmillan

Kat Robb has been involved in ELT since 1995, and during this time she has spoken at conferences, authored, taught, and trained teachers globally. Her passion lies within educational technology, which has seen her move increasingly in the direction of authoring digital teaching and learning solutions, including AI and autonomous systems. She can be contacted at trinarobb@hotmail.com