Studying in English
Hayo Reinders, Marilyn Lewis and Linh Phung
Palgrave Macmillan 2017
The Palgrave Study Skills series has no fewer than 50 titles. These range from Stella Cottrell’s bestseller Critical Thinking Skills through Presentation Skills for Students to Success in Academic Writing.
The sheer choice invites confusion and begs the question ‘Are all these really needed?’ – or, from the student’s perspective, ‘Which one should I buy?’ The student might also ask, ‘Could you give me all the top study tips all in one place – clearly and briefly please?’ Key words across the 50 titles are skills, study, strategies, success and English.
The title under review has four of these five, so is this the one to buy? Given the title, I would expect to find material on key study skills and strategies like understanding, ordering and prioritising stages in tasks, working through reading lists, managing time, using technologies such as virtual learning systems and information systems, planning and delivering assignments, collaborating with other students, developing, researching and critiquing ideas, understanding processes in writing and reading, developing English language skills, and dealing with aspects of tertiary academic culture.
But it is difficult to talk about all of these given the diverse Englishmedium settings around the world.
Seven of the fourteen chapters deal with metacognitive learning strategies, culture and reflection, while the other seven address language and skills and assessment.
Chapter 1, What’s New about Studying in English?, presents three language learners’ stories.
These focus on strategies and skills to use and develop in order to succeed in university studies.
Their stories underpin the authenticity to the book: they learned English as a second language and successfully navigated English-medium university systems.
The chapter then sets out the roles of the reader: to identify key learning points and reflect on the material. Personalised tasks are built in.
In Chapter 2, How to Become a Better Language Learner, the reader-learner is encouraged to situate their own language level and learning objectives, informed about how to choose the right language school and course, and how to build a language portfolio and language journal.
As throughout the book, vocabulary is prioritised over grammar and phonology.
The assumption in Chapter 3, Studying Abroad, is highly practical, covering issues in selecting where to study, applying for scholarships, and language tests.
A useful table compares four such tests: TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS and Cambridge.
Two obvious omissions are Pearson and Trinity College London, both of which are widely accepted for university admission in the UK.
The chapter also looks at applying to university, but at just one page this coverage is too brief to be of much use – for instance UCAS, the UK university admissions service, is not mentioned despite the UK being the second international student destination after the USA.
More detail is required, particularly in the form of links to key resources for students such as UKCISA, the UK-based guidance and information service for international students, plus its equivalents in other countries.
Indeed, the inclusion of relevant online links is rather variable throughout this book.
The next six chapters shift to English – language and the four skills.
Chapter 4 addresses Academic and Technical Vocabulary.
With discussion on aspects like different types of vocabulary (everyday, academic, technical and low frequency) and formal and informal language (investigate/find out), the material in this chapter will be familiar to many English language learners.
Tried and tested online resources are given in some of these sections, for example the Compleat Lexical Tutor, plus a good selection of online dictionaries.
Although this chapter is well-grounded and useful, grammar and phonology are not given their own chapters; as a result challenging English language areas such as noun phrases – where most information is packaged in academic texts – will remain a mystery to most students. The topic of Chapter 5 is Listening to Lectures.
The reflective approach continues with material aimed at working out phenomena such as lecture style and purpose, and preparing for a lecture.
This is a useful chapter with practical suggestions plus some (limited) inclusion of phonological challenges in listening.
The rationale for giving Academic Presentations in Chapter 6 is that they ‘might be an important part of your study’.
This probably underplays their importance.
A sample presentation assignment is given; this is cognitively quite challenging and aimed at research students rather than undergraduates.
A fairly standard presentation evaluation form is also given, with expected categories such as content, organisation and body language.
The chapter goes on to look at audience and structuring presentations, the language of presentations, visuals, practice and feedback.
Overall, this chapter offers a useful amount of mainstream good practice and advice for giving successful presentations.
In Academic Reading, Chapter 7, the authors reprise the case study approach.
There are some gems to be found in the five students’ cases, although these remain somewhat buried in the narratives and are not drawn out by the authors.
One such example is the importance of state-of-the-art articles. Various key text types are described.
There is much that is worthwhile here, although at times the reader is faced with quite a range of underlying purposes, from explaining items (in a glossary presented as a table), through questions for the reader, to pieces of advice, and there is too little exemplification.
Together with material on ways of reading (scanning, gist, reading speed) and reading strategies, this chapter contains many useful suggestions.
There is not much on language, which is a pity as reading is a crucial way of developing language and understanding language is key to effective reading.
Chapter 8 shifts to the Principles of Academic Writing.
Many expected areas are dealt with, for instance audience and purpose, style, coherence and cohesion, caution, and grading criteria.
Throughout this (and other) chapters, there seems to be a misalignment of perspective, with some section headings given from the teacher’s perspective (What bothers students?) and others from the student’s perspective (Improving your writing).
This chapter then moves into collecting ideas for an essay, which covers terms like argument and rebuttal before ending with some advice from other students.
All this is fine as far as it goes, although it contains limited or no depth in areas such as different approaches to learning writing, disciplinary differences, the role of research, citation practices and, once again, language.
The title of Chapter 9, Essay Writing Processes, suggests a discussion of writing processes, but most of the chapter offers material on the components of an essay text.
Only the later part really looks at processes, with a sequence on peer feedback.
Referencing is included in an extremely brief section which quickly moves into plagiarism. A sample essay structure is provided.
The chapter continues with a section on proofreading, with accompanying examples of classic errors like runon sentences.
However, with very limited exemplification, the question is whether the material is sufficient in itself for the student to embark independently on their academic writing assignments.
Certainly, they would need considerably more material on referencing and citation.
The final five chapters move away from language into wider academic issues.
Chapter 10 addresses Small Group Learning, which here refers to tutorials.
Unfortunately, there are a number of questionable generalisations made at the outset including ‘Tutorials … are a really important part of university life’ (in fact many university students in certain countries do not have tutorials as conceived here) and ‘In lectures, students are relatively passive’ (many EAP teachers would disagree with this).
One strength of this chapter is the inclusion of language; a possible downside is its limited relevance to many English-medium educational contexts.
The authors appear to have an Anglo-Saxon model in mind rather than an emerging Middle Eastern model or more functional European context.
Chapter 11 covers the vital topic of Assessment.
Types of assessment are presented, a short section on assessment criteria refers students to previous chapters and a section on feedback invites students to work out the meaning of given examples of lecturer feedback.
Once again, there is plenty of usable information and advice in this chapter although there are omissions, for instance examples of how to move from a satisfactory to a good assessment.
Chapter 12, Communicating with Lecturers, starts out with a five-scale self-assessment of reasons to contact a lecturer.
A section headed Electronic Communication provides some useful examples of emails with a focus on tone.
Face-to-face requests are also covered, with accompanying language presented in sample dialogues.
Many students should find this useful.
The chapter ends with a short section on class representatives.
Overall, this chapter is worthwhile with a clear, practical, language-based focus.
Chapter 13 addresses affective factors like anxiety, motivation and personality.
As they are relevant to all students and nothing to feel bad about, it is perhaps regrettable that the chapter is titled Dealing with Problems.
Subsequent material deals with personality and sources of help.
There is a section on culture shock, which may not be relevant to all readers, but the crucial challenge of overcoming academic shock, is scantily dealt with.
Critical thinking appears in its own section but curiously is followed by a section on money, a major challenge for some, not a problem for others.
On the whole, this chapter does not work well; it reads like a miscellaneous collection of topics of varying importance.
The final chapter, Chapter 14, looks to Life beyond the Classroom, and covers university culture, friends and life outside the university.
Clearly, the authors have a western university in mind, but amid the material presented, there is a risk of making generalisations which may not actually be true, for example: ‘Teachers in Englishspeaking universities are usually called professors … but students often call them by their first names.
’ Endmatter includes a mini dictionary of university words, which while useful has some obvious omissions, such as term and citation.
Overall, there is much that is useful, particularly in the format of bullet points and tabular information.
The voices of past students, heard via the integrated case studies, are authentic and welcome, as are the reflective tasks.
However, the title’s broad scope has in some cases resulted in topic coverage that may be too limited to be very beneficial to some students, as well as unexpected omissions.
Of the four key words in the title, study and strategies are extensively covered; success and English less so.
In short, students are likely to value the title most for its tried-and-tested advice on study skills and strategies.