Improving Academic Writing in English Through Research

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Research is a means through which we can improve English language proficiency in our students.

Photo: Bigstock

My students have been studying English for more than ten years and they still use the same basic structures of that language. How can we enhance their proficiency and make it show in practice? In our experience, although not the only factor, this is the result of the lack of opportunities to use the English language in real life.

There is also another significant challenge. In Mexico, language skills and Spanish communication competencies are “deficient” or “very deficient” in 60% of high school students, which was reflected in the 2015 PLANEA (National Plan for Learning Assessment) test, conducted by the National Institute of Educational Assessment (INEE) (Gómez Morin 2015).

This is why we decided to integrate research into the advanced English course as a means of developing, through academic writing, students’ ability to handle more complex structures in the English language. Writing poses a challenge since it requires complex thought processes, such as analysis, evaluation and synthesis.

Professors from the Technology Institute in Israel (Rakedzon and Baram-Tsabari, 2017) implemented a similar project. They examined whether an academic writing course in English could improve students’ writing skills and scientific vocabulary. The findings indicated a significant improvement in academic and popular science writing, as well as a greater proficiency in the English language.

For the class, we integrated elements of research-based learning, to generate questions, bibliography review and data-collection instruments, with content-based instruction, since the course is taught in a foreign language and, therefore, promotes teaching an academic subject through the use of a second language.

The topics students research are related to situations that are closely linked to their school lives. For example, they study the impact of the lack of sleep on their grades, the advantages of an international experience, the use of technology as a study tool, and the importance of a healthy diet, among others.

Apart from submitting the results of their investigation, students design a poster that includes data in a condensed form and offer an oral presentation in English, all of which is evaluated by a guest professor. Students complete the project as a team and use tools, such as Google Drive, to collaborate simultaneously; the digital library to obtain references that will support their theoretical framework; and Canva or Piktochart to design the supporting posters for their oral presentation. Assessment is carried out using rubrics and checklists which make it possible to evaluate complex thinking skills.

The first draft of students’ theoretical framework typically contains a large number of mistakes in grammar, punctuation and, above all, the use of formal academic and scientific vocabulary. After a semester of exhaustive work, the progress made can be seen clearly in the end product, with the appropriate use of the passive voice, third-person structures and diversity in the use of simple and complex sentences. Also, the knowledge students acquire in their research also impacts other academic areas.

We want to stress that the primary objective of the exercise described in this article is the development of academic writing, which is why the approach to the theoretical principles of research methodology differs from that of a professional research project.

Seeing students present the findings of their project at the end of the semester and witnessing their progress in academic writing is highly satisfactory. We want to invite teachers to share with the Observatory of Educational Innovation the strategies they use to initiate their students in academic writing in a second language. Exchanging ideas will help us to grow and improve our teaching practice.

About the authors

Marisela Castillo (mariselacastillo@itesm.mx) and Juan Manuel Beltrán (jmbeltran@itesm.mx) are faculty members from the Language Department at Tec High School, Campus Sonora Norte. They are experienced in teaching English as a foreign language.