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Review of  Academic Writing in a Second or Foreign Language

Reviewer: Nana Xu
Book Title: Academic Writing in a Second or Foreign Language
Book Author: Ramona Tang
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.4069

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EDITOR: Ramona Tang
TITLE: Academic Writing in a Second or Foreign Language
SUBTITLE: Issues and Challenges Facing ESL/EFL Academic Writers in Higher
Education Contexts
PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group
YEAR: 2012

Nana Xu, Department of English, College of Foreign Languages, Nankai University


The 11 chapters of “Academic Writing in a Second or Foreign Language: Issues and
Challenges Facing ESL/EFL Academic Writers in Higher Education Contexts” seek “
to explore some of the issues and challenges facing these academic writers, by
pulling together the voices of academic writing researchers from a variety of
different contexts and backgrounds” (1). Chapter 1 analyzes the privileged
status of English in academic research, reviews problems confronting ESL
(English as a Second Language) / EFL (English as Foreign Language) academic
writers, offers a new perspective that focuses on potential advantages rather
than shortcomings of ESL/EFL backgrounds, and provides an overview of the whole
volume, thus setting the stage for the following 10 chapters, which are arranged
in a tripartite manner. Part One (Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5) deals with academic
writing from the perspective of teaching/training and focuses on non-textual
factors involved in academic writing. This is different from Part Two (Chapters
6-8), which concerns itself with text-based issues, including conclusion
writing, shell noun use, etc. The identity issue, along with a new perspective
of seeing opportunities out of ‘disadvantaged’ EFL backgrounds, are highlighted
in Part Three (Chapters 9-11). Theresa Lillis suggests, in her Afterword, that
there are two ‘routes’ to reading through this book – one is the certainty
route, along which we refer to traditional categories and framings, while the
other is a ‘rebellion’ route, which challenges the oft-taken-for-granted ‘norms’

Part One: Learning to Write for Academic Purposes

In Chapter 2, “Identifying and Addressing Challenges to International
Publication Success for EFL Science Researchers: Implementing an Integrated
Training Package in China”, Margaret Cargill and Patrick O’Connor attempt to
find out challenges that EFL science researchers face when trying to publish in
international journals, as well as when examining the effectiveness and the
practical applicability of the Collaborative Interdisciplinary Publication
Skills Education (CIPSE) approach that encompasses the cooperation between
subject specialists and language professionals. Through questionnaire data
analysis, challenges confronting the participants are classified into five
categories: Article/segment Structure, English and Logical Flow,
Submission/review, Strategic Decisions, and Writing Process. Additionally, the
importance of General Article Writing, a category defined beforehand, decreases
as trainees tend to use more specific terms to replace those general ones after
training, which reveals that the CIPSE workshop, to a large extent, helps
participants establish a clearer idea of challenges facing them. Moreover, the
effectiveness of CIPSE is proved by the significant increase in participants’
mean level of self-assessed confidence in both writing and publishing in English
post-training, as well as the positive feedback provided by participants from
the Kunming workshop on their self-adapted application of training received to
their own teaching contexts.

Giuliana Diani, in Chapter 3, “Text and Corpus Work, EAP Writing and Language
Learners”, illustrates a pedagogical approach that adopts both a genre
methodology and a corpus methodology for teaching EAP (English for Academic
Purposes) writing in an EFL context. Diani offers an English writing module
which provides genre-based and corpus-based lessons for 25 undergraduates at an
Italian University. Based on a small corpus, students are required to identify
textual segments corresponding to the moves and steps that are exemplified by
Swales (1990) and Hopkins and Dudley-Evans (1988), and then discuss how these
moves are realized linguistically. Also, the corpus-based lessons familiarize
students with a computerized concordance program named AntConc, through which
they learn how to detect patterns of discourse. To fully benefit students’
‘discovery learning’(61), teachers who expect to adopt corpus-based teaching
methods are recommended to carefully enforce teacher control in class,
especially at the beginning stage, so as to ensure adequate guidance, as well as
freedom for students to explore themselves.

Chapter 4, “The Impact of Experience and Beliefs on Chinese EFL Student Writers’
Feedback Preferences”, by Guangwei Hu and Hongwei Ren, investigates the
influence of previous experience and beliefs on the feedback preferences of 116
Chinese junior English majors in mainland China. According to a questionnaire
analysis, while all students received teacher feedback and the majority received
peer feedback, feedback from teachers is more treasured by students than that
from peers. Two chi-square tests of independence reveal participants’ previous
experience is unrelated to their feedback preferences, while their beliefs and
feedback preferences are tightly bonded. The fact that teacher feedback is
strongly preferred indicates that students believe in teachers’ authoritative
status and experiential qualities, which is deeply influenced by social-cultural
factors as well as educational practices in China. To fulfill the functions of
peer review, Hu and Ren suggest that teachers provide students with
opportunities to experience peer review tasks, raise their awareness of peer
review’s benefits, and help build up students’ confidence in and capabilities
with peer review.

The last chapter of Part One, “Thesis and Dissertation Writing: Moving Beyond
the Text”, by Brian Paltridge and Lindy Woodrow, examines the thesis and
dissertation writing experiences of the non-native-English-speaking students at
an Australian university by analyzing their online reflections. Twenty seven
students from different backgrounds attended an academic writing course, which
is supported by an e-learning site through which students can communicate with
their peers and the instructor. They were expected to write on-line journals in
which they reflected on topics which included, but were not limited to,
motivation for studying, supervisory experience, time management, etc. Through
text-external reflections, students came to realize the important role played by
the social and cultural context in which they wrote the text. With the fact that
the development of students’ linguistic competence has long been the focus of
research, Paltridge and Woodrow reiterate the necessity of paying adequate
attention to social and cultural issues in academic writing.

Part Two: Features of ESL/EFL Learner Discourse

Chapter 6, “The Challenges of Writing a Successful Thesis Conclusion”, by Jo
Lewkowicz, examines the conclusions of 12 PhD theses collected from Polish
universities for a generic structure and explores the influences of national
tradition on conclusion writing. The results, stating that the ‘Conclusion’ is
loosely connected to the rest of the text and composes a small portion in one
complete thesis, together with the finding that section headings and subheadings
are frequently absent in these conclusions, indicate that academic writing at
the PhD level in Poland is affected by local traditions, according to which the
‘Conclusion’ is considered a less substantive part of the thesis (113).
Furthermore, 11 of the 12 thesis conclusions are thesis-oriented, while the
remaining one is field-oriented, which corresponds to the two types of
conclusions distinguished by Bunton (2005). In both types, a summary is found to
play an important role, which also follows local writing guidelines. Based on
the fact that local traditions are influential in academic writing, the author
suggests that students be aware of both international and local demands, so as
to meet expectations of their different possible audiences.

Chapters 7 and 8 are developed based on the Britain Academic Written English
(BAWE) corpus, which contains 2,761 proficient students’ academic writing
assignments, with the majority written by NS (native speakers) and the rest
written by NNS (non-native speakers) (129). Hilary Nesi and Emma Moreton’s
article, “EFL/ESL Writers and the Use of Shell Nouns”, compares proficient NS
and NNS’ assignments in students ranging from first year undergraduates to those
at the Masters level. The analysis focuses on frequency and lexico-grammatical
patterns of shell nouns, with findings indicating that the frequencies of NS and
NNS shell noun use are quite similar, with variation being explained by unequal
distribution of NS and NNS writing in terms of disciplines, genres and levels of
study. Moreover, the most frequently used patterns are ‘N+cl’, ‘the-+N’ and
‘a/the+N’, while use of the pattern ‘the same+N’ is nearly neglected. Although
some shell nouns are used at the same frequency in NS and NNS written academic
texts, they turn out to be favored in different patterns. Nesi and Moreton
conclude by recommending the systematic teaching of shell noun structures to
students for the sake of appropriate shell noun use in academic writing.

Chapter 8, “Writing in Tables and Lists: A Study of Chinese Students’
Undergraduate Assignments in UK Universities”, by Maria Leedham, investigates
visuals and lists in undergraduate-level academic writings by comparing and
contrasting 5 L1 Chinese and L1 English students’ assignments that were
extracted from the BAWE. It is found that the frequencies of use of visuals
(e.g. tables, figures, images and diagrams), lists (also called prototypical
‘lists’, where each list item consists of a word or noun/verb phrase; Ebeling &
Heuboeck, 2007) and listlikes (also classified as ‘false’ lists in which
listlike formatting is contained in paragraphs of running texts; Ebeling &
Heuboeck, 2007) differ not only in disciplines, but also in student groups. A
closer examination of two pairs of texts from Biological Sciences and Economics
reveals that L1 Chinese writers tend to use visuals, lists and listlikes more
often, while L1 English writers focus more on prose writing. Interviews with 7
Biological Sciences and Economics lecturers show that visuals, especially those
designed by students themselves, are highly appreciated. It is, therefore,
suggested by Leedham that an EAP class should be provided to help familiarize
students with academic writing and master strategies like using visuals and
lists in organizing ideas to meet varied academic writing demands.

Part Three: Identity Work and Professional Opportunities in Academic Writing

In Chapter 9, “Writing and Researching Between and Beyond the Labels”, Hanako
Okada and Christine Pearson Casanave challenge the inappropriate use of
dichotomous labeling and categorization that has long prevailed in the field of
applied linguistics. Okada illustrates the ambiguous categorization dilemma
using her own dissertation writing experience, in which not only the author, but
also her 3 participants have difficulty labeling themselves, which assures the
fact that traditional dichotomous labels and hierarchical views cannot hold
water in all cases. Pearson Casanave then goes on to discuss the challenges that
advisors confront when providing guidance for students with their academic
writing, especially when they need to give advice on topics like the one that
Okada proposes. It is concluded that inaccurate conventional labels and a
monolingual bias should be avoided in academic writing, whilst the carrying out
of portraying participants in a more exact and ethical way should be guaranteed.

Suganthi John’s contribution, “Identity Without the ‘I’: A Study of Citation
Sequences and Writer Identity in Literature Review Sections of Dissertations”,
demonstrates the ways a writer’s academic identity is constructed without using
the first person pronoun by analyzing 17 literature review sections extracted
from L2 Asian students’ Masters-level dissertations completed at a UK
university. The relationship between ways of citation and degree of academic
visibility is illustrated by examining how reporting verbs, ‘as’ structures, and
modifying adverbs manifest the evaluative quality of citations, thus affecting
writer visibility. The results reveal that, apart from citations within ‘as’
structures, citations with a reporting verb either carrying an evaluation from
the writer/sourced author, or being modified by an adverb, can make the writer
visible in the text. After comparing citations in the draft and final versions
of the same text, John notices that L2 writers choose verbs based on previous
verb use frequency instead of their implications. Thus, he highlights the
importance of providing guided revision during which evaluative meanings, as
well as potential influences of reporting verbs and structures, should be
clearly pointed out to facilitate students’ academic writing.

The last chapter of this volume, “Two Sides of the Same Coin: Challenges and
Opportunities for Scholars from EFL Backgrounds”, by Ramona Tang, emphasizes the
research benefits brought by an EFL background through a survey conducted among
8 EFL postgraduates and academics. EFL researchers, although having to tackle
difficulties when trying to integrate themselves into a discourse community, can
take advantage of the exclusive benefits offered by their backgrounds, thus
contributing to their teaching as well as to the diversity of their own research
fields. It is also pointed out that professional networks should be actively
established to create opportunities that can help EFL researchers publish in


The four articles in Part One elaborate on non-textual academic writing issues
like training/teaching method, EFL student writers’ feedback preferences, etc.,
providing a perfect backdrop for the section to come.
Non-native-English-speaking academics, especially EAP instructors, would find
the integrated training approach introduced in Chapter 2 thought-provoking and
inspiring because it successfully combines the efforts of scientists and
language professionals in facilitating academic writing, which moves one step
beyond the mere integration of academic writing with subject knowledge (Wingate,
Andon & Cogo, 2011). Also, implications in the remaining chapters are insightful
and can benefit both academic writing and teaching. However, the topic of this
section – ‘Learning to write for academic purposes’ – indicates that issues
under discussion are illustrated from the perspective of academic writers only,
while in some chapters (e.g. Chapter 2) the authors seems to have taken an
instructor’s stance. Therefore, it may have been more appropriate to rename this
section while taking the angle of instructors into consideration.

Compared to Part One, Part Two focuses on more specific aspects of academic
writing, investigating the generic structure of conclusions, shell nouns and the
use of visuals. The three chapters in this section not only stick closely to the
theme of this part, but also provide practical advice for EAP teachers, as they
all conclude with pedagogical implications, which makes them a coherent whole.
However, Chapters 7 and 8, though focusing on different aspects, are developed
out of the same corpus, and therefore, more specific aspects in academic
writing, such as vocabulary (Coxhead, 2012), could have been added to this part.
Undoubtedly, these two points are likely to affect the richness of this section
as well as the diversity of this collection – a feature highly valued by the editor.

Two special issues existing in the academic writing process and among academic
writers are emphasized in Part Three, which is connected to the topic of
‘Identity work and professional opportunities in academic writing’. Chapters 9
and 10 deal with how to define participants and construct visibility in academic
writing, while Chapter 11 reiterates the point that academics should shift the
focus of attention from the drawbacks of their EFL backgrounds to their unique
cultural and linguistic capital, which naturally echoes Chapter 1. Unlike the
other two sections, this part addresses two issues that are not so closely
related to each other, a point that may even be noticed from the topic. Thus, it
seems possible and proper to change the topic of this part to foreground one
single theme – academic identity – since many would interpret the three chapters
as related to identity labeling, identity construction, and identity evaluation;
or we may choose an alternative way, by isolating Chapter 11 from the rest in
order to make the author’s point more salient and highlighted.

Overall, this collection has brought to the fore a wide range of topics under
the theme of ‘academic writing in a second or foreign language’ for the sake of
both scholars under pressure to publish in the medium of English (Lillis, 2006)
and tertiary-level students from non-English-speaking backgrounds facing L2
writing difficulties (Kroll, 2003). Diverse in research topics, sites,
participants, methodologies and approaches, this volume should prove to be of
great use to academic writers, especially non-native English students and
scholars, and can provide insightful teaching implications for EAP instructors
as well.


Coxhead, Averil. (2012). Academic vocabulary, writing and English for academic
purposes: Perspectives from second language learners. RELC Journal, 43(1), 137-145.

Kroll, Barbara (ed.). (2003). Exploring the dynamics of second language writing.
UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lillis, Theresa. (2006). Professional academic writing by multilingual scholars:
Interactions with literacy brokers in the production of English-medium texts,
23(1), 3-35.

Wingate, Ursula., Andon, Nick., Cogo, Alessia. (2011). Embedding academic
writing instruction into subject teaching: A case study. Active Learning in
Higher Education, 12, 69-80.

Nana Xu is a graduate student majoring in second language acquisition in the English language department at Nankai University. Her research interests focus on classroom reticence and self-regulated language learning.

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