Escaping a ‘study skills’ approach to academic writing

As a part time doctoral student living in South Wales, I really appreciated the chance to share my on-going research into student writing in teacher education at a Literacy Research Discussion Group meeting last month.
Part of my research involves exploring the attitudes and practices of teacher educators and mature adult teachers-in-training regarding academic writing for university qualifications (PGCEs etc). I am using focus group and interview discussions, and the analysis of my own practice in writing tutorials with student teachers, to do this (see slides).
I have, however, noticed a kind of ‘slipperiness’ in some of my teacher educator focus group data. Discussions about student writing that start off as broader considerations of language practices can easily slip into an exchange about Standard English or referencing conventions. In the data from my writing tutorials too, my students and I talk about these surface technicalities far more than I had hoped or planned for. Even at the LRDG meeting (that bastion of literacy as social practice!) we occasionally started to slide in that direction (this was probably my fault…) Such ‘slippage’ demonstrates the powerful pull of a prescriptivist, ‘study skills’ approach to academic writing. Standard English and referencing style are relatively easy for any tutor to describe and therefore assess, and perhaps that is the allure!
However, focussing on these elements of academic writing means a skills-based hierarchy is set up where the tutor owns the ‘rule book’ that the student has to follow. When trying to develop student writing in teacher education, such positions do not facilitate a supportive, dialogic discussion where the teacher-in-training is able to bring their life experiences (inside and outside the classroom) into their developing writing identity.
So, in order to escape the gravitational pull of ‘study skills’, I want to investigate the writing practices and writing identities of teachers-in-training outside their university courses. The idea is that if I can better understand and value the wider writing lives of our teachers-in-training, I can better develop the constructivist and dialogic writing pedagogy I aspire to (following Lillis 2001). A further inspiration for such an investigation is the Teaching and Learning Research Project which informed Ivanic et al (2009) (see This involved work with FE college tutors and students to explore students’ literacy worlds, engaging with everyday literacy practices to support and inform writing in college.
The LRDG audience were perhaps most interested in this aspect of my research, where teachers-in-training talk about their writing lives outside of university. Prompts for these discussions are simple laminated cards on which I have written various domains (friendships/relationships; leisure interests/hobbies etc). Student teachers are invited to select two or three cards which have interest or meaning for them, and to talk about the writing they do in those domains. The LRDG interest in this area of my research is very encouraging, as I’ve only recently realised that I want this to be at the heart of my doctoral project. I feel it’s only by looking outside the university that I can properly support student teachers within it.
IVANIC I., EDWARDS R., BARTON D., MARTIN-JONES M., FOWLER Z., HUGHES B., MANNION G., MILLER K., SATCHWELL C. & SMITH J. (2009) Improving learning in college: rethinking literacies across the curriculum London: Routledge
LILLIS T. (2001) Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire London: Routledge

By Rachel Stubley, University of South Wales and Lancaster University


Muslim Women and English: Cameron gets his figures wrong

David Cameron announced an initiative yesterday to provide £20m for  English lessons, apparently to be targeted at Muslim women. In an interview on BBC Radio 4, the  Prime Minister said:

The statistics are clear that there are 38,000 Muslim women who really don’t speak hardly any English at all and perhaps as many as 19,0000 who speak it very badly, and this is about building a more integrated, cohesive, one nation country where there’s genuine opportunity for people.

 (There’s a link to the audio file of Cameron’s interview in this BBC news item).


Unfortunately in this case, the statistics are not clear. Most people listening to Cameron would get the impression that there are 228,000 Muslim women who speak little or no English, but that’s a misinterpretation of the census figures.

Census data from the 2011 census, available from the Office for National Statistics, shows that of 846,000 Muslim females aged 16 and over, 38,000 reported that they spoke no English, and another 152,000 stated that they did not speak English well. That’s 190000 altogether, not 228,000. While it’s likely that this was a genuine mistake, it does not help when figures like these are exaggerated on the media.

Another figure mentioned in this news story – that 22% of Muslim women have poor or no English – seems to be based on the correct statistic, i.e. 190,000 of the 846,000.

As with any statistics, though, it’s important to look both at where they came from, and at the finer detail.

The relevant statistical table, CT0557 – Religion by proficiency in English by sex by age appeared on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) website on 7th January, in a section for ‘ad hoc’ data. This appears to mean that it was produced as the result of a request, and was not part of the normal programme of census data analysis carried out by the ONS. Most likely it was requested by the government itself. The data in the table was the result of census questions on gender, age, religion, main language and English proficiency; of these, the religion question was optional – the only optional question in the census – so we cannot be sure that every Muslim reported themselves as such (there could be good reasons why Muslims might prefer not to answer this question). Equally relevant, proficiency in English was calculated from responses to the question ‘How well can you speak English’ with the possible answers ‘Very well’, ‘Well’, ‘Not well’ and ‘Not at all’. Respondents had to judge their own abilities in English. The ONS believe the results produced by self-assessment are sufficiently accurate, though there is recent research suggesting that it is problematic.

So, when we evaluate the statistics, we have to bear in mind that not all Muslims may be included, and some people may have over- or underestimated their knowledge of English.

Next, the detail. A fact not mentioned in the news stories is that 51% of Muslim females over age 3 reported English as their main language. Although overall, the census data shows that 22% of Muslim women have poor or no English, the breakdown by age shows very substantial differences. Among Muslim women aged 45 to 64, almost 40% do not speak English well or at all; aged 25 to 44, 18%;  aged 16 to 24, 6%; and aged 3 to 15, 3%.

There is thus a very clear trend that even where English is not their main language, younger Muslim women are able to speak it well. In the cohort who are the mothers of the near future, only 6% may be unable to introduce English to their children at home. Among the under-16s, currently targets of the Goverment’s Prevent strategy against radicalisation,  only 3% may have problems speaking English.

Cameron’s announcement is almost a re-run of the controversy created by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett in 2002. Blunkett published an essay in a national newspaper in which he said, referring to the disturbances of the previous year,

I have never said, or implied, that lack of fluency in English was in any way directly responsible […] However, speaking English enables parents to converse with their children in English, as well as in their historic mother tongue, at home and to participate in wider modern culture. It helps overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships. In as many as 30% of Asian British households, according to the recent citizenship survey, English is not spoken at home.

Blunkett’s claim that ‘in as many as 30% of Asian British households English is not spoken at home’ seems not to be derivable from statistics found in his department’s 2001 Citizenship Survey. Data from that study shows that of 3263 respondents who gave their ethnic background as South Asian, approximately 2200 or 67.4% regularly used English. Another 1056 respondents (32.4%) said they spoke no English. Thus the total proportion of homes where English was reported to be spoken was 67%.

However, the survey questions appear to be about the respondent’s personal use of languages: ‘What languages do you regularly speak at home?’ and ‘Which language do you speak most often at home?’ and assuming they were understood in that way, they do not tell us about the use of any other members of the household. The sample was designed to be representative of the population of adults aged 16 and over, so it overlooked the children – the group most likely to have good English proficiency in these minority communities.

SRHE conference papers

I enjoyed delivering two papers at this year’s SRHE conference at Celtic Manor in Newport (Wales), the first of which was on my research of student assignment writing and the second on the Academics’ Writing project.

The Prezi for the first one is here (unable to embed in wordpress), and the paper is linked to in a previous post.

The argument that some of the practices drawn into students’ academic tasks could be described as ‘curation’ stimulated some good discussion around plagiarism, assessment frameworks, the literacies that assignments are supposed to assess, and information literacy skills. Some of the tweets below encapsulate these ideas and, overall, I found the discussion useful for my forthcoming book on assignments.


The second paper, on the Acads writing project, is here:


There are definitely strange things happening to disciplines in Higher Education. Since identities permeate academics’ writing practices for research, teaching, and even admin work, the paper generated a lot of interest and discussion afterwards. Some of these were also tweeted about:

The original version of this text is from my personal blog.


buyuk han © ibrar bhatt

On Remembrance Sunday: a commemoration of soldiers’ writing during the Great War

After 40 years of research Andrew Brooks has produced a wonderful book which is particularly timely to look at today: Postcard Messages from the Great War 1914-19.

book cover

It is a magnificent achievement and a unique and immensely touching book.  Brooks has not merely compiled and shared a huge collection of postcard messages, as interesting that would be, but has also gone to an immense effort to find out as much as he can about the soldiers and their circumstances.  His understanding of military postal history is immense, so he can interpret a great deal about from postmarks and censor marks.   The book is arranged loosely chronologically, and the reader is led from the optimism of the early volunteers through to terrible losses and some fortunate survivals.  The book is centred on postcards sent from and to British soldiers, often telling us a lot about their lives and families before and after their service.



From the Edwardian Postcard Project we know that many cards of the early twentieth century were commissioned from a photographer, to show a family, friendship or other group.   This is a ‘Pals’ battalion, volunteers recruited locally and promised they would serve with other men from the same region.  Here are men from  the 18th The King’s Liverpool Regiment, during their initial training while based at Hooton Park Racecourse.  The men are still in their civilian clothing.  The card is sent to Miss R Hazelwood, 126 Thornton Road, Bootle, Liverpool on Friday 6th November 1914.  The message reads,

“Dear Miss H,

Many thanks for Chocolate received this morning.  We are going for a 20 Mile Route March round Birkenhead tomorrow that is if I get my uniform

Best M”.

Another such group postcard from the 19th (‘Pals’) King’s Liverpool regiment was sent in 1915 by John Anderson Henry Downie to his mother at 67, Carisbroke Road, Walton, Liverpool.  The message reads:

“Dear Mother,

I duly received both parcels in good condition.  I thank you very much for them, they will provide extras for some time to come.  On the other side you will see some of competitors lined up for a 41/2 mile event at sports.  I am No. 231. In the background a large sports ground is seen.

Yours John.”


In this case Andrew Brooks has been able to trace his fate in the 19th King’s Liverpool War Diary.  The 22nd January 1916 entry describes an event near Carnoy: “Bombardment on both sides. Minnenwerfer wrecked a dug-out, with the following casualties.  17322 L. Cpl. Downie killed.  17496 Pte. Whitehead seriously wounded…..”  Brooks has also traced Downie’s grave at the Carnoy Military Cemetrery on the Somme, row H grave 11.

Evidence of losses at such major battles as the Somme is also shown in postcards by others involved, occasionally revealing some involvement by women.  This card was sent to Miss Robertson, Union Bank House, George Street, Perth, Scotland from a French Auxiliary hospital on 31st July 1916 (the year of “The Big Push”):P83

“Dear Mary, Are you still at Rosebank: We are leading a very strenuous existence here and do what we can.  Can hardly copy with the rush – at least this was so till the last two days.  Things have quietened a bit but we rather think it is the lull before the storm. I love the life and the work.

I heard from Willie two days ago.  He is in the thick of it but safe and well.  Are your folks alright? Much love from Norah.”

This card by the well known postcard artist Donald McGill was sent on 12th February 1917 from Farnham, Surrey, by Arthur to his father Pte. A. Blackman, 37706, 7th Battalion Queens R.W.S. ‘D’ Com. Machine Gun Section, BEF France. P112

The message reads:

“Dear Dad just a line to say I hope you are all right glad to say I am feeling a bit better but don’t go to school yet Floss and Eeyore better hope you will be able to come home heaps of love and tons of kisses your loving boy Arthur.”

Brooks writes: “Sadly Lance Corporal Arthur Blackman, aged 39, the husband of E. Blackman of 12 Red Lion Square, Farnham, Surrey was killed in action on Saturday 23rd March 1918. He is buried in Chaumy Communal Cemetery, British Extension on the Ham to Chaumy road, Plot 4, Row B, Grave 14.”

Finally, another touching card from a training camp, this one from the 1st (Service) Battalion of the Guernsey regiment.  This was sent to Mrs Sophia Durnmont, Grande Rue, St. Saviour’s, Guernsey from her grandson then, Brooks deduces from the marks, from a camp near Canterbury.  The message reads:

“Dear Grandmother,

I am dropping you these few lines to let you know we have arrived safely at our new camp after one day and one night’s travelling, and a very dirty camp Dear Gran compared to those we had in Guernsey, but we’ll get used to it little by little I suppose.  Cheer up my little wife dear Gran when she’ll come home and tell he since it’s the call of duty it must be the will of the Almighty, hoping you are keeping quite well, as I am at present.  God keep us all till we meet again

With love to all From Walter.”P119

Andrew Brooks’ beautifully produced book: Postcard Messages from the Great War 1914-1919 is available from ebay for £20 and £2.80 postage.

New literacy studies at the end of the world: a ground-controlled approach from Chile.

When I first arrived to Lancaster I felt as a practitioner that needed more tools to improve the communities I was working with as an educational assessor that assessed children’s reading and writing skills. Through my path in the research, I was able to read and meet people that chanSociocultural context

Roberto's drawing

Roberto’s drawing

ged completely my views about assessment and literacy, I thought I had something great to support students and teachers. NLS became a tool to provide solutions around the educational problems that have been haunting the Chilean classrooms for decades.

However, when I landed in Chile, I had a quick encounter with the Chilean reality. I started working in an academic environment where all the discussion should be always contextualized and grounded on teachers’ and schools’ resources and classrooms. This shocked me at the beginning, I was not aware of talking about the concepts and theory in plain language, furthermore, I was not able to talk about it in Spanish.

All the theoretical problems I faced when working on the PhD were now part of a distant past. Here the problem has to be translated into a solution. There is no time to lose, we are creating tools that teachers and students need to use ASAP. It is amazing to know that our work will reach the classroom but in order to produce this transfer from academia to classroom I had to think again about some of the dilemmas that I addressed in the thesis. Although I tried to keep my practitioner’s heart, I was caught in academia and the practical implications I had developed in the thesis needed to be grounded again into practice.

In Chile I was faced with the question of practice instead of implication and I quickly realized that there was such a difference between the two terms. One of the main issues that my thesis addressed is that school literacy practices have to emerge in partnership between families, schools and communities. This slogan challenged my own understanding when I was invited to represent the Research Center for Advanced Research in Education in a stakeholders meeting that aimed at establishing a reviewed public policy on parents’ involvement into the school system. At that meeting I had to transfer the findings of my thesis to support the argument towards certain ways of community participation. It was until this invaluable opportunity that I came to realize that I needed to translate this knowledge that I have acquired, otherwise my PhD and the tools I identified would become irrelevant.

In this ‘ground-controlled approach’ the solution has to land safely at schools and the teachers or students cannot crash with obscure dilemmas that they cannot understand. Transparency is key to achieve impact. I am at that process now, trying to translate this academic piece of writing into practices that I can teach to teachers and transfer to students.

Margarita Calderón

Lecturer in childhood literacy at Universidad de Chile

Research Assistant at Centro de Investigación Avanzada en Educación, Universidad de Chile (Center for Advanced Research in Education).