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