Title: 50 STEPS to improving your academic writing
Author: Chris Sowton
Publisher: Garnet Education
Date of publication: 2012
Writing is one of the most challenging areas for students at university; it is also one of the most important, with so much of their grade determined by reports and essays they are required to write throughout their course of study. This book targets that area, helping students to improve their academic writing skills through a series of '50 steps', covering everything from researching and planning an essay to proofreading the final draft. The book is another in the generally excellent series of EAP books published by Garnet Education. The author, Chris Sowton, an EAP teacher at King's College London, is the author of several other academic English books, including the teacher's books for the Cambridge Academic English series. Overall, I found this to be a extremely informative book, giving wide coverage of academic writing. It would be a valuable resource for students who already have some knowledge of academic writing in English and who want to improve. Although it can be used in the classroom, it is especially effective if used as it is primarily intended, for self-study.
The Introduction to the book spells out the intended audience: 'students who are new to or inexperienced in academic writing' (p.5). This is a good audience, but how well does the book target them? Personally, I would say the book will work best for the latter of those two (students who are 'inexperienced in academic writing') rather than the former (students who are 'new to' academic writing). The content is very thorough and detailed, one of the strengths of the book (see more on this below), which means it would, in my opinion, be rather overwhelming for the complete beginner. The novice writer would probably need some introduction to the basics of academic writing before attempting to use this book. Some of my own students have used it this year, at the halfway stage of their foundation course, and feedback from one of them was: 'It is right for us, I think, at this stage'.
The structure is a real strength of the book. Each 'step' follows the same pattern, labelled A to F: Reflection (A), Contextualization (B), Analysis (C), Activation (D), Personalization (E), and Extension (F). This format quickly becomes familiar to the reader, which helps with its user-friendliness. I was a bit confused at first, trying to find answers at the back which weren't there (only answers to section D, 'Activation', are included in the answer key), but I quickly realised that the answers to the 'Reflection' questions were given in the 'Analysis' part, with each one carefully explained.
In addition to micro-structure within each step, there is also a macro-structure to the book, with a total of 10 units (each containing 5 steps), beginning with 'Unit A. Understanding academic convention', through to 'Unit J. Finalizing your writing'. This helps students to focus on areas of personal weakness. For example, one of my students who used this book felt that style and academic vocabulary were problem areas for her, so she focused on 'Unit E. Making your writing more "academic"' and 'Unit H. Enriching your vocabulary'.
Another reason I like the book is because of how it is meant to be used. Sowton states in his introduction that the book is primarily meant as a self-study resource for students, though he highlights that it can also be used by EAP teachers in the classroom. I am a great believer in learner autonomy, so the fact that the book is designed for students to use on their own is a great asset. At the same time, I would agree that it is a useful book for teachers, though probably as a supplemental text rather than a main classroom text (see more on this in the next section). The steps, though short, are challenging, and would engage students and help them tackle certain points in more depth.
As mentioned earlier, the book it very detailed and thorough, and this is another thing I like about it. One of the measures of a good book on EAP is that even experienced teachers can learn something new and so deepen their understanding, and that was certainly true in my case. For example, Step 22, which gives 'rules' about when to use 'I' in academic writing, confirmed what I already believed (but had not read elsewhere), while Step 39, on academic phrases, listed some useful 'lexical bundles' which I hadn't considered before (and also includes a useful reference to the source of these, an article by Ken Hyland). Using this book in my classes will make me a better teacher.
One weakness of the book for me is linked to one of its strengths, mentioned twice already, namely its thoroughness. The book crams a lot in, which means it has to make sacrifices somewhere. I felt many of the 'Contextualization' sections (section B) were rather brief. This is probably not such a bad thing for self-study purposes, but if used in the classroom, it would make the lessons rather simplistic. It would be nice to have some longer texts (perhaps recycled throughout the book), for example as appendices or online resources. These could give better context to the language being studied. Writing often goes hand-in-hand with reading, but students are not challenged much with the short texts here.
The 'Activation' sections (D) are also rather short. My students who used the book for self-study wanted more of these exercises to really consolidate what they had been studying. This weakness, as with the one above, might be linked to cramming in so much information, and might also affect how useful it would be in the classroom: the teacher would need more exercises than those contained in one 'step' to fill a lesson. Again, additional resources, such as a workbook or online exercises, would be beneficial. The latter would definitely be preferred: the book, like others in the Garnet Education series, is slightly expensive, which is fine if you are just buying a book to cover all your needs, less acceptable if you need to make additional purchases such as a workbook.
In sum, this is a valuable resource for students with some existing knowledge of academic writing, adding important information to what they already know, with some good chances to practice through the 'Activation' and 'Personalisation' sections. The book works best as a self-study resource, but is also good for the academic writing teacher, especially as a supplementary text. It would be nice if the book could be developed by adding some (online) materials, especially for 'Contextualisation' and 'Activation'. Even so, this book is a sound investment for any student who wants to improve their academic writing in English.
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