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Oscar Odena is Reader in Education at the University of Glasgow, UK. Originally from Spain, he has conducted and supervised educational research in a range of contexts nationally and internationally. More information can be found on his Glasgow University webpage. This post is an updated version of a post previously published on the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change blog. Here Oscar writes about his research into writing development for ESL doctoral writers.

By Oscar Odena

The trend of English as Second Language (ESL) students coming to established English-speaking universities is on the increase, particularly to enrol in research degree programmes. With their new research skills many will aim to bring about educational change in their countries after completion. Developing academic writing is a crucial skill for completing a research degree. However, academic writing development is not a compulsory element across research degree programmes that often focus on subject-specific knowledge, leaving academic writing to be developed independently. This is outlined in a recent UK Higher Education Academy study of research students’ perceptions of what helps them develop their academic writing (further details of the study, co-authored by Odena and Burgess, can be found in an Open Access article in Studies in Higher Education). Over 75% of doctoral students in UK universities complete their theses later than the expected 4 years full-time or its part-time equivalent. This percentage includes an estimation of the unreported students who give up before they continue to the second year and are not counted in completion rate statistics. Part of this problem may be due to the students’ underdeveloped strategies for thesis writing, leading to academic roadblocks.

Image by CSUF Photos at Flickr

For ESL students, the challenge of writing and reviewing their work to improve both content and style is sometimes a difficult and arduous process. Previous investigations into ESL students’ academic writing indicate they face a number of difficulties, for example, in terms of coming from learning cultures where they are not taught to write critically. Verbal communication can also be a problem if students have not been taught correct pronunciation of words. ESL students develop strategies of their own to improve their writing; however, the role of the supervisor in their progress seems particularly significant. Being part of a community of other researchers aimed at enabling writing development through peer discussion does not necessarily prove effective; that is, participation in a writing group may not provide sufficient development. Supervisors need to embrace their pedagogical role in inducting students into their discipline’s writing practices and in offering tailored support to each particular learning journey.

Another issue that would require attention from supervisors and universities is the facilitation of support networks for ESL students, many of whom are working not just in a different language but within a new socio-cultural environment away from their family. If English-speaking universities view research degrees as paths for knowledge creation and subsequent global change to be led by graduates, supervisors would need to be enabled to mentor ESL students with particular care.