Academic writing: Addressing the grammar gap

By Anne Vicary

Category: English for Academic Purposes

The rapid acquisition of academic literacy skills is a key priority for international students who come to study at an English-medium institution of higher education. The new academic culture demands the ability not only to critically engage with academic discourse, but also to construct a written response which is appropriate to the new and often alien academic context. Students’ lack of grammatical understanding can preclude them from fully engaging with dense academic written texts and from being able to express their own ideas through writing at the required level of complexity. Although international students may have studied grammar for many years, statements such as these from students at the University of Reading are not uncommon.

‘In my country:

… teachers pay attention to grammar teaching but not so much on writing practice’

… when we do writing, grammar is not emphasised. Our teacher pays attention to vocabulary, so it’s very difficult for me to fully grasp the grammar. It’s not enough for academic writing’

… grammar is emphasised and we have a lot of exercises and homework. Lots of tests and exams. I did well on them, but I’m not confident when I write.’

‘In the new academic culture:

… I always get confused as there are so many different statements about time. Singular and plural – I cannot remember whether the nouns are singular’.

… we use these words like ‘found’ ‘state’ ‘claim’ all the time and mixed them together and did not distinguish them in different ways’

… I think we need much support about the grammar –  it’s a big jump to the formal academic writing’.

Students clearly need to be reminded of the grammar they do know, to challenge their current state of grammatical understanding, and to be shown how to apply their understanding to the new reading and writing context. This is not an easy task, and pre-sessional and in-sessional courses typically have so many elements of academic literacy on which to focus – grammar being only one aspect – that limited time may be spent on this in class.

EAS Grammar for Writing has therefore been planned as a self-study guide. It has a major theme running through it: a good understanding of the logic behind text construction and grammatical patterns gives new writers greater freedom to make a personal choice about how to convey their message accurately to the reader.

Accordingly, an understanding of text flow, or organization of information – the recursive flow of old to new information through the use of abstract noun phrases underpins the approach to grammatical understanding. Students are shown how writers introduce ideas and then return to them, skilfully moving between old and new information in the developing text, reminding readers of old information as they read. Awareness-raising of this characteristic of academic writing is an essential pre-cursor to students in their turn being able to construct similar text in their own academic context. In addition, it is the rationale behind grammatical patterns which is explored. Understanding the reasons for grammatical choices and their impact on the reader helps students to gradually improve their writing ability and express this in an appropriate style.

The grammatical structures in the book have been selected by a team at the University of Reading with many years’ experience of teaching writing to international students. In terms of source texts, Leech’s work (1971) has been vital for shedding light on the inner secrets of verb paradigms, and the works of Hinkel (2003) and Biber et al., (1999) have been helpful both for their analysis of grammatical features common to academic writing and their information relating to text construction. Many of the texts and task sentences have been donated anonymously by a wide range of students with varying levels of language competence. Some of the student donors are native speakers whilst others are learners of English as a second language:  a mixture of pre-undergraduates, undergraduates and Master’s students on different programmes within different university departments.

Certain grammatical constructions from Unit 1 of the book formed the basis of ‘A beginner’s guide to writing in English for university study’ a free 5-week FutureLearn MOOC run in conjunction with the University of Reading, and launched in February 2014. This successful MOOC attracted thousands of learners from all over the world – their positive feedback shows that the demand for a more integrated approach between grammar and writing is clearly high.


Biber, D., Johnasson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow: Longman

Hinkel, E. (2003). Teaching academic ESL writing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Leech, G. (1971). Meaning and the English Verb. (2nd ed.). Harlow: Longman.

About the author

Anne Vicary is an In-sessional English Programme Co-ordinator and EAP lecturer at the International Study and Language Institute (ISLI) at the University of Reading. She is also the author of the recently published EAS Grammar for Writing. You can join the course Anne refers to by signing up to Future Learn at The course is called ‘A beginners’ guide to writing in English for university study’.

One response to “Academic writing: Addressing the grammar gap

  1. I have many of the EAS books and I’m definitely going to order my copy of this book. I prepare students for the IELTS exam in Singapore and as a private tutor, one of the things I constantly work on is grammar. If one teaches a class, there’s hardly enough time to work with students individually on their grammar but because I give a lot of one to one classes, grammar is very important.

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