Supporting Students in Business Writing

Learning the Language of Business: An Approach to Discipline Specific Writing Instruction


In any academic discipline, a key task of the writing process in undergraduate courses is acculturating students to the ways of communicating in their discipline. While foundational writing skills courses aim to develop general academic writing skills, as students move into their chosen undergraduate programs, they must further refine their skills to meet the conventions of their discipline.  Although this is the task of all students, non-native English speakers often experience additional challenges in their adjustment to academic writing. While lower order concerns such as word choice and sentence structure may be problematic, the most significant difficulties often arise as students work to achieve appropriate discourse structure and organization in their writing. One approach, which can be effective for EAL writers and native-speakers alike, is designing structured learning activities where students analyze the features of successful writing, and think critically about how they would adopt these features in their own writing.

Beliefs About EAL Writing Development

The following key principles guide my work with EAL writers, and shape the ways in which I develop workshops:

1. Learning to write well in undergraduate programs requires both the development of foundational skills and discipline-specific skills. All students (not just EAL writers), are involved in the task of "learning the language" of their chosen discipline. Therefore, explicit instruction on writing within specific disciplines provides an important support for students.

2. Learning to write well in as a non-native speaker of a language involves mastery of both sentence level grammar and higher level discourse. As different languages tend towards preferred styles of organizing ideas and arguments, students who are encountering the conventions of Canadian academic writing benefit from explicit support in identifying the preferred discourse patterns of Canadian academic writing more generally, and writing within their disciplines.

3. When possible, discipline and/or course-specific writing support is preferable to general writing skills development workshops. Student engagement in discipline-specific academic programming is higher, as the relevance of the skills presented to their current academic work is clear.

4. Engaging with examples of well-written texts supports the learning process. Analyzing model texts should not be confused with plagiarism or patchwriting.



Discipline-Specific Academic Skills for EAL Students
While the workshops presented in this portfolio do not offer the depth of a full content-linked ESL program, the evidence supporting ESL and academic skills programming that is closely tied to specific academic disciplines motivates the approach chosen. Linking writing support to specific courses and assignments, following this model, is likely to produce stronger outcomes than more general ESL writing support.
Baik, C., & Greig, J. (2009). Improving the academic outcomes of undergraduate ESL students: The case for discipline-based academic skills programs. Higher Education Research and Development, 28(4), 401.
Durkin, K., & Main, A. (2002). Discipline-Based Study Skills Support for First-Year Undergraduate Students. Active Learning in Higher Education, 3(1), 24–39.
Approaches to Writing: Systemic Functional Linguistics and Academic Literacies
Much of the process of learning to write well is being socialized into the academic language of a discipline.  This includes learning the required vocabulary, preferred style, and organization of written assignments, which varies significantly between disciplines.  While foundational writing courses provide a basis for academic writing skills, further support targeted at the literacy and writing skills of the students' chosen discipline is a needed supplement.
The study of Academic Literacies and the discipline of systemic functional linguistics both provide theoretical and practical support to this process. Academic Literacies focuses on the social phenomena that surround the conventions of writing in a discipline, and the process of helping students become attuned to them. Systemic Functional linguistics uses processes of text analysis to uncover the relationship between the social/communicative task and the language structures used to perform these tasks in specific contexts. As Coffin and Donahue's article proposes, these two approaches can be integrated.
My preferred approach to course-specific writing workshops is to lead the students through the process of analyzing a successful example of student writing on a particular assignment. In such workshops, I guide students through a process of analyzing the communicative context (e.g. "when do people create this style of writing in the 'real world'?"). Next, students analyze the organization of the text at hand, before identifying sentence-level features and vocabulary that are typical of the writing task at hand.
Coffin, C., & Donohue, J. P. (2012). Academic Literacies and systemic functional linguistics: How do they relate? Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11(1), 64–75.
Lea, M. R., & Street, B. V. (2006). The “Academic Literacies” Model: Theory and Applications. Theory Into Practice, 45(4), 368–377.
Wingate, U., & Tribble, C. (2012). The best of both worlds? Towards an English for Academic Purposes/Academic Literacies writing pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education, 37(4), 481–495.
Developing Editing Skills
Many EAL writers struggle to attain mastery over particular grammatical patterns.  For high-level EAL students, article use, subject-verb agreement, and verb conjugation may be ongoing issues. These students often know that they need to "improve their grammar", but lack a strategy for systematically addressing their high-frequency errors and using available resources to support their writing. "Avoiding the Proofreading Trap" provides concrete strategies for supporting students as they develop editing strategies. I often implement several of these into editing skills workshops.
Cogie, J., Lorinskas, S., & Strain, K. (1999). Avoiding the Proofreading Trap: The Value of the Error Correction Process. The Writing Center Journal, 19(2), 7.