Els Van Geyte, author of Collins Academic Skills: Writing, spoke to Collins’ Eva Schmidt about her teaching career and the inspiration for her latest book.
Eva: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Els: My name is Els (pronounced like ‘else’) and although I am Belgian-born I have now lived longer in the UK than I ever did in Belgium. I live in the middle of the country (Birmingham), which is ironic because despite living on an island and loving the seaside with a passion, I could not live further away from the sea. Luckily I also like what the city has to offer, and I am happily settled here with my husband and teenage daughter.
Eva: How did you first get involved in teaching?
Els: I have always wanted to be a teacher and when I found myself getting increasingly interested in languages in secondary school, it was an obvious choice to study Linguistics and Literature and train to be a language teacher. I did a Joint Honours course in English and Dutch, and went to French evening classes too. After completing my MA and my teacher training course I used my language skills in customer services jobs and started teaching foreign language evening classes in Further Education. It was a stroke of luck that they were looking for English teachers in the college where I was teaching French: not only did it mean I could start working as a teacher in the daytime, it also meant that I started working with international students. I really enjoyed being in a culturally diverse environment and exchanging information about different customs.
Eva: And what do you do now?
Els: After working in Further education I started teaching in Higher Education. Increasingly this meant not just teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) but also, and now exclusively, English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I have had different responsibilities in this area (e.g. materials development, assessment) but my main focus is always on working with students. I now work part-time because I am also studying: I am hoping to complete my PhD about grammar and argumentation in a few years’ time. As you know, I also write coursebooks, so far about Reading and Writing skills.
Eva: When and how did you come up with the idea for your latest book, Writing?
Els: I approached Collins because I felt that the published materials I was using in my teaching were not always looking at the ‘why’ of academic writing, and I wanted to try to bridge that gap. For example, rather than just telling a student not to use the word ‘thing’ in their writing, or that sayings are not appropriate, it is better to explain that clarity is the most important principle of writing. This means that expressions need to be specific and precise. If students know why certain uses of language are wrong, it is easier for them to check their own writing. I also wanted to write a book that helped build the students’ existing skills: after all, they have worked very hard to get the IELTS or TOEFL score they needed and don’t need to be told everything there is to know about essays. Instead, they need to know what is going to be different from IELTS when they are in an English medium university and have to write longer, more researched and more complex pieces of writing.
Eva: Why do international students struggle when writing essays at university?
Els: It’s not just international students who struggle. I have also worked with ‘home’ students and they face similar issues. One problem is that it is not always possible to see many examples of good essays in your field, and students need to find out what standards of writing are expected by doing it, rather than being told what to do. They have to learn through trial and error and by studying the feedback they received. Having said that, there are some extra challenges for international students: culturally, academic writing may be different. An example is that in some countries it is acceptable to use many rhetorical questions, whereas here we try to avoid them. The ‘why’ for this is that formality is an important academic principle, and addressing the reader is seen as too informal. Another challenge is the language: writing an essay is difficult in your first language, so having to write it in another language while maintaining clarity, formality, accuracy and other important principles is not going to be easy for anyone.
Eva: In your opinion, what’s the most difficult part about writing essays?
Els: From what my students tell me, a lot of it becomes easier (e.g. researching, following referencing guidelines) but the best students can still struggle with paraphrasing. This is probably because it is difficult to apply two academic principles at once: authority (i.e. having a clear point of view and stating your own opinion) and integrity (acknowledging the ideas of others). Students ask how it can be better to paraphrase words written by an excellent academic writer when you feel your own language ability is so much worse. Yet it is much better to paraphrase than to quote… In my book I have tried to explain why paraphrasing is better most of the time, and have included a step by step technique to help students do this.
Eva: How did you go about writing this book and what were the challenging bits?
Els: I had a lot of freedom when writing this book, which actually made it harder! When I wrote IELTS books (Get Ready for IELTS: Reading, Reading for IELTS) before, I needed to make sure all the skills and techniques involved in the exam were covered, so that immediately provided a structure for the chapters. What I decided to do this time was to think about the general characteristics of academic writing, and then to break these down into smaller parts. For example, in chapter two I focus on the importance of thinking about your reader’s expectations, which I then divided up in smaller sections about what the reader expects in terms of general essay structure, paragraph structure and how paragraphs are connected. I also tried to remember what my students had asked for over the years so that I could make sure that this information was included. In the end, the hardest aspect of the writing was not to let my enthusiasm take over and write too much.
Eva: How does your book help international students write better essays?
Els: Well, I tried to include a number of tools to help students: e.g. self-evaluation quizzes, tips, glossaries and plenty of practical exercises in every chapter. I made sure I covered the different steps in the essay writing process, from receiving the title to receiving the feedback. I also emphasized how improving your reading skills can improve your writing skills. Throughout the book I used real examples from my own and my colleagues’ students to illustrate points and design exercises, and I included example essays of 250 and 2,500 words respectively, to show how students can take their writing up to the next level. There is a strong focus on language accuracy issues, because I know that this is something that international students tend to ask for. In short, I tried to cover all the students need to be aware of, but to keep it practical and manageable.
I really hope the book does help international students, as I have nothing but admiration for what they are trying to do. Education is key in life, but it can be a challenge, and to be brave enough to go and do so in a country with a different language is truly amazing. If I can help just a little bit, that would be great.