• Author(s): Dr Colleen McKenna
  • Title: Academic Literacies
  • Subject: HE - Education
  • Keywords: UKOER, UKPSF, OMAC, CPD4HE, academic writing, academic literacies, student writing, writing in the disciplines, writing for learning, writing development, writing in higher education
  • Language(s): English
  • Material type(s): Text, Presentation, Audio
  • File format(s): ZIP, HTML, PDF, DOC, PPT, MP3
  • File size: Various
  • Publish Date: 31st October 2011
  • Licence: CC-BY-NC-SA


Academic Literacies: Writing in Higher Education

Explanation of powerpoint presentation for workshop leaders and HE teachers

This document offers a commentary for the slides from the powerpoint presentation ‘Academic literacies: writing in HE’. The slides are reproduced and discussion is offered below each one to support anyone who would like to use the presentation in full or in part.

The text could also be used for self study. Where appropriate, links to additional resources are provided. This presentation might be of particular interest to HE teachers who would like to incorporate the teaching of writing into their subject curricula.

Slide 1

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This session will consider academic literacies, theory and practice, in HE. In particular, the aim of the session is to consider how writing development can be embedded in teaching sessions and curricula. The academic literacies framework offers a theoretical account of literacies practices in universities. The framework also is being increasingly drawn on as a paradigm for academic practice more broadly. (See Haggis 2003, for example.)

Why writing? Writing is at the heart of learning in higher education. It is the primary way that we articulate our ideas to ourselves and others; it is the dominant mode for assessment and it can be a powerful activity for developing thinking. However, frequently, writing is not explicitly addressed in subject teaching. There is a tendency for it to be invisible as a practice, or treated as an unproblematic transferrable skill. In this session, I want to challenge this stance and consider creative ways in which writing practices can be incorporated into subject curricula.

Slide 2

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This session begins with an account of recent research and theoretical framing of writing in HE. The main paradigms considered are the Writing in the Disciplines movement (initiated in the US) and the academic literacies framework, developed in the UK.

Then – we look more closely at work within curricula and ask what it means, in practice, to engage with some of these ideas as part of subject teaching.

During the workshop, participants read and discuss case studies which link writing development and curriculum design.

Throughout the session, we all think about our writing practices and try to make links to our students’ experiences of writing. To help us consider our written texts and practices, there are writing exercises built into the session.

Slide 3

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Often, writing is not explicitly addressed as part of the curriculum in HE. Yet, many of us will remember feeling uncertain about what is expected of us as writers when we enter new contexts. These might be new educational contexts, new disciplines, new linguistic contexts, etc. So, on the one hand, we often hear writing referred to as a transparent, fixed skill, yet on the other hand, research and experience tells us that different contexts require different literacy practices. This approach, which views writing as a social practice, is foundation stone for the academic literacies paradigm.

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The Writing in the Disciplines (WiD) approach to academic literacy has been a popular approach in the US for many years, having grown out of the Writing Across the Curriculum movement. It also has enjoyed popularity in the UK at institutions including Queen Mary University of London, University of Warwick and Anglia Ruskin University.

The WiD ethos views writing as inseparable from the intellectual development of students. Writing is a primary way in which students express and develop subject knowledge and therefore it should be taught as an explicit part of the subject curriculum. A WiD approach often sees a range of small writing tasks introduced into teaching – some in sessions and some in between formal teaching.

Some WiD programmes stipulate that degrees contain writing intensive courses (or modules)in which writing is foregrounded and practised. There are generally also guidelines about re-drafting work and feedback. Class sizes are kept small so that lecturers have more opportunities to engage in written and spoken dialogue with students about their work. Significantly, in a WiD approach, writing is not seen as problem but as an integral part of learning the subject.

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So, with WiD, the emphasis is on process rather than product. There is also a sense that a wide range of written forms should be used. Many WiD courses incorporate short writing tasks to stimulate ideas and discussion. Participants can consider some examples below.

A useful metaphor is that of a student writer joining a disciplinary conversation.

Slide 7

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David Russell, who has written widely on WAC and WiD, reminds us that writing practices can become invisible to those engaged in the discipline. So, part of the WiD approach is to make writing ‘visible’ again.

Slide 8

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Having considered the ideas underpinning WiD, we now do a writing activity. This exercise is an attempt to illustrate some of the points on the previous slides, particularly the idea of entering a new writing context. Before beginning the writing exercise, participants are asked whether they understand the concept of ‘free writing’ as defined by Peter Elbow (1998) and others. Free writing requires the participant to write continuously in complete sentences for a fixed amount of time. Editing/correction is discouraged. Rather the aim is to encourage thinking as part of the writing process.

When leading this exercise, I emphasize that

  1. Nothing will be read aloud (although we may ask participants to draw on the ideas that emerge in the activity)
  2. I will take care of the timing.
  3. It’s fine for the writing to veer off topic; writers can just see where the ideas take them.

All participants need to do is write.

Once the 3 minutes are up, participants are asked to share any thoughts emerging with a neighbour. Following a few minutes of discussion in pairs, we reconvene and have a brief group discussion.

There are two main reasons for this activity. The first is to generate ideas and discussion on the set topic. The second is to model free writing and the way it can be incorporated into a teaching session.

Slide 9

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This is a marker slide to indicate that we are now going to discuss the research and theorising that underpin the academic literacies framework.

Slide 10

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Following on from the discussion of WiD, we turn to a consideration of academic literacies. The academic literacies concept emerged from an ESRC research project carried out in the late 1990s by Mary Lea and Brian Street and the work is sociolinguistic in nature. Lea and Street looked at writing practices and texts in university departments and they spoke with students and teaching staff. Their framework, outlined on the next slide, has been influential in the UK and elsewhere. (See Lea and Street, 1997 2000, for a full account of the research.)

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In Lea and Stierer's, Student Writing in Higher Education(2000),an account of "academic literacies" is set out. The work is based on research in 2 universities with 50 students and 25 lecturers from six departments. The researchers conducted interviews, collected guidance documents and analysed written work. They observed three models of writing development. The first is the study skills approach that views writing as a transferable skill, largely concerned with surface features that can be taught independently of the subject curriculum. This argument suggests that once a student masters rules of punctuation, grammar and basic organisation, he/she can write successful essays in any subject.

The second model sees writing in academia as a process of induction. This is a more subject-based approach that acknowledges that different disciplines privilege different written forms and practices; thus, inherent in the study of a particular subject is the learning of written academic conventions.

The academic literacies model (3rd level of the framework) moves beyond the first two models andits proponents argue that writing is a social practice and, as such, is embedded in the values, relationships and institutional discourses of the University and also one which is inscribed with power relationships.

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This slide outlines some implications that follow from the academic literacies stance. These are ideas drawn from Roz Ivanic (1997) and they help counter the ‘students can’t write’ deficit model that is still present in higher education. These ideas can also be linked to the WiD approach and to the first writing activity of the workshop (slide 8). In that task, participants may have written about a time when they were entering a new phase of literacy development.

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At this point in the session, it might be useful to pause and consider the learning and teaching practices in participants’ own departments.

Participants might simply be asked to make some notes on their own, or the questions could be considered in small groups or with everyone. These questions are meant to offer a point of contact between the concepts of the WiD and academic literacies frameworks and participants’ own experiences. Alternatively, they might be used at the end of the session.

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As suggested previously, academic literacies work can be located in the broader area of literacies work (as established by Brian Street, in particular) that regards writing as a social practice.

The three slides that follow (15-17) reprise the earlier ideas about context and learning and also address the issue of writing and identity.

Slide 15

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In summary,this slide lists reasons why these approaches (academic literacies and WiD) differ from a skills or deficit model of academic writing, which tends not to focus on context.

Slide 16

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Roz Ivanic has published widely on writing and identity and her work fits into the academic literacies fold. This powerful quote re-emphasizes some of the key academic literacies ideas and it reminds us that we all have a responsibility to acknowledge the multiple and contested nature of academic writing. As with the points on the previous slide, this quote is resisting the idea that writing is a generic, context-free skill.

Slide 17

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Building on the discussion about writing and identity, here are some voices of PhD students. These quote came from PhD writers who had completed a course on writing which was part of their taught Doctoral programme in Speech and Language Therapy (DSLT) at UCL. The course, run by Suzanne Beeke, forms part of a case study in this OER unit. Here the participants reflect on the extent to which they locate themselves explicitly in their writing. This ‘claiming’ of their research was a novel act for these writers, and being able to articulate their sense of themselves in the writing greatly enhanced their confidence as academic writers.

Slide 18

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Here is a final exercise to round off this section of the workshop. This exercise was developed by Dr Phyllis Creme and she and I have used it in a number of settings – with academic staff and students. Participants are asked in advance of the workshop to bring a piece of completed writing with them. In the case of academics, this is often a published text.

The aim of the task is for participants to see the situatedness of a written text. The exercise requires participants to think about writing processes and contextual and production factors. It also draws out issues of identity and authorship.

As with the exercise on slide 8, this work is both an exploration of the topic of writing and social context as well as the modeling of an activity that could be used with student writers – particularly postgraduates.

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In this part of the workshop, we will focus on what these ideas might look like in practice. First, we will consider the work of two US academics who have worked extensively on writing in the curriculum - particularly writing in the classroom OR writing in between teaching sessions. Then, we can consider two case studies of work in UK universities.

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This slide refers to ideas about ‘middle ground pedagogy’ articulated by Art Young and developed by Sally Mitchell, 2008. The graphic attempts to describe the learning/teaching space of a course and maps the broad types of writing (and assessment) that students are asked to do.

On the left is the private/ process end of the spectrum comprising notes, writing questions, free writing, planning, early drafts, On the right is the more polished, public side of writing often associated with summative assessment, and in the centre is the ‘middle ground’ which Young argues ought to be drawn on more fully in HE.

In the middle ground, writing is not strictly private but neither is it as polished and formal as the final essay or report. Young argues that in this middle ground, different types of writing and learning can occur. He refers to the use of less formalized writing tasks. These can have what he calls a ‘conversational function’ which means they contribute directly to interaction between students and teachers - often in the classroom.

Slide 21

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John Bean argues that writing, as a process, is directly linked to critical thinking.

In particular, he talks about writing tasks as being ‘decentring’ or ‘disruptive’ and helping students to see a phenomenon from an unfamiliar perspective.

He is also an advocate of using short writing exercises in teaching sessions and in between sessions.

Slide 22

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At this point in the workshop, I ask participants to consider briefly two examples in which writing was explicitly embedded within curricula. What follow are slides and links to materials for two case studies in foregrounding writing development in subject-based teaching.

The first exampleis work done by Josep-Anton Fernandez, who led aunit in Catalan Culture at Queen Mary University of London, and with the support of Sally Mitchell, decided to revise this module to incorporate writing in the curriculum Fernandez, 2006 and Mitchell and Evison, 2006.

The second case study describes the development of an entire course in a taught doctorate programme developed by Suzanne Beeke at UCL. In this case study, a year long module on writing development was designed as a taught component in the PhD is Speech and Language Therapy. There are additional materials in the OER unit to use with this case study.

Slide 23

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Josep-Anton Fernandez redesigned his course in Catalan Culture with a view to supporting his students’ writing development and learning within their subject.

In the quote in this slide, he describes what the integration of writing into the curriculum meant from a pedagogic perspective (Fernandez and Marsh 2002) particularly in terms of writing, classroom practices and assessment.

A description of the syllabus and the types of activities that Fernandez incorporated as in class writing and as homework can be found on the Thinking Writing website:


Timeline of the development process here:

Article in which this case study is addressed is Mitchell (2006).

In the workshop from which these slides come, I have asked people to consider Fernandez’s syllabus (see link above), comment on the integration of exercises and topics, and consider which exercises might be modified and used in their teaching. We also consider the dual approach of writing development and learning of the discipline that is being attempted here. Finally, I ask them to read and comment on an extract from Fernandez and Marsh 2002 in which Fernandez describes the perceived advantages to his students and himself of the redesigned WiD course.

Slide 24

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The second example we consider in the workshop is an account of a course, run by Dr Suzanne Beeke at UCL, which broadly follows a Writing in the Disciplines approach at Graduate level. The participants are all PhD candidates and the course runs during the year that they are expected to produce a literature review. Aligned to this requirement, the course culminates with a literature review. Additionally, participants prepare a poster outlining their proposed research for a student/staff poster session midway through the academic year.

During the course, students read theoretical texts, keep a writing journal, engage in different types of writing exercises (eg free writing, writing autobiographies, etc.) and offer feedback on their own and others’ work.

For the purposes of this workshop, I ask participants to consider this course as a case study and to consider the following questions:

-Where is writing development addressed with graduate students in your department?

-How might a course like this be integrated within your graduate curriculum?

-Could you integrate individual topics from this year long into either undergraduate or graduate teaching?

The following slide lists some of the broad topics covered and there is also a handout with further details of this example included in this OER unit.

Additionally, the following paper with full details about the course itself and the student reaction is to appear shortly: Fergie, G.; Beeke, S., McKenna, C and Creme, P. (2012) ‘Designing, piloting and evaluating a module to support doctoral research students in speech and language therapy’.International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Volume 23, Issue 2.

Slide 25

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I ask participants to consider the case studies and see whether they could draw on them in whole or in part for their own work. I also ask them to consider how they can create space in their own curricula to address writing and learning.

Slide 26

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The activity on this slide could be used at different points in the workshop. In advance of the session, participants are asked to bring with them interesting/noteworthy writing tasks or approaches that they (or department colleagues) use. They share these in small groups. Then we hear about a few from each group (depending on size) in a plenary discussion, elements of which can often be related back to previous issues that have arisen in the workshop.

Slide 27

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In this slide, I summarise some of the different strands of recent research into writing in HE. This discussion also allows us to pull together different issues that have arisen in the workshop. The final point – work by Tamsin Haggis – allows us to think more broadly about academic literacies as a paradigm for learning and teaching, more broadly.

Slide 28

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This final slide is an observation from Sally Mitchell about writing as a potentially pleasurable act – for both student and teacher.


Bean, John C. (1996) Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass.

Elbow, P. (1998) Writing without Teachers. OUP.

Fernandez and Marsh 2002 cited in Mitchell, S. &Evison, A. (2006) Exploiting the potential of writing foreducational change at Queen Mary, University of London. L. Ganobcsik-Williams (ed.) Teaching Academic Writing in UK Higher Education.

Fergie, G.; Beeke, S.; McKenna, C. and Creme, P. (to appear 2012) ‘Designing, piloting and evaluating a module to support doctoral research students in speech and language therapy’.International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Goodfellow, R. and Lea, M (2007) Challenging e-Learning in the University: a Literacies Approach. SRHE/Open University Press.

Haggis, T. (2003) Constructing images of ourselves? A critical investigation into 'approaches to learning' research in higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 34 (1) pp.89-104.

Lea, M. R.& Street, B. V. (1998) Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23 (2), 157-172.

Lea, M. R. &Stierer, B. (2000) Student Writing in Higher Education: New Contexts. Buckingham: Open University Press/SRHE.

Mitchell, S. &Evison, A. (2006) Exploiting the potential of writing foreducational change at Queen Mary, University of London. L. Ganobcsik-Williams (ed.) Teaching Academic Writing in UK Higher Education.

Monroe, J. (2006) Local Knowledges, Local Practices: Writing in the Disciplines at Cornell. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Russell, David R.; Lea, Mary; Parker, Jan; Street, Brian and Donahue, Tiane (2009).Exploring notions of genre in 'academic literacies' and 'writing across the curriculum': approaches across countries and contexts. In: Bazerman, Charles; Bonini, Adair and Figueiredo, Déboraeds. Genre in a Changing World.Perspectives on Writing. Colorado: WAC Clearinghouse/Parlor Press, pp. 459–491.

Russell, D. (2005) "Writing in the Disciplines and 'the institutional practice of mystery.'" Institute of Education, University

of London. London,

Art Young (1999) Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum, Third Edition. Prentice Hall Resources for Writing, Upper Saddle River, NJ,

Contact us: cpd4he@ucl.ac.uk

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