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Academic Skills:

what are they and how do we teach them?


When a teacher finds that a student has come to class without the required book, this normally leads to reminder from the teacher to bring the book ‘next time’. This encounter with a student, which may be common in some teaching situations,  represents training, albeit at a basic organisational level, in an important academic skill – that of being prepared for classes. 
 
In essence, academic skills cover those skills a student requires in order to operate effectively on a course of study, whether it be a course in engineering, history or business management.  Academic skills come in all shapes and sizes. They range from organisational skills, such as remembering to bring books to class (and pens, folders, dictionaries, etc), right up to higher order language skills such as reading critically or planning a research paper. 
 
This article attempts to describe this range of academic skills. It also discusses how they can be included in programmes that prepare students for courses of study and how they can be taught.


Studying in a foreign language
For a student studying in his or her own language, academic skills are difficult enough to acquire. Most of us pick them up along the way, as we might, for example, pick up knowledge about how to cook, how to do basic repairs to a car, or how to use the range of services offered by a bank. Not many people are taught these practical ‘life’ skills systematically. Similarly, many students, when they enter college or university, are ill-equipped with the skills they need for their course of study. For example, they may not know how to use a library effectively or they may be unable to take good, clear notes in a lecture. The overall effect of this lack of training will probably be that they do not function as effectively as they could during their course. 
 
But what about students who have to operate in a foreign or second language? They face an even greater challenge – the need to acquire a level of proficiency in the language of instruction to cope with the various demands of the course – listening to lectures, getting involved in discussions, submitting essays or reports, reading textbooks, etc.  These ‘non-native’ students probably have some proficiency in basic language skills. For example, they may be able to ‘read’ in the sense that they comprehend general texts reasonably well. However, they are probably not prepared for the range of authentic texts, sometimes highly specialised, they are likely to come across in their courses.  In addition, they are unlikely to possess all the reading skills they need to tackle different types of text in the most appropriate way. 
 
In the Gulf region the language of instruction at the tertiary level, if not Arabic, is generally English. Dudley-Evans and St John (1998) identify four types of EAP situation worldwide. The Gulf region corresponds to what they refer to as ‘situations in which certain subjects are taught in English’. They give examples of medicine, engineering and some science subjects. In such situations they argue, unlike in many African or South-east Asian countries, there is no general tradition of English medium education in the school system. Students entering the tertiary level are forced to make the leap to studying at least some subjects in English. (Native teachers of English can reflect for a moment on how daunting the task would be if they were required to study physics, say, in French.) For these students the skills they will need to be effective students, i.e. academic skills, include general English language proficiency skills. 
 
This does not necessarily mean that native users of a language have good language proficiency and a full range of language skills. They can probably, for example, chat confidently when with their friends, but they may not be able to make an organised oral presentation to a large group on the findings of their research. Similarly, they may be able to write reasonably fluently, but pay little attention to spelling and punctuation or have little idea of how to organise a laboratory report. 
 
Thus we can use the term academic skills to cover both language skills and sub-skills on the one hand, and more specific study or learning skills, (such as organisational skills), on the other hand. They are applicable to both native and non-native users of a language. This division can be represented diagrammatically in this way:
 
   
 Academic skills
 
 
Academic skills and literacy

The specific language demands of a course, in particular the skills of reading, writing and oral participation, are sometimes termed ‘academic literacy’.  Academic literacy, it is suggested  (Green, 1999), has three different aspects. These are:

Other ‘literacies’ are also cited as important for students such as ‘information literacy’  and ‘computer literacy’. 

These literacies are as important for native users of the language as they are for non-native users. To be ‘literate’ in all of these senses means that students are able to operate to their maximum potential in an academic environment. Of course this does
not guarantee success as there are other factors involved, such as aptitude or personal motivation, which may be outside the range of the course organisers.

Incorporating academic skills
In order to prepare students as well as we can for a course of study, for example by providing a foundation year or semester, or a pre-sessional summer course, we need to decide which skills to teach our students and in which order. This involves the following steps:

 Let us deal with each of these in turn.

Classifying skills: language skills

There are many inventories of the various language macro- and micro-skills such as Mumby (1976), and the Common European Framework (2001).   Many universities, in this region and beyond, produce their own classification of academic skills, which they then use as the basis for the assessment of students’ abilities or needs, and consequently the planning of their own syllabuses and courses. 

Lancaster University in the UK runs pre-sessional courses for overseas students, which focus on the main language skills, reading, writing, listening and speaking, in an academic context (Banerjee and Wall, 2006). They have compiled their own detailed checklists of sub-skills for each of the language skills, which are then used to assess the students’ abilities in the skills at the end of the pre-sessional programme. The results help to predict the students’ likely performance on their main courses of study. 

The most straightforward way to list and classify academic skills is to ask the question: What do students need to do to perform effectively in this institution? Firstly, we can separate out the language-based skills – reading, writing, speaking and listening – and then the related sub-skills. Glendenning and Holmstrom (2004), in Study Reading, sub-divide reading into a number of strategies and skills, for example:

 
Similarly, Swales and Feak (1994), in Academic Writing for Graduate Students, deal with the following writing sub-skills:

For lower level learners, however, we would clearly need to include in our classification more basic writing skills such as capitalisation and punctuation, spelling, the use of linking words and phrases, topic sentences, and paragraph organisation.
 
Classifying skills: study/learning skills

The second group of skills, termed study or learning skills in the diagram above, can also be sub-divided. One arrangement could be to identify the following areas: 
organisational skills, note-taking skills, vocabulary development, research skills, and test-taking skills. 

Organisational skills would include, as mentioned at the beginning of the article, being prepared for a class or lecture and having the right books or equipment, as well as managing time, finding a quiet place to study, joining a study group, etc. 

Wallace (2004), in his chapter on research techniques in Study Skills in English covers the following skills:

The overall classification of academic skills can be summarised as follows:

Academic skills



Language skills      

 
Study/learning skills

       
Grading and selecting academic skills
In order to incorporate academic skills into a language programme it is important to grade skills and to select those we think should be added to our courses. We can do this by making judgements on:

a)  the usefulness of a skill to our students
b) the ease with which a particular skill can be taught or acquired. 

We need to be aware of what skills students lack – either through observation or through formal diagnostic testing. It is also important to take into account the fact that some skills can be acquired more rapidly than others.

Let us take writing as an example. We would clearly want to introduce rules concerning basic punctuation and capitalisation at an early stage, as these are essential to clear writing and also fairly straightforward to explain. On the other hand, how to qualify our claims when writing (hedging), or how to organise a research paper are clearly much more complex skills and would come later in the course.
Similarly, vocabulary development would include the basic use of a dictionary at an early stage – alphabetical order, finding a word, understanding what information is available in a dictionary, etc. The use of synonyms, or prefixes, suffixes, and word-attack skills would probably come at a later stage in the course.

Teaching academic skills
Having decided on a classification of skills and graded and selected those items we wish to incorporate into our course, we have already gone a long way towards the achievement of our aims. We have identified the important areas and devised a programme. In effect we have established a syllabus for each of the major language and learning/study skills.  

How do we go about teaching these skills? Here are a few principles to be borne in mind.

1. Choose topics that are ‘academic’ but not ‘dry’.

Teachers are the best people to know which topics interest their students and which do not. (They also recognise the boundaries of acceptability or taste for their classes.) But when choosing academic topics it is important not to be too restricted by the discipline the students are studying. Chemistry students may not be thrilled to face yet more texts on chemistry during their English classes. These may give more ‘face validity’ to the course, but possibly at the expense of student involvement. 

Topics which are semi-academic or of general interest may serve the purposes of the course just as well. For example, Hutchinson and Waters (1987), use an anthropomorphised heart and blood cells in a cartoon strip to illustrate the language of the circulatory system in the body.  Such materials, they point out, are suitable for students across a range of disciplines to illustrate how pumping systems work.
 
2. Make sure that practice is given in all the relevant skills.

Some courses focus on certain skills to the exclusion of others. Let us take reading skills as an example. 

Students at the tertiary level are faced with an enormous amount of reading and have a wide range of text types to deal with during their courses.  However, too often reading exercises designed to prepare students for their courses consist of a single type of activity and assume one type of text.  Students are typically given various forms of question (true/false, multiple choice, short answer, etc.), which focus either on comprehension or on vocabulary.  Total comprehension of a text may be an important goal in certain cases, but such exercises reinforce just one particular type of reading, i.e. study or intensive reading. 

Other important reading skills are excluded by such exercises. For example, students need to know how to recognise the author’s opinion, how to predict content from a title or a heading, or how to read between the lines.  These skills also need to be highlighted and practised. 

Because of the volume of reading that is required, readers should also be aware that they do not need to tackle every text in the same way. Some texts may require reading quickly for gist. Others, such as directories, web-pages or encyclopaedias may not require comprehension at all, but need scanning rapidly for particular facts. The teacher can also use texts as a tool to show how texts are put together. We can focus on features of the text (such as linking words and phrases, or topic sentences) which help the reader to decipher the meaning.

Teachers and course designers should devise activities which draw attention to all the relevant skills and sub-skills in the programme and give sufficient practice in them. 

 
3. Fit the task to the student
It is important to match any activity that we design to the level of the students. If we want to practise research skills, for example, we may ask them to use the Internet to get information from reliable sites. But such tasks as ‘getting information from reliable websites’ can in themselves be graded according to the level of the students. 

At a low level, for example, a teacher could direct students to selected websites on a topic such as wind power, and ask them to identify which sites are: a) a company website, b) someone’s personal page, c) an encyclopaedia entry. At a higher level a more complex task could be devised in which students find answers to a number of questions on a topic from reliable Internet sources and use that information to write a short text.

Similarly, we could ask students to respond to a textbook in a limited way by identifying the author and the publisher and perhaps using the index to find out where information on a certain topic can be found. Higher level students, however, could be asked to read a book and write a review, or make recommendations on whether it is useful for other students.


4. Let students know what is going on.
It is important in any type of instruction to let students know what is going on, i.e. why they are doing an activity and how it fits into the overall picture. Very often this link is not made. 

Activities should be related to a particular skill. For example, a gapped paragraph may require students to complete a paragraph, choosing from a list of cohesive markers. However, this link should be made explicit, so that students know that the aim of the activity is to show how cohesive markers are used in paragraphs. 

Often students are often given a text containing a number of paragraphs and asked to select headings for each paragraph from a given list. They should, however, be made aware of what they are practising. They are not practising study or intensive reading, but rather the skill of skimming, i.e. reading quickly for gist. 

This approach has the effect of raising the overall awareness of students. It will help them to improve their understanding of language and their knowledge of the usefulness of various skills.

Conclusion
Teaching academic skills is a real challenge for teachers, especially in a situation where students have come from a non-English medium learning environment. All too often, students – such as the student who forgets to bring a book - are thrown into a
study situation for which they are not ready. It is often a case or sink or swim - for both the student and the teacher.  

The aim of any pre-sessional or foundation (or orientation) programme should be to provide students with those skills (both language and study/learning skills) that they need in order to be effective students in their disciplines. In other words, we want them to be the best students they can possibly be. 

However, there is no easy solution in a programme limited in duration or weekly contact hours. In order to try to achieve these goals in the time available, it is important for teachers to prioritise those academic skills which can be taught easily. We must also try to provide students with those skills which will generate learning, i.e. skills which help them to enhance their own independent learning.

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