Serendipity’s a fascinating thing, isn’t it? I am currently submitting many papers to an academic setting as well as teaching English at a local university, where, you guessed it, our concern is academic writing. Additionally, a colleague of mine, Helena Lustenberger, happened to have a new book on academic writing which needed to be reviewed. So agreeing to use this book and write this review was a win-win situation
50 Steps to Improving Your Academic Writing is a step-by-step self-study guide, which could additionally be used as a coursebook for English for Academic Purposes (EAP). The book’s aim of preparing students for academic writing is broken down into 50 steps. It begins with an analysis of the genre, followed by units on plagiarism, referencing, resources, critical thinking and reading, time management, writing outlines, and so on. So, as you can see, it encompasses far more than the nuts and bolts of writing essays. I found this approach very practical. There are some steps which can be overlooked if not essential; however, having these issues in the same book means one can refer to any ‘grey’ areas lingering in the insecure college student’s mind.
Each unit begins with a good class discussion opportunity called Reflection, followed by a contextualization exercise, an analysis of a writing element, an activation segment, personalization, and ends with an extension. The only ‘real’ work for most students will be in the activation section. However, if learners are motivated to dive into the topic, Sowton offers a lot to ponder for each topic. This aspect of the book was a bit disappointing for me. I don’t see many of my students willing to ‘think’ about concepts, although they are willing (more or less) to do some exercises. From the self-study perspective, therefore, I fear that this book’s ambitions are too lofty. That said, it is geared to the academic student, who, in theory, should be willing to do more than simply read information and be drilled on exercises.
The book is compact, colourful, well laid out, easy to use, and additionally offers a glossary and fantastic appendixes. These are photocopiable and could be used to supplement the exercises. Do your EAP students also have mixed levels as mine do? Those appendixes could also help support those students needing more help before or after a lesson.
The target students are B2+ or IELTS 5.0+. Although the author claims that each step should take the learner one hour to complete, I have not been able to confirm that. My tendency was to use only a portion of the unit, based on my class’s interest and needs. Some of the reflections take a few minutes; others can fill a 30-minute discussion slot. Most of the activation work could be done in less than a half-hour for my B2+ students. The extension section of the steps is a reference to further information in the book itself, so completing that aspect could lead to several more hours of work.
Although I would find this book difficult to use as a coursebook, it is an excellent, up-to-date resource which should be considered if you teach academic writing, or writing for exams for that matter. There’s something for everyone in it. Happy teaching and marking writing work!