Reading and writing

Multiply opportunities to read, write, and be read

Even when the content is more textual than numeric, the numbers count. Reading and writing should be done regularly because these practices cumulatively add to the learning process. Researchers also benefit greatly when multiple readers review their work and provide feedback. Whether you are a supervisee or supervisor, you can participate in or create journal clubs or writing groups, for example, to facilitate these activities.

 

Genres of academic communication

While much attention is directed towards writing the thesis during the graduate degree, there are many different forms of academic and scholarly communication. Students may not understand the importance of mastering these different genres. Supervisors and students may wish to review and discuss the range of writing styles in the following genres:

  • Lab notebook
  • Field notebook
  • Operational and procedural manuals
  • E-mail dialogues
  • Lecture notes
  • Web / electronic conferencing
  • Abstracts
  • Posters
  • Seminars/ talks
  • Journal research article
  • Journal review article
  • Commentaries (journal)
  • Book reviews (journal)
  • Articles for non-science publications
  • Letters to editors (journal)
  • Letters to editor (popular press)
  • Grant applications (peer reviewed)
  • Grant applications (private foundation)
  • Contract research reports
  • Research grant reports
  • CV
  • Letters of application
  • What else?

Reading

Scholars broaden their knowledge primarily through reading. Compared with listening to a lecture, reading an article provides much more information. Reading also involves many pauses that lectures do not, and in these intervals readers can wonder, question, and examine statements for accuracy, all while reinforcing memory by association with other texts.

Below are a number of strategies that can help highlight the importance of reading regularly in order to understand the scientific and scholarly context in which to situate the thesis and thus determine its significance. Many of the strategies also help students improve their writing.

Strategies for the development of reading skills

1. Use journal clubs (group meetings for discussion of scholarly publications) as an opportunity to discuss the scientific content of a paper as well as the relative merits of the ways in which the study has been situated in the field. Consider the following questions.

  • Have key ideas been overlooked?

  • Who has not been cited that might have been?

  • What unfamiliar scientists and research have been cited?

  • Compare two papers and discuss which is more elegant in the ways the ideas and evidence are presented, and why.

2. Ask students to create a concept map of the key ideas and scholars informing their thinking, and regularly review this together. See defining the research topic for more information about concept mapping.

3. Discuss the purpose of the literature review. Many students view the purpose as descriptive rather than interpretive, so if possible, provide good and poor examples for comparison.

4. Talk about the purpose of the discussion and conclusion sections. This can be challenging for students, as many view the purpose as summing up or presenting the results rather than linking results with the literature, interpreting the results, and stating key concepts (Bitchener & Basturkmen, 2005). If possible, discuss good and poor examples.

5. If you are a supervisor who acts as a reviewer, invite students to read and critique a manuscript or other document that you are reviewing, and then compare notes with you.

 

Writing

The practice of writing—regular, authentic opportunities to try out and master different kinds of writing—is essential. Students often express difficulties with starting to write. Yet, when they feel they are making the points they wanted to make clearly and convincingly, the experience can be motivating. Supervisors often find it challenging to provide help to students who are struggling with writing. Below are several strategies that students and supervisors can use to overcome these challenges.

Strategies for the development of writing skills

1. Writing regularly from the beginning of the graduate degree is essential to reducing anxiety, gaining confidence and developing fluency in academic writing. Supervisors may encourage students to write outlines, hypotheses, ideas and findings in the early stages of their research.

2. Students can engage in mutual feedback on written documents with the supervisor as well as other individuals (Cafarella & Barnett, 2000, Paré, 2011), such as supervisory committee members, students in the research group, or a writing group.

The McGill Writing Centre offers peer writing groups for graduate students. Students can also create their own writing group- see the Oxford Learning Institute's Tips for running a writing group for a student-generated set of procedures. Writing groups offer many benefits beyond receiving feedback and practising giving feedback, such as (Lee & Kamler, 2008, Maher Fallucca, & Mulhern Halasz, 2013):

  • social support and a sense of community;
  • reduction of procrastination by creating progress deadlines and accountability with group members;
  • learning new ideas and strategies;
  • gaining a greater understanding of the content of the writing through explaining it to group members and answering questions; and
  • providing a designated time and space dedicated to writing and/or discussions of written work.

3. Discuss how the writing can be situated within a broader context.

4. Supervisors can encourage students to position themselves in texts and develop an identity through writing (e.g., Kamler & Thomson, 2004; Lea & Stierer, 2009) by:

  • Who is the potential reader, and how have their needs been considered? Are there others, outside of this reader group, who may find the text of interest to them?

  • What is the purpose of the text? Which aspects are the easiest and most challenging to persuade the reader about?

  • involving students in collaborative research;

  • co-publishing with students (Florence & Yore, 2004); and

  • mentoring students in networking skills, such as promoting one’s own research and developing an identity as a scholar and writer.


See the publishing during graduate studies and giving feedback pages for information, and the Resources page for books and articles about reading and writing.

How thorough does a researcher's reading need to be?

Sometimes researchers read for breadth, and sometimes they read for depth. The importance of thoroughness varies depending on the reason to read. Texts that are primary, or are highly relevant secondary sources, should be read with high attention to detail; furthermore, these texts should also be read at least twice. Some texts can be scanned or skimmed, and the focus can be on the introduction and conclusion.

 

Case study: A supervisor teaching a student to read a journal article

The following case study comes from Oxford University’s supervision website.

When you pick up a research p   aper, your aim is to slot this into the extraordinarily rich cognitive structure that you have built previously about the subject. And yet, when you look through this paper, it’s just a string of words. So, the goal of the student is quite straightforward: it’s to take this string of words and to build it, to deconstruct it in a way that fits into your cognitive structure, and your cognitive structure does not exist at one level of abstraction. The first thing is, ignore the abstract, because the abstract is almost impossible to read until you’ve understood. What I try to tell the students is that reading is an active process of engaging to try to find out what the ideas are in this. For example, you can read the introduction – skip the rest of it, all this maths, I mean that’s all crap – look at the pictures and read the conclusion. Now, if I put it down, you can tell me what problem the person’s set out to solve, so you can begin to ask yourself the question, "Is that a worthwhile problem? Is that problem solved? Actually, if I was going to work on that problem, how would I set about it, given what I know? Did it work? What does the person say in his conclusions? Where are the ‘weasel words’ that say he hasn’t actually done as much as he promised he was going to do in the introduction, and that’ll be further work?" So you can... figure out to what extent it actually fulfilled its promise. You haven’t understood a … thing yet. All you’ve done is read the introduction and the conclusion and look at the pictures, right?

Now, pick it up a second time – you now know what problem the guy is solving, you now know why he thinks it’s worthwhile, and you now know whether it worked or not, so now I go a little bit further and read beyond the introduction, and read about the method. Whenever you come to the maths, skip it. So what I’m talking about is iterative deepening. Skip the technical detail. Again, put it down. Now, you understand what he worked on, whether it worked, why he thought it was relevant, what it didn’t do, and you almost understand the method. Even though you don’t understand the details, you understand the – almost like the approach you would have taken – is this a reasonable approach, is it a stupid approach, is it doomed to succeed, doomed to fail? What [readers]’re doing is they’re slotting an understanding of what is actually a fairly modest piece of work – it’s actually a very good paper this, but slotting it, not as some undigested whole, but actually trying to relate it to different cognitive levels within the structure that they’ve got. What could be more obvious than that? It’s trivial, isn’t it?

Questions to consider about the case study

  1. To what extent do you agree with this approach?

  2. Have you read an article using this or a similar method? If you have used this method, did you find that it achieved its intended goals? If you have not tried it, do you think it would help get a better grasp of the content of a paper than other reading strategies?

  3. Have you taught a student or peer to read journal articles? What method did you teach, and how did they receive it? Would you feel confident teaching the method discussed in the case study?

  4. How might an intentional and structured way of teaching a student how to read help determine their grasp of subject knowledge and their ability, and potential, to think critically?

The importance and the challenge of reading and writing

Reading and writing are crucial to research in all fields. They are activities through which knowledge is assimilated and created. Their importance means that they involve many challenges, such as making knowledge explicit, being appropriately thorough, practising (e.g., through daily or weekly writing), overcoming writer's block, and using metaphor conscientiously.

 

Reading and writing are inextricably linked to the very nature and fabric of Science.
(Norris & Phillips, 2003, p. 226)

This view is a common one among researchers into academic literacies. From this perspective, academic literacy is about more than reading and writing; it comprises both thinking critically and taking action. In addition, reading, writing and research are all interconnected (Kwan 2008). Research from McGill and other institutions have identified challenges and strategies associated with the development of such skills during graduate studies, and how the supervisory relationship plays a role in this.

Students’ challenges in reading and writing

A qualitative study conducted by McAlpine and colleagues suggests that PhD students at McGill realize the importance of reading and writing during doctoral studies and spend considerable time on both. Challenges experienced by these students include writer’s block and the misconception that dissertation writing does not begin until the final year, as exemplified in the following quotes from students:

“I’ve been doing the analysis and looking at the data for years and … now was the only time I had to actually write it out. … I wish I had been doing more writing during the process but I always felt like I never had enough information and I never knew enough, but the truth is I should have been writing bits of this like long, long before. …. That is something that I also learned from the postdoc in our lab because … she would constantly just write little bits and not with the intention of writing a manuscript or whatever, just to write about a topic she was reading about.” (Science, McAlpine & Amundsen, 2010-2015)

“There was a mental block that prevented me from writing. I believe that it had to do with handing in the latest draft of my dissertation proposal, which always leaves me a little drained and blocked somehow.” (Social sciences, McAlpine, Amundsen, Paré, & Starke-Meyerring, 2006-2009)

Additional challenges that students often experience during reading and writing include the following (adapted from the 2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys; Johnson, 2014; Kwan, 2009; Maher, Feldon, Timmerman, & Chao, 2014; Odena & Burgess, 2015; van Pletzen, 2006; Wisker, 2015):

Reasons for challenges with academic reading

  • Choosing what to read
  • Knowing how to approach and use texts
  • Understanding disciplinary language
  • Knowing how thoroughly to read

Reasons for challenges with academic writing

  • Experiencing writer’s block
  • Lack of experience
  • Writing in accessible language
  • Linking complex ideas
  • Understanding the iterative writing process
  • Seeing the text as a cohesive story
  • Lacking confidence and self-efficacy
  • Beginning to write late in the degree

Overcoming these challenges (see the section below and the practical advice tab for strategies) can lead to breakthroughs such as (Wisker, 2015):

  1. understanding and articulating theory through critical and creative writing;

  2. determining where the thesis research fits into the existing body of knowledge;

  3. a deeper insight into the research process; and

  4. seeing oneself as a researcher and gaining a sense of ownership over the thesis research.

The role of the supervisory relationship in reading and writing

A study by Paré (2011) conducted interviews with supervisors, which demonstrated that teaching reading and writing to students is not always easy, especially since it requires making implicit knowledge explicit. Despite its challenges, discussions between student and supervisor as well as feedback from the supervisor are important to the students’ development of reading and writing skills (Johnson 2014; Kwan 2009; Odena & Burgess, 2015).

Specifically, consultations with the supervisor as well as committee members and mentors have been shown to be useful in helping the student determine what literature they should read, which can be particularly difficult in multidisciplinary research or fields where multiple paradigms are present (Kwan, 2009). Discussions about writing can help the student work through their ideas and see their work from an observer’s perspective (Johnson, 2014).

Metaphors are often used in such discussion, as shown in the following excerpt from a McGill supervisor’s verbal comment on one of the dissertation chapters of the supervisee:

I’ve read what you’ve done and … I have two main points about it. One is that it should be maybe a bit more focused. More focused on it being a chapter within a PhD thesis. … The other general comment is to, I don’t know, firm it up, I suppose. Because it’s a data collection chapter, I’d like more numbers, I suppose. … Kind of more strongly represent what you’ve done. So my general feeling is that the chapter itself … should be put within a slightly bigger box for the committee. (Paré, 2011)

The phrases “a bit more focused” and “put within a slightly bigger box” may be hard to understand. One can imagine how hard interpreting comments like this would be for students coming from different cultures (especially those who speak English as a foreign language). Therefore, just as students are encouraged to ask for clarification, supervisors are highly recommended to use well-defined language when discussing reading and writing skills.

 

References

2012-2013 Supervisory Surveys. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies: McGill University.

Bitchener, J., & Basturkmen, H. (2005). Perceptions of the difficulties of postgraduate L2 thesis students writing the discussion section. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5(1), 4-18.

Caffarella, R., & Barnett, B. (2000). Teaching doctoral students to become scholarly writers: The importance of giving and receiving critiques. Studies in Higher Education, 25(1), 39-52.

Florence, M., & Yore, L. (2004). Learning to write like a scientist: Coauthoring as an enculturation task. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(6), 637–668.

Johnson, E. M. (2014). Doctorates in the dark: Threshold concepts and the improvement of doctoral supervision. Waikato Journal of Education, 19(2), 69-81.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2004). Driven to abstraction: Doctoral supervision and writing pedagogies. Teaching in Higher Education, 9(2), 195-209.

Kwan, B. (2008). The nexus of reading, writing and researching in the doctoral undertaking of humanities and social sciences: Implications for literature reviewing. English for Specific Purposes, 27(1), 42-56.

Kwan, B. (2009). Reading in preparation for writing a PhD thesis: Case studies of experiences. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(3), 180-191.

Lea, M., & Stierer, B. (2009). Lecturers’ everyday writing as professional practice in the university as workplace. Studies in Higher Education, 34(4), 417-428.

Lee, A., & Kamler, B. (2008). Bringing pedagogy to doctoral publishing. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(5), 511-523.

Maher, M.  A., Feldon, D. F., Timmerman, B. E., & Chao, J. (2014). Faculty perceptions of common challenges encountered by novice doctoral writers. Higher Education Research & Development 33(4), 699-711.

Maher, M., Fallucca, A., & Mulhern Halasz, H. (2013). Write On! Through to the Ph. D.: using writing groups to facilitate doctoral degree progress. Studies in Continuing Education, 35(2), 193-208.

McAlpine, L., & Amundsen, C. (2010-2013). Developmental trajectories of doctoral candidate through new appointee: A longitudinal study of academic identity construction. A research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

McAlpine, L., Amundsen, C., Paré, A., & Starke-Meyerring, D. (2006-2009). Reframing Canadian social sciences and humanities doctoral programs: A learning perspective. A research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Norris, S., & Phillips, L. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education, 87, 224-240.

Odena, O., & Burgess, H. (2015). How doctoral students and graduates describe facilitating experiences and strategies for their thesis writing learning process: A qualitative approach." Studies in Higher Education, 1-19.

Paré, A. (2011). Speaking of writing: Supervisory feedback and the dissertation. In L. McAlpine & C. Amundsen (Eds.), Doctoral education: Research-based strategies for doctoral students, supervisors and administrators (pp. 59-74). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

van Pletzen, E. (2006). A body of reading: Making "visible" the reading experiences of first-year medical students. In L. Thesen & E. van Pletzen (Eds.), Academic literacy and the languages of change (pp. 104-129). London: Continuum.

Wisker, G. (2015). Developing doctoral authors: Engaging with theoretical perspectives through the literature review. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 52(1), 64-74.

Further Reading

General

Aitchison, C. & Paré, A. (2012). Writing as craft and practice in the doctoral curriculum. In S. Danby and A. Lee (Eds.), Reshaping doctoral education (pp. 13-25). London and New York: Routledge.

Ding, H. (2008). The use of cognitive and social apprenticeship to teach a disciplinary genre. Written Communication, 25(1), 3-52.

Aitchison, C., & Guerin, C. (2014). Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond: Innovations in practice and theory. London and New York: Routledge.

Paré, A., Starke-Meyyering, D., & McAlpine, L. (2009). The dissertation as multi-genre: Many readers, many readings. In C. Bazerman, D. Figueiredo, & A. Bonini, (Eds.), Genre in a changing world (pp. 179-193). West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press and WAC Clearinghouse.

For supervisors

Kamler, B., & Thompson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervisors. Abingdon: Routledge.

Thein, A. H., & Beach, R. (2010). Mentoring doctoral students towards publication within scholarly communities of practice. In C. Aitchison, B. Kamler, & A. Lee (Eds.), Publishing pedagogies for the doctorate and beyond (pp. 117-136). New York, N.Y.: Routledge.

Lee, A., & Murray, R. (2015). "Supervising writing: Helping postgraduate students develop as researchers. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 52(5), 558-570.

For students

Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. 2016). Detox your writing: Strategies for doctoral researchers. New York and London: Routledge.

For non-native English speakers

Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2006). They say, I say: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York: W.W. Norton.

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. New York, NY: Routledge.

For students in the social sciences

Boote, D. & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, 34(6), 3-15.

Kennedy, M. (2007). Defining a literature. Educational Researcher, 36(3), 139-147.