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 regular processes that cumulatively add texts and written tasks to the learning process. Researchers also benefit greatly when multiple readers read their work and provide feedback. Whether you are a supervisee or supervisor, you can create journal clubs or writing groups, for example, to facilitate these activities.
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. Obviously, many of the strategies also help students improve their writing.
What supervisors can do about reading
- Invite students to read and critique a manuscript or other forms of academic writing that you are invited to review, and then compare notes with you.
- Use journal clubs (group meetings for discussion of scholarly publications) as an opportunity to discuss not just the scientific content of a paper but also the relative merits of the ways in which the study has been situated in the field:
- Have key ideas been overlooked?
- Who has not been cited that might have been?
- What unfamiliar scientists and research have been cited?
- If two papers are being discussed, which is more elegant in the ways the ideas and evidence are presented, and why?
- 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.
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 felt they were making the points they wanted to make clearly and convincingly, they could find the experience motivating, as this student notes.
Beginning the writing process was also important, because it is usually the most difficult, but seeing the product gave me a sense of accomplishment. I was reminded how much I can enjoy writing, and was motivated to continue writing late into some nights, once beyond the initial overwhelming feeling of starting.
For students who have inadequate writing skills, however, supervisors often find it challenging to provide help. This supervisor below was unable to help one of his students write:
He’s my first PhD student…The work itself was fantastic, the results are fantastic, it is just the way to structure an argument … where it is not just a mishmash of statements where… there’s illogical chain where there is a method that seems to be highlighted. No, that particular gentleman has got a real problem and the thing is I’m not doubting of his capabilities as a researcher …. he is a smart guy but he just can’t write even though…his first language is English. …He’s sometimes a bit patchy I will say. ... I guess as a teacher this is where I feel a bit unresourceful because I don’t know how to address it …I just can’t see myself … being very negative to that guy I would feel… probably do me a lot of good, but I …just can’t say that this is BS and … go back, rewrite it. So I’ll probably just sit down and write it myself.
While this supervisor does not know how to help the student improve writing skills, there are some strategies that may be useful.
What supervisors can do about writing
- Essential to reducing anxiety and developing confidence and fluency in academic writing is writing regularly from the beginning of the doctoral experience. Supervisors may encourage students to write down bits of ideas and findings in the early stage of their research.
- In many instances, students only experience the supervisor as a reader of their work, yet having more than one reader for a text provides a better understanding of the various ways in which readers make sense of a text. In the instance of a research team, advise members to exchange texts and give each other feedback before they give you their texts. Or, encourage candidates in your area to form a writing feedback group in which they meet regularly to provide constructive feedback as to the audience and the broader context in which others might respond to the text. Groups of two-three work well. See the Oxford Learning Institute's Tips for running a writing group for a student-generated set of procedures.
- Encourage students to situate their writing within the broader context: thinking of the reader, thinking of how the text will be used, and experiencing writing as part of a disciplinary conversation.
- Ask the student to describe the potential reader(s) in as much detail as possible, and how that reader’s needs have been considered.
- Ask the student to describe the specific purpose(s) of the text in detail, e.g. which aspects are the most challenging to persuade a reader about, which the easiest.
- Ask the student to define scholars aside from the proposed reader(s) who might view the text as potentially of interest.
In addition, these two books can be helpful for non-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.
Genres of academic communication
While much attention is directed towards the thesis during the graduate degree, there are many different forms of academic communication. Students may not understand the importance of mastering these different forms. 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
- 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
- Letters of application
- What else?
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. Many texts can be scanned or skimmed, and the focus can be on the introduction and conclusion. Texts that are primary, or are highly relevant secondary sources, should be read with more attention to detail; furthermore, these texts should also be read at least twice.
In response to reviewer comments from a chapter, extra references and literature searching were suggested. Basically, I am catching up on some recent papers that were published after I wrote and submitted the chapter to the journal. I had been spending so much time writing the thesis, and working, that I haven’t had time to keep up with current publications – these are also papers in a particular field and aspect of my project that I’m not particularly interested in, I’m just reading these because I feel obliged, and to be able to incorporate the recent findings into my text. The scary part is that other people are clearly starting to replicate some of the experiments I did, but in slightly different ways, which adds urgency to publication, before the results become too irrelevant. Unfortunately, I have little time, energy, or motivation to do so at this point.
This student’s comment points to the significant function of reading in doing a PhD: to keep students updated about their field of research. It also represents a frequently reported challenge surrounding reading: lack of time. To use time strategically for reading, new doctoral students need to know how to read. In the case study below, a supervisor is describing her way of teaching students to read:
Case Study: Teaching a student to read a journal article
I try to teach them how to read, how to deconstruct material, and I then try to encourage them – we have regular seminars, and all of our graduate students are required on a regular basis to give seminars within the group and also at conferences. We also turn the whole issue ... the whole issue of what I mean by reading into ... what I mean by communicating. Such a kind of bolt from the blue to most of the students in sciences we have, and they’re very, very bright kids. So, forgive me if I tell you what I tell incoming students.
When you pick up a research paper, 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
- To what extent do you agree with this approach?
- Would you feel confident doing something like this?
- How might an intentional and structured way of teaching a student how to read help you to determine your student’s 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 as crucial to science as to other fields. They are activities through which knowledge is assimilated and created. Their importance means that they involve many challenges: 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 and Phillips, 2003, p226)
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. There are two foci for learning: the first constructing personal meaning, and the second finding ways to communicate with the reader effectively. Learning to make sense of disciplinary "talk" and being able to communicate effectively is a developmental process that can take a number of years.
Supervision should include close attention to supporting the development of students’ reading and writing skills. Unfortunately, many supervisors have not learned a discourse for talking about reading and writing which can make offering advice and feedback challenging.
Particularly on mentoring doctoral thesis writing, a challenge that supervisors often face is to make implicit knowledge explicit and teach it to students. Unfortunately, this is not what most supervisors are trained to do. One strategy that can help to make the implicit more explicit is to have open discussions of writing within departments. On students’ side, writing groups may be organized where students can share drafts and receive feedback.
Qualitative research at McGill
As a PhD student I am expected to be an expert in this field, I’m expected to know everything and I feel like I should be reading absolutely every article that is published in this field.
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.
These two excerpts, from a PhD student nearing completion, confirm the importance of reading and writing in doctoral studies. Reading enables students to gain a clearer idea of the context of their research and to form a foundation of what is known on which to build their research and from which to speculate, explore and create new knowledge. Writing is a medium through which they clarify their understanding and communicate their contribution to knowledge. Note that underlying the first excerpt is a common challenge regarding doctoral reading: thoroughness. The second excerpt reveals a common misconception among doctoral students: dissertation writing does not begin until the final year of the PhD.
Research at McGill suggests that doctoral students are spending considerable time on reading and writing, yet many still wish they had more time for both. This is not surprising given that reading and writing are always ongoing for doctoral students. This student talked about her reading experience when preparing for the comprehensive exam:
Sometimes there were gaps in my own preparation as I was preparing and my supervisor would say "Okay, you have to look here or you have to think about this" and then I would go back and do more reading and research…. You see the whole slew of things and then you think you’ve read enough and then you find a whole pile more than you hadn’t even considered…. You keep reiterating it, but I think that’s just the comps preparation process—sort of [a] web of reading that you end up having to do.
Surrounding writing, the most mentioned difficulty for students is probably what is called “writer’s block,” as the following logs reveal:
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.
I did feel at an intellectual dead-end. I knew I had to write more for my paper, but I had no more energy or ideas.
Research indicates that many students find it difficult to overcome writer’s block, which often leads to emotional problems.
Teaching reading and writing to students is not easy. It often requires supervisors to make implicit knowledge explicit, which many supervisors find hard to do. The following excerpt demonstrates a McGill supervisor’s face to face 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, 2009)
The words “a bit more focused” and “put within a slightly bigger box” are hard to understand, so the supervisor should reduce the use of metaphors. 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 in providing feedback.
The text of this page was based on:
- Aitchison, C. & Paré, A. (2012). Writing as craft and practice in the doctoral curriculum. In S. Danby and A. Lee (Eds.) Reshaping doctoral education (pp13-25). London and New York: Routledge
- 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.
- Ding, H. (2008). The use of cognitive and social apprenticeship to teach a disciplinary genre. Written Communication, 25(1), 3-52.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Lea, M., & Stierer, B. (2009). Lecturers’ everyday writing as professional practice in the university as workplace. Studies in Higher Education, 34 (4), 417-428.
- Norris, S., & Phillips, L. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education, 87, 224-240.
- Paré, A. (2009, October). Strategies for supervising graduate student writing. Presentation made at McGill’s 2010 supervision workshop. McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
- Paré, A. (2011). 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.
- 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 (pp179-193). West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press and WAC Clearinghouse.
- Thein, A. H., & R. Beach (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.
- 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.
A university-wide resource for all students
The McGill Writing Centre offers writing courses for graduate students as well as tutorial services by appointment. Instructors are experienced in helping both native speakers of English and people learning English as an additional language. The Library also has a wide variety of handbooks to help you improve your writing. See for example Messenger, W. (2008). The Canadian writer's handbook. Don Mills: Oxford.