Improving reading and writing skills

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.

Developing critical reading skills

  1. Use journal clubs 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. As a supervisor, you can help your student improve by modelling your own strategies for absorbing the literature. Invite students to read and critique a manuscript you are reading, and then compare notes.

Developing academic 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.

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

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

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 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

  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?

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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