How to Use your Reading in your Essays

Second edition

by Jeanne Godfrey

Contextualising How to Use your Reading in your Essays within further and higher education

Writing is at the heart of learning. It is a central part of the process by which students make connections, generate ideas, consolidate thought and knowledge, and reflect. This fact alone is reason enough to give writing as much emphasis as possible on a course. Moreover, tutors and lecturers are expected not only to facilitate student knowledge of the subject but also to help students develop their transferable skills, one of which is competence in written communication. We are asked to make these skills visible to our students so that they can recognise and practice them explicitly, and of course being able to communicate well in the written form is not only an essential skill in its own right, but is also a vehicle by which students can reflect on and develop their other competencies. We should also remember that at the level of higher education, the processes and skills needed to produce written work and the criteria by which it is judged, are still sometimes hidden and implicit1 and that therefore the de-mystification of the writing process can be of great benefit to students. Finally, on a socio-political level, the globalisation and widening participation aspirations of tertiary education, and the consequent increase in the diversity of students' study and language backgrounds, mean that finding some space in a programme for writing development is of value to many students. For all of the reasons outlined above, we should be giving writing space and visibility as an explicit and integrated part of our course. Importantly, by giving the 'writing to learn' process priority, we are simultaneously helping our students learn to write.2

Writing for academic study requires processes, skills and styles that are different from other types of writing and which present the student with several challenges. The students may for the first time be writing not about their own views on tangible experiences, but about other people's views on often abstract concepts. The hub around which most undergraduate academic work revolves is the critical reinterpretation and reformulation of ideas and information. It is easy for tutors to underestimate or forget the enormity and difficulty for students of understanding their reading in their own way, expressing their understanding in their writing and then using their interpretation in the construction of their own argument. The task is made even more challenging for students by the amount and diversity of information now available via e-technologies, making it difficult for them to select appropriate and relevant material. Moreover, the way we receive and use much of this information increasingly involves downloading and cutting and pasting short 'infobites'. Another consequence of our evolving technologies is that styles of writing commonly used (e.g. emails and mobile phone texting) are now much less structured and formal than they used to be, and so students may again be at a disadvantage when it comes to using the more formal lexis and grammar needed to communicate complex ideas, knowledge and arguments clearly and precisely. Students are thus often novices at reading complex texts and of using their note-taking and extended writing to reflect and reinterpret what they have read. These factors may result in a lack of knowledge of referencing skills and of good scholarship, and an inadequate formal grammar and vocabulary. This can cause students to stray accidentally into plagiarism via either inadequate referencing and/or copying of vocabulary or phrasing from the source text. I have interviewed many of these students and they are often as unhappy with what they have done as I am. This has not made me overly lenient on plagiarism; intellectual integrity in all forms of communication is paramount and an institution clearly needs to safeguard the quality and reputation of its awards. I am passionate, however, about the need for adequate resources and student materials that engender formative learning and that focus in a positive way on the acquisition and development of the most complex and essential element of graduateness; how to use what you read in your writing.


  • ^ Lillis, T. (1999) Whose 'Common Sense'? Essayist literacy and the institutional practice of mystery.
  • ^ Olson, C.B. (1992) Thinking/writing: fostering critical thinking through writing. See also Mitchell, S. and Evison, A. (2005) Thinking Writing: News from the Writing in the Disciplines Initiative. Spring 2005 p1. Queen Mary University London.
© Jeanne Godfrey, 2009, 2013, How to Use Your Reading in Your Essays, Palgrave Macmillan.