How to Use your Reading in your Essays

Second edition

by Jeanne Godfrey

Using How to Use Your Reading in Your Essays on your course

This short article is for teachers, tutors and lecturers of any discipline who want to use How to Use Your Reading in Your Essays (HUR) with their students. It explains the educational context and purpose of the book and suggests how HUR can be used on a course or module. This article then gives a summary of key points about writing, some short student writing tasks and techniques contained in HUR that will help students develop their academic writing, and finally lists further activities that tutors can use to help students develop as writers as part and parcel of studying their subject.

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Contextualising How to Use your Reading in Your Essays

Writing is at the heart of learning. It is a central part of the process by which students engage with their subject, 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. However, tutors and lecturers are expected not only to facilitate student knowledge of their subject, but also to help students develop skills they can employ beyond college or university, one of which is competence in written communication. Being able to communicate well in the written form is also seen as not only an essential skill in its own right, but as a vehicle by which students can reflect on and develop other competencies such as the skills of analysis, evaluation and reflective practice.

Space on any teaching curriculum is tight, and the practice of writing often ends up being squeezed into the margins. One result of this is that rather than being an integral and fairly relaxed component of thinking and studying and a key method of knowledge creation, writing is reduced to being used merely as a stressful form of knowledge assessment. We need to constantly remind ourselves therefore, of the enormous benefits to students (and to ourselves as practitioners) of giving explicit space and value to writing both inside and outside the classroom or lecture hall and that what is obvious to us is novel and/or foreign to most students.

Firstly, we need to give students the skills to recognise what is going on in a written text, to be aware of what writing choices are or are not available within a particular writing context, and to understand what the effects on the audience might be of the writing choices the author does make. In other words, we need to ‘demystify’1 the processes and skills needed to produce and to exploit written work, and the criteria by which writing is decoded and judged by the reader.

The other main and crucial component of successful writing is that of practicing, exploring, developing and feeling relatively at ease with it.

Importantly here, we should remember that ‘writing practice’ on a course or module should not be seen (by either tutors or students) as somehow remedial or separate from the subject itself. We all develop our writing throughout our lives, and writing practice is always of benefit to our thinking and learning, no matter what our level of linguistic or subject knowledge. In our current teaching context of globalisation, the widening participation aspirations of tertiary education and the consequent increase in the diversity of students’ study and language backgrounds, it is all too easy to separate writing off as something extra or remedial for those students whose language knowledge (although often more multifaceted than our own) does not include native speaker competence in English.

For all of the reasons outlined above, we should be giving writing space and visibility as an explicit and integrated part of our courses and finding ways of enabling our students to learn through writing, which will simultaneously help them to develop as writers.2

Using reading in academic writing

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 ‘info bites’. Another consequence of our evolving technologies is that current forms of writing (e.g. email and 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 argument clearly and precisely. Students are thus often ‘novices’ when it comes to reading complex texts and 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 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.

How to Use your Reading in Your Essays as a response to the student context

HUR is a short introductory book for students and so covers the generic, standard approaches and formats for essays and for using sources, as a first step from which they can develop more discipline-specific ways of using their reading in their writing. HUR responds to the student context outlined in the preceding section of this article, by first giving students an overview of how sources can be used in an essay; most students will not have looked at a piece of academic writing in this way before. The book then takes them through the stages needed in order to successfully select information, read critically, and make meaningful and useful notes. It then looks at the ways in which sources are used explicitly in writing (quotation, paraphrase and summary) and the intellectual and mechanical processes for doing this effectively.

Once students have raised their awareness of these processes and have practised them, they are then asked to look at how use of source is integrated into a written assignment. Key points here are using sources to support their own point, and making clear distinctions between the positions that their source take and their own position and written voice. HUR emphasizes throughout that deep critical thinking is required at each stage and that paraphrasing and summarizing should be used as a tool in reaching a critical and independent reinterpretation of information within their own argument, rather than merely being about finding synonyms to replace words from the source text.

Importantly, even when students have grasped the real point of reformulation and reinterpretation, they will still in fact be unable to do this well if they lack an adequate formal vocabulary to confidently and accurately re-express and discuss information. Each academic discipline has its own specialised vocabulary and form of expression and style, but novice undergraduates or college students may not even have an accurate command of the vocabulary that is common across all disciplines. A key point in vocabulary use is precision. Students often have an adequate passive vocabulary (they more or less know what a word means when they read it) but they lack a large enough active formal vocabulary and so often use words that are almost but not quite right. They therefore need to revise and practice key vocabulary and language before they can effectively use their source material to support their own argument. Thus the main aim of HUR Part B is to give students a ‘way in’ to understanding formal vocabulary and to using it to re-express information. It gives them examples of how key words and phrases are used (connected grammatical points are explained briefly when necessary) synonymous alternatives and practice in using and correcting common mistakes.

Finally, in order to polish and take pride in their finished product, students need practice in editing their work, and so Part C comprises brief sections on spotting and correcting ‘last stage’ surface errors in language use, with key grammatical points that are common causes of error explained briefly but clearly.
HUR then, enables and empowers students to use their sources in their writing. It shows the student the deeper intellectual reasons for referencing as well as the surface technical requirements, and gives them practice in using formal vocabulary. Empowering students with the knowledge, skills and confidence needed to use their sources effectively will help to remove the need or desire to plagiarise. HUR demystifies the writing process and uses real student writing in a book that is as short, practical, to the point and ‘text-light’ as possible, rather than being ‘just another book to read’ for students who may already feel overwhelmed by the amount of reading they have to do.

Integrating How to Use Your Reading in Your Essays into your course

HUR is primarily designed as a self-study guide and resource. However, it can also be used by a subject tutor as part of the explicit writing element of a course. As an example, the table below suggests which sections of HUR could be used each week of a twelve-week course. The sections could be introduced and/or partially done within weekly lectures or seminars, or given to students for self-study in parallel with the course.

Week of course

Part A: Using your reading

Part B: Vocabulary
Part C: Checking and correcting your errors

Week 1

Part A: Introduction

Introduction to Part B: key points for developing your vocabulary

Week 2

A1 How do you decide what to read?

B1 Introducing sources and using verbs precisely

Week 3

A2 How do you understand and question what you read?

B2 Describing the views of different authors

Week 4

A3 What should you write down?

B3 Comparing the views of different authors and showing how they cite and evaluate each other

Week 5

A4 Why and how should you quote?

B4 Commenting positively on a source

Week 6

A5 What and how should you paraphrase?

B5 Commenting negatively on a source

Week 7

A6 Why and how should you summarise?

B6 Techniques for re-expressing sources

Week 8

A7 Putting it all together in your essay.

Week 9



Week 10

Introduction to part C: key points for checking your work

Week 11

C1 Common mistakes with in-essay

Week 12

C2 Ten grammatical areas that cause problems

Key points about writing

Of course, any book can only go so far; students will only really become good writers via the act of writing itself and importantly, only if they care about what they are writing. By increasing the visibility of writing on a course, you are also signaling to your students its importance and value, which in turn increases student motivation for investing in the writing process. Below are some key points that may help you give writing more visibility on your course, followed by a list of short writing tasks you can give students that do not require large amounts of time or marking.

  • Writing often starts in an informal and/or creative way and is only critically examined and formally shaped at a later stage.3
  • Process is as important as product – notes, plans, drafts with mistakes, redrafts, and revising, editing and polishing are all valuable written products and stages in their own right.
  • Showing your students examples of your own writing process (notes, drafts and then a finished piece of your work) will often give students confidence – they need to know that experts and professional writers do not magically produce a polished piece of writing from the start but that we revise and correct our own writing many times.
  • Writing can be a shared and collaborative process, and written work can be reviewed, questioned and discussed by peers and/or in peer groups.
  • Any formal writing task given to students should have a clearly stated purpose, audience and form.
  • Student written reinterpretations and reformulations of what they have read (i.e. paraphrases and summaries) can never be practiced enough.
  • Writing tasks do not have to be long to be useful, in fact often students need to concentrate on quality rather than quantity – less (as in shorter) is often more.
  • Writing doesn’t always have to be marked, assessed or even always looked at by you – the very act of writing develops writing skills.

Short but powerful writing tasks to give students

Included in How to Use your Reading in Your Essays

  • writing a paraphrase of an essay or assignment title
  • writing down some questions of a text before they start reading
  • making notes on and then questioning, evaluating and locating a text
  • writing an informal reflection on their reading
  • writing a one-sentence, then a two or three-sentence summary of their reading.

Other powerful student writing tasks

  • asking the students to use the last five minutes of a lecture or seminar to write a one or two-sentence summary of what they have heard
  • paraphrasing a sentence you have highlighted in a text
  • editing a poorly written essay with other students via a wiki
  • keeping a ‘Writing Journal’ and reflecting on any/all parts of their writing process
  • keeping and collecting the results of stages in the writing process to produce a portfolio
  • *discussing their written work and the process it took them to produce it as the focus of a seminar
  • writing a paragraph on the usefulness (or otherwise) of the written feedback they have received on their work
  • *peer reviewing the written work of other students and adding their own written comments, counter claims and questions
  • giving written comments on their own essay and giving it a mark
  • *specifying one or two aspects of their work they would like tutor comments on


  1. ^ Lillis, T. (1999) Whose ‘’Common Sense’’? Essayist literacy and the institutional practice of mystery.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Elbow, P. (1998) Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process.
    *These tasks are taken from the excellent website of the Writing in the Disciplines Project at QMUL, developed by Sally Mitchell and team. Their website gives ideas for and examples of, successful writing in the discipline initiatives in different subject areas.


Elbow, P. (1998) Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. US: Oxford University Press.
Lillis, T. (1999) Whose ‘Common Sense’? Essayist literacy and the institutional practice of mystery. In C. Jones, J. Turner and B. Street (eds) Student Writing in the University: cultural and epistemological issues. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Mitchell, S. and Evison, A. (2005) Thinking Writing: News from the Writing in the Disciplines Initiative. Spring 2005. Queen Mary University London.
Olson, C. B. (1992) Thinking/writing: fostering critical thinking through writing. New York: Harper Collins.

Recommendations for further reading

Barton, D. and Hamilton, M. (1998) Local Literacies. London: Routledge.

Bazerman, C. (1981) What written knowledge does: Three examples of academic discourse.
Philosophy of the Social Sciences 11: 361-382.

Crème, P. (2003) Why can’t we allow students to be more creative? Teaching in Higher
Education 8(2): 273 -277.

Deane, M., & O'Neill, P. (2011). Writing in the Disciplines. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ganobcsik-Williams, L. (ed.) (2006) Teaching academic writing in UK higher education: theories, practices and models. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hyland, K., & Guinda, C. S. (Eds.). (2012). Stance and Voice in Written Academic Genres.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Johns, A. (1997) Text Role and Context: developing academic literacies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lea, M.R. (2004) Academic Literacies: a pedagogy for course design. Studies in Higher Education 29(2): 739 -756.

Lea, M. R. and Stierer, B. (eds) (2000) Student writing in higher education: new contexts.
Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University Press.

Lea, M. R. and Street, B. (1998) Student Writing in higher education: an academic literacies
approach. Studies in Higher Education 23 (2): 157 -172.

Lillis, T. (2001) Student Writing, Access, regulation and desire. London: Routledge.

Swales, J. M. (1990) Genre Analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.