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Students: copycat, sort of

One way I often suggest to my students to improve their writing ability is to read a lot. When doing so, I suggest they notice how writers use grammar, vocabulary, punctuation and organisation. I recommend trying to incorporate these samples into their own writing. But as so aptly demonstrated by the photo above, my advice is often taken too literally, through no fault of their own, and I face continued writing I don’t expect: improper punctuation, sentence fragments, odd terminology, inappropriate abbreviations and the like. When pointed out, mutual perplexity ensues, reducing my well-intentioned building blocks to rejected rubble. So where is the problem?

The missing link is a little source evaluation; how one writes differs from one genre to another, from one purpose to another. It’s not as clear-cut as ‘reading more and you will be a better writer’. It’s also not as simple as it sounds to teach. So let’s try a little, shall we?

Below are 5 short excerpts from 5 different sources all related to Wikipedia. Can you determine which is which?

  • transcript
  • a newspaper article
  • popular magazine blog post
  • academic journal article
  • an encyclopaedia entry
  1. Part of the problem is that such broad synthetic writing is not easily done collaboratively. Equally important, some articles do not seem to have attracted much interest from Wikipedians. …U.S. cultural history, recently one of the liveliest areas of professional history writing, is what Wikipedia calls a “stub” consisting of one banal sentence. By contrast, Wikipedia offers a detailed 3,100-word article titled “Postage Stamps and Postal History of the United States,” a topic with a devoted popular following that attracts little scholarly interest.25
  2. Wikipedia (i/ˌwɪkɨˈpiːdiə/ or i/ˌwɪkiˈpiːdiə/ wik-i-pee-dee-ə) is a collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopedia supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its 23 million articles, over 4.1 million in the English Wikipedia alone, have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world. Almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site, and it has about 100,000 active contributors.
  3. [In 2001], some of us – including me – advised students that Wikipedia was not an appropriate source of information for papers or presentations. Things have since changed, and Luddite though I may be, I now say hail to Wikipedia, this time publicly. Even when I was telling my students not to consult this collaborative encyclopedia freely available on the Internet, I was sneaking peeks myself. Lots of them. What really changed my attitude was a book chapter I was asked to write about comic book superheroes from a positive psychology perspective (Peterson & Park, 2008).
  4. Well, back in early December we were starting to look at the pressure that was being put on for this to be rushed through very quickly and I opened up a discussion with the community as to whether we should perhaps protest — following after the pattern of what we did in Italy after a bad law there. That discussion took some time to come to fruition because we’re a very thoughtful and deliberative community. After a long process we held a vote which was overwhelmingly in favor of protesting this law.
  5. Former senator Chris Dodd, the chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), has slammed plans by prominent websites such as Wikipedia and Reddit to protest against proposed anti-piracy legislation, calling a planned blackout day a “gimmick”.

Now that may not have been particularly challenging, but what linguistic, stylistic or organisational cues gave them away to you?

It’s also not as simple as finally saying to students, OK, since we’re focussing on academic writing (in EAP), only read academic journal articles and you’ll get better–unreasonable given the fact that they are language learners too. Where guidance is needed is in differentiating the style and use of language that can be transferred from what they read to what they are expected to write.

Beyond this, the same can be applied to spoken discourse, but that’s another post for another time. Until then, here’s a few materials that incorporate the above excerpts, aiming to improve students’ ability to notice differences in various types of sources. Nothing is 100% clear cut, of course, but it’s a start. A couple of suggestions on using the student and teacher versions:

  1. Worksheet – students use this to identify characteristics of the different text excerpts provided
  2. Set 1 – 5 different excerpts about the Chinese explorer Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) from 5 different source types – Cut these up and give them to groups and students read and work together to fill out the worksheet; then we’ll take it up as a class.
  3. Sec 2 – 5 different excerpts about Wikipedia from 5 different source types – Cut these up and give them to groups and they try to look for similar characteristics and match them with Set 1; then we take up as a class.

Evaluating source types

Just to satisfy your earlier frustration, check the Scribd materials to see if you did, in fact, find the matching activity as easy as I suggested you would.

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Have you considered encouraging them to read a few real good books to enjoy, study the writing, and maybe emulate it? You nevver know what this might yield. And many books are available at Gutenberg, for example.


Thanks for this!! This is a great idea and the resources you shared are awesome. Good touts for mixing into the classroom. Thanks!

Joan Bartel

I agree, Tyson. Writing style is dependent on genre. I like to do this kind of exercise with my students, too, but with a selection of excerpts that are all from newspapers. Try this sometime: Take topically-similar articles from the front page news (like your #5 above) vs. a column (shows an educated, personal opinion) vs. an entertainment piece or critique written in casual language like spoken English. From there I sometimes go on to compare two columns to find out if the writers agree or not and what arguments they use, etc., etc. — but that’s another story.


thanks yson, i like the activity and you highlight a problem i see with students a lot where they don’t critically evaluate sources they read, activities helping them to identify styles is one good way to help them develop evaluations skills.

the problem you mention of building up a stock of such materials made me have a quick look to see what’s available online, the FLAX database could be a potential source as you can browse examples by genre

the examples (admittedly specialised) can also be looked at via wordlist/adjectives/noun/preposition/verb so an activity where you asked students to count the differences between three genres could be a possibility?


Joan Bartel

I don’t have an up-to-date one. I was trying to put one together about Depardieu’s change in citizenship — thought that might make an interesting question (Would you change your citizienship for money?). But the front page news wasn’t written distinctly as an old-journalism-style “5 W-questions” story, so the contrast to the commentary (Heather Mallick’s column) wasn’t great.

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