4 Identifying and Supporting Academic Literacies

In the previous chapter, we explored the aspects of our educational practices and disciplinary structures that often remain implicit in classroom practice, and considered practices for supporting students by making these more explicit.  In this chapter, we will more deeply explore the concept of academic literacies, as well as the support and scaffolding strategies that aid students in acquiring discipline-specific modes of writing, oral communication, and digital communication.

What are Academic Literacies?

The academic literacies model considers student academic communication within its broader social context (Lea, 2016).  Academic literacies are the practices that a student (as a novice in their disciplinary community) must learn in order to read literature, interact with other members of the academic community around key shared ideas, and communicate according to the expected conventions of their discipline (Kelly-Laubscher & Van der Merwe, 2014; Wingate, 2018).  The academic literacies model challenges several common assumptions about academic writing and communication:

  1. The idea of a shared set of academic skills that can be applied to all disciplines. While it is true that some foundational skills transfer easily to similar disciplines (e.g. humanities), assuming that students can acquire a generic set of “study skills” and academic writing skills that will easily transfer to any area can be problematic. Students may experience confusion and frustration when the “generic” skills they learned differ from the specific conventions expected within their discipline (Wingate 2006, 2018).  The academic literacies model acknowledges that students may need to acquire multiple, distinct sets of discipline-specific skills as they interact with courses across disciplines (Kelly-Laubscher & Van der Merwe, 2014; Lea & Street, 1998; McKay & Simpson, 2013).
  2. The idea that students have learning “deficits” that must be remediated before entering their disciplines.  Often, when students struggle to meet learning outcomes in an introductory course, an assumption is made that the students are underprepared or are in need of remedial work. For many students, however, who have already moved through preparatory studies, their difficulties may arise from challenges applying generic skills to a new context (Wingate 2006). Student may struggle to understand why practices that previously earned positive feedback no longer satisfy the requirements of their new environment (Lampi & Reynolds, 2018).  The academic literacies model assumes that all students are novice members of a new academic community (Lea & Street, 1998).  While it is true that for some students, the journey to acquire an academic culture is more challenging because of larger distances between their previous experience and their current academic culture, all students enter their disciplines as novices who are acquiring a new academic “language” as they enter a professional community.  Explicitly teaching disciplinary conventions to students supports all learners in a course, and is a natural part of the learning process, rather than a remedial task.
  3. The idea that academic literacies involve only reading and writing.  Increasingly, academic and professional communication moves beyond writing, into digital spaces. The academic literacies model acknowledges that communication increasingly extends modalities such as micro-blogging, web-based publication, and video production, and highlights that instruction on how to use these tools in professional contexts is also a part of academic literacies development (Lea, 2016; Richards and Pilcher, 2018).

In summary, academic literacies is a non-deficit approach to considering the development of the range of literacies required in a disciplinary context.  It involves providing a structured and scaffolded introduction to the communication tasks in a course.  Embedding academic literacies instruction is particularly important at the introductory level, but a well-planned academic literacies program considers how literacies will be developed and taught over the full course of a students’ academic career in their program.

Collaborations for Academic Literacy Development

A common barrier to embedding academic literacy development in courses is faculty uncertainty about the process. Academic literacies work can often feel like it is outside of the scope of of normal teaching responsibilities (Benzie et al., 2017;

Murray & Nallaya, 2016; Wingate, 2018), and that it requires a set of specialized skills that may be unfamiliar.  While professional development and personal growth contribute to comfort in teaching academic literacies, at the beginning stages of the journey, collaboration with other professionals can be a foundational and enriching step.
Specialists in academic literacies often work at an intersection of theory and practice, applying knowledge of linguistics to understanding the specific communication structures and conventions in a given situation (Lillis & Scott, 2015). Specialists who do this work can be found in different institutional contexts, including teaching and learning departments, writing centres, and learning centres. Regardless of institutional location, academic literacies specialists can create strong partnerships with instructional faculty by combining the novice perspective in a disciplinary context, with specific knowledge of how texts can be understood, broken down, and explained clearly to novice learners (Clarence & McKenna, 2017).  Partnerships can result in the creation of teaching and learning resources that, once developed, instructional faculty can easily embed into their courses on an ongoing basis.

Breaking Down a Text

One technique for supporting academic literacies development is breaking down and systematically exploring the features of a well-written academic text, at or slightly above the students’ current developmental level.  This process involves exploring the social context of the text (for example, the relationship between the writer and the audience), and the ways in which this is enacted through text structure, organization, vocabulary, and grammatical choices.  The template below provides a general overview of the types of questions that might be asked of a text during this process; these questions can be adapted to select those that are most relevant to the text being explored.
The first section of the exercise involves exploring interpersonal meaning — the relationship between the author and the reader. This information is often left implicit, but has a significant impact on the text structure and language choices made.  The second section highlights features in the organization of the text, and is useful for exploring topics such as the organization of particular business communication forms, the structure of a lab report, or the differences between a more complex paper and a simple five-paragraph essay.  The final section probes into the more detailed vocabulary and grammar choices that are normative within the discipline.  Connecting this information with the broader social context and communication situation is useful for supporting students in distinguishing between professional communication and more informal styles of writing.
Questions for exploring Interpersonal Meaning[1]
Questions about the text Key sentence from the text
What is the purpose of the text?  What does the writer expect the reader will think, feel, or do after reading?
Who is the audience for the text?
Questions about the text Key words and observations
How formal is the text?  (formal, semi-formal, informal)
How objective is the text? (Is a personal opinion?  A scientific paper?)

Questions for exploring Textual Meaning and Organization

Questions about the Text Notes
What is the general layout/format of the text?  (Does it have a title page?  Where are the page numbers?  Are headings used?)
How is this text organized overall?  What information is in each paragraph?
Where does the author state the main argument/thesis?


How is the introduction organized?  How does the author indicate how the paper will develop?


How is the conclusion organized?  How does the author summarize the content of the text?


If the author uses information from other sources, how does the author introduce this information? (e.g. Berry states that ___)


If the author uses information from other sources, how does the author cite this information in the text of the paper?
If there is a works cited page or bibliography, what do you notice about how it is organized?


Questions for Exploring Grammar and Word Choice

Questions about the Text Examples
What do you notice about the sentence structure in the text?  Are there many simple sentences?  Many complex sentences?
What words are used to connect ideas together and to show the relationships between sentences?


Are there verb tenses or verb forms that occur often in this text?  Why do you think these are chosen?


Are there any words or expressions that occur often in this text?


Are there any technical terms that occur often in this text?


In general, does this text use everyday vocabulary or specialized vocabulary?


How is the vocabulary in this text different than vocabulary you might use in everyday speaking?


The Role of Examples in Academic Literacies Development

The theoretical foundation for academic literacies includes social constructivism (Vygotsky, 1978), which holds that learning is social in nature, and that novices to a discipline learn by observing more experienced members of the community.  In terms of academic development, this means that novices learn by observing and emulating the examples of instructors and others who are already proficient in the skill being acquired. Examples of proficient work can be a powerful source for socially learning academic literacies.  Examples, however, are often underused, often because of fears that providing examples will lead to an increase in plagiarism or other academic integrity violations.

A different perspective on examples is that, rather than contributing to an increase in plagiarism, they may actually reduce academic integrity violations by providing students with a stronger understanding of what is required. Often, academic integrity violations occur when students become convinced that they are unable to successfully achieve a given task; the clear understanding provided by systematically analyzing strong examples can enhance students’ confidence that they have the core abilities needed for success.

Sources for examples may include:

  1. Previous successful student work (anonymized, and used with clear consent from the author).
  2. Instructor written examples (colleagues may find it effective to work in teams to develop these).
  3. Writing from student journals.
  4. Professional writing (particularly at the higher levels of instruction).

It may also be helpful to create examples of writing that does not yet meet professional standards, and allow students to analyze how this writing may be improved.

By providing multiple opportunities for students to analyze the conventions of successful communication within their discipline, paired with strategic practice of important skills, students will begin to develop a stronger understanding of how to meet the professional communication demands of their chosen fields.

For reflection and action:  Identify a writing assignment or other communication task that is often challenging for your students. Consider taking one of the following steps: (1) Using the information in this chapter, construct an exercise that allows students to break down an example of a well-composed text; (2) Reach out to a collaborator that can assist you in developing an academic literacies development strategy for your course.

Recommended Reading

Freeman, K., & Li, M. (2019). “We are a ghost in the class.” First year international students’ experiences in the global contact zone. Journal of International Students, 9(1), 19–38. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v9i1.270

  • This article outlines international student experiences acquiring academic literacies in their first two semesters in Western academic environments, including the potential impact on students when academic literacies are not made explicit in the curriculum.


Benzie, H. J., Pryce, A., & Smith, K. (2017). The wicked problem of embedding academic literacies: Exploring rhizomatic ways of working through an adaptive leadership approach. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(2), 227–240. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2016.1199539

Clarence, S., & McKenna, S. (2017). Developing academic literacies through understanding the nature of disciplinary knowledge. London Review of Education, 15(1), 38–49. a9h. https://ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=121734927&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Kelly-Laubscher, R. F., & Van der Merwe, M. (2014). An intervention to improve academic literacies in a first year university biology course. Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning, 2(2), 1–23.

Lampi, J. P., & Reynolds, T. (2018). Connecting practice & research: From tacit to explicit disciplinary writing instruction. Journal of Developmental Education, 41(2), 26–28.

Lea, M. R., & Street, B. V. (1998). Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157–172. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079812331380364

Lea, M. (2016). Academic literacies: looking back in order to look forward. Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning, 4(2), 88–101. http://cristal.epubs.ac.za/index.php/cristal/article/view/91/123

Lillis, T., & Scott, M. (2015). Defining academic literacies research: Issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Professional Practice, 4(1), 5–32. https://doi.org/10.1558/japl.v4i1.5

McKay, T. M., & Simpson, Z. (2013). The space between: Pedagogic collaboration between a writing centre and an academic department. Perspectives in Education, 31(4), 27–42.

Murray, N., & Nallaya, S. (2016). Embedding academic literacies in university programme curricula: A case study. Studies in Higher Education, 41(7), 1296–1312. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2014.981150

Richards, K., & Pilcher, N. (2018). Academic literacies: The word is not enough. Teaching in Higher Education, 23(2), 162–177. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2017.1360270

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with ‘study skills.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457–469. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562510600874268

Wingate, U. (2018). Academic literacy across the curriculum: Towards a collaborative instructional approach. Language Teaching, 51(3), 349–364. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444816000264

  1. Adapted from: British Council. (2005). Planning a Writing Lesson: Genre Analysis Form. Retrieved December 6, 2016, from https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/genre_form.pdf


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Inclusive Pedagogies Copyright © 2021 by Christina Page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book