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Thoughts on Academic English

In this 'thought' we are going to look at academic journal writing.

This is an important area because students have to be able to read and understand academic journals and academics have to write journal articles.

I personally value clarity of thought and expression in my academic writing, rather than obscuration which seems to be the norm in some fields.

We should therefore choose texts to study which model good academic writing, in the main, unless we choose to critique bad academic writing.

The complexity in academic writing is often found in the noun phrases so these will need our special attention. And we will need to focus on the sequencing of ideas and information in the text, as these are vital for coherence.


Let's look at an extract and consider some of the things we could do with the text.

The text is the introduction to an journal article. As you can see below it consists of 5 short paragraphs.

During the first 6 months of 2020, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) spread to almost all countries and infected »4 million persons worldwide (1). Air travel is contributing to the extent and speed of the pandemic spread through the movement of infected persons (2–4); consequently, in March, many countries either completely halted or substantially reduced air travel.

Spread of SARS-CoV-2 across international borders by infected travelers has been well documented (5,6); however, evidence and in-depth assessment of the risk for transmission from infected passengers to other passengers or crew members during the course of a flight (in-flight transmission) are limited. Although the international flight industry has judged the risk for in-flight transmission to be very low (7), long flights in particular have become a matter of increasing concern as many countries have started lifting flight restrictions despite ongoing SARS-CoV-2 transmission (8).

The first case of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Vietnam was recorded on January 23, 2020; the patient was a visitor from Wuhan, China (9). On January 24, Vietnam suspended air travel from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and, as the epidemic spread worldwide, gradually expanded travel bans, mandatory quarantine, and testing measures to incoming passengers from other countries (10).

In early March, when much of the global community was just beginning to recognize the severity of the pandemic, we detected a cluster of COVID-19 cases among passengers arriving on the same flight from London, UK, to Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 2 (Vietnam Airlines flight 54 [VN54]). At that time, importation of COVID-19 had been documented in association with 3 flights to Vietnam, including a cluster of 6 persons with index cases evacuated from Wuhan; 6 secondary cases resulted from virus transmission in Vietnam (11). No in-depth investigations among passengers on those flights were conducted, and no evidence indicated that transmission had occurred during the flights themselves.

Initial investigations of flight VN54 led us to hypothesize potential in-flight transmission originating from 1 symptomatic passenger in business class (the probable index case). We subsequently launched an extensive epidemiologic investigation that involved testing and isolation/quarantine of all traceable passengers and crew members of the identified flight. Our objectives were to estimate the probability that transmission of SARS-CoV-2 occurred on the flight in question and to identify risk factors associated with transmission.

I give this text to my students (perhaps after a lead-in about flying) and ask them to read it and decide what the text is about, what would be a good title, and who are the authors.

I ask them to check their ideas with a partner before eliciting ideas. The text is about COVID-19, written by Vietnamese authors, and the original title was: Transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 During [a] Long Flight.

I then ask the students to decide what each paragraph is about and give them these four options: Background, the Rationale for the Study; The Stimulus for the Study; The Study. Obviously, as there are five paragraphs, one of these options will be used more than once.

The key is: Background | The Rationale | Background | The Stimulus | The Study. We discuss why these are the correct interpretations.

Then I deal with any immediate language questions.

By this stage the students have engaged with the text through comprehension tasks. If we left it there we haven't really developed their understanding of English much beyond where it was at the beginning of the lesson. We need to study the text in more detail to get more learning out of it.

To do this we look at selected parts of the text and look at what a sentence is about - the focus of the sentence, and look at how the noun phrases are constructed, starting by identifying what the noun is.

For example:

We consider this noun phrase the international flight industry, and ask what is the noun? The answer is industry, and then we consider what information the words preceding the noun add to our understanding of the noun. What does the mean here? What does international mean? What does flight mean?

Similarly, we study this noun phrase: The first case of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Vietnam. The noun is case and it is the first case. The first case of what? Why does the of what need to be specified here?

In this noun phrase, the noun is defined by words before and after. All this information is necessary for us to understand what the authors mean by case. When we use a noun we must ensure that our reader or listener has enough information to understand what we mean.

We can then turn to a more complex sentence:

In early March, when much of the global community was just beginning to recognize the severity of the pandemic, we detected a cluster of COVID-19 cases among passengers arriving on the same flight from London, UK, to Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 2 (Vietnam Airlines flight 54 [VN54]).

What is this sentence about? What is the topic of the sentence?

The answer is we. The sentence can be summarized as we detected X.

Readers and writers both need to be able to do this with sentences. If they cannot do this then it is a 'bad' sentence in some way.

The sentence can be analyzed thus:

In early March, Fronted time adverbial (could be placed after the verb (marked off by commas) but that would be less elegant and would interrupt the information flow of verb + what)
when much of the global community was just beginning to recognize the severity of the pandemic, Fronted background information - could be omitted from sentence completely.
we Topic/focus of sentence
detected Verb
a cluster of COVID-19 cases among passengers arriving on the same flight from London, UK, to Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 2 (Vietnam Airlines flight 54 [VN54]). Noun phrase about cluster

By studying how noun phrases are constructed we can develop our students understanding of how information is organized, what information is necessary for understanding, and hopefully improve their academic reading and writing skills.