Reading and writing

Reading strategically and critically is central to building an academic argument. It provides, for instance, the scholarly or research context in which to situate one's research. It is often assumed that students know how to read critically but this is not necessarily the case, as this experienced Oxford supervisor notes.

Graduate students aren't in a position to know which people in the literature are pushing a barrow and which people are articulating a commonly and widely believed claim. So, in some ways, it's up to us [supervisors], with a bit more knowledge, to say, "well, these are the things you should really be concentrating on, and these are the things you shouldn't be..." Sometimes the hardest thing to convince people is not that your [DPhil] argument is a good one, but that your argument is actually interesting enough for others to bother to listen to it. (New supervisor, Humanities)

His comment acknowledges the learning task that students face:

  • developing a knowledge of disciplinary networks that only emerges from extensive reading and other forms of networking;
  • understanding that writing is about persuading others of the value of your argument.

Research at Oxford suggests students understand the importance of reading even if they do not initially have the capacity to read strategically and critically (observed particularly amongst social sciences students). Note the pride of this STEM student about his accomplishment:

I am now able to read and form opinions about the papers in my field. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Similarly for writing, when students wrote drafts for their supervisors, these were not, on the whole, characterised as informing students' understanding of their work but rather seen as products to be completed (the student quoted above being the exception rather than the norm). Many students felt ineffective and frustrated with their writing progress. This student recognizes the progress she has made in this regard:

Initial frustration has been replaced with a sense of satisfaction that I am now able to tackle writing more effectively. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Whereas reading enables students to form a foundation of what is known on which to build their research and from which to speculate, explore and create new knowledge, writing is a medium through which they first clarify their understanding of the knowledge in the field and later communicate their contribution to knowledge to others, as these Oxford students note.

I have to write down all the ideas that come from reading, and the notes I take on fieldwork ... and very soon I will have to begin writing my thesis ... putting all these ideas in a coherent way. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences) Writing reports enables ...a great overview and shaping the project in the way you want it ...when I can take the time to catch up with putting results together, forming a story around it, reading all the collected references and thinking about the next steps. I feel I have learned something and acquired a chunk of good knowledge and developed further skills. It helps me getting fresh ideas, and I like "producing" something out of your work, i.e. getting your report out with the whole documentation, figures etc. - and start hoping for publications, the ultimate goal! (Doctoral student, STEM)

Academic and disciplinary ways of communicating

While much reading and writing is directed towards the thesis during the doctorate, there are many different forms of academic communication. Students may not understand the importance of mastering these different forms. Supervisors and students may wish to review the range of writing styles in Ways of communicating.


The following student comments, while reflecting the lack of strategy discussed above, represent an often-reported phenomenon; reading was an activity 'squeezed in' among other activities rather than one perceived as central to the development of the enquiry.

But sometimes there is no time to read. I'm trying to do experiments and the reading I'm doing is more troubleshooting reading and reading manuals, reading what other people did ...not that it's a bad thing ...but then I don't get the time to actually read the literature as to the knowledge that people have gained from doing these experiments ...So is more technical info as opposed to actual science, which I want to be able to get a better grasp of. (Doctoral student, STEM)

However, some supervisors are intentional about teaching their new doctoral students how to read, as demonstrated in the case study below.

Case Study: A Supervisor

Reading: teaching a student to read a journal article

I try to teach them how to read, how to deconstruct material, and I then try to encourage them - we have regular seminars, and all of our graduate students are required on a regular basis to give seminars within the group and also at conferences. We also turn the whole issue... the whole issue of what I mean by reading into... what I mean by communicating. Such a kind of bolt from the blue to most of the students in sciences we have, and they're very, very bright kids. So, forgive me if I tell you what I tell incoming students.

When you pick up a research paper, your aim is to slot this into the extraordinarily rich cognitive structure that you have built previously about the subject. And yet, when you look through this paper, it's just a string of words. So, the goal of the student is quite straightforward: it's to take this string of words and to build it, to deconstruct it in a way that fits into your cognitive structure, and your cognitive structure does not exist at one level of abstraction. The first thing is, ignore the abstract, because the abstract is almost impossible to read until you've understood. What I try to tell the students is that reading is an active process of engaging to try to find out what the ideas are in this. For example, you can read the introduction - skip the rest of it, all this maths, I mean that's all crap - look at the pictures and read the conclusion. Now, if I put it down, you can tell me what problem the person's set out to solve, so you can begin to ask yourself the question, "Is that a worthwhile problem? Is that problem solved? Actually, if I was going to work on that problem, how would I set about it, given what I know? Did it work? What does the person say in his conclusions? Where are the 'weasel words' that say he hasn't actually done as much as he promised he was going to do in the introduction, and that'll be further work?" So you can... figure out to what extent it actually fulfilled its promise. You haven't understood a goddamn thing yet. All you've done is read the introduction and the conclusion and look at the pictures, right?

Now, pick it up a second time - you now know what problem the guy is solving, you now know why he thinks it's worthwhile, and you now know whether it worked or not, so now I go a little bit further and read beyond the introduction, and read about the method. Whenever you come to the maths, skip it. So what I'm talking about is iterative deepening. Skip the technical detail. Again, put it down. Now, you understand what he worked on, whether it worked, why he thought it was relevant, what it didn't do, and you almost understand the method. Even though you don't understand the details, you understand the - almost like the approach you would have taken - is this a reasonable approach, is it a stupid approach, is it doomed to succeed, doomed to fail? What [readers]'re doing is they're slotting an understanding of what is actually a fairly modest piece of work - it's actually a very good paper this, but slotting it, not as some undigested whole, but actually trying to relate it to different cognitive levels within the structure that they've got. What could be more obvious than that? It's trivial, isn't it?

Questions to consider about the case study

Whether you are a student or a supervisor, can you describe the reading process you use in a similar fashion to this supervisor?

How might an intentional/ structured way of teaching reading help determine students' grasp of subject knowledge and their ability, and potential, to think critically? To what extent do you agree with this approach?

Below are a number of strategies that highlight the importance of reading regularly in order to understand the scientific and scholarly context in which to situate the thesis and thus determine its significance.

  1. Invite students to read and critique MSS, and other forms of academic writing that you are invited to review, and then compare notes with you.
  2. Use journal clubs as an opportunity to discuss not just the scientific content of a paper but also the relative merits of the ways in which the study has been situated in the field:
    • Have key ideas been overlooked?
    • Who has not been cited that might have been?
    • What unfamiliar scientists and research have been cited?
    • If two papers are being discussed, consider which is more elegant in the ways the ideas and evidence are presented and why? You may find Research Articles: Move Analysis (ADD LINK to new PDF) helpful.
  3. Students can develop a concept map of the key ideas and scholars informing their thinking and discuss with others from time to time. A concept map provides a spatial representation of relationships among concepts, which might be helpful in understanding the ways in which central ideas draw on more peripheral but equally important ideas, or in which ideas are structured hierarchically. See Constructing a concept map.
  4. If a literature review is central to the thesis, students may need reminding that the purpose of reading is critical and interpretive, not descriptive.


Students often expressed difficulties with starting to write and reported what they called 'writing blocks'. Yet, when they felt they were making the points they wanted to make clearly and convincingly, they could find the experience motivating, as this student notes.

Beginning the writing process was also important, because it is usually the most difficult, but seeing the product gave me a sense of accomplishment. I was reminded how much I can enjoy writing, and was motivated to continue writing late into some nights, once beyond the initial overwhelming feeling of starting. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Learning to write persuasively in a range of genres is important not just in the academic field but also more broadly, as this experienced supervisor states.

Whether it's in university or it's in industry or indeed in government, [the students] will spend a huge amount of their time writing reports ...and it will all be about communicating ideas. ...30% of my students end up working in nothing to do with science. They go off and either work in banks or financial services or the Civil Service or whatever. That's fine. I don't have a problem with that. But the one thing you can say about every single one of the students who comes out of the lab is that they will have a lifelong need to communicate ideas. (Experienced supervisor, MPLS)

Writing can be particularly challenging for those who have English as another language as this student describes:

Writing papers is the most difficult part of my research, as [I'm] not native English. I try to read many as many papers and books as I can [to learn how to write], but I ... do not have much spare time. (Doctoral student, STEM)

In such cases, the Language Centre's English for Academic Studies course in Academic Writing may prove useful. There is a termly registration charge. This book may also be helpful:

Writing effectively, regardless of genre, is a challenging task that involves not just knowing the thinkers and ideas in the field but also how to draw on ideas and evidence in ways that are convincing. Strategies to develop this capacity include the following:

Create a regular writing habit from the beginning of the doctoral experience in order to reduce anxiety and develop confidence and fluency.

Seek out more than one reader for a text to get a better understanding of the various ways in which readers make sense of text. Unfortunately, in many instances, students experience the supervisor as the only reader of their work. If students belong to a research team, consider exchanging texts and giving each other feedback. Alternately, students can form a writing feedback group in which they meet regularly to provide constructive feedback as to the audience and the broader context in which others might respond to the text. Groups of two to three work well. See Tips for running a writing group for a student-generated set of procedures.

Part of being a successful writer is situating the work within the broader context of a disciplinary conversation, so think of the reader and how the text will be used. In starting a piece of writing:

  • Describe the potential reader(s) in as much detail as possible, and how that reader's needs will be considered.
  • Describe the specific purpose(s) of the text in detail, e.g. which aspects are the most challenging to persuade a reader about, which the easiest.
  • Consider scholars aside from the proposed reader(s) who might view the text as potentially of interest.

Depending on the discipline, writing papers can be particularly pertinent as well as useful practice for writing the thesis.

If you are in the social sciences or humanities, you might find the Writing Across Boundaries resource helpful.

Doctoral students may experience problems with their writing such as the following, which could be tackled using a corpus together with text analysis software:

  • Sentence-level issues of grammar and vocabulary choice, e.g. language not sounding 'natural',
  • Text-level issues concerning the development of the content, e.g. how results should be discussed.

In such cases, developing a personal corpus may prove useful in order to:

  • see many examples of the use of a word or phrase at the same time,
  • see which words and phrases are commonly used in their field of study,
  • find information which may not be given in a dictionary or reference grammar,
  • compare their writing with expert writing,
  • deal with language problems in their own writing.

The document Using a Corpus as a Resource for Writing (Students) describes how to build and use a personal corpus. For more general information about using corpora and courses about their use offered by the Language Centre, see Using a Corpus as a Resource for Writing (Supervisors).

Other resources

Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Yale University's Graduate School Online Writing Tutorials

EASE Toolkit for Authors - the European Association of Science Editors provides these Guidelines and Resources for Scientific Writing & Publishing for early career and less experienced researchers.

See also the EASE Author Guidelines aimed at making international scientific communication more efficient - N.B. the guidelines are available in a wide range of languages in addition to English.

AuthorAID is global online network that supports researchers in developing countries in publishing their work. See the AuthorAID Resource Library.

Supervisors may find this useful: Kamler, B., and Thompson, P. (2006) Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervisors. Abingdon: Routledge.

Social Sciences: A collection of short reflective pieces on the process of writing, contributed by scholars "who have made a significant contribution to the social science literature", is available at Writing on writing.


Reading and writing are inextricably linked to the very nature and fabric of Science (Norris and Phillips, 2003, p226).

This view is a common one among researchers in academic communication. From this perspective, communication is about more than reading and writing; it comprises both thinking critically and taking action. Learning to make sense of disciplinary 'talk' and being able to communicate effectively is a developmental process that can take a number of years. There are two foci for learning: a) constructing personal meaning, and b) finding ways to communicate with the reader effectively.

Supervision should include close attention to supporting the development of students' reading and writing skills. Unfortunately, many supervisors have not learned a discourse for talking about reading and writing so offering advice and feedback can be challenging.

The above text was based on:

Aitchison, C. and Pare, A. (2012) "Writing as craft and practice in the doctoral curriculum". In S. Danby and A. Lee (Eds.) Reshaping doctoral education (pp13-25). London and New York: Routledge

Bitchener, J., & Basturkmen, H. (2005). Perceptions of the difficulties of postgraduate L2 thesis students writing the discussion section. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 5(1), 4-18.

Caffarella, R., & Barnett, B. (2000). Teaching doctoral students to become scholarly writers: The importance of giving and receiving critiques. Studies in Higher Education, 25(1), 39-52.

Castello, M, I esta, A & Corcelles, M. (2013) Learning to write a research article: PhD students' transitions toward disciplinary writing regulation. Research in the Teaching of English, 47(4), 442-477. Link gives access to abstract only, unless you have a subscription to the journal.

Ding, H. (2008). The use of cognitive and social apprenticeship to teach a disciplinary genre. Written Communication, 25(1), 3-52.

Florence, M., & Yore, L. (2004). Learning to write like a scientist: coauthoring as an enculturation task. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 41(6), 637-668

Kwan, B. (2009). Reading in preparation for writing a PhD thesis: Case studies of experiences. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8(3), 180-191.

Kwan, B. (2008). The nexus of reading, writing and researching in the doctoral undertaking of humanities and social sciences: Implications for literature reviewing. English for Specific Purposes, 27(1), 42-56.

Lea, M., & Stierer, B. (2009). Lecturers' everyday writing as professional practice in the university as workplace. Studies in Higher Education, 34 (4), 417-428.

Norris, S., & Phillips, L. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education, 87, 224-240.

Pare, A., Starke-Meyyering, D., & McAlpine, L. (2009). "The dissertation as multi-genre: Many readers, many readings". In C. Bazerman, D. Figueiredo, & A. Bonini, (Eds.). Genre in a Changing World (pp179-193). West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press and WAC Clearinghouse. (not electronically available)

van Pletzen, E. (2006). "A body of reading: Making 'visible' the reading experiences of first-year medical students". In L. Thesen & E. van Pletzen (Eds.), Academic literacy and the languages of change (pp104-129). London: Continuum.