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June 1, 2005 - U.S. Academic Writing Style, Part 2 - 2005-05-31

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: more of our discussion with Jane Dunphy, director of the English Language Studies Program at M.I.T., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

RS: Our subject is the American style of academic writing, including the traditional five-paragraph essay, and the challenges of academic writing for non-native English speakers.

JANE DUNPHY: "Some cultures graduate students from undergraduate schools without having written basically at all. They have huge classrooms with one authoritative teacher -- and authoritarian both. And they work on translation or they -- they really do learn how to do multiple-choice testing very well, that kind of thing. But they haven't been writing regularly for a real purpose."

RS: "What tips do you have for English language learners who may be listening to this broadcast and want to improve their writing?"

JANE DUNPHY: "Read. I think reading is really essential for acquiring the knowledge to write a language. I think that you develop instincts that are very hard to learn if you sit down and try to memorize or try to learn them through translation.

"For students who are interested in studying, in English, a scientific or technical or business field, I think it's useful to look at publications in those areas. And look at the language, not just look at the content, but really look at the way things are structured, where the main message comes, how paragraphs work, with topic sentences. I think awareness is 90 percent of success."

AA: "Well, let me ask you, I mean, how do you know what constitutes a well-written research article?"

JANE DUNPHY: "Well, the most prestigious journals typically attract the best writing. So any journal that's the hardest to get published in your field is the place to go."

RS: "And perhaps study groups, working with a friend, or bringing these journals into their English language classroom."

JANE DUNPHY: "Yep. I think peer review is a really good idea. It's a lot easier to review someone else's inadequate writing or confusing writing than it is your own after you've spent a lot of time writing."

AA: "And finally, just to get back to the five-paragraph essay again ... "

JANE DUNPHY: [laughs]

AA: "Any final thoughts about that? I mean, that is the model that is taught. What are the pluses or minuses of that model, and is there another alternative that you like to suggest?"

JANE DUNPHY: "I think it's necessary to know how to do it for any kind of standardized test. I think that students that are studying in an American system, in lower grades, not higher education, have to know how to do it.

"I think the best thing they can do when they get out of those situations is unlearn it, because I just don't think it's adequate for almost anything that we do. The whole idea of five paragraphs is based on three main topics you want to develop. Well, that's a silly way to go about writing about something if you automatically have to limit yourself or expand your point to include three main topics."

RS: "Although it is a place to start. It's a way in which to organize your thoughts."

JANE DUNPHY: "Yep, I agree. It does force you to use paragraphs and topic sentences, which are not a universal either."

RS: "And forces you to think, as I'm trying to help my son, who's in ninth grade. [Laughter]"

JANE DUNPHY: "Maybe I'll eventually get your son at M.I.T. and I'll be saying forget everything you ever learned -- "

RS and AA: "From your mother!"

JANE DUNPHY: "About analyzing literature or anything else!"

RS: "Oh, maybe you will."

AA: "Let me ask you, how do you know when to end one paragraph and to begin the next?"

JANE DUNPHY: "Well, you can either do it by content or you can do it by length or you can do it by both. Generally we have unspoken rules in English that we don't have ten paragraphs on a page. That would be quite unusual to see."

RS: "You need the page breaks."

JANE DUNPHY: "There's another unspoken rule that we don't have one [paragraph filling a page]. That would be unusual.

"So you do need a break, for ease of reading. And that's basically what paragraphs are about. They're about ease of reading. We indent them in most areas to make it easy for the reader to find. Often writers go back and put a topic sentence on a paragraph to make it easy to read. They haven't naturally developed a paragraph from topic sentence down, but they go backwards and do it.

"It relates, I think, to the way we read too. Now that could be circular. I don't know if we read because of that, or we write ... I don't know how that works."

RS: Jane Dunphy is director of the English Language Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

AA: You can find the first part of our interview on our Web site, And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.