The Academic Reader as a Pedagogical Device

By Sheik Abdul Malik

The Challenges of Writing to be Understood

Mastering the art of academic writing can involve many years of practice for a student to fully understand the audience they are writing for. This can be especially true of international students who may face additional language barriers [1]. Within academia, there are conflicting opinions on the most effective ways that a student can best understand the needs of the reader with some researchers [2] believing that it is through the intense study of the needs of the reader that will allow students to fully appreciate who will be receiving their words. Others have suggested it is through the writing process that the academic reader is constructed by the student [3]. However, an interesting gap in the literature was noticed by a researcher at Newcastle University [4]. There are few studies which attempt to address how the academic reader is invoked when students are putting forward their work for review which is typically a collaborative process between the student and their assessor. Leyland 2021 was interested in understanding how the academic reader is used as a pedagogical tool [5] and utilised Conversation Analysis and Membership Categorisation Analysis to determine how the reader is constructed through tutorials where international students are advised by writing tutors based in the UK. Several questions were attempted to be answered through this study published in Linguistics and Education including “When and why do writing tutors make explicit reference to ‘the reader’ during advice giving sessions?” [6] among others.

In the past the study of advice-giving has been primarily based in fields which focus on the delivery of difficult news or sensitive subjects [7] however, here it has been employed as a tool to invoke the academic reader, which has been identified as a crucial element of the writing process since the 1930s.

Friendly Advice

Through a total of 21 recorded interactions within academic writing tutorials from 2015-2016 with 19 international students at a UK-based university, almost 8 hours of data was obtained. The cohort of students comprised 68% from China with the remainder from the Middle East, Asia and countries in Europe and each student had the ability to attend a 25-minute session with one of three tutors each week. From the recordings it was apparent that there were numerous instances where the writers were able to demonstrate their comprehension of the academic reader as well as their invocation of it during the advice-giving tutorial sessions. There were instances where there was some confusion about the needs of the academic reader, but these were resolved by the tutors leading the interactions.

Departing from previous studies where the focus had been the academic reader as a product of the writing process, Leyland 2021, adopted a methodological approach that centered on the writing tutor and how they utilise the reader as a pedagogical device.

Establishing a Methodological Framework

Conversational Analysis (CA) is a particularly powerful approach to investigating social interactions. Similarly, Membership Categorisation Analysation (MCA) is another sociological technique focused on how members of a specific group perform actions through categorisation practices [8]. The uniqueness of this study was its ability to make use of in-person one-to-one sessions between tutors and international students which resulted in the students purporting to understand how to better write to meet the needs of the academic reader.

A more general criticism has been that as writing tutors lack subject-specific knowledge e.g., in subjects such as Science and Engineering may hinder the advice-giving process and impede the students ability to understand generalist comments on their writing for a specific academic reader [9]. However, Leyland 2021, countered this by suggesting that it actually may be the generalist advice and instructions that may lead to greater understanding by students in contrast to discipline-specific feedback.

Overcoming Language Barriers

Developing a writing style that puts the academic reader’s needs first can be challenging, particularly for international students for whom English is not their native language. However, the results from this study uncovered those advice-giving practices that invoke the reader will often lead to increased demonstrations of understanding from the student. By working with tutors, they are able to provide broad feedback and advice, this helps students to invoke the reader and helps international students develop new writing styles. This paper has built upon the authors previous work in both 2016 and 2020, however further work could be conducted into this fascinating area of linguistics to uncover more about the use of pedagogical tools within the development of academic writing, which hopefully, will lead to improvements to the writing skills of the international student community.


Q: How do the needs and expectations of the academic reader vary across different disciplines?

A: The needs and expectations of the academic reader can vary significantly across different disciplines due to the unique conventions, writing styles, and terminologies inherent to each field. In the humanities, for example, there might be a greater emphasis on argumentative structure, critical analysis, and the use of evidence to support claims. This can contrast with STEM fields, where the focus may be more on the precision of data presentation, the clarity of methodology description, and the logical progression of scientific arguments. Understanding these differences is crucial for students as they develop their own student voice, allowing them to effectively communicate their ideas in a manner that resonates with their specific academic audience.

Q: What specific challenges do international students face when trying to invoke the academic reader in their writing, beyond the general language barriers mentioned?

A: International students may face several specific challenges beyond language barriers when trying to invoke the academic reader in their writing. These can include understanding the nuanced expectations of academic writing in a different educational culture, such as the level of directness in argumentation or the preferred structure of academic papers. Additionally, there might be challenges related to effectively conveying their student voice within the constraints of unfamiliar academic conventions, leading to difficulties in expressing critical analysis or personal insights in a way that engages the academic reader. Cultural differences in communication styles can also play a significant role, as what is considered persuasive or authoritative in one culture might not be seen the same way in another.

Q: What are the long-term impacts on students' writing skills after participating in these tutorial sessions?

A: Participating in tutorial sessions designed to help students better understand and invoke the academic reader in their writing can have several long-term impacts on their writing skills. These sessions can help students develop a more nuanced understanding of academic writing conventions, leading to an improved ability to articulate complex ideas clearly and persuasively. Over time, students can also develop a stronger student voice, becoming more confident in their ability to express their perspectives and analyses in a way that is both authentic to them and appropriate for their academic discipline. This not only enhances their current academic performance but also equips them with valuable communication skills that are beneficial in their future academic and professional endeavours.


[1] Linda H.F. Lin, Bruce Morrison, Challenges in academic writing: Perspectives of Engineering faculty and L2 postgraduate research students, English for Specific Purposes, Volume 63, 2021, Pages 59-70, ISSN 0889-4906,
DOI: 10.1016/j.esp.2021.03.004

[2] M. Nystrand A social interactive model of writing Written Communication, 6 (1) (1989), pp. 66-85

[3] G. Thompson Interaction in academic writing: Learning to argue with the reader Applied Linguistics, 22 (1) (2001), pp. 58-78

[Source Paper] [4] [5] [6] Christopher Leyland, The interactional construction of the academic reader in writing tutorials for international students: An advice-giving resource, Linguistics and Education, Volume 61, 2021, 100900, ISSN 0898-5898,
DOI: 10.1016/j.linged.2020.100900

[7] A.M. Kinnell, D.W. Maynard The delivery and receipt of safer sex advice in pre-test counseling sessions for HIV and AIDS Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35 (1996), pp. 405-437

[8] Fitzgerald, R., & Au-Yeung, S. H. (2019). Membership Categorisation Analysis. In P. Atkinson, S. Delamont, A. Cernat, J.W. Sakshaug, & R.A. Williams (Eds.), SAGE Research Methods Foundations.
DOI: 10.4135/9781526421036754839

[9] J. Mackiewicz The effects of tutor expertise in engineering writing: A linguistic analysis of writing tutors’ comments IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 47 (4) (2004), pp. 316-328

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