EAL dissertation writers

As an English as an Additional Language (EAL) writer, you may face challenges in communicating with your supervisor and writing in another language. Moreover, you may experience discomfort (depending on your home culture and language) with the conventions of North American academic writing, particularly the emphasis on positioning oneself in relation to the literature and building a convincing argument. These tasks may be thought of, in effect, as performing a new identity as a graduate student writing in English. The page on “Performing identity” provides more information on this.

Kate Cadman’s article “Thesis writing: A question of identity” discusses identity formation in depth, giving many examples of how international writers experience textual positioning as difficult and disorienting. She recommends that EAL students use “I” when beginning to write because it’s easier for them to determine their relationship to the materials they’re reading. Cadman writes that “a reflexive, personal composing process can help international postgraduates to build a bridge between the internal dialogue of self-review which students exchanging cultures must experience, and the external challenges presented by the new academic environment” (p. 14). If you use a personal composing process at first as you discover what you think, you can always revise later into a more formal third person narrative, if required.

Some tips follow; these are from Brian Paltridge and Sue Starfield’s book Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. Although this guide is for supervisors, it also provides useful information for students. And many of the tips can help writers who are native speakers/writers of English as well. Please consider booking an appointment with one of our tutors at the Centre for Academic Communication to talk about your writing or speaking. We have three tutors specializing in English as an additional language: Kaveh, Nancy, and Gillian. Furthermore, there are many useful tips about EAL communication in Nadine le Gros’s (University of Western Ontario)  guide to academic communication for international graduate students and the Thesis Writing Starter Kit.

  • If you are more comfortable speaking than writing, try talking into a tape recorder then transcribing [or use voice recording software, like Dragon or the Mac voice to text feature*] then edit the typed transcript. This can help you to unblock your writing (p. 45).
  • “Start writing early – don’t wait until your research is done. See writing as a process—keep a log or journal about your research progress or about what you are reading. Your writing skills will develop over time; language develops incrementally” (p. 45).
  • “Writing is a means of clarifying your thoughts, so delaying writing can delay thinking through some of the problems around your topic” (p. 46).
  • “You may be spending too much time on mechanics; in the early stages, focus on generating meaning – you can fix it later” (p. 46).
  • “Some prompts may be helpful to get you writing: My research question is. . . . Researchers who have looked at this subject are….Debate centers on the issue of. . . . My contribution will be. ….” (this suggestion Paltridge and Starfield borrowed from Murray, 2002, p. 98).
  • Whereas some languages are “reader-responsible,” English texts are generally thought of as “writer-responsible” as the writer is responsible for making the text clear for the reader.  Therefore your dissertation can be thought of as a “display of knowledge,” and you may be expected to write things the reader already knows (p. 12).

Paltridge and Starfield’s book provides excellent guidance on how to approach different parts of the dissertation: the introduction, background, methodology, results, and discussion chapters, as well as the abstract and acknowledgements. Although this book is not available in our library, you can order it through UVic’s interlibrary loan service.


Cadman, K. (1997). “Thesis writing: A question of identity.” English for Specific Purposes, 16(7). 3-14.

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. London and New York: Routledge.

*To use voice dictation in an application on your Mac, first select a text field in an application. Next, press the Fn (Function) key twice or click the Edit menu and select Start Dictation. Speak to your Mac and the words you speak will start appearing in the textfield.

Can you recommend a resource for EAL students writing dissertations? Email Madeline at cdrcac@uvic.ca

Page written by Madeline Walker; last updated December 20, 2016.