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Teaching Literature Reviews to EAP Students
by Jen Spearie

Writing a literature review is a daunting task for native speakers, much less English language learners (ELLs). In a recent English for academic purposes (EAP) course preparing graduate students for research in their respective fields, I used Swales and Feak’s (2012) Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Although I found the text extremely useful, there was a very brief and incomplete section on writing literature reviews.

Thus, I devised the following process to familiarize students with the conventions of literature reviews, to help them analyze their own research to find the appropriate organizational style, and finally to enable them to write their own literature reviews. The objective of this sequence of classes was to assist students in creating a literature review with a clear narrative thread rather than simply listing and summarizing a number of sources. By following a step-by-step process, students will begin to feel more comfortable and confident with this type of writing. Students will complete this process in brief with a number of shared sources and then will repeat the same process in more detail for their own sources related to their field of study.

Class 1: Literature Review Basics


  • Students will learn to identify the characteristics and purpose of literature reviews.
  • Students will be able to differentiate annotated bibliographies from literature reviews.

3–4 academic articles from different disciplines that each contain a literature review. Upload them on the course webpage. If you are not in a lab class, you can bring copies for each group.

1. Break students into groups of three or four and ask them to skim the articles to address the following questions (30 min):

  1. Where does each literature review begin and end?
  2. Highlight the sources mentioned in each literature review (citations).
  3. How is a literature review different from an annotated bibliography?
  4. What do you think is the purpose of a literature review?
  5. “A literature review should tell a story.” What do you think this means?

2. Use the remaining class time to review the group work and share their responses.

Class 2: Organization


  • Students will learn to recognize organizational styles of literature reviews.
  • Students will be able to identify connections between sources on a topic.
  • Students will determine an appropriate organization for a literature review and justify their choices.

5–6 short summaries or abstracts of sources on the same topic. I used summaries of academic texts on pp. 341–342 in Academic Writing for Graduate Students (Swales & Feak, 2012).

1. For this lesson, I adapted a portion of Academic Writing for Graduate Students (Swales & Feak, 2012). Spend time explaining the various organizational styles of a literature review. If possible, use the sources from the previous class to point out some different organizations of literature reviews. (20 minutes)

  1. General → specific
  2. Specific → general
  3. Problem → solution
  4. Chronological order (time or sequence)
  5. Themes/factors/subtopics (listing)
  6. Cause and effect
  7. Stages or process
  8. Other (combination of the above)

2. Break students into groups of three or four and ask them to read the summaries of the sources. (30 minutes)

3. Ask students to try to find connections between the sources. Which ones would they group together and why? Be sure to mention that sources can be cited in multiple places in a literature review depending on relevant topics.

4. Tell students they will need to choose an organizational style for their literature review. They should create an outline of the literature review and explain which sources they would cite for each section.

5. As a class, discuss the connections and ideas for organization and then vote on the best one. Write or type your class outline for the literature review and save it on the course website (see Appendix A for an example).

Class 3: Group Composition (Part 1)


  • Students will write a portion of a short literature review.
  • Students will practice paraphrasing and reporting information from sources.
  • Students will synthesize texts using comparison and contrast.
  • Students will correctly use in-text citations.


  • The outline of the literature review (from Class 2)
  • The 5–6 short summaries or abstracts (from Class 2).

1. Divide up the literature review sections (from Class 2) into groups and ask each group to be responsible for writing a one- to three-paragraph section. If you have a large class, you might ask two to three groups to work on the same section. (50 minutes)

2. Students should focus on introducing each source with the correct citation information, reporting/paraphrasing the information from the sources, and connecting the sources with transitions. They can also use comparison and contrast to highlight the similarities and differences between the sources.

3. Collect and upload each group’s section to the course website. If you had multiple groups work on the same section, keep those paragraphs together.

Class 4: Group Composition (Part 2)

Students will write introductory, transitional, and concluding sentences of a literature review.

Literature review sections written by students (from Class 3)

1. Read the group literature review sections from Class 3 and compare and contrast the paragraphs on the same topic. (20 minutes; see an example in Appendix B)

2. For each section, the group should choose the paragraph(s) that they find to be the strongest.

3. Once each group has chosen the sections of the literature review, they will need to connect them. Ask each group to write an introductory sentence that signals the beginning of the literature review and mentions the topic of the sources. Next, write transition sentences connecting the individual sections of the literature review. Finally, write a concluding sentence that signals the end of the literature review and that may point to the researcher’s topic or a gap in the previous research. (30 minutes)

4. Each group should now have a complete literature review. Collect them and upload them to the course webpage. (See an example in Appendix C)

Homework: Ask students to complete a synthesis matrix for their own sources (See Appendix D).

In following classes, students can use their individual articles and research topics to repeat this process in more detail. They can use the synthesis matrix to help them to organize the information from their sources before they write the literature review.

These steps should help to demystify the process of writing a literature review for your EAP students. After completing these activities, your students will feel more confident with the basics, organization, and composition of this assignment. They can then successfully apply this new knowledge when writing on a topic relevant to their own fields of study.


Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2012). Academic writing for graduate students (3rd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Download this article and the appendixes (PDF) 

Jen Spearie received both her BA in English and MA in English (rhetoric and composition) from Illinois State University. She has taught for more than 10 years, including teaching English as a foreign language in Thailand and China, where she received her TEFL certification. She currently teaches at the Center for English as a Second Language at Southern Illinois University. Jen's areas of professional interest include teaching composition, English for academic purposes, and materials development.

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