Donna Bain Butler, PhD
Michael Wei, PhD
Yalun Zhou, PhD
International students contribute more than $21 billion to the
U.S. economy alone. Further, this revenue is expected to increase
(Institute of International Education, 2012). According to ASEAN Matters
for America, Asian students account for five out of the top six leading
sources of international students in the United States (Siirila, 2010).
Although more and more institutions of higher education in
English-speaking countries are recruiting international students to
their campuses, faculty and program administrators remain generally
unaware of international students’ cultural backgrounds and linguistic
needs when expected to write in second language (L2) academic English.
Too often, L2 undergraduate students are sent to institutional intensive
English language programs to remediate their English grammar.
Similarly, L2 graduate students may be advised to seek editors who are
not trained in English for academic purposes (EAP) or in L2 English
composition. Faculty and international program directors may not know
that nationality and culture play crucial roles in English language
learning and language use (Anugkakul, 2011). They may be unaware of
international students’ contrasting views of academic writing and the
writing processes. As a result, L2 student learning may be assessed
unfairly or inaccurately, or it may lead to culture shock with tragic
To counteract uninformed practices in international education,
and to improve intercultural communication with culturally diverse
students and institutions, Gillett (1997) recommends that faculty and
staff in higher education reconceptualize intercultural communication.
This is necessary because (1) people from different cultures do things
in different ways, (2) students experience learning and assessment
differently from their professors, (3) higher education faculty and
staff share sources of knowledge and information differently from
international students, (4) pragmatics is cross-culturally different and
difficult to understand, and (5) EAP specialists exist to inform
programs and advise international student writers by explaining their
language use issues as relating to something other than grammar. Echoing
Gillett (1997), this study reveals how Chinese and Thai students,
ranked number 1 and number 15, respectively, among U.S. international
student populations on campus (Institute of International Education,
2012), inherit a wealth of academic writing culture in their home
What Our Study Does
Our research purpose was to disclose cross-cultural issues
related to writing with a view toward advancing writing proficiency for
academic English writers. Specifically, the study reveals how Chinese
and Thai students perceive or understand academic English writing
regarding the following five questions:
- What are graduate writers' perceptions of their native academic culture?
- What are graduate writers' perceptions of academic English writing?
- What are graduate writers’ perceptions of strategies for academic English writing?
- What are graduate writers’ perceptions of composing for academic purposes?
- What are graduate writers’ metaphors for academic English writing?
Through a quantitative survey approach with 100 graduate
student writers, our study explored key issues in writing that influence
academic writing literacy for Chinese (n = 50) and
Thai (n = 50) graduate students across disciplines.
The purpose of our study was to describe (a) Chinese and Thai graduate
students’ learning cultures of academic English writing and (b) their
perspectives of writing processes as they relate to writing conventions
in academic English. We used Bain Butler’s (2010) Academic English
Writing Questionnaire to collect data.
For content validity, we consulted a variety of teachers,
experts, the research literature, and target group members for
relevance, representativeness, and exactness of wording. A validity
check with our Thai and Chinese colleagues disclosed no objections about
questions or results (personal communication, December
13, 2011). For reliability check, Cronbach’s Alpha was .885 for Thailand
and .544 for China.
Our survey instrument allowed graduate student writers to (a)
distinguish between academic cultures and (b) identify the strategies
they use for composing academic English assignments and abstracts.
Abbreviated results are presented in order of the five research questions.
1. What are graduate writers' perceptions of
their native academic culture?
Our study found different assumptions and expectations about
who is primarily responsible for successful communication in an academic
culture―the reader or the writer. Explicitness and directness appear to
be sociocultural elements of academic style for the Chinese
participants. In contrast, the Thai participants may prefer to let
readers infer the meaning of their (Thai) writing. Although rhetorical
preferences and style are known to vary from culture to culture and from
language to language, they may also be influenced by academic English
curriculum and writing instruction, as this study shows.
2. What are graduate writers' perceptions of academic English writing?
Most (72% or more) Chinese participants and most (66% or more)
Thai participants agreed or strongly agreed that teaching students how
to (a) write using authoritative (printed and electronic) sources and
(b) make the shift from writer-centered drafting to reader-centered
communication may be needed.
3. What are graduate writers’ perceptions of
strategies for academic English writing?
Participants’ strategies for academic English writing are
grouped into four categories: (1) writing process, (2) social
interaction, (3) language use, and (4) writing from sources.
In terms of writing process, the Chinese participants may be
more willing to revise ideas than the Thai participants are. Both
revising and editing are components of the composing process that may be
taught and learned.
The Thai academic writers employ social interaction more than the Chinese academic writers do.
Social strategies were found important for Thai student respondents to
communicate effectively with professors and classmates and to refine
The Thai participants re-use the language from source text more
than the Chinese participants do, and the Thai participants correct
language-related issues only after revising ideas, in contrast to the
In terms of writing from sources, most (58%) Chinese
participants disagree that they summarize information in English
“simply” by reducing source text, whereas most Thai (78%) participants
agree. The Chinese participants seem more likely to summarize
information in English by selecting and reorganizing course text.
4. What are graduate writers’ perceptions of
composing for academic purposes?
Competence-related constructs for composing were discerned by
studying this question. Summary, paraphrase, and synthesis were found to
help develop L2 academic writers’ purpose and knowledge for writing.
Most (60%–68%) Chinese students and most (54%–86%) Thai students “agree”
or “strongly agree” that they comprise levels of composing.
5. What are graduate writers’ metaphors for academic English writing?
Most (72% Thai and 56% Chinese) participants agree that they
are like architects when they write in English, that is, they plan,
draft, and then edit their own work. In addition, most (58% Thai and 55%
Chinese) agree that they write like artists when revising their writing
as they go along.
Cultural issues in writing were disclosed by this research,
that is, six global categories within which varied perceptions for
academic English writing arise:
- the roles of research and inquiry
- writer versus reader responsibility
- the roles of revising and editing
- student versus teacher roles
- values of individualism versus collectivism
- ownership of text and ideas
Each one can be found and understood from the writing research
literature, and most have been acknowledged by the College Composition
and Communication Statement on Second Language Writing and Writers
contribution of this study is that they are shown to exist in academic
cultural context. Further, because some relate to Western notions of
plagiarism and academic integrity, they are high-stakes issues for
international students and degree-granting institutions.
English university program directors need to be aware of
potential differences in academic culture and in academic English
curricula if they are to act responsibly as educators. International
students do not have homogeneous cultural backgrounds for academic
English writing, and their interaction with university program content
is not related simply to English grammar or to ethics.
In sum, competence in intercultural (versus monocultural)
communication provides a basis for curriculum development, instruction,
and assessment in international higher education. Both personnel in
English-speaking countries and students seeking advanced degrees in
these countries should be aware of developing their intercultural
competence (proficiency). Language use cannot be separated from culture,
and this study shows that it is not. International students bring with
them diverse perceptions of academic English writing when they enter the
English-speaking academy. EAP professionals can help with
research-based tools to disclose (a) what students are taught in their
home countries; (b) what students missed in terms of meeting the
requirements for disciplinary writing; and (c) how EAP faculty, course
designers, and disciplinary professors can collaborate to bridge the gap
for both students and universities that place value on best practices
for teaching, learning, and assessment. The questionnaire designed for
this study is one such tool and will be used to collect data in other
EAP writing cultures such as Arabic, Hindi, and Russian. The complete
article for this study can be found in ESP Across
Cultures (2013), volume 10.
Anugkakul, G. (2011). A comparative study in language learning
strategies of Chinese and Thai students: A case study of Suan Suanandha
Rajabhat University. European Journal of Social Sciences,
Bain Butler, D. (2010). How L2 legal writers use
strategies for scholarly writing: A mixed methods study
(Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Maryland, College
CCCC Committee on Second Language Writing. (2009). CCCC statement on second language writing and writers. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/secondlangwriting
Gillett, A. (1997). Intercultural communication. ARELS
Arena, 16, 22–23.Retrieved from http://www.uefap.com/articles/arena.htm
Institute of International Education. (2012). Open
Doors 2012 “fast facts.” Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/en/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors
Siirila, A. (2010). New students data: China grows by
30%. Retrieved from http://www.asiamattersforamerica.org/new-students-data-china-grows-by-30
Bain Butler, PhD, Adjunct Professor and Fulbright Specialist,
Applied Linguistics/EFL, American University’s Washington College of
Law, Washington, DC, USA
Wei, PhD, Associate Professor and Director, TESOL Program,
University of Missouri, Kansas City, USA
PhD, Michigan State University, USA