Monday 14 March 2016

Oh, absTRACT!

I went to a fabulous workshop/talk by Julie Moore at BALEAP last year in which she talked about the potential uses of abstracts in the EAP classroom. Since then, I've tried to use them more but haven't really developed a coherent pattern of use. What I've done so far is not very exciting and has primarily been 'writing' focused. The students have to write a dissertation as part of the course so we do some lessons on writing abstracts. This involves looking at sample abstracts, looking at the features common to abstracts and then trying to produce their own.

Taken from Wiki Art
Composition A XXI by László Moholy-Nagy
taken from WikiArt
But when I think about the amount of abstracts there are out there, I feel like I'm leaving money on the table - that as reading texts in and of themselves, they have tons to offer: they're free to those of us on the other side of pay walls; they're authentic; you can pick and choose depending on students' disciplines (or they can pick and choose).

As they are short in nature, I think they lend themselves to short, but hopefully rewarding reading activities.

1. Give students a hypothetical topic and three somewhat relevant abstracts. They can only choose one and so must justify their decision.

2. Give students a social sciences type abstract (ELT type ones are good for this) - remove the methodology and ask students to figure out how they would fulfil the research aim.

3. Choose a topic for a future lecture (we did antibiotic resistance recently). Ask students to find 2 or 3 abstracts related to the topic for the next class. They can discuss their choices with others under headings like background/context, research aim, methodology, conclusion. After discussing their abstracts they could then predict what they expect to be covered in the lecture. The follow up then is the lecture itself.

I realise now after writing that these suggestions are very teacher centred. With abstracts, the students have great scope to select and explore areas that they are interested in. The teacher can provide some structure to that but whenever I think about getting more student selected reading material into the classroom, I default to that wonderful suggestion from a while back about everyone (teacher included) bringing in something to read for 15 minutes in the class (wish I could remember who suggested it!). After that, everyone simply talks about what they have been reading and why they chose it. An abstract or two would seem to fit nicely into that loose structure.

The other thing about abstracts is the frustration they can lead to - how they can tantalise and then disappoint. If your students are working without full journal access then, if nothing else, abstracts can be a way to initiate a discussion open access and knowledge.

Would be nice to hear how others use abstracts in class.

Postscript: Mura also wrote on abstracts with the added benefit of linking to genre (bio/medicine) specific examples here


  1. I retired a while ago so these exercises are 10 years old but I don't think the conventions for abstract writing have changed. The exercises can be done by students out of class, but I found it more productive if they were done in class - 2 students to a computer so that they had to discuss the exercises and agree on their answers.

    (By the way, the exercises on Constructing the paragraph are by Elizabeth Hanson-Smith - no relation of mine.)

  2. Hi Glenys,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    The links are wonderful - I'd never come across that webpage before. As you suggest, I'm going to try them out in class. Looks like a great resource - thanks for sharing.


  3. Really glad you enjoyed the workshop and it inspired you to exploit abstracts. Lots of great ideas here.

    I think I particularly like abstracts because they provide a kind of microcosm of academic writing. I often use an abstract at the start of an EAP course to demonstrate some of the features of academic language. Abstracts tend to be quite densely packed (long sentences, complex noun phrases) because the writer's trying to cram a lot into the word limit. It's interesting to get students to count how many words per sentence, find the main verb, etc., then help them to deconstruct the longer sentences - breaking them down into shorter SVO-type sentences. Then you ask them why the writer didn't use lots of short sentences (i.e. to be concise, to say a lot within a short word limit). Then you've got some of the what and the why of academic language all within a short, self-contained text.


    1. Thanks for commenting Julie. Yes, it was a really helpful workshop - very practical and with lots of great ideas. I agree with you - abstracts are really rich and the fact that they don't stretch over pages means they are really handy for in class activities. I like what you say about getting them back to SVO sentences - I have found with some of my students that "academic" English can seem somehow mysterious - that the grammar is very far removed from what they know. In that context, breaking it down to SVO as you suggest would be really helpful.

      Thanks again.


  4. Hi all

    thanks for linking to my post Stephen hope it has been useful

    you raised a question about your ideas being too teacher centric; we could use a corpus to get students to investigate themselves

    one good tool for this the the CARE concordancer [], it has applied linguistics and computer science full text and abstracts; what's even more useful is that it is annotated for moves plus it can highlight AWL words.

    so one possible task could be to copy paste examples of sentences from abstracts and ask students to match it to the moves (still teacher centric i admit!)

    after this one could then ask students to explore the CARE concordancer themselves; we could set guiding questions such as find the most common way to present background information in applied linguistics abstracts.


    1. Hi Mura,

      Thanks for commenting. Yes, your post was very useful. I've been trying (in my own limited way) to get students more involved by doing a bit of work with a corpus. The Sketch Engine one seems to be the one they get to grips with easiest - especially finding collocations - but I really must think of some good activities for them so as to scaffold it a bit more.

      When you say that it is annotated for moves, and "match it to the moves" what do you mean?

      Thanks again,

    2. hi
      the corpora is labelled in terms of certain regular forms that academic papers can take

      the move code table may help

      so the match moves refers to getting students to notice how certain parts of the abstract are written, note not used this myself as of yet : )

      hope that's clearer, do your students have institutional access to SkE?

    3. this search engine for science terms from Springer journals could be handy

    4. Thanks Mura. Unfortunately, my students don't have institutional access to SkE (that's Sketch Engine, right? :)

      I recently got them to use Sketch Engine in class because there is a particular assessment that it really helps with. The Springer link is really good as well - thanks for sharing.

      Slightly off topic but I was wondering if you had noticed that there are many teachers who are very passionate about corpora and others who find it intriguing but overwhelming. I'm more in the latter camp, I'm afraid.

      I've come across some very good blogs where teachers explain their love of corpora and the general principles but I was wondering if you'd come across any websites/blogs which show classroom activities/lesson plans that involve use of things like Sketch Engine?

      Thanks as always for taking the time to comment and share :)

    5. hi Stephen

      i would have a read of

      also the new site corpling4efl is good e.g.

      also do check the G+ community -