Spanish students in British universities: developing a support resource to improve their academic writing skills

Author: Maria Carmen Gil Ortega


A substantial number of Spanish students enter British universities each year. Those students, like other international students, have to adapt not only to a new academic environment, but also to a new culture and a new way of communicating in a language that is not their native one. This piece of PhD research has analysed the difficulties that Spanish students have to face when studying in higher education in Britain.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


This paper will describe the work in progress being carried out as part of my PhD. An initial survey analyzed the main experiences that Spanish students had while studying in British universities. Their difficulties in adapting to living and studying in a new country were investigated. From the results of this survey we can conclude that Spanish students’ major difficulty and cause of stress while taking courses in British higher education institutions, is their lack of command of the English language. Spanish students have shown particular concerns with their inability to cope with the academic writing demands at university level. A support resource has been developed to tackle this problem.

The idea is to understand whether Spanish students who come to study in British universities will benefit from computer-mediated ways of learning to overcome their difficulties when writing English for Academic Purposes (EAP). A website is currently under construction to help this particular group of students. The definition of this support strategy arises from research carried out in several areas. First, on the evaluation of support mechanisms – traditional and electronic – already available for the area of EAP, in particular for improving academic writing skills; second, on the main errors that Spanish students make when writing academic English; and third, on the particular needs of this group of students. The content of the website includes theoretical presentations of particular topics in the areas of: spelling, vocabulary, grammar and general issues of academic writing. It also incorporates illustrations of problematic areas and examples of typical errors, as well as interactive exercises to practice the topics. Evaluation of the medium (website) in which the information will be presented is one of the main aims of my PhD.

During the last decades the number of students that enter British universities from European countries increases every year, among them, students from Spain. These students have to adapt to a new environment. Sometimes this process of adaptation to the unknown can lead to severe problems of stress and frustration.

The aim of this paper is to describe the nature of the problems that Spanish students have to face when studying in Higher Education in Britain and to outline the development and testing of an IT support strategy that could mitigate some of these problems.

What are the difficulties that Spanish students face?

After intensive qualitative and quantitative research carried out at the Universities of Brighton and Sussex, we can conclude that the difficulties that Spanish students face while studying in British tertiary education institutions fall into three main categories: cultural and social difficulties, problems of adaptation to the new academic system; and, the problem that persists for the longest, namely the English language itself.

Cultural and social adaptation

Within this category Spanish students tend to experience one or more of the following hurdles:

Culture shock: Moving from one culture into another can cause emotional discomfort and be a stressful experience. Getting used to the behaviour of people, the weather, the food, the opening and closing times of business, seems to be a burden for Spanish students.

Homesickness: missing people, things and places that they have left behind, is a common experience among Spaniards.

Social networks: In order to feel completely fulfilled by the experience of studying in Britain, students should ensure that they have well-balanced social relations while in Britain. However, the results show that although Spanish students bond easily with compatriots and other international students, the problem arises when trying develop relationships with host nationals. This difficulty will have an effect on their academic performance, because, as Bochner et al. (1984: 690) point out, English students would facilitate instrumentally their academic and professional aspirations, as well as having a positive effect on their language progress.

Other practicalities: Our results show that Spanish students in Brighton also face difficulties such as finding suitable accommodation or finding their way around during the first days of staying in the new environment. Additionally, one important cause of stress is the cost of living. Living in Spain is cheaper than in the U.K., Spanish students struggle to be able to support themselves while studying in Britain and some of them will decide to go and find paid work. This decision will have a detrimental effect on their academic progress.

Although all these difficulties trouble Spanish students and create anxiety among them during the first months of staying in Britain, they disappear after a while; only in unusual cases do these problems persist. In general it can be said that Spanish students enjoy their experience of living in Britain and they tend to overcome the cultural and social barriers very soon in their sojourn.

Adapting to a new academic system

Results from our survey underlined the differences between the British and Spanish academic systems. The emphasis throughout the Spanish educational system focuses upon rote learning and factual knowledge implying that students can achieve good marks studying set notes given by lecturers. Classes are larger and there is less individual contact with lecturers than is normal in the U.K. The system of discussion and argument in seminars and tutorials, as well as presentations, is unknown in Spain. In Spanish universities it is up to the lecturer to present what is to be learned. Thus, Spanish students at British Universities have to come to terms with an altogether different study style.

The results show that Spanish students adapt easily to the British educational system. They cope with different styles of teaching and learning in a very positive way. The great majority of the Spanish students are happy with the British educational system and prefer it to the Spanish one. Nevertheless, Spanish students had some difficulties which can be traced back to the influence of the home educational system that they were brought up with. The main problems lay in joining in-class discussions and in being able to write in an appropriate academic style. These difficulties might also be due to inadequate command of the English language, although the main reason seems to be that Spanish students are not accustomed to active and independent methods of study.

Language difficulties

Language difficulties are revealed as a very important cause of distress and dissatisfaction among Spanish students. Bad command of the English language is considered not only a potential cause for academic failure but also the main reason for emotional discontent. Our results show that the least problematic skill is reading and understanding articles and books on their academic discipline. They are able to do this from early on in the course. They also have few problems following lectures, probably due to the slower and clearer mode of delivery and the provision of visual aids during lectures, such as transparencies, handouts, etc.

The main problems appear when Spanish students have to participate in seminar discussions and/or tutorials. They are not only embarrassed to speak English but they also lack the vocabulary and fluency to have this kind of interaction. Another language problem they face within the university is that of academic writing. A large number of Spanish students reported that they had not been taught academic writing skills before arrival. They find it extremely difficult to structure an essay and to write critically. Since writing appropriate English is very important for academic success because students’ final grades will normally depend on the way in which they can present their knowledge in a written way and the fact that academic writing is found to be particularly difficult, the creation and evaluation of a support strategy that can address this specific task is the main aim of the next stage of the investigation.

Possible solutions to tackle academic writing difficulties

The kind of solutions already available to tackle the problem of academic writing are based on either traditional methods, namely EAP taught courses and printed materials, or on using new technologies, such as software packages and websites.

All universities offer, nowadays, academic support, in the form of taught courses, for international students. These courses focus on EAP together with study skills, and include academic cultural orientation and remedial language work. Writing skills have a high priority, together with seminar skills. In some cases this support is free for university students, but in other cases students have to pay a small fee to be able to benefit from this service. The quality of these courses is normally good, offering students not only a possibility to improve their academic English skills, but also to meet other international students who have similar difficulties with the English language and with the British academic culture. However, our results show that only very few Spanish students make use of this facility. Students have very high demands on their time, and since these taught courses are, in most cases, not compulsory, paradoxically students prefer to concentrate on their other commitments to finish their degree successfully They might also have difficulties with timetable clashes and, although most Spanish students consider academic English courses as a useful support provided by the university, they do not take full advantage of it.

Other traditional methods that help students to improve their academic writing skills are printed materials such as EAP textbooks. As has been mentioned before, there is a growing number of students coming from foreign countries, where English is not a native or second language, to study in Britain and other English-speaking countries. Therefore, for the last decades, there has been, all around the world, an emphasis on EAP material design. Good EAP textbooks are now available. They use different approaches providing great variety. Nevertheless, textbooks by nature address a wide audience and are not designed to fulfill the needs of a specific group of learners.

Another type of solution that can be used in order to mitigate language difficulties is that offered by new technologies. Nowadays, a number of higher education institutions, not only in Britain but also all around the world, are making attempts to include and make the most of new technologies for teaching and learning. It is against this background that we became interested in experimenting with electronic learning environments. Delivering courses ‘online’ via the Internet has the potential to provide flexible education for students who may have many conflicting demands on their time. Online courses enable more choice over time, place and pace of study.

Pedagogically, many practitioners believe that learning via new technologies has the potential to be more active and reflective than traditional methods. However, using new technologies does not automatically improve traditional teaching materials and these materials need to be redesigned with reference to pedagogical theories. As Mason says, “...the effectiveness of any medium is invariably dependent on exploiting the unique characteristics of that medium” (Mason 1999: 45). This challenging nature plus the potential advantages that IT has to offer to support learning has made new technologies, and in particular web-based materials, the focus of our investigation.

Advantages of using website materials

The main advantage of using a website is that of accessibility. A website can be easily accessed by anyone, at anytime, from any part of the world providing that there is an Internet connection. As mentioned above students have conflicting demands on their time, thus, it is convenient for them to have a choice over time, place and pace of study.

Websites allow the use of a combination of multimedia tools. Videos, sound, animations, pictures, and texts can be implemented to create a multisensory learning environment which, as Slater and Varney-Burch (2001: 3) claim, supports individual learning styles and can be tailored to match individual learners’ needs. The use of multimedia also increases students’ motivation and helps them to maintain interest and attention.

Another advantage of using a website approach to learning a language is that of flexibility. Materials can be easily changed and new resources can be incorporated to ensure that students have access to updated information. Instant access to dictionary entries, glossaries, grammar explanations, examples of correct pronunciation and cultural background information may also be incorporated to provide a more complete background for language learning.

Possibly one of the most significant advantages to the provision of a course via a website is the positive influence that it can have on students’ motivation. Firstly, because of the novelty of the medium there is a fun factor. Secondly, because of its structure it enables opportunities for learners to control their studies. The non-linear way of arranging information allows students to become active in seeking information and constructing their own learning experience. As Mason (1998) points out they become self-directed in terms of the choices they have in selecting their own learning paths; that is, they can select the materials they need to work with, the order in which they want to work through these materials and the pace at which they want to work at. In terms of pedagogy this is a very important feature. As Warschauer states, although referring more to the use of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) and e-mail:

Students think that computers can help them learn better and more independently and feel that they have more control of their learning and more opportunities to practice English (Warschauer, 1996).

The third factor that increases students’ motivation is the interactivity offered by the website. Students have the opportunity of getting immediate, frequent feedback. For example a computer-based well-written exercise which provides detailed feedback for every answer invites students to work through the activity as they go. It is like having a teacher at one’s side all the time, checking all the answers and giving advice. However, a paper-based exercise does not provide this facility. The student might have the right answers at the back of the book, but he or she will miss, among others, the response to incorrect answers and the helpful comments provided by the computer.

Development of a website to support Spanish students academic writing

Having taken into account the support already available to improve students’ academic writing skills and the advantages that new technologies, in particular web-based materials, offer to mitigate language problems, a decision was taken to design a website, specific to Spanish students, in order to reduce the difficulties that they have to face when writing assignments in English.


The design of the content was based on the most common mistakes that Spanish students make when writing in English. These mistakes fall into four different areas: spelling, vocabulary, grammar and general issues of academic writing. The process of writing represents the culmination of all these four skills. The proposition is that students gain confidence by realising that by avoiding making mistakes in each of these areas, they considerably improve their general academic writing skills.

The resource was structured into four different colour-coded sections that can be accessed in any order. Students navigate and move freely around the site. They encounter brief presentations or explanations of specific topics; examples and illustrations of correct and incorrect use of the English language such as typical mistakes made by Spanish speakers and interactive activities.

The structure of the resource was kept simple. Having also taken into account that the learner-users will be university students from any discipline, linguistic competence is not assumed, and detailed knowledge of grammatical terms is therefore not required. The metalanguage used, for presentation of topics and instructions to activities is Spanish, in order to address a specific audience whose main commonality is the use of the same first language. Additionally, by using Spanish for explanations and instructions ambiguities are avoided and Spanish students with lower command in the English language are also able to use the resource without problems.

Design of interactive activities

The activities, through which the students practise on aspects of the English language, were created with an authoring software package called Hot Potatoes. One of the main advantages of this software is that it is easy to use, allowing non-expert computer users to design relatively professional web-based exercises that can be accessed by students at any Internet-capable computer terminal with a standard Web browser. Hot Potatoes uses both HTML and JavaScript, however, one does not need to know these languages to create the activities.

Hot Potatoes allows the design of activities in which students are not required to compose
complete passages so the input is limited. Nevertheless, students can still be required to work in the target language character set, and to develop an awareness of syntax, spelling rules, vocabulary items and other features needed to write accurate academic English. Additionally, Hot Potatoes facilitates the insertion of texts that can be shown to the student as examples of accurate English written compositions.

To conclude, we can say the type of short writing exercises that can be created with Hot
Potatoes are ideally suited to familiarization work. Providing activities do not bore students, repetitive tasks will help them to understand and memorise new language elements so that they can be integrated with what they already know. Another pedagogical strength of Hot Potatoes is that it enables the use of devices, which will ensure the students’ cognitive involvement during the learning process. The first of them is the ability to insert hints or clues. As students work towards the correct answer, the learner’s cognitive processes are engaged more than if a simple right/wrong interface was used. Similarly, the instant feedback that can be programmed for wrong answers make students aware of why they are making a mistake and, hopefully, come to some understanding of how to correct it.


To conclude, it is important to reiterate the difficulties that Spanish students have to face when taking courses in British educational institutions, the most salient of them being the English language and in particular academic writing. A solution has been developed to alleviate the severity of the problem. At this stage we cannot conclude that computer-mediated methods will make a positive contribution. However, the website, which is currently under construction, will be evaluated by a sample of Spanish students, who will be not only observed while using the site, but also interviewed after they have used it. Additionally, their performance will also be monitored, in order to have factual information about their progress with the English language.

Computer-mediated solutions to language problems do not automatically improve traditional teaching and learning materials. Therefore, it is important not to get carried away with the capabilities of technology. The literature suggests that to benefit from its advantages, a website must be kept simple. Information has to be clear and not overwhelming. Since complex graphics slow the process of downloading and consequently might cumulatively aggravate students irritability, they have to be avoided. Backgrounds should increase readability and be easily printable. Navigation has to be achieved by a clear and consistent navigation tool, a facility to return to the homepage without scrolling and links that work. Getting lost in the multiple layers of a website can only confuse students and obstruct learning processes. Following all these guidelines to design the website and afterwards trialling it should give us a clearer idea of what we can expect from computer-mediated materials in terms of effectively supporting academic writing.