English academic writing difficulties of engineering students at the tertiary level in China

Gengsheng Xiao & Xin Chen

University of South China

Hengyang, Hunan, People’s Republic of China

ABSTRACT: English academic writing has long been Chinese university students’ most awkward language skill, something which is especially true of engineering students. Since the Excellent Engineer Education and Training Program was launched at the tertiary level all over China in 2010, great emphasis has been placed on the cultivation of engineering students’ English academic writing skills. In such an educational context, the present study was undertake 
via a survey of 285 engineering sophomores, to gain a thorough knowledge of engineering students’ difficulties in English writing. The findings indicate that the difficulties that engineering students have in English academic writing lie in three aspects, i.e. content, structure and language. It was also found that lack of language knowledge is the severest problem for engineering students to undertake writing tasks, with content presentation being the second difficult and
structure planning the last. Hence, teachers are suggested to take into consideration engineering students’ English writing difficulties, and take effective pedagogical measures to remove the barriers to successful academic writing.


Effective communication has been recognised as an essential skill for engineering graduates [1]. With the rapid development of international communication and cooperation, English writing plays an increasingly important role in intercultural written communication, and the cultivation of English writing skills has been gradually emphasised in engineering education. In the context of China, English teachers devote considerable time and energy to helping students develop their writing competence, which, unfortunately, has proven to be ineffective. Although teachers have made arduous efforts to optimise all the teaching steps, including the design of writing topics, the organisation of classroom activities forwriting and the correction of compositions, Chinese students have not made due improvements in their writing skills, and their writing has still been found to be the most awkward among all the four language skills, i.e. listening, speaking, reading and writing [2]. Accordingly, some studies have been conducted in China to explore what difficulties students have in academic writing [3][4]. Their research findings reveal that Chinese students’ writing difficulties lie in various aspects, including colloquialism of language, inappropriate use of words, monotony of language use, Chinese style of discourse, empty content, etc. However, the findings of previous studies are inconsistent and, moreover, they are mainly based on the analysis of students’ compositions, with students’ inner feelings ignored. Therefore, it is vital to know students’ cognition and attitude toward their academic writing difficulties. Moreover, second language acquisition is a complex process, which is greatly influenced by a series of internal factors (e.g. aptitude, intelligence, age, gender, motivation, cognitive style and personality) and external factors (social context, family environment, educational background, classroom setting) [5]. Hence, learners from different educational backgrounds are certain to acquire a foreign languages with differential success and encounter different language learning difficulties. University students majoring in different disciplines are exposed to considerably different educational surroundings and academic environment, and as a result, they are bound to face different difficulties when they try to develop their English academic writing skills. At present, the engineering discipline is significant in Chinese tertiary education, and great emphasis has been placed on the education of engineering students [6]. To meet social needs for qualified engineers, the Excellent Engineer  ducation and Training Program was launched at the tertiary level all over China in 2010 [7]. Intercultural communication skills have been identified to be critical for engineering graduates, and English academic writing has been considered as an essential skill for them to conduct international communication and cooperation. Hence, in order to better develop their English academic writing skills, this article aims to investigate the English writing difficulties of Chinese engineering students at the tertiary level. 



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