Books That Move Us: They Say/I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff

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How many essays have you written for academic purposes?

It is likely that if you are reading this, you have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.  Let’s say that while earning said bachelor’s degree, you took an average of 5 classes in the fall semester and 5 classes in the spring semester for 4 years.  That is 40 classes over the course of your college career. Now, let’s say each class required 2 essays to be written at some point during the semester. (And let’s be honest— that is a very conservative estimate given that most of us were English majors.)  So that is 80 essays total for a bachelor’s degree. If those essays were only 2 pages each (again, being conservative here), that is 160 pages written to earn a degree.

160 pages.  Not including any additional academic writing completed prior to college while in high school or afterward in graduate school.

Because we’ve written these 160+ pages, we can all write the heck out of an academic essay.  I don’t even have to think about parenthetical citations; my fingers automatically reach for the parentheses key as soon as I close up a quotation from one of my sources.  Academic phrases such as “Thus, I propose…” and “A myriad of evidence exists…” come second nature.

But it is not this easy for our students.  Some of mine can probably count the total number of pages of academic writing they have written over the course of their entire education on their two hands.  Yet we get so frustrated when they’re not able to write with the same vocabulary and precision that it’s taken us so many years to master.

This feeling of frustration was what led me to read this version of They Say/I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  Newer versions of this text exist, but this was what I happened to stumble upon one day when I found it on my librarian’s desk.

60-Second Book Review

They Say/I Say “demystifies” what it means to produce a piece of academic writing.  The book opens by explaining the purpose of the genre as “entering into conversation” with others (1).  To further explain what they mean, Birkenstein and Graff include an excerpt from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form:

“You come late.  When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about…You listen for a while, until you decided that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.” (13)

While academic writing is all about “putting in your oar” and contributing to an important discussion, Birkenstein and Graff acknowledge that writers who do this rely on specific sets of moves and skills that they have practiced over and over.  The goal of the book, they explain, is to be a “short, user-friendly guide to the basic moves of academic writing” to help students master the art (1).

To break down the moves of academic writing, the authors include tons of templates throughout the book.  In Chapter 1, for example, they emphasize the importance of incorporating what others are saying into the text.  Birkenstein and Graff provide sentence stems such as, “It has become common today to dismiss ________” and “In their recent work, Y and Z have offered harsh critiques of ________ for  ________” to help students get a feel for what this might look like and give them some ideas to get started (23).

My Big Writing Takeaways

When I read my students’ end-of-the-year reflections last year, I remember getting frustrated because a student wrote she didn’t like writing academic essays because she wasn’t allowed to include her own opinion.  How could she not realize that making an original argument was a key characteristic of academic writing? But as soon as I read Birkenstein and Graff’s definition of academic writing as “entering a conversation,” my student’s reflection made so much sense to me.  I had not broken down and explained the most basic purpose of the genre. She thought it was all about gathering and repeating information from other sources. And honestly, if that’s what I thought about academic writing, I wouldn’t like it either.

With that said, They Say/I Say is the book I always needed but never knew I did.  I didn’t realize how important it is to slow down and help students understand the characteristics of the genre.  This is probably because this never happened to me…I, like many others, was assigned academic writing as a student.  And somewhere in the 160+ pages of practice I got while in college, I mastered the skill. I no longer have to think about the moves I make when I’m writing academically, but the same is not true of my students.  And this book reminded me that I owe it to them to ease them into this unfamiliar terrain. Ultimately, it was refreshing to realize that my students are, in fact, capable of the critical thinking skills necessary to sustain a well-written argument; they just need some tools in their toolbox before they can get there.

How I Hope to Use It

Right now, my students are getting their feet wet with academic writing.  I showed them a couple mentor texts last week so they could have an example in mind and understand some of the main characteristics of the genre.  Next, I plan to have them try their own hand at academic writing by having them write an essay in response to a podcast we listened to together in class.

I’m going to do a 2 week unit using excerpts of They Say/I Say after my students draft their first academic essay for a few reasons.  First, identifying the strengths and weaknesses in my students’ writing will help me know exactly what areas of They Say/I Say we need to cover.  If I notice my students are struggling to incorporate an original opinion, for example, I will be sure to have them read that chapter and do the accompanying exercise to help them practice the skill.  Second, reading about new writing moves sinks in a lot better when there is a recent piece of writing to reference. I know the chapter on summary would make a lot more sense to me if I just wrote a sub-par summary a few days ago.  For this reason, I plan to have students reflect on their biggest takeaway from each chapter they read. When we are finished with the They Say/I Say unit, my goal is for them to have tons of ideas for improving their original drafts.

I also think the templates in They Say/I Say will make great mini-lessons throughout the semester.  They are such a great way to work through a skill students are struggling with.  For example, if I notice that students are reluctant to agree and disagree with something simultaneously, I might put this template on the board: “Though I concede that ________, I still insist that ________” (65).  This template is a great way to illustrate how academics might approach agreeing with part of an argument but not another. It also allows them to see that simply agreeing or disagreeing aren’t the only ways to enter a conversation.

Should You Buy the Book?

If academic essays are a mandatory part of your curriculum and/or you teach older students and want them to feel prepared for the style of writing they will do in college— then yes!  You should absolutely buy They Say/I Say.  I have the book listed on my class syllabus as my textbook for the course since my students will be explicitly reading chapters from it and doing some of the activities.  However, you may not have the resources (whether it be time or money) to invest in a unit like I plan to do. If that’s the case, you should still buy a copy to keep in your classroom.  As I explained before, the templates are such a great resource to turn to when students are struggling with a specific skill. Even if you only pull a few ideas out for mini-lessons, it’s totally worth the investment.


What are some ways you have “demystified” academic writing for your students? Have you used They Say/I Say in the classroom?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!


  1. I give the templates from They Say/I Say to my students for their Kelly Gallagher-type Article of the Week assignments. The students are required to use the templates in paragraph 1 where they summarize the articles. I find the repetition of using these stems helps them do literary analysis of evidence in other essays. This book has been invaluable!

  2. I have just started using that book in my sophomore English class and my Business English class. The vocabulary is pretty high level for some of my kids, but they are getting the hang of “the point” of using those articles as mentor text. It’s been a great resource for me. Thanks for sharing.

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