Chapter 1: Introduction

1.4.1 Essay 2: synthesis essay walkthrough and instructions

Julie Townsend

What to expect

Synthesis as cross-disciplinary literature review

The synthesis essay is similar to a literature review. Writers find three articles published in academic journals within the last three years, summarize each main section in their own words with correct in-text citation (including page numbers), and connect at least one of Gee’s concepts from “What is Literacy?” (primary, secondary, or dominant discourse; learning versus acquisition; or literacy) to the context they are researching. Writers overwhelmingly choose to research topics that are cross disciplinary: communication as a physical therapist, in a hospital, and on specific social media platforms, for instance. The academic fields mainly interested in these topics would be health sciences and technology, respectively. When writers tie in concepts from Gee, like discourse, into their research, they are making their topics cross disciplinary and bringing New Literacy Studies to the discipline they are interested in.

Students and instructors at Cleveland State University can access James Gee’s “What is Literacy?” here. If you are at another institution, check your own library database or Google Scholar for the article’s availability because it is not licensed as Creative Commons.

More thorough than a literature review, less sprawling

The synthesis essay is different from a literature review in a few ways. First-year writers are usually not familiar with academic articles in a discipline. To write a review of a topic in an academic discipline requires them to read and situate thirty (or more) articles. This is the work of graduate studies. The synthesis essay asks writers to go deep into academic articles and re-tell the stories of the research in their own words. This requires writers to ensure they have access to full versions of the academic articles (not only abstracts), to visit and browse each section of the article, and to put the article into their own vocabulary.

Using clear citation and avoiding plagiarism

One purpose of citation is to ensure that the reader knows exactly the moment when the writer is using a source and what that source is. Writers should introduce sources immediately when they use information from other writers. Writers also need to remind readers that they are using the source with signal phrases (author’s last name says) and in-text citation at the end of the sentences. Because this essay is mainly summarizing and paraphrasing sources, there should be a lot of signal phrases and a lot of page numbers in parenthesis. It is better to include more citations than necessary than too few. If a writer is unclear whether or not to include a signal phrase or in-text citation, they should re-read the section they are writing and ask themselves, “Would it be clear to an outside reader that this is from a source?” If not, include a citation.

This essay is not intended to be a plagiarism trap, but plagiarism does tend to occur the most in the sequence in this essay. First, what counts as plagiarism? Two, three, or four words in a row that are directly from the article without quotations is plagiarism. Even using one word from the article can be plagiarism. Of course, common words do not need to be in direct quotes. However, if the article is using a unique word that is not in the writer’s vocabulary, it’s best to put that singular word in quotes to give credit to the author for using that word. Writers should always include page numbers in parenthesis at the end of the sentence for paraphrasing, summary, and direct quotes. They will need to download the academic article to see the page numbers on the top or bottom of each page.

Essay resources

Instructions for writers with grading rubric

PowerPoint used in video walkthrough

Walkthrough video with closed captions


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