Future Foresight and Planning Resources: Writing a Literature Review


Writing a LIterature Review

Outline your literature review's structure

There are various approaches to organizing the body of a literature review. Depending on the length of your literature review, you can combine several of these strategies (for example, your overall structure might be thematic, but each theme is discussed chronologically).

Chronological: The simplest approach is to trace the development of the topic over time. However, avoid simply listing and summarizing sources in order if you choose this strategy.

Try to analyze patterns, turning points, and key debates that have shaped the direction of the field. Give your interpretation of how and why certain developments occurred.

Thematic: If you have found some recurring central themes, you can organize your literature review into subsections that address different aspects of the topic.

For example, if you are reviewing literature about inequalities in migrant health outcomes, key themes might include healthcare policy, language barriers, cultural attitudes, legal status, and economic access.

Methodological: If you draw your sources from different disciplines or fields that use various research methods, you might want to compare the results and conclusions that emerge from different approaches. For example:

  • Look at what results have emerged in qualitative versus quantitative research
  • Discuss how the topic has been approached by empirical versus theoretical scholarship
  • Divide the literature into sociological, historical, and cultural sources

Theoretical: A literature review is often the foundation for a theoretical framework. You can use it to discuss various theories, models, and definitions of key concepts.

You might argue for the relevance of a specific theoretical approach, or combine various theoretical concepts to create a framework for your research.


Synthesis Matrix

To more easily determine the similarities and dissimilarities among your sources, you can create a visual representation of their main ideas with a synthesis matrix. This is a tool you can use when researching and writing your paper, not a part of the final text. In a synthesis matrix, each column represents one source, and each row represents a common theme or idea among the sources. In the relevant rows, fill in a summary of how the source treats each theme or topic.
This helps you to see the commonalities or points of divergence among your sources. You can then synthesize these sources in your work by explaining their relationship.

  Lenneberg (1967)
Johnson and Newport (1988)
Schepens, van Hout, and van der Slik (2022)
Approach Primarily theoretical, due to the ethical implications of delaying the age at which humans are exposed to language Testing the English grammar proficiency of 46 native Korean or Chinese speakers who moved to the US between the ages of 3 and 39 (all participants had lived in the US for at least 3 years at the time of testing) Analyzing the results of 56,024 adult immigrants to the Netherlands from 50 different language backgrounds
Enabling factors in language acquisition A critical period between early infancy and puberty, after which language acquisition capabilities decline A critical period (following Lenneberg) General age effects (outside of a contested critical period), as well as the similarity between a learner’s first language and target language
Barriers to language acquisition Aging
Aging (following Lenneberg)
Aging as well as the dissimilarity between a learner’s first language and target language


Writing Your Literature Review

Like any other academic text, your literature review should have an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. What you include in each depends on the objective of your literature review.

The introduction should establish the focus and purpose of the literature review.

If you are writing the literature review as part of your paper, reiterate your central problem or research question and summarize the scholarly context. You can emphasize the timeliness of the topic (“many recent studies have focused on the problem of x”) or highlight a gap in the literature (“while there has been much research on x, few researchers have taken y into consideration”).

Depending on the length of your literature review, you might want to divide the body into subsections. You can use a subheading for each theme, time period, or methodological approach.

As you write, you can follow these tips:

  • Summarize and synthesize: give an overview of the main points of each source and combine them into a coherent whole
  • Analyze and interpret: don’t just paraphrase other researchers—add your interpretations where possible, discussing the significance of findings in relation to the literature as a whole
  • Critically evaluate: mention the strengths and weaknesses of your sources
  • Write in well-structured paragraphs: use transition words and topic sentences to draw connections, comparisons, and contrasts

In the conclusion, you should summarize the key findings you have taken from the literature and emphasize their significance.

Be sure to show how your research addresses gaps and contributes new knowledge, or discuss how you have drawn on existing theories and methods to build a framework for your research.

When you’ve finished writing and revising your literature review, don’t forget to proofread thoroughly before submitting. 

Bad Syntesis Example

This paragraph provides no context for the information and does not explain the relationships between the sources described. It also doesn’t analyze the sources or consider gaps in existing research.

Lenneberg (1967) theorized that language acquisition could occur only within a critical development period between infancy and puberty. Johnson and Newport (1988) have researched the capability of young people to learn a second language. Their findings suggest that young learners acquire a second language more easily than older learners. Schepens, van Hout, and van der Slik (2022) have found that age and language dissimilarity play a role in adults’ abilities to acquire a second language.

Effective Synthesis

To synthesize sources, group them around a specific theme or point of contention.

The synthesis begins by characterizing the general approach of the sources that will be discussed, pointing out what they have in common.Research on the barriers to second language acquisition has primarily focused on age-related difficulties. It then emphasizes the connection between two specific sources and notes how one builds on the findings of the otherBuilding on Lenneberg’s (1967) theory of a critical period of language acquisition, Johnson and Newport (1988) tested Lenneberg’s idea in the context of second language acquisition. Their research seemed to confirm that young learners acquire a second language more easily than older learners. Once it has emphasized connections between sources, it highlights research that's in disagreement with existing research and provides an alternative view of the problemRecent research has considered other potential barriers to language acquisition. Schepens, van Hout, and van der Slik (2022) have revealed that the difficulties of learning a second language at an older age are compounded by dissimilarity between a learner’s first language and the language they aim to acquire The paragraph ends by considering what's missing from the discussion above, indicating a gap in the existing research. Further research needs to be carried out to determine whether the difficulty faced by adult monoglot speakers is also faced by adults who acquired a second language during the “critical period.”

Synthesizing Sources

Synthesizing sources involves combining the work of other scholars to provide new insights. It’s a way of integrating sources that helps situate your work in relation to existing research.

Synthesizing sources involves more than just summarizing. It would be best to emphasize how each source contributes to current debates, highlighting points of (dis)agreement and putting the sources in conversation.

You might synthesize sources in your literature review to give an overview of the field or throughout your research paper when you want to position your work in relation to existing research.

Questions to Ask When Synthesizing Sources

As you read sources, ask:

  • What questions or ideas recur? Do the sources focus on the same points, or do they look at the issue differently?
  • How does each source relate to others? Does it confirm or challenge the findings of past research?
  • Where do the sources agree or disagree?

Once you have a clear idea of how each source positions itself, put them in conversation with each other. Analyze and interpret their points of agreement and disagreement. This displays the relationships among sources and creates a sense of coherence.

Consider both implicit and explicit (dis)agreements. Whether one source specifically refutes another or happens to come to different conclusions without specifically engaging with it, you can mention it in your synthesis either way.

How to Synthesize Sources

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