Abstract This paper examines the use of portfolios as pedagogical tools for developing academic writing. In particular, it considers the value of multi-drafting, where learners reflect on the learning of a text type as well as focusing on micro and macro aspects. The paper outlines a situated pedagogical approach, where students come to understand their improvement across three portfolio drafts and evaluate their learning reflectively. A multicultural group of 41 learners enrolled in the degree-level course ‘Academic Writing’ at a tertiary institution in New Zealand participated in a study evaluating the portfolio approach to building awareness of their own writing. Focus group interviews provided qualitative data, analysed using a grounded theory approach. Triangulating data came from student reflective memoranda written in response to each drafting process. We conclude that a multi-draft portfolio is an effective assessment tool, not only because it provides a feedback loop but also because it enhances learners’ understanding of writing as a recursive process. This provides them with aspects of academic writing literacy such as self-editing and the insight to reorganise academic texts by applying target genre and discourse knowledge.