Writing in tables and lists: a study of Chinese students’ undergraduate assignments in UK universities

Leedham, Maria (2012). Writing in tables and lists: a study of Chinese students’ undergraduate assignments in UK universities. In: Tang, Ramona ed. Academic Writing in a Second or Foreign Language: Issues and Challenges Facing ESL / EFL Academic Writers in Higher Education Contexts. London: Continuum, pp. 146–166.

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Chinese people now comprise the ‘largest single overseas student group in the UK’ with more than 85,000 registered at UK institutions in 2009 (British Council, 2010). While there have been many studies carried out on short pieces of writing from this group (e.g. Chuang & Nesi, 2006) and Master’s level theses (eg. Hyland, 2008), there has been comparatively little corpus research carried out on Chinese students’ undergraduate writing. This chapter explores the writing of 30 Chinese undergraduate students studying in UK universities in the first decade of the twenty-first century. A corpus of these students’ assignments (n=104) from five disciplines (Biological Sciences, Food Science, Engineering, Business and Economics) was extracted from the British Academic Written English corpus (Nesi, et al., 2005). Additionally, the assignments of 71 first language (L1) English undergraduate students from the same disciplines (295 texts) were also compiled from BAWE to provide a comparison corpus. Unlike many studies of second language (L2) English writing, however, the L1 English corpus is not intended to be normative since both sets of assignments are successful with scores of 60% or higher (equivalent to 2:1 or I class in the UK system).
This chapter concentrates on two features from the writing of each student group: the use of tables, figures, images and diagrams (henceforth collectively referred to as ‘visuals’) and the use of writing formatted as lists. These features were revealed to be of interest through a keyword analysis which indicated that lexical items such as figure, refer and graph and also numbers were employed significantly more frequently by the L1 Chinese students than by the L1 English students. Counts of tagged visuals and lists in the corpora confirmed this difference, and analysis of the two student corpora by year groups suggested that disparity in the use of lists in particular becomes more pronounced over the three years of undergraduate study. Following the corpus analysis, pairs of texts with the same assignment title by L1 Chinese and L1 English students in each of Biological Sciences and Economics (n=4) were examined in detail to explore the ways in which visuals and lists are used in the writing. It is suggested that these are used by L1 Chinese students as strategies for meeting the many current challenges which confront all undergraduate students in UK universities today, and that these are useful strategies which could be employed by both L1 and L2 English students.

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