A corpus-driven study of features of Chinese students' undergraduate writing in UK universities

Leedham, Maria Elizabeth (2011). A corpus-driven study of features of Chinese students' undergraduate writing in UK universities. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000722c


Chinese people now comprise the ‘largest single overseas student group in the UK’ with more than 85,000 Chinese students registered at UK institutions in 2009 (British Council, 2010a). While there have been many studies carried out on short argumentative essays from this group (e.g. Chen, 2009), and on postgraduate theses (e.g. Hyland, 2008b), there has been comparatively little research conducted on the high-stakes genre of undergraduate assignments. This study examines assessed writing from Chinese and British undergraduates studying in UK universities between 2000 and 2008; these are investigated using corpus linguistic procedures, supported by qualitative reading.

A particular focus is the use of lexical chunks, or recurring strings of words. Findings from the literature on Chinese students’ written English indicate high use of informal chunks, connecting chunks, and those containing first person pronouns (e.g. Milton, 1999). This study found that while the Chinese students make greater use of particular connectors and the first person plural, both student groups make (limited) use of informal language. These areas of difference are more apparent in year 1/2 assignments than those from year 3, suggesting that students gradually conform to the academy’s expectations. Unexpected findings which have not been previously identified in the literature include Chinese students’ significantly higher use of tables, figures (or ‘visuals’) and lists, compared to the British students’ writing. Detailed exploration of writing within Biology, Economics and Engineering suggests that using visuals and lists are different, yet equally acceptable, ways of writing assignments.

Since the writing of both student groups has been judged by discipline specialists to be of a high standard, it is argued that the difference in use of visuals and lists illustrates the range of acceptability at undergraduate level. The thesis proposes that scholars therefore need to consider expanding the notion of what constitutes ‘good’ student writing.

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