Writing in tables and lists: exploring multimodal undergraduate writing through keyword searches

Leedham, Maria (2011). Writing in tables and lists: exploring multimodal undergraduate writing through keyword searches. In: ICAME 32 Oslo 2011: Trends and Traditions in English Corpus Linguistics: In Honour of Stig Johansson, 1-5 Jun 2011, Oslo, Norway.

URL: http://www.uio.no/icame2011


Chinese people now comprise the 'largest single overseas student group in the UK' with more than 85,000 registered at UK educational institutions in 2009 (British Council, 2010). While Chinese students' academic writing in English has been explored through corpora comprising short argumentative essays (e.g. Mayor et al, 2007; Chuang and Nesi, 2006), or postgraduate theses (e.g. Hyland, 2008), there has been comparatively little corpus research carried out on their undergraduate level writing, despite the high-stakes nature of this assessment. This paper explores a 170,000-word corpus of undergraduate assignments from first language (L1) Chinese students within 5 disciplines in UK universities, comparing this with a reference corpus of 580,000 words from L1 English students in the same disciplines (the majority of the data is extracted from the British Academic Written English corpus, Nesi, 2008). A keyword and key n-gram search is initially employed as a way in to uncovering differences in the writing of each student group; this is followed by searches for tagged non-linguistic items, and examination of concordance lines, collocates and dispersion plots to follow up the context of key items.
The paper focuses on two major differences between the student groups, namely the Chinese students' extensive use of visual elements such as tables, figures, images and diagrams, and their higher use of writing formatted as lists rather than as continuous prose. It is hypothesised that use of these features are strategies for L1 Chinese students who have to meet the challenge of producing multiple, extended pieces of writing in their second language. Presenting information using visual elements to support and extend ideas in the written language, and making points within a list format allow students to convey their thoughts clearly and effectively and in a more visually-oriented manner, while reducing the quantity of connected prose they have to produce.
Recent work within the field of multimodal analysis has highlighted the role of non-linguistic resources such as images and layout in all areas of communication (see Jewitt, 2009, for an overview). Exploring multimodality within corpus linguistics entails a focus beyond traditionally-privileged linear text, and this study explores the extent to which traditional corpus procedures can be used in the new 'trend' for multimodal corpora.

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