Embracing different semiotic modes in undergraduate assignments

Leedham, Maria (2012). Embracing different semiotic modes in undergraduate assignments. In: Writing Development in Higher Education (WDHE), 2-4 Jul 2012, Liverpool University.


The traditional focus within English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teaching of writing in Higher Education is on language produced as linear prose within genres such as the essay, report or case study. While attention is increasingly paid to disciplinary variation and, to a lesser extent, the different range of genres required in assessment, little research has been conducted on additional semiotic modes which may be employed. This paper focuses on resources such as images and layout and the way these combine with language in undergraduate student writing.

Data is taken from the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus and comparisons are made between Chinese and British students’ assessed writing in UK universities. Initial corpus linguistic investigations revealed the Chinese students’ far higher usage of graphs, diagrams, and images (or ‘visuals’), compared with the British students’ assignments in the same disciplines. Combining graphic representations with prose description may provide a more succinct way of conveying meaning than simply relying on language alone, and is particularly favoured in the more visual disciplines (e.g. Biological Sciences).

Interviews with discipline lecturers (n=58) are drawn on to investigate attitudes towards the use of visuals within student academic writing and to challenge notions of ‘good’ writing often held by EAP tutors. Since writing tutors usually have backgrounds within the humanities, they are more accustomed to the essayist tradition of writing and rarely teach students how to use non-linguistic semiotic modes. The resulting privileging of continuous prose over the use of graphs, diagrams, and images disadvantages not only those students who need to acquire competence in the production and comprehension of visuals in disciplines such as Biological Sciences, Economics and Engineering (cf. Kaldor & Rochecouste, 2002), but also those who may be more visually-oriented or who may find it preferable to provide part of their response through graphical means. Competence in ‘graphic literacy’ is increasingly important in a Web 2.0 world, and this paper argues that writing tutors and other UK academics should embrace the use of a range of semiotic modes in university assignments.


Kaldor, S., & Rochecouste, J. (2002). General academic writing and discipline specific academic writing. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 25(2), 29-47.

Leedham, M.E. (2009). From traditional essay to 'Ready Steady Cook' presentation: Reasons for innovative changes in assignments. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10(3), 191–206.

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