Embracing different semiotic modes in undergraduate assignments

Leedham, Maria (2012). Embracing different semiotic modes in undergraduate assignments. In: British Association of Applied Linguists (BAAL), 6-8 Sep 2012, Southampton University.

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The traditional focus within the teaching of academic writing in HE is on language produced as linear prose within genres such as the essay, report or case study (Leedham, 2009; Nesi and Gardner, 2006). While attention is increasingly paid to disciplinary variation and, to a lesser extent, the different range of genres required, little research has been conducted on the use of additional semiotic modes. This paper focuses on how resources such as images and layout combine with language in undergraduate student writing.

Data is taken from the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus (Nesi, 2011) and comparisons are made between Chinese and British students’ assessed writing in UK universities. Corpus linguistic investigations revealed the Chinese students’ far higher usage of graphs, diagrams, and images (or ‘visuals’) and of writing within a list format compared with the British students’ assignments in the same disciplines (Leedham, 2012). Combining graphic representations with prose description or presenting a methodology or conclusion section in a list format can provide a more succinct way of conveying meaning than simply relying on linear prose, and is particularly favoured in the more visual disciplines (e.g. Biological Sciences). Since all assignments in the BAWE corpus have been given a high score by discipline tutors, the combinations of different semiotic modes are clearly viewed as acceptable in proficient texts.

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 writing tutors. A survey of writing tutors carried out for this presentation reveals that the majority have first degrees within the arts and humanities and have little study or work experience within the sciences. Writing tutors are thus more accustomed to the essayist tradition of writing and less confident in teaching students how to use non-linguistic semiotic modes (cf. Johns, 1998). 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, but also those who may be more visually-oriented. Competence in ‘graphic literacy’ is increasingly important in a Web 2.0 world (Sorapure, 2011), and this paper argues that writing tutors and other UK academics should embrace the use of a broad range of semiotic modes at undergraduate level.

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