The use of theme as a textual organiser in undergraduate essays

Hewings, Ann and North, Sarah (2006). The use of theme as a textual organiser in undergraduate essays. In: Whittaker, Rachel; O'Donnell, Mick and McCabe, Anne eds. Language and Literacy: Functional Approaches. London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. 257–274.



This study focuses on the essays produced by students in two different disciplines, geography and history of science, to examine how far their writing may be affected by the nature of their previous disciplinary study. In particular, it considers the students' use of Theme, as a feature that is susceptible to discipline-specific variation. The paper questions a view of learning to write within a discipline as a simple unidirectional process. Our research suggests, firstly, that student writing demonstrates at least some disciplinary variation, such that what is valued in one context cannot be assumed to be valued equally in another context, and secondly, that students' success in writing within one disciplinary area may be affected by what they may have learned about writing through previous academic study. These results highlight the need for further cross-disciplinary research into student writing, in order to disentangle both the features that characterize good student writing in different disciplines (which are not necessarily the same as in professional academic writing), and the way that different influences, from a range of previous experiences, combine to shape a student's writing in any particular context. Without such understandings, it would be difficult to design effective strategies for supporting student writing in the disciplines.

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