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Developing and Assessing Academic and Professional Writing Skills


Edited By Susanne Göpferich and Imke Neumann

Academic literacy used to be considered a complex set of skills that develop automatically as a by-product of academic socialization. Since the Bologna Reform with its shorter degree programmes, however, it has been realized that these skills need to be fostered actively. Simultaneously, writing skills development at all levels of education has been faced with the challenge of increasingly multilingual and multicultural groups of pupils and students. This book addresses the questions of how both academic and professional writing skills can be fostered under these conditions and how the development of writing skills can be measured.
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Writing for specific purposes: Developing business students’ ability to ‘technicalize’

Christine S. Sing Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria

Writing for specific purposes: Developing business students’ ability to ‘technicalize’


English: This article examines business students’ ability to technicalize in an L2 English writing task. Building up technicality in discourse is a key component of writing competence. Despite the importance of technicality for discipline-specific writing, so far little attention has been paid to identifying the usage patterns characteristic of this type of writing. The aim of this study is to investigate how undergraduate writers technicalize in elaborating on technical terms by means of defining, exemplifying and explaining. Drawing on a self-compiled specialized corpus, the study adopts a mixed-methods approach of computation and interpretation. It was found that technicalizing is a two-stage process, which consists of naming a term and subsequently embedding it in taxonomic relationships. The resulting chains of reference are taken to be indicative of field-specific uses in writing. The findings have important implications for developing business students’ writing skills in view of the conceptual challenges they meet in current specific-purpose instruction.

German: Gegenstand des vorliegenden Beitrags ist die Art und Weise, wie Studierende beim fachspezifischen Schreiben in ihrer L2 Englisch Technizität (technicality) herstellen. Hierzu werden diejenigen sprachlichen Verfahren ermittelt, die sie nutzen, um Fachtermini durch Definitionen, Beispiele und Erklärungen in den Text einzubetten. Die Fähigkeit, Technizität herzustellen, wird dabei als wesentliche Komponente der Kompetenz zum fachsprachlichen bzw. disziplinspezifischen Schreiben verstanden. Als Datengrundlage dient ein spezialisiertes Korpus von studentischen Texten aus vier Bereichen der internationalen Betriebswirtschaftslehre, die auf Englisch als L2 verfasst wurden. In einem Mixed-Methods-Ansatz werden korpuslinguistische mit interpretatorischen Verfahren kombiniert. Es zeigt sich, dass das Herstellen von Technizität als zweistufiger Prozess beschrieben werden kann, in dem ein Fachausdruck zunächst benannt und dann in eine taxonomische Beziehung eingebettet wird, wodurch Referenzketten entstehen, die für die untersuchten Texte charakteristisch sind. Aus den gewonnenen Erkenntnissen werden Schlussfolgerungen für die Didaktik der Schreibkompetenzförderung in wirtschaftswissenschaftlichen Lehr-/Lernkontexten gezogen. ← 15 | 16 →

1    Writing for specific purposes

English for Specific Purposes (ESP) is traditionally conceived of as a “materials- and teaching-led movement” (Dudley-Evans/St John 1998: 19), catering to specific student needs in specific contexts. ESP is thus “an approach to language teaching in which all decisions as to content and method are based on the learner’s reason for learning” (Hutchinson/Waters 1987: 19). Recent developments in the field, however, have heightened the need for a fresh perspective on ESP: “What once looked to many like a straightforwardly needs-oriented, a- or pan-theoretical […] approach, now, like the constantly changing learning targets it addresses, is itself becoming harder and harder to capture in anything like a single stop-action frame” (Belcher 2006: 134).

The internationalization of higher education (HE) marks a sea change in the role of English in scholarship and instruction. English-medium instruction has become the rule rather than the exception in tertiary education across Europe. Given the centrality of writing in HE institutions (Hyland 2013), there is an increasing concern for students’ needs, lacks and wants in writing instruction. Indeed, it appears to be the case that students are lacking essential competencies when it comes to university writing and thus need to be acquainted with its primary purposes. This raises the question what differentiates university writing in English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) from that in English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) settings.

Arguably, the transition from secondary to tertiary education represents a “cultural shift” (Gee 1996: 155) for most students as they meet with different literacy expectations in their new environment. What is more, the novice writers face linguistic challenges in that they use English as an L2 in their writing, which means that they are struggling with both general and academic English at the tertiary level. Particularly, students are lacking in knowledge of the relevant target genres and are grappling with the highly formalized and conventionalized written academic style.

In ESP settings, the writing task has regularly been of central importance, most notably in business, academic and professional domains (Tardy 2012: 6266). And yet, in specific-purpose writing instruction, these two challenges – cultural and linguistic – are compounded by what Peters et al. (2014: 744 ff.) refer to as “conceptual challenges”. The authors report ← 16 | 17 → several pedagogical issues in ESP contexts, arising from the fact that learning disciplinary knowledge and learning the specialist language are not carefully orchestrated. As a result, ESP students are not only linguistically challenged by having to overcome difficulties in both general academic English and the specialist language of their discipline; they also face conceptual challenges in that ESP programmes “require students to develop a more abstract understanding of concepts within the discipline, in order to be able to apply their knowledge effectively” (Peters et al. 2014: 755). This implies that ESP students may be familiar with field-specific concepts while lacking the language resources necessary to construe disciplinary knowledge in their writing.

It is this conceptual challenge that will be addressed in the present analysis. It will be argued that the students in the ESP setting of a business school fail to be empowered by the potentially effective cross-fertilization of subject knowledge and disciplinary language. Building on Tribble’s (2002) contextual-analysis framework and Flowerdew’s (2004) parameters for specialized corpora, it will be shown that, in order to be able to engage in disciplinary discourse, student writers need to develop the ability to “technicalize” (Ravelli 2004: 104), i.e., to grow aware of the linguistic resources highlighting that a given word or concept is embedded in a body of knowledge.

Drawing on a self-compiled specialized corpus, the corpus of Academic Business English (ABE), this account sets out to examine three major modes of constructing technicality in business student writing, namely defining, explaining and exemplifying. Prior to presenting the main findings, I will first outline the theoretical framework of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), in which the notions ‘technicality’ and ‘technicalize’ originated. The in-depth contextual analysis will conclude with a discussion of how specific-purpose writing instruction could address these conceptual challenges.

2    Theoretical background

The notions ‘technicality’ and ‘technicalizing’ are deeply embedded in the SFL framework, which contends that language users represent experience through language by means of various genres and resources. Martin (1991: 308 f.) proposes a cross-classification of genres (report, explanation, exposition) and discourse functions (describing, explaining). In this ← 17 | 18 → approach, the complexity of written texts can be described on the basis of two functional dimensions, technicality and abstraction. The rationale behind this classification is that, while both sciences and humanities rely on these genres and functions, there are clear discipline-specific preferences as to which features predominate. A case in point is the genre of report which, in science discourses, fulfils a taxonomizing function, while reports in the humanities tend to generalize. Not only does this highlight the instrumental character of discourses, it also illustrates the process of knowledge construction in different disciplines. Different fields name, order and classify similar phenomena differently.

This begs the question as to the linguistic resources that are instrumental in construing disciplinary knowledge in writing. In order to achieve representation, language typically fulfils three functions: 1. creating technical vocabulary, 2. classifying the experiential world, and 3. explaining the experiential world. Ravelli (2004: 104) argues that, in order to perform these functions, “writers must be able to give names to things, and to connect these names to each other, in order to theorize about the world around them”. She refers to these functional modes as technicalizing and rationalizing, respectively. Here the emphasis will be placed on technicalizing or theorizing, as it may also be referred to. It will be argued that, once capable of technicalizing, student writers demonstrate a deeper understanding of taxonomies, i.e., of how terms or concepts are to be placed in an ordered system.

Technicalizing, i.e., the process of building up technicality in writing, involves two stages: 1. naming the phenomenon and 2. making the name technical. The latter is aided by ‘discourse cues’ such as textual signals or macrostructures. Woodward-Kron (2008: 238 f.) identified several linguistic devices that may be used to flag technicality in discourse, examples being definitions and taxonomic relationships. The reliance on discourse cues, however, presupposes the existence of an engaging writer-reader relationship. Since the English language represents a “writer-responsible culture” (Dahl 2004), strategies such as “lexical familiarization” are particularly rewarding. The latter can be defined as “a contextual aid, intentionally and explicitly provided by the author when writing for a specific readership. The writer’s intention is to help his reader by providing him with sufficient ← 18 | 19 → familiarity with the new word, as employed in its context, so that the reader can continue reading with understanding” (Bramki/Williams 1984: 170).

Taking the writer and reader community as a point of departure, Hyland (2010) conceives of academic writing as an interactive communicative practice. Of particularly strong appeal is Hyland’s (2005: 37) interpersonal model of metadiscourse, i.e., “the cover term for the self-reflective expressions used to negotiate interactional meanings in a text, assisting the writer (or speaker) to express a viewpoint and engage with readers as members of a particular community”. More specifically, he distinguishes between two dimensions of interaction, namely interactional and interactive metadiscourse. While the former is primarily concerned with reader engagement, it is the category of interactive metadiscourse that includes the linguistic resources instrumental in technicalizing. According to Hyland (2005: 37), interactive metadiscourse is grounded in the writer’s awareness of an audience. For this reason, writers rely on resources such as transitions, frame markers and code glosses. The latter, which “supply additional information, by rephrasing, explaining or elaborating what has been said, to ensure the reader is able to recover the writer’s intended meaning” (Hyland 2005: 52), are vital for building up technicality in discourse. Table 1 presents the code glosses that may be used to signal technicality in discourse.

Table 1:   Technicalizing functions of code glosses

Discourse functionLinguistic resourcesMetadiscourse category


called, defined as, known as

such as, for example, e.g.

that is, which means
Code glosses

In what follows, each of these functions will be subject to an in-depth analysis, involving both a quantitative analysis of their frequencies of occurrence and a more qualitative study of their discourse patterning. As will be shown, the student writers technicalize in that they establish so-called “chains of reference”, “i.e. sequences of noun phrases all referring to the same thing. This constitutes an important aspect of textual cohesion, which makes a text more than just a series of sentences” (Biber et al. 1999: 234 f.). The following corpus example showcases how such textual macrostructures are established: ← 19 | 20 →

[1]    I will name three of these companies, explain what kind of products they sell and the materials used. [ABE_Business]

The student clearly feels the need to first refer to the phenomenon, followed by embedding it in a given technical framework. Before this will be discussed, the data and context of analysis will be described.

3    Data and method

3.1   Corpus and context description

Recent developments in the field of corpus-based analyses of student writing have seen the compilation of several corpora of (under-)graduate writing in English, for example, the Michigan Corpus of Upper-level Student Papers (MICUSP) and the corpus of British Academic Written English (BAWE). While both provide a rich source of data, comprising several genres and disciplines, they need to be carefully differentiated from learner corpora on the one hand and Language for Specific Purposes (LSP) corpora such as the ABE corpus on the other. The former are clearly indebted to Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research, where the emphasis is placed on interlanguage features such as a limited lexical repertoire, semantic misuse or overuse of connective devices (Paquot 2010). The latter, by contrast, are referred to as specialized corpora, which “are corpora designed for the purpose of creating a sample of specialized language either by collecting texts of similar content […] or of similar text-type or genre” (Gavioli 2005: 7). These tend to be small and localized collections of data, which means that scholars, like the author of this present study, are frequently forced to assemble their own corpora (Tognini-Bonelli 2008: 35). The ABE corpus, which makes up the database of the present study, is such a self-compiled, specialized corpus. As shown in Table 2, with a size of approximately one million tokens, the ABE corpus greatly exceeds the usual 250,000 word mark of specialized corpora. In actual practice, specialized corpora typically range between around 60,000 words and 250,000 words. Handford (2010: 258) thus concludes that “[i]n terms of actual size, a specialized corpus can be defined as large [...] if it contains a million words”. ← 20 | 21 →

Table 2:   ABE corpus data


Given that a corpus is “not simply a collection of texts” (Biber/Conrad/Reppen 1998: 246), there should be a principled stand on corpus compilation. The compilation of the ABE corpus was guided by a clear set of design criteria. These are summarized in Table 3 below, drawing on Flowerdew’s (2004: 21) set of parameters for defining specialized corpora on the one hand and Tribble’s (2002: 133) contextual-analysis framework on the other.

Table 3:   Description of data and context

Specific purpose for compilationTo investigate business student writing in a localized setting
SizeLarge specialized corpus (ABE) of approx. 1 million running words
Language usedWritten academic English, used as L2
Genre familyAssessed university student writing
Communicative purposeTo demonstrate / be accredited for proficiency in academic English and knowledge of business concepts
Text type413 simple assignments, seminar papers
Subject matterBroad thematic range of business topics
SettingESP setting of a business school; committed to a wide-angled approach to the teaching of business English
ParticipantsAdvanced undergraduate students of international business administration

← 21 | 22 →

In what follows, each of these features will be described, detailing the specifics of the ABE corpus and the institutional context in which it originated. First and foremost, “[h]aving a clearly articulated question is an essential step in corpus construction since it will guide the design of the corpus” (Reppen 2010: 31). And yet, the compilation of specialized corpora tends to be prompted by more specific purposes. The most obvious reason for building “DIY corpora” (McEnery/Xiao/Tono 2006: 21) lies in the fact that none of the existing corpora include a sample of the genre investigated. Another main driving force behind self-compiled corpora are methodological considerations. Even if corpora are available, not all data lend themselves to conducting contextualized analyses. Studying business student writing with a view to enhancing these students’ development of writing skills necessitates the retrievability of contextual information, ranging from details about the institutional setting and the curriculum in operation to localized academic practices. Thus, methodologically, small self-compiled corpora have the edge over larger corpora whenever detailed, fully contextualized analyses are intended (Nelson 2010: 55). Yet another reason for compiling the ABE consisted in creating a specialized corpus that would contain the type of language characteristic of this particular ESP setting.

As mentioned earlier, the ABE corpus can be considered a large specialized corpus. The question of corpus size is closely intertwined with the issue of representativeness. Unlike general corpora, for which representativeness may be achieved through size, this “aim […] is rendered impossible through the need to target a disciplinary or thematic specialty” (Williams 2002: 45). Instead, “the representativeness of specialized corpora is usually measured by reference to external selection criteria (i.e. by/for whom the text is produced, what is its subject matter), which are regarded as somewhat subjective” (Flowerdew 2004: 18; highlighting in the original). In order to mitigate the effects of subjectivity, the collection of data needs to meet clear sampling criteria. Accordingly, texts had to meet the following external criteria for inclusion in the ABE: All texts had to be complete rather than samples. They had to be single-authored and of equal length (i.e., not exceeding the word limit of 2,400 words). They had to be organized in terms of the macrostructure laid down in the institute’s style sheet. Their thematic focus was required to be on either business, economics, finance or marketing, which corresponded to the subject matter dealt with in the ← 22 | 23 → seminars. These external criteria clearly limit the range of texts eligible for inclusion, meaning that “[b]y restricting the scope of the corpus, energy can be directed towards assembling a detailed collection of texts that fully represent the kind of academic language one is likely to encounter” (Meyer 2002: 36).

However, the conditions of data collection are highly unpredictable, particularly when student work is involved. Alsop & Nesi (2009: 73) report similar sampling problems when compiling the BAWE corpus. As they did not quite know what to expect from the assignments – neither in terms of volume nor nature – they used a matrix of disciplinary groupings on four different levels of study. Following Alsop & Nesi, the ABE corpus texts were sampled on the basis of a matrix of four disciplinary groupings in order to plan the structure of the corpus, i.e., the sub-fields of business, economics, finance and marketing served to organize corpus holdings. Accordingly, texts were cross-classified making up matrix cells, which were based on these sub-fields on the one hand and on the external criteria mentioned above on the other. In order to achieve balance, texts were then added to the corpus until all cells were filled in equal numbers.

Prior to moving on to the description of context, a passing reference to the language used in the corpus texts is in order. The specialized language represented in the ABE corpus is “[t]he academic business English required by students on courses in disciplines such as business, finance, accounting and banking [which] has more in common with the study of other EAP [English for Academic Purposes] disciplines” (Dudley-Evans/St John 1998: 53). The student writing included in the ABE is therefore strongly informed by the institutional context. The close interweaving of texts and the institutional setting in which they originated warrants the distinction between text type, genre and communicative purpose, all of which relate to the categorization of written texts. The distinction between genre and text type, in particular, is a moot point. Broadly, the distinction is grounded in whether external or internal criteria are used for grouping texts together. As originally laid down by Biber (1988), genre “is defined as a category assigned on the basis of external criteria such as intended audience, purpose, and activity type, that is, it refers to a conventional, culturally recognized grouping of texts based on properties other than lexical or grammatical (co-)occurrence features” (Lee 2001: 38). The category text type, by con ← 23 | 24 → trast, characterizes texts in terms of their textual properties and linguistic patterning. However, as pointed out by Paltridge (1996), the distinction is anything but watertight and is best seen as complementary. More precisely, genres can be realized by different text types, that is, “more than one genre may share the same type. […] Equally, a single genre […] may be associated with more than one text type” (Paltridge 1996: 239).

In modelling the ‘seminar paper’ (SP) as a specific type of written text, the present account subscribes to Biber’s (1988) corpus-linguistic classification. Accordingly, the SP is viewed as a specific, institutionalized form of assignment writing, which a) has a particular organization, b) deals with a specialized topic and c) realizes an identifiable set of social and communicative functions. The SP is deeply rooted in German-speaking HE (Kruse 2006). It is an argued text similar to an exposition, frequently taking on the form of research articles (RA) in miniature (Ehlich 2003). In many disciplines, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, it continues to be the standard type of assessed writing. In the context of Austrian HE, the seminar paper has been studied extensively (Gruber 2006). A case in point is Gruber’s (2004: 50) identification of the SP’s prototypical structure: introduction, problem definition, descriptive and argumentative discussion of the problem(s), case description and conclusion.

Its generic properties are further determined by a detailed set of instructions, according to which the paper is to present an ‘academic argument’ rather than make recommendations for (case-)specific situations. The strict formal criteria laid down for the SP typically relate to principles of layout and text organization, citation practices and bibliographical conventions. The SP is typically a simple assignment, i.e., the number of texts equals the number of writing tasks; conversely, the number of texts equals the number of authors. Thematically, SPs are subject to sub-field specific variation. The internal criteria used to determine the SP as an abstract text type were topic-based. In order to ensure that the teaching and learning context is adequately reflected in the corpus data, the corpus was subdivided into four thematic subcorpora, each relating to the topical focus of seminar teaching: business studies, economics, finance and marketing. Regarding the social and communicative functions of SPs, they can be argued to realize a particular genre, namely assessed student writing. In fact, university student writing has been shown to constitute a genre family consisting of various ← 24 | 25 → subgenres (Nesi/Gardner 2012). In combining several of these subgenres, the SP fulfils what is perhaps the primary function of assessed university writing: accreditation (Nesi/Gardner 2012: 23).

The setting in which the texts were collected and the participants can be specified as follows: The institutional context at hand is a fully-fledged academic unit, which, despite its full-departmental status, does not offer bona fide degree programmes. It instead caters to business programmes, such as the four-year diploma programme of International Business Administration (IBA). Owing to the content-based curriculum, the focus clearly is on specialist language (Business English – BE), leaving little scope for developing general English language skills. Similarly, there are few opportunities of familiarizing students with academic English, which means that the students will not have received any formal writing instruction prior to producing the assignment. In the light of this curricular framework, it is perhaps not surprising that a wide-angled approach (Basturkmen 2010: 143) to the teaching of BE is adopted, implying that English is taught through a variety of topics in several business fields. The integration of subject-specific knowledge with language learning is thus hinged on a terminology-driven approach to BE. The participants are usually in their third or fourth year of the diploma programme when producing the SP. They are referred to as advanced students in the sense that they will have spent at least three years in HE, in other words, ‘advanced’ does not describe their proficiency in English. As there are no initial placement tests nor any official language testing throughout the programme, no assessed information as to their actual level of English can be provided. Neither are there any detailed metadata available on individual student authors. The vast majority are however L1 users of (Austrian) German. At the same time, there is a large intake of international students, accounting for approximately 10% of the entire student population.

3.2   Method

Discipline-specific writing has mainly been studied from either a corpus-linguistic, variationist perspective or using ethnographic research methods. Corpus-based approaches aim to retrieve lexico-grammatical patterns in order to identify field-specific uses of language. These variationist accounts ← 25 | 26 → tend to focus on variables such as novice vs. expert practices or English L1 vs. English L2 uses in discipline-specific writing. There is a substantial body of research which has examined disciplinary variation in academic discourse, including citation practices (Samraj 2013; Charles 2006), stance (Chang/Schleppegrell 2011; Biber 2006) and shell noun uses (Flowerdew 2006; Aktas/Cortes 2008). However, approaches of this kind carry with them various well-known limitations. First, it seems to be the case that, due to the contrastive approach taken, variationist studies conceive of disciplinary forms of writing as uniform practices. The inherent normativity then leads to an analytical focus “on identifying academic conventions […] and on (or with a view to) exploring how students might be taught to become proficient or ‘expert’” (Lillis/Scott 2007: 13). Second, expert writing is frequently conceived of as constant and stable, ignoring the fact that lexical complexity in the writing of experts is itself subject to considerable variation over time (Trinh 2011). Thus, once both a timescale and a time window are taken into account, expert practices no longer serve as the reliable yardstick they are made out to be. Yet another shortcoming of this approach consists in the decontextualized lexico-grammatical patterns identified; more often than not, the analysis does not include the level of discourse, i.e., language beyond the sentence level.

Ethnographically-oriented studies seek to address the social conditions of the production and interpretation of academic texts. Accordingly, Gnutzmann & Rabe (2014: 33) observe “a certain neglect of the wider context of academic writing and publishing, since many conventions of disciplinary cultures are unwritten and have to be reconstructed through other methods”. Using interpretative methods, the authors propose an interview-based study of the language demands and attitudes of German researchers using English as an L2. The ultimate aim of such an account consists in homing in on precisely those contextual factors amiss in much corpus-based research.

The present account proposes a ‘third way’ of analysing ESP writing, intending to reconcile these two approaches. It combines the empirical rigour of corpus-based studies with the interpretative methods of ethnographical research. The study at hand thus provides a fully contextualized analysis in drawing on the ABE as a localized collection of data. Specialized corpora permit the analyst to study patterns of language use in the contexts in which they originated (Handford 2010: 258 f.). More precisely, with ← 26 | 27 → specialized corpora, “the analyst is probably also the compiler and does have familiarity with the wider socio-cultural context in which the text was created […]. The compiler-cum-analyst can therefore act as […] specialist informant to shed light on the corpus data” (Flowerdew 2005: 329). Not least the growing complexity of ESP settings has highlighted that corpus data are invariably situated. The importance of studying corpus texts in their contextual environment results from the tight interweaving of text and context: “To make sense of the way particular texts and particular grammatical patterns occur, and why they occur in a particular order, it is essential to consider what is distinctive about texts within their particular institutional context” (Veel 1997: 162). The author of the present study is such an insider. This field knowledge will be used when discussing the findings of the corpus study below.

In what essentially constitutes a mixed-methods approach involving computation and interpretation, the corpus data were subject to a bottom-up, inductive analysis, followed by the study of discourse patterns, which was more qualitative in nature. Using Wordsmith Tools 6 (Scott 2012), a wordlist analysis was first conducted for all four subcorpora. This served to retrieve the most frequently used code glosses across the ABE, as exemplified in Table 1 above. These instances were then concordanced to identify their most frequent collocates. In a second stage, the discourse patterns in which these code glosses are embedded were examined using MAXQDA. For this purpose, the chains of reference were coded as definitions, exemplifications and explanations respectively. It should be noted that the classification of metadiscourse devices is problematic in itself, since these describe a continuum of functional resources rather than mutually exclusive categories. Therefore, metadiscourse is notoriously difficult to quantify, which is why the emphasis was placed on exploring the usage patterns of these discourse phenomena in the data at hand, paying particular attention to intra-disciplinary variation.

4    Results and discussion

The analysis set out to examine the linguistic resources used by business students to build up technicality in their writing. Technicalizing was introduced as a two-stage process: 1. referring to/naming the phenomenon concerned ← 27 | 28 → and 2. making it technical by means of elaboration. Due to the interactive nature of academic writing, the first step of the analysis involved retrieving all relevant code glosses, assuming that they highlight instances of technical language use. The emphasis was placed on glosses that mark defining, exemplifying and explaining. As can be seen in Fig. 1, which shows the main findings for this first set of analyses, the three metadiscoursal devices are used fairly differently across the subcorpora.


Fig. 1:   Distribution of code glosses across the ABE subcorpora

Generally, it is evident that the construction of technicality chiefly occurs by means of exemplification and explanation. Explicit glosses used to signal acts of defining are clearly less frequent than those relating to exemplification and explanation. Referring more specifically to individual subcorpora and zooming in on the more subtle differences between them, several interesting findings were produced. First and foremost, the in-corpus variation is remarkable, given that all four ABE subcorpora are made up of the same ← 28 | 29 → text type. While definitions clearly play a subordinate role in building up technicality in these corpus texts, the distribution of exemplifications and explanations in the corpus data varies greatly. Focusing on frequency of occurrence alone, it could be argued that the results for the business and economics subcorpora are fairly similar. However, when taking into account the relations between the most pervasive code glosses exemplification and explanation, the distribution for business and finance on the one hand, and economics and marketing on the other is fairly similar. In the latter, the student writers use slightly more exemplifications than explanations while the situation is reversed for the business and finance subcorpora. This can be accounted for by the differences in composition structure: While both business and finance papers tend to be organized as case studies and thus follow the problem-solution pattern, papers in economics and marketing tend to be argued essays, both descriptive and argumentative in nature, implying that the student writers rely on exemplifications to illustrate the points they make rather than explaining case specifics in detail. Even though these facts and figures of corpus analysis highlight important differences between the ABE subcorpora, they represent only a small part of a much bigger picture. Therefore, the second part of the analysis involved identifying the usage patterns and textual macrostructures in which these code glosses are embedded.

4.1   Technicalizing by means of defining

Due to their knowledge-telling function, definitions expand on a given term that has been ‘named’ in the preceding context. When labelling such a discourse act, the student authors whose writing is documented in the ABE tend to resort to the following linguistic resources: called, the term X, defined as, define and known as, which makes them the top five most frequently used glosses of this category across the ABE subcorpora. The analysis revealed several usage patterns which will now be discussed (the subcorpora from which the examples are taken are indicated in square brackets):

[2]    AUTHOR and AUTHOR (1995: 17) define CC [= Corporate Citizenship] as the engagement of companies, using corporate resources in order to solve [ABE_Business]

[3]    type of tourism called events tourism. AUTHOR defines events tourism as “the planning, development [ABE_Marketing] ← 29 | 30 →

As shown, the most obvious way of introducing a new term is by what Ädel & Garretson (2006: 273) refer to as “attribution”, the procedures by which “writers […] frequently attribute statements and acts to other researchers”. The student writers, too, make use of this standard procedure by means of paraphrasing or quoting verbatim from a source, which means that the verb to define is used as a reporting verb. In both instances, however, the term is not defined on first mention; instead it has already been used in the preceding context, which testifies to the existence of “chains of reference”. Accordingly, the term Corporate Citizenship has already been introduced as it is defined in abbreviated form. Example [3] provides an introductory sentence in which reference is made to the term event tourism, which is subsequently defined in a more technical way.

Chains of reference are also operative in yet another pervasive pattern identified in business student writing. As exemplified below, the reference to a given term is established by the section heading that serves as the antecedent and immediately precedes the defining act:

[4]    Joint Ventures [= section heading] A joint venture can be defined as a company which is owned corporately by two or more parties [ABE_Business]

[5]    Definitions [= section heading] The Role of Information [= section heading] Information can be defined as “data with attributes of relevance and purpose [ABE_Economics]

Technicality is thus gradually built up in first naming the phenomenon in question, followed by according it a technical status. As indeed highlighted by the corpus examples above, technicalizing clearly has a taxonomizing function in that the term is positioned in an ordered system. The students’ taxonomic organization of their writing topic creates such a system, whose structure becomes manifest in the tables of contents of their papers. The fact that the student writers seem to be preoccupied with taxonomies rather than developing ideas is further supported by the relatively low lexical density (see STTR scores in Table 2 above), suggesting that their writing has a low informational value and that topic development occurs on the basis of few new language items. In their study of technicality in geography textbooks, Wignell, Martin & Eggins (1993: 157 ff.) found that chapter or (sub-)section headings and the emboldening of terms correspond to “superordination taxonomy” in contrast to “composition taxonomy”. The former is ← 30 | 31 → primarily concerned with classifying a given term while the latter provides a list of its elements. For example, the superordination taxonomy of the technical term climate would include different types of climate, e.g., tropical, moderate and dry, while the composition taxonomy would include a list of descriptive elements such as temperature, pressure systems or atmospheric moisture (Wignell/Martin/Eggins 1993: 159).

It can be argued that the above examples are indicative of a strong concern for superordination rather than composition taxonomy. The findings also suggest that students are concerned with composition taxonomy as illustrated by the following examples:

[6]    cross-cultural cooperation in a positive manner. The first dimension is called “universalism versus particularism [ABE_Economics]

[7]    change process is called “managing the transition”. The third phase is called “sustaining momentum”. [ABE_Finance]

Taxonomizing presupposes that students are capable of identifying technical vocabulary in the sources used. In so doing, they make use of the composite nature of technical language and seek to decompose it by foregrounding component parts such as step, dimension, phase, stage or mode. This has the effect of an unfolding discourse, which can be achieved in two directions: from naming to signalling or from signalling to naming.

The following examples show a reversal of the process of technicality construction:

[8]    long a put option. This strategy is called protective put and limits the maximum loss to the premium [ABE_Finance]

[9]    expatriates normally return back home, this process is called repatriation. Cost of foreign assignments [ABE_Business]

Here the description of the phenomenon in question occurs first, followed by the introduction of the terms, namely protective put and repatriation. In this pattern, the chains of references are established by means of so-called ‘signalling nouns’ or ‘shell nouns’ (Sing 2013). “A signalling noun is potentially any abstract noun which is unspecific out of context, but specific in context” (Flowerdew 2006: 348). Nouns such as attitude, difficulty and process are pervasive in academic discourse, performing important cohesive functions within or between sentences. ← 31 | 32 →

The preceding discussion has clearly shown that these student writers, despite imperfections of language and style, demonstrate the ability to technicalize. However, they do not seem to conceive of themselves as ‘knowledge-makers’.

[10]  In the third part of my paper I will try to define the term hooliganism and give some basic explanations for the phenomenon hooliganism. Finally, in the last part [ABE_Business]

[11]  This section will define the term new media and then shortly discuss the change in language culture. [ABE_Marketing]

[12]  The first part basically outlines the aim of the agreement and defines the term ‘trade in services’. The second part gives an overview [ABE_Economics]

In contrast to the uses of to define as a reporting verb above, these uses highlight that defining proper is restricted to attribution. Although the student writers use the first person pronoun I, they do not perform the act of defining. Instead the main emphasis is placed on the paper’s organization, as evidenced by the co-occurrence with so-called frame markers such as first, then, finally and in the last part, which “can be used to sequence parts of the text or to internally order an argument” (Hyland 2005: 51). This means that, in this particular pattern, the verb serves as a genuine metatextual gloss. Alternatively, the students make use of non-human agents (section, part), which also frame, rather than perform, the defining act.

One possible explanation for this pattern is students’ awareness of the genre, i.e., assessed university writing, and its main social purpose, accreditation. The student writers thus show compliance and do what is expected of them. Given that the business students will not have received any writing instruction prior to producing the assignment, they come equipped with lay beliefs about what constitutes good academic writing. The fact that they are still in the process of internalizing their knowledge is shown in the following set of examples:

[13]  Before examining the topic in detail, it is necessary to define the reoccurring terms ‘endorsement marketing’ and ‘celebrity endorser’. AUTHOR (2009: 126) states that endorsement [ABE_Marketing]

[14]  First it is important to define the term that is probably the most important in the whole paper, ethnic minority. Since there is no general [ABE_Marketing] ← 32 | 33 →

These examples highlight that the patterning is clearly learning-related. It is evident that these business students are anxious to define key terminology in their writing. At the same time, they are overwhelmed by the task, given the abundance of definitions for relevant concepts. They find it difficult to tolerate this ambiguity, seeking to reduce the complexity to the one-and-only correct definition of a given phenomenon.

[15]  confused and are used in a much diversified sense (AUTHOR 2004: 3). For this reason, it is important to define e-commerce in comparison to e-business and illustrate the differences. [ABE_Marketing]

[16]  paper is dealing with cultural aspects of the COUNTRY capital, it seems to be a good approach to define more narrowly the use of the word culture. Culture is certainly one of the two or three most complicated words [ABE_Business]

All in all, the business students at hand tend to be familiar with different modes of elaborating on technical terms, thereby establishing chains of reference to build up technicality. The students are also clearly alert to expectations in terms of genre conventions. With a view to complying with the requirements of the writing task, the student writers have internalized that, in academic writing, they are to define key words prior to discussing them in more detail. In the sections that follow, the findings for the modes of technicalizing by means of exemplification and explanation will be presented.

4.2   Technicalizing by means of exemplifying

Technicality may also be constructed when writers elaborate on a term by means of exemplification. The most pervasive metadiscoursal devices across the ABE subcorpora are: such as, for example, include, e.g. and for instance. Crucially, there is considerable variation with regard to the concepts that are exemplified in discourse. As shown in Table 4, the above-mentioned metadiscoursal resources co-occur with both field-specific (e.g., companies, products, investors) and ‘signalling noun’ (e.g., factors, issues, problem) L1 collocates (listed in terms of their frequency, with a minimum occurrence of 4): ← 33 | 34 →

Table 4:   L1 collocates across subcorpora (minimum frequency of 4 occurrences)

CorporaL1 collocates
ABE Businessissues, values, activities, factors, problem, countries
ABE Economicscountries, factors, companies, issues, problems, products, services
ABE Financeinstruments, investors, areas, failures, products, sectors, banks, countries, factors, institutions, events
ABE Marketingevents, attributes, countries, technologies, activities, areas, communication, industries, media, problems, services

As shown below, exemplifying proper serves to elaborate field-specific or procedural vocabulary. The following examples illustrate this point:

[17]  Patents require inventions. In general, the main characteristics of inventions such as novelty, inventiveness, [ABE_Economics]

[18]  Equity capital markets deal with stocks and derivative instruments, such as forward contracts, futures, and options (AUTHOR 2011: 14). [ABE_Finance]

If field-specific vocabulary is exemplified, the term will most likely have been introduced in the preceding context, which may also involve attribution. What is more, exemplification may also be used to instantiate taxonomies. Following on from the discussion in Section 4.1, the effect of superordination taxonomy on subsection headings is also noticeable here.

[19]  Recruitment [= section heading] Recruitment and selection is more than just hiring people. Pre-recruitment activities include writing a job description as well as developing [ABE_Business]

[20]  Introduction [= section heading] There are many forms of business communication, such as marketing or image communication, crisis communication [ABE_Marketing]

Interestingly, the effect of composition taxonomy on how students elaborate a given term by means of exemplification seems to be weaker than when they technicalize by means of defining resources. More importantly still, exemplification appears to encourage students to opt for chains of references in which ideas are loosely strung together, enforcing a linear, associative structuring rather than building taxonomies. ← 34 | 35 →

[21]  There exist different types of tour operators- such asniche tour operators’, who specialize in certain destinations as for example a region [ABE_Marketing]

[22]  (compound options) and options on swaps (swaptions). Compound options, for instance, appear in four basic forms: call on a call, call on a put, put on a call and put on a put. [ABE_Finance]

The virtual absence of hierarchical structures in exemplifying chains of reference may also point to another task-related requirement. The SP is to show students’ ability to reason. Witness the following corpus examples:

[23]  sponsors, suppliers and employees. Secondary stakeholders are, for example, the host community and media. In addition, the external environment [ABE_Marketing]

[24]  The terms have also been used to invoke a variety of associated concepts. For instance, exploration has been linked to radical innovation, market expansion [ABE_Finance]

Of course, the student writers cannot be assumed to construct a discursive argument in the examples above. Contrasting different types of stakeholders on the basis of exemplification is conceptually not very challenging. And yet, while still remaining descriptive on the surface, the students show initial signs of truly elaborating rather than simply naming a given term.

4.3   Technicalizing by means of explaining

The corpus analysis revealed that the top five most frequently used code glosses in this category are means that, i.e., explain, namely and refers to. By and large, the usage patterns retrieved are fairly consistent with those previously identified. In general, it seems that students perceive of the repertoire of discourse cues available to them as alternative modes of construing technicality, while being largely unaware of the more subtle differences between them. In what follows, I will first briefly comment on the established patterns and subsequently pinpoint the causes for variation between them.

In explaining a given term, students also establish chains of reference in which the phenomenon in question is first named and only subsequently explained more accurately, frequently involving attribution (see examples [25] and [26]).

[25]  reduce their carbon footprint, i.e., “the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly [ABE_Business] ← 35 | 36 →

[26]  The term mass tourism was born. Mass tourism is characterized by “short-term travel of non-residents [ABE_Economics]

On the level of taxonomies, the effects of both superordination ([27] and [28]) and composition taxonomy ([29] and [30]) are comparable to those identified for elaboration.

[27]  Methods and techniques of traffickers [= section heading] Ways of recruitment [= subsection heading] Trafficking is characterized by different recruitment methods which [ABE_Business]

[28]  Marketing ethics and consumer behavior [= section heading] Marketing ethics refers to the moral principles behind the operation [ABE_Marketing]

[29]  possible identity shifts. One group of the returned expatriates is classified asidentity shifters” which can be explained through their exposure [ABE_Economics]

[30]  consumer manipulation in at least four domains. The first field refers to food products, where, for instance, manufacturers [ABE_Business]

The two modes of expressing technicality are also consistent with regard to the following usage pattern:

[31]  I shall briefly describe the idea of fair trade. Then I shall explain and discuss the impact of the social, economic [ABE_Business]

[32]  CSR measures at COMPANY. In a first step, I shall explain what drives companies to engage in CSR [ABE_Business]

Just like the verb to define, to explain is not used as a reporting verb either. Instead, it tends to function as a gloss in the strict sense of a metatextual comment (witness the co-occurrence with frame markers). Once more, the business students are certainly aware of genre conventions and assessment criteria, which, as mentioned in Section 3.1, include presenting an academic argument on the basis of reasoning.

[33]  characteristic is the oligopoly market situation which means that the market is dominated by a few companies that fight over market [ABE_Economics]

[34]  developing countries and has not changed after independence. Furthermore, these countries are characterized by top-down management with “authoritarian and paternalistic [ABE_Business]

As these examples indicate, students have their ways of responding to the requirements laid down for SP writing. They demonstrate their understan ← 36 | 37 → ding of the concept ‘oligopoly market situation’ by providing an explanation using their own words rather than relying on attribution. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not they do so as a result of the nature of the SP “in which writers want to show their instructor what they have read (and hence what they know), but what they think is of minor importance for their paper” (Gruber 2004: 54). While this compliance may well be linked to the SP’s main purpose of accreditation, it may also point to the absence of more assertive writer identities (Sing 2015). Alternatively, both factors could be related to the institutional setting and viewed as the outcome of localized forms of learning. Prior to addressing this important point, I will briefly wrap up the discussion of the results.

Centring on the notion of technicality and relating it to Hyland’s (2005) interpersonal model of academic writing, the present study conceived of technicalizing as a two-stage process, involving the naming of the phenomenon concerned as well as integrating it into a field of knowledge. The corpus analysis revealed that student writers use a number of metadiscoursal devices, so-called code glosses, in order to flag the technical nature of their writing. While it is understood that writers technicalize in a variety of ways and using a range of linguistic resources other than the ones examined here, the corpus analysis succeeded in retrieving highly relevant usage patterns that may be fed back into teaching. Cases in point are the different uses and functions of the chains of reference established by the student writers when elaborating, or trying to elaborate, on new terminology. The addition trying to is especially noteworthy as the preceding discussion may have suggested that the usage patterns identified are taken at face value. Whether or not the student writers intend to define, explain or exemplify when using the respective metadiscoursal devices is a moot point. Owing to the explorative character of the present study, the issue of congruence is an important corollary of the analysis. Further empirical work, possibly involving focus group interviews with the students concerned, is required to establish if the discourse action and the discourse label used to denote the action can, with some justification, be argued to converge. ← 37 | 38 →

5    Conclusions: Meeting conceptual challenges

At the outset, the article invoked the challenges of contemporary ESP settings in view of the major changes in HE across Europe. Many of the challenges – linguistic, cultural and conceptual – have regularly dominated specific-purpose instruction. This ongoing process can be accounted for by a widening of the gap between ESP research and practice. To date, teaching and materials development are surprisingly little informed by state-of-the-art research, even in those cases which would lend themselves to direct teaching applications.

What is more, needs analysis retains a strong foothold in more traditionally inclined ESP settings, assuming that once the area and nature of students’ difficulties are identified, they can be more easily assisted in mastering the language-based skills or tasks required. In view of the growing complexity of HE, ESP programmes are, however, frequently forced to cater to vastly different literacy demands, spanning the workplace, academia and the corporate world. What is needed is a stronger commitment to the relevance of context in ESP, including an acknowledgement of the situatedness of learning.

Using the field knowledge of an ethnographic researcher, I will now turn to discussing several pedagogical implications for ESP writing instruction. The inconsistency between language and content typical of ESP settings becomes manifest in the writing task as the distinction between ‘carrier content’ and ‘real content’, which is central to ESP. In specific-purpose instruction, teaching activities are essentially context-based, implying that content knowledge is used to teach and practise specific language. In the ESP setting at hand, the business topics of the SP are not the aim of the task; rather, these topics constitute the carrier content for which written academic English is the real content, i.e., the explicit teaching target. This is, however, not the only reason why the SP is a genuine showcase for addressing conceptual challenges in ESP writing instruction.

What is more, students seem to struggle with the writing task itself. Given the absence of any formal writing instruction prior to producing the assignment, students come equipped with rather common (mis-)conceptions about academic writing, regarding it as a monolithic entity. Setting the SP as a simple assignment further misconstrues writing as a product. Instead, ← 38 | 39 → it would be useful to foreground the processual character of writing, for example, in setting up a compound assignment, in which individual subgenres are trained separately. In this manner, the different resources that can be used to technicalize in writing could be singled out, paying particular attention to structural issues such as composition taxonomy.

It is on the level of categorization rather than language that students are in need of assistance. Despite imperfections in grammar and style, students’ actual conceptual problem lies in taxomizing. As the findings suggest, students rely heavily on the structure already provided to them in the sources they use. Only few student writers have managed to reorganize the mater­ial covered in an original way. In view of the patterns identified, the large majority of students seem to address this requirement through retaining the superordination taxonomy. Bold as it may seem, such an assertion is fully supported by the contextual information available to the compiler-cum-analyst of the ABE corpus. On the basis of this inside knowledge, such a student response is hardly surprising. On the contrary, it is a conditioned reflex acquired in a learning environment that rewards learning strategies such as rote learning, which is then simply transferred to writing. The business students at hand emulate what they consider expert models and seek to apply these to their own writing.

This begs the question as to what type of expertise these students are aspiring to. Being susceptible to a technocratic view of the experiential world, it seems likely that these expert genres are realized by text types that are dramatically different from the SP. Thus the discrepancy between the educational genre, the training text used for writing practice and the professional genres used in the workplace could not be more apparent. If assignment writing requires students to “fictionalize” (Pohl 2009), this is particularly valid for this ESP setting. Using the SP with its cultural baggage as a training text only serves to alienate students from the professional target genres. With a view to developing their writing skills as business students, these professional genres need to be firmly anchored in the relevant curricula. Although policy makers pay lip service to the importance of language learning, formal writing instruction in particular has been increasingly marginalized in curricular development. It seems to be the case that specific-purpose instruction is clearly seen as training rather than an integral part of language education. ← 39 | 40 →


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