Academic Discourse and Literacies and the Teaching of Academic Writing

It is interesting to see that one of the recurring key themes in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes (2010-11) as well as BALEAP PIMs (November 2000 and November 2011) has been academic discourse and literacies and EAP discipline-specific teaching methods.  If we also look at the summary of competency statements in the BALEAP Competency Framework for Teaching of English for Academic Purposes, we can see that an EAP practitioner is expected:

To be able to recognize and explore disciplinary differences and how they influence the way knowledge is expanded and communicated, and have a high level of systemic language knowledge including knowledge of discourse analysis. (BALEAP, 2008)

The authors of a recent publication, based on the British Academic Written English (BAWE) Corpus, point out that the starting point of their research study into student writing across disciplines was not the texts themselves but their disciplinary contexts (Nesi and Gardner 2012).  This enabled them to subsequently classify and analyse 13 genre families in terms of features which were shared across genres but also those which were discipline specific. Similarly, Bhatia (2004) stresses the importance of developing an awareness of the use of genre theory to identify discourse across generic boundaries as well as disciplinary variation. As an advocate of discipline-specific approaches to the teaching of academic writing, Hyland (2004: 11) points out that:

While all academic discourse is distinguished by certain common practices, such as acknowledging sources, rigorous testing, intellectual honesty, and so on, there are differences which are likely to be more significant than such broad similarities. The ways that writers chose to represent themselves, their readers and their world, how they seek to advance knowledge, how they maintain the authority of their discipline and the processes whereby they establish what is to be accepted as substantiated truth, a useful contribution and a valid argument are all culturally-influenced practical actions and matters for community agreement.

He goes on to claim that:

Writing cannot be understood solely in terms of either immediate situations of writing or from individual texts; rather, it reflects, and in turn constitutes, social and institutional practices derived from contexts which are principally disciplinary. This means that while academic knowledge is frequently represented in style guides, ESP materials and University ‘enhancement courses’ as attending to transferable writing skills, students actually have to readjust to each discipline they encounter. Paraphrasing, citing, reviewing the literature, and other standard features of EAP courses are not uniform practices reducible to generic advice. (ibid: 145)

It is therefore important for EAP practitioners to think of a variety of appropriate methods to analyse academic discourse in different disciplines and then develop materials which will help EAP learners acquire some of the genres which they will be required to understand and eventually produce themselves as part of their academic studies or research. 

We could argue that If EAP/ESP learners are to be accepted as members of their discourse community, first of all, they need to become aware of ways in which knowledge is constructed and the agreed conventions used to discuss issues in their discipline. Awareness-raising approaches are usually the starting point to enable students to identify similarities and differences between different written academic genres such as essays, textbooks, PhD theses, research articles, lab reports case studies, among others, in terms of the communicative purpose of the genres, the target audience(s), (e.g. experts to experts or experts to novices), the structure of the genres at the macro level, (e.g. move structure of abstracts, introductions, discussion sections) and, at the micro level, the linguistic devices which can be used by the writers to construct their own identity, take a particular stance and establish a close or distant relationship with their readers.  Genre Analysis would be a possible analytical framework which EAP practitioners could use to identify genre features. Based on this analysis, they could design EAP teaching materials which would enable students to use certain linguistic and stylistic strategies they could use to become accepted members of their discourse community.  This means that in order to achieve academic success, they may need to adopt certain academic discourses which are recognisable, well established and valued by their discipline.

However, this type of approach may not take into account EAP learners’ previous writing experiences, their identities and preferred discursive practices. If, for the sake of getting good marks in their assignments, they have to sacrifice their own identities and voice and blindly adhere to very strict academic conventions imposed by the academic institution, it would be wrong to allow this to happen.  The academic literacies perspective, according to Street (1995: 114), rejects:

… the way language is treated as though it were a thing, distanced from both teacher and learner and imposing on them external rules and requirements as though they were but passive recipients.

Representatives of Critical Discourse Analysis (e.g. Fairclough 1989) and Critical Language Awareness (e.g. Clark and Ivanič 1991; Fairclough 1992; Ivanič 1997) argue that it is important to show learners how language positions them and suggest what they can do to find ways of challenging positions with which they do not wish  to identify. Through exposure to different types of written genres in the classroom displaying varying degrees of objectivity and subjectivity, EAP practitioners could present alternative ways of writing available to students.

Another important issue to bear in mind is that whilst Genre Analysis offers a number of ways to identify the functions and linguistic conventions of discipline-specific genres, we should take care not to present models of genre as static or neutral, as it seems to be the case with many EAP programmes.   Genres are fluid and can evolve and change over time.  We should also be conscious of the fact that the way writers write will depend, to a large extent, on their own views of knowledge construction in their discipline, the epistemology of their discipline and the identities they wish to adopt.


BALEAP (2008) BALEAP Competency Framework for Teaching of English for Academic Purposes.

Bhatia, V. K. (2004) Worlds of Written Discourse: A Genre-Based View. London: Continuum.

Clark, R. and Ivanič, R. (1991) Consciousness-Raising about the Writing Process. In Garret, P. and James, C. (eds.) Language Awareness in the Classroom. London: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (1989) Language and Power. London: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (ed.) (1992) Critical Language Awareness. London: Longman.

Hyland, K. (2004) Disciplinary Discourses: Social Interactions in Academic Writing. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Ivanič, R. (1998) Writing and identity: The discoursal construction of identity in academic writing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nesi, H. and Gardner, S. (2012) Genres across the Disciplines: Student writing in higher education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Street, B. V. (1995) Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education. New York: Longman.

Should EAP practitioners conduct analyses of written genres within specific disciplines and across disciplines?  If so, how can this help them to decide what EAP methods and materials they should use in the classroom to teach academic writing?



12 Comments on “Academic Discourse and Literacies and the Teaching of Academic Writing”

  1. Steve O'Sullivan says:

    Nesi and Gardner’s research has come up with 13 common core genre families in academic writing (with certain disciplines featuring more of some types and less of other ones):

    •empathy writing
    •case studies
    •design specifications
    •literature surveys
    •methodology recounts
    •narrative recounts
    •problem questions
    •research reports.

    In the generic time-restricted EAP course, does this imply that lots of short extracts (at least 13 ‘model texts’?), may need to be used to bring out the discourse features within and across the particular genres? If so, this would appear to go against the idea that more extended reading texts may be a required feature of the EAP classroom. Perhaps extended reading, then, should be left for students’ independent study outside the classroom, unless fewer longer ‘model’ texts used were each to contain a number of the genres in them.


    • Steve O'Sullivan says:

      See Nesi, H. (2012) An Investigation of Genres of Assessed Writing in British Higher Education. Cambridge University Press.


    • Martha Jones says:

      Thanks for your reply, Steve.

      I would say a combination of short and longer texts should be read by students on EAP courses, as they will have to deal with both types of written academic discourse on their degree programmes.

      Corpora of generic academic discourse or small specialised corpora which include whole texts of different genres could be compiled within EAP centres and analysed to identify key features of specific discipline-specific genres. This, of course, can take some time but once the corpora are ready for use, corpus-based analysis can reveal features such as stance markers, linguistic features for the construction of writer identity, writer-reader relationship, vocabulary and phraseology, among others, fairly easily. This can be followed by more qualitative analysis of these features across longer stretches of text, e.g. introductions, discussion and conclusion sections. This kind of resource could be very useful to design EAP materials based on authentic academic texts.

      I have compiled small corpora of discipline-specific written discourse and the analysis has helped me design materials for the EGAP and ESAP classroom.



      • Andy Gillett says:


        As you say, according to the BALEAP Competency Framework for Teaching of English for Academic Purposes, we can see that an _EAP practitioner_ is expected:

        “To be able to recognize and explore disciplinary differences and how they influence the way knowledge is expanded and communicated, and have a high level of systemic language knowledge including knowledge of discourse analysis”. (BALEAP, 2008)

        OK. But I do not think it necessarily follows that “If _EAP/ESP learners_ are to be accepted as members of their discourse community, first of all, _they_ need to become aware of ways in which knowledge is constructed and the agreed conventions used to discuss issues in their discipline”, especially at undergraduate level.



      • Steve O'Sullivan says:

        Hello again, Martha.

        I guess partly what I’m trying to get at relates to the English for generic academic purposes versus ESAP dichotomy.

        Many (most?) pre-sessional EAP courses in the UK (possibly where the largest amount of EAP is taking place, in the UK at least), will tend towards the more generic. Apart from anything else, there are very practical reasons for this (not enough students of some disciplines to enable a more dedicated ESAP provision for them all). Class materials, then, may well tend towards the generic, whether via published coursebooks, via the in-house produced variety, or via a mixture of both.

        As each of the 13 genre families has been identified as being more (essay writing?) or less (empathy writing or design specifications?) prevalent across the discipline areas (see e.g. Nesi, 2012), exploitation to bring out the particular discourse features would meet the needs of students of certain disciplines in some cases more than in others.

        In a generic EAP classroom, then, adhering to the 13 genres, it follows that some of the students would benefit most when it’s ‘their turn’ (i.e. a text of a certain genre is relevant to what ‘goes on’ in their own discipline); on the other hand, others would not benefit much at all, as the genre would not really apply that much to their discipline.

        In the generic EAP class, then, some genres might need to be sacrificed, if the ‘common denominator’ genres are to be foregrounded as much as possible, for the most amount of time, for the greatest number of students.

        There are some excellent generic EAP coursebooks which have come out in recent years and, without knowing all of these well, as more or less generic materials, they will likely aim to address identified and assumed generic EAP needs of students – across all disciplines. At the same time, Hyland, taking from his quote in your blog above, suggests that, for example, ‘Paraphrasing, citing, reviewing the literature, and other standard features of EAP courses are not uniform practices reducible to generic advice’.

        If Hyland is right, herein lies a practical dilemma for teaching EAP on generic EAP courses , such as many pre-sessional courses (where the bulk of EAP in the UK may be occuring): how to meet the specific ESAP needs of students about to study, for example, in ‘minority’ subject areas, whilst trying to meet the needs, in a mixed-discipline EAP class, of the ‘common denominator’ type.

        If ‘Paraphrasing, citing, reviewing the literature, and other standard features of EAP courses are not uniform practices reducible to generic advice’, what ‘reducible uniform, generic practices’, if any, are there for the generic EAP course?


        Nesi, H. (2012). The essay and beyond: writing for different purposes in British universities. British Council-Teaching English Seminars. Videoed presentation. Available at


  2. Martha says:

    Hi, Andy,

    Thanks very much for your comment.

    Could you explain why you don’t think students and UG students in particular do not need / have to become aware of how knowledge is constructed in their own discipline or learn about conventions used by members of their discourse community?



  3. Martha says:

    Hi, Steve,

    Yes, I agree that most EAP programmes in the UK focus on generic features of writing, and we need to focus on genres which will be relevant to most if not all our students’ disciplines.

    You mention the fact that the essay seems to be widely used, as Nesi and Gardner (2012) note, but they also explain that ‘While essays share the general aim of developing an argument, they also differ in how the argument unfolds’ (ibid: 98). They also give examples of different types of essay. In the EGAP classroom it would be helpful to raise awareness of the diversity of essay types and rhetorical functions depending on the discipline. Students would probably find this type of discussion interesting.

    A few years ago, two colleagues here in Nottingham conducted a Needs Analysis survey which focused on the identification of teaching approaches and assessment practices in different academic departments (Thondhlana and Gao 2009: 44). Like Nesi and Gardner, they also found that the essay was widely used in various departments, but it meant something different depending on the discipline:

    Traditional: description, discussion, compare and contrast, problem-solution and exposition.

    Thematic: covering a broad range of areas.

    Critique: critical appraisal, evaluation of a theory, literature review, researcher paper (UG), exegetical (commentary, evaluative, reflection), peer review (students writing for students).

    Technical: programming, lab-based, SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis.

    I think that if we didn’t raise awareness of such variation across genres, we would be doing a disservice to students.

    As regards Hyland’s assertion:

    Paraphrasing, citing, reviewing the literature and other standard features of EAP courses not being uniform practices reducible to generic advice,

    some of these could be dealt with in terms of well-known conventions applicable to a variety of disciplines, but, for example, the way in which the literature is reviewed in different disciplines may vary. For example, in the Department of Architecture and the Built Environment here in Nottingham, Masters students are encouraged to model their own writing style on expert writing, i.e. the style used in specialised journals. What I have noticed is that writers in this discipline can use a more categorical / less hedged style when expressing stance with regard to the propositions they make than, for example, writers in other disciplines.


    Thondhlana, J. and Gao, X. (2009)Needs Analysis Project: Phase 1 Report, CELE, University of Nottingham.



  4. Andy Gillett says:

    I’m not saying I disagree with you, Martha. I’m just wondering how linguistically sophisticated 18 year olds are. As an 18 year old science student, I knew how to write a lab report, but I don’t I knew what I knew. I didn’t learn anout referencing until I was a postgraduate, but maybe things have changed. I try to do what you suggest and try to turn my students into critical discourse analysts, but when it doesn’t work, I wonder if I’m expecting too much.


    • Martha says:

      HI, Andy,

      Yes, I think that these days, UG students and, non-native speaker UG students, in particular, face a number of challenges, and, for example, in the sciences, it is not enough to know how to conduct a lab experiment and write a report. They need to develop the skills to think critically about other aspects of their own discipline as well.

      I’ve just found a report on a study conducted by 3 academics at Nottingham University on the subject of Critical Thinking at UG level.

      Here are a couple of extracts:

      “Critical Thinking (CT) involves questioning the basic assumptions that underlie inquiry. Development of one’s capacity for CT is commonly held to distinguish a university education from the simple acquisition of knowledge and skills. Literature suggests that ongoing changes in the way that HE institutions are managed and funded have led to decreased emphasis being placed on CT in undergraduate learning and teaching. Assuming that CT is indeed a defining and vital component of university education, this claim is worrying. The project aimed to formulate methods one could use to assess whether or not the hypothesis is true, using Nottingham University as a data source. The focus was on developing ways to determine the status of CT in current undergraduate learning and teaching practice.

      CT manifests differently in different disciplines. The extent to which CT informs undergraduate learning and teaching may also vary across disciplines. An investigation into the supposed decline of CT in undergraduate learning and teaching should take both of these factors into account. An overview of the literature dealing with different conceptions of CT is presented as background to the project.”



      • Andy Gillett says:

        Again, Martha, I don’t disagree with you. But, as your quotation makes clear “CT manifests differently in different disciplines”. So students need to learn what CT means in their own subject. I don’t think, though, that we can expect young students to understand how CT works in subjects that they are not concerned with. Most of the students I meet cannot extract their own specific needs from the generalistions that EGAP teaches. They need our help and ESAP!

        I’m teaching an accounting course at the moment with an accounting lecturer. The students have all had previous teaching in CT, and sort of know what it involves. But their previous teaching does not seem to prepare them well for the CT needed in interpreting company accounts. It’s hard for me as well, but I’m getting there!



  5. Jumana says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post, Martha


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