LINGUIST List 28.338

Tue Jan 17 2017

Review: Applied Ling; Socioling: Göpferich, Neumann (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <clarelinguistlist.org>


Date: 22-Sep-2016
From: Christopher Strelluf <cstrellnwmissouri.edu>
Subject: Developing and Assessing Academic and Professional Writing Skills
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-1973.html

EDITOR: Susanne Göpferich
EDITOR: Imke Neumann
TITLE: Developing and Assessing Academic and Professional Writing Skills
SERIES TITLE: Forum Angewandte Linguistik - F.A.L. - Band 56
PUBLISHER: Peter Lang AG
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Christopher Strelluf, Northwest Missouri State University

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

Developing and Assessing Academic Writing and Professional Writing Skills, edited by Susanne Göpferich and Imke Neumann, examines the effectiveness of writing curricula in Austria, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland. It is organized into three sections: “vocabulary and terminology in academic writing,” “complex writing competence constructs,” and “subjective conceptions of writing and how to foster it.” Each of the three sections includes two articles.

In the first article, Chistine S. Sing examines the ability of business students in an English for Specific Purposes (ESP) program to “technicalize” within their writing. Technicalizing refers to naming phenomena and imbuing names with meaning through elaboration (p. 18). She uses the self-compiled Academic Business English corpus of student seminar papers in business, economics, finance, and marketing, and mines the corpus for code glosses for the discursive functions of “defining,” “exemplifying,” and “explaining.” Students’ uses of defining discursive functions suggest that students are “preoccupied with taxonomies rather than developing ideas” (p. 30). Exemplifying functions also appear to be used for building taxonomies, but “students opt for chains of reference in which ideas are loosely strung together, enforcing a linear, associative structuring” rather than hierarchical chain of reference, resulting in weak taxonomies (p. 34). Explaining functions perform similarly to exemplifying functions, and may particularly show students’ awareness of the generic requirements of the seminar paper, in which students demonstrate to instructors that they understand course concepts rather than try to build knowledge. Indeed, across discursive functions students “demonstrate the ability to technicalize,” but “do not seem to conceive of themselves as ‘knowledge-makers’ (p. 32). Sing suggests that it would be useful for ESP teachers to call attention to “different resources that can be used to technicalize in writing” (p. 39) to help students develop conceptually into knowledge-makers.

Next, Hans Malmström, Diane Pecorari, and Magnus Gustafsson examine the development of academic vocabulary in an English Medium Instruction (EMI) context. They build a corpus of 80 English-language texts by Master of Science students and analyze the corpus against terms in the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) developed by Dee Gardner and Mark Davies (2014). Approximately 20 percent of tokens in their corpus come from the AVL—a surprisingly high proportion that exceeds the proportion of academic vocabulary in published academic texts. The researchers observe similar proportions of AVL tokens in (Swedish) home and international student texts, suggesting that the international students are “able to take on EMI education on a level playing field with their Swedish peers” (p. 58) and contradicting a perception among Swedish faculty that international students are less well-equipped for EMI than home students (p. 61). Of note, though, the researchers find only a small increase in the proportion of AVL tokens in year-two student texts relative to year-one student texts, indicating that EMI does not lead to an increase in productive academic vocabulary. Optimistically, however, the researchers suggest that their findings show that students in their study are well equipped to employ academic vocabulary, meaning that teachers can concentrate on exercises to build discipline-specific vocabulary.

Liana Konstantinidou, Joachim Hoefele, and Otto Kruse begin the section “complex writing competence constructs” by examining outcomes from “process”-oriented writing instruction in three Swiss vocational schools. Students completed instruction informed by “process,” which understands writing as a non-linear, recursive activity, comprised of a series of “activities such as idea generation, structuring ideas, planning, proposing ideas, and translating ideas into word strings” (p. 77). The students’ scores on writing tasks completed before instruction, shortly after instruction, and several months after instruction were compared to those of students receiving the school’s traditional curricula. Students completing the process-oriented instruction showed greater improvements in their scores than the control group, and showed longer-term retention of these gains. The researchers argue that their findings--rather than commenting on process as a pedagogical approach--show that, while “teaching writing in [vocational] schools is often regarded as a field of pedagogy where deficits from earlier education prove to be obstacles to substantial progress,” in reality writing instruction can effect real gains in student writing abilities (p. 96).

Susanne Göpferich and Imke Neumann also examine development of student writing before and after writing courses. They score pre- and post-class argumentative essays for 26 L1 German and 35 L2 English students. Three raters annotated errors in student writings according to a rubric with the categories “formal errors,” “grammatical errors,” “textlinguistic errors,” and “other errors.” Texts were also assessed holistically for argumentative rigor. Post-class essays showed reduced errors relative to pre-class essays, especially in the L2 English courses. Post-class essays also showed improvements in argumentative rigor, with greater gains in L1 German texts. Improvements were visible in aggregate and at the individual level, with by-student comparisons of essay scores showing “that most students improved […] whereas only few obtained poorer results at the end than at the beginning of writing courses” (p. 125). At this individual level, Göpferich and Neumann identify greater gains during L1 German writing courses for the weakest students, while in English L2 courses, gains appear to be more generally distributed. These comparisons show straightforwardly that writing courses in both L1 and L2 lead to measurable gains in student writing competence.

In the collection's final section, which focuses on subjective conceptions of writing, Sandra Ballweg tests a fundamental tool of process-oriented writing pedagogy: the portfolio, which requires students to compile and consider writing artifacts from various stages of their writing process. She reports student and teacher perceptions of portfolio work. Ballweg finds that the teacher emphasized cognitive and metacognitive outcomes for the portfolios and devoted substantial time to students’ organization of portfolios. These focuses “made students aware of the writing process and induced them to reflect on writing strategies and text quality and to use peer feedback,” but also reduced time actually devoted to writing (p. 160). Students generally seemed to value portfolios affectively and metacognitively, rather than for helping to learn L2 German or improve writing skills. Ballweg also finds that weaker students tended to value the individualized assessment of portfolios, but other students “were afraid of arbitrariness and unfair grades.” She notes, too, that the personal nature of portfolios compromised the teacher’s attitudes toward assessment and students’ feelings about being assessed. She concludes that the addition of portfolios to pedagogy inherently requires reductions in other teaching and assessment approaches, necessitating that teachers develop approaches to portfolio-based instruction specifically according to the developmental needs of their students.

In the collection’s final article, Sabine Dengscherz and Melanie Steindl analyze students attitudes toward planning and spontaneity as parts of the writing process, and assess the usefulness of discussions of writing strategies as an instructional approach. Students in writing classes participated in online forums that required them to reflect upon and discuss their writing processes and attitudes toward writing. Dengscherz and Steindl find students describing a wide range of approaches to planning and spontaneity. Student comments in the online forums occasionally led students to initiate and cooperatively build planning strategies, which Dengscherz and Steindl suggest exemplifies how the “discussions helped students not only to become aware of their writing procedures but also to learn from each other” (p. 188). They conclude that these meta-discursive forums may help students by allowing them to adjust the ways they incorporate planning and spontaneity into their writing processes, and may help writing teachers “address the students’ current states of development and thus coach them more individually and efficiently” (p. 196). Dengscherz and Steindl offer a series of exercises from the literature to teach students different applications of planning and spontaneous writing.

EVALUATION

The studies collected for Developing and Assessing Academic and Professional Writing Skills thoughtfully and accessibly offer ways to practice and theorize the teaching of writing. Malmström, Pecorari, and Gustafsson’s study of academic vocabulary is illustrative of the layers of value that the texts offer. From the purview of a writing program administrator, their finding that student texts do not show an increase in productive academic vocabulary over the course of an EMI curriculum challenges assumptions about the value of EMI for teaching language skills. From the purview of a researcher interested in the quantitative assessment of writing, their method of compiling a small corpus of student texts and studying it for the presence and diversity of AVL tokens offers a replicable research model. From the purview of a writing instructor developing classroom activities, their use of Mark Davies’s (2015) online interface to measure texts against the AVL suggests an activity where students subject their own papers to AVL analysis, leading them to think meta-discursively about their writing in relation to academic and disciplinary writing. A similar set of multi-layered implications can be identified in any of the six articles in the collection.

Researchers and teachers of writing will also appreciate the ways that authors in this collection blend approaches and methodologies from several fields that are often treated as separate. This will especially be the case for readers in the United States, where interactions between compositionists and applied linguists are probably less frequent than they should be--disciplinary divisions reflected frequently in the structures of university departments and in the proceedings of organizations like the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the American Association of Applied Linguistics. Ballweg’s qualitative analysis of teacher and student perceptions of the value of writing portfolio-based assessment, for instance, studies the fundamental pedagogical element of “third-wave” writing assessment (e.g., Yancey 1999)--the writing portfolio--which will be a centerpiece of many writing classrooms, but does so in part to evaluate L2 acquisition outcomes, which might be more generally the focus of second-language classrooms.

Readers from specific disciplinary backgrounds should anticipate that this disciplinary blending may at times be initially jarring. Readers trained in “rhetoric and composition” programs in the United States, for instance, may be somewhat surprised by the book’s treatment of the central concept of “assessment.” In many seminal works in the history of writing assessment in US composition studies (e.g., Diederich 1974; White 1985; Belanoff & Dickson 1991), assessment is oriented to large-scale, programmatic concerns (e.g., assessment for purposes like placement, grading, and program evaluation) and considerations of reliability and validity (plus underlying issues of cost).

Texts in this collection certainly take up programmatic concerns. In particular, the articles by Konstantinidou, Hoefele, and Kruse and by Göferich and Neumann explicitly frame their work in terms of questions over the kinds of courses and instruction that should be offered to help students achieve writing competencies. But the fundamental unit of assessment in this collection is the writing classroom, rather than the writing program. This is a more localized focus than readers disciplinarily accustomed to US composition studies might expect. The approach to assessment in this collection might generally be thought of as demonstrations of evaluations of outcomes of writing classrooms (frequently in an L2 context), rather than discussions of ways that writing should be assessed at the program level.

It is also important to note that, though the collection’s title refers to “developing” and “assessing” and to “academic” and “professional” writing, the balance leans in favor of assessment over development and academic writing over professional writing. In the case of the former, most of the articles focus on determining whether or not, based on analysis of student texts, students were successful in achieving a specified outcome. Though several articles recommend pedagogical strategies that might do better to achieve outcomes, most do not actually examine the effectiveness of specific instructional activities. Noteworthy exceptions here are Ballweg’s qualitative examination of writing portfolios and Dengscherz and Steindl’s recommendation of an online discussion forum to develop metacritical awareness among students of their writing processes.

Their article is also an exception in that it focuses on professional, rather than academic, writing--though even here professional writing is really considered from the standpoint of academics versed in process-oriented pedagogy (e.g., Belanoff & Dickson 1991) rather than non-academics who write as part of their profession (who, ethnographic studies of writing like Selzer [1983] sometimes show, engage in more planning and less “discovery” and revision than process-based pedagogies suppose).

Konstantinidou, Hoefele, and Kruse are also an exception, in that they assess outcomes based on student artifacts of formal letters--a genre more closely connected with professional than academic writing. This focus on professional writing, though, is somewhat belied by the primary focus of the article, which is whether writing pedagogies can effect improvements in vocational student writing, rather than the development or assessment of professional writing. Relatedly, Sing’s fascinating quantitative study of discursive functions in business student writing evaluates student proficiency in knowledge-making functions in subfields that are closely associated with professional writing, but the writing tasks being evaluated appear to be primarily academic, and analysis of individual student writing artifacts demonstrates that the students themselves think of their writing as situated in an academic setting rather than a professional context.

Readers who keep these qualifications in mind will be satisfied by the text. I recommend it especially for teachers of college-level writing who recognize that their pedagogy might benefit from the incorporation of a broader spectrum of disciplinary tools and practices. Scholars versed in rhetoric and composition will be interested in the application of corpus linguistic analyses to student writing, as well as in the parallels they will recognize between L2 acquisition and the development of academic literacies (i.e., in the first-year composition classroom). Applied linguists and second-language teachers will potentially find new tools in the compositionist mainstay of the portfolio and other process-oriented pedagogies.

REFERENCES

Belanoff, Pat & Marcia Dickson (eds.). 1991. Portfolios: Process and product. Portsmouth, MA: Boynton.

Davies, Mark. 2015. Word and Phrase [computer software]. Available: http://www.wordandphrase.info/.

Diederich, Paul B. 1974. Measuring growth in English. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Gardner, Dee & Mark Davies. 2014. A new academic vocabulary list. Applied Linguistics 35(3). 305-327.

Selzer, Jack. 1983. The composing processes of an engineer. College Composition and Communication 34(2). 178-187.

White, Edward. 1985. Teaching and Assessing Writing. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. 1999. Looking back as we look forward: Historicizing writing assessment. College Composition and Communication 50(3). 483-503.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Christopher Strelluf is Assistant Professor of Language, Literature, and Writing at Northwest Missouri State University. He researches language variation and change, language politics, and composition pedagogy.

Page Updated: 17-Jan-2017