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Review of  First-Year University Writing

Reviewer: Tina Beynen
Book Title: First-Year University Writing
Book Author: Laura Aull
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 27.2773

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The study described in author Laura Aull’s “First-Year University Writing” marries the fields of applied linguistics and rhetoric-composition (RC) to examine linguistic features of first year (FY) student and expert academic writing. Aull’s corpus investigation is motivated by a lack of research that examines the linguistic features used to “argue” and “describe” (p. 7) in academic writing. The book is broken down into six chapters that explain the large-scale issues and literature gap that fuel the study, detail the corpus analysis and major language-level patterns discovered, and provide pedagogical implications of the findings.

Aull outlines three primary goals for this book: identifying patterns in linguistic features in argumentative FY writing while considering writing prompts and comparing the patterns found to those found in academic expert writing; considering why there are not more large-scale studies that linguistically analyze FY writing; and highlighting why there should be more studies of this nature. The research questions that guided the study are as follows: “What are the salient, shared features of first year writing? How do those features differ from those in expert academic writing? How might we guide students to be more aware of such features and the principles of academic discourse they reveal?” (p. 3). While Aull recognizes the contribution of smaller scale studies using more qualitative methods of analysis, and she recognizes that there are other features of FY writing that can be and have been examined, she seeks to bridge the gap between two fields of study that are important in advancing our knowledge of novice academic writing.

Chapter 1, “First-year writing today,” introduces the issues and research gaps that led to this investigation. Aull points out that as far back as the 1950s and 1960s, researchers attempted to create links between the fields of linguistics and writing studies in order to collaboratively explore research issues. Equally as old are complaints about FY students’ inability to write in the academic genre in an acceptable manner. Despite these issues, she explains, there is no clear or commonly accepted definition of what is considered exemplary. In addition, there remains a lack of empirical evidence to demonstrate specific ways in which novice academic writing falls short.

In Chapter 2, entitled “Linguistic and rhetorical studies in English: A history and a (genre-based) way forward,” Aull explains the origins of the rift that exists between the disciplines of linguistics and RC in order to contextualize “how FY writing is understood and studied today as well as how we might approach it differently” (p. 20). She summarizes three points to explain why there are a lack of large scale studies that use a linguistic approach. First is the nature of how American post-secondary English departments developed with writing instructors housed within English departments. In addition, these instructors rarely had training in linguistics. Second, the field of RC itself has evolved in isolation from the fields of linguistics and English for Academic Purpose. Finally, FY writing research and teaching has historically focused on larger-scale text meaning and writing strategies, paying little attention to linguistic features.

Aull presents the context for her study in Chapter 3, “Context-informed corpus linguistic analysis of FY writing,” and reveals the first of the findings. She begins by describing the key concepts involved in corpus linguistic analysis. She draws on two corpora: a specialized corpus of evidence-based argumentative essays written by students upon entry to two American universities and the reference corpus, Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA; source of the expert writing). These are analyzed using the software program AntConc (Anthony, 2011). The two American institutions from which the student writing was drawn are the University of Michigan and Wake Forest University.

The first patterns found in the FY corpus highlight the care needed in designing test prompts. In this study, most FY writers used first person pronouns more than expert writers, regardless of the prompt. However, when a prompt asked for personal evidence, FY writers used even more first person pronouns. The FY writers used these to highlight evidence in a variety of ways, many of which differed from how expert writers used them. Finally, when an open-ended prompt solicited personal evidence (instead of a direct response to a source text argument), the instances of FY references to personal evidence again increased. In conjunction with this, references to the source text or author decreased.

The bulk of the study’s findings relating to the use of hedges and boosters (epistemic markers), and scope markers,”are presented in Chapter 4, “Corpus linguistic analysis of scope and certainty in FY and expert writing.” Contributing to argumentative strength or certainty, Aull notes that the patterns found relating to these features may assist both students and instructors in “demonstrating how macro-level concepts like credibility, evidence, and cohesion are realized in language-level patterns” (p. 85).

First, Aull discovered a number of common phrasal hedges and boosters. She also found the following patterns with the use of hedges and boosters: they are often used in academic discourse to demonstrate certainty and possibility; there are many ways to craft certainty and qualification in argumentative writing; the experienced academic writers used fewer boosters than the FY writers; and the expert writers demonstrated more balance between certainty and possibility, whereas the inexperienced writers were more confident in their assertions. Second, the analysis of scope markers revealed that expert writers used more text-internal markers (those that draw on the surrounding text) and used them to a far greater extent than text-external markers (those that take the reader outside of the text). In contrast, the novice writers depended more on text-external language. Additionally, FY writers tended to refer to the source text without making this explicit to the reader.

In Chapter 5, “Linguistically Informed Pedagogical Applications,” Aull brings together research and practice by suggesting a number of classroom activities to help writers build credibility through scope and certainty of claims, demonstrating knowledge and understanding through reformation of ideas, and forming clear relationships between concepts with the use of words and phrases that link and organize thoughts. She provides lesson ideas on argumentative certainty and breadth to practice boosters, hedges, scope markers. Aull also suggests learning activities relating to findings not previously discussed: the use of reformulation markers (emphasis and restatement), and transitions markers (logic and organization).

Aull concludes the book in Chapter 6, entitled “Implications and lingering questions,” by discussing further implications of this study, an acknowledgement of its limitations, and suggestions for future directions. Two interesting implications she details relate to equity and access, and creative expression. In the first, Aull notes that by unearthing patterns in both FY and expert academic writing, the goal is not to shame a lack of skill on the novices’ part or to proclaim the linguistic features found in the more experienced writing as the absolute in standards. She expresses concern regarding the reinforcement of privileged forms of English and limiting access to the language that will help students succeed in their studies, assumed as the foundation for career and financial success. In the second, she suggests the importance of some allowance for creativity and innovation in student writing.


Aull achieves the three goals she set out to accomplish with this book. With regard to identifying common FY and expert academic writing features, Aull concedes that there is more to composing academic text than the linguistic features used, and this study focuses solely on the genre of the argumentative essay. However, discussing the entire range of micro and macro elements that go into academic writing, in addition to the multitude of written assignments that students could encounter in their various disciplines, are beyond the scope she sets out. The greater point to be made is the value in considering linguistic patterns in light of the lack of empirical examination into this area thus far. Further, she views the student writing patterns in context by considering them in relation to the writing prompts and more experienced academic writing.

The book’s second goal of exploring why there are not more studies blending applied linguistics and RC comes to fruition in Chapter 2. This friction between overlapping yet competing fields is surely not unique. The question remains as to why the two fields still resist coming together, despite evidence of the benefits of joining forces? The contributions of this study demonstrate that ‘interdisciplinarity’ is not just the buzzword du jour or popular agenda for post-secondary institutions and funding agencies; it is an important and necessary step in viewing research issues from different perspectives and advancing our knowledge.

Finally, goal number three about the value of blending theoretical influences is realized in this study’s findings. In addition to the point above regarding the value of interdisciplinary study, these results provide concrete evidence of some of the language-level differences in novice and experienced academic writing. This study also adds to the growing body of research using corpora. This method of investigation facilitates efficiency by allowing researchers to analyze large amounts of data that would be difficult or impossible to do manually (Deignan, 2005). It also allows for more in-depth and efficient (both in time and expense) analysis (Shutova, Teufel, & Korhonen, 2013), and genre-specific corpora facilitate the ability to search the most frequent uses of language forms in specific contexts. Finally, corpus investigation provides a more objective picture of language in use rather than relying on supposition or intuition (Berber Sardinha, 2007).

This study’s findings raise important issues for consideration. Previous studies examined writing prompts in light of student performance, but Aull goes a step further to consider the linguistic features of responses. She points out that secondary school students are typically taught not to use the personal pronoun ‘I’ in their writing in order to avoid personal narration, yet three of the seven prompts examined included wording inviting students to draw on personal experience. Those prompts elicited the highest number of self-mentions and a sharp decrease in referencing the source texts, especially when the prompts were open-ended.

Another issue of importance is the basis upon which to evaluate student writing, recalling Aull’s comment about there not being a clear definition of acceptable standards. Developing widely-recognized, objective, evidence-based qualities is necessary in order to judge student writing fairly and equitably as well as to provide novice writers with clear objectives to work towards. Aull identifies the importance of indoctrinating students to what is expected of them as academic writers, nodding to Sancho, Guinda, and Hyland (2012) who insist that students must be provided with “adequate descriptions” (p. 6-7) of the intricacies of the language-level features and disciplinary norms that they are expected to adhere to. The results obtained in Aull’s study provide a starting point towards the complicated task of defining the features that comprise effective academic writing.

One shortcoming of this study, which Aull discloses, is what constitutes ‘expert’ academic writing. She acknowledges that the COCA includes writing that is different from what university students (first year or otherwise) would be expected to compose (e.g., research articles). She suggests that the development of a more realistic expert writing corpus would be useful for both students and instructors. This reviewer proposes examples of discipline-specific, upper year student writing that has been judged as exemplary of the type of writing that is desired, for modeling purposes.

Also noteworthy with regard to defining expert academic writing is Aull’s suggestion in the introductory chapter that FY students can write but do so in a way that may not be valued by their instructors. She hopes that identifying linguistic patterns in both novice and expert writing will demystify expectations for students. This goal is not a new one, but Aull approaches it from a different lens than her predecessors. In the concluding chapter, she stresses that care must be taken to not “…cast expert writing as a rigid and stable template…” or “…vest even more power in patterns of standard edited English” (p. 159). Instead she hopes that she can instill in students an awareness without stifling creativity, particularly considering disciplinary variations.

Overall, this book does a good job of presenting the impetus for the study, explaining why so few studies of this nature exist, detailing the findings, and suggesting ways in which the results can inform pedagogy. In terms of organization, this reviewer would have preferred that the findings revealed in Chapter 5 be presented with the other findings in Chapter 4. Alternatively, they could have been given their own place as a separate chapter before delving into the practical pedagogical implications so as to not interrupt the flow of this chapter. However, Aull’s First-Year University Writing will be an interesting and informative read for those who work with FY students in the post-secondary classroom and in support services, such as writing centres. The latter is the experiential background from which this review was approached. As such, those researchers firmly entrenched in the applied linguistics or RC camps may be more critical of the study’s findings or wary of the theoretical intermingling that Aull suggests is important. However, this reviewer believes that this study makes genuine contributions to the body of knowledge on FY writing.


Anthony, Laurence. 2011. Antconc (Version 3.2.4). Tokyo: Laurence Anthony, University of Waseda.

Berber Sardinha, Tony. 2007. Metaphor in corpora: A corpus-driven analysis of applied linguistics dissertations. Revista Brasileira de Lingüistica Aplicada, 7(1). 12-35.

Deignan, Alice. 2005. Metaphor and corpus linguistics. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Sancho Guinda, Carmen & Hyland, Ken. 2012. Introduction: A context-sensitive approach to stance and voice. In Ken Hyland & Carmen Sancho Guinda (eds.), Stance and voice in written academic genres, 1-11. Palgrave Macmillan.

Shutova, Ekaterina, Teufel, Simone & Korhonen, Anna. 2013. Statistical metaphor processing. Computational Linguistics, 39(2). 301-353. doi:10.1162/COLI_a_00124.
Tina Beynen recently completed her M.A. in Applied Linguistics & Discourse Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where she was a Teaching Assistant in the Writing Tutorial Service for the duration of her degree. Her thesis investigated metaphor comprehension in first year engineering textbooks. She is certified to teach English as a Second/Additional Language with TESL Ontario, specializing in academic English. Beynen currently works as an administrator in the Faculty of Education’s Research Office at Western University in London, Canada. She plans to travel abroad to teach English before pursuing doctoral studies.

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ISBN-13: 9781137350459
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