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Review of  How Students Write

Reviewer: Filippo Pecorari
Book Title: How Students Write
Book Author: Laura Louise Aull
Publisher: Modern Language Association of America
Linguistic Field(s): Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 32.1856

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The book “How Students Write. A Linguistic Analysis” deals with the issue of student writing across genres and levels of higher education. It follows and draws on previous studies by the same author, devoted to the analysis of university writing through a corpus-based methodology (see, e.g., Aull 2015, 2017, Aull & Lancaster 2014, Aull et al. 2017). In the present book, corpus-based insights are complemented by a close textual analysis of representative examples, with the aim of enlightening both microlevel discourse patterns and macrolevel rhetorical correlates of linguistic choices. The analysis relies on two corpora of student writing, compiled in two universities of the United States (the University of South Florida and the University of Michigan), totaling around 1,400 texts and 2,700,000 tokens. The research is informed by a socio-cognitive vision of student writing (cf. Miller 1984, Swales 1990, van Dijk 2008), perceived as a kind of institutionalized discourse that is made up of language features and communicative purposes, the proficiency of which lies at the heart of school success.

The book is divided into five chapters, preceded by an introduction (pp. 1-13), and followed by an afterword (pp. 146-171) and an appendix (pp. 172-187). Chapter 1 (pp. 15-38) starts out providing a review of works on student writing within the domains of composition research and applied linguistics, and highlighting the importance of genre conventions. Against this backdrop, the author presents the methodological principles of her study, wherein a context-rich qualitative analysis of few examples – typical of composition studies – is connected to a thorough quantitative analysis of lexical and morphosyntactic features in a vast collection of texts. The main analytic approaches adopted in the corpus-based section of the study are keyword analysis, assessed with regard to the statistical significance of expressions in couples of corpora (argumentative vs. explanatory writing, first-year vs. upper-level students), and word frequency analysis of stance words, applied to several classes of expressions conveying the attitude of the writer on parts of the text (hedges, boosters, generality words, counters, reformulation words).

Chapter 2 (pp. 39-63) focuses on the history of writing courses and of research on student writing in the United States. The overview highlights similarities and differences between first-year and upper-level school genres. Although the single writing assignments are largely different in the two domains, both display a general opposition between argumentative and explanatory tasks. These are the genre categories that are employed within the analysis in the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 3 (pp. 64-94) and Chapter 4 (pp. 95-120) form the core of the book, in that they report the main findings of the analysis of first-year and upper-level writing respectively. The two chapters have a parallel structure: first comes the corpus-based quantitative analysis of linguistic features, then the focus is narrowed onto some examples that are particularly rich in genre-specific or level-specific discourse patterns. The analysis takes into consideration only papers that were evaluated with an A-grade by course instructors, thus regarded as exemplar cases of linguistic choices that are rewarded in different stages of the education process. In both chapters, argumentative writing is carefully distinguished from explanatory writing.

Chapter 5 (pp. 95-120) summarizes the main results of the study, highlighting discourse patterns and rhetorical moves that characterize specific genres or specific student levels. As for genre-specific features, the syntax of argumentative writing proves to be more akin to that of conversation, being also more explicit in the use of dependent clauses and specialized connectives; explanatory writing, for its part, makes greater use of complex noun phrases and passive constructions, which involve a certain amount of implicitness. The two genres behave differently also in the domain of stance words: argumentative writing constructs persuasive and assertive claims due to a larger use of boosters and generality words, while explanatory writing is more inclined to open dialogic space through the use of hedges. As regards level-specific patterns, the study shows that first-year writing places a greater emphasis on human actors, encourages generalizations about people or society at large, and focuses on single sources. Upper-level writing is instead more focused on human needs and ideas, is more cautious and open to the confrontation with different positions, and displays a more explicit textual cohesion given by the use of concessive and reformulation connectives.

The afterword addresses a readership of instructors and students, offering on the one hand some suggestions about the elaboration of assignments based on the findings of the research, and on the other bringing to light the main language features that are highly valued in first-year and upper-level writing. The appendix reports some additional information about the quantitative side of the analysis, summing up keyness values, log-likelihood values and common clusters for all the main language features analyzed in the book.


The book makes an innovative contribution to the field of student writing research. Its main originality lies in the wide-ranging analysis that cuts across school genres and levels. In particular, the corpus-based exploration of patterned discourse as a way to illuminate conventional practices in school genres adds something new to the field of composition studies, where texts are usually examined only from a macro-linguistic point of view. The author’s decision to complement a close and a distant view of the object of analysis allows the reader to grasp both the morphosyntactic specifics of student texts and their role in modeling the construction of knowledge through writing. The chapter devoted to upper-level writing fills a substantial gap in the literature, broadening the perspective of writing research beyond the usual boundaries of undergraduate writing.

The research reveals a strong commitment to social goals, in that it aims to identify the main rhetorical qualities that are rewarded in student writing development and to make them explicit and learnable by the student community. The afterword is particularly useful for this purpose, since it provides practical suggestions for instructors and students, helping them to recognize the communicative potential of the discourse patterns analyzed throughout the book. Another welcome aspect of the volume is the connection traced between university writing and civil discourse, especially as regards the construction of a public debate where the exchange of ideas leaves the dialogic space open to other people’s contributions. It is certainly true that the university plays a crucial role in the teaching of thoughtful dialogue, and training students to recognize the communicative functions of microlevel language features is an important part of this endeavor.

The book is particularly well-suited for scholars working on student writing in the United States. The analysis is firmly anchored in the American academic context, where writing courses have been an integral part of university activities since the late 19th century (see pp. 40-41). Yet it is possible that in other academic contexts the sharp contrast between first-year and upper-level genres underlying US composition assignments would not be so clear-cut, and the same applies to the distinction between argumentative and explanatory genres. The application of the method adopted in this book to other contexts would certainly be an interesting avenue for future research.

One shortcoming that can be noticed from a methodological point of view is the absence of control corpora, which seems at times to affect, at least to a certain extent, the soundness of results. On several occasions the author emphasizes that the linguistic patterns under examination can be considered exemplary of the respective genre, since they are persistent and significant in the A-graded texts collected in the corpus. However, nothing is said about the relative frequency of the same features in texts that received lower marks. Without these data, it does not seem possible to discern features that are truly highly valued by instructors from features that are simply typical of the genre in all its manifestations, irrespective of the evaluation given by lecturers.

Something more should also have been said about published standard academic writing, which is the proper “target variety” of the texts analyzed in the book. It is not always clear whether the results of the analysis may be applied to a genre in its entirety, including texts produced by competent writers, or only to texts belonging to learner varieties. Some more references to data taken from general corpora (largely present, by the way, in other works by the same author: cf. Aull 2015, Aull et al. 2017) would have better served this purpose.

A final minor drawback can be observed in the formatting of the book with regard to the style of bibliographical references. Instead of the author-date system that is customary in the linguistic literature, the book refers to other works through the indication of the surname of the author and, if necessary for reasons of disambiguation, by adding the first one or two words of the title. This citation style is a bit disorienting for readers who are accustomed to the author-date system; moreover, it prevents the immediate recognition of the cited work’s publishing date in the body of the text, forcing the interested reader to look that up in the bibliography.


Aull, Laura Louise. 2015. First-year university writing: A corpus-based study with implications for pedagogy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Aull, Laura Louise. 2017. Corpus analysis of argumentative versus explanatory discourse in writing task genres. Journal of writing analytics 1/1. 1-47.

Aull, Laura Louise & Zak Lancaster. 2014. Linguistic markers of stance in early and advanced academic writing: A corpus-based comparison. Written communication 1/33. 151-183.

Aull, Laura Louise et al. 2017. Generality in student and expert epistemic stance: A corpus analysis of first-year, upper-level, and published academic writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes 26. 29-41.

Miller, Carolyn R. 1984. Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech 70/2. 151-167.

Swales, John M. 1990. Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

van Dijk, Teun A. 2008. Discourse and context: A sociocognitive approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
After earning his PhD at the University of Pavia (Italy) in 2014 with a dissertation on anaphoric encapsulation in written texts, Filippo Pecorari is currently a researcher and adjunct lecturer at the University of Basel (Switzerland). His research interests are mainly focused around text linguistics, pragmatics and Italian linguistics.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781603294683
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