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Review of  Digital Genres, New Literacies and Autonomy in Language Learning

Reviewer: Daria Dayter
Book Title: Digital Genres, New Literacies and Autonomy in Language Learning
Book Author: María José Luzón Maria Noelia Ruiz-Madrid María Luisa Villanueva
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 22.2573

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EDITORS: María José Luzón, María Noelia Ruiz-Madrid and María Luisa Villanueva
TITLE: Digital Genres, New Literacies and Autonomy in Language Learning
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
YEAR: 2010

Daria Dayter, English Linguistics, University of Bayreuth, Germany


''Digital Genres, New Literacies and Autonomy in Language Learning'' is a
collection of articles on various aspects of the young subfield of second
language acquisition (SLA), computer-assisted language learning. The intended
readership includes not only applied linguists but also teachers of modern
languages and other educators who wish to implement e-learning in their work.
The book incorporates two approaches to the subject: in Part I more theoretical,
with chapters on genre and text typology, learner autonomy and the essence of
digital literacy; and in Part II more practical, with an overview of
case-studies and specific e-learning tools. Thus the book caters for the
interests of both groups of readers. Since the book editors and the authors of
four chapters are members of the Group for Research and Pedagogic Applications
to Languages (GIAPEL), the collection deals extensively with the projects run
under the auspices of this research group. Among other topics, the volume
discusses the development of 'wreading' competence, fluidity of genre in
internet, digital literacy and its role in autonomous learning, and necessary
qualities of web-based tasks and difficulties of navigating a hypertext. On the
whole, the collection touches upon a variety of key issues of computer-supported
learning and can be recommended to student readers as well as other SLA


The book is divided into two parts, ''Part I: Theorizing about Genre and
Cybergenre, New Literacies and Language Learning'', and ''Part II: Designing New
Tasks for the New Language Learning Framework: Cybertasks for Language Learner

As the editors state, the book ''is an attempt to incorporate and draw relations
between research on digital genres, autonomy, electronic literacies and language
learning tasks, combining theoretical reflections with pedagogical research'' (p.
x). In order to fulfil this purpose, they open up the discussion with an
introductory chapter (pp. 1-22) which aims to map the key concepts mentioned in
the title of the book -- learner autonomy, new literacies and autonomous
learning. First, the authors introduce GIAPEL -- a group of Spanish scholars
that was founded in 1991 and focuses on examining plurilingualism and autonomy
training from linguistic, cognitive and pedagogical perspectives. In terms of
linguistic background, the group is interested in discursive and textual
entities which form the pragmatic and cognitive frameworks for learning, and
therefore the concept of digital genre is in the centre of investigation.
Setting the tone for other contributions, Villanueva, Ruiz-Madrid & Luzón agree
on the need for an inclusive theory of genre which addresses three dimensions:
''i) the purpose intended by the producer; ii) textuality features (i.e. textual
regularities or patterns, interdiscursivity, multimodality, interactivity and
hypertextuality); and iii) patterns of usage'' (p. 10). From a pedagogical
perspective, the researchers propagate lifelong learning which is inseparable
from learner autonomy. In line with the insights of earlier studies (e.g. White
1995), they emphasize that self-instruction should not be confused with learner
autonomy and call for autonomy training as ''deconditioning from a teaching
culture'' which should develop ''multilingual and multicultural mediation skills
within exolingual communication; the skills typical of an integrated
plurilingual competence that promote different strategies in alloglossic
situations […]; critical skills to manage information sources; strategic
information organisation and appropriation skills; and skills in the selection
of the guidance, counselling or accompanying forms in accordance with learning
contexts and objectives'' (p. 5). Finally, the purpose of teaching new literacies
is recognised as the formation of a 'wreader', ''an active responsive reader who
performs acts where the boundaries between reading and writing/creating text
blur'' (p. 14).

The discussion of digital genre is picked up by Maingueneau in Chapter 2 (pp.
25-41), ''Types of Genres, Hypergenre and Internet'', when he asks whether
traditional typologies of genre are applicable to the fluid online discourse. In
an attempt to synthesize research in the fields of literature and discourse
studies, the author outlines two ''genre regimes, subject to quite different
rules: conversational genres, on the one hand, and instituted genres, on the
other'' (p. 29). He suggests that for Web texts, where genre constraints are
getting weaker, only two theoretical concepts are relevant: that of
'hypergenre', an overarching category that loosely frames a wide range of texts
(p. 32), and that of 'scenography', the way the producer chooses to embody the
genre on linguistic and discursive levels. Thus, in online discourse a
scenography may overrule the 'generic scene' -- the norms prescribed by a
particular hypergenre, leading to endless variation within a recognisable Web
genre (p. 34-35). Indeed, the validity of such analysis has been indirectly
demonstrated in research on computer-mediated communication (CMC), e.g. by
Puschmann (2009) who investigated the subversion of the blog genre by corporate

Chapter 3 (pp. 43-61) ''New Text on the Block: Problems and Issues while
Navigating to Read'' problematises the issue of hypertext reading. Reviewing the
existing body of knowledge on hypertext reading, Altun identifies the main
hindrance to comprehension of non-linear hypertext: students often ''perceived it
as a maze and experienced disorientation'' (p. 48). This confusion may be caused
by the fact that in contrast to a traditional text, in hypertext ''definite
beginnings and endings might not exist. Instead, the reader is provided with
navigational tools allowing him or her to move through an almost unlimited
information space'' (p. 45). The author reports the results of a study that
focused on hypertext reading patterns by undergraduates (Altun 1999) and
concludes that it is necessary to train students separately when hypertext is
introduced into the learning process: ''Because the form is new, it proves
problematic for readers as well as writers who are unfamiliar with the structure
and procedure the non-linear hypertext entails. It causes disorientation and
prevents learners from sharing, discussing, and negotiating meanings in a
classroom setting'' (p. 57). In addition, the level of computer literacy and
previous experience with internet is a significant factor in the success of
reading and constructing meaning of non-linear texts.

In their paper on ''New Literacies and Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning''
constituting Chapter 4 (pp. 63-80), Benson & Chik explore the opportunities
which Web 2.0 provides for autonomous language learning and which, notably, are
exploited by learners without any formal pedagogical guidance. Rather than
outlining the pedagogical implications of such a phenomenon, as for instance
Sturm et al. (2009) do, Benson & Chik put the learner perspective in the
spotlight. Looking at young Hong Kongers who developed their linguistic and
pragmatic competence in English by means of participating in online communities
of the World of Warcraft computer game and Fanfiction website, the authors
demonstrate that Web 2.0 can make foreign language (FL) relevant to a learner in
ways that classroom teaching never would. While ''FL learners are very often
isolated from other users of target languages and, consequently lack
opportunities for concurrent situated language use'' (p. 72), globalized online
spaces prove to be a perfect environment for ''self-directed naturalistic
learning'' (p. 74). Benson & Chik weigh the objections to such learning
affordances against their obvious benefits and call for further research on this
''hidden underbelly'' of FL learning.

In Chapter 5 (pp. 81-100), ''Supporting Autonomy Development in Online Learning
Environments: What Knowledge and Skills Do Teachers Need?'', Bailly examines the
constraints and limitations of autonomous online language learning. Such
constraints include poor availability of online resources, absence of certain
discursive genres on the internet, extreme complexity that comes with great
quantity of information, and impossibility of using authentic Web resources
without a certain level of L2 (pp. 85-86). She suggests the use of teaching
blogs to assist the development of autonomy in online learning and supports her
argument with the results of an empirical study conducted at a high school in
France. One important conclusion of the study is the demand to train teachers
with higher degree of digital literacy.

In the last chapter of the Part I, Chapter 6 (pp. 101-125) ''The CIBERTAAAL
Project: Helping Students Become Wreaders'', Coy & López present the CIBERTAAAL
project (Cybergenres and Technologies Applied to Autonomy in Language Learning),
the aim of which is to investigate the linguistic aspects of digital texts and
students' strategies in hypertext reading; and to offer informed suggestions for
cybertask design. Coy & López outline their methodology for achieving these
research goals, and analyse the architecture of two educational websites. They
find that ''students who were more familiar with ICT [information and
communication technology] used more external links and carried out more 'free'
searches on the Internet to solve the task'' (p. 123), but also that the language
level of a particular student does not always correlate to their manner of

Part II begins with the contribution by Ton Koenraad ''Tools and Strategies to
Support the Implementation of Web-Based and Task-Based Approaches in Modern
Language Education'' (pp. 129-151). Koenraad describes the Dutch LanguageQuest
project, a government-funded initiative to support teachers in integrating
online resources in their teaching practices. One of the focal points of the
project is the development of LanguageQuests -- a subtype of a WebQuest, an
online-based task widely used in other areas of internet-assisted learning and
considered to have a very high potential for FL learning (see e.g. Luzón 2002).
Finally, the author reports on the makeup and uses of the LanguageQuest
Assessment Tool which is intended to facilitate the improvement of LanguageQuests.

''Webtasks for the Development of Language Learning Autonomy in the Digital
Environment'' is the title of Chapter 8 (pp. 153-174), written by Maria José
Luzón & Maria Ruiz-Madrid. They address the proposal by Villanueva (2009)
concerning the pedagogy of complexity, and suggest a new model of web tasks
which is aimed at developing linguistic and semiotic skills as well as
high-order capabilities of information elaboration and management (p. 161). As
the two cornerstones of such tasks they name rich authentic input and
appropriate pedagogical scaffolding.

Chapter 9 (pp. 175-196), ''Designing Cybertasks for Learner Autonomy: Towards an
Activity Theoretical Pedagogical Model'' offers practical advice on the designing
of cybertasks. Basing her claims on Cultural Historical Activity Theory
(Vygotsky 1978, Leontiev 1978, Luria 1976), Blin proposes four key principles
for a successful cybertask that promote autonomy and motivate students: (1)
object-centred activities; (2) extensive student collaboration; (3) carefully
planned focus shifts which help students develop digital literacies; and (4)
internal and external contradictions built into the task through pedagogical
scaffolding (pp. 186-187).

With Chapter 11 devoted by the editors to an overview of the book and outlining
avenues for future research in the area, Chapter 10 (pp. 197-224) is the last
substantive contribution in the volume. In ''Task-Based Development of Language
Students' Critical Digital Multiliteracies and Cybergenre Awareness'',
Orsini-Jones raises the problem of insufficient digital literacy among staff and
students. She points out that while ten years ago teachers could still motivate
their students by using then-innovative e-learning, nowadays it is educators who
struggle to keep up with the students' superior digital literacy. Moreover,
''students can ''resent'' what they perceive to be institutional e-tools'' (p. 201).
Orsini-Jones follows Hartley (2007) in outlining three e-learning zones among
which students constantly navigate: The Museum -- the institutional world of
control and assessment; The Playground -- the collaborative, informal
environment including Facebook, MySpace etc.; and The Secret Garden -- the
personal, private, exclusive, e.g. an iPod. She warns that as most university
learning takes place at The Museum and The Secret Garden, ''the will of
undergraduate students to keep their academic learning spaces separate from
their playgrounds [...] should be respected'' (p. 202).


As the book's preface and concluding chapter state, its main objective is to
break ground in unifying three related fields of research, namely digital
genres, autonomous learning and digital literacy, ''that, although closely
intertwined and crucial to understand online language learning, are frequently
discussed separately, with little reflection on the need to combine them'' (p.
ix). However, there definitely are comparable works that may constitute
competition to the present collection; among them, notably, Thomas (2009) which
in 600 pages pulls together papers on digital literacy, read/write Web (similar
to Coy & López's wreading problem), and Web 2.0 in SLA.

Another claim made in the concluding chapter concerns the current lack of ''a
multidimensional framework for the analysis of digital genres that accounts not
only for linguistic features, but also for Web-enabled features [...] and
patterns of social interaction'' (p. 233). Although the need for further research
in this area undoubtedly exists, it would appear sensible to see the chapter on
genre (Dominic Maingueneau) incorporate the most prominent of existing attempts
at such multidimensional Web genre typology, a faceted classification scheme for
computer-mediated discourse (Herring 2007). At the same time, it is important
to remark that Maingueneau's contribution proves especially interesting for this
lack of connection to a well-known study: unlike many contemporary papers in the
area of genre studies, in addition to famous Anglophone research (Swales,
Dewitt, etc.) Maingueneau draws on less-known French scholarship (Petitjean
1989, Rastier 2001, Maingueneau 1998), thus bridging a gap that unavoidably
arises between publications in English and other languages.

Among small drawbacks of the volume I may note a few typos and misspelt names of
scholars (e.g. ''Bazermann'' p. 27. ''Rossenblatt'' p. 49), along with multiple
bulky abbreviations and frequent 'blackboxing' of claims with strings of
citations, which hinder reading flow. Some of those abbreviations are used
without prior explication (e.g. ICT on p. ix), and although it will not
constitute a problem for most of the readers familiar with the field of
computer-assisted SLA, it may be confusing to other applied linguists or
especially to student readership.

Nonetheless, ''Digital Genres, New Literacies and Autonomy in Language Learning''
has a unique value which lies in exploration of problematic theoretical issues
and extensive overview of preceding research. The contribution by Arif Altun
stands out as a paper indispensable to anyone looking to be introduced to the
research on hypertext reading thanks to its comprehensive literature review and
reliance on empirical studies. Probably the most valuable for applied linguists
and educators, and also the most insightful and challenging, are the papers by
Benson & Chik and Orsini-Jones. Both papers identify vital issues in
web-assisted language learning which for all their enormity are very easy to
overlook. The desire of language learners to keep their Web 'playgrounds'
separate from learning spaces, emphasised by Orsini-Jones, should be brought to
the attention of every language teacher. Importantly, along with the warning,
the author suggests helpful ways to overcome the problem. Finally, Benson & Chik
direct readers' attention to language learning which the student undertakes
outside of the classroom, completely independently, which usually escapes the
eye of researchers who concentrate on guided learning.


Altun, Arif. 1999. The socio-cognitive aspects of hypertext use in an advanced
undergraduate ESL reading classroom: a case study. Cincinnati, OH: University of
Cincinnati doctoral dissertation.

Hartley, Peter. 2007. New technology and the modern university. Paper presented
at the Next Generation Environment Conference, JISC.

Herring, Susan. 2007. A faceted classification scheme for computer-mediated
discourse. [email protected] 4: article 1.

Leontiev, Alexey. 1978. Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood
Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Luria, Alexander. 1976. Cognitive development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Luzón, Maria José. 2002. Internet content-based activities for English for
Specific Purposes. English Teaching Forum 40(3). 20-25.

Maingueneau, Dominic. 1998. Analyser les texts de communication. Paris: Dunod.

Petitjean, André. 1989. Les typologies textuelles. Pratiques 62. 86-125.

Puschmann, Cornelius. 2009. Lies at Wal-Mart. Style and the subversion of genre
in the Life at Wal-Mart blog. In Janet Giltrow & Dieter Stein (eds.), Genres in
the Internet, 49-84. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Rastier, François. 2001. Arts et sciences du texte. Paris: PUF.

Sturm, Matthias, Trudy Kennell, Rob McBride & Mike Kelly. 2009. The pedagogical
implications of Web 2.0. In Thomas (ed.), pp. 367-384. Hershey: Information
Science Reference.

Thomas, Michael (ed.) 2009. Handbook of research on Web 2.0 and Second Language
Learning. Hershey: Information Science Reference.

Villanueva, Maria Luisa. 2009. Tâches et cybergenres: Une perspective
actionnelle. Le Français dans le Monde/Recherches et Applications 45. 72-82.

Vygotsky, Lev. 1978. Mind in society: the development of higher psychological
processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

White, Cynthia. 1995. Autonomy and strategy use in distance foreign language
learning: Research findings. System 23(2). 207-221.

Daria Dayter has received her first degree from the Russian Christian Academy for the Humanities, Saint-Petersburg, Russia, and her M.A. from the University of Bayreuth, Germany. She is a research assistant at the English Linguistics department, University of Bayreuth, Germany. At the moment she is working on the PhD project on time reference in Twitter and blogs. Her research interests include language in the internet, computer-mediated communication, youth language, and politeness theory.

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