Academic journal article Utrecht Studies in Language and Communication

Chapter Seven: New Directions: Corpus Tools and Web Writing

Academic journal article Utrecht Studies in Language and Communication

Chapter Seven: New Directions: Corpus Tools and Web Writing

Article excerpt

This chapter examines approaches to teaching academic writing that exploit developments in information technology to add new dimensions to the student writing experience. In broad terms, the active use of computers in teaching L2 writing can be divided into two areas: the use of corpora and corpus tools to enhance academic writing courses and promote learner autonomy; and the use of the Internet, blogs and online platforms to enable students to write for a larger audience, to emphasise the interactive and collaborative dimensions of writing, or to orchestrate simulations that recreate the dynamics of real-world writing experiences. Of course, the Internet is also used for other purposes, such as to make a wide variety of L 2 writing resources available to the general public, but to all intents and purposes such sites (many of which are excellent) function in the same way as text books, and are not innovative in methodological terms.

Corpus-based teaching

Corpus linguistics came into being in the 1960s as a new way to study language by using computer processing tools on large samples of text. As computers became more powerful, increasingly large volumes of text were assembled, and tools such as concordancers and wordlists were developed that could extract data from huge language corpora with great rapidity. To take one example, the British National Corpus currently consists of 100 million words, 90% of which are taken from written sources such as regional and national newspapers, specialist periodicals and journals, academic books and popular fiction, letters and memoranda, school and university essays, and so on. Ten percent of the material in this corpus consists of transcripts from oral material, consisting of conversations, as well as spoken language collected in other contexts, ranging from formal business or government meetings to radio shows and phone-ins. Corpora of this kind can be searched using tools such as WordSmith (Scott, 1998), which make it possible to obtain frequency lists, identify key words, and most importantly for our present purposes, generate information about the collocations and patterns in which particular words are found in different genres, along with data concerning the statistical likelihood of co-occurrence of different items.

The existence of large corpora is obviously very useful for language study as such, but it also has considerable potential for teaching L2 writing. One interesting recent contribution in the area of academic writing has been the introduction of special corpora intended for student use. It is generally assumed that corpora offer considerable advantages to language teachers and learners because they put a vast quantity of language samples at our disposal, along with handy tools that enable us to sort them in a variety of ways, to identify patterns, and to pull out statistical information to do with frequency or co-occurrence (Cobb, 1997; Bowker, 1999). For the writing classroom, in particular, corpus tools would seem to offer multiple opportunities (Gavioli, 2005). However, there are relatively few studies that report on real corpus use with real students. In what follows, we shall look at a few of the published accounts of how corpora have been used in specific university writing courses, or in integrated academic skills courses, and draw some tentative conclusions based on these studies.

Approaches to using corpora to help learners with writing seem to fall into two categories. The first could be termed a "language focused" approach, in which writing skills are loosely bound up with general language competence. Here, a broad area such as lexis or grammar is targeted, and learners are trained to use a general corpus to search for words or structures, or to check ones that they have produced by other means. The second, which is more directly relevant to our present purposes, could be described as a "genre focused" approach, in which learners are provided with a specially designed corpus of texts of a particular type, which they use for a variety of research and checking activities when producing texts within a similar range. …

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