Posted: September 17th, 2017

Academic Writing in a Second Language: A study of the challenges faced by undergraduate Students


Academic Writing in a Second Language: A study of the challenges faced by undergraduate Students

Problem identification

This study will focus upon undergraduate students for whom English is an additional language (EAL). It concerns those who have been admitted into undergraduate programmes where evidence of the level of English language proficiency has not been a mandatory requirement and who are now struggling with the challenges of academic writing.

The university in which this study is conducted and in which I am a member of the student support team, currently has an open entry policy and is located in Ireland (including Northern Ireland). At present, the university has identified 61 EAL students who are enrolled in undergraduate modules in 2010. Only 5 of these students self-referred before beginning studies. The others have been referred by tutors who, upon receipt of assignments, were concerned about the students’ level of English language proficiency. This not only has academic and financial implications for the students, but impacts upon both the educational institution and the tutor in terms of funding and providing additional language support.

Historically, Ireland has been notable for being a nation of emigrants but in the last decade has experienced an unprecedented level of immigration. The expansion of the EU in 2004 is the main source of the recent increased flows of migrants. By 2007, the Republic of Ireland had the third highest migration rate across the 27 EU Member States (Migration Information Source). Northern Ireland, with its unique history and current state of equilibrium, has become more attractive to immigrants. Figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) show that during 2004-2007, immigration exceeded emigration by 26,000. Multiculturalism is a recent phenomenon in Northern Ireland.

In response to this growing linguistic and cultural diversity within the island of Ireland, the university initiated an attempt to identify students for whom English is an additional language and created a database in April 2009. In the absence of any formal language entry test, this database only consists of those EAL students who have self-referred or have been referred by tutors. Language support is provided on an ‘ad-hoc’ basis and, as yet, there has been no systematic evaluation of those who have received additional help nor of the nature of the difficulties they experience. With the number of EAL students on the increase, identification and understanding of the challenges faced by these students together with the development of a structured support program is crucial and has provided the impetus for this study.

The study aims to answer these research questions:

• What are the students’ perception of writing skills before beginning studies?
• What is their attitude toward the current difficulties they are experiencing?
• To what extent does previous educational experience impact upon academic writing skills?
Problem investigation: methodology
Data will be collected by means of a questionnaire sent to all 61 students. An overall profile will then be constructed in terms of age, native language, subject area and level of education. This data will be referred to in the study and included in the appendices. This will provide an emic perspective and will serve to inform the linguistic analysis. Submitted assignments from two EAL students will then be selected as texts for detailed analysis from a ‘meaning-making’ perspective, using analytical tools from the systemic functional linguistic (SFL) framework. It is anticipated that this will include genre, register and transitivity analysis. Both students will receive feedback on the analysis by means of an individual mentoring session. This will provide an etic perspective.

Should the participants not wish to be identified in any way, confidentiality will be respected and anonymity assured. Permission to use assignments for the analysis and inclusion in the study will be sought from the undergraduates concerned. The data and analysis of findings will be used only for the purposes of this study.

Understanding of problem: contextual concepts & theoretical frameworks

Functional linguistics is not only concerned with how language functions, but how it communicates meaning. It ‘requires an interpretation not only of the text itself, but also of its context (context of situation and of culture) and of the systematic relationship between the two’ (Halliday 1994, cited in Moore 2007: 57). Through functional analysis, this study will explore how ‘context, text and grammar are systematically linked’ (E854 Study Guide, 2009 4:125). It will examine the lexical choices within the selected texts and explore how ‘success’ depends upon how these EAL writers organise grammar ‘into texts which are coherent and relevant to the context’ (Martin, E854 DVD 2, Part 4). Key concepts and analytical tools from the SFL framework, as discussed in Part 4 of the E854 study guide and detailed in chapters 6-10 of the set book (Coffin et al. 2009), will be of particular significance in guiding the analysis of this study.

The extent of the effectiveness and cohesion of these texts will be analysed with respect to their cultural context through the concept of genre. Research has often taken the genre analysis approach in trying to assess the nature of student writing. For example, a study by Coffin (2006, E854 Study Guide 2009, Part 4 readings), revealed that more clearly structured texts were produced by raising students’ awareness of the form and function of different genres within the history curriculum of a secondary school.

This study will undertake a comparative analysis of two texts from EAL undergraduate students who are enrolled in subjects from different academic disciplines. Though not specifically involving EAL undergraduates, disciplinary differences in academic writing (focusing on theme) have been highlighted and analysed by North (2005). As stated by Coffin (2006, E854 Study Guide 2009, Part 4 readings), ‘Different subjects ( ) have different purposes, and therefore different types of text with distinct structures and grammatical patterns arise’. An aim of this study then, is to explore how there may be ‘different cognitive and linguistic demands’ (E854 Study Guide 2009, 4:140) depending upon the subject involved.

This study will examine language choices and their effectiveness or otherwise in these texts through the concept of register (context of situation) and its variables of field, tenor and mod and associated metafunctions. By using both genre and register analysis as tools to make apparent the structure, organisation and lexicogrammatical choices of the selected texts, this study will aim to identify weaknesses in communicative effectiveness and diagnose problem areas. It can be argued that EAL students may not only have limited resources in English, but may have less familiarity than first language students with the genres and registers expected in an academic context.

‘Learning to construe the world according to the demands of academic disciplines is a complex process’ (E854 Study Guide 2009, 4:155). This is especially true for those writing in a second language who may lack the linguistic resources to effectively convey meaning or ‘represent’ events. Thus an analysis of transitivity patterns within these texts will be particularly useful. Direct reference will be made in this study to research by Moore (2007) which shows how the application of transitivity analysis (the analysis of participants, processes and circumstances) on the texts of undergraduate students can provide not only an insight to some of the challenges and difficulties they face, but recognition and understanding on the part of the students involved.

Addressing of problem

Using the analytical tools of s
ystemic functional linguistics as outlined, I will identify and address particular problem areas in the selected texts. I will mentor these students and discuss specific difficulties with their submitted work and draw up a study/action plan. This will provide an opportunity to learn of the students’ perception of their difficulties and gauge their response to the feedback offered. There will be specific focus on transitivity patterns and on increasing the students’ awareness of the genre and register level expected or required in their respective disciplines at undergraduate level. Through mentoring, the significance of lexical and grammatical choices in ‘making meaning’ will be aimed at.

Such an assessment and the provision of feedback may motivate the students in their academic endeavours and can be used to help the educational institution be more responsive to the needs of those undergraduates who are writing in a second language. However, given the constraints of the timescale, it will not be possible in this study to evaluate the progress of these students. A longitudinal study of their academic performance and the monitoring and review of the impact of intervention would be required.


Late March– Send TMA03, assess feedback and amend proposal accordingly. Questionnaire preparation & despatch.

Early April – Compile overall profile of students from database. Read course materials and prepare for TMA04.

Mid-Late April – Receipt of completed questionnaires. Investigate & select student texts. Establish contact.

Early May – Continue reading course materials & preparing TMA04.

Mid-Late May –Read background material. Submit TMA04. Begin analysis of texts.

June – Analyse student texts, read background material & arrange face to face/online mentoring

July – Analyse texts, mentor students

August- Write project

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