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June 15, 2017

Of writing, wardrobes and windows

In the coming months, we (Lisa and Karen) between us will write a research bid, an ethics application form, research articles, responses to reviewer comments, an SFHEA application, emails, module guides, and now, a blog post….a dizzying array of genres, each calling for different language choices and rhetoric if we are to achieve our communicative purposes.

It’s the same story for our students. In our work as English for Academic Purposes lecturers, we encounter students across the departments who are expected to perform an even wider range of genres: essays, dissertations, webpages, critiques, reports, posters, as well as the more practice-based genres that come with the territory of an applied university, such as a lesson plan. Just like us, each time they write, students need to adapt to the audience they are writing for and to the purposes they are trying to achieve. The complexity of writing at university entails a steep learning curve; even when students can write good A-level essays or well-crafted reports in their profession, we can’t assume they have the genre knowledge required to adapt to new communicative contexts such as a Bachelor’s dissertation at the SIoE, or a business case report in Sheffield Business School. The upshot would seem to be that “[t]he communicative demands of the modern university involve far more than simply controlling linguistic error or polishing style” (Hyland and Shaw, 2016, p.1).

Let’s take a closer look at this complexity using criticality as an example. Evidencing criticality is fundamental for success in most academic genres, and here at Hallam we teach criticality in our seminars and lectures. But do we teach how this criticality comes across on the page? Take the following extract from an annotated bibliography written by a student in the SIoE, which in our view is a reasonable attempt at criticality:

“The article is very long, which could have resulted in the main point being diluted or even lost as I am unsure if the andragogical model of adult learning was clarified for me as a result of reading this article”.

How would this extract be judged if it were taken from a literature review in a Master’s dissertation, and not an undergraduate’s annotated bibliography? We think not well at all.

Clearly, a change in context requires a change in rhetoric. One issue here is that “[w]riting in a particular genre often requires writers to assume a particular identity in order to enter meaningfully into the conversations of the discourse community” (Clark, 2016, p.5). In a Master’s dissertation, we would expect this student to make a rhetorical shift. She needs to move away from writing as a critical learner who is reading for an assignment, and move towards writing as a novice researcher, positioning her contribution in the current research field. Being able to adapt to these different communicative contexts is a bit like building up a wardrobe full of clothes and knowing which outfit will have the right impact for the occasion.

In recent weeks we have had many fruitful discussions with department and faculty teams across the university about these issues. Importantly, we all seem to agree that just as we plan to develop students’ subject knowledge, we also need to plan how students will learn to effectively communicate that knowledge across a range of genres and contexts. We also seem to agree that we need an inclusive approach which brings to the surface the tacit knowledge we have as disciplinary experts and writers. This entails finding “literacy windows” (Wingate, 2015, p.155), opportune moments within lectures, seminars and tutorials to explicitly focus on the ‘how’ of communication and not just the ‘what’.

This is the first time we have performed this genre – a blog post. We have drawn on our identities as academic writing specialists, and we are writing for you, our colleagues who are disciplinary specialists with your own understandings of academic writing. Our aim was to persuade you of the importance of finding opportunities to explicitly develop your students’ academic communication as part of your practice. Whether we have adapted our rhetoric and style to appeal to our audience (you), and effectively achieved our communicative purpose remains to be seen…but if this is the case and you want to know more, do get in touch.


Lisa McGrath is a Senior Lecturer in English for Academic Purposes, Sheffield Institute of Education

Karen Nicholls is Principal Lecturer in English for Academic Purposes, Sheffield Institute of Education


Clark, I. (2016). Genre, identity and the brain: Insights from neuropsychology. The Journal of General Education, 65, 1-19.

Hyland, K., & Shaw, P. (2016). The Routledge handbook of English for Academic Purposes. Oxford/New York: Routledge.

Wingate, U. (2015). Academic Literacy and Student Diversity: The Case for Inclusive Practice. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.