Chapter 8: Implementation and evaluation of the cross-disciplinary intervention

Chapter 8: Implementation and evaluation of the cross-disciplinary intervention
Chapter 8: Implementation and evaluation of
the cross-disciplinary intervention
Whereas chapters 6 and 7 reported on planning, designing and evaluating a subjectspecific essay-writing intervention, this chapter follows a similar design and procedure
for an intervention with a broader disciplinary focus, and compares the results, using
both qualitative and quantitative methods of data analysis and evaluation. First, an
overview is given of the current debate regarding wider-angled approaches, followed by
a description of the research methodology that was followed to measure the
effectiveness of the cross-disciplinary intervention, and a presentation and discussion of
the results.
Rationale and approach
As stated previously, the common-core versus subject-specific debate in language
pedagogy has been going on for more than 20 years. In the context of teaching
undergraduates to write academic essays, the most compelling argument from the side
of common-core approaches might be that it is imperative for university students to
move comfortably between the discourses of a number of academic disciplines. They
need to "control a range of genres appropriate to each setting, and to handle the
meanings and identities that each evokes" (Hyland 2009: 129). Thus, according to
Bruce (2008: 34) there has been a movement away from discipline-based ESP course
designs and methodology to a more "discourse and genre-based cross disciplinary
approach". This trend, combined with the universal reality of undergraduate students
being underprepared to engage in academic discourses (Johns 1995; 2002; Lillis 2001;
Hyland 2004), and the researcher's desire to compare the effectiveness of narrow- and
wide-angled approaches within a genre framework justified the design and evaluation of
a cross-disciplinary academic writing intervention.
Following suggestions made by an external review panel that was appointed to evaluate
the work of the Unit for Academic literacy, and reinforced by the research in progress,
the institution of a second-year module in academic writing was approved by Faculty in
2008, with commencement in 2009. The institutionalization of the module, in turn,
increased the relevance of the research.
Limitations were that the module was not officially prescribed or recommended by any
of the existing academic programmes in or outside the Faculty. A further constraint was
that the alpha code UAL was assigned to the module, whereas all other modules offered
by the Unit for Academic Literacy bore the code EOT, which may have had an impact
on the visibility of the module (in an alphabetically organized prospectus). Finally, there
was the added financial burden of R2000 (the cost of the module) added to students'
annual programme fees. Although more than 30 students indicated interest, this price
was too high for a "nice to have" that was unlikely to be covered by a bursary or student
loan. Eventually only 14 students registered, of which 11 completed the module.
Another limitation was the researcher's lack of foreknowledge regarding the disciplines
that would be represented by the students, and thus the specificity of the syllabus and
the materials that could be designed in advance.
Design and implementation of the intervention
8.3.1 Respondents
Despite the constraints outlined above, 14 students registered for the module, of which
11 followed through. The attrition rate of 21% can be accounted for as follows: One of
the students was an international exchange student from Germany who only attended
seven weeks of the 14 week course; another indicated that she was interested only in
political analysis, and that the content of the course was not entirely suited to her needs;
and the third discontinued the module in the third week because of work load. The
remaining 11 were registered for the following academic programmes: BA (2); BPolSci
(5); BA Languages (3); BCom (1). The subjects which they were registered for included
Accounting, Criminology, Economics, English, Journalism, History, History of Art,
Political Sciences, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, and Visual Studies. Their
sociodemographic profile could be summarized as follows: 2 white males with
Afrikaans as their mother tongue; 1 white male with English as his mother tongue; 2
white females with Afrikaans as their mother tongue; 1 black female with Portuguese as
her mother tongue, 4 black females with an African language as their mother tongue,
and 1 black male with an African language as his mother tongue.
8.3.2 Syllabus and materials
To facilitate comparison of the two interventions, and limit variability, the same broad
syllabus structure was used as for the subject-specific module, focusing on the use of
rhetorical modes, types of claims and types of support in developing an academic
argument, while following the Teaching and Learning Cycle of the Australian genre
school. Argumentation was given a more prominent role, and using rhetorical modes
became one of the secondary threads. This was necessary because of less pronounced
relationship between essay structure and primary rhetorical mode in subject-fields other
than history. In addition, more emphasis was placed on stance and engagement, because
of the lack of the history students' improvement in this area. Table 8.1 represents the
presyllabus for the cross-disciplinary intervention.
Table 8.1 Presyllabus for the cross-disciplinary intervention
Study unit 1: Academic discourse(s)
The generic features of academic discourse are discussed with reference to authentic texts,
followed by the study of texts from specific disciplines in the Humanities in order to emphasize the
need for mastering the characteristic features of disciplinary discourses.
• What is academic discourse?
• Is there only one academic discourse?
Study unit 2: Modes of writing (text types)
The mastery of rhetorical modes is practised during a cycle comprising the exploration of excerpts
from authentic academic texts, freewriting, explicit teaching of the lexicogrammatical features that
characterize each mode, identification of frequently used modes, and independent writing of
paragraphs or short essays.
• Chronological writing: narratives, recounts and processes
• Description
• Comparison and contrast
• Cause and effect
• Exposition
• Analysis
Study unit 3: Academic arguments: formulating claims
Examples of essays are analyzed to identify the types of claims contained in thesis statements.
Students also formulate their own claims on the basis of given topics.
• Fact and opinion
• What is a claim/thesis?
• Positioning of the main thesis of an essay
• Types of claims (factual; causal; evaluative; recommendations)
Study unit 4: Academic arguments: invoking evidence
Examples of essays are analyzed to identify types of support and types of evidence, focusing on
lexicogrammatical markers.
• Types of support (comparison; definition; well-chosen examples; statistics; appeals to audience
needs; appeals to authority; addressing a counterargument)
• Using appropriate types of support for different types of claims
Each study unit comprised a set of outcomes and a learning component containing
theory, model texts and a variety of authentic task types, some of which were done
collaboratively in class, and some as homework tasks that had to be submitted for
Course materials consisted of a 100 page study guide cum workbook, based on the
presyllabus, a reader (hard copy) comprising 4 broadly focused articles on the theme
selected for the content of the module, viz. Poverty in Africa, and a partially interactive
Blackboard-based website. (This theme was suggested by lecturers from the
departments who contributed materials for the writing task survey, because of its
relevance across disciplines.) The website contained administrative information about
the lecturer, the content and assessment as well as a calendar with important dates. Via a
link to the library students had access to a variety of scholarly articles (for which
copyright clearance was obtained) and web resources. The Discussion Tool allowed
students to interact with one another on matters of common interest, and the
Announcement Tool was used to alert students to important dates and events on the
calendar. Additional class notes and the list of topics for the final examination were
uploaded to folders on the home page for the module.
Although the workbook contained a selection of texts from a variety of disciplines in the
humanities, it was realized that these might not be relevant to the core foci of the
students who would register for the course, and that one would need to substitute some
of the examples and exercises with more relevant materials through the course of the
module. This procedure was regarded to be completely in line with the postmethod
strategy of a basic presyllabus, which is adapted on the basis of feedback and learner
Assessment was done in accordance with faculty regulations. The semester mark
(progress mark) was based on continuous assessment of written homework tasks
submitted and marked throughout the semester, and the exam mark, each contributing a
weight of 50%. The 14 week intervention (two contact sessions per week) commenced
in February 2009.
Quantitative evaluation
8.4.1 Method
All students enrolled for the module had to write a pretest and a posttest. The pretest
assumed the format of a 50 minute in-class essay during the second week of the module.
All participants received the reader (containing four articles on general aspects of
poverty in Africa) a week in advance, and were requested to prepare for the pretest
essay. They were allowed to use the reader as an in-class resource. The pretest did not
count towards the students' final marks, as they had not received any tuition on essaywriting at that point. Before writing the pretest consent was obtained to use unattributed
extracts from participants' essays as well as the analytic scores awarded by the raters.
The posttest comprised the summative evaluation of the module. The students were
allowed to choose from a list of topics on various issues relating to poverty in Africa,
which had been requested from the relevant academic departments. They were given
one month in which to prepare for the essay exam. The planning, literature search,
literature review, outlining, writing and reviewing had to be done without assistance
from the lecturer in order to determine whether the scaffolding introduced throughout
the module had equipped them to independently apply the linguistic and structural
principles they had acquired. Table 8.2 shows the topics that were chosen by the
Table 8.2 Essay topics chosen by students in the cross-disciplinary group
Topic (and description)
No. of
To what extent was poverty an inevitable by-product of European
colonialism in Africa?
Whose obligation is it to do something about poverty in society:
the rich or the poor?
Whose obligation is it to do something about the moral problem of
poverty: the poor or the government?
Analyze the poem "London" by William Blake (in the Norton
Anthology of Poetry) OR "An abandoned bundle" by Oswald
Mtshali (in the Paperbook of South African Poetry ed. Chapman)
paying close attention to the way the poem depicts both physical
and spiritual poverty.
Discuss how Boesman and Lena are dehumanized by poverty
and racial discrimination in Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena.
Refer closely to the text throughout your discussion.
The policy gap and poverty.
Evaluate the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals
(MDGs) as a global strategy to arrest poverty, by referring to the
MDGs' normative as well as practical contribution to the plight of
the poor.
Famine and hunger are often associated with poverty. How can
this be combated through policy initiatives?
The exam was taken in the Computer Based Testing Laboratory of the Informatorium
on campus. Students were allowed to bring into the venue a sheet of paper with five
citations, not exceeding 100 words, which they could integrate in their essays. This
concession was made to facilitate the assessment of their ability to engage with other
authors. Students had to use the 2003 version of Microsoft Word, since not all of them
were familiar with the 2007 version. The spell- and grammar-checker was disabled.
The pre- and the posttest essays were scored independently by the course designer, who
also presented the generic course (Rater 1), and a part time lecturer with more than 20
years experience in teaching English literature, language and academic literacy, as well
as a doctorate in Applied Linguistics from a reputable South African university (Rater
2). The assessment instrument was the same as for the subject-specific intervention
(compare Table 7.1 in Chapter 7).
Rater 1 scored students higher than Rater 2 on both the pretests and the posttests: on
average the pretests were scored 3.4% higher by Rater 1 than by Rater 2, and the
posttests were scored 2.4% higher by Rater 1 than by Rater 2. The correlation
coefficients of the scores of the two raters are 0.96 for the pretest and 0.97 for the
posttest, therefore warranting the use of the average of the two raters' scores as a
measure of each student's performance.
After the rating process had been completed, the two raters discussed their experience
with scoring the essays. The second rater suggested that the formulation of certain items
should be adapted with a view to future rating exercises, first because the relative
weight of certain items was regarded to be either too high or too low, and second, to
explain and clarify the scope of particular items, especially in cases where the rater
would not be familiar with the terminology of certain paradigms in applied linguistics:
Items 1 and 2 should be combined into one item, Use of source material, because of
difficulty to make a clear distinction between Relevance of source data and
Integration of source material. Because of the second rater's uncertainty as to the
scope of these items, as well as his relative unfamiliarity with the sources that the
students had used, he tended to award an average score of 4 on items 1 and 2.
Item 5 (Development of main argument) should be explained by means of bracketed
information such as (coherence and logic).
Item 9 (Concord and tense) may be weighted too heavily, and its scope could be
extended to "Use of verbs".
For essays in the humanities item 11 (Technical and subtechnical lexis) might not be
entirely relevant, first because certain subject-fields do not have as distinctive a
nomenclature as others, and second because the use of subtechnical lexis overlaps
with item 12 (Style). (Academic vocabulary may be seen as part of academic writing
8.4.2 Presentation and discussion of results
The total score for each of the 11 respondents was converted to a percentage for ease of
interpretation (compare Figure 8.1):
Figure 8.1 Comparison of pre- and posttest results of the cross-disciplinary group
per respondent
The average improvement of the 11 respondents was 10%. With the exception of a
single student – whose posttest score was only 2 percent less than her pretest score – all
the students showed progress, with the largest improvement being 21%.
Figure 8.2 displays the average results per item after conversion to percentages:
% 50
Figure 8.2 Comparison of pre- and posttest results of the cross-disciplinary group
per item
Per item, all the posttest ratings were higher than the pretest ratings, except item 13,
which was 1% lower. For item 6, the improvement was 24%, while the improvement
was between 10% and 15% on a further six items (items 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 11). On the
remaining five items the improvement was more than 5%.
On the three primary dimensions of the analytic scoring instrument the improvement
varied between 7% and 15%: Table 8.3 shows the mean improvement on the four
dimensions of the instrument.
Table 8.3 Percentage improvement of the cross-disciplinary group per dimension
Mean: pretest
Mean: posttest
1. Use of source materials
(Items 1-3)
2. Structure and development
(Items 4-7)
3. Academic writing style
(Items 8-12)
4. Editing (Item 13)
8.4.3 Statistical analysis
The Wilcoxon signed-rank test (SPSS version 17; Williams, Sweeney, & Anderson
2009: 764-770) was again used to assess if the differences between the pre- and posttest
ratings on each of the 13 questions comprising the instrument were significant. The
Wilcoxon signed-rank test is a non-parametric test that is suitable for the analysis of
small samples, as in the present case. The test indicates the probability of a significant
difference between pre- and posttest ratings, and is appropriate for comparing data from
the same participants – in this case the pre- and posttests written by each of the
respondents who participated in the intervention.
The results presented in Figure 8.2 should be interpreted against the probability values
obtained from the Wilcoxon signed-rank test on each of the 13 items, which are
represented in Table 8.5. As in the case of the subject-specific intervention one-sided
probability values (p-values) are reported, based on the hypothesis that students' skills
would improve as a result of the intervention. P-values lower than 0.05 indicate that
there is a significant improvement from the pre- to the posttest ratings at the 5% level of
significance. Table 8.4 indicates the p-values for the four dimensions:
Table 8.4 One-sided p-values of the pre- and posttest ratings on the four
dimensions of the cross-disciplinary intervention
Dimension 1: Use of source materials
Dimension 2: Structure and
Dimension 3: Academic writing style
Dimension 4: Editing
According to Table 8.4 the improvement between the pre- and posttest ratings is
significant at the 5% level for three of the four the main dimensions of the scoring
instrument. Only on dimension 4 (Editing) the improvement was not significant (p =
3205). In order to establish whether the p-values of all of the individual items were
significant, ratings from the Wilcoxon signed-rank test was obtained for each of the 13
items, as represented by Table 8.5 below.
Table 8.5 One-sided p-values of the pre- and posttest ratings on the 13 items in the
cross-disciplinary intervention, obtained from the Wilcoxon signed-rank
*Item 16 was included as it shows the average improvement on all 13 items.
Overall, based on the total difference between the pretest and posttest scores (item 16),
the improvement is significant with a p-value much smaller than 0.05. For the
remainder of the items, the improvement between the pre- and posttest ratings is
significant at the 5% level, with the exception of items 1, 4, 10 and 12, which are
significant at the 10% level, and item 13, on which students did not show any
significant improvement. This was to be expected, since the average percentage for this
item was 63% in the pretest and 64% in the posttest. It should be noted again, however,
that in the case of items 1, 4, 10 and 12 a larger sample might have resulted in
significant improvement at the 5% level for these two questions as well.
Similar to the subject-specific intervention, an analysis of the pre- and the posttest
essays was also conducted for the cross-disciplinary intervention, focusing on the
following key resources within a Systemic Functional perspective: Logical ideation,
representing the ideational/experiential function of language, Appraisal, representing
the interpersonal function, and Theme representing the textual meaning.
Textual analysis of the essays
8.5.1 Method
Similar to the subject-specific intervention, the pre- and posttest essays of all the
participants were tagged electronically for Logical ideation and Appraisal, using the
categories and subcategories expounded in Tables 6.5 and 6.6 in chapter 6.
Concordances were also built in the same way, using WordsmithTools version 4.0.
Regarding thematic development a case study on the pre- and posttest essays of
Respondent 1 was performed, comparable with the subject-specific intervention.
Analogous to the subject-specific evaluation the focus was set on waves of known and
new information at the clause level, using Butt et al.'s technique (2000: 143ff).
Presentation and discussion of findings Ideational analysis
Figure 8.3 represents the summarized results of the ideation analysis:
No. of occurrences
Figure 8.3 Logical ideation: comparison of pre- and posttest results in the crossdisciplinary intervention
According to the graph the cross-disciplinary intervention students used more markers
of logical relationships in the posttest than they used in the pretest – in all four main
categories. There was an increase of more than 50% in each category, except
Comparison, where the improvement was 23%.
Analogous to the subject-specific intervention, significantly more tokens of Causation
and Addition were used in the posttest than in the pretest. There was also a significant
decrease in the number of errors in these categories between the pretest and the posttest
(80% decrease in the number of Causation errors and 62% in the number of Addition
errors). Upon further scrutiny it transpired that the posttest yielded more variety in the
use of Causation resources (thus more variety in the representation of subcategories):
Where the pretest yielded 7 correct usages of Condition, 4 of Means and 8 of Purpose
(with 31 instances of Cause and 41 instances of Consequence), the posttest yielded 19
of Condition, 21 of Means, and 24 of Purpose (with 44 instances of Cause and 34 of
Also noteworthy is the decrease of 35% errors in the Time/tense category. This decrease
cannot be ascribed to an improved mastery of tense, but to an improvement in the use of
other markers of temporal relationships. A possible explanation for the relatively few
Tense errors in both the pretest and the posttest may be that the overarching topic for
both the pretest and the posttest, Poverty in Africa, demanded less skill in moving back
and forth between present and past, than was demanded by the topics of the subjectspecific intervention. Interpersonal analysis
The Appraisal analysis of the cross-disciplinary intervention used the same three
categories of analysis as the subject-specific evaluation, viz. Attitude (with
subcategories Emotion, Judgement and Social Valuation), Engagement (divided into
Attribute and Proclaim) and Graduation (split into Force and Focus).
Figure 8.4
1 2
No. of occurrences
represents the summarized results:
Figure 8.4 Appraisal: comparison of pre- and posttest results in the crossdisciplinary intervention
Figure 8.4 shows that on all three dimensions separately, there were significant
improvements: On the Attitude dimension there was an increase from 10 to 55 (=
450%); the number of Engagement markers increased from 52 to 145 (= 173%), and the
number of Graduation markers increased from 40 to 99 (= 148%). The steep increase in
the number of Engagement markers in the posttest could possibly be ascribed to the
lecturer cum researcher's emphasis on the importance of entering into debate with other
authors. Even with 14% error on the posttest, it still proves worthwhile to teach students
strategies of Engagement − even at undergraduate level. It is particularly encouraging
that only 38 incorrect or inappropriate usages of any of the Appraisal resources occurred
in the posttest.
199 Textual analysis
Theme and New
Theme analysis was conducted similar to the subject-specific intervention. In an
analogous way Respondent 1's essays were selected for the case study, using the
following symbols to categorize thematic bonds:
bold vertical arrows Ï and vertical bracketed arrows
to indicate strong thematic
bonds with previous Themes;
Oblique arrows
and oblique bracketed arrows
to indicate thematic bonds
with previous News;
non-bold vertical arrows ↑ and broken bracketed arrows
to indicate weak
thematic bonds with previous Themes;
oblique broken arrows
and oblique broken bracketed arrows
to indicate
weak thematic bonds with previous News;
the symbol Ø to indicate the absence of a thematic bond.
The quantified results of the Theme analysis of the pre- and posttest essays of
Respondent 1 are given in Tables 8.6 and 8.7 below (compare Appendix G on CD for
the full essays):
Table 8.6 Cross-disciplinary intervention: Pretest 1 (60%)
No. of words: 434
No. of paragraphs: 9
No. of clauses: 43
bonds to
bonds to
Theme (s)
bonds to
bonds to
bonds to
bonds to
bonds to
Strong bonds: 23 (53%)
Weak and absent bonds: 18 (42%)
Table 8.7 Cross-disciplinary intervention; Posttest 1 (81%)
No. of words: 649
No. of paragraphs: 7
No. of clauses: 61
bonds to
bonds to
Theme (s)
bonds to
bonds to
bonds to
bonds to
bonds to
g New
bonds to
Strong bonds: 57 (93%)
Weak and absent bonds: 5 (8%)
Although the Theme analysis indicated that the pretest contained more strong than weak
bonds, there was still a remarkable improvement if compared to the results of the
analysis of the posttest: Strong bonds increased from 53% to 93% and weak and absent
bonds decreased from 42% to 8%.
In order to further decrease the probability that Respondent 1's improvement between
the pretest and the posttest was due to chance, another respondent was randomly
selected, viz. Respondent 7 (compare Appendix G). In her case the improvement in
handling thematic development was less dramatic than in the case of Respondent 1: The
pretest contained 18 (33%) strong bonds and 35 (65%) weak and absent bonds, whereas
the posttest contained 25 (41%) strong bonds and 34 (56%) weak and absent bonds. In
view of the fact that she improved by only 10% between the pretest and the posttest
according to the analytic scoring (48% versus 58%), a more modest improvement in
terms of her ability to handle thematic progression could be expected. It is important,
nonetheless, to observe that the improvement is again present, and noteworthy.
Opinion survey
Similar to the subject-specific intervention an opinion survey was conducted, using the
same questionnaire and the same procedures for recording the data and analyzing the
Figure 8.5 summarizes the average rating per student on each of the five dimensions of
the construct.
Number of students
Very positive
Figure 8.5 Students' opinions on the 5 dimensions of the construct: crossdisciplinary intervention
The students' general lack of commitment, and the fact that the lecturer had to
reprimand certain individuals for their relative indifference, predicted a less favourable
evaluation of the course. However, although few students chose the extremely positive
option on the scales, their opinions regarding the course were still generally positive.
The dimension that evoked the most favourable responses was the Needs-driven
syllabus (Dimension 3). From the raw data it could be determined that only 1 student
"disagreed" that his/her expectations had been fulfilled (Statement 15) and that the most
important questions he/she had had about essay-writing (Statement 17) had been
fulfilled. He/she was "uncertain" as to whether the lecturer had been interested in
addressing his/her personal needs (Statement 17).
Dimension 4 evoked the least favourable responses. For two reasons this finding was
not surprising. As mentioned in the discussion of the subject-specific opinion survey in
Chapter 7, students are generally skeptical about the potential of university courses to
teach them critical thinking skills, and this perception was sustained by the outcome of
that survey on Dimension 4. It would therefore be surprising if the students who
participated in the cross-disciplinary intervention would give a positive rating. Thus, the
fact that only two students responded positively to this dimension, eight were uncertain
and one was negative, did not come as a surprise. In order to gain insight into the
responses to the individual statements comprising this dimension, a graph was generated
(Figure 8.6). (Note again that the scales for Statements 23-25 were reversed for the
statistical analysis to bring their polarity in line with that of Statements 21 and 22.)
Number of students
Figure 8.6 Responses to the concepts evaluated by statements 21-25 (Dimension 4)
The results indicated on the graph can be interpreted and explained as follows:
Statement 21:
It is empowering to know how to write in the genres valued by
Six students responded extremely positive (1), while the other five responded
moderately positive (2). Since the statement was phrased positively the responses
indicate a generally positive evaluation of empowerment through genre knowledge.
Statement 22: If one of my academic lecturers says that it is forbidden to refer to
myself ("I") in academic writing, I will take issue with him/her.
Seven students were uncertain whether they would challenge a lecturer, two were
moderately sure that they would, and two were very certain that they would not. The
mixed responses were not surprising, since it became very clear during the intervention
that subject-fields hosted divergent views in this regard. Furthermore, some tolerated
individual differences, while others insisted on following the conventions laid down by
the particular discourse community. For instance, certain subject-fields almost prohibit
self reference (History), others tolerate it if used in moderation (for example,
Economics), while others encourage it (Philosophy). Thus, in a sense this question did
not necessarily measure opinions, but rather knowledge of subject-field conventions.
Statement 23: One should accept the content of textbooks and academic articles as
Since this statement was phrased negatively a "positive" answer would have to be either
4 or 5 on the scale. Since eight of the students ticked either 1 or 2, almost two thirds
seem to believe that the authority of prescribed sources should not be questioned or
Statement 24: It is impossible to criticize one's own work.
All 11 students ticked either 1 or 2, which means (seeing that the question has a
negative polarity) that they are all convinced of the value of self-reflection. Of course,
this does not mean that they necessarily always take the time to actively pursue this
Statement 25: Empowerment in tertiary education means that students should be
allowed to write as they speak.
The responses to this question were rather mixed, which might have resulted from the
negative polarity. Strictly according to the answers only 45% of the respondents seem to
harbour a misconception regarding an important objective of the intervention (6
students ticked 1 or 2), two were uncertain, one indicated moderate disagreement, and
one indicated complete agreement. The swing of the pendulum in a negative direction
does therefore not seem to be meaningful.
These explanations indicate that the slightly negative response to Dimension 4 was not a
reason for too much concern. Only statement 23 seem to merit further investigation, but
perhaps the first semester of the second year at university is still too early to have
developed a critical orientation towards work produced by experts, and hopefully
students will develop a more interrogating stance as they move closer to graduation.
Because of the importance to prove or disprove the measure in which genre-based
interventions facilitated transfer, Dimension 5 was also teased out some more. It
transpired that all students responded positively or moderately positively to Statement
26 (The course has contributed towards improving my writing ability in English) and
Statement 28 (Much of what I have learned about essays I can also use when writing
reports and other text types). Furthermore, the majority (8 and 9 respectively) gave
positively evaluating answers to Statement 27 (I find it difficult to apply the principles
we have learned in this course to writing tasks in other subjects) and 29 (Since I started
this module my marks for written work in other subjects have improved). Those who did
not respond positively indicated uncertainty. These results are encouraging, particularly
in the light of the less than desirable level of commitment and perseverance
demonstrated by the students who registered for the cross-disciplinary module.
Author's reflection on the cross-disciplinary intervention
The varied performance of students in the cross-disciplinary intervention seems to
derive, at least partially, from their reasons to register for the course. While some of the
students who registered had a genuine desire to learn how to write academically in their
chosen disciplines, others enrolled simply to accumulate credits towards their degrees.
This reflection attempts to highlight the relationship between students' achievement in
the essay-writing module and their perceptions about the instrumental value of their
learning. It also emphasizes the dialectic relationship between learning to write and
writing to learn.
Hyland (2009:124) claims that benefits of courses teaching students how to write in an
academic way "are only perceived as such if students value what this literacy allows
them to do". The present experience with administering the semi-generic intervention
resonates with Hyland's claim, and echoes the findings of Lillis (2001:85), Lin (2000),
Canagarajah (1999) and Ivanic (1998), viz. that certain students passively resist the
assumptions and values which they are assumed to acquire. The fact that some students
do obtain average to above average marks in content disciplines may reinforce this
passive resistance. The following example is a case in point: After performing well
below average on the third assignment in the cross-disciplinary module, one student
Ma'am, I don't understand; in my other subjects I get good marks for my assignments,
but in your class I fail. It's not like I don't like you or so; I enjoy your classes. You can
see I always attend.
In contrast, students with a genuine desire to acquire the essayist literacy of the
academy, and who experienced the benefits of applying this literacy in their content
subjects, flourished. Respondent 5, for example, obtained high grades in secondary
school, and matriculated with distinctions in Afrikaans and English. However, in
philosophy, which is one of his major subjects at university, he obtained a just above
average mark, and registered for the essay-writing module to improve his marks.
Fortunately, for him, the essay topics contributed by the Philosophy Department were
related to the philosophy curriculum. It is thus not surprising that this student's marks in
the essay-writing module improved by 20% between the pretest and the posttest. His
philosophy lecturer testified that his improvement in the content subject was about
Thus, motivation alone is not sufficient for success. Subject-field knowledge is another
prerequisite. The following anecdote is offered to further support this claim: Respondent
5, a student who is registered for a degree in Journalism, and who chose the same topic
as the philosophy student (Respondent 4), viz. Whose obligation is it to do something
about poverty in society: the rich or the poor? did not demonstrate the same
improvement as the philosophy student between the pretest and the posttest. In fact, she
scored four percentage points lower than he did in the posttest. Although her work was
grammatically correct, her style, development of the main argument and selection of
evidence remained "generic". The most plausible explanation is that although
Respondent 5's proficiency in academic English was superior to that of Respondent 4
(based on her score in the pretest and her participation in class) she departed in her
posttest essay from a zero knowledge base, since she had not been initiated into the
"discourse of philosophy" through regular interaction with reading matter, lecturers and
peers in the domain of philosophy.
This anecdote highlights a serious design error by the researcher. Students in the crossdisciplinary group were allowed free choices from the topics provided by the content
departments. It was anticipated that they would choose topics relevant to their core
university disciplines. However, some made their choices on the basis of familiarity,
such as topics related to the literary works they had previously studied in English
Literature. To be specific, three students chose the drama Boesman and Lena by Athol
Fugard, and one chose the poem An Abandoned Bundle by Oswald Mtshali, although
only one student in the group was registered for a language programme. As confirmed
by discussions at the conclusion of the module, some students' choices were motivated
by convenience, rather than the ideals of the Vygotskyan Zone of Proximal
Development. For two of the students (Respondents 8 and 9), unfortunately,
convenience became a trap, because they deviated from the main focus, which in both
cases was the physical and spiritual effects of poverty in apartheid South Africa, as
portrayed by the particular author. When discussing their first drafts, it was difficult to
convince these students, who had structured their essays according to literary elements
instead of characteristics of physical and spiritual poverty, that their essays were "off
Based on the researcher's teaching experience, combined with self-reflection, the
following improvements for future interventions are suggested:
Introduce extensive writing earlier in the semester.
Build a corpus of authentic materials.
Facilitate a close fit between students' core disciplines and their focus in an essaywriting intervention.
Introduction of extensive writing at an early stage is motivated by the empirical
observation that students only became convinced of the implications of their
lexicogrammatical, stylistic and structural choices after having written a full essay,
which was after the 10th week of the 14 week module. A second reason for suggesting
that full essays be written much sooner is the clear lack of engagement observed in the
students when writing shorter assignments, such as paragraphs or parts of full essays.
The haphazard and untidy way in which some of the shorter homework tasks had been
executed supports the hypothesis that authenticity feeds into motivation, and motivation
plays a major role in the quality of the output.
The solution supported by the majority of students during the post-intervention
feedback session was to start writing complete essays very soon after the
commencement of the course. This does not mean changing the content of the syllabus,
but in the context of a genre approach it suggests that joint exploration and joint
construction in respect of each of the discourse skills emphasized in the course
(rhetorical modes, making and supporting claims, thematic development, cohesion, and
stance and engagement) should immediately be followed by independent writing of a
full essay. In the assessment of the essays the primary focus should be on the particular
skill or ability that the students had practised during the preceding week or fortnight.
Concerning materials design, authenticity has been confirmed as a core principle. The
researcher relied heavily on exemplars from writing manuals published in the US and
the UK (for example Barnet 2008; Oregon State University 1997; Richlin-Klonsky &
Strenski 1994; Rosnow & Rosnow 1998; Schmidt 2005), but although some of the
essays were good overall examples, not all of them were exemplary in terms of every
aspect of the syllabus. In order to address these deficits future interventions could draw
on essays written by local students who have successfully completed the intervention.
Good examples could serve as model texts, whereas poorer attempts could be used to
practise editing.
Finally, the designer of an intervention should ensure a close link between the texts and
topics that are selected for writing purposes and the content that students have to learn
in their core disciplines. It has been proven that writing helps them to master content,
while at the same time content knowledge helps them to develop fluency and accuracy.
The results obtained from the quantitative evaluation indicate that students definitely
benefited from the cross-disciplinary intervention. However, unlike the subject-specific
intervention the improvement was not equal on the three primary dimensions measured
by the analytic pre- and posttest assessment: On the dimension Handling of source
materials the average improvement was 10%, on Structure and development they
improved by 15% and on Academic writing style there was only 7% improvement. The
most plausible explanation for the fact that the improvement in the use of source
materials was moderate, or less than expected, may have been the fact that students did
not need to study the content of the sources in depth for assessment in their content
disciplines, and thus they might have been less motivated to engage with sources on the
broad topic selected by the course designer. Also, they did not necessarily consult the
same sources for the pretest and the posttest, and thus did not become familiar with core
resources. A possible reason for the slight improvement on academic writing style is
that the respondents' grammar and vocabulary were on already at a fairly high level
when they entered the course (67% on average). Furthermore, the intervention did not
pay any specific attention to the improvement of grammar, and neither was style
explicitly taught, except for brief pointers on issues of formality. The fact that the most
significant improvement occurred on the dimension of structure and development was
not a complete surprise, in that discourse structure, comprising thematic development at
the level of the whole text (thesis and conclusion) the paragraph (topic sentence and
paragraph development) and clause level (manipulation of Theme and New), is one of
the dimensions that can be taught via templates and explicit instruction. Moreover, both
stronger and weaker students are able to grasp the main principles and apply them.
The snapshots taken of students' performance on aspects of the three primary areas of
meaning-making according to Systemic Functional Grammar indicates that explicit
teaching of the grammatical resources for encoding these meanings does pay off. The
fact that the students used significantly more Appraisal markers than the subjectspecific intervention students is particularly meaningful, since the lecturer made a
concerted effort at teaching Appraisal resources to the cross-disciplinary group.
According to the opinion survey, students were positive to moderately positive about
the intervention. Although not all the respondents thought that their personal needs had
been addressed, they were generally of the opinion that they had learned valuable skills,
which they could apply in other contexts, and which had already stood them in good
stead. However, the overall impression gained from the outcomes of the opinion survey
and the personal experience of the course researcher was that the success of future
interventions of this nature would depend, to a large extent, on the authenticity of the
materials used and the ability of the classroom lecturer to engage students and ensure
active participation.
Chapter 9: Comparison of the subjectspecific and the cross-disciplinary
Chapters 6 to 8 reported on the design, development and evaluation of two genre-based
writing interventions – one aimed at second-year students of history, and the other
aimed at second-year students registered for a variety of subjects in the humanities. This
chapter compares and evaluates the findings from the two interventions.
First, the statistical results of the two interventions obtained from the analytic scoring of
the pre- and posttest essays are juxtaposed, followed by a statistical comparison of the
improvement resulting from the two interventions. Subsequently, the findings of the
SFL-based textual analyses are compared. Lastly, the results from the questionnaire
surveys are statistically compared to give an impression of students' appraisal of the
effectiveness of the respective interventions.
Comparison of the essay ratings
The evaluation of the subject-specific as well as the cross-disciplinary intervention
pivoted on a comparison of the pre- and posttest essay scores, where a standardized
analytic scoring instrument was used. The primary aim was to test the hypothesis that
students' essay-writing abilities would improve significantly as a result of a genre-based
writing intervention, irrespective of the disciplinary scope. The second aim was to
establish the difference (if a difference should be found) between the effectiveness of
narrow-angled and wide-angled genre-based interventions. For each intervention
descriptive statistics were used to indicate the improvement per candidate, per item, and
per cluster (dimension) of items. Thereafter statistical tests were conducted to calculate
the probability that the improvement was statistically significant.
Table 9.1 below compares the improvement, per intervention group, on each of the four
primary dimensions of the analytic scoring instrument (Use of source materials,
Structure and development, Language and style, and Editing) as well as overall:
Table 9.1 Comparison of the two intervention groups in terms of their
improvement on the four dimensions of the scoring instrument
1. Use of source
2. Structure and
3. Academic
writing style
4. Editing
Mean: pretest
Mean: posttest
According to Table 9.1 there is a 10% "overall" difference between the groups in terms
of their improvement as a result of the particular intervention. The table shows that the
overall improvement of the subject-specific group was about equal on the three primary
dimensions measured by the analytic pre- and posttest assessment (between 17% and
19%), while the overall improvement of the cross-disciplinary group was more
moderate (8%), and also more variable: 10% on Use of source materials, 15% on
Structure and development, 7% on Academic writing style and -1% on Editing.
According to the Wilcoxon signed-rank test (the non-parametrical equivalent to the
paired T-test) both groups, individually, showed a significant overall improvement
between the pretest and the posttest. Compare Table 9.2 below:
Table 9.2 The significance of the difference between the improvement of the two
groups in the four dimensions of the scoring instrument
1: Use of source materials
2: Structure and development
3: Academic writing style
4: Editing
One-sided p-value
One-sided p-value
Both interventions proved to be successful in their own right. The p-values for three of
the four dimensions – Use of source materials, Structure and development and
Academic writing style – were well below 0.05 for each group, and thus the
improvement was statistically significant for each. Only on Dimension 4, Editing, did
the improvement of the cross-disciplinary group not prove to be significant (p =
0.3205), which was predictable in the light of the fact that the performance of the group
as a whole decreased by 1% between the pretest and the posttest.
In order to establish whether the difference between the two interventions (subjectspecific and cross-disciplinary) was statistically significant, the Mann-Whitney U-test
was applied. The Mann-Whitney U-test is the non-parametric equivalent of the
independent samples T-test for assessing whether two independent samples of
observations come from the same distribution, which is particularly useful for small
samples. In statistical terms it assesses the ranked positions of scores in two different
groups. If there are significant differences between the two groups, the p-value
associated with the test statistic will be smaller than 0.05. The main finding was that
overall, the subject-specific group performed significantly better than the crossdisciplinary group, as predicted by the simple comparison in Table 9.1. A p-value of
0.043 was obtained.
Because of the significance of the overall difference found between the subject-specific
and the cross-disciplinary interventions, separate Mann-Whitney U-tests were run for
each of the four main dimensions of the holistic scoring instrument. Table 9.3 shows the
p-values for the four dimensions, as well as the overall value. Two-sided values are
reported because one group was not necessarily expected to perform consistently better
than the other.
Table 9.3 Two-sided p-values of the scores from the Mann-Whitney U-test
DIMENSION 1: Handling of source materials
DIMENSION 2: Structure and development
DIMENSION 3: Academic writing style
DIMENSION 4: Editing
p-value per dimension
According to the separate Mann-Whitney U-tests, the subject-specific group did not
perform significantly better than the cross-disciplinary group on every dimension. A
significant difference was only found with respect to Dimension 3, Academic writing
style, and Dimension 4, Editing (p-value, in each case = 0.02). For both these
dimensions significant differences were expected on the basis of the simple comparison
in Table 9.1. Since the value of the fourth dimension, Editing, was derived from a single
item (item 13) a generalization can not be made. It can only be concluded that the
subject-specific group succeeded much better than the cross-disciplinary group in
improving their spelling and appropriate use of capital letters.
No significant difference was found with regard to Dimension 2, Structure and
Development (p-value = 0.809). This was not surprising, because according to the
tabulated comparison, the improvement of the two groups differs by a mere 3%: 18%
for the subject-specific group and 15% for the cross-disciplinary group. According to
my own belief, the basic principles of developing an argument at various levels of the
text (the whole essay, paragraph and sentence) are largely subject-neutral, and can be
taught and learned successfully through a combination of explicit instruction, model
texts and sufficient exercise.
Similarly, no significant difference between the two groups in terms of Dimension 1,
Use of source materials (p-value = 0.223) was indicated by the Mann-Whitney U-test.
This finding might seem to be contrary to the result of the simple comparison in Table
9.1. A larger sample may result in a significant p-value.
Figure 9.1 shows the distribution of the data on the dimensions of the instrument
comprising more than one ratable item (in other words Editing is excluded):
Figure 9.1
Box plots displaying the differences between the subject-specific and
the cross-disciplinary intervention groups with regard to the three
most important dimensions of the analytic scoring instrument
according to the ranks assigned by the Mann-Whitney U-test
The box plots representing the data for Structure and development and for Writing style
show that the cross-disciplinary intervention data are less spread out than the subjectspecific intervention data. Furthermore, the middle 50% (between the 2nd and 3rd
quartiles) overlap for both Use of source materials and Structure and development. As a
matter of fact, for Use of source materials the distribution of the generic data constitutes
a subset of the distribution of the subject-specific data. In the case of Academic writing
style there is much less overlap: The middle 50% of the generic data clearly occupy
lower ranks than the subject-specific data.
In order to establish whether individual items may have influenced the p-values on the
main dimensions of the scoring instrument, Mann-Whitney U-tests were run for all 13
individual items of the holistic scoring instrument (compare Table 9.4). No Bonferroni
corrections were made for the multiple testing (to avoid the inflation of the type I error
rate) as it had already been established that a significant difference existed between the
two groups.
Table 9.4 Two-sided p-values of the raters' scores from the Mann-Whitney U-test
per item
DIMENSION 1: Handling of
source materials
1 Relevance
2 Integration
3 Stance and engagement
4 Thesis statement
5 Development of argument
6 Conclusion
7 Paragraph development
8 Syntax
9 Concord and tense
10 Linking devices
11 Lexis
12 Style
13 Spelling and capitalization
DIMENSION 2: Structure and
DIMENSION 3: Academic
writing style
DIMENSION 4: Editing
p-value per
p-value per
This more detailed analysis identifies specific items that may have exaggerated or
diluted the p-values of the dimensions. In the case of dimension 3, Structure and
Development, Syntax (item 8, with a p-value to 0.005, and thus significant at the 5%
level) and Linking devices (item 10, with a p-value of 0.099, indicating significance at
the 10% level) greatly influenced the p-value for the dimension as a whole. On the other
hand, although the difference between the intervention groups regarding dimension 1,
Use of source materials, was not significant according to the Mann-Whitney test (p =
0.223) the p-value for one of the three items comprising the dimension (item 1,
Relevance of source materials) indicates a statistical difference between the crossdisciplinary and the subject-specific groups at the 10% level (p = 0.051).
It should be noted that the findings regarding the individual items were not surprising,
and plausible explanations for significant differences (or a lack thereof) were not hard to
find. Items 1 and 8 will be explored in more detail. With regard to Item 1 it can be
argued that the history students actively engaged, quantitatively and qualitatively (in
both their history classes and the academic literacy classes), with scholarly sources on a
specific theme, viz. The history of Apartheid in South Africa, with particular emphasis
on the Native Land Act of 1913. They also became familiar with the core sources
included in their history reader, which was also used for the essay-writing module. In
contrast, the mixed group was exposed to fairly generic sources on the topic of focus,
Poverty in Africa. They might have been less motivated than the subject-specific group
to engage regularly with scholarly sources on this topic, since it was not necessary to
internalize the content for assessment in their core modules. Furthermore, the students
in this group were allowed to write their final exam essay on any of the topics provided
by lecturers in the Faculty; and some of them chose topics that seemed to be interesting,
but fell outside the focus of the academic programmes for which they were registered.
For instance, one of the students, who was registered for a degree in Journalism, chose
the topic Whose obligation is it to do something about poverty in society: the rich or the
poor? This topic requires familiarity with philosophical ways of arguing. The student
managed to structure her essay well and to invoke evidence from relevant sources, but
she failed to exhibit mastery of the discourse of philosophy. Against this backdrop it is
not surprising that the subject-specific group improved significantly more than the
cross-disciplinary group on Item 1.
The p-value of Item 8 can be explained as follows: Although none of the interventions
paid specific attention to the improvement of syntactic well-formedness, the subjectspecific group had the advantage of becoming familiar with the historian's ways of
formulation through extensive reading and writing in the discipline. During the course
of the semester they wrote at least eight full academic essays on topics related to the
history of Apartheid in South Africa. The respondents in the mixed group – with the
exception of the two students who studied Philosophy – wrote only three full essays on
aspects of poverty during the course of the semester-long essay-writing intervention.
Although plausible explanations can be found for the p-values of the primary
dimensions, with specific reference to the impact of individual items, the findings raise
questions regarding the validity of the construct underlying the scoring grid. More
specifically, they raise questions about the researcher's (and other researchers')
clustering of items in analytic scoring instruments for academic writing. Specific
questions include:
Can it be claimed that grammar (which might include syntax and cohesive devices),
lexis and style constitute the construct Academic writing style?
Is the ability to handle stance and engagement in any way connected to the ability to
integrate facts and ideas from source materials in a composition, and the relevance
of those facts and ideas to the topic at hand?
We now turn to the discourse analyses of the pre- and posttest essays for possible
justification of the statistical data, but more specifically to find evidence that might
assist course designers to adapt or refocus syllabi and/or teaching materials for future
essay-writing interventions.
Text analysis of pre- and posttests
The discourse analyses that were performed on the essays were focused not so much on
an overall impression of students' performance but were actually "enlarged detail"
snapshots of students' abilities to handle key aspects of meaning-making in academic
texts – as identified and described in the literature on Systemic Functional Grammar.
Another aim was to explore the value of theory-supported discourse analysis in
justifying rating scores.
9.3.1 Logical ideation
On the dimension of logical ideation (logical relationships between intra- as well as
extra-textual concepts) the subject-specific group showed a large improvement in
handling Causation. There was an overall increase from 74 correct usages in the pretest
to 134 correct usages in the posttest (= 81% improvement). A moderate improvement
was found in the Addition category (from 62 to 79 = 27%), and a slight improvement in
the Time/Tense category. Temporal setting and Temporal sequence were mastered
fairly well, already at the time of the pretest, and little improvement was demonstrated
in the posttest. However, the number of tense errors decreased dramatically (from 43 in
the pretest to 12 in the posttest = 72%). A possible explanation is that the history
students had never been explicitly taught how to handle tense in historical writing
(personal communication with the lecturer). It is likely that the explicit instruction and
continuous feedback during the intervention assisted them in internalizing the system.
The cross-disciplinary group showed an increase of more than 50% on three of the
Logical Ideation categories: Addition, Causation and Time/tense, and 23% on
Comparison. Analogous to the subject-specific intervention, Causation and Addition
were handled well, and errors also decreased significantly in this category (an 80%
decrease in Causation errors and a 60% decrease in Addition errors). It was also
encouraging that more variety occurred in their use of causation resources in the
posttest: In addition to the subcategories Cause and Consequence, also Condition,
Means and Purpose featured prominently in the posttest. Similar to the subject-specific
intervention, Temporal relations and Tense were handled well by the cross-disciplinary
intervention students in both the pretest and the posttest, but in contrast to the subjectspecific intervention students (whose pretests contained many tense errors) the crossdisciplinary intervention students committed very few tense errors, even in their pretest
essays. Only one tense error was recorded in the pretests and two in the posttests. This
might be explained by the fact that in humanities disciplines other than history time
does not play such a crucial role.
9.3.2 Appraisal
The subject-specific students improved inconsistently in their use of Appraisal
resources. They showed the most marked increase (47%) in the Attitude category,
which includes the subcategories Emotion, Judgment and Social valuation. This may be
ascribed to their increased content knowledge, and thus their confidence in evaluating
historical figures, institutions and events. The category of Engagement produced
disappointing results, in that there was an overall decline from 73 to 38 correct usages.
This was mostly due to a decline in the number of Attribution markers (from 44 to 13).
The only plausible explanation is that an increase in students' subject-field knowledge –
resulting from attending lectures, reading, studying and intensive writing on the history
of segregation in South Africa – made them less dependent on sources when writing the
posttest essay.
The students participating in the cross-disciplinary intervention, on the other hand,
improved significantly in their command of Appraisal resources. In the Attitude
category correct usages increased (from 10 to 55), in the Graduation category from 40
to 99, and in the Engagement category from 52 to 145. The steep increase in the use of
Engagement markers (Attribution, from 19 to 55 and Proclamation, from 33 to 94)
stands in stark contrast to the decrease in the subject-specific intervention. Apparently,
the emphasis that the lecturer for the cross-disciplinary intervention had placed on a
command of Appraisal resources, and the increased amount of exercise in using these,
paid off.
It is likely that the cross-disciplinary group's increased use of stance and engagement
markers, as opposed to the slight and inconsistent improvement by the subject-specific
students, contributed to the fact that no significant difference was measured on item 3
by the Mann-Whitney U-test.
9.3.3 Thematic analysis
The pre- and posttest essays of the first respondent in the subject-specific and the crossdisciplinary intervention respectively (henceforth Respondent S1 and Respondent G1)
were sampled to analyze and plot thematic progression. In both cases improved
capability to handle thematic progression was anticipated on the basis of the sizeable
difference between the respondents' analytic scores on the pretest and the posttest:
Respondent S1's overall score improved from 37% to 69%, and Respondent G1's score
improved from 60% to 81%. Further predictors of improvement were the two
respondents' scores on the dimension Structure and development, particularly on item 7
(Paragraph development). Respondent S1 scored 2 for this item on the 7-point scale in
the pretest, and 5 in the posttest, whereas Respondent G1 scored 3 on the pretest and 6
on the posttest. Although the overall difference between S1's pre- and posttest scores
(28%) was more impressive than the difference between G1's scores (21%), G1's scores
fell into a higher bracket than those of S1, and thus it could be expected that the
percentage of strong thematic bonds in G1's essays would also fall into a higher bracket
than the number of strong bonds in S1's essays.
This prediction was borne out by the findings: In S1's essays the number of strong
bonds (in relation to the number of weak and absent bonds as percentages of the total
number of clauses) increased from 38% to 76%, whereas the number of strong bonds in
the G1's essays increased from 53% to 93%. Conversely, the number of weak and
absent bonds in S1's essays decreased from 62% to 23% and in G1's essays from 42% to
These findings, which signify an impressive improvement in the case of the subjectspecific as well the cross-disciplinary intervention student, are in line with the statistical
finding of no significant difference between the two interventions on the dimension of
Structure and development.
9.3.4 What the discourse analysis reveals
Although no grand generalizations can be made on the basis of these quasicomparisons, there is a clear indication that both the subject-specific and the crossdisciplinary interventions afforded students tools and mechanisms to improve their
academic writing. At least some of these resources must have been internalized to
facilitate the improvement that took place between the pretest and the posttest.
In general, the students who took part in the subject-specific intervention became less
reliant on sources, which might have impacted negatively on their explicit use of stance
and engagement markers, but could have contributed to the enhanced relevance of the
source materials (facts) they used in their essays. In contrast, the students in the crossdisciplinary group acquired a more marked command of stance and engagement than
their subject-specific counterparts. They also demonstrated a more varied repertoire of
cohesive devices. However, it is more likely that the intensified focus of the generic
module on these lexicogrammatical devices (as a result of what the course designer had
learned from the subject-specific intervention) had caused the improvement, and not the
contextual focus (subject-specific or generic).
Based on the thematic analysis of two sample essays (one per intervention) students in
both groups benefited from the intervention in terms of developing an argument
systematically. This inference is supported by the statistical finding that there is no
significant difference between the subject-specific and the cross-disciplinary group in
terms of improvement on the dimension of Structure and development.
Opinion survey
In order to compare the results of the post-intervention opinion surveys, a MannWhitney U-test was performed for each of the five theoretical dimensions of the opinion
survey, viz. (1) Staged and scaffolded teaching and learning model, (2) Purposeful
social apprenticeship, (3) Needs-driven syllabus, (4) Critical orientation and (5) Skills
transfer. For each of the two interventions the total score for the items comprising each
dimension was obtained. The scales were reversed where necessary to facilitate uniform
polarity. The spiderweb plot represented as Figure 9.2 shows the differences between
the means of the responses of the two groups (after reversal of the scales with a negative
D1 Scaffolding
D5 Skills transfer
D2 Apprenticeship
D4 Critical orientation
D3 Needs-driven
Figure 9.2 Spiderweb plot of the means of the subject-specific and the crossdisciplinary groups in the opinion surveys
From the graph it can be read that, on average, both groups felt reasonably positive
about the way that a staged and scaffolded teaching and learning intervention assisted
them in improving their academic writing skills (dimension 1); that both groups were, to
a large extent, convinced of the positive effects of learning as a member of a discourse
community (dimension 2); and also that the module had addressed their personal needs
and goals reasonably well (dimension 3). On the other hand, both groups were uncertain
as to the effect that the course might have had on their development of a critical
orientation (dimension 4). Although both groups were positive about the transferability
of the skills they had learned (dimension 5), a predictably higher rating on this
dimension (between positive and extremely positive) was obtained from the subjectspecific group.
According to the Mann Whitney U-test (compare Table 9.5) the overall opinion of the
two groups about the intervention did not differ significantly. As suggested by the
differences in the statistical means for Skills transfer, a significant difference (at the
10% level) was found on this dimension:
Table 9.5 Two-sided p-values of the opinion survey findings regarding the 5
theoretical dimensions, obtained from the Mann-Whitney U-test
1 Staged and scaffolded teaching and learning model
2 Purposeful social apprenticeship
3 Needs-driven syllabus
4 Critical orientation
5 Skills transfer
The subject-specific group was thus more inclined to think that the skills they had
learned in the course were indeed transferable to other contexts. Further analysis of the
data showed that although some students in the cross-disciplinary group were convinced
that they could apply what they had learned to more than one discipline, others were
much less positive about the transferability of the skills.
From the multifaceted comparison described in this chapter it can be concluded that
both the subject-specific and the cross-disciplinary interventions were effective in their
own right. In both cases there was a significant improvement in students' writing
abilities between the pretest and the posttest: For the subject-specific intervention a pvalue of 0.002 was obtained, while a p-value of 0.001 was obtained for the crossdisciplinary group.
A statistical comparison of the performance of the two groups reveals that the students
who took part in the subject-specific intervention improved significantly more than
those who took part in the cross-disciplinary intervention. Percentage-wise the subjectspecific group improved by 19% overall, while the cross-disciplinary group improved
by 8% − a difference which proves to be significant according to the Mann-Whitney Utest: p = 0.004. The improvement of the subject-specific group was also more consistent
across the four dimensions of the scoring instrument than the improvement of the crossdisciplinary group.
Although both groups expressed fairly positive opinions about the intervention in
general, the subject-specific group was significantly more positive than the crossdisciplinary group about the transferability of the skills they had learned. A p-value of
0.086 was obtained on the Mann-Whitney U-test, which means that the difference is
significant at the 10% level.
These results indicate that genre-specific writing interventions can be effective, whether
narrowly or more broadly focused. However, interventions that are more sharply
focused on a particular discipline seem to be more effective, primarily as a result of
enhanced motivation and more profound engagement with the subject matter through
reading and writing with clearly delineated disciplinary foci.
Although language proficiency, especially grammar, might not noticeably improve
through explicit teaching of lexicogrammar, the findings of this study indicate that a
greater awareness of the lexicogrammatical resources can be facilitated through explicit
teaching and tasks that make use of authentic materials.
Chapter 10: Conclusion
10.1 Introduction
The following research questions were formulated in the first chapter to address the
issue of undergraduate students' inadequate academic writing abilities: (1) Can genrebased approaches be justified theoretically? (2) How effective are genre-based academic
literacy interventions? (3) Which are more effective: specific or generic approaches?
Question 1 relates to the input for and justification of the proposed applied linguistic
design, while questions 2 and 3 relate to implementation and evaluation of two
variations on a particular language teaching approach. Figure 10.1 shows how the
research questions have been accommodated in the research design:
Instructional model
Genre-based presyllabus
Figure 10.1 Summary of research strategy to address the research questions
This chapter attempts to indicate to what extent the research questions have been
answered in order to make evidence-based recommendations for the design of future
academic writing interventions aimed at undergraduate students in the humanities. First,
the theoretical justification of genre-based writing interventions is summarized. This is
followed by an overview of the effectiveness of narrow-angled versus wide-angled
interventions, and the significance of the difference between the two, as proven by the
empirical research. Finally, some limitations of the study are briefly discussed, and
recommendations are made regarding the application of the knowledge gained
throughout the research process.
10.2 Theoretical justification
Genre approaches to teaching academic literacy have drawn from a diversity of
linguistic, applied linguistic and language teaching theories. Figure 10.2, which should
be read bottom-up, gives a schematic overview of the theories that underpin genrebased approaches:
Skills-based approach
Practice-based approach
Text-based approach
Communicative language teaching
Critical literacies
Paradigm Model
New Rhetoric
Systemic Functional Linguistics
Figure 10.2 Theoretical foundations of genre-based writing pedagogies
Among the linguistic theories, Systemic Functional Grammar is the theory that is
regarded to have contributed most significantly to the theoretical grounding of genre
pedagogies. SFL emphasises the systematic way in which language users make
vocabulary and grammar choices in particular cultural and situational contexts. This
paradigm has had a profound influence on particularly the Australian (Sydney) genre
school. Other linguistic theories that have been referred to for justification of specific
features of genre approaches are Cognitive Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis.
Cognitive Linguistics foregrounds genre knowledge: knowledge of content,
communicative purpose, participant roles, discourse structure, and register. Critically
oriented theories of language and other semiotic systems, such as Critical Discourse
Analysis, add a political dimension to genre knowledge, viz. knowledge of power
relations and institutional processes, and also emphasize the dialogic relationship
between culture, cognition and semiosis. Among the genre schools it is particularly the
New Rhetoric and the Sydney schools that are associated with CDA, because of their
emphasis on social and intellectual empowerment through genre knowledge, as well as
their encouragement of students and professionals to challenge the hegemonic power of
conventional genres.
The theory of learning that best supports genre approaches is Constructivism. Genrebased approaches draw strongly upon the work of Vygotsky, in particular his Zone of
Proximal Development. The ZPD is supported by two pillars, viz. cognitive and social
apprenticeship, and scaffolding. Cognitive and social apprenticeship are linked to the
rhetorical notion of learning as a member of a discourse community, while a scaffolded
curriculum aims at initially providing strong peer and teacher support, and then
gradually removing the support until the learner is knowledgeable and confident to
construct full examples of the genre independently. Vygotskyan views feature
prominently in all the so-called "post-process paradigms" in academic writing
The methodological input that genre-based approaches have received from language
teaching theories derives particularly from Communicative Language Teaching.
However, regarding the types of activities included in genre-based teaching
programmes, genre-based pedagogy also draws from Traditional approaches and
Critical Literacies approaches.
When narrowing down the focus to theories of academic writing, it is clear that genre
approaches combine Text-based and Practice-based approaches: Text-based approaches
draw on the resources of linguistic analysis to understand the functional (rhetorical) and
discipline-specific nature of writing tasks. Practice-based approaches emphasize the
social and discursive practices through which disciplines constitute themselves.
The version of genre-based pedagogies adopted for the present research has relied
heavily on Systemic Functional Linguistics with regard to drawing on the established
conventions and values of academic disciplines, and making meaningful form-function
choices. This version is in essence constructivist, in that the role of the learner as an
active maker of meaning is emphasized, as well as the role of the teacher and peers as
engaging in dialogue with the learner to create new meaning. The approach is overtly
post-process, in that it is a considered combination of language teaching principles and
techniques as well as classroom activities, with sufficient opportunity for critical
In the next section an overview is given of the design and evaluation of genre-based
writing interventions drawing on the above theories. In particular, the question of
effectiveness is addressed.
10.3 The effectiveness of genre-based approaches in general
Although a large number of empirical and quasi-empirical studies have been conducted
to establish affinities between genres, text types and disciplines at tertiary institutions, it
is believed that in situ research is a prerequisite for designing effective interventions −
in this case genre-based academic writing courses for second-year undergraduate
students of the humanities at the University of Pretoria.
To chart the target landscape, a survey of writing tasks was conducted. The results
showed that the academic essay is the written genre most frequently required by
lecturers of humanities disciplines, and that academic essays are made up of a variety of
rhetorical modes. Those that feature most prominently are discussion, explanation,
description and (critical) analysis. Subject-fields differ with regard to the rhetorical
modes they prefer, the labels they use, and the way they combine different modes. On
the other hand academic essays are structured in a fairly similar way across disciplines.
They typically comprise an introduction, body and conclusion, and develop an extended
academic argument, supported by evidence. However, the nature of the evidence is
Against this backdrop it seems that both narrow-angled (subject-specific) interventions,
with a close fit between the purposes and conventions of disciplinary communities, and
more wide-angled (generic) interventions, which focus on one or more genres shared by
a cluster of disciplines (such as the academic essay), could be effective. This is probably
the reason why these two distinct approaches still exist within the domain of language
pedagogy. However, few experimental or quasi-experimental studies have been
conducted to prove the desirability (or the feasibility) of either of these intervention
The design of any genre-based intervention is ideally preceded by thorough contextual
research. For the purpose of designing and evaluating a subject-specific intervention, indepth research was conducted on the conventions of historical writing. History was
chosen as the discipline of focus for a subject-specific intervention because the
academic essay has been found to be the primary vehicle for undergraduate historical
writing. The choice of history as the focal subject was also purposive and convenient,
since the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies had expressed interest in the
project and had been willing to offer its cooperation. Main findings were that the three
main purposes of historical writing are (re)telling a story, understanding and explaining
why things happened as they did, and evaluating events, structures and the writings of
other historians. In historical texts these concepts have been lexicalized and
grammaticalized in systematic ways. Concerning time, seven categories, straddling the
boundaries of syntax and semantics, were defined to assist course designers and
students in constructing and deconstructing time in historical texts, viz. sequencing time,
setting in time, temporal process (phasing in time), (text internal) temporal organization,
temporal modality, temporal duration and tense. Two primary ways of construing cause
and effect were distinguished: sequential (chronological) causal relations between
external events, and "simultaneous" mentioning of causes or effects. In terms of
judgment or evaluation the most important categories for the historian are Attitude,
Graduation and Engagement, as distinguished in the Appraisal framework within
Systemic Functional Linguistics.
In order to design a cross-disciplinary intervention research was conducted on the
relationship between disciplinary purposes and writing conventions in a number of
humanities disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, psychology, history of art and
political sciences. Summaries were made of the most important conventions, and
exemplars of essays and parts of essays were excerpted from these sources.
A basic genre-based presyllabus, comprising one or more cycles of exploration, explicit
instruction, joint construction, independent construction and critical reflection, was
adapted for subject-specific and generic purposes. Emphasis was placed on rhetorical
modes, logical development of an argument from the thesis statement to the conclusion,
and engagement with the authors of primary and secondary sources. However, the
syllabi differed with regard to the specificity of the disciplinary focus, and thus also the
themes of the materials and exercises.
10.4 The effectiveness of narrow-angled versus wide-angled
The statistical analyses of the essay scores show that both narrow-angled and wideangled genre-based interventions can be effective. The overall improvement of the
students in both groups was statistically significant, although the size of the
improvement differed across the four dimensions of the scoring instrument. Only on the
dimension of Structure and development was the improvement of the two groups
roughly similar (18% in the case of the subject-specific group and 15% in the case of
the cross-disciplinary group). Thematic analyses of sampled pre- and posttest essays
support the finding that both groups benefited from the instruction on structure and
development: both students showed a sizeable improvement in their ability to develop
an academic theme systematically.
Students from both groups were generally positive about the effect of the intervention
on their academic writing abilities, and indicated that their personal needs had been
more than adequately addressed. On the other hand, both groups were less positive
about their acquisition of critical thinking skills, which was not surprising in the light of
the responses typically given by undergraduate students to questions about their
acquisition of critical thinking skills. The only significant difference between the two
groups was their perceptions about skills transfer. The subject-specific group was more
positive, which probably went hand in hand with the fact that they engaged more with
relevant subject matter and were more motivated.
Despite their more modest overall improvement in comparison with the subject-specific
students, the cross-disciplinary group exceeded the researcher's expectations in terms of
their mastery of Appraisal resources, particularly Attitude, Engagement and Graduation.
The steep increase in their use of Engagement markers stands in stark contrast to the
decrease in the essays of the subject-specific group. The improvement in the crossdisciplinary group's mastery of Appraisal resources should probably be ascribed to the
lecturer's efforts in exposing the generic students more explicitly to these resources, and
designing more appropriate classroom materials.
10.5 Limitations of the study
The main limitations of the study include (1) the relatively small sample size, (2) using
the scores of only one rater for the subject-specific essays, and (3) the fact that the two
interventions were not administered simultaneously. The small sample size may be seen
to have impacted negatively on generalization. However, the statistical tests that were
chosen (the Wilcoxon signed-rank test and the Mann-Whitney U-test) compensated for
this limitation, as they had been designed for small samples. The non-parallel
presentation of the interventions limits comparability because the syllabus and materials
for the cross-disciplinary intervention were designed with some foreknowledge of what
had (not) worked well in the subject-specific intervention. This could have influenced
the significance of the statistical difference found between the two groups, as well as
differences found in students' use of certain lexicogrammatical resources.
Summative remarks and the way forward
Although it would be dangerous to make grand generalizations on the basis of a quasiexperiment with fairly small samples there is a clear indication that genre-based,
scaffolded interventions do assist students in mastering the structural, conceptual and
linguistic resources for meaning-making in academic discourse. On the basis of the
findings it is believed that subject-specific interventions have a greater chance of
succeeding than wider-angled interventions. Their greater success is primarily ascribed
to the enhanced motivation that accompanies students' prospects of improving their
achievement in content subjects. This prediction is underpinned by the finding that the
superior performance of the subject-specific group is statistically significant.
Furthermore, it seems that transferability of skills – or at least students' perception of
transferability − is enhanced by extensive reading and writing with a particular
thematic, and by extension, disciplinary focus.
Although narrow-angled interventions seem to be more beneficial than wide-angled
interventions, such interventions may, however, be less feasible in that few tertiary
institutions have the resources for offering dedicated writing modules – one for each
discipline. This suggests research on alternative models for subject-specific teaching of
academic writing, such as collaboration with content lecturers in a team-teaching or
adjunct teaching context. It also points to the exploration of a combination of narrowangled and generic designs in the same course.
Despite the less pronounced effects of wide-angled writing interventions, they do have
some effect, and are therefore better than no intervention at all. This has been
demonstrated by the significant improvement of the students on the generic course.
Definite advantages of cross-disciplinary interventions are the opportunities they afford
for making students aware of the dimensions along which subject-fields differ, and
acquainting students with the conventions that tie in with the content, epistemology and
philosophical underpinnings of a range of subject-fields. If capacity is available, a
department, unit or centre with responsibility for teaching academic writing should
conduct research on the relationships between subject-field purposes and writing
conventions in a whole range of disciplines. It should also be considered to develop
genre-based training courses for tutors, who might be Masters or PhD students in the
disciplines where writing support for undergraduate students is desired.
In any event, attention should be paid to gathering, designing and developing authentic
materials. It is desirable to compile a database of authentic model essays to demonstrate
the successful application of essay-writing principles in specific subjects, at the level of
the students, and relevant to the local (at least the South African) context. Published
examples of good essays lack authenticity and are often not exemplary in every respect.
In addition, students should ideally focus their writing on a particular discipline for the
duration of a semester-long writing module, even within the boundaries of wide-angled
modules. The greater effectiveness of the subject-specific intervention has shown that
immersion into the content and materials of a specific discipline enhances engagement
and encourages skills transfer. Finally, students should ideally be engaged in extended
writing assignments from the beginning to the end of an intervention: the more text
students produce, the more significant their improvement is likely to be.
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