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Social Sciences

Writing the Future

1 June 2019 - 1 June 2022

PI/s in Exeter: Dr Esmaeel Abdollahzadeh, Professor Debra Myhill

Research partners: Co-Investigator: Dr Abdelhamid Ahmed , University of Qatar, Qatar

Funding awarded: £ 128,790

Sponsor(s): Qatar National Research Fund

About the research

This three-year project is a cross-linguistic and a cross-gender comparison of metadiscourse and voice employed by Qatari L1 Arabic university students writing argumentative texts in English and Arabic in a university in Qatar. Metadiscourse and voice, as rhetorical devices, refer to how the writers express themselves and their voice in their written arguments to signal their stance and orientation to the content of writing and engage with their readers.

Summary of key findings

This study is unique in bringing together a corpus study of written argument texts with interviews with the student writers of those texts to explore their metalinguistic understanding of the writing choices they make. In terms of the research questions, the corpus analysis has highlighted strong significant differences in the use of metadiscourse by these writers in their Arabic and English arguments. In particular, they use more metadiscourse in English and make more use of interactive, rather than interactional metadiscourse. There is also a significant relationship between judgments of voice strength and the use of metadiscourse. At the same time, there are no meaningful differences in the use of metadiscourse by gender; and no clear correlational relationship between metadiscourse use and writing quality.

The interviews reveal that students are not familiar with the concept of metadiscourse or its terminology, and, in general, when they discuss the use of metadiscourse features in their own texts they do not see the metadiscoursal function, but link it to other aspects of argument, such as objectivity and formality. There was, however, some sense of metalinguistic understanding that reader pronouns were inclusive of the reader. It is important to note that these students did not lack metalinguistic understanding per se: they did demonstrate high levels of metalinguistic understanding of the expectations of the argument genre in their educational context.

Metadiscourse, in drawing on Halliday’s theorisations of metafunctions, is by its very nature focused on the function of the metadiscourse. The description of the identification of metadiscourse for the corpus study brings this into sharp relief, explicitly having to determine whether the presence of a particular form is performing a metadiscoursal function, or whether it is propositional. The students’ metalinguistic understanding of written argument was often very form-focused - referring to what should or should not be in an argument text, and particularly the ways these texts should be structured. It may be that the insights on actual usage of metadiscourse from the corpus analysis and the writers’ metalinguistic understanding elicited in the interviews point to the potentiality of embedding metadiscourse more meaningfully within the teaching of argument writing. This might support writers in better understanding how to build an effective reader-writer relationship, and to be more metalinguistically aware of the precise ways in which interactive and interactional metadiscourse serves to engage and interact with the reader, and to show writer positionality.

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