A Corpus-Based Comparison Of The Academic Essay Writing Of British And Hong Kong Students

  • Andrew John Morrall

Student thesis: PhD


This thesis compares two corpora of academic writing, one by native English speakers and the other by Hong Kong learners of English, in order to analyse the differences in language use between them, and from this make recommendations regarding the content of academic English courses.

The conceptual framework is one of Contrastive Interlanguage Analysis (Granger, 1996) and the research methodology is corpus-based linguistics.

The literature on this topic shows concerns about the usefulness of university English courses (Evans and Morrison, 2012), and possible solutions suggested by Hyland (2008, 2015) and Gardner (2012) in the field of genre and discipline analysis. The literature also contains a number of conclusions from previous research on corpora of students’ academic writing, and this thesis examines whether these can be applied to an interlanguage analysis of Hong Kong student’s writing.

Two main corpora were analysed, the PolyU Learner English Corpus (PLEC) and the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus. In order to give a better comparison, academic essays by native English speakers in year one were extracted to form a sub-corpus called BAWE-EON, and this was used as a reference corpus.

The research questions were firstly, to what extent are the commonly-taught aspects of academic essay writing and findings from the research literature on academic writing reflected in differences between the corpora, and secondly what changes to teaching and learning would these differences suggest?

The findings indicate that corpus comparisons are often not generalisable to other corpora, due mainly to the context of the corpus collection resulting in different language use in the texts. Factors in this include writers’ proficiency level, genre and disciplinary variation. Applying theories from previous corpus comparisons gave rise to a number of recommendations for areas in which Hong Kong university students could improve their academic writing.

Based on the contrastive analysis of the two corpora, recommendations are given for the content of academic English writing courses, including suggestions for indirect applications, in which corpus linguistics is used outside the classroom, for example in planning curricula and materials, and suggestions for direct applications of corpus linguistics in data-driven learning by students using software such as concordancers inside the classroom. The importance of the selection of corpora and examples of language use that are most suitable for the context of students is emphasised, and methods of applying corpus linguistics techniques and tools to the specific context of a class of students are explained.

Limitations of the research include that while the BAWE texts were written for disciplinary courses, the PLEC essays addressed general topics and were written for a timed English course assignment, which limits their comparability. In addition, it is not known to what extent the BAWE students had been trained in academic writing, whereas the PLEC students were receiving instruction in it, which may have affected their use of language features, and thus the frequency comparisons in this research.
Date of Award15 Mar 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Faculty of Humanities
SupervisorXunfeng Xu (Chief supervisor)

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