Referencing for cohesion in L2 academic writing: a corpus analysis
Cohesion in academic and other writing is essential to effective communication. Teachers of English for academic purposes (EAP) place a great deal of emphasis on achieving cohesion, principally through coordinators and subordinating conjunctions. In the classroom and in the academic literature, less attention is paid to the role of referential pronouns to link ideas across clausal boundaries. This corpus-based study compares referencing for cohesion between L1 English writers and L2 English learners. It specifically compares pronominal referencing (it, she, he, they, them, his, her, hers, its, their, theirs,) and demonstrative referencing (this, that, this, those,) between two groups in terms of frequency of use, syntactic category, and type of referent, to reveal differences that often undermine the quality of L2 writing. The L1 English corpus is composed of 383 Economist Leaders articles from 2016 and 2017 (302,618 words) and the L2 English corpus is composed of 371 (388,526 words) essays written by first-year students in an English 101 Composition course in the fall of 2017. Using the corpus analysis software AntConc, concordance searches were produced for all pronominal and demonstrative pronouns and were transferred into Excel sheets for qualitative analysis. Concordance results from either corpus that included a quotation were excluded from coding since these do not represent original writing. Based on discourse analysis, all pronouns were coded for (a) syntactic function (i.e., demonstrative pronouns, demonstrative adjectives, adjective clauses, noun clauses, and adverbial expressions), (b) part of speech (POS) (i.e., nouns, adjectives), and (c) case (i.e., subjects, objects and complements, idiomatic expressions, and non-referential expressions). The coded data were analyzed through descriptive and inferential statistics. Raw counts of each pronoun and their percentages were calculated in order to see the overall distribution of occurrences in each corpus. In order to find out whether the differences between the referential occurrences in L1 English corpus and L2 English corpus were statistically significant, means and standard deviations were calculated, and independent samples t-test analyses were run using SPSS. The findings showed that L2 English writers use referential pronouns differently from L1 English writers. Several statistically significant differences were found between L1 English writers and L2 English learners in referencing including it in subject position; this, that, these, and those as a demonstrative pronoun, adjective and adverbial expression, his and her as a possessive adjective as well as she, they, them, and their. No statistically significant differences were found between L1 English writers and L2 English learners’ use of theirs, hers, and him. Those major referencing differences observed between L1 English writers and L2 English learners offer some implications for the teaching of academic writing to intermediate students. L1 English writers’ use of referential pronouns can serve as a model to academic writing instructors when teaching cohesion in L2 writing. For this, a more detailed qualitative analysis at individual text levels, going beyond analyzing concordance lines as in this study, is required in future research.