Using the Corpus in First-Year Writing: Combining Top-down and bottom-up approaches

I’m very pleased to have a guest blogger, James Garner,  detail his approach to using corpus tools in his EAP classroom. You can follow James (full bio below) on Twitter at @ALesl_JamesRG or email him at james.r.garner@gmail.comFeel free to post questions or comments. Also, if you’d like to be a guest blogger and share a corpus-based lesson, a review of a corpus tool, etc., please do contact me.

Using the Corpus in First-Year Writing: Combining Top-down and bottom-up approaches by James Garner

One of the more common critiques that have been brought up when discussing Data-driven Learning (or corpus-based pedagogy) is that it relies on a bottom-up approach to language processing. Critics claim the approach fails to consider the wider discourse of a text and its relation to the lexicogrammatical choices writers make. This concern is especially important in applying corpus tools to English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classes, where emphasis is often placed on more macro-textual features such as rhetorical moves (e.g. John Swales’ CARS model). How, then, can we reconcile the bottom-up of corpus investigation and the top-down of rhetorical moves in an EAP writing class?

A lesson I completed with my English Composition II class this semester was one attempt at this. This class is part of the first-year composition program at Georgia State University and is designed to prepare students for writing at the university level. The specific section I am teaching is a mixture of ESL international students, Generation 1.5 students, and native English speaking students, with a generally even mix between them. Corpus use in my class began early on with students being introduced to corpus use within the first few weeks of class.

The lesson I am going to describe today focused on summary-critique writing, one of the major writing assignments in the course (e.g. book reviews). For this assignment I modified a similar task from Maggie Charles’ 2007 article in the Journal of English for Academic Purposes (which I highly recommend). I will add a citation at the end of this article so you can find it.

The lesson was divided into two parts over two class sessions: one focusing on top-down analysis and one on bottom-up.

Part 1: Top-down Analysis

Students were given an academic book review and asked to read and analyze it with a group of classmates. They were told to focus on the functions the writer was accomplishing with each paragraph, then each sentence within the paragraph. To help them with this, I wrote on the board “What is the author doing? What is he trying to tell us?” I also spent time with each group of students, asking them guiding questions about the things they were finding. This half ended with a whole-class discussion in which we wrote an outline of the book review that included the moves the writer was making (summary à general or specific praise à critique à possible improvements).

Part 2: Bottom-up Analysis and Corpus Work

Now the “what” was replaced by “how”. I asked students (again working in groups) to find example sentences or phrases where the writer was giving praise to the book, critiquing it, or offering possible improvements that the writer could have made. This again was followed by a whole class discussion of their results. Through this discussion students were able to make a list of words (verbs, adjectives, adverbs) that were used in each function and notice how the choice of words related to the rhetorical move. For example, students noticed that a lot of the words used for critiquing in the essay were more cautious and weak in regard to the claim being made (i.e. hedged) compared to the words used in giving praise. They also noticed how modals were employed to indicate areas the author of the reviewed book could have improved upon.

Following this discussion, students were instructed to choose 5 words from the lists and go to the corpus (either COCA or MICUSP) and investigate their use. I suggested to them that they not only look at frequency information, but also at the phraseology the items were frequently occurring in (e.g. The author fails to note…, ). I also mentioned that, if they were using MICUSP, they should take a look at where in the text the items were occurring. The homework for this lesson was to write up a very short report of their results and bring them to the next class for discussion.

Looking back on the lesson, I would say that the students got a lot out of it. In reading their drafts of their summary-critiques, I noticed that many of them not only were at least somewhat able to use the moves structure, but also were using some of the lexicogrammatical structures they had found using the corpus. Issues still remained, but in subsequent drafts they were able to make the necessary improvements. Subsequent discussions with the students also revealed that many of them, including the NS writers, enjoyed the lesson and got something out of it.

As for myself, I feel like this lesson was a good first step in trying to find better ways we can incorporate corpus tools into an EAP writing classroom. When we can link the linguistic with the rhetorical, we can make the insights gained from these lessons more relevant to students immediate concerns, increasing not only their buy-in, but also the buy-in of other, possibly more skeptical, writing instructors. Top-down or bottom-up? Why not both?

Charles, M. (2007). Reconciling top-down and bottom-up approaches to graduate writing: Using a corpus to teach rhetorical functions. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 6, 289-302.

James Garner is a PhD student at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. His experience teaching English as a second/foreign language includes classes on speaking and listening, general composition and academic writing at various levels in Germany, the USA and South Korea. His research interests include Corpus Linguistics, Data-Driven Learning, and English for Academic Purposes. His e-mail address is


5 thoughts on “Using the Corpus in First-Year Writing: Combining Top-down and bottom-up approaches

  1. Hello Mura,

    Generation 1.5 refers to students who immigrated to the U.S. after the age of 10 or so and completed middle school and high school in the United States. These students are thought to retain many elements of their home country/culture/language while also identifying strongly with their new home. It’s not my favorite term, but this is a growing student population on U.S. campuses. From my experiences in a first year writing program at a large university, these students sometimes are not well supported. My university has freshman writing courses for native English speakers and non-native English speakers with only a few combined sections. However, we sometimes aren’t sure where to place 1.5 students. While they may have proficiency beyond non-native speakers, they may still need support perhaps not offered within native speaker writing class.

    This must be a rather natural occurrence. What term do you use? Or is it just so common no term is applied?

    Thanks for posting!



    • hi Robert,

      first time i have heard of this term and issue really, is there an upper limit to the age i.e. after say 18 they are considered a non-native user of English rather than generation 1.5? is there literature to support the min age of 10?



  2. I see generation 1.5 discussed more often in the literature but the minimum age and features that designate one as 1.5 are fuzzy. Some say 10, others 12, etc. I suppose 18 is considered a limit from a school administration perspective. At my university, the 18-year old student would certainly go to the non-native speaker section and be required to take a test of English proficiency. The 1.5 student with a U.S. high school diploma will likely be enrolled in the native speaker section unless he/she requests the non-native speaker course.



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