A Study of University Students in Japan: Learning and Application of Academic English Writing

James Mckinley

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This study investigated Japanese first and second year undergraduate students learning English academic writing in their compulsory English composition courses in a Japanese university. The thesis takes a social constructivist approach to investigate the aspects of critical argument and writer identity in these students’ classes and their writing.
The data for the study include classroom observations and teacher and student interviews, all conducted monthly throughout the academic year-long course. In total there were six courses, four teachers, and sixteen student participants. The observations were analyzed using an adapted version of Ivanič’s (2004) Discourses of Writing framework, which focused on aspects of identity construction in the writing classroom. The linguistic data included a selection of one major piece of writing from each student, analyzed using an adapted Appraisal framework within Systemic Functional Linguistics (Martin, 1997; 2000). In order to maintain a focus on writer identity in the analysis, Clark and Ivanič’s (1997) selves were identified through this analysis. In addition, the texts were analyzed for use of Casanave’s (2002) writing game strategies, in order to further establish the students’ approaches in writing their texts. The objective was not to generalize about how Japanese students learn to write academic English, but rather to provide, from a social constructivist, Western researcher’s perspective, an analysis of what happened in these students’ writing classes and how it affected their writing for those classes.
Teachers’ general practices in the observed courses mainly focused on two aspects of writing: 1) as a communicative act (writing for a reader), and 2) as an exercise in critical thinking (developing a thesis). These two aspects emerged from the observation and interview data collection. The four teachers used very different approaches in designing their courses, and the students in the same classes responded in different ways, mostly depending on their ability to understand their teachers’ intentions and to form appropriate academic identities in an attempt to meet their teacher’s expectations. The analysis of the students’ written texts revealed that students often did not meet the teachers’ expectations of writing objectively and using a genre-appropriate voice as students often resorted to the same authorial voice to push their thesis.
This investigation was designed to inform pedagogic practices for university teachers of academic English and curriculum designers in Japan to establish effective English writing courses. The rich description of classroom practices and resulting written texts and the focus on differences in cultural expectations between teachers and students provide significant contributions to this area of inquiry. The main pedagogical suggestions are standardizing course objectives and goals, assigning more reading as a part of writing, and teaching students how to write authoritatively.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Victoria University of Wellington
Award date30 Apr 2012
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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