Journal for Language Teaching

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The typicality of academic discourse and its relevance for constructs of academic literacy

R Patterson, A Weideman


Constructs of academic literacy are used both for test and course design.
While the discussion is relevant to both, the focus of this article will be on test design. Constructs of academic literacy necessarily depend on definitions that assume that academic discourse is typically different from other kinds of discourse. The more deliberate their dependence, the easier it is to examine such constructs critically, and to improve existing constructs. If we improve our understanding of what makes academic discourse unique, we can therefore potentially improve our test designs. Two perspectives on the typicality of academic discourse are surveyed: Weideman’s (2009) notion of material lingual spheres, and Halliday’s (1978) idea of fields of discourse. These perspectives help us to conceptualise the uniqueness of a discourse type by identifying both the
conditions for creating texts and the way that social roles influence the content of what gets expressed in a certain sphere of discourse. Halliday’s notion of nominalisation takes another step in this direction, but may, like other supposedly unique characteristics, fall short of identifying the unique analytical mode that qualifies academic endeavour. The paper argues that when we acknowledge the primacy of the logical or analytical mode in academic discourse, we have a potentially productive perspective: first, on how the various genres and rhetorical modes in academic discourse serve that analytical end; second, on how to define the ability to handle that discourse competently; and third, to suggest how such definitions or constructs of academic literacy may be operationalised or modified.

Keywords: academic discourse, academic literacy, language testing, material lingual spheres, test constructs