16 The Role of Context in Academic Text
Production and Writing Pedagogy
The problem of text production in academic genres has been a challenge for
undergraduate and graduate students as well as for writing teachers from differ-
ent departments. Previous research has provided important results on the struc-
tural aspects of academic genres (Swales, 1990) and the discursive construction
of identity in academic writing (Ivanic, 1998). However, few studies have con-
centrated on the contributions of exploration and reflection on context to ac-
tual teaching practices. From the perspective of Systemic-Functional Linguistics
(SFL), in this paper I would like to focus on the reciprocal relationship between
text and context, i.e., the way context can be recreated by analysis of text and
vice versa. The aim is to point out some practical implications derived from the
use of SFL principles in academic writing teaching and research through context
exploration. The focus will be on writing activities that aim at fostering students’
awareness about the connections between contextual features (activity, identity,
relations as well as the role performed by text in the situation) and their respec-
tive linguistic realizations (expression of content, instantiation of relationships
between interlocutors, and organization of text).
One of the main challenges in language education and research is to teach
creative ways to negotiate the norms of the language system (grammar) within
the academic culture: the set of meanings, rules, values, power relations and
relevant genres that constitute the social practices of a community. Educating
students about the uses of language in specific contexts depends on clear descrip-
tions of the connections between text and context.
Public discourse on academic publication in Brazil is mainly issued by
the Ministry of Education through its two main Research Funding Agencies,
CAPES and CNPq, which hold quantitative and qualitative expectations about
scholars’ intellectual production but offer no substantial line of financial sup-
port for pedagogic research and course development. Thus full-fledged writing
programs are seldom found in Brazilian universities. Very often what we find
is some individual or collective teaching initiatives that have survived defying
all the odds (e.g., lack of personnel and financial resources) situated in specific
In my context of pedagogic practice in academic writing at the Federal Uni-
versity of Santa Maria (UFSM), I personally started to offer a course on academic
writing to graduate students in 1994. Since then, I have been offering the course
to a multidisciplinary class, made up of Master’s and PhD students. These new-
comers to academia often feel that the task of writing research genres demands
substantial and detailed formal instruction. My aim is to foster students’ aware-
ness of how the language system operates in different academic genres in terms
of semantic field (content), interpersonal relations (effect), and text structure,
so that they can engage in text production in order to appropriately perform
relevant activities according to (a) their own interests and (b) the conditions
and constraints of the cultural context in question. The pedagogical approach
presented here is focused on students’ situated practice and the cultural context
of their discipline. I would like to think of it as a transformative practice.
In this paper I consider how theory works in practice, drawing practical impli-
cations, especial y from Systemic-Functional Linguistics, to the teaching of aca-
demic writing and reflective thinking about the academic context. It differentiates
itself from other previous texts that describe writing pedagogy approaches (as the
several ones described in Zemliansky & Bishop, 2004) in that it identifies specific
issues and questions that can be explored with students in order to develop their
awareness about the discourse of science in their own disciplinary areas.
challenges in the academic setting
In the academic context, the challenges in teaching writing to newcomers are
• Discourse events are dynamic linguistic activities that combine so-
cial and cognitive resources in meaning making, “complex dynamic
systems in action, with people as agents in social systems, using
other complex systems — of language and other semiotic means
— in interaction with each other” (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron,
2008, pp. 161-162, 186)1;
• Centripetal and Centrifugal forces interact in discourse (Bakhtin,
1986). In other words, genres are intersubjective representations of
events that are constructed with reference to our shared experience
of recurrent discursive situations. Thus they are relatively stable.
At the same time, genres are social processes and thus dynamic,
realized in different registers (Martin, 1992). The research article
genre, for example, is differently realized in Applied Linguistics and
Electrical Engineering concerning form and style, as different reg-
isters of the same genre;
The Role of Context in Academic Text Production and Writing Pedagogy
• Novice writers must negotiate meaning considering the disciplin-
ary culture they are new to (Swales, 1990; 1998) at the same time
that they keep in perspective the existing power relations and ten-
sions in their local disciplines and in academia as a broad cultural
site (Ivanic, 1998); and
• Systemic knowledge is not enough to accomplish both of the above
tasks, which depend on one’s understanding of the meaning poten-
tials that situations offer (Bakhtin, 1986).
These challenges seem more reasonable if we consider language learning as
two interrelated steps: we learn to interact and thus learn the language that is
constitutive of that interaction (Halliday, 1994).
In my own teaching practice, there are additional specific challenges:
• I teach a course that lasts 15 weeks, with weekly 100-minute meet-
ings with a multidisciplinary and multilevel academic writing class
(PhD and Master’s students from Chemistry, Rural Sciences, Edu-
cation, Law, English, among other areas), therefore we need to ana-
lyze the different discursive practices (processes of text production,
distribution, and consumption, according to Fairclough, 1989)
into which students must acculturate;
• Learners are usually novices or junior scholars with different expe-
riences in writing (mostly master’s students and PhD candidates)
• Learners’ make different choices for genres in which to write their
texts (research project, article, dissertation/thesis chapter).
These various challenges have to be considered and recontextualized in my
teaching practice in order to answer a range of questions such as the following:
How do we foster learners’ textual production competencies? How can we teach
learners to function within academic genres to engage in disciplinary discourse?
And maybe even more importantly: how can we help them develop an academic
identity as authors (Ivanic, 1998, pp. 26, 219, 341)?
In order to comment on possible approaches to these questions and chal-
lenges, first I will discuss the relationship between academic text and context,
taking into account the concepts of genre and register. Secondly, I will explore
the pedagogic approach that I call “Academic writing cycle” — an approach that
I have developed throughout the years, based on previous research on academic
genres and my own teaching practice with inexperienced academic writers. Fi-
nally, implications of this approach for academic writing teaching will be drawn.
In order to examine text production in the academic setting, language will
be defined as a semiotic system with different planes of signification within the
Systemic-Functional Linguistics (SFL) framework. In addition, discourse will be
seen from a socio-historical perspective as an intersubjective, social and historical
phenomenon, as expressed in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin (1986; 1929/1995).
the relationship between academic text and con-
In SFL terms, the context in which a text is produced can be recreated by
analysis of textual language, and the opposite is also true (Halliday, 1989). From
that perspective, if genre is a socio-discursive process, then the teaching practice
must develop learners’ reflexivity about the relevant social context to use it as a
scaffolding device to explore texts in a meaningful way.
Both text form and meaning are socially constructed and respond to demands
of immediate circumstances and cultural tradition (Jamieson, 1975, pp. 414-
415). Text and context are thus mutually predictive (Halliday & Martin, 1993,
p. 22). As I will argue later, awareness about this bidirectionality (as dialectics in
the work of Bakhtin, 1986; Fairclough, 1989) between text and context allows
students to situate their text in the system of genres (Devitt, 1991; Bazerman,
2005) that structure academic interactions and thus helps them see the connec-
tion between the text they write and the research activity.
Definition of the academic context as a culture and disciplines
My teaching practice has always included the analysis of students’ text and
the observation of their struggle and my own to write and become an academic
writer. This teaching and writing experience finds expression in Charles Bazer-
I found that I could not understand what constituted an appropri-
ate text in any discipline without considering the social and intel-
lectual activity which the text was part in. (Bazerman, 1988, p. 4)
In order to define the “social and intellectual activity which the text was part
in” I have resorted to SFL perspective on language, genre, register, and text2.
Academic discourse, genre, register and text
Academic discourse can be described as the linguistic expression and con-
struction of concepts, values and practices shared by members of an institu-
The Role of Context in Academic Text Production and Writing Pedagogy
tion characterized by technical language and researching, teaching, learning and
publishing practices that are constituted in different genres and registers. In SFL
terms, language is a “system of meaning creation,” that is, a system in which
meaning is “the product of the interrelations among the parts” of the system of
language and context (Martin, 1992, pp. 497-498). Both genre and register are
oriented to the context.
In the broad “Context of Culture” (Halliday, 1989, p. 6), defined as the
actions and the meanings (and the values attached to them) produced by the
members of a social group, genres are these members’ intersubjective representa-
tions of the types of situations and texts that recurrently co-occur in that social
group and thus distinguish it from other social groups and their respective cul-
In the “Context of Situation” (Halliday, 1989, p. 6), defined as the environ-
ment of the text, the set of meanings that is possible/probable (potentially avail-
able) in a given situation, register is “the configuration of semantic resources that
the member of the culture associates with a situation type” (Martin, 1992, p.
As an example, we can think of the research article as the genre (in opposition
to the book review, the dissertation, etc.) that is consistently different in content,
format and style when used to report a research in applied linguistics or in rural
sciences, thus in two different registers (Motta-Roth, 2003). The text is the con-
crete realization of these social-linguistic processes of genre and register choices.
The relationship between context, discourse, genre, register and text can be
visually represented in Figure 1 in terms of the several planes in the overall sys-
tem of language.
Semantics & Pragmatics
figure 1: representation of the stratification of (lin-
guistic and contextual) communicative planes (adapt-
ed from martin, 1992, p. 496; hendges, 2005, p. 6).
Text, register and genre are three levels of realization (or instantiation) of the
language system. The genre — the most abstract one — is a staged, purpose-
oriented set of actions in a discursive event recognized as such in a given Context
of Culture (the research article in academia). The register is the configuration of
meanings that realize the genre in the Context of Situation (the research article
in applied linguistics for the Brazilian Journal of Applied Linguistics). The text
is the immediate concrete plane of language instantiation (my article). It is this
set of relations between planes of realization that the inexperienced writer will be
working with to situate not only their own text but also their writing and read-
In my particular teaching practice, academia is viewed as the “Context of
The Role of Context in Academic Text Production and Writing Pedagogy
Culture”: a set of concepts, values, and beliefs that typically go together, associ-
ated with university life, with which students, faculty and personnel interact
through texts. Each individual student’s experience of a discipline as a Context
of Culture can be seen as a distinctive “Context of Situation” for texts. These
“Contexts of Situation” can be defined in terms of three SFL variables that find
correspondence with linguistic variables that define the register of the situation:
• Field — the nature of the social practice: the activity, the actions
oriented towards a communicative aim by participants of a given
situation/event (Bronckart, 1999; Vygotsky, 1986; Kuhn, 1970). It
is represented by lexicogrammatical terms (verb, noun, adjective,
• Tenor — participant roles, relations and interactions: the nature of
the connections between participants in the event, their roles and
relations. It is represented by the Mood and modality features of
• Mode — text organization: the nature of the semantic unit in use,
its cohesion and coherence, the nature of the medium of transmis-
sion, its written/oral format.
Each genre then is realized in the form of a particular register that finds its
concrete realization in a particular text. The identification of the context vari-
ables of academic practices within which we write is fundamental to become a
producer and consumer of academic texts. If we want to get an insight into the
configuration of a text, we must try to understand the nature of the social prac-
tice, of the activities occurring in the relevant context, the situation participants’
roles and relations, and the way these conditions are construed in the text with
a certain organization.
By presenting language as a socio-semiotic system that constitutes the prac-
tices of each social group (instead of a set of independent texts) we help inexpe-
rienced writers to get initiated in academic culture (a system of meanings to be
networking the writing process
Students learning how to write usually find helpful the “Academic writing
cycle,” which I developed based on previous research on academic writing and
genres (Bazerman, 1988, 2005; Swales, 1990, 1998, 2004; Swales & Feak, 1994;
Motta-Roth, 1998, 2001) and on my own teaching practice with inexperienced
writers at UFSM since 1994.
This “Academic writing cycle” presupposes the idea that text and context are
two sides of experience that must be pedagogically explored in writing courses
in order to foster students’ critical awareness of the kairos of a text (Bazerman,
2007, pp. 119-149), the adequacy in content, form and style of a text to a
rhetorical moment. Thus lack of writing experience can be translated as lack of
understanding of how text production fits a given context of situation.
Text and context as two sides of experience
Understanding how a text fits a rhetorical moment depends on awareness
of how a text constructs an institutional context (law system, science, school/
university, business, etc.). Two simple (and to a certain extent obvious) argu-
ments motivate the activities of the “Academic writing cycle”: first, in order for
students to become writers in their field, they need to become discourse analysts
(to produce the texts that are adequate in the discipline, they must learn to
read these texts, learn how they function by analyzing not only linguistic form
and content, but the interactions that these texts construct and structure); and
second, in a crossdisciplinary classroom, students from different fields need to
realize how language works from a sociointeractionist perspective, that is, they
need to understand that texts work differently in each field depending on the
nature of the activities each area of study conducts and the kind of relations the
participants maintain to produce knowledge.
Vygotsky (1986, 1984/2007) and Halliday (1994) both state that we learn
the language we speak because we interact in the contexts that use that language
to conduct social activities. I have synthesized this view in my own terms:
As learners come to realize the social arrangements of their envi-
ronment, they develop reflexivity upon the rules of grammatical
operation and text structures. Learners need to reflect on context
and text, on how texts contribute to context dynamics.
This view offers a set of implications for academic writing that can be sum-
marized in three “Discourse-analytical principles” that guide my pedagogic prac-
(1) In order to understand the uses of formal elements in language, learners
must reflect upon their context;
(2) To be able to write, novice writers need to analyze the relationship between
social practices and texts, comparing what they have been able to deduct
from their observation with the texts produced in this context (journals,
The Role of Context in Academic Text Production and Writing Pedagogy
books, dissertations, book reviews, etc.), focusing on how research activi-
ties, social roles and relations are constructed in texts;
(3) To learn a language, learners must learn to analyze discourse (McCarthy &
Carter, 1994, p. 134). By reading and deconstructing exemplars of pub-
lished texts from a lexical, grammatical and discursive perspective, learn-
ers will learn to write, revise, and edit their own texts more effectively.
By adopting these three principles, learners develop discourse-analytical
abilities that will help them fine-tune their text form and content to a pro-
jected audience, thus avoiding the “writing-in-the-vacuum syndrome” (writ-
ing without a purpose and an audience in mind) that might arise when taking
a text-focused or process-focused writing course.
Based on these three principles, I elaborated a writing cycle that encompasses
three sets of activities:
(1) Context Exploration involves learning to interact with the environment
in order to learn the language, observe research practices and understand
the role of language in knowledge production practices;
(2) Text Exploration involves experiencing analytically the relationship be-
tween text and context, how language appropriately constructs the con-
text and vice versa, by analyzing genre systems and genre sets;
(3) Text Production, Revising and Editing involves becoming a discourse
analyst by writing, revising and editing one’s text as well as other class-
mates’, focusing on how linguistic resources are used for engagement
and participation in social and discursive academic practices.
The objective in educating novice writers to think of writing as a cycle of
context and text exploration-text production-text revising-text editing is to take
these writers from the actual stage of accomplished development in their writ-
ing competencies (in Vygotskyan terms, their Zone of Real Development) to a
richer, more informed and elaborated stage (their Zone of Potential Develop-
ment) in which they are able to write with a certain amount of autonomy to
exert their authorship. This process is done with the help of the teacher and of
the participants of the disciplinary context in which these novice writers want to
participate (as a Zone of Proximal Development, where the tasks are performed
with the help of a more experienced partner) (Vygotsky, 1984/2007). The ob-
servation of the context functions as a scaffolding device to help novice writers
project the kind of text that may interact with the relevant context.
The activities in the writing cycle (context and text exploration-text produc-
tion-text revising-text editing) are arranged as an academic writing network of
three sets of questions and tasks (Motta-Roth, 2007) presented in the following
The Academic Writing Network
Activity 1: Context Exploration
To understand the uses of formal elements in language, learn-
ers must reflect upon their context, the social conditions under
which texts are produced and consumed.
This first set of activities is geared towards students’ learning of how to inter-
act in academia in order to learn the language. In the first class, I ask learners to
observe research and social practices in their environment (laboratories, research
groups, project teams, etc.) and to reflect upon the role of language in knowl-
edge production practices. Before reflecting about grammatical rules or basic
text structures, learners observe the activities and interview participants in labo-
ratories, offices, meeting rooms, etc., about their research and writing practices.
In addition, learners search for reference material (books, research articles, book
reviews, dissertations, theses, short communications, etc.) that is valued in their
Students are given a set of exploratory questions they should try to answer,
acting as ethnographers that are curious about a community and their social and
(a) Which research practices are used in your area? Which research projects
are presently being developed in your research lab/group?
(b) Which research concepts and problems are practiced in your area? Which
are the relevant research topics for the people in your lab/group?
(c) Which approach to a specific topic seems more interesting?
(d) Which preliminary readings were you advised to do?
(e) Which are the renowned journals in your area?
(f) Which genres are relevant in your context?
(g) Who publishes where? Who reads what?
(h) Do you intend to publish your text? How can you do that?
Usually, the class takes two meetings to discuss the results of their survey,