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Investigation of Tunisian Geography Teachers


The purpose of this study was to investigate some Tunisian geography teachers’/researchers’ reading of research articles (RA) in English in their field, in particular their use of metadiscourse and the factors that might affect this use. A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods addressed the purposes of this study. Two major reasons have motivated the choice of this topic: theoretical and contextual.

Theoretical Justifications Of The Study

A good number of studies have highlighted the facilitative role that metadiscourse plays in reading comprehension (e.g. Camiciottoli, 2003). Metadiscourse is defined, in the present study, as “self-reflective linguistic material referring to the evolving text and to the writer and to the imagined reader of that text (Hyland and Tse, 2004, p. 156). In defining reading comprehension, I adopted the componential interactive approach (e.g. Grabe, 2008). According to this approach, readers are active participants who actively take knowledge, connect it to previously assimilated knowledge and make it theirs by constructing their own interpretation. They develop, modify and even reflect on all or some of the ideas displayed in the text.

Research has shown that second language (SL) and foreign language (FL) reading comprehension process is highly complex (Grabe, 2008; Koda, 2007; Sheng, 2000). Indeed, a wide range of variables intervene in the process: linguistic, metalinguistic, cognitive, metacognitive, social and psychological (Koda, 2005; Pressley, 2006; Rapp et al., 2007). Researchers reported the difficulty to clearly understand the exact degree of the contribution of each variable to the final product. All aspects of the reader variables interact with one another and interact with textual and contextual factors (e.g. Dhieb-Henia, 2003).

Different models have been proposed in the literature in order to take account of these factors (the Top-down approach, the Bottom-up approach, the Interactive approach) (Grabe, 2008). Also, there has been a debate among SL reading researchers about whether SL reading is a language problem or a reading problem (Alderson, 1984, Bernhardt and Kamil, 1995; Grabe, 1991; Khaldieh, 2001). Some researchers contended that some SL linguistic knowledge threshold was necessary in order to get first language (L1) reading knowledge to engage and first language reading strategies to transfer (Cummins’ (1979) threshold level of language proficiency and Clarke’s (1978) linguistic ceiling). Others argued that reading difficulties in a SL can be caused by a ‘deficient’ reading ability in general, or can be caused by a failing transfer of L1 reading ability to an FL (the linguistic interdependence hypothesis, or alternatively called the common underlying principle (Bernhardt & Kamil, 1995).

Reading in English for Academic purposes (EAP) is still a more complex process (Flowerdew and Peacock, 2001). EAP is concerned with the English required for specific academic purpose such as studying at universities and colleges, doing research or publishing papers. Based on the literature, the present study views EAP reading as the ability to read an EAP discourse as the product of a particular disciplinary culture (e.g., Swales, 2004). Daoud (1991, p. 6), for instance, recommended that non-native readers (of EAP) should acquire “those abilities which would allow them to recognize the existence of certain types of implicit presuppositional rhetorical information, abilities that the experienced native reader possesses”. Studies in Contrastive Rhetoric (CR) have demonstrated that texts are shaped by their cultural origins even if they participate in international discourses such as those of the science disciplines (Burgess, 2002; Connor, 2004; Kaplan, 1966, 1987). Mauranen (1993) asserted that “science, or more widely, academic research, does not exist outside writing, and so we cannot represent it, or realize it, without being influenced by the variation in the writing cultures that carry it” (p. 4).

This suggests that the belief that scientific academic discourses merely transmit natural facts is debatable. Hyland (2005) argued that discourses “are never neutral but always engaged in that they realize the interests, the positions, the perspectives and the values of those who enact them” (p. 4). The RA, for instance, is a discourse written by a particular writer belonging to a particular scientific discourse community in the purpose of engaging an audience and persuading them of his/her findings (Adel, 2006; Hyland, 2005; Martin, 2004). Webber (1994) explained “scientists are writers who fight for their ideas to be accepted, recognized, and to be competitive and get their work published” (p. 257). The tendency of scientific writers to choose a particular range of rhetorical devices, might reveal their attempts to establish interpersonal relations, to interact with their audience and to express personal attitudes about the content of their texts and about their audience(s).

Metadiscourse is the linguistic system that enables writers to achieve these goals (Adel, 2006; Hyland, 2004; 2005; Martin, 2004). It represents some internal stylistic map whereby an external reality is created and conveyed. Metadiscourse also helps to perceive discourse as a social action between two parties, author(s) and audience, researchers and scientific communities; in other words, writers and readers are viewed as social agents and texts as a social enterprise in which writers do not only want their messages to be understood (an illocutionary effect), but also to be accepted (a perlocutionary effect) (Hyland, 2005). Hyland (2001, p. 550) argues “a central aspect of the writer-reader dialogue involves careful interpersonal negotiations in which writers seek to balance claims for the significance, originality, and truth of their work against the convictions of their readers”. The reader’s ability to construct the writer-intended meaning, via metadiscourse, is one major key to a successful comprehension.

This idea of interaction was grounded in Halliday’s (1985) metafunctional theory of language. Halliday (1985) argued that language is a ‘system of meanings’ and maintains that the writer needs to operate at three levels: the ideational, the textual and the interpersonal. On the ideational plane, the writer supplies information about the subject of the text and expands propositional content, on the interactive plane, he/she does not add propositional material, but helps readers organize, classify, interpret, evaluate, and react to such material.

Many researchers have attempted to investigate the contributions of metadiscourse to language teaching. ‘However, most of the literature on metadiscourse has focused on the writing skill. The immense part of these studies has compared writers’ use of metadiscourse across cultures and disciplines (Dahl, 2004; Hyland & TLe, 2004; Ifantidou, 2005; Lee, 2002; Perez & Macia, 2002; Steffensen & Cheng, 1996). Only a few studies have examined the role that this crucial part of discourse plays in reading comprehension skill.

There is still an opaque picture of the correlation between the recognition of metadiscourse markers and reading comprehension performance. Indeed, a good number of the studies conducted with native readers of English has yielded inconclusive results (e.g., Crismore and Vande Kopple, 1997; O’Keefe, 1988). While some researchers demonstrated the positive role of metadiscourse (e.g. Vande Kopple, 2002), other researchers concluded that metadiscourse did not have larger effects in their studies (e.g., Crismore, 1989).

Research on the interaction between SL reading and metadiscourse seems to be still in its infancy. The little research carried out has demonstrated the complexity of the entreprise (Camiciottoli, 2003; Daoud, 1991; Dhieb-Henia, 2003; Mustapha and Premalatha, 2001). In fact, research has shown that many factors could intervene in the reading process and hamper EAP readers from using metadiscourse, namely language proficiency, prior disciplinary knowledge and metacognitive strategies (e.g., Camiciottoli, 2003; Daoud, 1991; Dhieb-Henia, 2003). Language proficiency refers to the ability to understand technical and semi-technical language used by a particular academic discourse community. Metacognition is the awareness readers have of their own mental processes and the subsequent ability to monitor, regulate, and direct themselves to a desired end. Prior knowledge includes knowledge of the rhetorical conventions of the genre and the subject discipline. It has been also interesting to note that no study has investigated SL experts’ use of metadiscourse when reading materials in their fields.

Local Justifications Of The Study

Reading RAs is a prerequisite for doing research, updating one’s knowledge and ultimately publishing RAs. Publication is not optional or a matter of personal choice in Tunisia. The last reform of postgraduate studies has given prior importance to the number of published RAs (Labbassi, 2000). Therefore, researchers who would like to become visible in the international scientific community, have to read and write RAs in English, the international Lingua Frinca in the age of electronic communication. In fact, in Tunisia there are few specialised local journals. Labassi (2008, p. 4120 aptly put “reading and writing English have become unavoidable conditions for joining academic communities in almost all disciplines”. The Tunisian geographical society seems to be eager to integrate into the international geographic community. Indeed, the Tunisian Geographers Association, in collaboration with the International Geographical Union (IGU), managed to organise the 31st International Geographical Congress (IGC) in the country in 2008. Tunisia was the first Arab and African country to host the biggest appointment for geographers all over the world. Adding to that, there is a clear political intention to enhance English status in Tunisia. English is gaining ground over French, which has been until recently the principal language of modernity, as well as the dominant economic language. (Champagne, 2007; Labassi, 2009a, b; Tossa, 1995). The Tunisian government is aiming at creating an English-speaking workforce to enhance the prospects for successful integration into the global economy. Under the New Maitrise reform of 1998, English was introduced in the curriculum of all undergraduate students from all disciplines (Labassi, 2009 a). What is ironical, however, is that “potential researchers and professionals who have to read a literature, which is up to 90% in some disciplines in English, are not offered courses in English” (Labassi, 2009 a, p. 249).

However, while the literature abounds with arguments for and against the role that metadiscourse plays in reading comprehension, little research has been conducted to assess the reading practices of the Tunisian geography society.Therefore, the present research aims to fill in this gap and gain more insight into the reading practices of some Tunisian university teachers/researchers of geography; in particular it aims to assess the extent they use metadiscourse to facilitate their comprehension of RAs in English in their field and to find out about the variables that may hinder this use.

Research Objectives

The main aims of the present research are three-fold: (1) to determine to what extent Tunisian geography faculty researchers use metadiscourse markers when reading research articles in English in their fields, (2) to assess whether this use facilitates their comprehension of research articles in English in their fields, (3) to find to what extent this use is related to the participants’ proficiency in English, to text familiarity (defined in the present study in terms of both content and formal knowledge) and to their use of metacognitive reading strategies.

Research Questions

The present study addresses the following questions:

1. To what extent do Tunisian geography faculty researchers use metadiscourse markers when reading research articles in English in their fields?

2. To what extent does this use relate to their comprehension of research articles in English in their fields?

3. To what extent do their proficiency in English, discipline-related knowledge (content and genre) and metacognitive reading strategies contribute to their use of metadiscourse markers and comprehension of research articles in English in their fields?

Significance Of The Study

This study explored the use of metadiscourse by some Tunisian geography faculty when reading research articles in English in their disciplines. Theoretically, findings from the

study can help clarify the role metadiscourse plays in SL reading comprehension. The research into metadiscourse markers is useful in itself. It helps us have an insight into how writers interact with their readers to establish a reader-friendly atmosphere and to persuade them of their findings. Such information can add to our understanding of factors contributing to language pedagogy, in particular to the teaching of reading comprehension skill.

At the practical level, information from this study can be useful for making decisions about organizing training sessions to university teachers/researchers to introduce them to the rhetorical conventions of academic genres, namely the research article and to the rhetorical importance of metadiscourse. They should be made aware of the facilitative role of metadiscourse markers when reading academic materials in English. Metadiscourse markers should be taught explicitly in EAP reading comprehension classes as a means to enhance the researchers’ reading comprehension ability.

Thesis Organisation

This thesis consists of six chapters. The first chapter describes the background of the research and the context in which the research was conducted. The second chapter comprises two sections: the first is a review of research into the nature of foreign language reading. The second section provides a descriptive account of what metadiscourse is, then explores the studies conducted on the effects of metadiscourse, reviews a few taxonomies on metadiscourse and ends with a description of the taxonomy to be adopted in the present study. Research questions are presented after the discussions of these reviews. Chapter three concerns the methodological decisions taken for this research. It describes how the participants were selected, how the material and instruments were piloted, and which materials and instruments were finally used. It provides as well an account of how the main study was conducted and how the data were analysed. Chapter four reports the findings of the present study. Chapter five discusses the key findings from this study and highlights their implications for the area of EAP. The contributions and limitations of this research and suggestions for future research are presented in chapter six.

Literature Review

The previous chapter introduced the context for this research. This chapter clarifies the two central variables underlying the present study, namely EAP reading comprehension and metadiscourse use. It can be divided into three parts. In the first part, I will focus on the reading variable. Since foreign language reading modeling has been strongly influenced by first language reading theories, I will first discuss four different approaches to reading in a first language, I will then explain how they have been adopted in and adapted for a foreign language reading context. Next, I will elaborate on theoretical concepts particular to reading in English for academic purposes (being the focus of the present study) and I will draw attention to studies that investigated the interaction between reading in English for Academic purposes and language proficiency, background knowledge and reading strategies. This part aims at underscoring the complexity of the EAP reading process and the need to account for the many factors intervening in it. In the second part, I will introduce the second variable of the present study, metadiscouse. I will first try to define the concept and then provide an overview of its main assumptions and classifications to highlight the confusion surrounding the term and emphasize its benefits to EAP readers, and last I will detail Hyland’s (2005) taxonomy, the theoretical framework within which the present study is conducted. In the last part I will review some empirical studies that have investigated the interaction between metadiscourse and EAP reading. This part will also draw attention to the scarcity of research in this area.

Reading Comprehension

Understanding the processes involved in reading comprehension is a prerequisite to select reliable and valid research instruments. Alderson (2000) stated “if we are not able to define what we mean by the ‘ability to read’, it will be difficult to devise means of assessing such abilities” (p. 49). Likewise, Hogan (2004, p. 1) maintained

The real question we are asking when we look at assessing reading is: What distinguishes a good reader from a poor reader? Implicit in this question is an even more fundamental question: What are we doing when we read?” Assessment is an attempt to answer the first question, but if we cannot at least try to answer the second, we do not know what we are assessing, and any measure or description of reading proficiency we suggest is meaningless.

Thus, in what follows I will first attempt to define the construct of reading comprehension, and then present a number of models that provide a framework for organizing and explaining the nature of reading comprehension. I will give due prominence, however, to the issues specific to reading in EAP dwelling upon the complex cognitive processes that EAP readers go through when they read. I will try to show how certain variables such as linguistic proficiency, background knowledge and reading strategies interact with reading comprehension process.

Definition Of The Construct Of Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension has often been a subject of controversy among teachers and scholars. Kintsch (1998, p. 2) stated “the terms understanding and comprehension are not scientific terms but are commonsense expressions. As with other such expressions, their meaning is fuzzy and imprecise”. In defining the construct of reading comprehension, I adopted Kintsch’s (1998) theory of human text comprehension, as it is a “widely-recognized” theory of text comprehension and as it has “consistently defined the research agenda for the field of text comprehension” (Grabe, 2008, p. 3).

The concepts of ‘Comprehension’ and ‘Understanding’ are used interchangeably in the present study as “a matter of linguistic variation” following Kintsch. ‘Comprehension’ is to be understood in relation to ‘perception’ and ‘problem solving’. Both ‘perception’ and ‘understanding’ involve unconscious and automatic processes. They “can each be described as a process of constraint satisfaction” (p. 3). They differ, however, in that ‘understanding’ should result in an action, be it “an overt action in the environment or a mental event” (p. 3). Kintsch (1998, p. 2) stated “understand is used when the relationship between some object and its context is at issue or when action is required”. As for the ‘problem solving’ process, it is more complex and involves more demand on cognitive resources. It is an action readers resort to when they fail to understand something. Kintsch (1998) maintained “perception and understanding are the processes people normally use; when an impasse develops in perception or understanding, they resort to problem solving as a repair process” (p. 3).

Reading is the process in which the reader sequentially deals with letters, words and sentences. It was defined by Sheng (2000, p. 2) as “the process of recognition, interpretation, and perception of written or printed material”. Comprehension, on the other hand, involves the ability of the reader to grasp and interpret the meaning of written material, and to reason about cognitive processes that lead to understanding. In other words, it not only covers cognitive understanding of the materials at both surface and deep structure levels, but also the reader’s reactions to the content. Sheng (2000, p. 2) maintained “it is a more complex psychological process and includes in addition to linguistic factors (phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic elements), cognitive and emotional factors”. In sum, the process of reading deals with language forms while the process of comprehension, the end product, deals with language content.

The term ‘reading comprehension’ can, in some respects, be considered a complex construct, as highlighted by numerous reading researchers (Carrell, 1988; Grabe, 1991; Kintsch, 1998; de Beaugrande, 1981). According to Brumfit (1980), reading comprehension is a complex activity covering “a combination of perceptual, linguistic and cognitive abilities” (p. 3). It is a constructive thinking process which “involves application, analysis, evaluation and imagination” (Taylor, 1984, p.391). Grabe (2008) attributed the complexity of the reading comprehension process to the multiple purposes of reading and the complex cognitive processes involved. In the present study, reading is viewed as a process of communication between a writer and a reader and this communication will be incomplete unless it is affected by the reader’s evaluation and appreciation. In fact, both the reader and the writer contribute to the reading process.

Despite the uniqueness of second language reading processes (Geva and Wang, 2001; Koda, 2007), second language reading has drawn extensively on first language reading research. Different models have been adopted and adapted based on a variety of L1 reading theories. Below is a review of these theories.

Reading Theories In A First Language

A reading model provides an imagined representation of the reading process. It provides ways to represent a theory and explain what reading involves and how reading works based on available evidence. Goldman, et al., (2007) explained “the term model refers specifically to a representation of the psychological processes that comprise a component or set of components involved in human text comprehension” (p. 27). According to Samuels (1994), a good theoretical model has three characteristics: it summarizes a considerable amount of information discovered in the past; it helps explain and make more understandable what is happening in the present, and it allows one to make predictions about the future (p. 816). Researchers, however, are somehow cautious about the comprehensibility of the model because of its inability to account for all the available evidence that exists. Dhieb-Henia (2002) warned that the models are not “always backed up by sufficient empirical evidence to validate (them)” (p. 18). In the same fashion, Grabe (2008) argued “to assert that a model must be an accurate synthesis, (…) is problematic”. Thus, these researchers recommend that we consider these models as a possible representation of the reading process, rather than absolute models. They nonetheless stress the key role that these models play in “synthesizing information and establishing central claims” (Grabe, 2008, p. 84).

Reviewing the literature, four major approaches have been proposed in an attempt to understand the reading process. The major distinction between the approaches is the emphasis given to text-based variables such as vocabulary, syntax, and grammatical structure and reader-based variables such as the reader’s background knowledge, cognitive development, strategy use, interest, and purpose (Lally, 1998). The following sections review these approaches and discuss them with reference to the specific context of the present study.

The Bottom-Up Approach

The concept of decoding is central to what is usually called the bottom-up

approach to reading. The term ‘bottom-up’ originated in perception psychology, where it is used to signify the processing of external stimuli (Mulder, 1996). In reading

research, the term is not always used in a consistent manner and has drifted away from the original meaning it had in perception psychology. Nevertheless, the term always focuses on what are called lower order processes, i.e. decoding ability and word recognition ability (Mulder, 1996). These abilities are believed to form the key to

proficient reading. In other words, the reader perceives every letter, organizes the perceived letters into words, and then organizes the words into phrases, clauses and sentences. Meaning, at any level, (e.g. word or phrase), is accessed only once processing at previous (e.g. lower) levels has been completed (Carrell, 1988). The argument is that bottom-up processing requires a literal or fundamental understanding of the language. Carrell (1993, p. 2) maintained

Reading (is) viewed primarily as a decoding process of reconstructing the author’s intended meaning via recognizing the printed letters and words, and building up a meaning for a text from the smallest textual units at the bottom (letters and words) to larger and larger units at the top (phrases, clauses, intersentential linkages.

Advocates of this theory argue that successful reading comprehension of a text relies heavily on an efficient application of bottom-up processes. The best known representative of this type of approach is Gough’s (1972) model. The model is summarised by Urquhart and Weir as follows:

T]he reader begins with letters, which are recognized by a SCANNER. The information thus gained is passed to a DECODER, which converts the string of letters into a string of systematic phonemes. This string is then passed to a LIBRARIAN, where with the help of the LEXICON, it is recognized as a word. The reader then fixates on the next word, and

proceeds in the same way until all the words in a sentence have been processed, at which point they proceed to a component called MERLIN, in which syntactic and semantic rules operate to assign a meaning to the sentence. … The final stage is that of the Vocal System, where the reader utters orally what has first been accessed through print. (Urquhart &Weir, 1998: 40)

The decoding approach, however, has been viewed by many as inadequate. According to Eskey (1973), the approach underestimates the contribution of the reader. The reader, according to this approach, does not read the text through a self-determined, predefined perspective or goal, but rather lets the text itself (and therefore its author) determine the reading process (Urquhart & Weir, 1998). The approach fails to recognize that readers utilize their expectations about the text based on their knowledge of language and how it works. Similarly, Carrell (1984) stated that this view assumes a rather passive view of reading. Grabe (2008) stated “we know that such an extreme view of reading is not accurate, and no current model of reading depicts reading as a pure bottom-up process” (p. 89). Criticism of the bottom-up theory has given impetus to the Top- down theory.

The Top-Down Approach

Whereas the bottom-up approach gives incoming information a central place in the reading process, the top-down approach focuses on the knowledge a reader already possesses. It stresses what are called higher order cognitive processes. The top-down theory posits a non-linear view of the reading process, i.e. from higher levels of processing, and proceeds to use the lower levels selectively. It assumes that readers interrogate the text rather than process it completely. They get meaning by comparing their expectations to a sample of information from the text. The proponents of this theory argue that reader’s experience and background knowledge is essential for understanding a text.

Grabe (2008) explained “top-down models assume that the reader actively controls the comprehension process, directed by reader goals, expectations, and strategic processing” (p. 89). Carrell (1993, p. 4) stated

In the top-down view of second language reading, not only is the reader an active participant in the reading process, but everything in the reader’s prior experience or background knowledge plays a significant role in the process. In this view, not only is the reader’s prior linguistic knowledge (“linguistic” schemata) and level of proficiency in the second language important, but the reader’s prior background knowledge of the content area of the text (“content” schemata) as well as of the rhetorical structure of the text (“formal” schemata) are also important.

According to this view, the reader’s background knowledge may compensate for certain syntactic and lexical deficiencies. Readers start with their background knowledge (whole text) and make predictions about the text, and then verify their predictions by using text data (words) in the text (Urquhart & Cyril, 1998). Clarke and Silberstein (1977, p.136-137) stated that “more information is contributed by the reader than by the print on the page, that is, readers understand what they read because they are able to take the stimulus beyond its graphic representation”. The most frequently cited representative of this approach is Goodman’s (1976) top-down model. He defined reading as a process of verifying hypotheses — hypotheses that are based on knowledge which the reader possesses. His model, also called the guessing game theory, is summarised by Bossers as follows:

According to Goodman, the reading process consisted of sampling and selecting cues, on the basis of which an interpretation is predicted or guessed, which is subsequently tested against the semantic context, and then confirmed or rejected as the reader processes further language, and so on. These stages of the process were called ‘features of the reading process’ or ‘effective strategies’ or ‘effective reading behaviour’ alternatively. (Bossers,1992:10).

A very influential theory that is usually discussed in relation to the top-down

perspective is that of schema theory. The prior knowledge gained through experiences, stored in one’s mind and activated when readers encounter new information is referred to in the literature as schemata (Carrell, 1980; Widdowson, 1983).

Schema Theory

Schema theory, which comes from cognitive psychology, owes much to the work of Bartlett (Rumelhart, 1981) and Piaget (Orasanu and Penny, 1986). Schemata, the plural form of schema, also called ‘building blocks of cognition’ (Rumelhart, 1981, p. 3), refer to “abstract knowledge structure (s) stored in memory” (Garner, 1987, p. 4). They are defined as the mental framework that helps the learner organize knowledge, direct perception and attention, and guide recall (Bruming, 1995), as cognitive constructs which allow for the organization of information in long-term memory (Widdowson,1983) and as the underlying connections that allow new experience and information to be aligned with previous knowledge ( McCarthy ,1991).

Within the framework of schema theory, reading comprehension is no longer a linear, text-driven process, but is the process of the interpretation of new information, and the assimilation and accommodation of this information into memory structures or schemata (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Schemata are not static entities, however, but are continually constructed and reconstructed through the processes of assimilation and accommodation. In other words, a comprehension of a text involves activation of relevant schemata, which are initiated as a result of ‘bottom-up observation’, and proceeds through a constant process of testing the activated schemata, evaluating their suitability, and refining or discarding them (Rumelhart, (1984, pp. 3, 6). Rumelhart (1981, p. 4) stated “according to schema theories, all knowledge is packed into units … (which) are the schemata. Embedded in these packets of knowledge, in addition to the knowledge itself, is information about how this

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