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The ability to argue is integral to academic competency and facilitates participation in local and international discourse communities. Yet, undergraduate students do not always receive explicit instruction on how to use and incorporate arguments in their academic texts. More often, through their engagement with genres, students implicitly learn the conventions of academic argument as they acquire skills of academic literacy. In fact, the acquisition of academic literacy has special significance in modern teaching institutions where increasing numbers of students from various linguistic, cultural and educational backgrounds bring to their learning contexts diverse experiences of genres and discourse communities of writing. In a qualitative case study investigation of writing in a naturally occurring academic context, argumentation and linguistic theories were integrated in a systemic functional linguistic model of text structure to analyse and compare the arguments in the academic texts constructed by an Australian native and a Japanese non-native speaker of English. The analysis was supplemented by semi-structured, text-based interviews with the two students while they were writing their essays to determine the social and cognitive processes that drove their construction of arguments and to validate the identification, interpretation and reconstruction of the arguments in their written discourse. Drawing on the findings, the socio-cognitive complexity of argument construction in disciplinary contexts and the significance of schemata and knowledge structures in text production are discussed.


The ability to argue is integral to academic competency and facilitates participation in local and international discourse communities. Yet, undergraduate students do not always receive explicit instruction on how to use and incorporate arguments in their academic texts. More often, through their engagement with genres, students implicitly learn the conventions of academic argument as they acquire skills of academic literacy. In fact, the acquisition of academic literacy has special significance in modern teaching institutions, as increasing numbers of students from various linguistic, cultural and educational backgrounds bring to their learning contexts diverse experiences of genres and discourse communities of writing. In much of the research of second language writing, though, emphasis on discerning cross-cultural differences in the types of logical patterns employed in written texts has too often resulted in a tendency to stereotype the rhetorical patterns of particular cultural groups while ignoring the varieties of rhetorical structures that exist within particular groups of writers (Kubota 1997). Today, contrastive rhetoric and second language writing researchers are extending beyond purely linguistic frameworks to accommodate not only linguistic variables of text but also cognitive and socio-cultural variables of writing. Consequently, approaches to discourse analysis are becoming more entrenched in pragmatics as texts are interpreted not in isolation but in terms of their situational contexts and purposes. Such approaches have led to discrepancies among researchers in definitions concerned with the nature, forms and functions of arguments in written texts, with empirical descriptions emphasising the cultural and contextual specificity of argument practices and de-emphasising normative standards (Siegel 1999). Obviously, accommodating diversity in discursive practices is necessary in both research and pedagogical designs that seek to further understanding of acceptable skills and strategies of academic argument in contemporary educational settings.1

In this chapter, argumentation, linguistic and socio-cognitive theories of writing are incorporated into a model of academic argument and the similarities and differences in the academic arguments of two first and second language writers of English are then discussed. In examining the influence of socio-cognitive interactions on text macrostructures, the significance of schemata and knowledge structures on text production emerges to support the thesis that contextually grounded cultural and content familiarity plays an important role in shaping and interpreting written discourse (Stapleton 2001; Malcolm and Sharifian 2005).



In the project discussed in this chapter, the use of arguments in the essays written as part of the normal course requirements by a Japanese native speaker and an Australian English native speaker enrolled in an Australian tertiary undergraduate humanities program were investigated. Mika, a Japanese student, and Sabrina, an Australian student, were both enrolled in a first year media studies subject and writing on the same coursework essay topic. Semi-structured, text-based interviews with the two students while they were writing their essays helped determine the social and cognitive processes that drove argument construction and validate the identification, interpretation and reconstruction of the arguments in their written discourse. Interviews were conducted with the students on a weekly basis from the time of commencement to completion of their coursework essays. In addition, interviews conducted at the end of the semester with the tutor of the students helped to further inform the analysis by accommodating the tutor’s perspectives on the subject and writing task as well as his perceptions of the students’ academic writing. Using triangulation of data, various written documents (including course outlines and assessment requirements, notes and drafts associated with the essay task, tutor’s written feedback and formal assessments of the essays) were also used to support the analysis. In effect, the study is a qualitative case study investigation of writing in naturally occurring academic contexts. In support of Candlin (1998), therefore, the findings demonstrate how the application of research methodology that blends linguistic description of text with ethnographic interpretations of participants and processes in sociologically grounded accounts of writing practices is a valid and useful approach for providing sound explanations of textual form.


In modern composition research, notions of argument are predominantly grounded in rhetorical theories that promote the persuasive character and communicative purposes of language. Toulmin’s (1958) model of informal reasoning and the ‘new rhetoric’ of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) and Perelman (1982) have become particularly influential in the teaching and evaluation of argumentative writing in composition courses for native English speakers at U.S. colleges and universities, which has seen argumentation become almost synonymous with persuasion in contemporary writing pedagogy and research. Rhetorical theory has also significantly influenced developments in applied linguistic research. A revival of persuasion in discourse classification systems (Kinneavy 1971) and the emergence of contrastive rhetorical research in the 1960s (Kaplan 1966) stimulated research of persuasive discourse and cross-cultural research of argumentative and persuasive writing. Consequently, a variety of text analysis systems developed by linguists has been applied in many contemporary argument studies (Halliday and Hasan 1976; Aston 1977; Martin 1985; Lautamatti 1987; Tirkkonen-Condit 1984; Crismore et al. 1993; Connor 1996).

Distinctions between argument and persuasion are now, however, challenging the over reliance on rhetorical approaches to the analysis of argument in extended discourse and promoting enquiry into the relationships between logic, rhetoric and dialectic and their influence on the interpretations of argument structures and functions (Rescher 1998). Moving beyond existing analytic frameworks, which depict argumentation as merely persuasion, and designing frameworks that accommodate diversity in argumentative practices appears essential for generating meaningful descriptions of authentic arguments in academic contexts.

In the present study, therefore, a model of argument was derived from key elements of argumentation theory and a systemic functional linguistic framework of text argument structure. The model of argument, depicted in Figure 1, draws principally on Coffin’s (2004) systemic functional linguistic frameworks of text argument structures previously identified in students’ academic writing, Meiland’s (1989) views on argument as inquiry, and Blair’s (2004) categorisation of the uses of argument. Four primary functions of academic argument – inquiry, justification, persuasion and explanation – are specified in the argument model, which was used to investigate the organisation and properties of argument in the students’ written academic texts. The functions of academic argument specified in the model are defined, below (more information about the classification system of argument may be found in Gilbert 2005):

  • Persuasion is the use of arguments to make a reader believe a certain position and so adopt some attitude or decision to do something;
  • Justification is the use of arguments to show grounds for knowledge claims, especially when they are questionable or challengeable (without necessarily seeking from the audience a change of attitude or move to action);
  • Inquiry is the use of arguments to determine the merits of arguments identified as being relevant to a hypothesis or position on an issue (without necessarily establishing and adhering to any particular claim) ; and
  • Explanation is the use of arguments to make clear why a state of affairs or events exists or happens by providing reasons based on the interpretation of facts.

Furthermore, the text macrostructures outlined in Figure 1 accommodate Toulmin’s (1958) model of argument structure. Toulmin’s model constitutes a Claim-Data (aka conclusion-premise) complex, which, importantly, includes a Warrant that provides the grounds for supporting the step from premise to conclusion. The concept of Toulmin’s warrant becomes particularly relevant to an interpretation of text macrostructure in students’ essays. According to Toulmin (1958: 91), the warrant serves:

Figure 1 A schema of four kinds of argumentation in students’ academic writing Adapted from Coffin 2004:236.

... [not] to strengthen the ground on which our argument is constructed, but is rather to show that, taking these data (premises) as a starting point, the step to the original claim or conclusion is an appropriate and legitimate one. At this point, therefore, what is needed are general, hypothetical statements, which can act as bridges, and authorize the sort of step to which our particular argument commits us.

In fact, the Premise and Conclusion of the principal argument in students’ academic discourse may often be linked by what is better described as a Knowledge Base, in lieu of the Warrant, which confers epistemological orientation on a student’s interpretation of disciplinary knowledge (to be discussed in more detail in the Discussion section). Indeed, the concept of Warrant as Knowledge Base emerges in the analysis of the principal arguments generated in the texts by the two students that are discussed in this paper. Consequently, the relationship between Data, Claim, Warrant and Knowledge Base is depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2 Based on Toulmin’s (1958) model of argument


As mentioned previously, both students participating in the study were enrolled in an Australian tertiary undergraduate humanities program. Japanese students comprise a small but significant number of students in the faculty where the research was conducted. At the time of research, Mika (a pseudonym) was a 22 year-old Japanese university student undertaking a one-year study exchange program in Australia. Mika was studying first-year subjects in English writing, media, and international relations. On returning to Japan, she was intending to study for another year to complete her degree in international relations and was expecting to transfer credit to her home degree for the courses she was undertaking at the Australian institution. Sabrina (also a pseudonym) was an 18 year-old Australian student who had completed her final year of Australian secondary school in the year preceding her participation in the study. She was taking first-year subjects in sociology, psychology and media. Both Mika and Sabrina were working on the same coursework essay topic in their first year media studies subject. Sabrina achieved a Distinction grade for her essay and Mika, a Credit grade.

The essay topic was outlined in their course guide, as follows:

Only a critical political economy approach can adequately explain how the media work today.

Discuss this statement with references to two of the following: news and current affairs; television; radio; newspapers; or magazines.

According to the tutor (who was also the course unit coordinator), the concept of a political critical economy approach towards analysing the media required juxtaposition with various other approaches that accommodated perspectives on culture, audience, semiotics and American imperialism. The students grappled with the concept of a critical political economy approach – analysing the media with an emphasis on media distribution and power – and endeavoured to understand the concept by seeking culturally situated examples of media events; thus, in elaborating and supporting their arguments, Sabrina drew on her knowledge of Australian culture and politics while Mika located examples in Japanese media sources. The implications of background knowledge for argument construction will become evident in the Discussion section.


For the purposes of this chapter, the key aims of the investigation were to discern the:

  1. Types of argument generated by the students in their academic texts and the extent to which arguments contributed to the structure and function of their texts;
  2. Factors that influenced the students’ decisions during the writing process to impact on text organisation and argument structures; and
  3. Similarities and/or differences between the academic arguments used by the non-native speaker of English, Mika, and the native speaker of English, Sabrina.



The argument macrostructures of the students’ essays were mapped (based on Johnson and Blair 1994) and are represented diagrammatically in Figures 3 and 4. It is not within the scope of this chapter to elaborate at length on the specific arguments generated by the students in their texts. Instead, the key arguments are summarised in Figures 3 and 4 (the Premise and Conclusion of the principal arguments are stated and the sub-arguments in the Knowledge Bases are thematised) and essential elements of the arguments generated in the students’ texts are discussed in the subsequent sections of this chapter.

Figure 3 depicts the argument macrostructure of Mika’s essay. Referring to the diagram, the principal argument is shown on the left of the page. The principal argument consists of a Premise, P(C), in support of the central claim, or Conclusion, C. The argument is supported by two pieces of Evidence, E, which in Figure 3, are incorporated into the line pointing downwards from the Premise to the Conclusion (the arrow indicates that the Premise and Evidence are in direct support of the claim). Mika’s central claim, or Conclusion, is that, compared with a cultural studies (CS) approach, a critical political economy (CPE) approach is more useful for explaining how the media work today. Her reason for making the claim is given in the Premise that a CPE approach allows for greater scope than a CS approach in analysis of the media. What is interesting to note is that Mika does not build up or extensively elaborate on this principal argument. Instead, the majority of her essay is spent on the justification of a secondary, or subsidiary, claim to her main argument, referred to in the diagram as the Warrant, or Knowledge Base. The subsidiary claim asserts that a CPE approach is a very successful, or useful, way to explain how the media work today. The relationship between the Knowledge Base and Toulmin’s (1958) notion of Warrant will be specified, shortly. There are three sub-arguments, each referred to as a Justification, lending support to the subsidiary claim. Consequently, it is evident that for the major part of her essay, Mika elaborates an argument that consists of, primarily, a justificatory function.

Figure 3 Diagram of the argument macrostructure in Mika’s essay

Figure 4 Diagram of the argument macrostructure in Sabrina’s essay

Figure 4 depicts the argument macrostructure of Sabrina’s essay. As in Figure 3, the principal argument is shown on the left of the page. Sabrina’s central claim, or Conclusion, is that a CPE approach is probably the best approach to studying and understanding how the media works in Australia. Her reason for making the claim is given in the Premise that a CPE approach combines political, social and economic approaches in studying media. Like Mika, Sabrina does not build up or extensively elaborate on her principal argument. Instead, most of Sabrina’s essay comprises Description and Evidence that support a statement in the introductory section of her essay which states that a CPE approach can explain how media works in relation to television and advertising within Australia. The series of statements of Description with supporting Evidence may, therefore, be distinguished from the sub-arguments, or justifications, employed by Mika. In fact, Sabrina’s essay contains, on the whole, less argument than Mika’s essay.

In summary, according to the diagrams representing the macrostructures of Mika and Sabrina’s essays, each essay consists of a principal argument that can be classified in terms of the argument model depicted in Figure 1 as Justification. The principal argument in each essay has only a minimal degree of elaboration, though, suggesting that the principal arguments are relatively weak. In other words, in each case, the principal argument is not extended to include supporting sub-arguments or oppositional arguments that would, ideally, strengthen the argument’s conclusion. Instead, most of the text in each essay is occupied by discourse that does not strengthen the principal argument. In the case of Mika, this discourse is designed to justify a subsidiary claim, and is referred to as Justification. In the case of Sabrina, this discourse is designed to explain a statement of fact (although it is not consistent with what we would consider to be a well-formed Explanation in the proposed argument model, albeit beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss this issue in detail and I shall refer to it as Explanation for the purposes of the discussion herein).

Given the limited complexity of principal argument structure in both students’ essays, one may be led to ask if the essays of the first year students do, indeed, have a primary function of argument. It is easier to discern an over-arching function of argument in Mika’s text than in Sabrina’s, given the elaboration of arguments in what can be referred to as the subsidiary part of her essay. Yet, on examination, a primary function of argument can also be discerned in Sabrina’s essay; the use of Description in her text represents, in fact, an attempt at Explanation, for she is endeavoring to substantiate the Knowledge Base central to her principal argument. The broad definitions of argument that have been proposed by some theorists support the notion that both texts emphatically hold a primary function of argument:

argumentative discourse refers both to discourse designed to explain (i.e. to make clear or tell why a particular state of affairs or occurrence exists or happens) and discourse designed to justify (i.e. to give grounds, evidence or reasons of any sort in order to convince or persuade others as to the truth of a claim or assertion). (Thomas 1986; cited in Crammond 1997: 5)

Furthermore, in support of the case that each text serves a primary function of argument is the fact that the text macrostructures support Toulmin’s (1958) model of argument structure. As outlined earlier, Toulmin’s model constitutes a Claim-Data (aka conclusion-premise) complex which, importantly, includes a Warrant that provides the grounds for supporting the step from premise to conclusion. In Figures 3 and 4, the Premise and Conclusion of the principal argument are linked by the Knowledge Base constituted by the justificatory discourse in Mika’s essay and by the descriptive-explanatory discourse in Sabrina’s essay. A reconceptualisation of Toulmin’s Warrant, the Knowledge Base may be defined as the discourse that legitimises a learner’s disciplinary interpretations and/or stance and makes evident to the readers their epistemological interpretation of a discipline. Mika and Sabrina, in grappling with the need to legitimise their opinions with disciplinary knowledge, expend considerable effort in making explicit the grounds for their opinions or assertions; hence, the Knowledge Base occupies a substantial portion of their texts.

Yet, according to Toulmin (1958), the warrant is often implicit, or deleted, in everyday or naturally occurring arguments, a fact that is supported by previous research (Crammond 1998). Therefore, it appears necessary to further reconceptualise Toulmin’s notion of warrant by suggesting that, for novice writers learning disciplinary conventions of shaping discourse and knowledge, the Warrant assumes an important function in legitimising a writer’s disciplinary interpretations and/or stance and so is unlikely to be deleted but, rather, foregrounded. Thus, in referring to the portion of a text as the Knowledge Base, it is distinguished from Toulmin’s notion of Warrant. The different employment of terminology is significant because the Knowledge Base that students bring to their writing task, although representing their efforts to legitimise their claims, may not be the appropriate authority, as students are still learning disciplinary content and conventions. Making a distinction between the legitimacy of authority in Toulmin’s concept of warrant and the legitimacy of authority in the Knowledge Base of students’ learning disciplinary conventions is, therefore, also pertinent.


It became evident in the interviews with the two students that the socio-cognitive complexity of constructing arguments was driving the text macrostructures, outlined above. Indeed, the argument structures depicted in Figures 3 and 4 were not discerned from a text analysis alone but through discussions with the students and their tutor, which touched on issues of task conceptualisation. Both students shared common socio-cognitive experiences; they both set goals to make their tasks feasible, they both planned and monitored their tasks in the contexts of their other learning (and, sometimes, social) commitments, they both engaged with peers to negotiate interpretations of the topic, and so forth. While these activities, to some extent, exerted an influence on their text structures, it was their perception of their tasks and their cognitive strategies of task composing that exerted significant influences on their text organisation and structures, as supported by the interview data.

Mika struggled with understanding the concept of CPE:

... tutor said that we have to understand this reading in order to understand the topic... so I try to understand this reading, but it’s too difficult for me. Some technical term, I don’t understand well, maybe it’s because of my lack of understanding of the basic concept of media studies... a little feature of this approach, I can understand, but not so exactly as I can write the essay for this. (J1-1-210404)

Initially, she focused on defining the term, CPE, using dictionaries and reference texts. This strategy wasn’t working, though. She realised that finding useful examples from television or media was integral to the task:

And, [the tutor] said for this essay, the good example will be the important thing. (J1-1-210404)

Consequently, Mika decided to focus on finding examples of media, hoping they might assist her in making sense of the concept. This was also problematic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Mika was aware that she lacked an appropriate level of content familiarity:

I found it’s difficult because this focus on Australian scandal about Australian politicians or something. And, it’s so unfamiliar and it’s hard to understand because I didn’t know the case. So, here, I realize that maybe it’s hard to use Australian media because some incident or scandal is very familiar to Australian people but I’m not aware of it. So, it’s hard to discuss in essay of that scandal, that news. (J1-4-130504)

Secondly, Mika was not familiar with the subtle cultural nuances of Australian media contexts:

... in lecture, I can learn some feature or characteristic of Australian media [but] I know only very superficial fact, like Murdoch owns this company. And, I’m not understanding how content related to that ownership or how the political line which newspaper would have, which kind of political line, I don’t know that. (J1-4-260504)

Mika realised that using examples from the Japanese media might be a useful strategy to overcome her lack of content and cultural familiarity with the Australian media:

... because I have basic knowledge about Japanese newspaper company, TV company, so it’s easier to find examples. If I see website of one Japanese TV company, I already know which company is connected to which newspaper. So, it’s much easier to use Japanese media... how to explain by political economy approach, it’s easier for me to use this example. (J1-5-260504)

When Mika attempted to source news items from the Japanese media, however, the task proved to be problematic:

... and I want to discuss Japanese media but there is not enough material about Japanese media, and for TV programmes, it’s almost impossible to get the transcript or primary source in Australia for Japanese programme. (J1-4-130504)

Consequently, Mika found it difficult to formulate a clear concept of CPE and, without recourse to a range of embedded cultural experiences and examples, was limited to defining CPE from theoretical perspectives in recommended reading materials prior to locating relevant examples. Her sensitivity to the need to link theory and practice was, however, evident:

... it is very difficult to connect the theory of political economy to one example. But, this is, maybe, the important thing that we have to do in this essay, the demonstration of news. (J1-4-130504)

Like Mika, Sabrina also struggled to understand the concept of CPE:

It’s just a way of looking at the media, yeah, I hated it! It’s to do with culture. Like, I just don’t understand it. And, I’m still not really one hundred percent. (A1-1-110504)

Yet, unlike Mika, Sabrina was able to draw on numerous examples from the Australian media to develop her understanding of the CPE concept:

After looking at those books, though, I started to think – because I remember in one of my tutes the teacher said he wanted us to use real-life examples – so, I decided, I just looked on the internet, really. Because the political economy relates to the culture and who owns it, and so I started looking up news scandals and things like that. And, I just found a site to that Kerry Packer and, oh, about the radio incident with advertising, just Allen Jones and how he... (A1-2-250504)

In fact, in contrast to Mika, who focused on only a couple of media examples, Sabrina saw incorporating numerous examples from the Australian media into her essay as an important strategy for constructing her discourse:

I wanted to use a number of examples but I dunno (don’t know) that I really did that many, at all. But, that was my initial thought, that I should use as many examples as I possibly can. (A1-2-250504)

Sabrina was also more readily able to apply her background knowledge as well as her experience of the Australian context to help her make sense of the CPE concept:

But, I think this is from previous knowledge about this topic that it is a really good way to look how the media works because it combines a lot of the other ways. (A1-1-110504)

Interestingly, Sabrina’s membership of the Australian cultural group provided her with an advantage in negotiating meanings of concepts relevant to the essay topic, as she was able to seek clarification on issues with her kinfolk:

... I remember it was in the lecture... so I asked my mum if she knew about it. She told me about how, was it Rupert Murdoch? No, Kerry Packer, sorry, cut one of his shows, Naughtiest Home Videos, mid-episode because he just thought it would be too rude, he wasn’t happy with it. And he rang them up and just said, ‘cut it’, in the middle of an episode, and it was never viewed again. That was just an example of how his power can influence what we see. (A1-2-250504)

It is, therefore, evident that the students’ socio-cognitive strategies reflected their relative degrees of cultural and content familiarity with the essay writing task, which significantly influenced the type of arguments they generated in their texts.


The two students in the study perceived their academic writing tasks to demand that they employ argument in their texts, as shown by the text macrostructures that were generated. The text macrostructures accommodate Toulmin’s (1958) model of argument. Yet, when analysing the arguments of the novice academic writers, the notion of Warrant put forth by Toulmin seems to be better replaced with the concept of Knowledge Base. The Knowledge Base represents the discourse that legitimises a learner’s epistemological interpretation of a discipline and, is, therefore, a subtle variation of Toulmin’s notion of Warrant. Furthermore, in their texts, the students applied strategies of justification and explanation instead of mere persuasion to generate their academic arguments. Such strategies of argument support the notion that academic writers rely more on exhibiting acceptable standards of knowledge and understanding of disciplinary theory and practice in their written texts than with challenging and swaying the opinion of an audience (Peters 1986: 170). Writers, too, when generating discourse, are more inclined to use a blend of text types (Reynolds 2000). The model of academic argument proposed for this study (refer to Figure 1) accommodated the discourse structures that the students employed in their texts. Application of the model to the analysis of the texts showed the students’ preferences for employing, predominantly, strategies of justification in their academic discourse, probably influenced as much by the essay topic as the academic context. Derived from the argument schemes outlined in Figure 1, previously, the macrostructures of the students’ essays are represented in Figure 5. As shown, the Principal argument in each text was one of Justification although the sub-arguments in the Knowledge Base comprised Justification in Mika’s but Explanation in Sabrina’s.

Figure 5 Outline of argument schema in the two essays

Apparent from the findings of this study is that contextually grounded cultural and content familiarity appears to play an important role in the text organisation and argument structure of written academic discourse. In relating socio-cognitive constructions to text structures, it is evident that Sabrina’s ability to employ a range of explanations and evidence lent strength to the Knowledge Base that supported her principal argument. Importantly, the scope of her explanations, which incorporated description with numerous examples from the Australian media, permitted her to convey the sense of a broader Knowledge Base than Mika, who limited her discussion to two specific cases in the Japanese media. In fact, the development of a broad Knowledge Base appeared to have compensated for the lesser integration of argument in her text.

Mika, on the other hand, overcame her limited use of media examples by employing a strategy that saw her generating arguments within her Knowledge Base to justify her use and/or application (i.e. apparent relevance) of evidence. The more overt integration of argument throughout her text appears to have compensated for her less extensive Knowledge Base. Evidently, the interplay between socio-cognitive strategies and text construction was integral in developing the organisation of academic discourse and the structures of academic argument in the students’ written discourse.

In fact, according to Stapleton (2001), content familiarity powerfully shapes both the range and depth of argumentation, consistent with theories on schemata and knowledge structures. Schema are conceptualisations of knowledge, the cognitive units or mental models of one’s experience, beliefs or practices that permit one to encode and make sense of cultural and social experiences and to infer semantic and pragmatic associations in discourse (Allan 2001; Sharifian et al. 2004; Malcolm and Sharifian 2005). Researchers have previously related language and cultural schemas to knowledge construction (Sharifian 2003 and forthcoming; Malcolm and Sharifian 2005). In acquiring knowledge of the conventions of disciplinary discourse, and, consequently, of the conventions of argument, researchers suggest that learners must acquire not only appropriate language schemas but also cultural schemas to inform the strategies for presenting their knowledge (Sharifian 2003; Malcolm and Sharifian 2005; Sharifian forthcoming). Furthermore, according to Hancock and Onsman (2005), students will learn new concepts more quickly if they can reference appropriate existing schema, as ‘students with more schemas are more likely to be able to refer to an existing schema for an appropriate blueprint for the new schema’. Obviously, this bears significance for non-native speakers of English studying in Australian contexts, as learners lacking familiarity with cultural and linguistic norms are probably at greater risk of experiencing problems with learning new disciplinary concepts. Lacking the cultural and linguistic resources to access existing schema on a topic, which is necessary for internalising new information, appears especially significant. Indeed, Mika invested more time than Sabrina in trying to understand the concept of CPE.

Mika recognised, though, the importance of generating arguments in her essay, employing a predominantly justificatory discourse throughout her text. Sabrina, on the other hand, employed a predominantly explanatory discourse (in her attempt at explanation), probably a manifestation of her employment of more facts (evidence/examples from the media). Given the significance of schemata and knowledge structures in text production, the socio-cognitive influences on text structure may be appreciated. Mika sought to work with concrete definitions of CPE before locating specific objects in the media to help her understand the notion of the term. Sabrina, on the other hand, was able to draw connections between examples in the media and concepts of CPE, without having to work with literal/explicit interpretations because she could quite readily infer connections between evidence or examples in the media and the applications to theoretical perspectives. Sabrina, therefore, had the advantage of not only content knowledge but also, in view of work by Glaser (1984), knowledge about the application of what she knew. In other words, in their particular learning context, Sabrina demonstrated more elaborated schemata than Mika. Interestingly, Sabrina’s membership of the Australian cultural community assisted her development of understanding of key concepts, such as CPE. By referring to her mother for confirmation of social events, Sabrina was participating in a process of cultural sense-making, which provided her with the appropriate cultural schema to interpret new concepts. According to Malcolm and Sharifian (2005: 517), cultural schemas are:

... emergent phenomena that are constantly ‘negotiated’ and ‘renegotiated’ by the members of a cultural group across time and space. These schemas are passed on from generation to generation and set out the motivation for group-level ‘appropriate’ thought and action.

Furthermore, it appears that sharing a common set of cultural assumptions facilitated knowledge construction in the classroom as well as the interpretation of literary texts. Consequently, Sabrina’s ability to tune into the talk of the tutorials and lectures combined with her background knowledge of the topic helped her to discern issues relevant to the topic, even if she could not completely understand the CPE concept. Furthermore, sharing common background knowledge of cultural experiences, the tutor probably assumed the connections between her examples and theoretical concepts and so was able to infer the implicit arguments that linked her explanations and evidence. Mika’s attempts to use examples from the Japanese media were, on the other hand, were confounded by her tutor’s lack of familiarity with the topics. As mentioned earlier, data from interviews with the tutor helped to elaborate the analysis. The tutor’s comments on Mika’s essay and in the interview with him suggested he would have preferred Mika to attempt more detailed explanation of the relevance of her examples to the essay topic, despite her explicit recourse to justificatory strategies throughout her essay. Interestingly, he sought no such explanation from Sabrina. A lack of shared assumptions between teachers and their students may, in fact, influence the assessment of students who come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to their tutors, and, in particular, influence tutors’ perceptions of their students’ critical thinking skills (Stapleton 2001: 530).

From the findings of this study, argument appears to be an inherent component of successful writing in academic contexts. Furthermore, the findings suggest that second language writers must develop not only linguistic skills but also the appropriate cultural and content schemas for generating academic text structures fitting for their disciplinary contexts. Indeed, in this case study, it was probably Mika’s recourse to using justificatory arguments in her text that compensated for her limited Knowledge Base. Building up her Knowledge Base might be a useful strategy for Mika to improve the quality of her writing. Conversely, one might infer that integrating explicit strategies of justification throughout her text would be a useful strategy for Sabrina to improve the quality of her writing. Differences in the texts of the two writers were not merely aberrations of linguistic or educational background but, instead, a complex interplay between the students’ contextually situated social, cultural and cognitive experiences. Understanding the influence of cognitive, social as well as linguistic factors on schemata and knowledge structures in situated contexts of learning, appears, therefore, to be essential when supporting both native and non-native speakers develop skills of academic literacy.


Adopting a model of academic argument that integrated argumentation and linguistic theories with a socio-cognitive framework of inquiry provided a useful mechanism for analysing the text structures in students’ written academic discourse. The findings of this study support the notion that argument is an important component of academic discourse in undergraduate contexts yet it assumes a distinctive purpose for exhibiting acceptable standards of knowledge and understanding of disciplinary theory and practice (Peters 1986: 170). Justification and explanation were primary goals of the students when writing their texts, which are distinguished from the goal of persuasion traditionally associated with discursive argumentative practices. The academic text structures of the novice writers were marked by the incorporation in their discourse of extensive Knowledge Bases, which served to legitimise their disciplinary interpretations and/or stance. Data collection techniques that permitted a qualitative analysis of natural discourse proved invaluable for eliciting information on a range of factors that influenced the development of the students’ text structures. Significant was the finding that social, cultural and cognitive experiences are influential in shaping disciplinary discourse in situated contexts of learning. Understanding the content and cultural schemas of knowledge that students apply to interpreting and responding to their learning tasks appears crucial for facilitating their acquisition of academic literacy skills.


1     Kara M. Gilbert was a postgraduate student at Monash University at the time of writing this chapter.


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Cite this chapter as: Gilbert, K. 2007. ‘The sociocognitive complexity of learning to argue in disciplinary (con)texts’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 5.1 to 5.17.

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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

   by Helen Marriott, Tim Moore and Robyn Spence-Brown