L2 Theme development in Discursive and Experimental undergraduate student writing

Xiao Chen, Sheena Gardner

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To complement earlier studies of writing development in the BAWE corpus of successful student writing (Nesi & Gardner 2012; Staples et al. 2016), we examine the Systemic Functional Linguistics notion of Theme as used by L2 writers across first- and third-year and in two distinctive discourse types: persuasive/argumentative Discursive writing of assignments in the soft disciplines and Experimental report writing of assignments in the hard sciences. Theme analysis reveals more substantial differences across the two discourse types than between first- and third-year L2 undergraduate writing. Textual Themes are consistently more frequent than interpersonal Themes, and some variance is found within subcategories of each. Significant differences in lexical density occur across third-year discourse types and between first- and third-year Experimental writing where a predominance of N+N topical Themes is also found. These findings are important as previous research has tended to focus on L1 Discursive writing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to) 247 - 278
Number of pages32
JournalRegister Studies
Issue number2
Early online date30 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY 4.0)


Research supported by ESRC grant: 'An Investigation of Genres in Assessed Writing in British Higher Education'. ESRC Research Award RES-000-23-0800


  • Theme
  • Second language writing development
  • academic writing across disciplines
  • BAWE corpus


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