Review of “Teaching and Researching Writing” (Hyland 2016)

A personal review and commentary

I’ll start by quoting from one of the themes that single out this latest edition (the 3rd) – first published in 2002 – namely digital advances and social media:

Most blogs … show a careful informality, strong stance, tolerance of views and creative linking (p. 243)

Aside from making me think about whether my own blog fits – or should fit – (any of) this description, it has also got me thinking about the extent to which such bloggy properties apply to ‘canonic’ academic writing (see, for example, Patter’s views on blogging as #acwri).

But I’ll save those reflections for another post ….

What I liked about this book

There is lots in here to like if you are as nerdy about academic writing as I am.

A nerd
A nerd

First and foremost, for me, is the breadth of Hyland’s literature review. This is because I have been finding, as I do my own research on writing, that I often gloss over the basics, the things that ‘I’m meant to know but actually don’t really‘.

Hyland’s review covers familiar writing orientations such as those which are text-focused (following the structuralist tradition of De Saussure and Chomsky, p.4); writer-focused (following the expressivist tradition of Elbow and Murray, p.12); and reader-focused (following the social constructivist tradition of Nystrand, Park, Barton, Fairclough, pp.21-30) as well as providing examples of research methods and methodologies ranging from Think-Aloud Protocols, to Interviews, Corpus Studies, and Ethnographic Case Studies all of which he illustrates with examples, commentaries and relevance to the orientations mentioned above (Ch. 4, pp.73-141).

The other thing I found useful was the way he succinctly summarises a tradition by outlining its purpose – or what it is a response to – and then promptly shines a spotlight on its limitations (as he sees them).

For example:

Ethnographic approaches … take a more contextual view of writing than positivist approaches and presuppose a more prolonged engagement with the research site (Hyland: 85)

however, they are:

sometimes criticised for a lack of generalisability to other settings (Hyland: 86)

In fact, this rhetoric of ‘here is what the theory says’ and then ‘here is what is wrong with it’ recurs throughout the book. Pages 165 to 166 are a prime example (of which there are many). This is where Hyland outlines the affordances of critical pedagogy (with reference to Benesch) and then proceeds to draw out its weaknesses by carefully reviewing the literatures (eg Usher and Edwards; MacCallister; Grande; Pennycook). This passage is a brilliant example of what a literature review should do because what emerges from these pages is the conversational, dialogic character of a literature review. It’s a passage that would lend itself beautifully to being re-genred – to borrow from Fiona English – as a dialogue or graphic vignette.

More specifically …

Hyland raises issues such as ‘what’s the basis for believing that you can teach writing as a set of generic skills that prescribe accuracy and the avoidance of error? (Hyland, p.146-147; 151). A view that Hyland claims (albeit with no evidence) is:

still very much alive in many classrooms around the world, especially where English is taught as a second or foreign language. In many schools, writing classes are grammar classes in disguise and students are asked to write simply to demonstrate their knowledge of syntactic rules. In these situations, grammatical accuracy and clear exposition are often the main criteria of good writing (Hyland, p.146)

He goes on to claim that:

This autonomous, decontextualised view of writing also carries over into the design of many large international exams (Hyland, p.147)

and that:

focusing on accuracy is exactly the wrong place to look for writing competence, as there is little evidence to show that either syntactic complexity or grammatical accuracy are the best measures of good writing (…) no particular feature can be said to be a marker of good writing (ibid)

Other issues he broaches are ‘how did the view of writing as a social practice come about, what was it a response to (Hyland: 93; 157)’? He also has a fair amount to say about feedback and the part it plays in writing development (e.g. Truscott, pp.62-70), as well as a critique of the research construct of Coxhead and Nation’s early Academic Word List (Hyland, p.206) swiftly followed by an endorsement of its newer version, the Academic Vocabulary List of Gardner and Davies (Hyland, pp. 216-210). Plagiarism, concordance software and reference lists divided into topics such as EAP, ESP, and Literacy are also given prominence as is a final list of web resources on writing, researching, teaching, etc. (although these being web-based, they may have since evolved).

What I was less impressed with …

Important caveat: The following is intended to highlight what a 4th edition might include, and is not in any way aimed at undermining Hyland’s valuable resource and reference book: my intention is to share knowledge that may also be relevant to others interested in this field and, rather more selfishly, to help me revise and reflect on my own knowledge and understandings, so far.

Despite many references to the ‘Literacy’ studies conducted by Barton, Hamilton, Ivanic, Clark, etc. (eg. pp.134-136), there is no reference to its related tradition, the field of Academic Literacies, in the plural form.

This seems like a significant omission in a literature review of ‘teaching and researching writing’ given the prominence that the Academic Literacies tradition has in this field, including the field of EAP, which Hyland belongs to.

Yet, on page 50, at the end of his Chapter on ‘Key Issues in Writing’ Hyland claims:

This chapter has examined some of the key issues in writing today. Because it has been necessarily selective, I have chosen to look at topics which have not only motivated much recent thinking in the field but which also best illustrate where contemporary research into text and composition is going, and which reflect our current understanding about writing

(My bold)

I would argue, rather, that it is not so much ‘necessarily’ selective as ‘personally’ (as all selections are). This is because many key studies on writing are not there. For example, although a reference is given to Lea and Street’s influential 1998 article on Academic Literacies (on p.230, but misleadingly under the singular heading ‘Literacy’), no update is given of subsequent research in the field, including that by Scott and Lillis (2007); Wingate and Tribble (2011); the 2012 Special issue of the Journal of English for Academic Purposes on Academic Literacies and Systemic Functional Linguistics (edited by Caroline Coffin and Jim Donohue),  this edited collection; and Lillis and Tuck (2016, forthcoming in Hyland’s own Handbook of EAP). This tradition has been prolific, and the need for it to be understood in the plural has been argued by Scott and Lillis, 2007.

Other omissions include recent work by Lillis and Curry on literacy brokers (credited, rather, to Shuman 1993 and Barton and Hamilton 1998, p.37); reference to the field of research writing (other than Swales), for example, Paltridge and Starfield; and reference to the work of Europeans and South Africans  who are raising important questions about periphery writing.

And on a more personal note, describing Patter in terms of a ‘link to several blogs on academic writing’ (p. 257) is wholly inaccurate.


This is a great resource for EAP practitioners, in particular, and for those embarking on a related MA because it provides a range of examples of the main methods and methodologies for doing research into writing (in educational settings). However, I don’t feel it is advanced enough for those thinking of doing doctoral research on writing, despite my initial claim that it provides a general overview.

My main reason for this reservation is that it is too broad and insufficiently focused on the ontological, epistemological, and ethical underpinnings of ‘what writing is, how we know what it is, and who are we to make such judgments’. It doesn’t, for example, deal with the theories of language (eg integrationist, representational, critical, etc.), of literacy (eg normative, social, educational, political) or ideology (eg dominant literacies) that underlie our orientations to writing.

I would therefore tentatively suggest that ‘EAP’ and/or ‘in higher educational settings’ be added to the title of any future edition in order to capture the predominantly EAP and tertiary lens on writing that this book embodies.

PLEASE comment, qualify, correct me, challenge me on any of the above. I need it!


Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Taylor and Francis for sending me an inspection copy of this book. They asked for feedback. I hope this counts.


Hyland, K. (2016) Teaching and Researching Writing, Routledge

Lillis, T. and Curry, M.J. (2010). Academic writing in a global context . London: Routledge.

Lillis, T. and Tuck, J. (2016). Academic Literacies: a critical lens on writing and reading in the academy. In Hyland, K. and Shaw, P. (eds.): The Routledge Handbook of English for Academic Purposes. London: Routledge.

Paltridge, B., Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and Dissertation Writing in a Second Language: A Handbook for Supervisors. London: RoutledgeFalmer imprint of Taylor & Francis.

Scott, M. and Lillis, T. (2007). Defining academic literacies research: Issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics 4(1), 5-32.

Thesen, L., and Cooper L. (2013). Risk in Academic Writing: Postgraduate Students, Their Teachers and the Making of Knowledge. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Wingate, U., and Tribble C. (2012). The best of both worlds? Towards an English for academic Purposes/Academic literacies writing pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education 37(4), 481-95.