Speaking and Writing in the University: A Multidimensional Comparison



    1. Northern Arizona University Flagstaff, Arizona, United States
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    • Douglas Biber is a Regents' Professor in the Applied Linguistics Program at Northern Arizona University. His research interests have focused on register variation, grammar and discourse, and corpus linguistics. He has published books on these topics with Cambridge University Press (1988, 1995, 1998), Oxford University Press (1994), and Longman/Pearson (1999, 2001).


    1. Portland State University Portland, Oregon, United States
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    • Susan Conrad is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University. Her interests include English grammar, writing in the academic disciplines, and the application of corpus linguistic techniques within TESOL. Her most recent book (edited with Douglas Biber) is Variation in English: Multi-Dimensional Studies (Pearson Education).


    1. Northern Arizona University Flagstaff, Arizona, United States
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    • Randi Reppen teaches in Northern Arizona University's MA-TESL and PhD in applied linguistics programs and directs the university's Program in Intensive English. Her interests include corpus linguistics and materials development. She is a coauthor of Corpus Linguistics: Investigating Language Structure and Use (Cambridge University Press).


    1. Georgia State University Atlanta, Georgia, United States
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    • Patricia Byrd is a professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL at Georgia State University, where she teaches graduate courses in English grammar and materials design. Her publications include scholarly work on English grammar and Web-based instruction along with ESL textbooks focused on grammar and academic writing.


    1. California State University Sacramento, California, United States
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    • Marie Helt is an assistant professor of applied linguistics at California State University, Sacramento, where she coordinates the graduate TESOL program. Her research interests are in corpus linguistics and applied sociolinguistics, and she is involved in the American Egyptian Master Teacher Exchange Program through the U.S. Agency for International Development.


The dozens of studies on academic discourse carried out over the past 20 years have mostly focused on written academic prose (usually the technical research article in science or medicine) or on academic lectures. Other registers that may be more important for students adjusting to university life, such as textbooks, have received surprisingly little attention, and spoken registers such as study groups or on-campus service encounters have been virtually ignored. To explain more fully the nature of the tasks that incoming international students encounter, this article undertakes a comprehensive linguistic description of the range of spoken and written registers at U.S. universities. Specifically, the article describes a multidimensional analysis of register variation in the TOEFL 2000 Spoken and Written Academic Language Corpus. The analysis shows that spoken registers are fundamentally different from written ones in university contexts, regardless of purpose. Some of the register characterizations are particularly surprising. For example, classroom teaching was similar to the conversational registers in many respects, and departmental brochures and Web pages were as informationally dense as textbooks. The article discusses the implications of these findings for pedagogy and future research.