Over the last few years, since 2009, I have designed and co-ordinated a course called ‘English for science’, which aims to teach science students the language skills that they need in order to communicate through speaking and writing with a range of specialist and non-specialist audiences – in particular, through scientific reports and presentations. In designing this course, I have implemented and evaluated a number of teaching innovations – the main one being the introduction of a digital video project in which students are tasked with creating digital video scientific documentaries - and this has led to various conference presentations, seminars and opportunities for publication. At present, there are 3 book chapters and 3 journal articles that have emerged from this project, with more planned and on the way. Of course, I haven’t done all of this all by myself – I’d like to thank my co-investigators, especially Lindsay Miller, for their contributions.
Another thing that has been very useful in terms of supporting the teaching project and associated research, has been opportunities for funding within the university. I thought that it might be interesting for you to see how, over the course of the last 5 years, 3 different projects have contributed to the design and evaluation of the course and how these different projects have supported a range of academic outcomes (conferences, book chapters and journal articles). The first of these projects was a needs analysis, in which students’ university writing practices were observed. The project was funded by the department, was relatively inexpensive, and resulted in a conference presentation.The second project introduced and evaluated the use of digital video projects as a pedagogical strategy to both improve students’ oral presentations while at the same time introducing digital literacies into the course design. This project was funded by a university teaching development grant and resulted in 3 book chapters and 3 journal articles that have focused on issues of pedagogy, learner autonomy, multimodality and digital literacies in ESL/EFL course design.The final project has investigated students’ co-operative learning processes, using ethnographic methods to closely follow students through the video design process. At present, we are planning journal articles on code-switching and plurilingual pedagogy, the digital literacy practice of remix, and a book chapter on autonomy in learning spaces.These various projects have successfully married my research interests: learning a specialized discourse in university, using technology in language teaching, based on established digital literacy practices that occur in out of class spaces. The projects have, of course, also allowed me to innovate in my language teaching thereby getting the most out of the teaching and learning process.A key point here is that the course has provided a very fertile ground for research activities: as time has gone by new insights have led to new projects, which have generated further data and academic outcomes.
So much for the funding side of this project. I’d like to share with you now some details about the focal course, the use of technology on that course and some of the research findings. I’ll begin by providing some background, before sharing an analysis of videos that students have created and then suggesting how we will be taking this analysis forward in future.
This is a course which targets science students from a range of majors and aims to teach them English communication in a scientific context for a range of specialist and non-specialist audiences. One major innovation which was introduced into the course is the use of digital video scientific documentaries as one text type that students produce. In the rest of this presentation, I’ll describe and evaluate that innovation.
The course takes a project-based approach, involving students in the completion of a simple scientific experiment (these used to be designed by a member of the science faculty and were often carried out in the science labs), which is documented in two main ways – first, as a multimodal digital video scientific documentary, second, as a scientific report, similar to a lab report. In their video project, students work together in order to research their topic, collect data, design a storyboard and script, film, edit and share their work. In this process we see many elements of co-operative learning at work, with students working in collaborative teams, peer teaching and working autonomously out of class in order to get their projects done. Then, the students work individually to create a scientific report, like a lab report - taking the content from the video and reworking it as a written scientific report genre.
In essence, the course engages students with two main genres – the scientific documentary (we provide students with an example by the BBC from YouTube) and the written scientific report (e.g. RA, final year project, lab report). The two genres are designed for different audiences, both specialist and non-specialist, and use different media, video and print, and as such they use a range of different rhetorical techniques in order to get the attention of the audience.With respect to in-class activities, materials have been designed that attempt to sensitize learners to the use of language and rhetoric in these genres by engaging them in the analysis of authentic examples, then the drafting and reviewing of their own versions as part of the project process, and finally, as students come up with texts which they will incorporate into their videos and reports, the provision of individualized feedback, focusing on diverse issues of language use (e.g. appropriate grammar and word choice) as well as language skill (e.g. presentation skills, pronunciation and intonation etc).
If we consider this scientific documentary genre in a little more detail, it is really a hybrid genre which mixes popular genres like the news report or documentary with more scientific genres like the research article or report. On the course, we show students an example from the BBC and discuss the way in which it is structured, as well as the various rhetorical and multimodal strategies that the film-makers have used.
So, in this way the course engages with digital literacies by incorporating the digital video technology and associated digital media practices: namely, new forms of representation (videos that incorporate visuals, sound, text, presentation and narration) as well as sharing to an authentic online audience through YouTube. (When we first got started, we made the decision to ask students to share their videos publically, through YouTube and to see whether this had any effect on student motivation – we were very pleasantly surprised by the results as many students reported being much more motivated to create something special, considering that it would be viewed by the authentic online audience).
Having provided you with that brief background, I’d like to share with you an analysis of some of the videos that students have created, the very first time that we ran the video project.
That year, we had two different topics – blind as a bat and taste me if you can.
In evaluating the documentaries, I’m here focusing on three of the better documentaries, to illustrate what the students were capable of as well as the different rhetorical and multimodal techniques that these successful videos drew on in order to present their documentaries. This analysis is supported by students’ perspectives, drawn both from focus group interviews and students’ comments on the course blog.
We were looking at the rhetorical strategies used in creating the videos and whether or not these could be of use when preparing to write a Lab Report.
So, how do students perceive the digital video project?
First of all, students were concerned to meet the challenge of creating an interesting documentary capable of attracting the attention of viewers – many students felt that this was the most challenging aspect of the video overall. In their comments some students discuss how multimodal presentation techniques can be strategically used to creatively get attention, e.g. by providing an attention-getting opening to their documentary or a memorable closing.
But the use of multiple modes is also identified as a challenge, as in this comment. In this extract the student articulates an awareness of the need to combine multiple modes simultaneously in order to communicate their message effectively.
Similarly, in their comments on the course weblog (made in the course of the semester) students demonstrate an appreciation of the range of multimodal semiotic resources available. In week 2, students were asked to evaluate sample documentaries and answer the question: “What do you think worked well in the documentaries that we viewed?” In their responses students commented on the way that different modalities complement one another. In the online discussion, students referred to a wide range of semiotic resources: moving images and animation, charts and tables for scientific data, subtitles, different camera angles and lighting, background music, sound effects, interesting locations, interesting participants, facial expression. Taking into account these observations, many students suggested possible strategies to use in their own documentaries.
Out of the 18 videos that students made, we identified 3 that we thought were particularly interesting, and which use slightly different rhetorical devices in order to respond to the challenge of getting attention. The first presents itself in a scientific fashion, and in order to get the attention of the audience the students present their topic as an investigation of a startling fact, pointing out that while we might feel that our vision is 100% complete, in actual fact each eye has a blind spot and objects that fall into this blind spot cannot be perceived. The students here are like scientists explaining concepts to a lay and uninformed audience. The second presents itself in a more journalistic fashion as a TV show on the CityU scientific channel and in order to get the attention of the audience the students present their topic as an investigation of a social issue, the complaints about food at the cafeteria. The students here are like investigative reporters. The third presents itself in a dramatic way as a kind of story, and in order to get the audience’s attention the students present their topic as an investigation of a personal issue, the problem that one student has tasting his orange juice. The students here are like adventurers who go on a quest to discover the truth.
In the first case, on the ‘Blind as a Bat’ topic, the students created a serious production with an objective tone that evoked a scientific or technical presentation. In order to catch the attention of the audience they present their topic as an investigation of a startling fact, asking the audience whether they have ever considered that their might be objects in their field of vision that cannot be perceived. In the documentary they firmly adopt the identity of a scientist explaining a study to a lay, uninformed audience.
The narrator role is backgrounded as the students mainly use voiceover to narrate their documentary. As a result, there are fewer opportunities for interaction than there might otherwise be, and an increased social distance between the producers and their audience is achieved. The documentary is less personal and this contributes to a sense of objectivity that fits in with the role that students have adopted.
This is the opening ‘hook’ which presents the rhetorical device: ‘investigation of a startling fact’
The opening presents the startling idea that what we see may not be true, and that a tennis ball could suddenly disappear in front of us ‘naturally’. This is reinforced by the visual image, which shows a man throwing a ball toward the camera, and we see the ball disappear and reappear as it comes hurtling towards us. The visual image has strong elements of interpersonal interaction. Although the shot is medium long, with corresponding far social distance, the image is a nevertheless a demand (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006) with the man looking directly at us and the ball hurtling towards us. This composition strongly engages the viewer, and the action of the ball disappearing confronts the viewer with a vision that they now cannot be true.
Let’s now take a look at a clip from the background and theory section.
The students create an animation which draws on analytical images in order to show how the eye works. There is clear concurrence between the image and the text here: in the first frame, the image depicts light moving from the picture to the eye, refracting through the lens of the eye ending up on the retina. The animation zooms in on the eye to portray nerves, which flash as if stimulated. The animation then zooms out and the image shows how the information moves to the brain, with arrows appearing at the eye and forming a path to the brain.
Let’s take a look at how they present their discussion.
In this shot, the students draw on a range of multimodal resources in order to assume the identity of the scientist explaining the results. First, they have chosen a setting and various props, equipment and tools that are associated with the university scientist. The student, portrayed at medium close distance from an oblique angle, is wearing a white laboratory coat, and is seated at the front of a university classroom in front of a computer. The student uses gaze in order to cue the involvement of the audience. At the beginning of the shot, his gaze is fixed on the screen, reflecting his involvement in his ‘work’ on the computer. Then his gaze shifts to us and the visual image shifts to a demand and we are invited to listen to what he has to say. Finally, his gaze shifts away again, as he continues his ‘work’.
In this case, on the taste me if you can topic, the students have created a video that evokes the experience of watching a lighthearted news programme on TV. In order to catch the attention of the audience they present their video as an investigation of a social issue. In their opening they point out that students have recently been complaining about the food in the university cafeteria, and set out to investigate why the food is so bad by doing an investigation of smell and taste.
With a more prominent narrator role, this documentary comes across as more personal than the previous one. As a consequence of closer social distance, the tone is more personal and there is a greater sense of involvement on the part of the audience as we are invited to identify with the narrator when he talks to us throughout the documentary.
This sequence precedes the opening hook and is interesting for the intertextual references that the students draw upon.
In this opening, the students draw heavily on multimodal intertextual resources – text, visuals and sound are all reminiscent of a TV channel and TV show, so that we have the distinct impression that we are watching the beginning of a TV show on the ‘CityU Scientific Channel’. We first see a television test screen, then we see a title page which incorporates information about language and weather (top left cluster), TV channel (top right cluster, CUSC stands for CityU Scientific Channel, as well as scrolling along the bottom cluster: ‘Scientific channel’) and the Next program announcement (middle cluster), then we see the advertisement for the upcoming programme, then the scientific channel logo, then the programme intro including some credits, finally we see the reporter at the scene, eating food in the cafeteria.
In this case, also on the taste me if you can topic, the students have created a video which evokes a drama and tells a story. In order to catch the attention of the audience, the students have presented their topic as an investigation of a personal issue. Near the beginning of the video there is a role play between two students, one of whom has a bad cold and can’t taste his orange juice. He is about to rush to the clinic to see what is wrong when the other stops him, and they decide to investigate the issue on their own.
In this case the narrator role is still prominent but the narrator is more closely involved in the action because of the way that the video follows the two friends and tells the story of their ‘journey of experiment’. This is more in the style of a participatory documentary and there is quite a lot of interpersonal engagement as we are invited to identify with the protagonists and be involved in their story.
At this point the story is told entirely visually, with a very impressive range of visuals (different kinds of shots, camera angles and distances) and effective use of the soundtrack to liven up the subject. The upbeat funky music played here contrasts with the activity itself, which is doing research in the library. With effective use of multimodal resources the students are able to portray this activity in a much more positive way.
What you might be thinking now is that this is all well and good but what my students really need is to learn how to write effective lab reports or scientific studies. One answer that I have to that is that these documentaries act as a motivational bridge to academic writing.
The basic idea is that the documentary task presents students with a medium that they are very familiar with, and challenges them to create something that will attract the attention of the audience. In doing so, they have to think about issues of audience, purpose and rhetorical structure in a process that is broadly similar to writing in any context. When subsequently they recontextualize their documentaries and re-present them as written lab reports, they are faced with a different kind of challenge, namely of repurposing the content for a specialist audience, whose expectations they may be less familiar with. This opens up a space to reflect on which aspects of the presentation that they did are transferrable to the new context and which ones are not. In particular, on our course, it stimulated discussion about using visuals in scientific discourse and about register in scientific discourse. It could equally well stimulate a discussion about the discursive strategies that scientists use in order to get the attention of their audience.
One direction that I am now taking this research in, is to consider the practice of remix in student videos – this was hinted at earlier when I pointed to the heavy intertextual borrowing in the second case study a moment ago.We have noticed that, in constructing their videos, students draw on existing resources, for example images downloaded from the internet, to support their documentaries. We’ve also noticed that this practice can have both beneficial and detrimental effects on the final product.
Therefore, the main questions are…
It helps to understand a little bit about the different elements that go into the process of video project design. Any video will include… With respect to some of these elements, we clearly are not expecting them to be original, for example, we clearly do not expect them to form their own band and create their own soundtrack. However, with some other elements, the b-roll footage for instance, there are some challenging grey areas.
In this example, stop-motion footage found on the internet is combined with the students’ own original footage to provide an effective establishing shot. It’s done in such a way that we don’t really stop to think about the originality of the student video at all.
In the same video, we can see the range of b-roll footage that is being remixed by students and again, how it combines with their own footage and their own scripted narration.
Again from the same video, we see here how students create a kind of intertextual reference by drawing on the Mission Impossible theme through the use of soundtrack. The theme is reframed as Mission Possible using text on the screen and is also visually represented in the bodies of the students as they rush into Times Square and flash their cell phones around the square in mock secret agent poses. This reference and the way that it is acted out creates a humourous and dramatic effect for the viewer, comparing and contrasting the digital video activity with the activities of secret agents. In terms of the question – how does remix affect student voice – it appears here to greatly enhance the student voice as they successfully appropriate the prior discourse in a way that adds humour to their video.
In contrast, this kind of appropriation can also be managed very poorly. In this example, rather than reworking existing sources, students are just ‘cutting and pasting’. [video] The end effect is diminished originality and a stifled student voice – that is, the remixed materials are not successfully appropriated and (because of their length or the failure to rework the material) the remixed materials end up obscuring the students’ message and obscuring their creativity/originality.At this stage, I have yet to do a complete analysis of this practice, but it raises very interesting ethical and theoretical issues about text creation in the age of digital media.
Thank you very much. I welcome your questions.
Nanyang Technological University: Researching Language Education
Researching Language Education: A
Christoph A. Hafner
Department of English, City University of HK
Seminar at Language and Communication Centre, NTU,
Singapore, February 24, 2014
English for science project
Completed June, 2009
Completed August, 2010To complete, March 2014
English for science introduces students to the genre knowledge and
English language skills that they need for scientific communication in a
range of local and international contexts. The course aims to develop
students’ ability to locate and critically read a variety of scientific texts
and appropriately communicate through speaking and writing the
findings of scientific projects to both specialist and non-specialist
audiences. Drawing on a range of authentic texts in the domain of
science, the course will introduce students to common rhetorical
structures in scientific communication as well as the typical vocabulary
and grammar needed to express these structures. Students will learn to
report the findings of a scientific study using a range of genres, modes,
and media formats, including written scientific reports and multimodal
English for science project
A. Digital video project
B. Written scientific
Genres and functional language
The scientific documentary genre
• Hybrid genre which mixes:
– Popular genres (e.g. news
– Scientific genres (e.g. research
• An example from the BBC
Embedding digital literacies
• New forms of representation
– Visuals, sound, text, presentation and narration
• New, globalized audiences
• Blind as a bat
– To determine whether
the size of the blindspot
is different for men than
it is for women.
• Taste me if you can
– To determine what (if
any) effect the sense of
smell has on the sense of
• Student scientific documentaries
– Analysis draws on Baldry and Thibault, 2006:
• Move, Shot, visual frame
• Action/gaze gesture
• Camera position/perspective
• Student focus group interviews
• Student comments to course blog
• What multimodal rhetorical strategies do
students draw on when they create a
multimedia scientific documentary?
• How can this activity benefit their development
of academic literacies in the science domain?
The challenge of attention
The first impression of audience is the critical point
to determine the success of a good documentary
since if the audience’s attention cannot be attracted
at the beginning, they will have no interest to
continue to watch the video even the information is
rich and constructive. I agree with t01_john. He said
that visual stimulation would be the easiest way to
make them remember the video. [Student blog post,
October 7th, 2009 at 11:22 pm]
The challenge of multimodality
I think the most challenging thing is how to give
an attractive and interesting present[ation]
because we use lots of method involved in our
video. For example, use pictures, use a narrator,
stand in front of the camera for speaking and use
music or many, many elements we involved in
order to give a whole product to make it more
interesting. [Student focus group interview]
Thinking about multimodality
• Moving images and animation
• Charts and tables for scientific data
• Different camera angles and lighting,
• Background music
• Sound effects
• Interesting locations
• Interesting participants
• Facial expression
3 Cases and rhetorical devices
• Investigation of a startling fact
– Did you realize there is a blind spot in your eye?
• Investigation of a social issue
– Why does the cafeteria food taste so bad? Is it only
the taste, or is it the smell as well?
• Investigation of a personal issue
– Why can’t I taste this orange juice? Is there
something wrong with me?
• Student as ‘reporter’
• Narrator role is more prominent, with an on-
screen narrator (the reporter), who appears at
various points throughout the documentary
• Watch for intertextual references and use of
• Student as ‘traveller’ on a ‘journey of
• Narrator role is prominent, the narrator is a
part of the action as in a first person
• Watch for the range of visual information and
effective use of sound
Scientific documentaries as a bridge
to academic writing for science
• A process that is transferrable
– Issues of audience, purpose, rhetorical structure
• From non-specialist to specialist audience
– Which aspects of the presentation are transferrable
to the new context? Which are not?
– Use of visuals? Register? Strategies for getting