June 2011
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Howard Williams, Lecturer in Linguistics and Language Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, howwil@aol.com

Lecturer in Linguistics and Language Education, Teachers College, Columbia University


The 2011 ALIS InterSection at the New Orleans convention was well attended with 35 to 40 in the audience. We were sorry that this panel had to be reconstituted twice over the past year due to three panelists’ decisions not to attend TESOL this year. We were especially sorry to lose Marianne Celce-Murcia’s contribution and not thrilled to see her name still listed prominently in the program book. The losses did allow the two remaining panelists to develop their talks in more detail and enabled more post-talk discussion.

Susan Olmstead-Wang offered observations on modal use in advanced academic writing in research journal articles and presented findings from a small study on development of modal use over the drafting process. In writing research journal articles (IMRD, or Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion), the particular section strongly determines the use of modals. Correct modal use in the methods section and in the literature review section of the introduction appears to be more clear-cut and easier to achieve. Correct modal use in articulating what is absent from the literature and why the present research questions and hypothesis emerged seems more difficult. A small study of native-speaking dissertation writers’ perceptions of modal use suggested that their confidence in their research findings, as well as in their authority (author’s voice), developed over time and was reflected in use of stronger, more “confident” modals. Olmstead-Wang suggested several practical and explicit ways to teach appropriate modals for each section of a research journal article and to help second language writers use modals to convey the author’s “degree of certainty” precisely and strategically. Approaches included explicit use of detailed rubrics for each section of IMRD articles and of charts that suggest combinations of modals and reporting verbs organized by degree of certainty of claim. She speculated on whether and how infixing of adverbs into the modal plus verb structure (for example, “will hopefully demonstrate,” “will potentially show”) in speech may become more common, if not acceptable, in English academic writing. Because much of her practice involves teaching and coaching Chinese writers of English, Olmstead-Wang concluded with comparison and contrast of auxiliary and “aspect” features that modify verbs in Mandarin in ways that may differ from English modal use.

In his contribution, Howard Williams addressed the common difficulty learners at the intermediate to advanced level have in selecting appropriate reporting verbs in writing summaries and paraphrases for research papers and critiques. Many students use a default strategy of selecting from a very narrow range of verbs such as “say,” “state,” and “prove,” and where additional verbs are used, they are often inappropriate semantically. He showed how reporting verbs divide rather neatly into factive and nonfactive types, where the truth of the reported statement either is or is not presumed by the reporter; beyond this he showed how verbs such as “claim,” “deny,” “assert,” “insist,” and many others may be decomposed lexically into component meaning units that recur in various combinations and values across a wide range of verbs. Lexical decomposition makes an excellent activity in the classroom because most higher level learners already have nascent intuitions about verb meanings; they may build upon that knowledge to sharpen their skills in verb choice.

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