International Journal of English for Academic Purposes: Research and Practice

‘Many arguments’: L2 postgraduate students’ task representations in critical reading and argumentation for MA essay assignments

International Journal of English for Academic Purposes: Research and Practice 2022, 3–19.

Abstract

For writing argumentative essays, second-language postgraduate students must have a comprehensive task representation for academic argumentation - i.e., they must understand their audience, the purpose of argumentation, and how to critically review and contribute to the literature. Despite the importance of this theme, researchers have focused on L2 postgraduate students’ citation and writing strategies. To fill a gap in research, this study investigated how two successful L2 postgraduate learners conducted critical reviews of literature for argument construction. The approach to thematic analysis developed by Braun and Clarke (2006) was applied to analyse the interview data. The findings suggested that the two learners’ awareness of critical reading increased as they planned their essays for the academic audience. As they read selected review articles, they became more adept at participating in academic debate and were able to critically review researchers’ previous studies, and effectively use evaluation in their academic arguments.

‘Many arguments’: L2 postgraduate students’ task representations in critical reading and argumentation for MA essay assignments

Abstract

For writing argumentative essays, second-language postgraduate students must have a comprehensive task representation for academic argumentation - i.e., they must understand their audience, the purpose of argumentation, and how to critically review and contribute to the literature. Despite the importance of this theme, researchers have focused on L2 postgraduate students’ citation and writing strategies. To fill a gap in research, this study investigated how two successful L2 postgraduate learners conducted critical reviews of literature for argument construction. The approach to thematic analysis developed by Braun and Clarke (2006) was applied to analyse the interview data. The findings suggested that the two learners’ awareness of critical reading increased as they planned their essays for the academic audience. As they read selected review articles, they became more adept at participating in academic debate and were able to critically review researchers’ previous studies, and effectively use evaluation in their academic arguments.

Introduction

Postgraduate students in the humanities and social sciences often write argumentative essays which include a critical review of the relevant literature (Grabe & Zhang, 2013; Wingate, 2012). Both first-language (L1) and second-language (L2) learners in postgraduate contexts are required to write argumentative essays, as they develop task representations of rhetorical situations, knowledge of academic reading and writing strategies, and a sense of how to apply these strategies (Grabe, 2009; Wingate, 2012). ‘Task representation’ refers to learners’ awareness of the audience and the ultimate purposes of a task; it also includes learners’ awareness of the task’s goal and various strategies necessary for the task’s completion (Carey et al., 1989; Carey & Flower, 1989; Flower 1987). The target audiences of postgraduate students’ argumentative essays are not only their instructors and peers but also other researchers in their field. Therefore, one of the purposes of argumentative essays is to develop the skill of critically evaluating existing scholarly literature and debates in a given subject and then constructing and presenting arguments that contribute to academic discourse (Akindele, 2008; Wallace & Wray, 2011). Regarding academic argumentative strategies, Ryshina-Pankova claims that ‘what makes academic argumentation special is that it requires one to argue for one’s position by explicitly engaging with other perspectives on the issue voiced in the past … as evidence or counter-evidence for one’s own line of thinking’ (2014, p. 283). Similarly, Wallace and Wray recommend that postgraduate students critically review relevant literature and use evidence from it ‘to make claims in the conclusion of your own argument as convincing as possible for your target audience’ (2011, p. 168). Furthermore, Wingate (2012) suggests that in writing an argumentative essay, L2 postgraduate students are required to analyse and evaluate source content, establish their position(s) within an academic debate, and present arguments in a congruent manner. As students conduct a literature review and engage in argument construction, they employ structure, language, signposting, style, register, and referencing and citation practices to present arguments.

Previous studies have explored L2 postgraduate students’ representations and abilities to present an argument through certain writing techniques - such as citing, referencing, and wielding genre effectively - for their essay assignments (Flower, 1987; Grabe & Zhang, 2013; Wallace & Wray, 2011; Wingate, 2012). However, few studies have investigated L2 postgraduate students’ task representations through their critical review of scholarly literature and argument construction. This paper examines two successful L2 master’s students’ developmental task representations in critical reading and academic argumentation. It follows these students as they gain awareness of their academic audience, the purpose of literature reviews and literature-specific argumentation, and critical readings of source texts through their Master of Arts (MA) programme in a university in the U.K. The learners’ data is analysed through cognitive and sociocultural research perspectives.

Literature review

Researchers have investigated L1 and L2 learners’ task representations in reading-to-write strategies from sources for several decades (e.g., Carey & Flower, 1989; Cumming, Lai, and Cho, 2016; Flower, 1987; Plakans & Liao, 2018). There are two major strands of research which assess L2 postgraduate students’ task representations for argumentative essay writing based on literature reviews. In the first strand, researchers explore L2 students’ perceptions of citing and referencing behaviours. Petric (2012) compared sixteen L2 postgraduate learners’ use of direct quotations in their MA theses through qualitative interviews. The interview results showed such that learners’ use of direct quotations relied on functional criteria, such as source-related motivations, learners’ goals, external factors (i.e., lack of time), learners’ beliefs, and fear of plagiarism. Harwood and Petric (2012) investigated two L2 master’s students’ task representations and citing behaviours based on a performance framework - i.e., a framework in which they measure how one person’s purposeful behaviours in a particular context influence other participants in the context. They found that the two learners used their citing behaviours to demonstrate that they met their instructors’ expectations of industriousness and critical attitude. Furthermore, Petric and Harwood (2013) examined one successful L2 postgraduate student’s use of citations in assignments completed during her master’s degree and found that the student’s citations performed functions such as positioning, defining, supporting, and applying her argument; indicating the relevance of her topic, and serving to agree/disagree with and acknowledge other scholars’ work. They also found that the student’s citation behaviours were driven by a desire to meet her instructor’s expectations. In addition, Yeh (2012) examined the perceptions of five Chinese postgraduate students’ master’s theses at a university in Taiwan using semi-structured interviews. The study revealed students’ perceptions of citation functions, reference types, translations, secondary citations, and how they learned these skills from their instructors. It also found that students learned these skills from their instructors informally and incidentally, and that their knowledge about the use of citations was rather limited.

Researchers of the second strand have examined L2 learners’ task representations regarding an academic audience and their use of writing strategies when composing research-based argumentative essays. Wong (2005) explored four L2 postgraduate education students’ essay writing using the think-aloud method. The results indicated that the learners’ awareness of the intended audience of their essays was closely related to their use of cognitive, metacognitive, and affective strategies when writing. Cabrejas-Penuelas (2008) conducted a replicate study of two L2 postgraduate students’ task representations using the think-aloud method and found different results - namely, that the less successful learner in the study utilized more writing strategies but applied them ineffectively. Negretti (2017) examined eight L2 postgraduate students’ metacognitive judgements, awareness of their audience, and use of writing strategies. Through the students’ retrospective reflections, the instructors’ ratings of students’ texts, and de-briefing interviews with the instructors, Negretti (2017) found that the more successful learners used metacognitive judgements more often and demonstrated a higher degree of audience awareness. Ma (2018) conducted semi-structured interviews with twenty-seven mainland Chinese postgraduate students at a university in Hong Kong and concluded that they considered research-based argumentative writing to represent mastery of advanced academic vocabulary and L2 grammar - that is, they were not fully aware of their academic audience or the purposes behind writing argumentative essays.

In summary, previous studies of L2 postgraduate students’ task representations for argumentative essays have suggested that successful L2 learners are generally more aware of their academic audience and the purposes behind writing these essays. Therefore, they used various citing, referencing, and writing strategies to meet these requirements. However, these studies have not examined how L2 postgraduate students effectively conduct critical reviews of selected literature in order to construct meaningful arguments which contribute to academic debates. This study fills a gap in the literature by examining the characteristics of two L2 MA students’ task representations in conducting critical literature reviews and constructing academic arguments. It attempts to answer the following research questions:

RQ1: What were the characteristics of the two successful L2 postgraduate students’ task representations regarding critical readings of selected literature and the use of a literature review in academic argumentation?

RQ2: What sociocultural mediations facilitated the development of these task representations?

Methods

Participants

Six L2 postgraduate learners, who were enrolled in a TESOL (Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages) and English Language Teaching MA programme, agreed to participate in this study. The study was undertaken as a research project while I was a visiting scholar at a U.K. university from 2017 to 2018 wherein I attended an autumn semester module ‘Second Language Learning Principles’ of the MA TESOL programme as an observer and did not engage in the assessment of the six students’ module essay assignments as a tutor.

Prior to the interviews, the participants were provided with the schedule, methods, content (questions), and procedures of the interviews and their consent to participate in the interviews was obtained. The study design and materials (i.e., research proposal, consent sheet, information sheet, interview guide) were approved by the research ethics committee of the U.K. university.

In November 2017, February 2018, and March 2018, the six students were interviewed about their reading-to-write strategies for argumentative essay assignments. Two of the learners had no teaching experience, which negatively affected the outcomes of their writing assignments. The remaining four learners had teaching experience and demonstrated similar English-language proficiency. Two of them did not fully understand the assignment’s audience and purpose and were not aware of how to construct literature reviews and argumentation. The other two learners, however, received distinction-level scores, between seventy and eighty, on the assignment; their argumentative essays were based on claims that were thoroughly supported through careful argumentation and references to literature, and, furthermore, demonstrated the learners’ considerable ability to evaluate theory and practice. As a consequence, in order to explore the successful L2 students’ characteristics of task representations in critical literature review and argumentation, only these two learners’ interviews were transcribed and examined in detail for the present study.

The participants were both female students from China who did not have overseas educational experience prior to their MA programme. Both had advanced English-language proficiency, approximately ten years of English-language teaching experience, and background knowledge on their selected assignment themes. They enrolled in the programme in September 2017, submitted their assignments in early January 2018, and received feedback and grades in late January.

MA course and assignment

Learner 1 was pursuing an MA in TESOL, and the general topic of her assignment was second-language learning principles. Learner 2 was pursuing an MA in English Language Teaching, and the general topic of her assignment was measuring child’s educational intelligence. Both students were asked to critically review competing theories related to their topic and then apply theoretical knowledge with reference to their real, practical teaching experiences and other evidence when presenting their arguments. In short, they were required to select relevant source texts, read these texts carefully and critically, and present coherent arguments.

Data collection

I conducted two forty-minute interviews with Learner 1 - one in November 2017 and the other in February 2018. I also conducted two interviews with Learner 2 - one forty-minute interview in November 2017 and a fifty-minute interview in two parts (a twenty-minute interview in late February 2018 and a thirty-minute interview in early March 2018). I based my method on Cohen’s (2014) approach to learners’ retrospective accounts in semi-structured interviews.

The first interviews examined the participants’ perceptions of reading-towrite tasks during their coursework. The second interviews were conducted after the participants had submitted their assignments and received feedback. Participants were requested to bring key source texts that they had used in assignments to the interview sessions and asked to explain their content in the interviews. Additional questions explored how they read and evaluated source texts in order to develop the arguments in their essays. All interviews were based on a set protocol, and additional questions were asked depending on the participants’ answers. The interview data were recorded and transcribed through an intelligent verbatim transcription approach, in which I excluded irrelevant filler words and sounds. Next, I arranged the interview data texts for analysis and examined in depth the two learners’ characteristics in terms of cognitive and social-cultural processes as they critically reviewed the relevant literature and constructed their arguments.

Data analysis

This study followed Ryshina-Pankova’s (2014) and Wingate’s (2012) academic argumentation frameworks and applied Braun and Clarke’s (2006) thematic analysis framework to the findings of the semi-structured interviews. The thematic analysis consisted of the following steps:

a. Familiarizing myself with the data

Following two sets of interviews with six learners, the two successful L2 learners’ interview data were selected for further investigation and transcribed. Next, I prepared for initial coding and categorization of the L2 learners’ data.

b. Generating the initial codes

I then identified the initial codes from the two participants’ first and second interview responses. After coding the data, I combined codes with similar meanings and defined these combinations as categories. Categories which emerged in the first interviews included pre-sessional course and MA learning, awareness of critical reading and writing, and reading selected articles. Categories which emerged in the second interviews included understanding reading-to-write, planning arguments and selecting source texts, using research articles as source texts, and reading and assessing the review article selected.

c. Searching for themes

After coding the data and categorizing the codes, I performed second and third cycle coding. I then examined the similarities and differences between the categories to determine the data’s higher-level themes. These themes were: 1) raising awareness of critical reading and writing; 2) planning an argument and source text selection; 3) reading a selected review article; and 4) assessing the review article in order to build an argument.

d. Reviewing the themes

The most notable differences between the study participants emerged during the second-cycle coding analysis. For instance, Learner 1 intended to critically assess relevant sources, review articles to examine various pieces of evidence, and support her argument with the evidence she had examined. In contrast, Learner 2 intended to critically evaluate the two sides of an argument relevant to her topic and review articles to discover limitations in these arguments. The effects of sociocultural mediation and learner engagement were observed to be similar in each participants’ case.

e. Defining and naming themes

After reviewing the selected themes through initial reading-to-write stages, the author evaluated the two learners’ task representations of academic argumentation from cognitive and sociocultural research perspectives.

Results

This section reviews the study participants’ interview data. As mentioned above, the data were divided into four major themes: 1) raising awareness of critical reading and writing; 2) planning an argument and source text selection; 3) reading a selected review article; and 4) assessing the review article in order to construct an argument. Further data analysis revealed additional features related to sociocultural mediation, such as the advice of instructors, scaffolding from source texts, and learners’ engagement with the academic assignments. To simplify the text, I use the following abbreviations in my excerpts from the interviews below: RE (Researcher); LN1 (Learner 1); and LN2 (Learner 2).

Learner 1

Raising awareness of critical reading and writing

Learner 1 stated that she faced difficulties adjusting to the new learning style of the courses in the early stage of her MA. The learning style of these courses differed from courses she had taken in the past. For instance, in the MA course she was required to select and critically read source texts; in contrast, during her pre-tertiary education in China she had to read state-approved textbooks. Despite these difficulties, Learner 1 exhibited increased awareness of how to learn in this new academic culture. She realized that developing critical reading and writing skills was among the important learning objectives of her MA programme:

Excerpt 1

RE: What are important goals of the course and the approach of teaching and learning?

LN1: Actually, before I came, our lecturer in China didn’t mention critical reading or critical writing much. However, when I came to the U.K., I was always hearing the word critical. … [N]ow that I am in a U.K. university, every time I read, I read not only to get information, but every time I read, I need to ask myself questions and to consider my academic writing.

Learner 1’s awareness of the importance of critically reading source texts in order to develop arguments was mediated by the learning context, i.e., the ways in which these skills were emphasized by her instructors in the U.K. Learner 1 defined the term ‘academic reading’ as asking questions about texts and finding supporting evidence to help justify a position in her writing:

Excerpt 2

LN1: I think most or maybe all academic reading is for academic writing, which means that all academic reading is critical reading. Every time you read, you need to ask yourself and you need to determine ‘Is it true?’ or ‘Is it not true?’, and you need to find the evidence.

Planning an argument and source text selection

In mid-November, Learner 1 was assigned an argumentative essay on a topic of her choosing pertaining to the principles of second-language learning. Learner 1 assessed the task requirements and based on her previous teaching experience in an English as a foreign language (EFL) context in China, she argued that teachers can use written corrective feedback effectively:

Excerpt 3

RE: How did you create your own argument from that kind of, you know, that is the process of creating the ideas?

LN1: When I am given this kind of two different positions, then, I relate my teaching experience to these positions and actually my position is for the corrective feedback because actually that is my reality and my teaching experience, it is really, really useful and helpful for students, and so if I am posed these two kinds of positions, then, I would say I am for written corrective feedback.

Learner 1 planned to follow these steps in composing her essay: 1) critically evaluate sources; ;2) use sufficiently valid evidence from the sources to support her argument; and; 3) explicitly tailor the argument to a target audience. Notably, Learner 1 said, ‘I need to speak out in my writing’, indicating her awareness of how source use allows her to reach her audience:

Excerpt 4

RE: There is a reading stage required for writing an assignment, what kinds of goal, and what kinds of activity do you think are required?

LN1: Once I decide on my topic, I try to Google it or I try to find keywords for my topic and I try to find out related research articles or maybe review articles and also books and chapters to support all the ideas for my writing … [T]here must be an argument or position. In other words, I need to speak out in my writing, so I need to write in a wider range to support my argument.

In other words, once Learner 1 realized the need to read various sources to fully develop an argument and make that argument engage with the academic literature at large, she understood the purpose of the essay writing task.

Reading a selected review article

Learner 1 was asked to bring key source texts that she had used for her essay to the second interview and to explain how she had read them. One of these texts was Bitchener’s (2012) literature review. Learner 1 described this article as containing analyses of written corrective feedback, such as definitions of key terms, relevant theoretical principles and research perspectives, and a summary of the relevance of evidence in the literature:

Excerpt 5

LN1: First, he made a distinction between L2 learning and L2 acquisition, because he thinks it is necessary, and he also explains some theories on the potential of written corrective feedback. And he used different theories. For example, he used the Krashen’s monitor model, skill acquisition, sociocultural and interaction theories, as they are all related to written corrective feedback from different perspectives and also for the next part, he summarized the research … and there are a lot of research studies and also there is one table, you can see that from 1991 and then until 2012.

Notably, Learner 1 observed that the article reviewed many studies and helped increase her awareness of the state of academic debates in her chosen topic. She also noted that the author had summarized his review in a table and that he had critically evaluated the evidence presented in other studies that supported his position in favour of written corrective feedback. Additionally, she noticed that many arguments presented in the article could be critically examined and used in her own writing assignment, so she read them carefully:

Excerpt 6

LN1: Next, he discussed some questions. For example, the first question: Are certain types of written corrective feedback more effective than others? He used some research evidence he mentioned before to support his idea. Can written corrective feedback facilitate improved accuracy for only certain linguistic forms and structures? And he used some research evidence, for example, mediating individual and contextual factors of learner engagement with written corrective feedback … [T]here are a lot of arguments, so I read this article quite carefully, more carefully than other articles.

In short, Learner 1 demonstrated her understanding of the author’s intent and the structure and content of her chosen review article. Since this article was closely related to her selected essay topic, her selection increased her awareness of current debates on this theme.

Assessing the review article in order to construct an argument

Learner 1 suggested that research review articles such as the one she selected should be recommended for the critical literature review phase of writing argumentative essays because they explain ‘many arguments’ and ‘many positions’ within the academic debates on a given topic. In this way, she suggested, these articles can be critically evaluated and applied to one’s own argument:

Excerpt 7

RE: You have to do critical evaluation of materials and this is very important and how did you critically evaluate the literature?

LN1: I mean, for my point, actually I strongly recommend a review article and if we really need to do some, for example, critical literature review. I think review articles are really, really important for us because inside there are many arguments, there are many positions we can use. And when I am reading this kind of review article, I will think about ‘Is it right?’ or ‘Is it wrong?’ and ‘Am I for the author?’ or ‘Am I against him?’. So, that helps me question, make a lot of questions. So I think that is a kind of critical thinking.

Learner 2

Raising awareness of critical reading and writing

Much like Learner 1, Learner 2 had difficulty adjusting to the MA course and received guidance and advice from the MA programme director concerning her critical reading and writing skills. She realized that she required evidence to support her opinions in academic writing and that any limitations of a text’s content had to be identified:

Excerpt 8

RE: What do you think are the learning goals of the programme?

LN2: I think our programme director mentioned several times in the MA in U.K., at least, ‘We are supposed to learn to read, write and think critically and sometimes we need to get in deep when reading, thinking about many different aspects’. My purposes when reading these things are to use what I read for supporting my own opinion and to find out drawbacks.

Unlike Learner 1, Learner 2 used the knowledge of critical reading she had gained in China and extended it to the context of her MA study. Her comments below suggest that her awareness concerning critical reading and writing increased gradually throughout the course of her studies:

Excerpt 9

RE: And you have that sort of idea of like criticalities … How did you get the ideas, from the university education in China or from your pre-sessional course?

LN2: When I was in university in China, one of my professors already told me, ‘When we are reading, we are not just saying that how good it is’. When we read it, we are trying to have our own opinion, … and then, a stronger or clearer concept came to me, and it was when I started to study here.

Planning an argument and source text selection

Learner 2 characterized academic reading as having a clear goal and asserted that it was necessary to find connections between information from sources written by different authors and identify the limitations of their arguments:

Excerpt 10

RE: When you are asked to define academic reading, how do you define it?

LN2: Academic reading strategy. I think it should be …. I have a quite clear goal before I read and then try to understand what the author wants to express. Then I try to link it to my purpose, as I try to find out whether there’s any connection with my own goal. … I will see that any drawbacks in the articles … not only for supporting myself, but also for absorbing more information from different authors.

In mid-November, Learner 2 was assigned to write an essay on whether a child’s educational intelligence should be measured. Below, she explains her process, in which she identified two contrasting viewpoints on this topic, critically evaluated them from appropriate source texts, and defined her position:

Excerpt 11

RE: So, did you set your argument, at the very beginning of your reading or writing?

LN2: When I was writing my assignment … firstly I see two different sides. One is like, okay, I try to think that intelligence can be measured, and then it is kind of a fixed view. … And then I start another part, that is, it cannot be measured, or it can be developed. So, it is based on one aspect first, then reading goes further, and I find another voice that could help come up ideas to support my opinion.

Similar to Learner 1, at this stage Learner 2 developed an understanding of the task’s goals and began reading source texts with the goal of evaluating arguments by researchers with different perspectives in order to craft an argument for her essay.

Reading a selected review article

Learner 2 was asked to bring key source texts that she had used for her essay to the second interview and to explain how she had read them. Like Learner 1, she also identified a literature review article - Sternberg (2012) - as an important source text. She broadly described the article’s theme, its definition of intelligence, how it presented variables related to intelligence, and how it evaluated specific research on intelligence assessment from biological, genetic, and racial perspectives:

Excerpt 12

LN2: This article mainly, … firstly it’s about different researchers’ raising their opinions about intelligence: what should be included, when we talk about intelligence, what aspects or what variables should be included in intelligence. And then, that’s a theory part, and then further he talks about others, like biological and genetic studies in intelligence and some racial differences. I think he is just trying to show that actually when we talk about intelligence, we have to see the whole big picture, rather than focusing on one aspect. In his opinion, nobody can state a very clear statement about what intelligence is and how to measure or whether it can be measured or not.

Assessing the review article in order to construct an argument

Learner 2 compared evidence from different researchers presented in the text of the review article and identified weaknesses in their arguments through her critical reading of the text. She was aware of the need to shape a critical literature review into a unique argument that contributes to scholarly discussion in a meaningful way:

Excerpt 13

RE: And this research review article, how did you use this article for?

LN2: Actually when different researchers state the definitions of intelligence, there is always a gap that they couldn’t cover. So in my assignment I need to show; okay, right now we can see researcher A said this, researcher B said this, and researcher C is blah-blah-blah. And then, each of these researchers, in their statements or in their theories, there is a part of intelligence theme that cannot cover, so I find all these gaps to see whether they can support my argument.

Learner 2 further explained that although she initially constructed an argument which advocated measuring children’s educational intelligence, she ended up arguing the opposite point of view. She realized that some researchers had not considered the social problems associated with measuring children’s educational intelligence and that this short-sightedness had implications for educators, policymakers, and society at large. She therefore constructed an argument which advocated for a different approach to measuring children’s intelligence:

Excerpt 14

RE: And when, you narrow down your ideas. But there are lots of researchers’ ideas. And you make a list, but sometimes it’s difficult to combine. … How did you do it?

LN 2: When it comes to the conclusion of my assignment, I preferred the new thing, the aspect that I hadn’t realized. So, I increasingly switched to the idea that intelligence can be developed and (therefore) cannot be measured. … When we establish schools, we may have to balance different types of children with unique intelligence. That would be a huge problem for governments, for educational sectors, and for society. So, I brought another factor into my conclusion. That is the social part.

Discussion

This section discusses the two postgraduate learners’ responses in the context of the study’s research questions. Both learners were similarly aware of the value of critically reading literature reviews prior to writing their essays. Because these skills were not emphasized in their previous educational experiences in China, both learners had to revise their epistemologies in order to meet the expectations of their new academic community. Both learners recognized that they should read many research articles representing diverse viewpoints to effectively construct an argument that would reach a wider academic audience when planning their arguments and selecting relevant source materials. In addition, each participant regarded their selected review article as an important source text for developing their own understanding of key terms, theoretical frameworks, and relevant research for their chosen topic. Their assessments of these articles indicated that both learners gained a more explicit understanding of the importance of critical reading for the construction of effective and meaningful academic arguments. Learner 1 critically assessed evidence from the literature and applied it to deductively support her argument concerning a teaching method. Learner 2 performed a critical evaluation of debates in the literature and their limitations to inductively create a new argument which contributed to the field.

Hence, I conclude that the two postgraduate students developed their task representations in academic argumentation through self-regulatory and self-reflective processes. In addition, as they increased their awareness of the need to leverage their critical reading strategies and construct an effective argument, they felt it more necessary to use evidence from the literature to strengthen their arguments and made a specific intervention in the literature. This study extends the models of L1 and L2 postgraduate learners’ academic argumentation proposed by Ryshina-Pankova (2014) and Wingate (2012). It also further clarifies the task representation models suggested by Carey et al. (1989) and Flower (1987) and the frameworks for assessing critical reading and argumentative writing articulated by Akindele (2008) and Wallace and Wray (2011).

When the two learners entered a new academic community in a foreign country, their understandings of the importance of critical reading for academic writing were relatively general. Nevertheless, they had fundamentally solid levels of academic literacy and had established their own learner identities. Early on in their MA programme, the study participants’ initial understanding of critical reading for academic writing was facilitated by their instructors’ advice and comments. As they selected and read review articles, the learners began to recognize the need to write for a wider academic audience through critical reading. Notably, both learners found broad reviews of the literature in their review articles to be very helpful for constructing their essays, since these texts provided a comprehensive overview of relevant research, evidence, and scholarly debates. As a result, the development of their task representations in critical reading and framing of their academic arguments was facilitated by sociocultural mediations, including advice from their instructors and learners’ effective use of the selected source texts (Auerbach & Paxton, 1997; Grabe & Zhang, 2013; Zhu, 2005).

Conclusion

This study investigated two L2 postgraduate learners’ task representations regarding academic argumentation. Specifically, it examined the students’ selection and critical reading of scholarly literature and how they applied their selection and reading in the service of constructing an effective and meaningful academic argument. The results indicated that the participants effectively developed an awareness of the importance of critical reading, effective selection of source texts, and conducting a critical literature review in order to establish valid arguments which engaged in current academic debates. As they increased their awareness of the audience, the purpose of the assignment, and various critical reading strategies, they became more engaged with critical literature reviews and were better able to establish arguments with reference to discipline-specific debates. They demonstrated that they developed task representations regarding academic argumentation through these self-regulatory processes and increased engagement in effective academic argumentation. The study also found that mediations, such as advice from instructors and learners’ self-selected review articles, helpfully facilitated the development of their learners’ task representations.

This study has two pedagogical implications. First, it implies that English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teachers in pre-and in-sessional programmes can use this study as a model to raise L2 postgraduate students’ awareness of the purposes and importance of essay assignments and thereby use these assignments to help students develop and apply their critical reading abilities and improve their content-based academic literacy. Second, the study implies that instructors of content-based postgraduate courses can enhance L2 learners’ strategies and awareness in the areas mentioned above through facilitative feedback. They can, for example, increase L2 learners’ engagement with critical reading and academic argumentative writing and help them develop their identities as academically engaged writers.

This study has several limitations. First, it was exploratory and included only two participants. Therefore, the findings are not easily generalizable to other learners in different educational contexts. Second, the study focused on an analysis of participants’ learning in a single term of an MA course. Further research could examine more L2 learners for a longer period of time. Third, the study relied solely on interview data. Further research could employ other methodologies, such as think-aloud protocols and learner reflections.

Nevertheless, this study’s findings enhance the general understanding of L2 postgraduate students’ task representations in critical reading and academic argumentation - an area that has received little attention in the literature. This study helps explain how these students gradually develop an awareness of the importance and applications of critical reading, planning arguments, selecting relevant sources, and performing critical literature reviews in order to carefully establish knowledge-building arguments. Moreover, the framework used in this study supports the idea that the development of the L2 postgraduate learners’ task representations can be facilitated by sociocultural mediations, such as tutors’ advice on critical reading for writing and the application of selected review articles.

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Cumming, A., Lai, C., & Cho, H. (2016). Students’ writing from sources for academic purposes: A synthesis of recent research. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 23, 47-58. Google Scholar

Flower, L. (1987). The role of task representation in reading-to-write. Reading-to-write: exploring cognitive and social process series, report 2. University of California. Google Scholar

Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

Grabe, W., & Zhang, C. (2013). Reading and writing together: A critical component of English for academic purposes teaching and learning. TESOL Journal, 4(1), 9-24. Google Scholar

Harwood, N., & Petric, B. (2012). Performance in the citing behaviour of two student writers. Written Communication, 29(1), 55-103. Google Scholar

Ma, X. (2018). L2 postgraduate students’ conceptions of English academic writing: Perspectives of mainland Chinese students. Asian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 5(1), 81-92. Google Scholar

Negretti, R. (2017). Calibrating genre: Metacognitive judgments and rhetorical effectiveness in academic writing by L2 graduate students. Applied Linguistics, 38(4), 512-539. Google Scholar

Petric, B. (2012). Legitimate textual borrowing: Direct quotation in student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 21(2), 102-117. Google Scholar

Petric, B., & Harwood, N. (2013). Task requirements, task representation and self-reported citation functions: An exploratory study of a successful L2 student’s writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 12(2), 110-124. Google Scholar

Plakans, L., & Liao, J. (2018). Task representation (teaching writing). In D. Belcher & A. Hirvela (Eds.), The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching (pp. 1-6). Wiley. Google Scholar

Ryshina-Pankova, M. (2014). Exploring academic argumentation through course-related blogs through engagement. In G. Thompson & L. Alba-Juez (Eds.), Evaluation in context (pp. 281-302). John Benjamins. Google Scholar

Sternberg, R. (2012). Intelligence. WIREs (Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews) Cognitive Science, 3(5), 501-511. Google Scholar

Wallace, M. & Wray, A. (2011). Critical reading and writing for postgraduates. SAGE. Google Scholar

Wingate, U. (2012). “Argument!”: Helping students understand what essay writing is about. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11(2), 145-154. Google Scholar

Wong, A. T. Y. (2005). Writers’ mental representation of the intended audience and of the rhetorical purpose for writing and strategies that they employed when they composed. System, 33(1), 29-47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2004.06.009. Google Scholar

Yeh, C.-C. (2012). Students’ citation knowledge, learning, and practices in the humanities and social sciences. The Asian ESP Journal, 8(3), 97-125. Google Scholar

Zhu, W. (2005). Source articles as scaffolds in reading to write: The case of a Chinese student writing in English. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 15(1), 129-152. Google Scholar


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Kamijo, Takeshi