Review of Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire
Lillis, Theresa M. (2001) Student Writing: Access, Regulation,
Desire. Routledge, xii+196pp, paperback ISBN: 0-415-22802-6,
$29.95, Literacies Series.
Ellen Grote, Centre for Applied Language and Literacy
Research, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia
'Student Writing' presents a case study investigation of
the writing experiences of ten 'non-traditional'
undergraduate students as they struggle to meet the demands
of the written literacy practices in Higher Education (HE).
As part of the Literacies Series edited by David Barton,
this volume advocates a perspective that recognizes
academic literacies as socially situated practices. In
response to the 'problem' of increasing numbers of non-
traditional students learning to write for institutes of
HE, Lillis highlights the need to examine issues of Access,
Regulation, and Desire. Lillis argues that Access needs to
be examined in terms of the distinctive language and
discourse practices in HE; that issues of Regulation should
be explored in terms of the way meaning can be constructed
through the academic writing practices of the institution;
and that matters surrounding Desire need to be
investigated in relation to students' expressed longing to
take part in the HE community and to express their own
meaning in academic writing.
In the introductory chapter Lillis explains the purpose of
the book and its general theoretical framework. Three
audiences for the book are identified as researchers of
academic literacy, HE teaching staff and policy makers, and
student-writers. The general layout of the book is then
Chapters 1-3 focus on issues of non-traditional
students gaining access to HE and its literacy practices.
Background information to the context of the study are
provided and a theoretical framework is constructed to
explore issues related to Access. Chapter 4 analyzes the
institutional regulatory system that governs academic
writing conventions, specifically the conventions of
essayist literacy. Chapter 5 explores Desire in terms of
accessing HE and being able to introduce one's own meaning
into academic discourse through essayist literacy
practices. Chapter 6 illustrates how dialogue can be used
to 'talk students into essayist literacy' (p. 133) as a
way of apprenticing students into the literacy practices of
Finally, Chapter 7 concludes with discussions on how new
understandings of student writing can be achieved by
reframing the 'problem' of non-traditional student writing
using an 'academic literacies' approach to research and on
how this present study contributes to this discourse.
Each chapter begins with an overview of the issues to be
discussed in the chapter and concludes with a brief summary
of the main points. Throughout the book the reader finds
page-length biographies describing personal, cultural,
professional, and academic backgrounds of students who
participated in the study. Also appearing intermittently
throughout the book are the author's personal reflections
which are highlighted in boxes entitled 'Connections'.
Four Appendices provide a brief overview of the backgrounds
of the ten students included in this study; a description
of UK examinations, qualifications, and courses which are
referenced in the book; a summary of the data collected
from student participants; and examples of typical feedback
and 'talkback' formats, also referenced in the book.
In the Introduction to the book Lillis reframes the
'problem' of non-traditional students writing for HE by
raising questions that guided her investigation: 'Why do we
write as we do? Who gets to write in these ways? Who
benefits from such writing? What meanings are we valuing
and how? Who does the academy construct as belonging, and
how? On what terms do "outsiders" get to be "insiders" and
at what costs? How do we want to write and why?' (p.2).
Lillis sets out to explore these questions in terms of
Access, Regulation and Desire by problematizing the
institutional practices of HE in the UK from the
perspective of students as they approach and experience
them. She argues for a more open dialogic pedagogy as a way
to make the writing practices of HE more accessible and
Chapter 1: Language, Literacy and Access to Higher
In this chapter Lillis discusses the socio-historical
changes that have taken place in HE in the UK which have
led to an increased enrollment of non-traditional students.
Lillis maintains that changes in the demographics of the
student population with respect to socio-economic class,
age, and cultural background must be considered when
addressing student writing practices. The traditional
skills-oriented model of literacy is then examined. While
at odds with contemporary understandings of literacy as
socially situated practices, the skills model continues to
dominates current teaching practices. It is argued that the
consequence of continuing such practices which fail to
understand student writing as social practices is that non-
traditional students will have restricted access to the
benefits of education.
Chapter 2: Student Writing as Social Practice
This chapter focuses on understanding student writing
practices within a theoretical framework informed by a
number of sources including those associated with the New
Literacy Studies and critical discourse analysis
(Baynham,1995; Barton and Hamilton, 1998; Ivanic, 1998; Lea
and Street, 1998; Barton, Hamilton and Ivanic, 2000), Gee's
notion of discourse communities, and Fairclough's model of
language use which locates texts within the context of
situation, embedded in the context of culture. Within the
contexts of situation and culture three levels of practice
are examined. At one level practice can be seen as what
members of a social group do in relation to the material
world. At a second level, it is the repetition of
particular ways of using language that is systematically
maintained by individuals and social institutions. For
Lillis '[s]pecific instances of language use -- texts --
involve drawing on these existing available resources:
"members' resources"' (Fairclough 1992a, p. 80).
Throughout the remaining chapters of the book she refers to these
as 'representational resources' (after Kress, 1996, p. 18).
Lillis quotes Barton and Hamilton (1998) to describe
literacy practice at the third level of analysis as '"a
powerful way of conceptualising the link between the
activities of reading and writing and the social structures
in which they are embedded and which they help shape"' (p.
34). Two Bakhtinian concept of language are discussed: the
dialogic nature of language and the notion of addressivity.
These are explored in relation to the way that voices
influence the meaning that is constructed while
writing/reading texts and the way that the writer perceives
the potential reader of the text. This leads to a
discussion of identity and student writing as it pertains
to the construction of meaning.
Chapter 3: Restricted Access to a Privileged Practice
In this chapter Lillis discusses the ways in which students
attempt to make sense of the 'institutional practice of
mystery' (p. 53) involved in writing essays for HE.
Essayist literacy is then analyzed in terms of the
conceptual framework set out in the previous chapter. The
differences between student and tutor perceptions of these
practices and conventions results in confusion in the minds
of the students. It is suggested that the current pedagogic
practice of providing feedback to students to address these
differences in perceptions appear to be ineffective. The
feedback itself is often ambiguous, and as a result,
students become frustrated and excluded from participation.
Lillis illustrates how these practices are experienced by
her students and their responses to them using specific
examples from her data.
Chapter 4: The Regulation of Authoring
Chapter Four is devoted to analyzing the mysteries of
'Regulation' within HE in terms of meaning making in essay
writing. The conventions that regulate and restrict the
meanings that can be made are examined, and data samples
are used to show how students struggle to understand what
can/cannot be expressed in their writing and the language
that can be used to express it. Issues of regulation,
language and identity are discussed further with reference
to the case-study data.
Chapters Five: Essayist Literacy, Gender and Desire
In this chapter Lillis discusses how non-traditional
students attempt to realize their desire to engage in HE
through a process of negotiation and through their use of
'representational resources'. Issues of gender arise as the
desires of individuals are influenced by factors related to
their social context. Changes that take place within these
contexts are seen to affect student participation in HE.
Meaning making through essayist literacy practices is also
discussed in terms of individual socio-cultural
perspectives and gendered subject positions. Lillis
addresses the criticisms she has raised in her analyses,
then discusses an alternative dialogic approach to
traditional written or oral feedback sessions which she
outlines in greater detail in the next chapter.
Chapter 6: Dialogues of Participation
This chapter describes the dialogic framework which
facilitates 'talkback' exchanges with students whereby the
tutor guides and collaborates with students on their
writing. Three types of dialogues are identified and
characterized in terms of mediating four different aims
within the 'talkback' conference. The 'tutor-directive
dialogue' can serve two objectives: to induct the student
into essayist literacy practices and to discuss language
issues (p. 132-133). The second type of dialogue is a
collaborative engagement in which the student can discover
and learn to express her own intended meaning in writing.
The third type of dialogue is one that 'facilitates student
"talkback" as part of "long conversation" (Maybin 1994)'
(p. 132-133). Excerpts from the data are used to illustrate
how such dialogues can be conducted to achieve different
Chapter 7: Rethinking Student Writing in Higher Education
In this final chapter, Lillis (re)addresses the ways in
which this work and other recent research in academic
literacies can offer perspectives on student writing as an
alternative view to traditional pedagogic approaches and
practices. The chapter concludes with a discussion of areas
requiring further research.
While the issues raised in this book are not new,
particularly for a North American readership and especially
for those involved in teaching second language writing,
they are presented in a new light. As tertiary education
has become more accessible to 'non-traditional' students,
many of whom continue to be the first in their families to
participate in HE, the question of who owns the 'problem'
is central if tertiary institution aim to realize the
democratic ideal of equal opportunity. The book offers a
very brief, though useful overview of tertiary education
from an international perspective, describing how this
issue has been addressed in the U.S., Australia, and South
Africa. While the UK context presents its own historical,
socio-cultural driven challenges, the alternative
approaches proposed in this book may be adapted to many
other settings, though perhaps not all.
There are several aspects of the format of this book that I
found both refreshing and, for the most part, reader-
friendly. Throughout the book the reader knows exactly
where the writer is coming from and where she is going. The
inclusion of personal reflections, framed as 'Connections',
contribute not only to fulfill her aim to connect with non-
traditional student-writers as part of her target
readership as well as those who are a part of the system.
These shared experiences provide a sense of the author's
personal involvement, commitment, and insights which have
both inspired and brought to fruition the work itself.
Another refreshing aspect of this book is the way in which
the participants in the study are presented as real women
with personal histories and daily lives that extend beyond
the world of academics. Rather than seeing these as
background issues, Lillis brings them to the fore,
emphasizing the need for a holistic perspective of students
whose subjectivities shift from moment to moment throughout
their daily lives. Rather than presenting the biographies
together in an appendix, they are presented as they are
brought into the discussion. The reader can then connect
and humanize the voices presented as data with real
individuals whose personal histories and present day lives
are as complicated as our own.
On the whole the conceptual model which grounds this study
seems to work effectively as a tool to explore the
important questions about academic literacy practices of HE
raised in her introductory chapter. The suggested
alternative pedagogical approach of using a dialogic
'talkback' mode rather than monologic feedback would appear
to be an effective means of enculturating non-traditional
students into negotiations with academic literacy. While
this approach appears to remedy the weaknesses of a
monologic approach, it raises a number of practical
questions regarding the challenges faced with its
Given the diversity of values and literacy practices among
academic communities within institutes of HE (Johns, 1997),
how can such practices be coordinated within and across
disciplines? The language used in the dialogic conferences
is a particular type of discourse, undoubtedly requiring
conscious monitoring, perhaps training. Will tutors
involved in disciplines other than language studies see the
value of changing their discourse practices when talking to
students about their writing?
While the significance of culture is highlighted in terms
of language use within the context of situation and context
of culture, there seems to be minimal recognition that the
orientation of the dialogic interactive approach suggested,
that of a question-response format, may not be one that is
comfortably shared across cultures (Heath, 1983). With non-
traditional students coming from a range of cultures to
institutes of HE, it is not clear how bicultural the
students need to be to engage effectively in these
dialogues. For example, how does the tutor engage the
student who responds to questions with silence? It has been
argued by Torres Strait Islander Martin Nakata, and his
colleague Sandy Muspratt, that critical learning models
need to be scrutinized for Western bias or they will
continue to ensure that mainstream students will succeed,
while others, Indigenous students in the Australian
context, do not (1994).
Issues related to culture and gender may also be somewhat
problematic for some students participating in dialogues
about their writing. For example, would Sara, the English-
born 25 year-old Pakistani student, bilingual in Urdu and
English, feel comfortable engaging in a one-to-one
collaborative dialogue with a male tutor? Would her brother
be receptive to a female tutor's hedged directives? And
even when gender is not an issue, how does the tutor
respond to the student who just wants to know what it takes
to get full marks (or even just a passing mark)?
Finally, there is the issue of time. How can dialogues be
worked into the students' and tutor's tight schedules? And
how can the 'long conversations' (p. 133) be sustained in a
system where relationships between tutor and student
usually terminate at the end of the course?
While questions of practical implementation of the model in
cross-cultural situations remain, this book has made a
significant contribution to the discourse on issues of
diversity and fairness in HE. For students who are trying
to make sense of the 'mysteries' of essayist literacy,
while the theoretical analysis may be somewhat challenging
for newcomers, this volume offers some insights into the HE
writing practices, so that they can perhaps participate
more effectively in them. For those engaged in literacy
instruction at any level, and whether this instruction is
in English as a first or second/foreign language, this book
challenges one to reflect on how one responds to student
writing. For the literacy researcher it offers a fresh re-
analysis of academic literacies as socially situated
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Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and social change.
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Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and
work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: CUP.
Ivanic, R. (1998). Writing and identity: The discoursal
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Johns, A. B. (1997). Text, role, and context: Developing
academic literacies. New York: Cambridge: CUP.
Kress, G. (1996). 'Representational resources and the
production of subjectivity: Questions for the theoretical
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Coulthard (Eds.), Texts and practices. London/New York:
Lea, M. & Street, B. (1998). 'Student writing in higher
education: An academic literacies approach'. Studies in
Higher Education, 11 (3), 182-199.
Nakata, M. & Muspratt, S. (1994). How to read across the
curriculum: The case of a social studies 'Social
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Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 17 (3), 227-239.
Ellen Grote is a PhD student in Applied Linguistics at
Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia. She is currently
engaged in research projects in bidialectal education at
the Centre for Applied Language and Literacy Research at
Edith Cowan University. Her own PhD research project is an
ethnography of the official and unofficial writing
practices of female adolescent Aboriginal English speaking
students at school. She has taught ESL/EFL in higher
education in the US and the UK, and taught EFL for business
purposes in the UK and the Ivory Coast, West Africa. She
has also been involved in teacher training.
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