Skip to content

Toggle service links

Caroline Coffin

Systemic Functional Linguistics

Dr Caroline Coffin

Caroline Coffin

Position: Reader in Applied Linguistics

Institution: The Open University, UK


Email address:

Areas of interest

I am interested in the following aspects of Academic Writing:

  • Disciplinary/subject-specific discourse (particularly school History, undergraduate Health and Social Care, post graduate Education and Applied Linguistics)
  • The relationship between knowledge, language and learning (also drawing here on work in sociology of knowledge and in particular, following Bernstein, understanding how knowledge is constructed, recontextualised, transmitted and developed)
  • Interpersonal meaning in academic discourse
  • Multimodal aspects of academic texts
  • The relationship between electronically mediated dialogue and academic writing
  • Student argumentation - in computer conferencing/discussion boards and ‘traditional’ academic ‘essays’
  • Novice academic writers and their development of, and through, language
  • Second Language learners and academic writing
  • Issues and problems in students learning to write and think ‘academically’ and in disciplinary specific ways (particularly in the context of widening participation)
  • Pedagogical issues - the role of talk/computer mediated dialogue and reading in relation to academic writing. Also the influence of students’ semantic orientations on ways of making meaning.
  • Assessment, testing and feedback issues
  • Methodological issues - genre and register as tools for building up understandings of disciplinary discourse and student writing. Can, and if so, in what ways, can ethnographic/qualitative data (e.g. sustained participant observation and interviews with students and tutors), sociology of knowledge and corpus tools contribute to this enterprise and the areas of interest listed above?

Why SFL? (and interests in other theories/methods)

I find SFL, particularly the constructs of genre and register, a powerful tool for mapping disciplinary discourse and learner discourse (both in secondary and tertiary contexts and both in traditional writing contexts and in newer technologically supported environments). Combined with tools and concepts drawn from Sociology of Knowledge (e.g. Bernstein, Maton) as ways of understanding how and why academic knowledge is construed in the way it is, SFL provides powerful descriptions of disciplinary language (and learning) that can be of benefit to students, tutors and policy makers.

I am also interested in whether and, (if so) how, insights from ethnographic investigations into academic writing (such as those conducted within the Academic Literacies framework) may contribute to, and enhance, SFL based insights. The questions and concerns raised by Academic Literacies might, for example, be helpful in relation to deepening an understanding of the socio-political and institutional context of academic writing and understanding the impact of individual students’ semantic orientations/identities on their academic writing and development. The tools developed within corpus linguistics also seem useful in supporting linguistic descriptions.

From the perspective of pedagogy, I am interested in how linguistic descriptions and explanations of academic writing can be applied in various learning contexts e.g. disciplinary teaching and assessment procedures, embedded language/study skills support, online materials etc. Socio-cultural (neo Vygotskian) principles are, I think, useful complementary theories in designing materials, pedagogies, and dialogic opportunities.

Relevant networks

2008-present - Member of the working group for the European Union COST ACTION IS0703 project entitled ‘Genre analysis and genre teaching methods’. This is a large-scale collaborative research network that has the purpose of researching academic writing in universities across the countries of the European Union.

Board membership of relevant journals

2008-present - Editorial board member of Writing and Pedagogy

2007-present - Editorial review board member of the Australian Journal of Language and Literacy (AJLL)

Current research projects relating to academic writing

2010-ongoing - The Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology, Open University. Writing in Health and Social Care; a linguistics and sociology of knowledge based investigation’

2010-ongoing - The Hong Kong Polytechnic University General Research Funds. Educational Genres in the Key Learning Areas of Maths, Science & Humanities

2010-ongoing - Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology, Open University. Learning collaboratively through online interactive writing tasks

2009-ongoing - The Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology, Open University. Genres in comparison: traditions, practices and policies

Past projects relating to academic writing

2010 - British Association of Applied Linguistics and Cambridge University Press. One day seminar: Academic Writing in the 21st century: towards a new framework for investigating, describing and explaining academic texts and literacy practices

2009-2010 - The Practice-based Professional Learning CETL, Open University. Writing in Health and Social care: genres, practices and pedagogies

Oct 2005-Oct 2006 - Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The language and discourse of argumentation in computer conferencing and essays

2006 - The International Links Grant Scheme (The University of Wollongong, Australia). Developing Academic Literacy in Context
1 of 7 collaborators from Universities in USA, Australia and Europe

2003-2005 - The UK National Teaching Fellowship (grant held by Professor Martha Pennington, formerly of University of Befordshire). Thesis and Dissertation web site project

2000-2001 - The British Council. IELTS 2000 project

1992-1994 - The New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education and the NSW Education and Training Foundation (grant held by Professor Jim Martin, University of Sydney). The Write it Right Project. Educational linguist with special responsibility for researching the literacy demands of school English and history.

Current Doctoral and Master of Research supervision:

2010-present - EdD supervisor for Daniel Portman ‘Development of Business students’ genre awareness in the EFL writing classroom’

2009-present - EdD supervisor for Nick Kearney ‘Common ground and Constellations - towards a fuller understanding of literacy in a digital world’

2008-present - EdD supervisor for Privthi Shrestha ‘An investigation into writing assessment practices in an academic writing course in an open and distance learning context: a dynamic assessment perspective’.

2008-present - PhD supervisor for Alison Twining ‘Improvable objects and meaning-making trajectories in the ICT-literate classroom’.

2007-present - EdD supervisor for John Keating ‘The impact of teacher and peer dialogue on online collaborative writing in two writing contexts’.

Past publications relating to academic writing and disciplinary discourse (both in tertiary and secondary school contexts)
(see and search under Coffin for a full list and PDF attachments)

Coffin, C. and Donohue, J. (forthcoming, 2012) Guest editors of Researching Academic Literacy: Perspectives from Systemic Functional Linguistics and Academic Literacies, Special edition of Journal of English for Academic Purposes

Coffin, C. and Donohue, J. (forthcoming, 2012) Academic literacies and SFL: how do they relate, Special edition of Journal of English for Academic Purposes (Coffin and Donohue, guest editors)

Coffin, C. North, S. P. and Hewings, A. (forthcoming, 2012) 'Argumentative dialogue in school and university: the role of asynchronous conferencing'. Special edition of Journal of English for Academic Purposes (Coffin and Donohue, guest editors)

Coffin, C. (2010) 'Incorporating and evaluating voices in a film studies thesis’, vol 1/2 Writing and Pedagogy pp. 163-193 ISSN: 1756-5839 (print), ISSN: 1756-5847 (online), doi : 10.1558/wap.v1i2.163

Coffin, C. (2009) 'Contemporary educational argumentation: a multimodal perspective'. Argumentation, vol 23/4 pp 513-530

Coffin, C. (2006) 'Learning the language of school history: the role of linguistics in mapping the writing demands of the secondary school curriculum'. Journal of Curriculum Studies, vol 38/4, pp 413 - 429. ISSN 0022-0272, Online ISSN: 1366-5839

Coffin, C. (2006) 'Reconstruing ‘personal time’ as "collective time": learning the discourse of history'. In Whittaker, R., O’Donnell, M. and McCabe, A. (eds) Language & Literacy: Functional Approaches, London, Continuum.

Coffin, C. (2006) Historical Discourse: the language of time, cause and evaluation, London, Continuum.

Coffin, C. (2006) 'Mapping subject-specific literacies'. NALDIC Quarterly, vol 3/3, Spring. pp. 13 - 26 ISBN 1 902189 00 2

Coffin, C., (2007) The Language and Discourse of Argumentation in Computer Conferencing and Essays. ESRC Report.

Coffin, C. (2004) 'Learning to write history: the role of causality'. Written Communication, vol 21/3, pp 261-289

Coffin, C, and Hewings, A. (2004) ‘IELTS as preparation for tertiary writing: distinctive interpersonal and textual strategies’. In L. J. Ravelli and R. A. Ellis (eds.) Analysing Academic Writing : Contextualised Frameworks. London, Continuum, pp 153-171

Coffin, C. (2004) 'Arguing about how the world is or how the world should be: the role of argument in IELTS Tests'. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, vol 3/3, pp 229-246

Coffin, C. and Mayor, B. (2004) ‘Authorial voice and interpersonal tenor in novice academic writing’. In Banks, David. (ed) Text and Texture, Systemic Functional viewpoints on the nature and structure of text. Paris, L’Harmattan, pp 239-264,

Coffin, C. (2003) ‘Reconstruing the past: Settlement or Invasion?’ in Martin, J.R. and Wodak, R. (eds) Re/reading the past: Critical and functional perspectives on time and value. Amsterdam, Benjamins, pp. 219- 246.

Coffin, C. (2002) 'The voices of history: theorising the interpersonal semantics of historical discourses'. Text, vol 22/4, pp 503-528

Coffin, C. (2000) ‘Defending and challenging interpretations of the past: the role of argument in school history’. In Hernández, M. A. Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, No. 40, pp 135 - 153 ISSN: 0211- 5913 Special Issue on "Intercultural and Textual Approaches to Systemic-Functional Linguistics".

Coffin, C. (1997) ‘Constructing and Giving Value to the Past’. in Martin, J.R. and Christie, F. (eds) Genres and Institutions: Social Processes in the Workplace and School, London, Pinter, pp 196 - 230. ISBN: 0 304 33766 8.

Coffin, C., Curry, M.J., Goodman, S., Hewings, A., Lillis, T. and Swann, J. (2003) Teaching Writing in Higher Education, London, Routledge.

Coffin, C. and Derewianka, B. (2008) Multimodal layout in school history books: the texturing of historical interpretation'. In Thompson, G. and Forey, G. (eds) Text-type and Texture, London, Equinox.

Coffin, C., and Hewings, A. (2005) 'Engaging electronically. Using CMC to develop students’ argumentation skills in Higher Education'. Language and Education, vol 19/1, pp 32- 49

Coffin, C. and Hewings, A. (2005) 'Teaching and learning in electronic environments: evolving language and literacy practices. Special Edition of the International Journal of Educational Research. Guest editors: Caroline Coffin and Ann Hewings, 43, nos 7-8 pp 427 - 518.

Coffin, C. North, S. and Martin, D. (2009) 'Exchanging points of view: a linguistic perspective on school students’ use of electronic conferencing'. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 25/1 pp 85-98

Coffin, C. and O’Halloran, K.A. (2009) 'Argument reconceived?' Educational Review, vol. 61/3 pp. 301-313.

Coffin, C. and O’Halloran, K. A. Guest editors( 2008) 'Researching argumentation in educational contexts: new methods, new directions'. Special Edition of the International Journal of Research and Method in Education

Coffin, C. and O’Halloran, K. A. (2008) 'New methods, new directions'. Special Edition of the International Journal of Research and Method in Education.

Coffin, C., C. Painter and A. Hewings. (2005) ‘Argumentation in a multi party asynchronous computer mediated conference: a generic analysis.’ Australian Review of Applied Linguistics Special Edition, (S19) Language in Social Life: Functional Perspectives: pp. 41-63.

Coffin, C., Painter, C. and Hewings, A. (2005) 'Patterns of debate in tertiary level asynchronous electronic conferencing'. Special Edition of the International Journal of Educational Research, vol 43/7-8, pp 464 - 480

Derewianka, B. and Coffin, C. (2008) Time visuals in history text books: some pedagogic issues. In Unsworth, L.(eds) London, Continuum.

Hewings, A. and Coffin, C. (2007) 'Writing in multi-party computer conferences and single authored assignments'. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, vol. 6/2, pp. 126 - 142 ISSN: 1475 -1585

Hewings, A. and Coffin, C. (2006) ‘Formative interaction in on-line writing: making disciplinary expectations explicit’. In Hyland, K.and Hyland, F. (eds) Feedback on ESL writing: contexts and issues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hewings, A., and Coffin, C. (2004) Grammar in the construction of on-line discussion messages. In Coffin, C., Hewings, A. and O’Halloran, K. (eds) Applying English Grammar: functional and corpus approaches, London, Hodder-Arnold, pp 134 - 154

Hewings, A., Coffin, C. and North, S.P., (Nov 2009) ‘Discipline-based e-conferencing: corpus and discourse insights’. In Charles, M., Pecorari, D. and Hunston, S. (eds) Academic Writing: At the Interface of Corpus and Discourse, London, Continuum, pp 129- 151

Hewings, A., Coffin, C. and North, S. (2007) Supporting undergraduate students’ acquisition of academic argumentation strategies through computer conferencing. Higher Education Academy Research Report.

Martin, D. Coffin, C & North, S. (2007) ‘What’s your claim? Developing pupils’ historical argument skills using asynchronous text based computer conferencing’. Teaching History, Issue No 126. pp. 32 - 37 ISSN 0040 0610.

Mayor, B., Hewings, A., North, S., Swann, J. and Coffin, C. (2007) 'A linguistic analysis of Chinese and Greek L1 scripts for IELTS Academic Writing Task 2'. In Falvey, P. and Taylor, L. (eds) IELTS Collected Papers: Research in speaking and writing assessment, Studies in Language Testing, vol 19. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

North, S.P., Coffin, C. and Hewings, A. (2008) 'Using exchange structure analysis to explore argument in text-based computer conferences'. Special Edition of the International Journal of Research and Method in Education, vol. 31/3. pp. 257-276.

Painter, C., Coffin, C. and Hewings, A. (2003) ‘Impacts of directed tutorial activities in computer conferencing: a case study’. Distance Education, volume 24, issue 2, pp 159-174