Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Language, Innovation, Culture & Education 2018

“Distant Reading” L2 Writing: Speculations on the Use of Macroanalysis in the ESL Classroom

Lydia Callahan, Zachary R. Hooker

Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, South Korea

Dongduk Women’s University, South Korea


The past decade has seen the development of an exciting new subfield of English & comparative literature studies – quantitative literary analysis. Innovators in this field bring tools from statistics and corpus linguistics to the literary arena in order to conduct the "distant reading" of thousands of works at once. Inspired by such work in the digital humanities, this study seeks to speculate on potential uses for these macroanalytic tools in the writing-focused ESL classroom. We ask, what can teachers and students of ESL learn from the quantitative analysis and visualization of L2 writing? As corpus linguistics has for decades helped to establish the best practices of English-language teaching, a variety of scholars have already begun to explore student interaction with massively large sets of texts in the ESL context. However, the idea of a digital humanities pedagogy is still very much in its formative stages, and few if any scholars have considered what such a pedagogy would look like in an L2 learning environment, where the texts in question are less artifact and more active process. Using the open-source R programming platform, this study applies a set of basic tools from the digital humanities to texts produced by international L2 learners of English currently attending a South Korean university. Using this corpus of student-produced texts, this study explores how ESL educators can employ tools such as word frequency, lexical variety, cloud visualization, and topic modeling for the diagnosis and assessment of L2 writing both in and outside the classroom. Furthermore, we discuss how students themselves might harness these tools to self-assess their own writing. This study optimistically concludes that quantitative approaches to writing analysis can effectively supplement traditional writing pedagogy to help both students and teachers reflect more on how learners understand and deploy ESL writing instruction.


Education, ESL, writing, assessment, text analysis, distant reading

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