Shortening Texts and Writing Abstracts in Higher Education: from Classroom Exercises to Knowledge Building Strategies

Submitted by: Joana V. Santos
Abstract: Text shortening is a common learning strategy in Portuguese universities. Since it helps students to develop reading comprehension and writing abilities, it is a popular academic task and a first step towards abstract writing. However, even if students have learned in high school how to shorten a text, this is not enough in more demanding academic environments.
Research on academic genres has focused not only on abstracts (Bdaiwi et alii 2016, Bondi & Lorès Sanz 2014, Nguyen & Pramoolsook 2014, Rodrigues 2009, Santos 1996), but also on text-shortening tasks (Swales & Feak 2012). Despite their differences, there is a continuum between both, which is probably why undergraduates blend two different genres: the “resumo” as the result of a reading and writing learning task and the “abstract” as written by researchers, which presents a published paper. Even if students show good skills at shortening source-texts, they do not necessarily write good abstracts. They usually fail to select relevant issues, such as main theme, objectives, and results.
In order to understand this disparity, the paper analyses 40 University of Coimbra undergraduates’ texts through scanning of textual features previously identified by the teacher as necessary to abstract writing (re-using main ideas from source-texts through key words, grammatical metaphors and itemization). Analysis follows the framework of the Interactionnisme Sociodiscoursif (Bronckart 1997) and links text features to sociodiscursive practices, in the sense that every text is influenced by the situation in which it occurs, such as its communicative goals. This assumption helps to understand the continuum and the disparity involved in text-shortening tasks and abstract writing.
Comparison of text and sentence structures shows that immediately after instruction students master the art of abstract writing. However, after a few weeks, they revert to high-school models for text-shortening, using personal opinions and metatextual comments. High-school models are thus pervasive. Evidence shows that instructions should clearly state the difference between both genres, even if they share linguistic devices. The main issue is that the situational features of each genre, especially of the abstract (social roles, pragmatic aims, disciplinary communities) must be understood beforehand.

Keywords: Academic genres, text writing, abstract, “resumo”

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