Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Education


The applied disciplines of architecture and civil engineering (A&CE) require students to communicate multimodally and to manipulate meaning across media and modes. In their disciplinary studies for example, students must be able to transform the language of lectures and textbooks into diagrams; in their future workplaces, to transform reports into floor plans and 3D models. Such multimodal literacy, however, is not typically reflected in their related subject-specific English language courses, which are aimed at civil engineering and architecture track students for whom English is a second or additional language (L2). Rather than incorporating multimodal literacy skills, these courses tend to focus on the acquisition of discipline-specific written and spoken language. As such, to better reflect their academic and professional practice, students in two university courses of English for A&CE were tasked with creating digital, multimodal artefacts to explain a concept from either of these fields to a lay audience. These artefacts, and subsequent interviews with the students as both composers and audience members, were examined through lenses drawn from the fields of social semiotics and multimodality. Three main results have emerged, firstly, that multimodal assessment tasks such as these promote the communication of technical concepts, encourage opportunities for language development and also develop the students as social agents. Secondly, that A&CE models occurred frequently in the dataset, suggesting that models make meaning within a system of signs and have specific affordances which are observable when students ‘transduce’ between modes. Lastly, that interpersonal meaning was surprisingly important to the students, with 78% of artefacts featuring some kind of ‘mediated focalisation’, a framing technique more common to narrative than to the genres of STEM and architecture. These three emergent directions have profound implications for educators wishing to incorporate digital, multimodal composing, especially in English for Special Purposes classrooms.

For example, the role multimodal tasks can play in promoting language development has implications for how specialised knowledge can be effectively scaffolded in the ESP classroom. It also demonstrates the usefulness of multimodal literacy in supporting and extending alphabetic literacy, particularly with regard to the use and interpretation of technical concepts. Further, the significance of such tasks being able to develop learners as social agents means, among other outcomes, that students are more able to meet the newly altered accreditation standards of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). This has implications for the number and quality of professional and academic opportunities available to students, because the CEFR is the preeminent language certification framework in Europe. It also has profound implications for language pedagogy more broadly, because in Germany in particular, curricular decisions and educational standards draw heavily upon the level descriptors of the CEFR (e.g., Tschirner, 2008; Burmeister et al., 2016).

The findings have further implications for theorising the nature of disciplinary modalities. For example, students being apprenticed into the construction industry, such as those who form the basis of this project, are and will be expected to create and interpret architectural and civil engineering models in their disciplinary studies and future professional lives. Building such competencies in their related English language courses can bolster and enhance these essential skills, and multimodal tasks involving such models can provide practical opportunities for classroom activities to reflect authentic professional practice. Finally, findings suggest that multimodal assessment tasks such as this one offer the possibility of reconsidering what is ‘valid’ and for whom. The frequent recurrence of mediated focalisation in the dataset, that is, the use of particular framing techniques to symbolically conflate the student composers with their audiences, permits certain conjectures. For example, it will be argued that the students are selecting this framing technique deliberately, perhaps in order to participate in an alternative performance of professionalism, one that is aligned more closely with apprentices than knowledge-authorities. This has implications for what it means to perform professionalism not only in the ESP classroom, but in STEM and architecture communication more broadly.

FoR codes (2008)

130207 LOTE, ESL and TESOL Curriculum and Pedagogy (excl. Maori), 2001 COMMUNICATION AND MEDIA STUDIES, 200401 Applied Linguistics and Educational Linguistics, 220399 Philosophy not elsewhere classified



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.