Researching writing across the lifespan

The value of literacy studies for highlighting social and contextual aspects of change


  • Karin Tusting Lancaster University
  • David Barton Lancaster University
  • Sharon McCulloch Lancaster University
  • Uta Papen Lancaster University
  • Diane Potts Lancaster University



Literacy studies, academic writing, lifespan writing, multimodality, managerialism, identity, tools and technologies


This paper highlights the importance, when researching writing across the lifespan, of addressing a range of aspects of social context which change over time, particularly focusing on tools, values, relationships and identities. It illustrates this argument by drawing on a range of empirical studies exploring different aspects of writing in university settings, working with adults at a range of levels from Masters through doctoral study to academics' working lives, and reflects on the implications of this research for lifespan writing studies more generally. The projects drawn on include a study of multimodal feedback on postgraduate student writing and students' responses to this; a detailed study of academics' writing practices in the context of structural changes in Higher Education; and an interview study with PhD students participating in writing retreats, reflecting on their writing experiences. Drawing on findings from this work, we argue that shifts in material, social and institutional dimensions of context have a significant impact on what individuals write and on the writing practices that they develop. We particularly highlight the role of changing tools for writing and values around writing, and the importance of transformations in identity and relationships. We argue that the tradition of literacy studies research, drawn on by all the projects described in this paper, provides the theoretical and methodological resources to approach such aspects of academic writing development across the lifespan, by adopting a holistic perspective on writing which locates writing as situated practice and thereby provides insight into these social and contextual influences.

Author Biographies

Karin Tusting, Lancaster University

Karin Tusting is Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and Literacy Studies at Lancaster University. Her research interests include workplace literacies, accountability and audit culture; learning and identity in communities of practice; and linguistic ethnography. Her current research focuses on academics’ everyday writing practices in university workplaces.

David Barton, Lancaster University

David Barton is Professor of Language and Literacy at the Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University. His current research interests include academics' literacy practices, workplace writing, literacy studies and all aspects of language online, including the interaction of words and images, multilingual issues, changes to vernacular practices and learning.

Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Sharon McCulloch is an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University, and was a Senior Research Associate on the Dynamics of Knowledge Creation research project. Her research interests include academic literacies, second language reading and writing, EAP, academic integrity, plagiarism, intertextuality, and study skills.

Uta Papen, Lancaster University

Uta Papen is Professor of Literacy Studies at Lancaster University. Her main areas of work are literacy in education, supporting literacy (in particular English literacy) in countries of the Global South, academic literacies and critical literacy.

Diane Potts, Lancaster University

Diane Potts is a Lecturer at the Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University. Her research interests include digital literacies and language learning; teaching English as an additional language; multilingualism in mainstream classrooms; multimodality; social semiotics; and knowledge mobilization/transfer.



How to Cite

Tusting, K., Barton, D., McCulloch, S., Papen, U., & Potts, D. (2019). Researching writing across the lifespan: The value of literacy studies for highlighting social and contextual aspects of change. Writing and Pedagogy, 10(3), 401–422.



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