Start Submission

Reading: Exploring the core ‘preoccupation’ of social work writing: A corpus-assisted discourse study


A- A+
Alt. Display


Exploring the core ‘preoccupation’ of social work writing: A corpus-assisted discourse study


Maria Leedham ,

The Open University, GB
About Maria

Maria Leedham is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics and English Language at The Open University, UK. Her main research expertise is in writing, drawing on two decades of experience in teaching English language, English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and teacher training. She is the author of Chinese Students’ Writing in English: Implications from a Corpus-Driven Study (2015) and articles published in journals including Journal of English for Academic Purposes and Journal of Second Language Writing.

X close

Theresa Lillis,

The Open University, GB
About Theresa
Theresa Lillis is Professor Emeritus of English Language and Applied Linguistics at The Open University, UK. Her writing research centres on the politics of production and participation. Authored, co-authored and edited works include Academic writing in a global context, (2010) The sociolinguistics of writing (2013), AILA Review, Theory in Applied Linguistics (2015) and Text and Talk. The dynamics of textual trajectories in professional and workplace practice (2017).
X close

Alison Twiner

The Open University, GB
About Alison

Alison Twiner is a Research Associate at The Open University, UK. Her research interests focus on the use of language and other tools in making meaning; in teaching and learning interactions; young people’s perspectives of health and wellbeing; and in the context of writing in everyday social work practice. She takes a sociocultural approach to research, emphasising the importance of context and interpretation in building understandings.

X close


The profession of social work has become increasingly ‘writing intensive’ in recent decades, yet little empirical research has been carried out on the nature of this writing. This paper describes and explores the 1 million word corpus compiled as part of the ESRC-funded study ‘Writing in professional social work practice in a changing communicative landscape’ (WiSP, outlining the challenges involved in collecting and anonymising hard-to-reach texts from social workers (n=38) across three UK Local Authorities. Using the methodology of corpus-assisted discourse analysis alongside ethnographic insights and in consultation with expert insiders, the paper focuses on what a keyword analysis reveals about the core focus or ‘preoccupation’ (Baker, 2010) of social work writing. Attention is paid to the three main text categories of writing in social work - casenotes, emails and assessment reports – and to the three social work domains of children’s, adult generic and adult mental health services. Findings include confirmation of the extensive recording of communication exchanges, differences in the ways social workers refer to their own and service users’ views, and the considerable extent to which evaluation is threaded through all social work writing via the use of lexis. We also discuss how keyword analysis can provide a set of ‘candidate professional lexis’ and further examine selected items. The paper concludes by reflecting on aspects of methodology, in particular considering the subjectivity around keyword calculation, the equal treatment of all items in a corpus, and the usefulness of combining keyness analysis with additional data sources.
How to Cite: Leedham, M., Lillis, T., & Twiner, A. (2020). Exploring the core ‘preoccupation’ of social work writing: A corpus-assisted discourse study. Journal of Corpora and Discourse Studies, 3, 1–26. DOI:
Published on 01 Jan 2020.
Peer Reviewed


  • PDF (EN)