1500 texts uploaded!

We have now reached the 1500 mark for texts uploaded to the FOCUS corpus! More texts from Physics and Biology are currently being converted and uploaded. We hope to further expand the corpus and include texts from more subjects to enable students to better understand the use of academic language in their subject specific areas!

Using FOCUS tool to improve academic writing skills

The FOCUS corpus has been used so far in activities such as spontaneous searches (searching for unfamiliar terms in order to discover the contexts in which they appear) and personalised glossaries of specialist vocabulary (developing explanations and finding examples of difficult terminology). However, the corpus can also be used to develop other types of activities which can improve academic skills.



Several pilot workshops have been organised for Chemistry students at Durham University in order to address the problem of dissertation writing. Chemistry-specific corpus-based activities have been prepared in order to build student confidence in scientific academic writing using an interactive approach. Some examples of such activities include:

  • Academic Voice and Informal Language

Students should: use passive voice, formal language; should not: use contractions, slang and personal pronouns (1st/2nd person).

Using the corpus: Searching for the word ‘thing’ in the corpus would only return 70 results (out of more than one million terms which are currently present in the corpus). This indicates that using ‘thing’ in an academic context would not be recommended (an alternative term would be ‘concept’ for example).

  • Reporting Verbs – The phrase ‘X says…’ is not preferred in an academic context. The use of words such as ‘claims’, ‘argues’, ‘implies’ is highly recommended because it shows a greater depth of understanding the academic material.

Using the corpus: Searching for such words in the corpus would help students identify the pattern of reporting verbs usage: N + V + (that) + clause

  • Nominalisation – Using noun phrases rather than verb phrases (eg: These techniques have mostly been developed in recent decades. -> The development of these techniques has mostly occurred in recent decades.)

Using the corpus: Noun phrases are more popular than verb phrases in academic writing; students can infer this by searching the corpus for a noun (development) and its verb form (develop): the noun returns 1027 results, whereas the verb returns only 257 results. Students can also learn how to construct noun phrases by examining the use of certain nouns in different contexts.

  • Connectives – Linking sentences and paragraphs by using connectors such as however, furthermore, therefore, conversely, consequently, hence, finally.

Using the corpus: Searching for connectors in the corpus can enable students to identify functional patterns/rules in sentences where such words should be used (eg: reason-result, addition, contrast, effect)


How useful did students find these workshop activities? They were ‘very useful/quite useful’ for the majority of students.Picture1


These workshops will be further conducted for Level 2 and Level 3 Chemistry students and more corpus-based specific activities will be developed. The aim is to make these type of activities more accessible for self-study use from multiple (online) platforms. The FOCUS Project corpus is currently expanding and we hope more students will make use of it in order to improve their academic writing skills!

FOCUS (Project) on Development

We hope you weren’t thinking that we were ‘out of FOCUS’ on the sharp background of subject specific language! The corpus is constantly expanding and new texts will soon be uploaded from the following subject areas:

  • Businessforwards
  • Chemistry
  • Criminology
  • Physics
  • Sociology
  • Sport

Business and Physics represent the two new subjects which will be further included in the project this year.

We will soon update the FOCUS blog with exciting news and interesting videos, as well as a quick feedback form because we want to hear from you!

Here is the link to the FOCUS tool for:

Let’s move the project forward. Let’s FOCUS!

Iso- Prefix Search

Did you know the prefix ‘iso’ means the same? Here are the word search results for ‘iso%’. The % allows us to search for parts of a word, which is ideal for finding an affix and seeing how it is used for specific subjects. As you can see, most of them come from Chemisty based pieces of work. Can you work out what the whole word means from the prefix? See the post above for the word cloud associated with this prefix.

Iso- Prefix Search

Expanding the Corpus

The corpus now includes work from History and we will shortly be adding further texts from Medicine and Biology. The total list of subject areas soon to be included are:

  • Biology (coming soon)
  • Chemistry
  • Criminology
  • Earth Sciences
  • History
  • Medicine (coming soon)
  • Sociology
  • Sport

If any of these areas are of interest to you, then why not take a look at the corpus? Here is the link: community.dur.ac.uk/foundation.focus/ We are sure you will find some useful insights into how subject specific language is used. If you are not a member of Durham University then you will need to contact us (email: foundation.focus@dur.ac.uk) to request an external login. 

1000 texts uploaded and inclusion of SASS!

We have now reached the 1000 mark for texts uploaded to the corpus! And now with the inclusion of work from SASS (School of Applied Social Sciences), which includes: Criminology, Sociology and Sport, we hope to keep the momentum going. We have also been developing corpus based learning activities to enable students to grasp a greater understanding of how language is used in subject specific areas.

Using FOCUS in chemistry lessons

We have been developing a variety of activities for students (home and international) to make use of the corpus within chemistry lessons.  Here are a couple of examples:

Spontaneous searches.

On a regular basis, classroom discourse can involve discussion of the meaning of new and unfamiliar terms and the availability of FOCUS has enabled the chemistry tutor to spontaneously search for terms that come up during lessons to illustrate the different contexts in which they are used.  For example, the usage of the term “homologous” was explored and very quickly its usage in three different contexts was identified (homologous series, homologous genes,  homologous evolutionary features).  The embedding and repeated usage of the resource within class helps familiarise students with the resource and its value and in developing their understanding of scientific language.

Personalised glossaries of specialist vocabulary.

As the term has progressed, international students have developed a bank of explanations and examples of difficult terminology that they have come across.  For example a student did not understand the meaning of the word “contract” so he was asked to look up a definition of the word (which he does on his smartphone).  This revealed many different meanings of the word for different contexts.  By then searching for the word in FOCUS, an example in context is identified and then the most appropriate meaning of the word can be established.  This activity has enabled us to explore how students seek definitions of new vocabulary and the suitability of the dictionaries or other tools they are using.