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Languages and Applied Linguistics completed projects

Writing in professional social work practice (WiSP)


Professor Theresa Lillis; Dr Maria Leedham; Dr Alison Twiner; Lucy Rai (Chair of advisory panel)

Research Summary

The research focuses on the writing and recording involved in everyday social work professional practice. 

The production and use of written texts (often referred to as paperwork, recording, inputting or documenting) is a high stakes activity in professional social work, playing a central role in all decisions about services for people and at the same time used to evaluate social workers’ professional competence. Writing of all kinds pervades everyday social work practice, from more formal writing, such as assessment reviews stored and shared via large ICT (Information and Communications Technology) systems, to more informal writing, such as note-making during a telephone call, brief emails, text messages and personal notes. Attention to professional social work writing is often minimal in formal education programmes and professional training initiatives. Yet social work writing (often under the label of ‘recording’) is frequently the target of criticism in formal reviews and public media reporting of social work practice, hitting headline news when a case of extreme abuse or death occurs. To date, little empirical research has been carried out on the nature of contemporary social work writing.

The aim of the WiSP research project is to address this gap by answering the following interrelated questions:

  • what are the institutional writing demands in contemporary social work?
  • what are the writing practices of professional social workers?
  • how are writing demands and practices shaping the nature of professional social work?

To answer these questions the project focused on three local authorities in the UK, exploring the range of written texts required and the writing practices of social workers. It uses an integrated language methodology, including ethnographic description, discourse analysis using corpus software and the detailed tracking of the production of texts, in order to:

map the types of writing that are required and carried out during the course of everyday practice;

  • quantify the amount of writing that is being done and explore how writing is being managed alongside other commitments;
  • identify the technologies mediating specific writing practices and the extent to which these enable or constrain effective writing and communication;
  • track the trajectories of texts relating to specific cases;
  • identify the writing challenges that social workers face, the problems identified and solutions adopted.

Findings are of direct relevance to nine key groups of beneficiaries:

academics in the fields of applied linguistics and literacy studies, particularly the subfield of work-based literacies;

  1. professional social workers;
  2. service users and carers;
  3. social work agencies;
  4. social work education and training providers;
  5. social care inspection bodies;
  6. policy makers on health and social care at local, national and international levels;
  7. professional workers in other sectors where there are significant writing and recording demands, e.g. health, policing;
  8. the general public.

Publications to date include:

Lillis, T. (2017) Imagined, prescribed and actual text trajectories: the ‘problem’ with case notes in contemporary social work, Text and Talk. 37 (4): 485–508. [Based on a prior dataset and developed/written during the ESRC funded period. Develops specific theoretical framing, that of ‘text trajectory’]

Lillis, T. Leedham, Twiner, A. (In press) ‘If it’s not written down it didn’t happen’: Contemporary social work as a writing intensive profession, Journal of Applied Linguistics and Professional Practice. [Offers a comprehensive characterisation of writing in contemporary social work drawing on all WiSP datasets]

For further details please contact

Please see our website for updates and publications from the research: