Assessing the Development of Foreign Language Writing Skills: Syntactic and Lexical Features

in Corpus Linguistics Beyond the Word
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In de Haan & van Esch (2004; 2005) we outline a research project designed to study the development of writing skills in English and Spanish as foreign languages, based on theories developed, for instance, in Shaw & Liu (1998) and Connor & Mbaye (2002). This project entails collecting essays written by Dutch-speaking students of English (EFL writing) and Dutch-speaking students of Spanish (SFL writing) at one-year intervals, in order to study the development of their writing skills, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The essays are written on a single prompt, taken from Grant & Ginther (2000), asking the students to select their preferred source of news and give specific reasons to support their preference. Students’ proficiency level is established on the basis of holistic teacher ratings.

A first general analysis of the essays has been carried out with WordSmith Tools. Moreover, the texts have been computer-tagged with Biber’s tagger (Biber, 1988; 1995). An initial analysis of relevant text features (Polio, 2001) has provided overwhelming evidence of the relationship between a number of basic linguistic features and proficiency level (de Haan & van Esch, 2004; 2005).

In the current article we present the results of more detailed analyses of the EFL material collected from the first cohort of students in two consecutive years, 2002 and 2003, and discuss a number of salient linguistic features of students’ writing skills development. We first discuss the development of general features such as essay length, word length and type/token ratio. Then we move on to discuss how the use of specific lexical features (cf. Biber, 1995; Grant & Ginther, 2000) has developed over one year in the three proficiency level groups that we have distinguished. While the development of the general features over one year is shown to correspond logically to what can be assumed to be increased proficiency, the figures for the specific lexical features studied do not all point unambiguously in the same direction.

Corpus Linguistics Beyond the Word

Corpus Research from Phrase to Discourse


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