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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Effect of topical knowledge on L2 writing He, Ling


This study investigates the effect of topical knowledge on university-level ESL (English as a Second Language) students’ writing in a testing situation, following Messick”s (1989) validity theory, which embraces an integration of multiple types of validity evidence (content-, criterion-, and construct-based validity, along with social consequences) to support the inferences drawn from the test scores. A total of 50 participants with different levels of English language proficiency and various ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds took part in the study in a metropolitan city in western Canada. Each student wrote two 60-minute essays: one responding to a prompt requiring general knowledge and the other responding to a prompt requiring specific prior knowledge. Using a mixed methods sequential explanatory design (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2007), the study collected two types of data to attend to its purposes: (1) quantitative data based on repeated direct measures of the prompt effect on the overall writing scores, component scores (content, organization, and language), and indicator scores (idea quality, position-taking, idea development, idea wrap-up, cohesion, coherence, fluency, accuracy, and lexical complexity); and (2) qualitative interview data for an in-depth understanding of the writers’ perceptions of the two writing prompts. The overall writing scores showed that students, especially those at the intermediate and advanced proficiency levels, performed significantly better on the general topic than they did on the specific topic. The topic-specific task produced lower scores on content, organization, and language due to poor idea quality, hidden position, insufficient idea development, weak idea wrap-up, a lack of coherence and cohesion, shorter length, more syntax and lexical errors, and less frequent use of academic words. Posttest interviews confirmed how participating students were challenged by writing prompt that requires specific prior knowledge. The findings suggest that topical knowledge is a fundamental schemata to elicit a writer’s performance. Without such knowledge, an ESL writer, even with a high English proficiency, cannot achieve his or her optimal performance. The study calls attention to the effect of specific topical knowledge on ESL students’ writing and the importance of developing appropriate prompts for writing tests.

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