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UBC Theses and Dissertations

“Can I write as well as I can speak?” : exploring the intricacies in the persuasive writing of adolescent second language learners Zhang, Xuan


This dissertation consists of three studies that together address issues surrounding the acquisition of academic language (AL) in adolescent second language learners (L2 adolescents). In secondary school, as the curriculum places greater academic demands on students, AL imposes a significant challenge for L2 adolescents, who are learning the language itself and the academic content simultaneously. Despite the importance of AL to literacy development and academic success, little empirical research has examined adolescents’ AL skills beyond academic vocabulary. Therefore, this dissertation focused on the AL skills of 95 students in grades 8 and 9 at public schools in Vancouver. Guided by Scarcella’s (2003) conceptual framework of AL, I systematically examined the students’ persuasive essays regarding AL use in the lexical, syntactic, discourse, and sociolinguistic domains. The multiple regression analyses in Study 1 revealed that different AL domains together contributed to successful academic writing and underscored the importance of examining adolescents’ AL from a multi-dimensional perspective. The between-group comparisons in Study 2 showed that L2 adolescents, whose L1 was Chinese and who had been living in Canada for more than seven years, still scored below their native English-speaking peers on aspects of AL, thus revealing that AL acquisition is a lengthy process. Traditionally, these early-arrived L2 adolescents have received little research and educational attention due to their assumed competency in English—most likely based on their conversational fluency. My findings, however, suggest that they need continued AL instructional support, even after gaining conversational fluency. Additionally, hierarchical regression modeling demonstrated the significant effects of leisure book reading, social media, and computer games on L2 adolescents’ AL skills in addition to the effects of the length of residence and L2 oral language skills. Finally, by comparing the AL skills between students with different English proficiency designations, the third study highlighted the importance of continued explicit AL instruction for adolescents, who after an initial designation as English Language Learners, are subsequently immersed in mainstream classrooms. Overall, this dissertation paints a fuller picture of L2 adolescents’ AL skills, and provides empirical data that could inform instructional practices and educational policies that better suit today’s diverse classrooms.

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