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Single versus optional topics in ESL writing tests Sŏ, Nam-wŏn

Abstract

There is a growing number of ESL learners taking writing examinations to enter English universities every year. The purpose of these writing tests is to measure general writing competence rather than content knowledge. To address this purpose, some tests offer ESL students multiple topics to choose from while others include only one topic. To date, research on the effects of topics on student writing has been primarily focused on performance, but no hard evidence has been provided in support of one test condition over the other. Moreover, there is less research investigating the process of writing under the two testing conditions. Research on the writing process in a timed-test condition is an important area because it can provide background information about how ESL students reach certain scores. The present study used a qualitative approach with 22 ESL students to explore how they chose and/ or wrote under multiple topic versus single topic test conditions and how they felt about each test condition. Video tapes of the testing sessions and transcripts of the participants' interviews were analyzed to address the research questions, which focused on exploring the time needed for prewriting, the topic selection process, the criteria for topic choice, and attitudes toward each test condition. The findings suggest that while most participants spent more time prewriting for the multiple topic test, they did not consider this a waste of time. They believed that their use of time was productive in that it allowed them to take a great leap forward. Under the multiple topic test condition, the ESL students appeared to read all the topics before choosing. Topic familiarity was the most popular criterion they referred to in making a choice. The majority of the ESL students in this study stated that they preferred to have options in a real test situation. These results suggest that offering options in a timed-test situation may help many ESL learners feel more comfortable about taking a writing test, and this comfort may in turn help them display a good representation of their general writing ability.

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