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Unpacking Adolescent Writers’ Texts: A Systematic Investigation of the Language Features in the Academic Writing of Linguistically Diverse Students


With a premium placed on academic writing in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2010), adolescent students in secondary school are expected to develop advanced skills to analyze, interpret, and produce complex texts in a variety of content areas. To be able to accomplish the higher-order tasks of analyzing, interpreting, and producing academic texts, students need to develop proficiency in the specialized language of academic written discourse. While the expectations and needs are high, the results of the writing assessment conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) presents a bleak picture of secondary students’ writing performance (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2012, 2017). Despite the emphasis on academic literacy in middle and high school and the continued underperformance on national assessments, little research has been conducted on the language and writing features of linguistically diverse adolescent students’ academic writing. This dissertation research aims to fill this gap in the literature and address the pressing issue pertaining to the academic language and literacy skills of adolescent writers by systematically examining the linguistic features of text-based analytical essays written by diverse students (7th– 12th grades) attending public schools in the United States.

The dissertation consists of three related studies that each address specific linguistic features of students’ text-based analytical writing. Study 1 focuses on the lexical features and academic vocabulary use in a sample of text-based analytical essays (n=70) written by multilingual students whose first language (L1) is Spanish. I analyze lexical density, diversity, and sophistication and examine how these three lexical features predict human-judged writing quality. In Study 2, I analyze lexical and syntactic features and their relations to writing quality using the same learner corpus, but with a slightly larger sample (n=86). Study 3 takes a more holistic approach and examines lexical, syntactic, and rhetorical features and their relations to one another and to writing quality. This study uses a much larger learner corpus of text-based analytical essays written by linguistically diverse students in grades 7–11 (n=410) from public schools in 5 different states. I use the same lexical and syntactic features as in the first and second studies and add rhetorical features, including text structure and cohesion, source-use and integration, and balance of summary, evidence, and commentary.

Collectively, these three studies: 1) provide a descriptive picture of middle- and high-school students’ academic English use and academic writing proficiency within the genre of text-based analytical writing; and 2) contribute to our understanding of the complex relations among lexical, syntactic, and rhetorical features and writing quality. Studying the language features of student texts that are produced as part of an academic writing genre and their relation to rhetorical features and writing quality provides insight into understanding students’ linguistic needs as they strive to meet the demands of academic writing. Having a better understanding of the linguistic characteristics of multilingual students’ writing can inform pedagogy that aims to address the academic literacy of this student population in a secondary school context. The infographic below visually presents the abstract and outlines the three studies of the dissertation.

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