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Academic Language Features in the Argumentative Writing of Second through Eighth Grade Students

  • Author(s): Taylor, Karen Suzanne
  • Advisor(s): Connor, Carol M
  • et al.
Abstract

Three studies within this dissertation investigated 2nd through 8th grade students’ productive use of academic language in their argumentative essays (N=741 essays). Despite the prominence of argumentative writing in the Common Core State Standards (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010), little research has been conducted on specific reasoning strategies and the lexical precision to signal arguments in elementary and early adolescent writing. Using quantitative and natural language processing methods, I examined argumentative reasoning and connective types (and their relations) in students’ independently written essays.

In Study 1, I analyzed 385 argumentative essays written by a sample of 385 2nd and 3rd grade students (one essay per student). All students wrote about the same topic, and essays were coded for arguments, argument sophistication, and connectives. Controlling for grade and essay length, reading comprehension had a significant positive association with argument sophistication in the essays. When connective types were added to the model, and again controlling for essay length and grade, reading comprehension and adversative connectives both had significant positive associations with argument sophistication in the essays.

In Study 2, I analyzed 198 argumentative essays written by a sample of 66 4th and 5th grade students (3 essays per student). Fourth and 5th grade students wrote about different topics, and essays were coded for arguments, argument sophistication, connectives, and connectives sophistication. Controlling for topic, essay length, and ethnicity variables, reading comprehension had a significant positive association with argument sophistication. When a measure of connectives sophistication was added to the model, reading comprehension no longer had a significant association with argument sophistication, and connectives sophistication also did not have a significant association with argument sophistication. However, adding connective types to the model explained an additional 7% of the variance, and adversative connectives had a significant positive association with argument sophistication in the essays.

In Study 3, I analyzed 158 argumentative essays written by a sample of 40 6th through 8th grade students (3 or 4 essays per student). Students in all grades wrote about the same four topics. Essays were coded for arguments and argument sophistication, and a natural language processing tool (Tool for the Automated Analysis of Cohesion, TAACO; Crossley, Kyle, & McNamara, 2016) calculated categories of connectives. Controlling for length and topic, adversative connectives had a significant positive association with argument sophistication.

Findings from this dissertation underscore that 2nd through 8th grade students marshal academic language in their argumentative writing in specific ways that are unlikely to be elucidated in holistic measures of writing quality. Findings also indicate that certain linguistic features (i.e., adversative connectives) are related to more complex arguments in these students’ essays.

References

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf

Crossley, S. A., Kyle, K., & McNamara, D. S. (2016). The tool for the automatic analysis of text cohesion (TAACO): Automatic assessment of local, global, and text cohesion. Behavior Research Methods, 48, 1227-1237. doi:10.3758/s13428-015-0651-7

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