Form- and Meaning-based Complexity in EFL.

Bathrobe, who sent me a link to this article by Sachiko Yasuda (Assessing Writing 61 [July 2024]), says “Although it is only available in part, I found this recently published study interesting”; he adds that in his experience “students are taught all kinds of complex grammatical constructions but can’t put together a decent argument.” The Abstract:

The study examines the relationship between form-based complexity and meaning-based complexity in argumentative essays written by high school students learning English as a foreign language (EFL) in relation to writing quality. The data comprise argumentative essays written by 102 Japanese high school learners at different proficiency levels. The students’ proficiency levels were determined based on the evaluation of their argumentative essays by human raters using the GTEC rubric. The students’ essays were analyzed from multiple dimensions, focusing on both form-based complexity (lexical complexity, large-grained syntactic complexity, and fine-grained syntactic complexity features) and meaning-based complexity (argument quality). The results of the multidimensional analysis revealed that the most influential factor in determining overall essay scores was not form-based complexity but meaning-based complexity achieved through argument quality. Moreover, the results indicated that meaning-based complexity was strongly correlated with the use of complex nominals rather than clausal complexity. These insights have significant implications for both the teaching and assessment of argumentative essays among high school EFL learners, underscoring the importance of understanding what aspects of writing to prioritize and how best to assess student writing.


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    Are L1 English students taught how to put together a decent argument? Either History or English would be a good place for this, but I have a feeling teachers would have to be careful these days to avoid being accused of bullying, homophobia, racism, sexism etc., if they marked down student essays for logical fallacy or weakness.

  2. Trond Engen says

    I don’t understand that.

    Well, I remember classmates complaining that they had been marked down for the quality of argument just because the teacher had a different opinion, so that isn”t something new. But those complaints — and teachers — were all over the political spectrum. (And I had the same teachers and never experienced any such thing.) Why would it be any different now?

  3. David Marjanović says

    I was explicitly taught how to put together a decent argument in German and then again in English – 30 years ago.

  4. I don’t understand that.

    I don’t understand that.

    In the Olden Days, when philosophers roamed the world with impunity and hardly raised an eyebrow,* I coordinated a first-year unit for arts students called Communications. An academic in English took charge of the English component (though Hatters will not be surprised that I contributed a mini-manual on punctuation, desperately needed then as now), and we looked after critical thinking. It was not a popular unit, largely because it was compulsory. But it did much good. My memories of it are dominated by the poverty of additional textbooks (beyond one written by predecessors, not altogether good) for informal logic as applied to common discourse. Quantity of publications was not an issue; quality was. In other units, for postgraduate professional programs, I devised my own materials. Taught me a lot, of course – one always hopes for that.

    * Strategic ambiguity.

  5. The original article says “Higher-scoring essays are characterized by the use of sophisticated noun phrases.”
    So more than logical arguments, the ability to paint a pretty picture with words seems to be paramount.

  6. All it has to say to me is “update your browser to view ScienceDirect”

    But there’s a preprint here

  7. It has always bothered me that education in the humanities has conflated the ability to create a logically sound argument with the ability to create a rhetorically compelling argument. The failure to distinguish between the two is certainly not new; Gorgias was criticized for privileging clever argumentation over meaningful content. As to what was considered a rhetorically powerful argument, even that was judged pretty dubiously; see my comment here.

  8. education in the humanities has conflated the ability to create a logically sound argument with the ability to create a rhetorically compelling argument.

    Yes, the valency of “sophistry” in English.

    What I want to ask (but can’t find a culturally sensitive way to put it): is it part of these students’ curriculum to write “argumentative essays” in their own language? IOW, not only are they trying to learn another language, but also a whole ‘nother cultural practice.

    But then in English-culture education are “argumentative essays” a thing any more? (They were encouraged in my time, but really rather outside the curriculum: debating society, essay prizes.)

    @PP above mentions History: AFAIR History exams required you to regurgitate facts, not arguments. I suppose extra marks for being able to connect facts in a causal chain (rather than a style of one darn thing after another). Causal chains of observed behaviour also valued in Sciences — but no argument thank you.

    Somewhat there was argumentation in sixth form Economics — because the Dismal Science is not causation so much as speculation.

  9. Trond Engen says

    Noetica: I don’t understand that.

    My culp. I replied specifically to PP’s suggestion that teachers nowadays would be in a difficult position because marking down papers of poor argumentative quality puts them at risk of being accused of bullying, racism, sexism etc.

  10. But you can’t evaluate this suggestion from your experience….

  11. Trond Engen says

    No. I meant to say that accusing teachers of partiality or bias is as old as teaching itself. Are teachers less equipped to handle that than a generation ago?

  12. David Marjanović says

    30 years ago

    I forgot I’ve seen this is still, unsurprisingly, going on. So that’s good. Maybe the Volkskanzler will have it abolished next year; I can’t wait to see who the minister against education is going to be…

  13. @Trond, of course students disagree with their grades since there are grades (and often are right).
    I think the idea is that in good old days teacher could do anything she wants whether students agree or not.

    (I once told here how my freind left a so called “math class” because the woman who ran this class expelled a student my freind liked because she is too pretty and distracts boys.)
    (the friend is a teacher and female. “pretty” refers to… well, both)
    (Ohhh. “Both” refers to my friend and the student)

  14. David Marjanović says

    because she is too pretty and distracts boys

    That’s wrong-headed. The boys, and everyone else, need to learn to cope with that. There is, after all, no escape – moving to Saudi Arabia just ends up making you more easily distractible.

    I grew up without dress codes and appear to have survived. The one teacher who tried to claim there were any restrictions on clothing choices – the same teacher who had obviously learned all her curricula by heart in the 1950s and just regurgitated them every year – was roundly ignored.

  15. Yes, when everyone is naked, this one girl is pretty.
    When everyone is in niqabs, all girls are pretty.

  16. There are some ladies who hate beautiful younger ladies. Given the motivation she provided for expelling the girl, I suppose, likely she’s one of them.

  17. When everything is covered, you rhapsodize about what you can see.

  18. There is a joke about a дворник who looks like Lenin. They asked him to shave, and he replied:

    – Ну, бородку-то я, конечно, сбрею. Но умище-то, умище куда девать?

    (Well, beard-DIM-то, I, of course, off-shave-1sg.FUT. But intellect-AUG-то, intellect-AUG where put-INF?
    DIM is diminutive,
    AUG is augmentative
    1sg marker is not actually future marker, future is marked by presence of a prefix
    -то is… not sure but cna be treated as a topic marker maybe).

    (a random association to “everything”)

Speak Your Mind