An investigation of the relations between test-takers' first language and the discourse of written performance on the IELTS Academic Writing Test, Task 2


A Mehdi Riazi

John S Knox

Date Published:

1st March 2013

This project examines the responses of IELTS candidates to Task 2 of the Academic Writing Test, exploring the relations between candidates’ first language, their band score, and the language features of their texts. The findings show that candidates’ first language is one of several factors related to the band score they achieve.

The scripts came from candidates representing three L1 groups (Arabic L1, Hindi L1, and European-based L1) and three band scores (band 5, 6, and 7). Quantitative analysis was conducted on 254 scripts, measuring text length, readability of the scripts, Word Frequency Level (WFL), lexical diversity, grammatical complexity, incidence of all connectives, and two measures of coreferentiality (argument and stem overlap).

Discourse analysis was conducted on a subset of 54 texts, using genre analysis and Appraisal Theory from Systemic Functional Linguistics.

Descriptive statistics of textual features indicate that, overall, scripts with higher band scores (6 and 7) were found to be more complex (using less frequent words, greater lexical diversity, and more syntactic complexity) than cohesive. Significant differences were also found between the three L1 categories at the same band scores. These included: readability at band 7 between Europeanbased L1 and Hindi L1 scripts; lexical diversity at band scores 5 and 6 between European-based L1 and Hindi L1 scripts; word frequency at band 7 between Hindi L1 and European-based L1 scripts; cohesion at band 6 between Arabic L1 and European-based L1 scripts; and cohesion also at band 7 between Hindi L1 and Arabic L1 scripts.

Some differences were also found in the discourse analysis, with scripts of European-based L1 candidates more likely to use a typical generic structure in higher bands, and the scripts of Hindi L1 candidates showing slightly different discursive patterns in Appraisal from the other two groups.

A range of measures (quantitative and discourse analytic) did not show any difference according to L1. The measures found to be good indicators of band score regardless of candidate L1 were text length, reading ease and word frequency in the quantitative analysis, and genre and use of Attitude in the discourse analysis.

There were also several unexpected findings, and research is recommended in areas including the input of scripts (handwriting versus typed), the relations between task and genre, and the ‘management of voices’ in candidate responses in relation to academic writing more generally.