Investigating IELTS Academic Writing Task 2: Relationships between cognitive writing processes, text quality, and working memory


Andrea Révész

Marije Michel

Minjin Lee

Date Published:

1st March 2017

This project examined the cognitive processes and online behaviours of second language writers while performing IELTS Academic Writing Test Task 2, and the ways in which the online behaviours of test-takers relate to the quality of the text produced. An additional aim was to assess whether writing behaviours and text quality are influenced by individual differences in phonological short-term memory and executive control functions.

Thirty participants, Mandarin users of L2 English from a UK university, performed a version of Task 2 of the IELTS Academic Writing Test. The online writing processes of the participants were captured by recordings of participants' eye-movements and logs of their keystrokes. After a short break, a subset of the participants took part in a stimulated recall session, as part of which participants were requested to describe their thought processes during task performance, prompted by the playback of the recordings of their keystrokes. Participants were administered an extensive battery of working memory tests (Chinese Digit Span, Chinese Non-word Span, Colour Shape Task, Corsi Block Forward-Backward, Stop Signal Task, and Operation Span). The essays produced were scored in terms of IELTS rating criteria, and analysed for linguistic complexity (lexical, syntactic and discourse complexity) and accuracy relying on computer-based and expert analyses.

The results demonstrated that the IELTS Academic Writing Task 2 elicits a wide range of cognitive processes and writing behaviours, which are well aligned with the intended aim of the IELTS Academic Writing test. A number of links were also observed between the measures of writing behaviours and text quality, some of which included the IELTS total score and subscores. However, working memory was found to be related to only a few measures of writing behaviours and text quality indices.