What changes and what doesn’t? An examination of changes in the linguistic characteristics of IELTS repeaters’ Writing Task 2 scripts

This study examined changes in the linguistic characteristics of IELTS repeaters’ responses to Writing Task 2. It analysed 234 scripts written by 78 candidates who belonged to three groups in terms of their initial writing abilities. The candidates each took IELTS Academic three times.

Various computer programs were used to analyse the scripts in terms of features related to the candidates’:

  • grammatical choices, i.e., fluency, accuracy, syntactic complexity and lexical features
  • discourse choices, i.e., coherence and cohesion, discourse structure
  • sociolinguistic choices, i.e., register
  • strategic choices, i.e., interactional metadiscourse markers.

The findings indicated that scripts with higher writing scores at test occasion 1 were more likely to include an introduction and a conclusion and tended to be significantly longer, to have greater linguistic accuracy, syntactic complexity, lexical density, diversity and sophistication, and cohesion, and to include longer introductions and conclusions, fewer informal features (i.e., contractions), more formal features (i.e., passivisation, nominalisation), more hedges, and fewer self-mentions than did scripts with lower writing scores.

Generally, scripts produced at later test occasions tended to be significantly longer, more linguistically accurate, more coherent, and to include more formal features (i.e., passive constructions and nominalisation) and fewer interactional metadiscourse markers than scripts produced at earlier test occasions.

While the rate of change over time for some of these features (e.g., fluency, nominalisations) varied significantly across candidates, initial L2 writing ability did not significantly moderate the rate of change in these features.

Finally, longer scripts with greater lexical diversity and lexical sophistication, greater syntactic complexity, more self-mentions, and fewer contractions tended to obtain higher writing scores. The findings of the study are consistent with previous studies on IELTS Writing Task 2, but they also highlight the value of examining repeaters' test performance and point to several areas for further research.