Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

To Assign a Topic or Not: Observing Fluency and Complexity in Intermediate Foreign Language Writing

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

To Assign a Topic or Not: Observing Fluency and Complexity in Intermediate Foreign Language Writing

Article excerpt


The present study examines the written products of third-semester German students' written productions during a timed, in-class writing activity. Topic selection control was modulated from instructor to student during eight 10-minute sessions. To account for order of treatment, two of the four groups were counterbalanced with the other two. Each written product was textually analyzed and categorized into a general fluency index and an overall grammatical complexity score, both of which were correlated and statistically analyzed (ANOVA). ANOVA results indicate that topic control did influence participants' written fluency but not grammatical complexity (though mean scores for complexity were higher during self-selected topic writing). Participants' overall level of fluency was significantly higher when they selected their own topics.

Keywords: writing complexity, writing fluency, writing in German as a foreign language, timed writing, topic control

Language: German


In the foreign language classroom, students are (hopefully) required to write for a myriad of reasons: To critique, to express and justify an opinion or position, to demonstrate knowledge or learning, and to inform an audience-overall, to gain competence to produce in the language. Unfortunately, detrimental in nature to foreign language learners and their emergent writing skill is the threat of diminished accuracy-a threat that, according to Homstad and Thorson (2000), causes writers to lose sight of many other aims in writing.

Because students often do not see [written] assignments as intended to create real meaning, but as a means to "test" whether they know the vocabulary or not, students will often write as little as possible to avoid making any errors. The result is that students end up using only a fraction of the vocabulary, functions, and phrases available to them as part of their FL curriculum, and the partial or disconnected sentences they do produce are often meaningless, (p. 144)

As a result, language writing falls victim to minimalism-learners produce only what is required with as few mistakes as possible (Perl, 1979; Rorschach, 1986; Sandler, 1987). Correctness for correctness' sake can not only diminish writing in the above mentioned ways, but also leads writers and instructors alike to forget equally important elements of foreign language writing, such as fluency and complexity (Wolfe-Quintero, Inagaki, & Kim, 1998). Learners often "hold back" and avoid taking chances with less familiar forms for fear of diminished accuracy, thus not only producing less complex writing, but also writing less overall.

Meaningful, Content-Focused Writing

Homstad and Thorson (2000) suggest that meaningful writing is key for achieving more complex and expressive writing in language learners. What kinds of tasks, then, are "meaningful"? It has been argued that content-focused, not form-focused writing yields more learner-interest and deeper, richer texts (Jones, 1982; Smith, 1994). Way, Joiner, and Seaman (2000) suggested that when arbitrary writing assignments are created for teacher evaluation purposes only, such writing ". . . becomes devoid of realistic context . . ." (p. 180). Sternglass (1980) similarly observed that students who perceived a writing assignment as meaningless reverted to lower-level cognitive processing for language planning and production than they did when a writing activity was perceived as possessing stimulating objectives/goals. Indeed, it would seem a much sounder practice to have students write about what is most significant to them, allowing them to explore the language with a diminished threat of correction (Paris & Turner, 1994). According to Heilenman (1991), writing in the foreign language classroom, particularly at lower levels, unfortunately does not allow for this as much.

She argues that content-focused writing, which should be used to "create meaning . …

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