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Organization of writing class by combining on-line automatic evaluation system and discourse theory - Criterion and Topical Structure Analysis

The present study will report on the findings from writing class for second year Japanese university students which was carried out by combining ETS’s Criterion online writing evaluation service with topical structure analysis put forward by Lautamatti(1987). The study focused on answering the following research question: how does the visualization of topical structures of students' writing contribute to the improvement in Criterion evaluation score?
For the 2013-2014 academic year(from April to February), Criterion was introduced to my writing class(N=17), and each of the students’ short essays were holistically scored by the automated evaluation system. Criterion also immediately provided students with feedbacks which are based on the following five categories: ‘grammar’, ‘usage’, ‘mechanics’, ‘style’, and ‘organization & development’. The essays written at the beginning of the writing course got relatively low scores(Ave=2.7). Moreover, they also tended to receive negative feedbacks on the category of ‘organization & development’, though they obtained somewhat positive feedbacks on such categories as ‘grammar’ and ‘usage’. This is probably because Japanese high school English writing class exclusively focuses on the production of ‘grammatically flawless’ sentences based on Japanese-to-English translation practice and didn’t provide students with almost no opportunity to organize them into a meaningful paragraph.
So, topical structure analysis was experimentally employed in order to show students the organization of a model paragraph by visualizing topical structure. It initially looks at a sequence of sentences and examines how each of these sentence topics interacts with the topics of its adjacent sentences to progressively organize a meaning as a whole text. Lautamatti (1987) identified three types of progressions of sentences, which are referred to as ‘parallel’, ‘sequential’ and ‘extended sequential’. In parallel progression sentence topics are semantically identical; in sequential progression the comment of the previous sentences often appear as the topic of the next sentences; in extended sequential progression a parallel progression is provisionally interrupted by sequential progression. Connor and Farmer (1990) points out that both parallel and extended parallel progressions were more likely to appear in high quality-essays. On the other hand, the writers of low-quality essays showed the tendency to depend more often on sequential progressions. The students’ first essays showed a strong tendency to be over-dependent on sequential progressions. That is to say, they deviated from one sub-topic to another every time they started the next sentences with different sub-topics and consequently failed to create a paragraph topic.
My presentation is first going to show the difference in visualized topical structures between high and low quality essays. Secondly, it also clarifies in details how topical structure analysis helps students revise their topical structures of their own essays and, thus, enabled them to improve their Criterion evaluation scores.


Iwao Yamashita    
School of Health Sciences and Nursing
Juntendo University

1981 graduated from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies(BA in linguistics)
1981 started to teach English as a secondary school teacher
1999 graduated from University of Birmingham in UK (MA in TESL/TEFL)
2006 started to teach English as an associate professor at Chukyo Women's University
2010 started to teach English as a professor at Juntendo University


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