International Journal of English for Academic Purposes: Research and Practice

‘Maybe complicated is a better word’: Second-language English graduate student responses to syntactic complexity in a genre-based academic writing course

International Journal of English for Academic Purposes: Research and Practice 2021, 95–114.

Abstract

This practice-oriented exploratory study reports student perceptions and potential benefits of introducing syntactic complexity-focused activities in an advanced English for Academic Purposes writing course. Syntactic complexity, seen by many as a multidimensional construct and generally defined as the range and sophistication of structures used, is here operationalized through four approaches. The pedagogical site was a six-week mixed-discipline writing course with an emphasis on second-language English research writing. Attention to syntactic complexity was integrated into a previously established corpus- and genre-analysis based pedagogy, and data is comprised of a learner-perception survey and interview and instructor observational journals. Emphasis was placed on reflection on complexity in academic writing, rather than the production of complex structures. The findings suggest benefits for targeted instruction of syntactic complexity in all four categories, with particular benefits to student writer confidence and intentionality resulting from increased awareness of the affordances and appropriateness of complexity overall.

‘Maybe complicated is a better word’: Second-language English graduate student responses to syntactic complexity in a genre-based academic writing course

Abstract

This practice-oriented exploratory study reports student perceptions and potential benefits of introducing syntactic complexity-focused activities in an advanced English for Academic Purposes writing course. Syntactic complexity, seen by many as a multidimensional construct and generally defined as the range and sophistication of structures used, is here operationalized through four approaches. The pedagogical site was a six-week mixed-discipline writing course with an emphasis on second-language English research writing. Attention to syntactic complexity was integrated into a previously established corpus- and genre-analysis based pedagogy, and data is comprised of a learner-perception survey and interview and instructor observational journals. Emphasis was placed on reflection on complexity in academic writing, rather than the production of complex structures. The findings suggest benefits for targeted instruction of syntactic complexity in all four categories, with particular benefits to student writer confidence and intentionality resulting from increased awareness of the affordances and appropriateness of complexity overall.

Introduction

English for Academic Purposes (EAP) can be ‘defined by its focus on teaching English specifically to facilitate learners’ study or research through the medium of English’ (Hamp-Lyon, 2011, p. 89), and thus the rich tradition of empirical analysis of academic genre practices, registers, and disciplinary identities is, by nature, strongly oriented towards pedagogical activity. Over the past decade, EAP scholarship has increasingly adopted syntactic complexity as a lens through which academic discourse can be analysed in the examination of L2 academic student writing or developmental trajectories (Bulté & Housen, 2014; Casal & Lee, 2019; Crossley & McNamara, 2014; Kyle & Crossley, 2018; Lan & Sun, 2019; Lu, 2011; Mazgutova & Kormos, 2015; Ortega, 2003; Parkinson & Musgrave, 2014; Staples & Reppen, 2016; Taguchi et al., 2013; Yang et al., 2015), as well as the writing of academic disciplinary specialists (Ansarifar et al., 2018; Casal, 2020; Liu & Lu, 2020; Lu et al., 2020; Wu et al., 2020).

Investigations of syntactic complexity in academic texts produced by student writers and disciplinary experts has opened a novel scholarly space, and such research raises important questions regarding the ways in which academic writing can be called syntactically complex and the particular affordances of syntactically complex structures in academic writing practices. To the first of these issues, Biber and Gray (2010) reshaped conceptions of complexity in academic writing through comparisons with spoken English that revealed greater noun-phrase elaboration in academic writing, but greater clausal elaboration in speech. To the second, Casal (2020) and Lu, Casal, and Liu (2020) found that academic writers in social sciences - and engineering sciences in Casal (2020) - vary their use of complex structures based on their rhetorical aims in research article (RA) introduction writing.

While this scholarship has rather clear impacts on the ways in which academic writing is conceptualized and assessed from a complexity perspective, the implications for academic writing pedagogy has been somewhat less straightforward. This may be due in part to the abstractness of ‘complexity’, or it may be in part due to the large number of syntactic complexity indices that have been utilized in broader L2 scholarship (see Wolfe-Quintero et al., 1998). Nonetheless, from a practical pedagogical perspective, it is likely that novice writers carry similar ‘stereotypical’ views of the grammatical complexity of academic writing to those that Biber and Gray (2010) challenged among scholars. Anecdotally - based on our fellowship with academic writing instructors and the first author’s experience as an EAP writing instructor - novice and graduate student writers often approach academic research writing with the assumption that it is highly complex, but with little understanding of what that may mean. They often lament that academic texts are written in a thoroughly complicated manner, and in many cases they enter EAP writing courses with the explicit aim of learning to compose texts which are more ‘formal’ in tone and less ‘simple’ grammatically.

Our argument is in line with Lan, Liu, and Staples (2019), who ‘suggest that teachers should not only facilitate students acquisition of diverse grammatical features in order to enrich their grammatical knowledge, but they should also give instruction on how to embed these grammatical features in academic writing’ (p. 6). We extend this line of reasoning to offer that targeted instruction in the functional affordances of syntactically complex structures is of potential value in EAP writing contexts, particularly with more advanced student writers learning to write for publication. That is to say that student writers are likely to benefit from reflecting on complexity in academic writing and developing their awareness of many of the structures and constructs which researchers have used to describe complexity. With these concerns in mind, the current text presents an exploratory, practice-focused study of student writer perceptions of and response to targeted syntactic complexity instruction in a mixed-discipline EAP writing course (specifically, English for Publication Purposes) for L2 English graduate students at a large U.S. university.

Syntactic complexity research in EAP contexts

Syntactic complexity has been a powerful means of profiling linguistic development in L2 research, with a large number of measures adopted in scholarship. Considerable research attention has been dedicated to the suitability of diverse approaches to syntactic complexity for distinct analytical goals, and many scholars now conceptualize syntactic complexity as a multidimensional construct (Bulté & Housen, 2014; Lu, 2017; Norris & Ortega, 2009).

With regard to academic writing, much complexity research has profiled academic texts of L2 student writers. Such scholarship has explored variables that influence differences in complexity (Lu, 2011; Lu & Ai, 2015; Staples & Reppen, 2016; Yang et al., 2015), relationships between syntactic complexity and writing quality (Biber et al., 2016; Bulté & Housen, 2014; Casal & Lee, 2019; Crossley & McNamara, 2014; Taguchi et al., 2013), or have investigated L2 writers’ practices and developmental trajectories (Ansarifar et al., 2018; Bulté & Housen, 2014; Kyle & Crossley, 2018; Lan & Sun, 2019; Mazgutova & Kormos, 2015; Parkinson & Musgrave, 2014). While extant complexity research has demonstrated that syntactic complexity can effectively benchmark and distinguish between L2 English learners’ written English proficiency, the findings of EAP-oriented complexity scholarship also suggest that the complexity of L2 English student writers’ texts is influenced by topic, genre, and first language, and that it develops over time even without instruction. However, there is a lack of studies that examine the impacts of allocating instructional attention to syntactic complexity in EAP writing contexts, as well as those that examine whether or not such pedagogical considerations are worthwhile.

There is evidence within syntactic complexity scholarship on English academic registers over the past decade that such considerations are worth attention, at least to a degree. Ortega (2015) has summarized that L2 researchers have typically approached syntactic complexity as ‘a quality of language production that is expected to systematically vary as a function of other forces’, with considerable attention paid to the force of ‘linguistic development’ (p. 82). This approach has led to robust evidence of the connections between L2 linguistic development and changes in the capacity to construct meaning through an evolving set of complex structures. At the same time, analysis of academic register and disciplinary genre practices has begun to demonstrate that syntactic complexity also varies as a matter of purpose and convention, highlighting that choices of disciplinary experts regarding the production of complex structures are highly situated. Biber and Gray’s (2010) important clarifications that academic research (and textbook) writing is notably complex in some ways (i.e., embedded noun phrases) and notably less complex in others (i.e., clausal subordination) raises the question of why such differences exist. The authors offer that the ‘compressed’ nature of academic prose is efficiently suited to the expertise of disciplinary community members and thus related to the shared level of high subject knowledge among individuals in a discourse community. These findings and conclusions have the important implication that the processing and production of complex noun phrases is a potentially high-impact addition to EAP pedagogy. Similarly, Lu et al. (2020) and Casal (2020) have recently adopted a genre-analytic approach to investigate variation in disciplinary writers’ use of syntactically complex structures according to their rhetorical goals, uncovering important functional and discipline-based differences in writers’ use of complex structures. These approaches included sentence-level complexity measures, which highlights the potential benefits for learners’ awareness of complexity beyond the phrasal level as well.

The present study

Thus, there is a growing understanding that genre- and register-specific factors shape expert writers’ decisions to produce syntactically complex structures. Therefore, the present study aims to explore advanced EAP writers’ orientation towards complexity in research writing and their perceptions of ‘complexity’ as a component of EAP writing pedagogy. More specifically, this study is concerned with the impacts of including syntactic complexity in pedagogical genre-analysis activities in a six-week intensive EAP writing course for L2 English graduate student writers from a variety of disciplines. Four types or measures of complexity are adopted (nominalizations, complex noun phrases, left-embeddedness, and mean length of sentence) based on recent scholarship conducted by the authors on variations of each measure according to rhetorical moves of RA introductions across a total of eight disciplines in social and engineering sciences. Data includes a student-perception survey and interviews, as well as systematic instructor observations through regularized reflective journals.

Materials and methods

Pedagogical site, pedagogical approach, and writer participants

The pedagogical site for this exploratory, practice-oriented project was a six-week, intensive offering of a graduate-level EAP-purposes writing course at a large U.S. university. The course adopted a genre-based approach, and the intensive course offering targeted academic research genres in particular. Second-language English graduate student writers enrol in this course on an elective basis (often on an advisor’s recommendation), and they represent a wide variety of disciplines at the doctoral level. The course adopts a Content-Based Instruction (CBI) approach that emphasizes schematic knowledge of linguistic concepts and practical activity (Lantolf & Poehner, 2014); integrates corpus analysis and genre analysis activities (based on Casal 2020; Charles, 2007, 2011) with cross-disciplinary classroom corpora and personal, discipline-specific corpora; and is tailored to the writing goals of student writers, which in most cases is the production or revision of an RA manuscript for submission to an academic journal. Class activity includes: a) explicit instruction of linguistic concepts; b) group and individual analysis of corpora and sample texts; c) reflection oriented discussions, and; d) work on and discussions regarding personal writing projects. Additional details regarding the principles of the course structure are provided in Casal (2020), where the impacts of the CBI, corpus, and genre-based pedagogical approach were assessed through a Vygotskian genetic approach to development in the sixteen-week version of the course. The ways in which a pedagogical focus on syntactic complexity was expanded are discussed in the following subsection. The first author served as the instructor of record of this course and had done so for several offerings over the previous two academic years.

The participants of the present study are eleven graduate students (three post-coursework doctoral students, seven doctoral students in the coursework phase of their programmes, and one master’s student in the summer between their first and final year of study). These graduate student writers represent eight disciplines (architectural engineering, chemical engineering, computer science and engineering, curriculum and instruction, economics, electrical engineering, materials science, and psychology) and a diversity of linguistic and national backgrounds. All participants (and all students enrolled in the course) had met the graduate college’s TOEFL iBT threshold of eighty or higher for English language proficiency, but the general level of oral and literacy-based English skills across participants was quite advanced. A beginning of term survey used for research purposes and as part of normal class activity revealed that three of the participants had previously published RAs in English-language journals with their advisors, and all participants were currently working on writing projects which they intended to submit for review at an academic journal in the near future.

Selected syntactic complexity constructs and their role in course activity

In the present study, the pedagogical emphasis was placed on the concept of linguistic complexity broadly, as well as ways in which syntactic complexity can be manifest in academic writing. In spite of the rich tradition of syntactic complexity research in applied linguistics broadly and EAP in particular, there is little pedagogically oriented scholarship to motivate the selection of complexity measures that may be suited to stimulate pedagogical discussions of complexity in writing. The following features were selected based on extant research: a) complex noun phrases, defined as noun phrases which included head nouns with pre-modifying adjectives, post-modifying prepositional phrases, and post-modifying appositives (following Yang et al., 2015, based on Biber et al., 2011), as well as pre-modifying nouns; b) nominal-izations; c) left-embeddedness, defined as the number of words before the main verb of the first independent clause of a sentence (McNamara et al., 2014) and; d) sentence length.

The emphasis on complex noun phrases (Ansarifar et al., 2018; Biber & Gray, 2010; Biber et al., 2011; Casal, 2020; Lan & Sun, 2019) and nominalizations (Charles, 2003; Halliday, 2004; Lu et al., 2020; Swales, 1990) is well supported by previous scholarship on academic research writing and learner-produced academic texts, as elaborated noun phrases and nominalized word-forms have been shown to be important across disciplinary writing practices. Lu et al. (2020) and Casal (2020) also found considerable variation in the use of nominalizations across rhetorical moves in RA introductions, and Casal (2020) found disciplinary and rhetorical move-based variation in the use of nominalizations in RA introductions. Pedagogically speaking, both of these approaches allow for explicit instruction and close linguistic analysis of the grammatical constructions (i.e., how to produce nominalizations and elaborated noun phrases), consideration of alternative linguistic structures available for conveying propositional content, and reflection on the impacts that complexity may have on clarity and reception.

Left-embeddedness and sentence length are more holistic approaches to complexity in that a variety of linguistic constructions and stylistic decisions may lead to a heavily left-embedded main verb or a sentence of considerable length. While from a descriptive perspective both measures can only be broken down through further analysis (e.g., manual examination), they represent useful means of placing ‘complexity’ in focus for learners by examining both conventional practices that may generate ‘rules of thumb’ and patterns in sentences with notably higher or lower values to stimulate reflection on when a complex sentence may be acceptable or best avoided. To this end, Lu et al. (2020) and Casal (2020) showed considerable variation in sentence length and left-embeddedness across the rhetorical moves of RA introductions, as was previously discussed. These approaches allow for reflection at a more global level on how complexity may affect readers, the impacts of constructing text which is ‘too complex’, and when it may be acceptable to ‘push the limits’. Taken together, it is believed that complex noun phrases, nominalizations, sentence length, and left-embeddedness represent a useful combination of complexity approaches to prompt careful reflection on the notion of complexity in academic writing, but it is not proposed as an exclusive set for research or pedagogy.

Building on the corpus and genre analysis based pedagogical approach described above, attention to complexity was integrated into this six-week course in the following ways. During the first week of the course, learners were asked to reflect on, indicate, and discuss the ways in which academic writing was ‘complex’ as part of larger activities designed to promote reflection on the nature of academic writing practices as social and choice-based. During the second week of the course, the instructor provided explicit instruction on noun-phrase elaboration and nominalization using grammatical descriptions, exemplars from academic (extracted from course corpus) and general domain American English (extracted from The Corpus of Contemporary American English). Learners engaged in out-of-class close manual analysis of texts from their personal disciplinary corpora to identify instances of nominalization use and heavily modified noun phrases. At the end of the second week, learners compared their examples and engaged in group-based and instructor-mediated discussions of complexity that emphasized speculation on the reasons why writers in their disciplines may have chosen to use or avoid such structures. In week three, learners engaged in another out-of-class analysis activity to identify notably long sentences, and mid-week they compared their findings and discussed writer motivations in their own identified long sentences and teacher-provided left-embedded sentences. At the end of weeks three and five, instructor-led, example-based mini-lectures leveraged the findings of Biber and Gray (2010), Casal (2020), and Lu et al. (2020) to direct learners towards careful reflection on how all four perspectives on complexity and the overall notion of complexity could inform their writing-based decisions.

Data sources and analytical procedures

Data consisted of a) a beginning of term survey regarding learners’ demographics, motivations for enrolling in the course, disciplinary and research background, conceptions of academic writing practices, and overall relationship with academic English writing; b) instructor field notes in the form of brief observational reflection journals after each class to summarize class activity and learner contributions, development, and reception; c) a survey at the end of week five to collect learner perceptions regarding the usefulness and impacts of the complexity-focused discussions, and; d) brief semi-structured interviews with the course instructor after the end of the term with seven of the participants to provide opportunities to elaborate on survey responses (roughly fifteen minutes). With the exception of the Likert-based items on the end-of-term survey, data was analysed qualitatively and presentation is organized around themes that emerged from manual analysis by the researchers after the end of the course. Participants’ initial orientations to syntactic complexity are first discussed, drawing from the initial survey and contributions in week one discussions. Then, participant responses to the end-of-term survey questions are summarized numerically and discussed through the thematic analysis of observation journal and interview data.

Results

Initial orientations to (syntactic) complexity in academic writing

Participants’ self-assessed strengths and weaknesses with EAP research writing are summarized in Table 1. In addition, instructor observational notes and reflections from week one are presented regarding the group and class-wide discussion of what ‘complexity’ in writing means to learners and how academic writing is complex.

Summary of advanced EAP writers’ self-evaluations in EAP writing

Discipline Strength Weakness
Architectural engineering I don’t make as many grammar mistakes as I used to I have a tendency to write longer sentences and also a habit of using dependent clauses
Chemical engineering Discipline because writing is a long and suffering journey Bad grammar, sentences too long, low diversity in words
Computer science I do love research and I am very polite My writing is too simple, like talking, and professors tell me it isn’t academic/formal
Curriculum & instruction 1 According to my advisor, my writing mostly conveys a clear logic I am not good at choosing the right word or expression. Also my sentences are usually too long, so I always have difficulties
Curriculum & instruction 2 I think I have a good command of English grammar I want to write simple, fluid, easy English which is a good-read for others, because even I get lost in my writing
Economics I am really dedicated to learning about writing I tend to make my statement long and lumpy and narrative. I can read and understand papers, but it’s embarrassing to compare my wording with others
Electrical engineering I know what I want to say. What is the point. At home, people think I am good at communication I can’t tell what writing is more formal, so I use simple structures a lot, and I make many grammar mistakes, especially when I am stressed
Materials science I don’t make grammatical mistakes often My writing sounds like speaking. My vocabulary is limited. I have no idea how to structure a literature review
Psychology Fortitude I am not good with organization, grammar, and vocabulary. My advisor always asks for more details

Note: Unedited responses reproduced, but some longer responses trimmed; two participants did not complete this survey

As can be seen in Table 1, an unexpectedly large number of student writers identified their most important weaknesses with academic research writing in English as directly or interpretably related to complexity on the first day of the course. Three of nine students directly identified ‘long sentences’ as a weakness, two students identified simplicity in writing as a weakness (and as a contrast to formality) while one labelled simplicity as a goal, and two students directly compared their writing to speech. Expected recurring themes, such as grammatical accuracy and academic vocabulary use, were present in discussions of both strengths and weaknesses, which highlights the extent to which they conceptualize academic writing practices through these dimensions. However, complexity is not directly referenced in any of the identified strengths. Participants sometimes expressed helplessness with regard to complexity-oriented weaknesses, indicating that they cannot identify structures which are not ‘simple’ (electrical engineering), they are embarrassed to compare their ‘long and lumpy and narrative’ texts to published texts (‘lumpy’ was later explained as ‘incohesive’; Economics), and that the source of the realization that their writing is ‘too simple’ is external (i.e., ‘professors’; Computer Science).

As a starting point, this provides notable resonance with some of Biber and Gray’s (2010) arguments and findings regarding complexity. Most strikingly, some learners demonstrate similar assumptions of the greater complexity of academic writing in comparison to speech to those that Biber and Gray challenge. Speech is positioned as ‘simple’ in an absolute sense in comparison to the more ‘formal’ academic writing. Interestingly, one student does indicate dependent clause use as a ‘weakness’ in academic writing, which perhaps suggests an awareness of the association of clausal subordination with speech over academic written registers.

Many of these themes continued and were further developed during a later class activity that emphasized learner reflections on complexity in academic writing. When the class was prompted to reflect on whether or not academic writing was ‘complex’, the class generally agreed that RA writing was more complex as an activity than any other linguistic activity and that it required the use of more complex ‘vocabulary’, ‘grammar and sentences’, and ‘ideas’. There was less agreement regarding the extent to which the organizational conventions of academic texts could be considered complex because some students recognized that academic texts were fairly predictable in their disciplines regarding content and overall structure.

During the next phase of the discussion, students were prompted to define ‘complexity’ in writing. Once more, learners defined complexity through perceived opposition to simplicity and close relation to formality. Students generally agreed that complexity itself was a goal in the construction of academic writing, and they offered further explanations such as ‘more difficult to write’, ‘using less common words and structures’, ‘a way of writing that shows the reader you are really intelligent’, and ‘difficult for the reader to understand’. In describing how the ‘grammar and sentences’ of academic writing they had mentioned earlier were different from those of other forms of communication, suggestions included ‘longer sentences with more ideas’, and ‘more indirect but also very specific’. One student (electrical engineering) suggested that RA writers use ‘extra’ and ‘unnecessary words’ to make their writing more formal, which was well received by roughly half of the class. These accounts position academic writing as erudite, opaque, and arcane, which is not a particularly helpful target for L2 English graduate student writers. Two learner participants objected to these views (architectural engineering, curriculum and instruction 2), arguing that ‘really good’ academic writing is complex, but clear for readers. Overall, these early discussions confirmed that many graduate student writers, at least in our context, carried broad and potentially unhelpful assumptions and stereotypes regarding ‘complexity’ in academic writing into our EAP classrooms.

Learner perceptions and evolving orientation to syntactic complexity in academic writing

As the activities and discussions of complexity became more consistently oriented around syntactic structures and concretized in complex noun phrases, nominalizations, and somewhat more abstract notions of left-embeddedness (which learners called ‘late verbs’) and sentence length, learners’ orientations to the notion of syntactic complexity in academic writing reflected the development of more principled, function-based conceptualizations. As can be seen in Table 2, the participant responses trended strongly towards the positive pole on all survey items, with the exception of item nine. The remainder of this section is organized around the survey items, with themes from instructor observational journals and semi-structured interviews used in a supporting manner.

Learner response distributions for end-of-term survey

Survey item 1 2 3 4 5 M
1. Syntactic complexity was a useful topic of our academic writing course 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 27.3% 72.7% 4.73
2. Complex noun phrases was a useful topic in our academic writing course 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 18.2% 81.8% 4.82
3. Left-embeddedness was a useful topic in our academic writing course 0.0% 0.0% 9.1% 18.2% 72.7% 4.64
4. Nominalization was a useful topic in our academic writing course 0.0% 0.0% 18.2% 18.2% 63.6% 4.45
5. Sentence length was a useful topic in our academic writing course 0.0% 0.0% 9.1% 27.3% 63.6% 4.55
6. Studying syntactic complexity helped me improve my academic writing 0.0% 9.1% 0.0% 27.3% 63.6% 4.45
7. I notice complex syntactic structures when reading academic texts 0.0% 0.0% 9.1% 45.5% 45.5% 4.36
8. I think about complexity more carefully when I am writing academically now 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 100.0% 5.00
9. I have a clear idea of how ‘syntactically complex’ I want my writing to be 9.1% 27.3% 27.3% 18.2% 18.2% 3.09

Note: Likert scale key: 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neither disagree nor agree, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree; M represents the mean.

Participants strongly indicated that the emphasis on syntactic complexity was a useful component of the intensive EAP course (no. 1), that the course activity contributed to improvements in their writing (no. 6), and unanimously indicated the maximum possible agreement that the approach helped them consider the complexity of language structures more carefully when constructing academic texts (no. 8). They also generally identified the ability to recognize complex structures while reading academic texts (no. 7). These scores support instructor observations of learner engagement and development over the term, and many of the strong ratings align with themes that emerged from the final interviews. During the six-week course, learners eagerly participated in complexity-focused activities (both in and out of class), demonstrating an ability to connect both grammatically and functionally oriented discussions of writers’ RA writing choices with their own writing concerns. When discussing the impacts of the emphasis on syntactic complexity on their writing, the most common argument was that the approach cultivated awareness of the syntactic structure overall and the ways in which writing could be complex.

Overall, this made me more aware of how the ideas are structured and presented in a paper.

All of the complexity stuff definitely did help me to notice the way that the parts of language are fitting together when you have really abstract ideas to express.

I never paid attention to how you can move parts around and make ideas really dense, and I would say that I feel more careful now to think about when I want things to be dense and when I want them to maybe be more simple.

This is well illustrated in Example 1, where a psychology student demonstrates a strong ability to reflect on what complexity allows a writer to do, as well as how complexity can be an obstacle for readers.

Example 1: I think I really agreed about being more careful and noticing the structures, because I can see it, the complex stuff, everywhere and now I try to choose, well maybe I have to choose because I am aware. I’m saying that now I can see the way that noun phrases are grown up from general nouns sometimes, but they actually refer to something really specific. So if the reader and you can see what the specific meaning is, then it is ok to be complex. So many of the sentences in papers are really simple actually. A few noun phrases that are connected with verbs and sometimes sentences can get really long too and that is ok if somehow there aren’t too many parts or things or idea that are new or written in an unfamiliar way. Ok so maybe complex is good sometimes, but not always. Maybe complicated is a better word. You are an academic writer, your ideas should be like, they should be complicated but your writing better be clear or no one will get it. We are all pretty smart so complexity is ok if it makes things really specific or if it shows a relationship between things that you cannot separate, but it’s not my goal anymore. [Laughs]. Good for me [Laughs] because whoa with the complexity. (Psychology)

This student also introduces the important issue regarding learner aims and targets with complexity and academic writing. Towards the end, she states that being complex in writing was at some point her goal, and she similarly indicates that this may be an intentional positioning choice for some people as well. Such sentiments were common throughout the semi-structured interviews and echo the initial surveys, in which many participants outlined explicit complexity related goals. A key and unanticipated insight is that this psychology student also indicates relief at her growing realization that some types of complex structures may be worth mastering and deploying strategically, while at the same time the target shifted from ‘complex’ to ‘clear’, in that complex structures represented tools rather than objectives. A similar sentiment is evident from the interview with a student from Curriculum and Instruction in Example 2. In this excerpt the student writer also directly states that she feels a growing intentionality in her decisions with regard to complexity (seemingly left-embeddedness and nominalization), and in this case that intentionality is highly reader-aware.

Example 2: When I heard about the writing course I was really excited about the chance to learn about grammar, and I was excited to learn about simplifying my writing. I think that I knew that writing should be more complex and there was, I think that always there was a fear of writing sentences that just had one main verb. We talk a lot about synthesizing ideas other higher order skills of learning. I was, there was always a tension in my writing to show that I was synthesizing by having lots of parts. It was the tension in me that evaporate [long thoughtful pause] Ok [Laughs] well but maybe it was replaced by a new difficulty. So I have a lot more, a lot more, a lot more to think about when I am building my ideas. The decisions I make are probably not better writing like we talked for my draft I can say that I did this for this reason. Like I am thinking about if the reader is going to get lost looking for a verb so late or if it would be better to point the reader towards the action as a subject. (Curriculum and Instruction)

This participant introduces another important finding. Learners personally indicated the ability to carefully reflect on complexity-oriented decisions when writing (no. 8), demonstrated that the pedagogical approach cultivated such awareness through both engagement in class activity and in the final interviews, and yet this positivity can be juxtaposed with their hesitance to admit that they have clear targets in mind regarding the complexity of their writing (no. 9). While there appears to be some evidence that this small-scale and exploratory approach to using ‘syntactic complexity’ as a pedagogical concept has cultivated a broader awareness of academic writing practices, and while there appears to be some evidence that learners are confident and capable of making more principled decisions in this regard, they feel relieved, yet uncertain. Across learner interviews, many participants were hesitant to say that they had a clear idea of what they should aim for, even if they claimed feeling more equipped to make and talk about decisions.

I wouldn’t want to say that my writing itself is better because of this, but I do really think that I am a better writer now.

When we talk about sentence length, I have some principles that I can use to help me decide if I can get away with it or if something needs to go, but it isn’t concrete like being right or wrong.

I do see that noun phrases carry a lot of the complexity, but I just don’t see how I can make those kinds of noun phrases myself.

Many of these issues suggest movement towards a useful choice-based understanding of writing conventions, but it is also unsurprising that a light focus on complexity did not help students master disciplinary genre conventions over a six-week term.

The final four items on the survey each target one of the four complexity approaches in focus in the present study. Participants indicated that they found complex noun phrases to be a useful topic to include in an academic writing course, with all participants indicating agreement or strong agreement with item two. Participants were also positive regarding the inclusion of nominalizations, with two learners indicating more ambivalence to the topic. The students expressed eagerness to engage with these topics and many were pleased with the overt emphasis on ‘grammar’, as these activities initially included mini-lectures which provided explicit, grammatically focused instruction regarding the nominalization of non-noun parts of speech, different types of modifiers available in a noun phrase, and how complex noun phrases can be built up from these various modifiers. Importantly, these learners were advanced L2 English users with long histories studying English and utilizing it to engage in academic practices to varying degrees, so these topics are likely to require considerably more attention in other contexts.

Regarding both structures, as the focus moved from the formation of nominalizations and complex noun phrases towards the integration of such resources into academic writing, learners demonstrated a strong appreciation of such discussions. As was previously demonstrated in Example 1 and 2, some students demonstrated a developing ability to reflect on the benefits of creating complex noun phrases and nominalizations. From an instructor vantage point, increases in the complexity of noun phrases and the frequency of nominalizations were evident in student writing as well, but these observations were small scale and anecdotal. Through genre analysis tasks and with the mediational support of the instructor, the learners drew important lessons from analysis of complex noun phrases and nominalizations. For example, learners found an emphasis on nominalized structures to elucidate the use of the passive voice in discussions of methodological processes, as methodological actions were often found nominalized as the grammatical subjects of passive constructions (sometimes in complex noun phrases). For many in class, such as the chemical engineer in Example 3, this reinforced the broader notion, also presented above, that complex structures and complexity are not intrinsically positive or negative, but have functional and contextual affordances and limitations.

Example 3: When we focused on nominalizations, it was eye-opening at first. I remember that when we looked in the papers we saw lots of them. It was very cool to see, but when I started writing, I just wanted to make everything a noun. It was very hard to try and make sentences where everything was a noun, and it did sound pretty academic [Laughs] but maybe not so much. Later we looked closer at what ideas were being put in nouns and maybe also why you do it, like what the reason why you would want to make a verb into the noun. For me that was really good to see the way that all of these things that we study can help you do specific things, but you should try not to just like use them for everything. (Chemical Engineering)

The remaining survey items focused on the more holistic approaches to complexity, and learner responses indicated generally high agreement that these approaches were useful. These two discussions surfaced later in the term, in many ways serving to reinforce the broader views regarding complexity that emerged from class activity. Left-embeddedness was a difficult shift from the more concrete emphasis on nouns in previous complexity activities, but learners found it to be an interesting perspective on sentence structure. During an in-class discussion of learner findings when analysing brief sections of Introductions and Methods sections from their personal corpora for the main verbs, many students in the class readily noted the difficulties that strongly left-embedded sentences often created for reader comprehension. In addition, a brief discussion emerged regarding a tendency that some writers demonstrated to use more left-embedded sentences in Methods sections, with one learner producing two sentences from his corpus where the main verb was near the end of the sentence in a long passive construction describing a detailed methodological process. In contrast, another student produced an example of an ‘Announcing the aim of the current paper’ rhetorical move that began with the formulaic sequence ‘The aim of this paper is to’. The discussion that followed is summarized by a student in architectural engineering during the final interview in Example 4.

Example 4: I would not say that I think a whole lot about the verb placement in sentences until I am proofreading, but I think it was useful. What I remember is that when we talked about it in class it helped me think about where you put the important parts of a sentence. [Computer Science] had those really weird looking sentences with the verbs all the way at the end, and we thought that yeah it makes sense if the method is the focus and it is here at the front as a noun and then the voice. Well I want to say that that discussion about focus and where you can put things and how you can move parts of a sentence around really was good for me to think about my reader and what I want to give them, but you know also now I am thinking that it was a way for me to try to change the style so my sentences aren’t always the same.

As was highlighted by the beginning of term survey, sentence length was a point of attention for many of the graduate student writers. Beyond the students who identified ‘long sentences’ as a weakness in their writing, others later admitted in class activity that they feared they had the opposite problem. Overall, learners did not indicate confidence regarding: reflection on how a reader may react to long sentences; the various ways that sentences can be lengthened (or split); and reasons why a longer sentence may be more or less acceptable. They admitted that it was a useful discussion, but not as pressing of a concern as they had anticipated:

So there is a point at which you know for sure that it is just too much stuff to put in one sentence. I think that also it is important as a writer, and now I can do this, to make more focused sentences that build on each other,

[Sentence length] was a good topic for me. I maybe paid too much attention to how long things were. If I am writing about literature and there are two ideas that I need to tie together, ok if I can make the parts of the sentence clear and it is long that can be good to avoid separating them, but I just don’t like how it feels when you read those things.

I still make monster sentences when I write of course. Later those sentences get broken into parts and I think I usually end up deleting parts of them that the reader doesn’t need.

Conclusions

This small-scale, exploratory, and EAP practice-oriented analysis suggests that there is room for and potential benefits of included attention to syntactic complexity in EAP academic research writing instruction, even in a limited capacity. The findings presented here highlight that EAP student writers may carry broad assumptions regarding the syntactic complexity of academic writing (similar to those challenged by Biber & Gray, 2010) that can potentially serve as impediments to effective communication and writing development. Some learners directly stated that ‘complexity’ was an explicit aim for their development. Learners positively evaluated the targeted grammatical instruction of complex noun-phrase construction and nominalization, more functionally and affordance-based text-analysis activities that prompted reflection on the impacts of complex structures, as well as discussions of holistic and abstract approaches to complexity (sentence length and left-embeddedness). Learners all strongly agreed that the pedagogical focus, which included a small number of in-class and out-of-class activities, led to increased awareness of complexity in their own writing and allowed them to make more principled, audience-oriented decisions in this respect.

On the other hand, students admitted that awareness and intentionality did not necessarily equate to improvements in writing. Ortega (2015) pointed out that language proficiency was the most studied variable impacting syntactic complexity, but recent scholarship has highlighted that, among advanced and expert writers, complexity may also be beneficially conceptualized as a matter of situated choice and convention. This underscores an important caveat of the arguments and findings presented here, that the participants were advanced level EAP writers with a strong orientation towards publication, and thus many of them may be at an appropriate stage in their development to shift focus towards an ‘appropriate’ level of complexity and away from the use of increasingly complex constructions that allow them to convey their arguments.

As an exploratory study of practice, these findings may be best taken as an indication that there is merit to further investigations into the usefulness and teachability of syntactic complexity as a component for EAP writing courses. The findings are based on a small sample of students in a single academic writing course, and future scholarship may beneficially target larger populations over longer periods. Further, the four types of structures targeted by this project highlight the usefulness in both fine-grained grammatical approaches (e.g., the composition of complex noun phrases) and more abstract constructions (e.g., long sentences) from a pedagogical perspective, but clearly there are a wide range of other structures and conceptualizations of complexity that may be introduced into (advanced) EAP contexts in this way. Additionally, scholarship can usefully include quantitative analysis of changes in learner texts.

In conclusion, as writers and writing instructors/advisors ourselves, we recognize the benefits of reflecting both on what may be accomplished through the complexity of linguistic structures and what may be gained by limiting the complexity of syntactic structures, towards the ultimate goal of constructing precise, accurate, and accessible texts as part of disciplinary knowledge making and dissemination practices.

References

Ansarifar, A., Shahriari, H., & Pishghadam, R. (2018). Phrasal complexity in academic writing: A comparison of abstracts written by graduate students and expert writers in applied linguistics. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 31, 58-71. Google Scholar

Biber, D., & Gray, B. (2010). Challenging stereotypes about academic writing: Complexity, elaboration, explicitness. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 9(1), 2-20. Google Scholar

Biber, D., Gray, B., & Poonpon, K. (2011). Should we use characteristics of conversation to measure grammatical complexity in L2 writing development? TESOL Quarterly, 45(1), 5-35. Google Scholar

Biber, D., Gray, B., & Staples, S. (2016). Predicting patterns of grammatical complexity across language exam task types and proficiency levels. Applied Linguistics, 37, 639-668. Google Scholar

Bulté, B., & Housen, A. (2014). Conceptualizing and measuring short-term changes in L2 writing complexity. Journal of Second Language Writing, 26, 42-65. Google Scholar

Casal, J. E. (2020). An integrated corpus and genre analysis approach to writing research and pedagogy: Development of graduate student genre knowledge [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Google Scholar

Casal, J. E., & Lee, J. J. (2019). Syntactic complexity and writing quality in assessed first-year L2 writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 44, 51-62. Google Scholar

Charles, M. (2003). “This mystery…”: A corpus-based study of the use of nouns to construct stance in theses from two contrasting disciplines. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 2, 313-326. Google Scholar

Charles, M. (2007). Reconciling top-down and bottom-up approaches to graduate writing: Using a corpus to teach rhetorical functions. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 6, 289-302. Google Scholar

Charles, M. (2011). Using hands-on concordancing to teach rhetorical functions: Evaluation and implications for EAP writing classes. In A. Frankenberg-Garcia, L. Flowerdew, & G. Aston (Eds.), New trends in corpora and language learning, (pp. 26-43). Continuum. Google Scholar

Crossley, S. A., & McNamara, D., S. (2014). Does writing development equal writing quality? A computational investigation of syntactic complexity in L2 learners. Journal of Second Language Writing, 26, 66-79. Google Scholar

Halliday, M. A. K. (2004). The language of science. Continuum Google Scholar

Hamp-Lyon, L. (2011). English for Academic Purposes. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning: Volume 2 (pp. 89-105). Routledge. Google Scholar

Kyle, K., & Crossley, S. A. (2018). Measuring syntactic complexity in L2 writing using fine-grained clausal and phrasal indices. Modern Language Journal, 102(2), 333-349. Google Scholar

Lan, G., Liu, Q., & Staples, S. (2019). Grammatical complexity: “What does it mean” and “so what” for L2 writing classrooms? Journal of Second Language Writing, 46, 100673. Google Scholar

Lan, G., & Sun, Y. (2019). A corpus-based investigation of noun phrase complexity in the L2 writings of a first-year composition course. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 38, 14-24. Google Scholar

Lantolf, J. P., & Poehner, M. E. (2014). Sociocultural theory and the pedagogical imperative in L2 education: Vygotskian praxis and the research/practice divide. Routledge. Google Scholar

Liu, Y., & Lu, X. (2020). N1 of N2 constructions in academic written discourse: A pattern grammar analysis. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 47, 1-11. Google Scholar

Lu, X. (2011). A corpus-based evaluation of syntactic complexity measures as indices of college-level ESL writers’ language development. TESOL Quarterly, 45(1), 36-62. Google Scholar

Lu, X. (2017). Automated measurement of syntactic complexity in corpus-based L2 writing research and implications for writing assessment. Language Testing, 34(4), 493-511. Google Scholar

Lu, X., & Ai, H. (2015). Syntactic complexity in college-level English writing: Differences among writers with diverse L1 backgrounds. Journal of Second Language Writing, 29, 16-27. Google Scholar

Lu, X., Casal, J. E., & Liu, Y. (2020). The rhetorical functions of syntactically complex sentences in social science research article introductions. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 44, 1-16. Google Scholar

Mazgutova, D., & Kormos, J. (2015). Syntactic and lexical development in an intensive English for academic purposes programme. Journal of Second Language Writing, 29, 3-15. Google Scholar

McNamara, D. S., Graesser, A. C., McCarthy, P. M., & Cai, Z. (2014). Automated evaluation of text and discourse with Coh-Metrix. Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (2009). Towards an organic approach to investigating CAF in instructed SLA: The case of complexity. Applied Linguistics, 30(4), 555-578. Google Scholar

Ortega, L. (2003). Syntactic complexity measures and their relationship to L2 proficiency: A research synthesis of college-level L2 writing. Applied Linguistics, 24, 492-518. Google Scholar

Ortega, L. (2015). Syntactic complexity in L2 writing: Progress and expansion. Journal of Second Language Writing, 29, 82-94. Google Scholar

Parkinson, J., & Musgrave, J. (2014). Development of noun phrase complexity in the writing of English for academic purposes students. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 14, 48-59. Google Scholar

Staples, S., & Reppen, R. (2016). Understanding first-year L2 writing: A lexico-grammatical analysis across L1s, genres, and language ratings. Journal of Second Language Writing, 32, 17-35. Google Scholar

Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

Taguchi, N., Crawford, W., & Wetzel, D. Z. (2013). What linguistic features are indicative of writing quality? A case of argumentative essays in a college composition program. TESOL Quarterly, 47(2), 420-430. Google Scholar

Wolfe-Quintero, K., Inagaki, S., & Kim, H.-Y. (1998). Second language development in writing: Measures of fluency, accuracy and complexity. University of Hawaii, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center. Google Scholar

Wu, X., Mauranen, A., & Lei, L. (2020). Syntactic complexity in English as a lingua franca academic writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 32, 100798. Google Scholar

Yang, W., Lu, X., & Weigle, S. C. (2015). Different topics, different discourse: Relationships among writing topic, measures of syntactic complexity, and judgments of writing quality. Journal of Second Language Writing, 28, 53-67. Google Scholar

References

Ansarifar, A., Shahriari, H., & Pishghadam, R. (2018). Phrasal complexity in academic writing: A comparison of abstracts written by graduate students and expert writers in applied linguistics. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 31, 58-71. Google Scholar

Biber, D., & Gray, B. (2010). Challenging stereotypes about academic writing: Complexity, elaboration, explicitness. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 9(1), 2-20. Google Scholar

Biber, D., Gray, B., & Poonpon, K. (2011). Should we use characteristics of conversation to measure grammatical complexity in L2 writing development? TESOL Quarterly, 45(1), 5-35. Google Scholar

Biber, D., Gray, B., & Staples, S. (2016). Predicting patterns of grammatical complexity across language exam task types and proficiency levels. Applied Linguistics, 37, 639-668. Google Scholar

Bulté, B., & Housen, A. (2014). Conceptualizing and measuring short-term changes in L2 writing complexity. Journal of Second Language Writing, 26, 42-65. Google Scholar

Casal, J. E. (2020). An integrated corpus and genre analysis approach to writing research and pedagogy: Development of graduate student genre knowledge [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. Google Scholar

Casal, J. E., & Lee, J. J. (2019). Syntactic complexity and writing quality in assessed first-year L2 writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 44, 51-62. Google Scholar

Charles, M. (2003). “This mystery…”: A corpus-based study of the use of nouns to construct stance in theses from two contrasting disciplines. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 2, 313-326. Google Scholar

Charles, M. (2007). Reconciling top-down and bottom-up approaches to graduate writing: Using a corpus to teach rhetorical functions. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 6, 289-302. Google Scholar

Charles, M. (2011). Using hands-on concordancing to teach rhetorical functions: Evaluation and implications for EAP writing classes. In A. Frankenberg-Garcia, L. Flowerdew, & G. Aston (Eds.), New trends in corpora and language learning, (pp. 26-43). Continuum. Google Scholar

Crossley, S. A., & McNamara, D., S. (2014). Does writing development equal writing quality? A computational investigation of syntactic complexity in L2 learners. Journal of Second Language Writing, 26, 66-79. Google Scholar

Halliday, M. A. K. (2004). The language of science. Continuum Google Scholar

Hamp-Lyon, L. (2011). English for Academic Purposes. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning: Volume 2 (pp. 89-105). Routledge. Google Scholar

Kyle, K., & Crossley, S. A. (2018). Measuring syntactic complexity in L2 writing using fine-grained clausal and phrasal indices. Modern Language Journal, 102(2), 333-349. Google Scholar

Lan, G., Liu, Q., & Staples, S. (2019). Grammatical complexity: “What does it mean” and “so what” for L2 writing classrooms? Journal of Second Language Writing, 46, 100673. Google Scholar

Lan, G., & Sun, Y. (2019). A corpus-based investigation of noun phrase complexity in the L2 writings of a first-year composition course. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 38, 14-24. Google Scholar

Lantolf, J. P., & Poehner, M. E. (2014). Sociocultural theory and the pedagogical imperative in L2 education: Vygotskian praxis and the research/practice divide. Routledge. Google Scholar

Liu, Y., & Lu, X. (2020). N1 of N2 constructions in academic written discourse: A pattern grammar analysis. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 47, 1-11. Google Scholar

Lu, X. (2011). A corpus-based evaluation of syntactic complexity measures as indices of college-level ESL writers’ language development. TESOL Quarterly, 45(1), 36-62. Google Scholar

Lu, X. (2017). Automated measurement of syntactic complexity in corpus-based L2 writing research and implications for writing assessment. Language Testing, 34(4), 493-511. Google Scholar

Lu, X., & Ai, H. (2015). Syntactic complexity in college-level English writing: Differences among writers with diverse L1 backgrounds. Journal of Second Language Writing, 29, 16-27. Google Scholar

Lu, X., Casal, J. E., & Liu, Y. (2020). The rhetorical functions of syntactically complex sentences in social science research article introductions. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 44, 1-16. Google Scholar

Mazgutova, D., & Kormos, J. (2015). Syntactic and lexical development in an intensive English for academic purposes programme. Journal of Second Language Writing, 29, 3-15. Google Scholar

McNamara, D. S., Graesser, A. C., McCarthy, P. M., & Cai, Z. (2014). Automated evaluation of text and discourse with Coh-Metrix. Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (2009). Towards an organic approach to investigating CAF in instructed SLA: The case of complexity. Applied Linguistics, 30(4), 555-578. Google Scholar

Ortega, L. (2003). Syntactic complexity measures and their relationship to L2 proficiency: A research synthesis of college-level L2 writing. Applied Linguistics, 24, 492-518. Google Scholar

Ortega, L. (2015). Syntactic complexity in L2 writing: Progress and expansion. Journal of Second Language Writing, 29, 82-94. Google Scholar

Parkinson, J., & Musgrave, J. (2014). Development of noun phrase complexity in the writing of English for academic purposes students. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 14, 48-59. Google Scholar

Staples, S., & Reppen, R. (2016). Understanding first-year L2 writing: A lexico-grammatical analysis across L1s, genres, and language ratings. Journal of Second Language Writing, 32, 17-35. Google Scholar

Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

Taguchi, N., Crawford, W., & Wetzel, D. Z. (2013). What linguistic features are indicative of writing quality? A case of argumentative essays in a college composition program. TESOL Quarterly, 47(2), 420-430. Google Scholar

Wolfe-Quintero, K., Inagaki, S., & Kim, H.-Y. (1998). Second language development in writing: Measures of fluency, accuracy and complexity. University of Hawaii, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center. Google Scholar

Wu, X., Mauranen, A., & Lei, L. (2020). Syntactic complexity in English as a lingua franca academic writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 32, 100798. Google Scholar

Yang, W., Lu, X., & Weigle, S. C. (2015). Different topics, different discourse: Relationships among writing topic, measures of syntactic complexity, and judgments of writing quality. Journal of Second Language Writing, 28, 53-67. Google Scholar


Details

Author details

Casal, J. Elliott

Lu, Xiaofei