The development of writing proficiency as a function of grade level: A linguistic analysis

Scott A. Crossley, Jennifer L. Weston, Susan T. McLain Sullivan, Danielle S. McNamara

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

117 Scopus citations


In this study, a corpus of essays stratified by level (9th grade, 11th grade, and college freshman) are analyzed computationally to discriminate differences between the linguistic features produced in essays by adolescents and young adults. The automated tool Coh-Metrix is used to examine to what degree essays written at various grade levels can be distinguished from one another using a number of linguistic features related to lexical sophistication (i.e., word frequency, word concreteness), syntactic complexity (i.e., the number of modifiers per noun phrase), and cohesion (i.e., word overlap, incidence of connectives). The analysis demonstrates that high school and college writers develop linguistic strategies as a function of grade level. Primarily, these writers produce more sophisticated words and more complex sentence structure as grade level increases. In contrast, these writers produce fewer cohesive features in text as a function of grade level. This analysis supports the notion that linguistic development occurs in the later stages of writing development and that this development is primarily related to producing texts that are less cohesive and more elaborate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)282-311
Number of pages30
JournalWritten Communication
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • cohesion
  • computational linguistics
  • essay quality
  • lexical development
  • syntactic development
  • writing assessment
  • writing proficiency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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