The narrative waltz: The role of flexibility in writing proficiency

Laura K. Allen, Erica L. Snow, Danielle McNamara

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


A commonly held belief among educators, researchers, and students is that high-quality texts are easier to read than low-quality texts, as they contain more engaging narrative and story-like elements. Interestingly, these assumptions have typically failed to be supported by the literature on writing. Previous research suggests that higher quality writing is typically associated with decreased levels of text narrativity and readability. In this study, the authors present the hypothesis that writing proficiency is associated with an individual's flexible use of linguistic properties, rather than simply the consistent use of a particular set of linguistic properties. To test this hypothesis, the authors leveraged both natural language processing and dynamic methodologies to capture variability in students' use of narrative style across multiple essay prompts. Forty-five high school students wrote 16 essays across 8 laboratory sessions. Natural language processing techniques were first used to calculate the narrativity of each essay. Random walk and Euclidian distance measures were then used to visualize and classify students' flexibility in narrativity across essays. The results support the hypotheses that students who were flexible in their use of narrativity also wrote essays that were rated as having higher quality, whereas inflexible writers tended to write lower quality essays. Additionally, more flexible writers performed higher than the more inflexible writers on general assessments of literacy and prior knowledge. These results are important for researchers and educators, as they indicate that the link between textual properties and writing quality may fluctuate according to the context of a given writing assignment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)911-924
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Educational Psychology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016


  • Dynamics
  • Flexibility
  • Individual differences
  • Linguistics
  • Writing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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