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Cognitive and linguistic features of adolescent argumentative writing: Do connectives signal more complex reasoning?

Abstract

The Common Core State Standards (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010) feature argumentative writing across the curriculum in grades 4 through 12, yet little is known about how young adolescents develop the challenging advanced language and literacy skills needed for these tasks. This study explored productive academic language use in the persuasive writing of a sample of 40 middle school students (grades 6–8) by examining the use of (1) argumentative moves that display various levels of sophistication and (2) major classes of connectives (additive, adversative, causal, and temporal) that signal different cohesive functions within a text. Essays in our analytical sample (n = 158) were produced in the context of an academic vocabulary curriculum, Word Generation, and were transcribed, coded, and analyzed for types of arguments by researchers and undergraduate research assistants. Subsequently, connectives were calculated by the Tool for the Automated Analysis of Cohesion (TAACO; Crossley, Kyle, & McNamara, 2016). Descriptive analyses reveal that the sixth–eighth grade students in our sample deployed complex reasoning in their essays; at least one dual perspective argument was present in 50% of the essays, and at least one integrative perspective argument was present in 42% of the essays. Multivariate regression analyses (with adjusted standard errors) reveal that adversative connectives (e.g., although, however) were related to the most complex arguments (integrative perspective), controlling for essay length and topic type (β = 20.13, p = .006), as well as to overall argument sophistication (β = 17.25, p = .02). The results show the value of brief, curriculum-based essays for assessing students’ argumentation skills.

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Acknowledgements

The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education through Grant R305A090555 (Catherine Snow, Principal Investigator) to the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP), and through Grant R305F100026, awarded to SERP as part of the Reading for Understanding Research Initiative. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute of Education Sciences or the U.S. Department of Education. We thank the collaborating school districts and school personnel, as well as the participating teachers and students. We would also like to thank Breanna Briggs, Andrea Byng, Ragiah El-Shantaly, and Samaan Nur for their help and insight with applying the argument coding system to the essays. Special thanks are also due to Robert Selman and Nonie Lesaux for their support during the development of this study.

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Correspondence to Karen S. Taylor.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table 9.

Table 9 Coding scheme adapted from Kuhn & Crowell (2011) and verbatim sample statements from the data corpus

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Taylor, K.S., Lawrence, J.F., Connor, C.M. et al. Cognitive and linguistic features of adolescent argumentative writing: Do connectives signal more complex reasoning?. Read Writ 32, 983–1007 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-018-9898-6

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Keywords

  • Writing
  • Argumentative writing
  • Adolescent literacy
  • Academic language
  • Reasoning
  • Connectives