Annotated Bibliography Entry for Ortega’s Syntactic complexity measures and their relationship to L2 proficiency: A research synthesis of college‐level L2 writing

Annotated Bibliography
Ortega, L. (2003). Syntactic complexity measures and their relationship to L2 proficiency: A research synthesis of college‐level L2 writing. Applied linguistics, 24(4), 492-518.
Eva Jin

While syntactic complexity is one of the traditional criteria to measure L2 writing proficiency,  Ortega (2003) questions this indicator by reflecting on previous studies and carefully carrying out a research synthesis, closely examining cumulative evidence on the use of syntactic complexity measures as an indice of college-level L2 writers’ overall proficiency in the target language.
The methodology part in the paper is heuristic for researchers who are interested in meta-analysis: Ortega sets an example of how to collect and unify abundant empirical studies under the same criterion; find connections and associations; process and interpret data using a reasonable model. Ortega (2003) also suggests the imbalanced drive in linguistic quantitative research programs: statistical significance data are valued over “developmental questions of magnitude and rate essential to the characterization of the range of normal variation in language development for specific populations and contexts” (p. 513). This suggestion advises future researches to see beyond the statistic differences and explore factors (contexts, populations, etc.) behind the differences.
For writing instructors, the value mainly lies in Ortega’s literature review and conclusions. Firstly, she implies that whether syntactic complexity can be a indicator of L2 proficiency and how revealing it is vary from contexts to contexts. For example, ESL and FL learners demonstrate different level of syntactic complexity: the former is superior to the latter in this aspect. The fact implies that FL writing instructors cannot borrow ESL learners’ writing proficiency criteria without modifications. Different language environments (both natural and instructional) yield various levels of language proficiency; writing instructors cannot directly apply criteria coming from an irrelevant context though it is beneficial to regard them as good references. Secondly, Ortega draws from the limited longitudinal studies that it takes roughly 1 year in college writing instructions for substantial changes in syntactic complexity of L2 writing to happen. A prevailing myth in college writing instructions in China is that syntax is the duty of junior/senior high schools that should be mature when students enter college. The fact is that many university students in China does not know how to use the complex syntax in the right place, or even worse, hardly use the complex syntax in actual writing despite their completed syntax knowledge in mind. The claim that “one year of college-level instruction is probably needed for substantial changes in the syntactic complexity of L2 writing to be observed (p. 492)” is an alert for college curriculum to allocate more time for L2 writing.
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