Abstract: Topical Structure Analysis of Accomplished English Prose

By Steve Hoenisch

This study analyzes the topical structure of accomplished essays and compares the results with the topical structure tacitly preferred by assessors in their judgments of student essays. The paper examines whether the same patterns of topical structure that are rewarded by assessors in student writing, as reported by previous studies, are in fact used by professionals writing within a similar genre. The results of the comparison help determine the extent to which essays written for such tests as Educational Testing Service's TOEFL Test of Written English are evaluated in accordance with the unstated norms of topical structure in comparable accomplished English prose.

Variations in the topical structure of student essays have correlated well with different assessments of writing quality (Schneider and Connor 1991; Witte 1983a, 1983b). Three variations of topical structure are at issue: parallel progression, in which the same topic repeats itself in successive sentences; sequential progression, in which the comment of one sentence becomes the topic of the next; and extended parallel progression, in which the first and last topics in a string of sentences are the same but are interrupted with sequential progression. Schneider and Connor (1991) found that highly rated essays contained a high proportion of coherence-building sequential progressions and an extended parallel progression that helps return the essay to its main theme.

The sample of accomplished essays analyzed in this paper are assumed to represent the tacit norms of underlying topical structure within the genre. The analysis finds that the accomplished essays contain similar patterns of topical structure to the high-rated student essays in Schneider and Connor's study (Schneider and Connor 1991). The accomplished essays, like the high-rated student essays, contain a large proportion of coherence-building sequential progression and a small proportion of parallel progressions.

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