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Enhancing Syntactic Complexity in Second Language Chinese Writing: Effects of Explicit Instruction


  • Jieyu Zhou, she/her, graduate student, Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Chan Lü, she/her, faculty, Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington, Seattle campus


Project Question

We would like to improve students’ writing skills, specifically the syntactic complexity of their writing. And we asked two questions:

  1. Does explicitly teaching students how topic chains are constructed improve their syntactic complexity in writing tasks?
  2. Does the explicit instruction have any delayed effect on students’ performance in writing tasks?


The project was designed for elementary-level Chinese learners who speak English as their native language. The topic chain is a chain of successive clauses sharing the same topic/subject, with the topic only overtly stated once and omitted in the rest of the positions. It is an important indicator of syntactic complexity in Chinese. This feature is difficult for English-speaking learners of Chinese because English subjects usually cannot be omitted.


Students from a first-year Chinese course in UW voluntarily joined either the training group (N=64) or the control group (N=51). Throughout the entire autumn quarter, the two groups followed the same instructional plan offered by the curriculum, while the training group received 10 weeks of explicit training on the Chinese topic chain, which included researcher-designed video instructions about the form, function, context and restrictions of topic chains and weekly writing assignments of three tasks that required applications of the topic chain; all delivered through Moodle. Both groups participated in a posttest at the end of the quarter, and a delayed posttest two weeks later. The two posttests had the same format and difficulty level.


The answers of the assignment tasks and the posttests was assessed with a validated measurement of Chinese syntactic complexity.

To answer Research Question 1, the developmental trajectories of syntactic complexity of the training group’s scores on the three tasks were calculated and compared, and the posttest results of this group and the control group were compared, using the non-parametric Friedman tests. The results showed that the training group’s syntactic complexity grew significantly during the training period and they outperformed the control group in the posttest, indicating the effectiveness of the explicit instruction.

To answer Research Question 2, the training group’s performances on the posttest and the delayed posttest were compared through a Wilcoxon signed-rank test. The results show that the scores of the two posttests did not differ, indicating that the explicit instruction did have a delayed effect on students’ performance.

Our findings revealed that first, explicit instruction on constructing the topic chain had a positive and durable effect on Chinese learners’ syntactic complexity. Second, the topic chain could not be easily mastered through self-learning, or mere exposure through classroom. Therefore, Chinese language instructors should deliberately teach the topic chain to enhance their syntactic complexity, rather than expecting students to learn it implicitly.


For Chinese language instructors, the instructional materials used in this project are useful and can be disseminated to other programs to improve the syntactic complexity of Chinese learners in other institutions.

For instructors and researchers in other disciplines, they might learn how to involve students in doing a controlled variable experiment over the course of a quarter or a longer period.

In addition, instructors and researchers of all disciplines may also need to pay more attention to the effect of instructional/training intensity, types of feedback, and task complexity in teaching and research. Compared with similar studies of different results, the findings of this project also point to the importance of instructional intensity and types of feedback in influencing the effectiveness and durability of explicit instruction, as well as task complexity in affecting the observation of syntactic complexity. Briefly speaking, instruction with high intensity, more complicated tasks, and metalinguistic explanation is relatively more effective in improving written syntactic complexity. Therefore,

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