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Volume 8 Number 1, Spring 2011, Pages 1-162   

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Topic Effects on Writing Performance: What Do Students and Their Writings Tell Us?

    Xiaoling Ji

Although writing is considered to be an indispensable language skill and is being tested in almost all important English proficiency tests, it is notoriously difficult to design a good writing task. Over the past decades, a number of studies have been done concerning the relationship between writing tasks and writing performance, with the former usually classified in terms of rhetorical mode, topic effect, features of prompts, etc. Researches so far have concluded that students' writings are more or less affected by the writing task. However, as there are still variables left unexplained, more studies are called for.
The present study examines students' perception of two writing topics and how the writing topics actually affect writing performance. The first task (Education Essay) features a broad topic, while the second (Golf Course Essay) a more focused topic. The two sets of essays are compared in fluency, syntactic complexity, linguistic accuracy and lexical complexity as well as writing quality. It is found the majority of the students prefer the Golf Course topic, because they have more to say about it and the topic is more thought-provoking. The Golf Course topic is also found to generate better essays in terms of fluency, syntactic complexity, and lexical sophistication, a pattern consistent with students' perceptions. The analytic rating also indicates that the participants perform significantly better in the Golf Course task. The findings of the study therefore highlight the importance of designing a writing task that can motivate students and encourage more critical thinking.

Keywords: topic effects, writing performance, students' perceptions