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Text Complexity and Reading Comprehension Tests

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Erik Castello

Based on the analysis of a specially compiled corpus of internationally recognized English as a foreign language (EFL) reading tests at different levels of proficiency, this volume explores the relation between the complexity of written texts and the difficulty of reading comprehension tests. It brings together linguistic investigations into the text-inherent complexity of the tests and a study of the data derived from their administration to groups of Italian university students. The study of text complexity draws on corpus linguistics, text linguistics and systemic functional linguistics. Both quantitative and qualitative analyses are carried out on the language used in the reading texts and in the related tasks that make up the corpus of tests. The assessment of test difficulty, on the other hand, is informed by research on language testing, and, in particular, by findings and methodologies of Classical Test Theory and Item Response Theory. Relevant aspects of these theories are used to analyze and interpret both the data obtained from the administration of the tests and the data collected by means of feedback questionnaires completed by test takers. The application of such diverse methodologies and the subsequent comparison of the results of the analyses has brought out interesting correlations between text-inherent complexity, perceived test difficulty and actual test difficulty.

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Thanks and Acknowledgements ...........................................................9 1. Introduction ....................................................................................11 1.1 Background and Purpose of this Study.....................................11 1.2 The Theoretical and Methodological Framework.....................13 1.3 Outline of Content ....................................................................21 2. A Corpus of Reading Comprehension Tests...................................23 2.1 The DIALANG Sub-corpus......................................................24 2.2 The TOEFL Sub-corpus............................................................26 2.3 The IELTS Sub-corpus .............................................................30 2.4 The PET Sub-corpus.................................................................32 2.5 The FCE Sub-corpus.................................................................34 2.6 The CAE Sub-corpus ................................................................36 3. Quantitative Investigation into the Complexity of the Texts of the Corpus...............................................................41 3.1 The Type/Token Ratio ..............................................................42 3.2 Measuring Lexical Density and Lexical Variation ...................48 3.2.1 Measures of Lexical Density..........................................49 3.2.1.1 Lexical Items vs. Grammatical Words ..................53 3.2.1.2 Lexical Density (Ure’s method) in the Corpus......58 3.2.2 A Measure of Lexical Variation.....................................64 3.3 Measuring Vocabulary Difficulty .............................................71 3.3.1 Range 32 and the Underlying Research .........................72 3.3.2 Using Range 32 and Base Word Lists for the Analysis of the Corpus...................................................75 3.4 Measuring Grammatical Intricacy and Halliday’s method of Measuring Lexical Density .....................................87 6 3.4.1 Halliday’s Method of Calculating Lexical Density (LDH), Grammatical Intricacy, the Grammar of the Clause Complex, and Embedding .......................88 3.4.1.1 The Clause Complex .............................................89 3.4.1.2 Embedding of Clauses ...........................................94 3.4.2 Further Investigation of the Lexical Density of the Texts and an Investigation of their Grammatical Intricacy ...................................................97 3.5 Measuring Readability ............................................................103 3.5.1 Readability Formulae ...................................................103 3.5.2 Investigating the Readability of the Corpus .................106 3.6 On the Relationship between the Variables ............................113 4. Text Complexity, Participant Identification and Cohesion in the Corpus ................................................................................123 4.1 Participant Identification in English: from Discourse Semantics to Lexicogrammar .................................................124 4.1.1 Participant Identification in English: a Review of...

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