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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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1. Introduction 11

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1. Introduction This study originates from the practical need that is common to all those who have to face the problem of creating reading-comprehen- sion language tests: the choice of the texts that are suited to a given level of linguistic competence and the construction of equally suitable tasks to assess the candidates’ comprehension of the texts. The background and purpose of this study will be illustrated in section 1.1, the theoretical and methodological framework adopted will be sketched out briefly in section 1.2 and an outline of the contents will be given in section 1.3. 1.1 Background and Purpose of this Study This study brings together two areas of research in an investigation of text complexity and English-language test difficulty. One aspect of this study is more strictly linguistic and is related to attempts in linguistics – most importantly text-linguistics, functional linguistics and cognitive linguistics – to define and characterise the notion of ‘text complexity’. The other aspect is related to research into the notions of ‘test difficulty’ and ‘task difficulty’ carried out in the field normally called applied linguistics and particularly in research on language testing. In order to investigate these phenomena, a corpus made up of twenty-five reading comprehension tests was designed and analysed. The tests in this 10,613-word long corpus offer the material for analyses of text complexity and of test difficulty. Specifically, they consist of an input text and of one or more accompanying tasks and have been elaborated by their authors to assess the reading...

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