Textual Coherence of Efl College Students’ Writing: Effect of Topic Familiarity and L2 Proficiency on Theme/Rheme Structure

Project: A - Government Institutionb - National Science and Technology Council

Project Details


Although the role of textual coherence has been intensively studied in both composition studies and second language writing studies, there still lacks a consistent understanding of how thematic choices contribute to coherent or incoherent text especially in L2 writers’ writing. Therefore, the purpose of this research project is to explore textual and organizational features of L2 writers through examining theme-rheme structures in EFL college students’ writing performance as well as to investigate factors that may cause inappropriate thematic choices and patterns. The objectives of the study is to (1) examine the relationship between theme selections and textual coherence in EFL college writers’ writing, (2) explore the relationship between theme selections and L2 proficiency levels; and (3) investigate the influence of topic familiarity on theme selections. The study will include 60 non-English-major college students enrolled in English Grammar and Writing course at a medical university in Taiwan. A distinctive feature of the study is that the primary data includes a set of three essays based on a sequenced writing task and two diagnostic writing tests. The sequenced writing task allows students to build their writing expertise through a series of writing on the same research topic they are interested in. Rather than conducting text analysis on merely one writing tests, the multiple writing samples by the same group of student writers will allow the principal investigator to explore the effect of multiple factors (i.e. L2 proficiency, topic familiarity) on theme selections that may affect textual coherence in students’ writing performance. A pilot study was conducted in 2015 in order to ensure the feasibility of the analytical model for the present research and to detect any possible issues relating to theme-rheme analysis on students’ writing. The findings of the pilot study revealed that among three types of theme selections, the frequency of topical and textual themes were almost the same on 24 writing samples written by college students. A closer text analysis showed that students displayed difficulties in choosing appropriate themes, which not merely resulted in breaks of textual coherence, but also less dense information in text. Findings of this study will contribute to understanding of how theme-rheme structures are practiced in EFL learners’ writing practice, and more importantly, how theme selections may vary according to L2 proficiency levels and familiarity with the topic. Theoretically, the findings will provide insights into theme-rheme theory in second language writing; pedagogically, the findings will be beneficial for writing teachers in terms of designing effective instructional strategies, materials, or curriculum development that help to enhance EFL students’ coherence in their English writing.
Effective start/end date8/1/177/31/18


  • coherence
  • second language writing
  • theme-rheme structure
  • text analysis


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