Exploring early L2 writing development through the lens of grammatical complexity

Tove Larsson, Tony Berber Sardinha, Bethany Gray, Douglas Biber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The present study explores the development of grammatical complexity in L2 English writing at the beginner, lower intermediate, and upper intermediate levels to see (i) to what extent the developmental stages proposed in Biber et al. (2011) are evident in low-proficiency L2 writing, and if so, what the patterns of progression are, and (ii) whether students gradually move away from speech-like production toward more advanced written production. We use data from COBRA, a corpus of L1 Brazilian Portuguese learner production, along with BR-ICLE and BR-LINDSEI. All the data were tagged using the Biber tagger (Biber, 1988) and the Developmental Complexity tagger (Gray et al., 2019), and subsequently analyzed using a technique developed in Staples et al. (2022) to quantify developmental profiles across levels. The technique considers not only overall change in frequency across levels, but also the incremental variation across each adjacent level (based on % frequency changes). The results show that the features were infrequent overall, with a majority of both clausal and phrasal features exhibiting an increase in frequency across the levels, albeit to varying degrees. This general pattern is contrary to predictions based on findings from previous studies, which found phrasal features increasing in use and clausal features decreasing in use. Nonetheless, for the features associated with each developmental stage, the frequencies generally increased, becoming more similar to advanced written production and more dissimilar to spoken production, as hypothesized in Biber et al. (2011).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100077
JournalApplied Corpus Linguistics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Developmental stages
  • Grammatical complexity
  • L2 writing development
  • Low-proficiency learners

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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