Department of Computer Science and Technology

Technical reports

Automated assessment of English-learner writing

Helen Yannakoudakis

October 2013, 151 pages

This technical report is based on a dissertation submitted December 2012 by the author for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the University of Cambridge, Wolfson College.

DOI: 10.48456/tr-842


In this thesis, we investigate automated assessment (AA) systems of free text that automatically analyse and score the quality of writing of learners of English as a second (or other) language. Previous research has employed techniques that measure, in addition to writing competence, the semantic relevance of a text written in response to a given prompt. We argue that an approach which does not rely on task-dependent components or data, and directly assesses learner English, can produce results as good as prompt-specific models. Furthermore, it has the advantage that it may not require re-training or tuning for new prompts or assessment tasks. We evaluate the performance of our models against human scores, manually annotated in the Cambridge Learner Corpus, a subset of which we have released in the public domain to facilitate further research on the task.

We address AA as a supervised discriminative machine learning problem, investigate methods for assessing different aspects of writing prose, examine their generalisation to different corpora, and present state-of-the-art models. We focus on scoring general linguistic competence and discourse coherence and cohesion, and report experiments on detailed analysis of appropriate techniques and feature types derived automatically from generic text processing tools, on their relative importance and contribution to performance, and on comparison with different discriminative models, whilst also experimentally motivating novel feature types for the task. Using outlier texts, we examine and address validity issues of AA systems and, more specifically, their robustness to subversion by writers who understand something of their workings. Finally, we present a user interface that visualises and uncovers the ‘marking criteria’ represented in AA models, that is, textual features identified as highly predictive of a learner’s level of attainment. We demonstrate how the tool can support their linguistic interpretation and enhance hypothesis formation about learner grammars, in addition to informing the development of AA systems and further improving their performance.

Full text

PDF (1.3 MB)

BibTeX record

  author =	 {Yannakoudakis, Helen},
  title = 	 {{Automated assessment of English-learner writing}},
  year = 	 2013,
  month = 	 oct,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  doi = 	 {10.48456/tr-842},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-842}