Writing prompt convergence in high-stakes tests: Exploring rhetorical functions and objects of enquiry


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The writing prompts in high-stakes tests have become an issue of concern due to their possible effect on test takers’ writing performance and potential washback on writing pedagogy. In the present study, the prompts (n = 120) from three of these tests, TOEFL, IELTS and TEM4 (a language test in China), were investigated for two elements – their specific rhetorical function and object of enquiry – to examine whether these prompts displayed certain patterns. Results revealed that both of these elements converged around a narrow set of themes and functions. Specifically, a preponderance of prompts required responses that were either evaluative (44%) or hortative (23%) (recommending). As for the objects of enquiry, three sociocultural themes were dominant: education (34%); technology (20%); and current social issues (15%). These findings may indicate that the prompts in high-stakes tests are converging around a restricted set of themes, which may be generating prescriptive responses that fail to appreciate the full range of linguistic and argumentative possibilities normally expected in academic writing. Here, we propose that a wider range of writing prompts with alternative rhetorical functions and objects of enquiry be considered in high-stakes tests in order to facilitate students’ writing and thinking development. Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)68-75
JournalStudies in Educational Evaluation
Early online dateSep 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015



Liu, F., & Stapleton, P. (2015). Writing prompt convergence in high-stakes tests: Exploring rhetorical functions and objects of enquiry. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 47, 68-75.


  • Writing prompt
  • Rhetorical function
  • Object of enquiry
  • High-stakes language test