Tag Archives: ESL

The Inadequacy of “ESL” for International Student Preparation

Wrapped up in the term ESL (English as a Second Language) is an assumption that language, above all, is what students need to succeed in an English-speaking environment. The same kind of assumption can be found in the name of the most popular standardized U.S. admissions test for international students, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). The CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) lists levels of language proficiency by skill, and many ESL programs continue to organize their curricula on the basis of Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing skills. The field of SLA (Second Language Acquisition) is a major feeder discipline in ESL teacher preparation programs.

A focus on the acquisition of language skills gets us only so far if we are preparing an international student for academic work in an English-speaking setting.  One thing among very many that this student needs to do is to read a text critically and offer an original, well-thought-out, supported, and argued response. The student may need to argue that response in class, and defend it against other points of view, in an assertive yet diplomatic manner. To be taken seriously, the student will need to behave in what is recognized as a normal and appropriate manner in that environment – and know when and how to revert to a more informal style when class ends. All of this goes far beyond language skills.

What this student needs to learn is what James Paul Gee in Social Linguistics and Literacies refers to as Discourse (with a capital D). Discourse “is composed of distinctive ways of listening/speaking and often, too, writing/reading coupled with distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing with other people and with various objects, tools, and technologies, so as to enact specific socially recognizable identities engaged in specific socially recognizable activities” (p. 152). These are less language skills than “social practices into which people are apprenticed as part of a social group” (p. 76). As we move in different Discourse communities, we need to know how to play our part and be recognized as a legitimate member of each community. Discourses are mastered by “enculturation…into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse” (p. 168).

This helps us understand why any program of learning that reduces preparation to language skills is inadequate. Students need to learn the ways of interacting, believing, valuing, and effectively being in the academic Discourse community. University IEPs (intensive English programs) teach English for academic purposes, but they still largely identify as English language programs with language-based missions, their faculty members have degrees in teaching English, and classes are often language skill-specific. They are often isolated from the rest of the campus, and therefore don’t allow for the kind of apprenticeship into the social practices of the campus that would make international students full members of the Discourse community.

In order to address this wider understanding of international student preparation:

  • Intensive English programs should ensure their missions, their curricula and teaching, and their names, encapsulate the full meaning of international student preparation – not simply ESL.
  • University administrations should make international student preparation a task for the whole university, supported by, but not the sole responsibility of, an intensive English program. The IEP’s efforts should be integrated into a campus-wide strategy for international student preparation.
  • Universities should not expect that simply raising the required TOEFL scores will improve international student outcomes – students need induction into the Discourse community, not just a higher TOEFL score.
  • ESL teacher preparation programs need to include coursework on social literacy and in preparing students to enter and successfully navigate their target Discourse communities.

Some of this has already been achieved. Many IEPs recognize their wider mission of orienting students into academic culture, and more recently,  pathway programs have been structured to provide ESL support alongside credit-bearing classes that, in theory at least, offers an apprenticeship into the academic community. But there is a long way to go before the notion of Discourse communities drives international student preparation beyond the inadequacy of “ESL.”

Reference
Gee, J.P., Social Linguistics and Literacies, 5th Ed., Routledge 2015

Keeping your Intensive English Program Relevant on Campus


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These are trying times for many on-campus intensive English programs. Enrollment and revenue are down, and there is increased pressure from senior administration for many IEPs to demonstrate their continuing relevance and usefulness to the wider institution.

At the same time, many universities have enrolled international students who can benefit from language, cultural, and social support. IEPs have faculty and staff who are highly qualified to provide programming in these areas (and who may currently have less work to do), yet because IEPs are typically viewed as profit centers rather than service units, they are not called on to offer such support. This is short-sighted, as increased support for degree-seeking international students will improve their retention and completion rates – which is good for the students,  the university’s bottom line, and the institution’s reputation.

IEP directors can sell this idea to university administrators. Here are some activities the IEP can offer to improve the international student experience on campus:

Workshops for faculty: Offer strategies to encourage international students to participate in class discussions, or give advice on assessing written work of students using English as a second language.

Resource webpage for English language support:  Like this one at Hunter College. Include online dictionaries, grammar resources, and writing advice for international students across campus.

Tutoring: Many universities have a writing center, but few have a place specifically to help with second language issues. The IEP can provide this.

English language workshops: Students who have gained a high score on the TOEFL or IELTS may still be lacking essential English skills. Offer workshops in pronunciation, pragmatics, or giving presentations.

Career preparation workshops: Many international students may seek on-campus employment, co-op or internship positions, or CPT/OPT opportunities. Help them write an effective application and interview effectively.

Pre-arrival language preparation: Develop a short online course to give incoming international students confidence with English. Prepare them for the various situations they will encounter and provide strategies to continue working on their English once they arrive.

These ideas will likely require building relationships with other offices on campus, and IEP directors may run into territory issues. Getting buy-in from a senior administrator who can support these efforts may be essential. This person may also be needed in making the case that the costs incurred in these activities will be more than recouped in international student performance, retention, and completion.

On-campus IEPs are home to enormous expertise on international student success. It’s time to put that expertise to work across the campus.