Tag Archives: ESL

Is it okay for language learners to make mistakes?

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

“It’s okay to make mistakes.”

That’s what many English language teachers tell their students at the start of a course. It’s a reassurance designed to address the anxiety of students who are reticent about speaking or writing because they are used to teachers emphasizing accuracy in language use: accuracy in grammar and vocabulary in particular. And it’s a recognition that taking risks is a means to improvement.  

In spite of the merits of the ‘it’s okay to make mistakes’ advice though, grading practices of many teachers, programs, or institutions contradict it. In fact, grading systems often implicitly communicate to students that it is emphatically not okay to make mistakes. 

Here’s how the contradiction happens. Most schools still give grades, and most students want to get a good grade. Final grades are most often arrived at by combining the results of work done during the term or session – assignments, quizzes, and the like, known as formative assessment – and an evaluation of the extent to which a student has met the goal(s) of the course, or summative assessment. Teachers’ gradebooks and the gradebooks of online learning management systems combine these grades in some way to arrive at the final grade. 

The problem is that formative assessment is done while the students are still learning, when they haven’t yet mastered the course outcomes, when they are bound to make mistakes – those mistakes that their teachers tell them it is “okay to make.” But if a student does poorly on some of those formative assessments, and the grade from those assessments factors into the student’s final grade, then even if the student eventually succeeds in meeting the course goals, her final grade is brought down by the low grades she received while she was learning and making mistakes. If she cared about her final grade, then it was certainly not okay for her to make mistakes, contrary to what her teacher told her at the start. 

If we truly want students not to worry about making mistakes as they progress in their learning, then formative assessment shouldn’t figure into the final course grade. Instead, we would determine whether and to what extent the student had met the course learning goals. Students could follow their own route to achievement without fear of mistakes along the way bringing their final grade down. 

Shifting the burden of the final grade onto final summative assessments brings its own problems, however. In particular, it is stressful for students if their entire grade for a course hinges on how well they do in a final, summative assessment. How to deal with that is another discussion…

Teacher to Administrator – the perks and pitfalls of moving into the office

Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

At some point in their career, many teachers ask themselves if they should move into school administration. For me that question came soon after I moved to the U.S. and realized that in an ESL field dominated by part-time teaching appointments it was going to be challenging to make a career as a teacher. I also perceived that others had a passion for classroom teaching, pure and simple, that I couldn’t match. Having worked in another industry previously, I also felt restricted by the strict scheduling of my time when teaching. It just didn’t suit me that well, and when the opportunity came, I began making the move ‘into the office.’

If you are considering making that move, perhaps these questions and answers will help inform your decision…

What kind of schedule do you want?

As a teacher your daily schedule is fixed. You know when your classes are, and you know where you need to be and at what time. It’s a highly structured work life.

Administrators generally have much more control over their time (other than the slew of meetings they have to attend). Depending on your institution, vacation time is structured differently too. University-based teachers tend to have more vacation, but are restricted as to when they can take it. Administrators may have less time off, but more flexibility.

In both cases though, the ability to really unplug varies. Teachers may spend much of their vacation time thinking about and planning for the next term’s classes; administrators tend to have to be reachable even on vacation, and may have to attend meetings remotely even while they are supposed to be taking a break.

Either way, the way your time is structured will change if you move from the classroom to the office.

What’s going to happen to your teaching skills?

Being a great teacher is a constant process of practicing, trying new techniques and materials, refining routines, reflecting on what went well and what didn’t, and making efforts to become more effective. Teaching is like learning a foreign language in that it requires regular practice. If you get out of practice, you get rusty.

If you make a move into administration, you’ll have to ask if you are going to continue to keep one foot in the classroom or not. Some think that academic administrators should continue to teach, so that they can fully appreciate the experience of teachers and the consequences of the decisions they make. That’s a nice ideal, but teaching and administering are two completely different jobs, and there is a danger that you will not be able to give your full self to either.

In my first job as a school administrator I was a teacher five mornings a week, and a housing director five afternoons. In the classroom students would ask me – or more often complain to me – about their housing. In the afternoon when I was working on housing, my students would visit me with questions about their classwork. This led to long hours for me and the potential for early burnout, as well as the sense that I wasn’t doing either job really well.

It can be hard to leave the classroom behind, but it’s a tough balancing act to keep teaching and office work going at a high level.

Do you care about a career path?

Teachers and administrators may have different mindsets when it comes to their careers. Many teachers just want to teach. Some end up doing similar work year after year; others push themselves to become more effective teachers through professional development and teaching different kinds of classes.

Either way, there isn’t traditionally what you would call a career path for teachers, especially in ESL. Some institutions might have ‘junior lecturers’ and ‘senior lecturers,’ and of course there are part-time and full-time teachers. But in the end, teachers tend to remain teachers, and many teachers are fine with that.

The administrator mindset tends to want to see career progress – increasing levels of responsibility, higher level job titles, broader influence in the organization. If you are planning to move from teaching to administration, it’s a good idea to reflect on what kind of career you want, and what you want to be doing ten or twenty years from now.

How will other teachers view you?

In some institutions, teachers and administration enjoy a constructive and positive relationship. In others though, there may be a level  of mutual suspicion and mistrust resulting from differing perceptions about how decisions should be made, less-than-perfect communication, and a failure to understand and appreciate the demands of each other’s work. If you move from teaching to  administration, some teachers might view you as having switched teams; or feel you’ve gone over to the dark side.

You may not be able to avoid this because while many in the organization call for transparency in decision-making, you may be required to maintain discretion (for example to protect individuals’ personal information), not publicly disagree about higher-level decisions with which you personally don’t agree, and be accountable to individuals or entities that teachers rarely encounter, such as accreditors, boards of directors, the Department of Homeland Security, and upper-level management. Sometimes what teachers may feel is best for the students seems contrary to what is demanded by one of these entities. Too bad – as an administrator you have to comply with demands wherever they come from.

On the positive side, as a former teacher you might be seen by teachers as someone who ‘understands us.’ Either way, you should be aware that perceptions of you may change with your move to the back office (or the corner office).

Finally – do you have the skill set and the inclination?

While some of the soft skills of teaching transfer well to administration – planning, organization, and effective communication, among others – teaching and administering are fundamentally different jobs, each requiring a refined set of skills. Do you enjoy working with spreadsheets, budgets, student records? Are you ready to handle complaints from students, teachers, and staff? You will need to ask yourself if you have those skills or are able and willing to develop them. And of course, working in an office is very different from working in a classroom. Will you be happy with significantly less contact with students?

So, is administration for you?

Educating our students requires many different roles and functions, from classroom teacher to academic administrator and student services provider. We are all educators, no matter our job. Education can be a rewarding field to work in regardless of your role. I hope you will find the right niche for your talents, skills, and inclinations.

Talking textbooks

If you’ve been teaching English as a second or foreign language for a few years, you’ve probably taught using a wide variety of textbooks. Over the years, textbooks have evolved from layouts you could easily create (now anyway) in Microsoft Word, to sophisticated, full-color extravaganzas that seem designed to cater to limited modern attention spans. Textbooks also mirror evolving approaches to language teaching, from the decontextualized sentences of grammar-translation, through the drill-and-kill repetitions and substitutions of audiolingualism, information gaps and situational dialogues of communicative language teaching, to…whatever it is we have now, which is not entirely clear. 

Teachers use textbooks in various ways, sometimes as a springboard for whatever will happen in class, sometimes as a ‘pick and mix’ assortment of activities and exercises, and sometimes – perhaps too often – as the lesson plan itself. The latter seems to be increasingly true of those sophisticated, theme-based texts which can lead to what I think I’ll call ‘textbook lock-in’ – the tendency of the textbook to bind you to its content. The way this works is that each unit is based on a topic, and all vocabulary, grammar, speaking, listening, and reading exercises are based on that topic. It’s hard to do what’s on page 23 unless you’ve already done page 22. And 21. 

While this kind of textbook offers rich content, the language practice and the methodology tend to get a little lost in the mix. If learning involves analysis of the subject at hand, then it’s a good idea to isolate a piece of it (let’s say the present perfect tense), examine it closely, practice it in a structured and then a freer way, and then integrate that new piece of the subject into one’s total knowledge. This process of analysis and synthesis can get a bit lost when you are confronted with the whole language, everything all at once, and you (the teacher) are expected to also teach about volcanoes (been there, done that). 

This content-based, ‘locked-in’ approach in textbooks is very likely useful for students preparing for academic study, but it makes you wonder what the teacher is supposed to be expert in. Many ESL teachers are not expert in the specialized content of the textbook, so the textbook becomes the content authority in the classroom. And with all the exercises tied to the content, there may not be much for the teacher to do but manage the delivery of the textbook content to the students – or not stick to the textbook. 

Which creates its own problems. If teachers stay close to the textbook, they may be giving up some of their teacherly authority to determine content and method. The lesson is derived not from the teacher but from the publisher. The teacher is reduced to a delivery system, just as in the days of the old Berlitz schools (when teachers didn’t have to be qualified to teach in a language school). But if teachers don’t use the textbook, students may complain about having paid for it but not having used it, or may feel overwhelmed with all the content in the book plus what the teacher is supplementing with. What a bind this is. 

Do you like your textbooks? How do they position you in relation to your students? What is your role with regard to the book you are using? Does it support you in freeing up your creativity, or lock you in to pre-defined content? There’s a lot more to say about textbooks, but I think these questions are worth discussing. 

The image for this post is from Lessons in Vocabulary by Robert Lado and Charles Fries, The University of Michigan Press, 1956

Proficiency by proxy: language proficiency and test preparation

Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

I wonder if your school offers test prep classes for any of the English language tests that are intended to indicate a person’s readiness for academic study in English or to succeed in a professional or daily life in English? Test prep classes – and the test prep industry – have always struck me as being a little strange. What are these tests for? In my naive moments I think they are meant to give a snapshot of a person’s language proficiency at a particular point in time. Looking at a test result, we are supposed to be able to say that on such and such a date, the test-taker’s English was at a certain level of proficiency.

A complication arises because of test preparation. By intensively focusing on the test itself prior to taking it, a learner ‘hacks’ the test so that it may not give a true indication of the learner’s level. The result then is not an indication of the person’s English level on a given date, but of the person’s ability to get a certain score on the test on that date. And the score is everything – because scores have a gatekeeping function for higher education and other purposes, the aim of the learner becomes the score rather than English proficiency as such. The number is a proxy for English proficiency and is treated by gatekeepers as a substitute for actual knowledge about English proficiency.

Now, it isn’t true to say that English proficiency tests have no relationship to English proficiency, but in my experience, a test score that was gained through test prep classes, coaching, and individual study may make learners appear more proficient than they really are. Anectodally, I think we all know of the students who arrived at an institution with a qualifying English test score but who were not able to handle the demands of the English language academic environment. This may have a lot to do with whether the test is truly valid, that is, whether its scores indicate what they are purported to indicate.

Test preparation can be beneficial for language learning, of course. In my own experience, preparing for Japanese proficiency tests gave me motivation and no doubt improved my vocabulary, grammar, and (under controlled conditions) listening ability. Yet even when I passed at a high level – sufficient to be accepted to a Japanese university – I knew that I wasn’t equipped linguistically to handle that level of language. I had prepared intensively to perform well on a limited and somewhat predictable range of tasks.

In spite of these concerns, test prep will continue to thrive because, well, everybody’s doing it and learners put themselves at a disadvantage if they don’t. I hope that as a field we will try to keep language test preparation in its appropriate place, connected to a genuine effort to build practical language knowledge and skills, and never an end in itself, chasing proficiency by proxy.

Goals, outcomes, objectives – clearing up the confusion (I hope)

If you’ve had anything to do with curriculum over the past few years, then you’ve likely wrestled with the terms ‘goal,’ ‘outcome,’ and ‘objective.’ It’s not surprising they cause confusion. After all,

“What is your goal?”
“What outcome are you seeking?”
“What is your objective?”

all sound like different ways of asking the same question. But in educational circles, the terms have come to take on specific meanings, and it can be hard to tease them apart. So here’s a handy-dandy guide to – what I think is – the correct way of thinking about how these terms are used by curriculum wonks.

Although there are various ways to design curricula, the in-vogue approach this century is backward-design. It starts by asking what we want students to achieve as a result of – that is, by the end of – the course. Hence the fixation on the end-result vocabulary. Let’s take a look at each term in its turn.

The goal is the most general statement about the end result. It’s the answer to the question, “What’s this course for?” Another way to think about it is by asking, “What change do we want to see in the learners as a result of the course?”

Possible answers are, “We want them to become more proficient academic writers.” That’s not a bad goal. “We want them to be able to speak English more fluently.” Pretty good goal. “We want them to be able to understand lectures.” And so on.

The goal offers a general rationale for the course. But It isn’t very specific. So this is where outcomes come in (so to speak).

Often referred to as student learning outcomes, or SLOs, outcome statements are there to hold teachers, students, programs, and schools accountable for results. They are usually expressed as ‘can-do’ statements and describe observable behaviors that successful students should be able to demonstrate. Usually an SLO can be preceded by the words (or it actually includes them), “By the end of the course, successful students will be able to…”

So in the academic writing example above, an SLO might be, “…write a five-page essay in English examining a current topic in the social sciences, with a clear thesis, supporting argumentation, and citations.” Something like that. The statement is in some way measurable, usually using a rubric against which the students’ performance can be gauged. It is useful to people outside the school, such as potential employers or admissions personnel, who may want to know what the student can actually do, and it is useful to the school itself for analyzing its own effectiveness (by asking how many students meet the outcome and at what level of proficiency).

So we have our goal, the general change we wish to see in our learners; and we have our SLO (one or more per goal), a specific, measurable statement of what a student should be able to do. But how are we going to get there?

Objectives break down the goal and SLO into more specific teaching and learning activities. I like to think of objectives as the components of the SLO. Just as the parts of a car, assembled correctly, result in, well, a car, the objectives, or components of an SLO, when put together, lead to the attainment of the SLO or goal. For example, speaking more fluently (depending on the level of the students) might involve ‘practicing conversational routines,’ ‘engaging in free conversation practice,’ and ‘expressing one’s thoughts in speech,’ among others. Objectives can help guide teachers in planning which skills and sub-skills to work on in the classroom to support the students in reaching the outcome.

So that’s the short version of goals, outcomes, and objectives, and I think it more or less represents the consensus, although you will find many points of disagreement or elaboration in the curriculum literature. I wonder if my understanding of goals, outcomes, and objectives is the same as yours? What would you add or change?

Why you should be teaching to the test

Back in the day, if you were ‘teaching to the test,’ you weren’t really doing your job as a teacher. You isolated the pieces of knowledge and the skills that you knew would come up on the test and taught them to the exclusion of broader educational activities that might have enriched the students’ experience. You might have done this to ensure a high pass rate, which reflected well on you as a teacher if the higher-ups were judging you on your students’ test scores. But teaching to the test was frowned upon as a kind of shortcut for both teacher and students.

Since the advent of the accountability movement, teaching to the test is exactly what you should be doing. In the currently popular paradigm, schools and teachers are accountable for students’ achievement of defined learning outcomes, expressed in behavioral terms: “The student will be able to…” Examples in language programs are:

  • give a five-minute presentation on a topic of personal interest
  • write a five-paragraph narrative essay
  • summarize, in writing, a radio news story
  • re-tell orally the plot of a short story

If the learning outcomes are well-conceived, they should be a guide to what the test – let’s call it an assessment – should be. How do you assess students’ ability to give a five-minute presentation? Have them give a five-minute presentation at the end of the course. How do you assess their ability to write a five-paragraph essay? Have them write a five-paragraph essay. And so on. (The specifics of the assessment will need to be made clear, and rubrics provide a means of determining the students’ level of performance.)

And so what is the best way to prepare students to give a presentation? Teach to the test and have them practice giving presentations. To write an essay? Teach to the test and have them write essays. This is what I mean when I say ‘you should be teaching to the test.’

Some summative tests – including many of those provided in published textbooks – are not good tests to teach to. A grammar gap-fill isn’t much use in giving information about a student’s final level of achievement, unless your learning outcome is ‘be able to provide the appropriate grammatical forms in a gap-fill test.’ That’s not a very useful outcome to anyone, though this activity might help promote student learning along the way. A well-defined learning outcome is a behavior that you can describe to a future employer or school indicating the student’s ability to do useful things with language.

So let’s embrace teaching to the test – as long as you have good learning outcomes and a corresponding test that assesses them appropriately. (If you don’t, maybe it’s time for an overhaul.) And while we’re doing that, let’s not forget that games, songs, poetry, sharing experiences, and laughter create a positive, human environment that leads to unanticipated learning and ideal conditions for students to learn.



“They don’t know how to order.” The challenge for ESL students outside the classroom

How many times are ESL students told to ‘go out and speak English?’ The possibility of using the target language outside the classroom and the school is surely one of the strongest rationales for learners to come to an English-speaking country to learn the language. Theorists of second language acquisition have proposed that ‘negotiation of meaning’ with native speakers will provide learners with the comprehensible input they need to make progress, making access to native speakers important to that progress. As Bonny Norton points out in the 2nd edition of her book Language and Identity, getting that access is not so simple.

Like the five immigrant women in Norton’s 1990s research study, for international ESL students “the opportunity to practice speaking English outside the classroom is dependent largely on their access to anglophone social networks” (p. 172). But getting  into those networks is challenging because the ability to speak English is necessary to enter them. Back in 2012 we learned that many international students on college campuses fail to make any close U.S. friends for this very reason. And according to Norton, even in interactions between native and non-native speakers, native speakers are often unwilling to engage in negotiating meaning, placing the burden of comprehensibility on non-native speakers. I saw this first-hand at a campus Dunkin Donuts: two students from China had difficulty communicating their order to the server, who offered little in the way of ‘negotiation.’ When the students left, the server, shaking her head, turned to her colleague and sighed, “They don’t know how to order.” It is unlikely the students’ learning of English was enhanced by this encounter. As Norton writes of her research participants, “native speakers of English were often impatient with their attempts at communication and more likely to avoid them than negotiate meaning with them” (p. 150).

ESL programs for international students can mitigate some of these challenges through careful programming that brings students into meaningful contact with native or more proficient English speakers. Some examples (the first two are from my workplace but I take no credit for them):

  1. The Showa Friendship Circle at Showa Boston matches pairs of students with people in the community who have a genuine interest in getting to know international students. Students and ‘friends’ are chosen and matched carefully to maximize the chance of a positive relationship and the opportunity for language learning. Students and their friends arrange meals together, visit local places of interest, or take trips.
  2. The College Connection Program, also at Showa Boston, similarly matches international students with students from local colleges. Groups of students are carefully selected, matched, and oriented. They plan several activities together, and the international students spend a day or two visiting the campus and sitting in on classes.
  3. Meetup.com makes it possible for international students to find people in the community who share an interest. While international students in such groups may need to gain confidence and find their voice, meetups do offer a legitimate ‘way in’ to meaningful interactions that can lead to friendships and enhanced language learning. ESL programs can help students by orienting them to the app or website, supporting them in finding appropriate meetups, and giving them advice on language and behavior to optimize their experience.
  4. Finally, let’s not forget homestays, which, if successful, can offer an enriching language experience in which the student’s voice is welcomed. ESL programs must select and monitor homestays carefully and ensure they are not simply seen by the host as ‘renting out a room.’ Hosts must be willing to spend time talking with their students and engage in the negotiation of meaning that will help the students make progress.

I have barely touched on the riches that Norton’s book offers. Her stories of each research participant are compelling and memorable, and will offer anyone in the field of language teaching new insights into the learner’s experience, and ways to empower students to find their voice in the target language.

Language and Identity (2nd Edition, 2013) by Bonny Norton is published by Multilingual Matters.

Interaction: the imperative of the classroom

I’ve observed hundreds of ESL and other small-format classes over the years, and one thing that always interests me is the pattern of interaction between the teacher and the students. For years there has been an injunction against ‘teacher talking time,’ and class observers commonly pointed out (and still do) when the teacher is talking too much, lecture-style. You can represent this type of classroom interaction in the following way (forgive my back-of-the napkin doodles):

In this interaction pattern, information is being communicated one-way, from the teacher to the students. At least you hoped communication was happening: that would depend on whether the students were listening, or tuned out. (Lecturing can be a useful teaching method, used in moderation. You just have to be an excellent lecturer, able to hold students’ attention for a prolonged period of time. Not many of us really have this talent.)

More commonly in classroom observations, I would see – because the teacher was likely making a special effort to ‘get the students to talk’ – a more socratic-type interaction that looked more like this:

Nonetheless, the interactions were still limited to what looked like a series of one-to-one conversations between the teacher and each student. I would often notice that other students’ attention drifted during these types of interaction.

What these interaction patterns failed to do was to do what I call ‘exploiting the interactive potential of the classroom.’ Meaning that when you have a group of people gathered together in a room, you have a unique opportunity for learning to take place by having those people interact with each other. This could result in various configurations such as this:

Or this:

The interaction patterns I’ve described represent a shift from a ‘banking’ model of education, in which knowledge is supposedly communicated by a fount of all knowledge to students lacking knowledge and with nothing to contribute to the educational enterprise; to a constructionist model, in which knowledge is not transmitted but grows or is built in the mind and behaviors of each learner.

(Scheduling observations with a teacher was interesting when the teacher would tell me, “Don’t come on Tuesday, the students are just giving presentations.” Or, “I’m just having the students work in groups for most of the class, so you won’t be able to see much.” The assumption being that if the teacher was not up there ‘performing,’ there would be nothing interesting to see.)

With advances in technology and recent notions about the ‘flipped classroom,’ there is less and less excuse for classroom interactions to be teacher-dominated. To give an example from the 1990s: I used textbooks that contained listening and speaking exercises based on NPR stories that could be between five and ten minutes long. Typically the instructions in the textbook called for the students to ‘listen to the story’ for general information. Then ‘listen to the story again’ for details. And finally ‘listen once again’ for some more specialized task. I could never help but feel that a lot of class time was being wasted by students just sitting there listening (hopefully) to the story. It did help to fill the time in my lesson plan though, even if it did suck the energy from the room in those drowsy early afternoon hours. (By the way, the shall-not-be-named textbook that contained not-very-interesting-and-wholly-unrealistic 15-20 minute ‘college lectures’ was the greatest offender.)

The problem was that the story was recorded on the book’s copyrighted cassette (later CD) which was made available only to the teacher (emphasizing the banking model’s notion of the teacher as holder and distributor of knowledge). The only legal way to distribute the story to the students was in the classroom by pressing ‘play.’

These days, textbooks – and enterprising teachers who pull material from the internet – make it possible for students to access the listening material themselves, in their own time, and play and re-play it (in some cases at the speed of their choice) as many times as they wish. And the increasingly popular learning management systems and published online materials allow students to do much of the individual work on their own. This means that the teacher is able to truly exploit the interactive potential of the classroom by having students get their language input outside of class. One principle I learned early on in my career was, “Don’t let students do in class what they could do outside of class.” The thing they have difficulty doing outside of class is working with each other, discovering and building knowledge together. And if I went to observe a class today, that is what I would want to observe. How does the teacher create the right conditions for learning, recognizing that the classroom is potentially an interactive environment?

But for all our talk of ‘student-centered learning,’ I’m afraid that if you walk past many ESL classrooms on a typical day, the most likely thing you will hear is the teacher’s voice. You might still hear the listening text from the textbook (often a TED Talk these days). In some cases, more egregiously, a movie is being shown – which makes that classroom the most expensive movie house in town.

Now I may have gone a bit too far here. Running an interactive classroom has its challenges. If you, the teacher, expect the students all to have done their out-of-class listening, reading, or exercises and to be ready to discuss them in class, you may be disappointed. Even if you train your students to do all their out-of-class preparation, you know that some won’t have done it. In those cases, you have to decide what to do with the slackers – try to incorporate them anyway, or set them aside to do the work they should have done and assign a lower grade?

Despite the challenges, if teachers are not exploiting the interactive potential of their classrooms, they are failing to keep up with established good practice, and denying their students a once-only opportunity. Classroom interaction should be high on the ‘classroom observation checklist’ for anyone observing or being observed teaching.

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.”

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.