Academic English Requirements:
University-Level Preparation Programs for International Students
The issue of English language standards and the academic preparation programs of international students who must meet them has become an increasingly complex and controversial topic in education today. This paper will explore this issue in depth, focusing on the specific needs of foreign students at University level. It will do this by exploring the current literature and theories that dominate the field, including Computer-Assisted Language Learning, or ‘CALL’. Then it will discuss issues pertinent to planning and developing an effective language preparation program to address those needs
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Current literature and theories
A number of theories are currently competing to dominate the field today. Among these are several entry level issues. Most professionals agree that some sort of preparatory training is absolutely necessary for first year University students of non-English speaking background (NESB). However, the agreement stops there, as they seem unable to decide on which of these programs is best.
One of these programs is focused primarily on teaching students only those English language concepts that are essential for them to be successful in attaining their academic degrees. Called ‘English for Academic Purposes’ (EAP), this plan, as the name suggests, zeroes in on those skills that best ensure academic success. Academic success here is defined solely by completion of a degree. This raises issues of its true long-term worth as a sustainable skill (‘Pathways’ 2004, 2).
Other plans include ‘English for Specific Purposes’ (ESP), which focuses on teaching students those aspects of English that will be most relevant their specialised professional projects. Alternate pathways to University level education are another option; this approach focuses on integrating relevant skills learned outside the academic setting in such a way that the student is given academic credit for them. A methodology similar to this is described by Sandra Elbaum in Grammar in Context: ‘Learning a language through meaningful themes and practicing it in a contextualized setting promote both linguistic and cognitive development’ (Elbaum 2005, xv).
The ‘Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol’ Model, also called the SIOP Model, focuses on what the authors refer to as ‘sheltered instruction’. It is an approach ‘that can extend the time students have for getting language support services while giving them a jump-start on the content subjects they will need for graduation (Echevarria et al. 2004, 10).
Computer-Assisted Language Learning
Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) was first used to assist in foreign language teaching in the 1960s. This was only at University level; it has since grown to include earlier grade levels as well. It has made drastic strides in development since its introduction (Warschauer & Healey 1998, 58).
CALL is described by Warschauer as having three primary functions: behaviouristic, communicative, and integrative. The first of these, the Behaviouristic, is the simplest model. In this mode, the computer functions primarily as a means of providing the learner with the appropriate educational materials. Essentially, this means that the computer functions in a tutorial capacity.
The second mode is called the Communicative mode. It is much more interactive and allows the learner a greater degree of choice and control in the methodology and level of study. Some examples of this mode include word processing functions, spelling and grammar checkers, and stimulating games such as Sim City (Davies 2005, par. 3; Warschauer & Healey 1998, 67).
The Integrative phase, the final and most recent, is also the most complicated and the most rewarding of the three. It offers a far greater degree of sophistication. It does this by combining both multimedia and internet technologies to offer a wide range of control to learners and teachers. Communication can be synchronous or asynchronous, eliminating scheduling conflicts as well as time zone differences. This also helps students to pace themselves according to their own learning needs. Finally, geographic distance ceases to be a barrier, allowing individuals to expand their social horizons as they exchange ideas with other members of the global community (Davies 2005).
Thus, the Integrative aspect of CALL offers such a wide range of options and challenges for second-language learners. However, the Integrative phase does invite criticism, particularly regarding foreign-language acquisition. For example, it can be said that language is basically a social activity. As such, the concept of truly learning one without face-to-face contact may seem prohibitive to some. It can also be argued that Integrative communication tends to isolate rather than draw people together, making the concept of global community seem more unattainable than ever.
Proposal for Course Layout
In order to plan an effective preparatory course for international students at this level of study, facilitators must be aware of the variety of material available for improving students’ language skill, not just one or two texts. The variety and options offered by University-level textbooks and accompanying tools seem endless. Although the standard grammar-based ‘traditional’ approach still forms the core of many methodologies, few programs base their programs on a single methodology.
Dana Ferris stresses the need to develop a comprehensive ‘error-treatment’ plan that directly addresses key issues regarding linguistic ability in composition and writing (Ferris 2002, 105). According to Ferris, teachers need to realize that ‘differences in students’ levels of L2 proficiency will affect both the number and type of errors that they make as well as their ability to process particular types of feedback’ (Ferris 2002, 56).
It is also vitally important to know the needs of the students in the class. This is a point that cannot be stressed enough: to effectively plan the class, instructors need to know the basic makeup of individual classes rather than design a curriculum that is based on theoretical conjecture. Use of multimedia and similar resources can greatly facilitate this process.
Another aspect to consider in designing a course is that fact that approaches to studying are different in different countries. For example, in the UK and most other English-speaking countries, students are expected to be very independent. International students should be made aware of the different levels of expectation, as well as strategies for learning to adjust and thrive in this environment. This theory is a key part of the theory of Lowes et al. in their guide for international students. Lowes and his partners are lecturers who have had several years’ experience teaching students at University in the UK. They include specific, real-life examples of the experiences they have had with students from different cultures and countries to demonstrate the relevance of their point.
It is clear that the issue of academic preparation programs for international students is complex and controversial. The trend today seems to be leaning heavily towards computer-assisted methodologies, which offer flexibility, convenience, and control for both students and instructors. There also seems to be an increasing awareness that general English-language courses need to be tailored to fit the specific needs of the students who take them, thus enabling them to concentrate on their primary courses of study.
By designing a preparatory course that considers the actual levels and the specific needs of international students, the lessons will address relevant issues—issues that will enable students to focus on their primary programme of study to successfully complete their degrees.
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Ferris, D. 2002. Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Lowes, R., Peters, H., and Turner, M. 2004. The International Student’s Guide: Studying English at University. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
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Warschauer, M., & Healey, D. 1998. ‘Computers and language learning: An overview’. Language Teaching, 31, 57–71.