Canadian Society for Studies in Education: International Education Conference
York University: Discussant
J. Paul Grayson; Susan Stowe, “Language Problems of International and Domestic
ESL Students at UBC, York McGill and Dalhousie, and Academic Achievement”
It may seem intuitively obvious that students from non-native English speaking
backgrounds will have difficulty using the language in an English medium institution,
and indeed, Grayson and Stowe’s research clearly supports this hypothesis. The
connection between language and learning is complex enough, even when it involves
study in the mother tongue. When it involves study in a second language, the levels of
complexity increase accordingly. This study is important; the more data we have access
to concerning the language-learning relationship, the better basis we have for supporting
students from English as a second language backgrounds in their academic work.
More than 130,000 students come to study in Canada every year. The government
recently announced several new initiatives to attract even more. Foreign students will
now be able to work up to 20 hours a week off-campus in Canada. Students who have
graduated from a Canadian institution will also be allowed to stay on and work for two
years instead of just one year.
We can add to this figure a significant percentage of the roughly 240,000 immigrants and
refugees that come to live in Canada each year who enter the school system, and whose
first languages are not English, and conclude that any research that illuminates the
language and learning context of non-native speakers in Canada is an important
contribution to fairness and improved learning outcomes.
The subject of this study is also an important one because international student fees are
an attractive source of revenue for universities, which generally see themselves as being
chronically underfunded. Feast’s (2002) comments on the Australian situation resonate in
the Canadian post-secondary context:
It follows that universities are increasingly dependent on alternative non-
government sources of funding and full fee paying international students are a
large and increasing source of that revenue. Consequently, the financial future of
Australian universities may well depend on the trend to enrol ever increasing
numbers of international students who study both in Australia and offshore.
Undertaking a study of this nature is not for the faint of heart. The task of correlating
language proficiency with academic achievement involves a daunting number of
variables, several of which the authors allude to.
• How is an ESL student meaningfully defined?
• If GPAs are being used, what course configuration lies behind the GPA? As
Graham (1987) points out, the use of the GPA can hide a multitude of inequities,
ranging from the programme choice of the participants, to the comparability of
the marks awarded by different professors, to the possibility that the GPA itself
may be based on different numbers of courses for different participants.
• The increasing prevalence of individual private tutors, hired by some ESL
students and the effect of this on learning and GPA.
• Students who develop extensive coping skills, such as course “shopping,” and use
of native language materials, that may mask certain deficiencies.
• Students who form study groups, often with students from the same language
background, to review course materials on an on-going basis.
• Do students with a course load involving little writing or extended reading get
lumped in with those who have courses that are language intensive?
The question of what constitutes second language proficiency is also a relevant one to
studies of this kind. In some other cases, researchers have used different measures of
L2 proficiency, so little comparability is possible between the different studies. Dealing
with language in terms of the traditional (and now somewhat outdated) broad skill
categories of reading, writing, listening and speaking is useful and even necessary at this
stage of the research, but from an Applied Linguistics perspective, these are inadequate
Concepts of proficiency must take into account the competencies of language use:
• Sociocultural competence
• Sociolinguistic competence
• Discourse competence
• Grammatical competence
Or in another model such as that of domains of language use:
• Affective Domain
• Social Domain
• Power Domain
• Cognitive/Academic Domain
• Performance Domain
Studies of ESL student proficiencies will have to measure their abilities within
frameworks of this kind. This said, while language proficiency is viewed as a
necessary element in achieving academic success in the mainstream, it is not, in itself,
sufficient to guarantee success, defined as performance which is indistinguishable
from that of mainstream students. Dooey (1999) reports on studies attempting to link
academic achievement with second language proficiency:
Since all of these students entered the disciplines of Science and Engineering
(previously identified as 'less linguistically demanding'), it would seem that skills
other than language proficiency are needed to ensure academic success in these
disciplines. In fact, at these higher levels of proficiency in English, several other
factors must come into play. This concurs with the findings of previous studies which
found that high levels of English proficiency, as measured by the IELTS test, do not
necessarily lead to academic success.
Dooey’s observations are supported by test notes for the TOEFL which specifically state
that TOEFL test scores are not predictors of academic succcess.
As research on the links between language proficiency and academic achievement
becomes further refined, the following questions will have to be considered:
• What specific language difficulties do students have, and how do these relate to
academic performance? For example, instructors untrained in language analysis,
and ESL students, often have a simplistic view of language problems. Analysis by
a trained language expert is often necessary to determine the exact nature of the
problem. A problem with reading, for example, may not lie in syntax or word
recognition but could be a problem related to a lack of background knowledge to
apply to the reading process. Problems that ESL students face often involve a
great deal more than simple grammar/vocabulary issues.
• What factors contribute to academic success for all students?
What actions can be taken?
Essentially, learning requires students to negotiate meaning. The role of language in this
process is obvious, at every point language skills are fundamental for the correct
interpretation of lectures, texts, and assessment tasks, to name a few such tasks.
Grayson and Stowe clearly show that ESL proficiency has a significant impact on
academic achievement, and, we might add, because it is not the same thing, the quality of
the educational experience for the learner from an ESL background. We can
appropriately ask, then, what we do with these conclusions. Grayson and Stowe (2005)
Universities must pressure governments to ensure that domestic students acquire
the English language skills essential to academic success prior to enrolment in
university. In addition, as universities can have little input into the educational
policies of other countries, if they are to continue to enrol growing numbers of
international students, they must commit suitable resources to ensure that English
language skills of international students are brought up to a level comparable to
those of domestic English speaking students.
These are pertinent recommendations, which flow logically from the Grayson/Stowe
analysis. From the perspective of those charged with improving the ESL proficiency of
students, the call “to ensure that domestic students acquire the English language skills
essential to academic success prior to enrolment in university” may appear deceptively
simple. Successive curricular revisions, at least in the Ontario system, have succeeded
only in setting more challenges for students from ESL backgrounds, the number of ESL
specific instructors is dropping, and as long as ESL support is regarded as peripheral and
“non-mainstream” in the K-12 level, we can expect little change.
We can add to this the fact that a typical pattern for many ESL students from outside the
country who are bound for post-secondary studies is to arrive in Canada for two years of
high school study, then apply for admission to university. Given the English as a foreign
language background that many of the students come from and our understanding of how
long CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) takes to acquire, this is too little
time to achieve the necessary language proficiency, even with adequate ESL support. In
these cases, as with many students who are “domestic” ESL but relatively new to the
country, academic achievement, at least as measured by final high school grades used for
university entrance, often outstrips language proficiency.
Language and Academic Achievement
In addressing issues of language and academic achievement for ESL students, the
following questions are among those that arise:
• Is ESL support available? What form(s) does it take?
• What ESL advising is available? Is it effective?
• What role do L1 and culture play in the academic achievement of ESL students?
• What role do language tests play in the university admissions process?
• What constitutes a lack of facility in English, in the academic context?
• What is the role of other factors in academic success: Home life, academic
support, language support, study groups, tutors?
• What do upper level ESL students say? What changes take place over several
years of study?
Grayson and Stowe suggest further research, including looking at “the specific aspects of
English that students find problematic” as well as examining “the academic achievement
and other outcomes of different language groups within the university.” In addition the
following are potential considerations in future research:
• Language and learning issues are issues for all students
The issue is one of using language in effective and rewarding ways to access
learning opportunities. A striking number of English speakers in the
Grayson/Stowe study , both domestic and international, reported problems.
• The ESL student population is diverse, with differing academic language
ESL/multilingual students include refugees, newly arrived immigrants, long-term
immigrants, international students and even students born here. These second
language student populations have different needs and the representation of these
groups varies widely
• “ESL” courses
Many students with academic language difficulties could benefit from specialized
instruction for second language writers; however, such students sometimes avoid
ESL courses because of negative perceptions associated with the “ESL” label.
• Class size
Class size is a key issue affecting adequate instruction for ESL students, in both
ESL and non-ESL classes, figuring mainly in the amount of teacher-student
interaction that can take place, and extra time spent of responding to the written
work of ESL students.
• Support for ESL programmes
Institutional support for ESL assessment, instruction, and curriculum
development is a key factor in ESL academic achievement.
• Cross-disciplinary language support for ESL students
The academic language development of ESL/multilingual students requires
understanding and attention from faculty across the disciplines. ESL faculty can
work with faculty in other disciplines to support ESL student learning.
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