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Canadian Society for Studies in Education: International Education Conference Nicholas Elson 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? 2 • 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? Language Proficiency 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 categories. 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: 3 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) suggest: 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 4 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 needs 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 5 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. References Bayliss, D.; Raymond, P. (2004). “The link between academic success and L2 proficiency in the context of two professional programs,” The Canadian Modern Language Review. Vol 61, No 1 September, pp29-52. Bell, Z. (2002). Bics & Calp: Fluency is not necessarily proficiency for second language speakers. Te Kete Ipurangi – The Online Learning Centre. Ministry of Education. New Zealand Benesch, S. (1988). Ending Remediation: Linking ESL and Content in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: TESOL. Brooks, G.; Adams, M. (2002). Spoken English proficiency and academic performance: is there a relationship and if so, how do we teach? Centre for Professional Development, Macquarie University, Sydney. http://www.cfl.mq.edu.au/celebrate/pdf/papers/brooks1.pdf Celce-Murcia, M. (1989). A language policy for ESL students at the university of California, in J. Esling (Ed.) Multicultural Education and Policy: ESL in the 1990s. Toronto: OISE Press. Cigularova, D. (2005) Psychosocial Adjustment of International Students Colorado State University Journal of Student Affairs Volume XIV. pp17-24 De Avila, E. (1997). Setting gains for non and limited proficient students. The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (NCBE) Resource Collection Series. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University. Dooey, P. (1999). An investigation into the predictive validity of the IELTS Test as an indicator of future academic success. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 114-118. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/dooey.html Feast, V. (2002) The Impact of IELTS Scores on Performance at University. International Education Journal Vol 3, No 4, 2002 Educational Research Conference 2002 Special Issue http://www.flinders.edu.au/education/iej 70 Graham, J.C. (1987) English language proficiency and the prediction of academic 6 success. TESOL Quarterly, 21, 505-521. Kane, M. (Ed) 2004). Canada First: The 2004 Survey of International Students. Ottawa: Canadian Bureau for International Education. Kerstjens, M.; Nery, C. (2000). Predictive validity in the IELTS test: A study of the relationship between IELTS scores and students’ subsequent academic performance. In R. Tulloch (Ed.) International English Language Testing System Research Reports 2000 Vol. 3, pp 85-108. Australia: IELTS Australian. Light, R.L.; Xu, M.; Mossap, J. (1987). English proficiency and academic performance of international students. TESOL Quarterly, 21, 251-261.
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