Beyond Proficiency: Success as an ELL Student

“The language of the university is English.”

These words were spoken by a senior professor in my department. I had just begun my MA and was at an orientation for teaching assistants. The graduate student leading the session had described the university’s multicultural, international community. He encouraged us to take international students’ difficulties with English into account when marking their essays.

question-mark-1019935_640-402934-edited.jpg This is when the professor intervened. He stated that the university’s language was English and that the quality of students’ written expression had to be evaluated on an equal basis, without shifting standards for English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Debate ensued among both faculty and graduate students. Some argued that the ideas in an essay were more important than grammar or syntax. Others responded that clarity of written expression was essential to conveying those ideas. Some thought that placing great importance on the quality ofthe writing put international students at an unfair disadvantage. Others countered that being lenient toward ESL students was unfair to native speakers, especially those whose first language was English but who nevertheless did not write well.

We did not emerge from this orientation with much direction about the requirements, ethical obligations and fairness of marking work by students whose first language was not English. We didn’t discuss how to help ESL students achieve academic success at all. 

In the intervening fifteen years, I haven’t gotten any clearer resolution.

This is partly because there is no one-size-fits-all approach. ESL students come to university with a wide range of educational experience, linguistic ability and academic preparation. The question of how to ensure that ESL students are not at a disadvantage compared to their native-speaker peers is a persistent challenge for educators.

And the dilemma isn’t going away. 

Structural transformations affecting higher education mean that the number of students who do not speak English as a first language is increasing dramatically. International students and the higher international tuition they pay are more and more attractive to universities in the English-speaking world. Despite tests such as TOEFL, there is hardly a uniform standard of English proficiency among students arriving for university studies.

So what resources are available for students struggling due to a language barrier? If you are an English Language Learner (ELL), what steps should you take to help yourself? 

My general recommendations for students beginning their university careers are especially relevant for students transitioning from another educational system and studying in their second language. It’s important to share any difficulties with comprehension of course material or understanding of expectations with your instructors. They can provide extra help and further explanations in office hours, but only if they are aware of your specific struggles. Think of your TA or professor as your first point of contact; they can refer you to your university’s specific programmes and resources for students who are ELLs. These can include an international student centre, library materials, writing centres, opportunities for conversational practice, skills-development workshops, peer mentoring and educational technology.

Regardless of where and how you seek support, the most important thing is to be proactive and not to isolate yourself. You’re not alone, and sometimes even simply finding a community of students facing similar challenges can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed that inhibits academic success.

The discussion I had as part of my TA orientation focussed solely on how to evaluate work produced by ESL students in terms of grammatical errors, limited vocabulary and stylistic infelicities. But linguistic competence and comprehension are not the only, or even always the main, issue for ESL students. Even ELLs who are confident in their level of English proficiency should avail themselves of the opportunities for guidance offered by their university.

To understand why, consider the example of Selena, one of my former international students. At the start of the term, she stood out as a valued contributor to class discussion. She’d attended an international high school; she spoke, wrote and understood English fluently. She clearly did the assigned reading and wanted to succeed. Her first essay was insightful, well argued and convincing.

It also almost got her in a lot of trouble.

The essay had no quotation marks to indicate direct quotations and no citations to provide attribution for information taken from a source. Selena had inadvertently committed an academic offence despite her facility with the English language and her command of the material. 

As EssayJack’s co-founder and CEO, Dr. Lindy Ledohowski, has explained, ESL students “need to wrap [their heads] around the cultural conventions that shape how written English operates.” Language is only one piece of the puzzle for success in a new linguistic and cultural environment; academic practices around the world vary widely in terms of expectations for structure, style and citations. 

Fortunately, educational institutions are taking steps to incorporate the teaching of scholarly norms into the programmes available to help ELLs. At the University of Toronto, for example, the International Foundation Program combines English instruction with courses such as “Written English Discourse,” “Critical Reading & Writing,” “Academic Listening & Speaking” and “University Skills & Strategies.”

Select classes at the IFP are currently using EssayJack to teach academic writing to international students preparing to enter the University of Toronto. I recently asked the students what the largest difficulty has been as they transition to English-language higher education. Over and over, students told me that the strict standards for citation represented the biggest adjustment. 

undefined-821433-edited-116236-edited.jpgIt is precisely these aspects of being an English Language Learner that go beyond grammar and vocabulary that led to EssayJack being ranked as one of the world’s best English Language Teaching tools by the English Language Teaching Awards (ELTons), offered by the British Council and Cambridge English. The judges highlighted that EssayJack focuses on the cultural conventions and expectations of Anglo-American essay writing. EssayJack does not only pre-structure student essays; it also teaches proper structure by explaining what each component of an essay is and why it appears where it does. This means that students who are proficient in English learn the standards of an English-language essay, but also that students who need help with grammar and language do not have to contend with added anxiety regarding structure.

In addition, a long writing assignment in English can be intimidating for non-native speakers from other educational cultures. EssayJack breaks the writing process into chunks—small, manageable pieces—through separate text boxes for every component of the assignment. 

Being an English Language Learner at an English-speaking university presents many challenges. The key, as always, is to reach out and take advantage of the resources that are available to you. Educational technology should be among those resources. EssayJack’s versatility means that it complements classroom instruction and academic support to help you achieve academic success in your second language.

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