This report presents the outcomes of The English Language Growth (ELG) Project, a large scale project conducted in five Australian universities in 2008-09 to address the ongoing English language development of international students from non-English speaking backgrounds. While these international students have a level of English deemed adequate for entry to university, as measured through: the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or similar tests or experience, many students require further language development to be successful in their studies. The previous English language experiences of these cohorts of students vary markedly. Many have learned English after the so-called “critical period” and face maturational constraints: disadvantages that are augmented by cultural and academic adjustment.
The term “language growth” as used in our title Addressing the Ongoing English language Growth of International Students, although not used widely in the literature, was adopted to attract international students’ interest regardless of their skill level. Judging by the number of respondents, the choice of this title, we feel, was successful and seems to have related directly to their immediate concerns.
This study therefore focused on international students and the factors influencing the growth in their English language competence over time. The study sought to investigate the relationship between academic success and two factors affecting language development: 1) language and academic learning strategy use and 2) affective learning variables (e.g., motivation, anxiety, beliefs).
Using an online survey inviting both qualitative and quantitative responses, almost 800 international students provided a rich source of data. Students provided information on their attitudes, motivation and beliefs about language learning, their strategies for improving their language skills, and their strategies for academic learning. These data were correlated with the participating students’ grade point averages or similar academic measures. Many participants took considerable time and effort in responding to the survey’s open-ended questions, and a small number volunteered to be interviewed. These data enhanced the production of two further deliverables that have been generated through this project: a digital resource for students to advise them on what may/may not advance their academic success; and a resource for academics to assist with the teaching and supervision of diverse student cohorts.
The study provides evidence that a range of language learning strategies do not correlate well with academic success at this higher level. By contrast, involvement in more active (integrated and social) language learning environments—where students need to be resourceful with their language and instigate a degree of risk-taking—does show weak but positive correlations with academic success. Other issues were also raised by our participants. For example, many students reported the importance of cultural knowledge in order to understand and use English effectively.
Weak positive correlations were found for those strategies that promoted day-to- day interaction in English and risk-taking behaviours, such as inferring meaning from surrounding linguistic cues. Weak negative correlations were found for time- consuming strategies such as developing word lists and charts. There was a positive correlation between academic success and the provision of linguistic feedback on assignments, and a negative correlation with failure to attend lectures.
These findings have implications for universities’ policy-making, particularly with regard to addressing students’ social and cultural integration and the maintenance of their own identity in the face of a globalised educational environment. The findings also raise questions about the scope of internationalisation of the curriculum and establishing an appropriate balance between recognising students’ cultural backgrounds and developing their acceptance of Australian culture. A set of 16 recommendations for higher education institutions are proposed as a result of this study:
1. The findings from our study strongly suggest the need for learning environments to be supportive of students.
Recommendation 1: For this to happen we recommend that both teaching and support staff work together to cater for the needs and interests of all students through being cognizant of the students’ backgrounds, opportunities, skills and understandings and by providing appropriate teaching and learning resources.
2. Related to Recommendation 1 is our finding that a key component of academic success is the need to develop deep level understanding.
Recommendation 2: Therefore we recommend that teaching and support staff develop and provide learning opportunities and provide adequate and appropriate resources (in a timely manner) so that this can be achieved.
3. The value of the daily use of English by international students cannot be overestimated. However, students need opportunities for this to occur. Our study shows that many students are so overwhelmed with their academic workload that they are unable to take on this additional, yet effective, learning opportunity. Moreover, many courses do not allow time for students to integrate. Since the tutorial classroom is the environment that lends itself most to interaction between students, the importance of creating a relaxing and secure environment is fundamental. This means that non-native speakers’ contributions are not dismissed or ridiculed by other students. Codes of conduct or “ground rules’ can be set to ensure that all students’ contributions are valued.
Recommendation 3: The project team therefore recommends that tutorial classes are used to enhance communication between students, over and above the traditional format of discussing subject content. Numerous ice- breaking games and interaction tasks are available online which can be remodelled to enhance content learning and communication and which can help interlocutors to relax and develop friendships. Some examples might be activities where students match terminology and definitions, activities where student groups recreate, in their own words, topic sentences or a new title from a reading, or where students work together on concept maps thereby developing their language as they negotiate and contribute to the creation of a map.
4. Following from Recommendation 3 is the value of social support groups and functions for international students. At the university level, it is important that funding continues for these activities. At the faculty, school/department, or course/unit level it is important that students are encouraged to join such groups where they can overcome anxiety with regard to speaking.
Recommendation 4: We recommend therefore that lecturers and tutors are informed of social activities on their campuses and encourage their international students to attend. Social activities involving small unit enrolments are also an option. A list of clubs and societies and recommendations for membership can be part of the unit guide. Social activities can be advertised on the unit or course website and students can be advised on the value of social learning strategies.
5. University support services already provide numerous orientation and study programs which are often poorly attended, particularly as the semester progresses. Most universities have responded to this with attempts to ‘embed’ academic support, however often these result in nothing more that ‘token’ responses to university policy allowing support staff ten minutes of a lecture to advise students.
Recommendation 5: We recommend that unit coordinators make a serious attempt at embedding academic support into their units. This can be done by working closely with academic skills development staff and with teaching and learning development staff at the curriculum development stage.
6. Following from recommendation 5 is the need for students to understand about learning, what strategies suit them, what strategies are available, and what strategies other students are using. This is a further role for learning advisors, but also one that can be taken on board by academic staff.
Recommendation 6: The project team recommends that students’ meta- learning knowledge (or metacognitive strategies) be developed. This can be done with information on and/or links to learning strategy advice on unit or course websites and in unit guides. It can also be the subject of discussion in an early tutorial. The CD ROM which is produced as a resource from this project can also be used to develop students’ understanding of “how to learn”.
7. Preparation before classes/lectures and attendance at classes/lectures was linked to academic success in our study. Also significant was good organisation with regard to getting assignments done early. There is clearly a need for staff to carefully construct their material so that students can adequately prepare before class, and that they construct their classes in such a way that students are motivated and understand the need to attend.
Recommendation 7: We recommend that academic staff provide sufficient guidelines so that students can prepare for classes and also that their resources are constructed in such a way that students’ time management skills can be developed. For example, with online learning management systems, students can demonstrate that they have already begun preparation for an assignment by submitting an abstract or plan. Reminders can be generated for those students who have not achieved these interim goals and support can be recommended and/or offered.
8. Our research found that making connections with prior learning is important for academic success.
Recommendation 8: We recommend that academic staff (continue to) provide explicit ways for international students to connect the new knowledge of their units with their prior experiences.
9. International students in our study recognised the importance of learning about Australian culture in order to understand and operate in Australian English and society. At the same time, many would like to have their own cultural experience and expertise acknowledged.
Recommendation 9: We suggest that internationalisation of the curriculum involves a two-way process whereby academics explicitly demonstrate and compare the cultural components of their discipline areas on a local and on a global scale.
10. This study highlighted the importance of affective variables in student learning. Several beliefs showed some small relationship with academic success, the importance of cultural understanding for improved English, and the belief that one’s speaking should not be hindered by making mistakes.
Recommendation 10: We recommend that academic and support staff develop a greater awareness of the impact of affective variables on both language and academic learning and consider that these are not only the purview of the various counseling services. Numerous stresses confront international students and these can result in loss of motivation and a fall in academic achievement. We believe that the responsibility for maintaining students’ motivation lies very much with the university as a whole.
11. In our qualitative findings students expressed concern about their listening abilities, particularly in the face of the range of accents they meet in an Australian higher education context. In terms of lecturing, it is generally felt that it is the obligation of the lecturer to make him/herself understood. This responsibility can be enhanced through the use of resources such as lecture notes, recorded/videoed lectures, podcasts and online powerpoints, and visuals.
Recommendation 11: The project team recommends that lecturers take steps to ensure that students understand the content of the lectures. This can be done by speaking clearly and at a pace whereby notes can be taken, avoiding colloquial speech, explaining analogies and metaphoric expressions, providing objectives and alerting students to each objective as it is addressed, and using directive discourse markers. It is also beneficial to provide rest points at approximately 20 minute intervals.
12. An important finding in our study was a significant relationship (although weak) between academic achievement and receiving marks for good English in assignments. Obviously good English expression will enhance any grading of a written assignment, but this result suggests that if students’ awareness of the value of their English is judged, then better results will occur.
Recommendation 12: Our team therefore recommends that assessments include marks for English. We are aware that many academic staff are reluctant to judge the quality of English in their students’ assignment, feeling untrained to do so. However, the combination of clear organisation, affective cohesion and coherent argumentation will render a better mark regardless of the assessor’s skills and it seems that knowing this has a relationship with students’ efforts.
13. Our results support several other studies - highlighting the importance of adequate reading skills for academic success. Because reading at university is not an activity which is observed, in contrast to the writing that is generated from it, there is a tendency to leave students to their own devices. Moreover, when the importance of reading is stressed, it invariably carries the message of reading more, and more widely, regardless of students’ skill levels. The relationship between reading and subsequent writing is important. Without adequate reading skill development we create in students an instant dependence on the very words of a written text – we set them up to plagiarise.
Recommendation 13: The project team therefore recommends that additional focus be placed on developing international students’ reading skills. For example, the deconstruction or analysis of a prescribed reading can be the topic of a specific workshop/tutorial, reading groups can be set up, and annotations can be added to a text, as some simple examples.
14. Our research highlights the advantages of developing students’ reading to the point where they have the ability and confidence to infer meaning from the context. Many students are arriving at university with an ongoing reliance on dictionary use which makes reading and writing time-consuming and often inexact. The enhancement of reading skills as recommended in No 13 above, will go some way to breaking this dependence.
Recommendation 14: In order to enhance students’ inferencing skills, it is recommended that students are introduce to terminology in context rather than simple word lists/glossaries, although lists of content terminology should be readily available as part of the course materials. Unit guides can also recommend the use of Learner’s Dictionaries and staff can ensure that these are available for purchase in university bookshops.
15. Following from Recommendation 14 above, is the importance of information literacy. Academic staff frequently expect students to master the information technology of a modern university library early in their studies. Library staff provide valuable support by way of orientation tours and classes. Somewhere in between these two vectors is the students’ need to develop an adequate vocabulary in order to successfully utilise the electronic facilities available to them.
Recommendation 15: We recommend that both academic staff and academic support staff explicitly teach the concepts of ‘keywords’, ‘searches’, ‘databases’, ‘electronic journals’, ‘electronic resources’ and so forth. Additionally, we recommend that unit guides provide keywords and nominated databases with instructions for access along with assignment task instructions.
16. Numerous students reported difficulties with spoken language, in particular their concern at having inadequate oral communicative skills to make friends or to contribute to tutorial discussions. Given universities’ promotion of dialogic learning environments wherein critical discussion is promoted, it is of some concern that many international students cannot benefit from this learning. Several participants explained that their prior language learning had been heavily biased towards traditional grammatical instruction and translation providing little or no opportunities to converse in English.
Recommendation 16: It is suggested that universities reconsider the weighting of their entry requirements (e.g., IELTS, TOEFL, etc) in favour of higher level spoken English requirements. This may go some way to enhancing international students’ cultural and social adjustment and increase their involvement in the academic communities of their disciplines.
A further deliverable from this project is the development of a CD ROM as a resource for students and staff for free distribution to international students at the five participating universities. This resource is also available at www.elg.edu.au.