Ursula McGowan

  • Higher education – for what – when students are linguistically outside their linguistic ‘zone of proximal development’?

    Ursula McGowan
    University of Adelaide

    Session 3b

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 10.10-11.10

    Conceptual papers

    Themes: Internationalisation of the curriculum, Skills development

    This paper considers the widening of higher education into the international arena with vast movements of students across national boundaries and continents to seek education in a language that is not their mother tongue. While the issues are discussed in relation to the particular example of international students studying at an Australian university, they are expected to have parallels in learning institutions of any country where students are learning in a language and culture other than their own.

    The springboard for this reflection is my work with international students and staff whose numbers have steadily risen so that by 2006 the proportion of international students at my university has reached 22%, with the majority from China and other countries from the Asia-Pacific region.

    The question is, what do international students come to English-speaking universities for? And how do their aspirations compare with staff expectations of their students and their curricula?

    My experience as academic adviser for international and local students, and as a staff developer for academics provides the data for a series of expectations academics have of their students and students of their academic teachers. I will compare both sets of expectations with the generic list of ‘graduate qualities’ published by my university and discuss some of the discrepancies that are apparent in their attitudes and aspirations.

    I focus firstly on culturally determined variations in their expectations and discuss a series of misunderstandings that often ensue, either in face-to-face communication or in the fulfilment of written assignments.

    My second focus is on the issue of international students’ English language competence. International students gain entry to my university on the basis of an appropriate score on the English Language Testing system (IELTS) scale. These scores are described in the IELTS handbook (2005) which also outlines the level of further language development that is necessary for higher education courses of different language demands.

    I will draw on written examples of student assignments to illustrate the nature of the development they still need to undergo, some of which may be outside what Vygotsky (1978, p. 86) termed their ‘zone of proximal development’. I then explore a number of avenues, including genre pedagogy (Swales, 1990, Halliday & Martin, 1993, Cope & Kalantzis, 2000), by which students might receive the necessary guidance to improve their English proficiency. With the continuing increase in international student numbers, I propose that the issue of accommodating these students should be reviewed and their English language skills development addressed as a mainstream issue.


    • Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M.(Eds) (2000). Multiliteracies. Literacy learning and the design of social futures. South Yarra, Melbourne. Australia: Macmillan.
    • Halliday, M. A. K. & Martin, J. R. (1993). Writing Science. Literacy and discursive power. London: Falmer Press.
    • Swales, J. (1990). Genre Analysis. English in academic research settings. New York: Cambridge University press.
    • Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in Society: the development of higher psychological processes. Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, Ellen Souberman (Eds). Cambridge Massachusetts. London, England.