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The previous section points out ways in which adjustments to exam papers can help minimize bias against international students due to exam paper language or organisation.
However, most of the work to ensure that international students perform on an equal level with home students in exams needs to be done well before the students set foot in the exam hall. If you think of the teaching you do in lectures, seminars, tutorials and office hours as one continuous orientation into your discipline and its practices, then adjusting your teaching to the needs of international students can be likened to setting out clear road maps and signposts to guide students toward achieving programme teaching and learning objectives.
This section briefly provides guidance and suggestions on the types of signposts and roadmaps EFL students will benefit from.
A review of a range of past exam papers makes it clear that knowledge of the technical vocabulary of a discipline will be a major contributing factor to success on any exam. In some cases, the exam task itself asks students to define key terms in the field.
Technical vocabulary can be tricky to learn. While algorithm and boolean are clearly technical vocabulary used in computing, words like testand demand as used in economics are less obviously technical.
There are a considerable number of vocabulary words in English like test and demand that have multiple meaning senses. Bank is a good example. Click to see the multiple meanings of bank.
Many technical words in disciplinary areas are simply the less common definitions of general vocabulary words. This makes them more difficult for EFL learners to spot. An example of a common mistake EFL learners make is the overuse and misuse of the word significant when discussing research findings. Statistical significance is more narrowly defined than the more frequently used general meaning of significance, but unless students are made aware of this they will happily read and use the term significant as if it means important or big.
A further complication is that when reading (or listening) a person who knows one meaning sense of a word will first try to apply that known definition to the context of what they are reading. If the definition they know does not fit the context, rather than considering that the word may have more than one definition, they will try to force the context to fit the meaning they know. This eventually leads to a breakdown in comprehension of the overall text.
You can explicitly teach technical vocabulary. This doesn’t have to be difficult, complicated or time-consuming. Below are some ideas for making this work in your modules.
Lectures and seminars are probably the most common methods of teaching in the university. However, listening in lecture halls and interactive seminars can be a very demanding experience. This is especially true for first year students who will need to adjust to a wide range of lecturer and classmate accents, native speaker rates of speech and the wide use of colloquialisms in spoken English.
Reading in a second language is most often a much slower process than reading in a first language. EFL students may read as much as three times more slowly than their native speaker classmates. This has a serious impact on the amount of time available for study and, equally importantly, time for breaks from study.
In some ways, writing in a second language is considerably more challenging than speaking, especially when it must be done under timed conditions. When we speak, we get immediate feedback from our conversation partners as to whether we have been clear, comprehensible and relevant. Writing lacks this immediate feedback, so writers may often feel unsure of the effectiveness of their message or the reception it will get from readers.
Furthermore, in speaking we tend to value communicative competence. This means that we are willing to accept grammatical errors, imperfect pronunciation, and imprecise vocabulary as long as the message gets through. In spoken interaction, we are able to negotiate meaning so that both parties understand. In writing, there is a much stronger requirement to be accurate. Grammar must be correct, spelling must be accurate and words must be appropriate to the context. In general there is a much stronger tendency to be intolerant of a lack of mastery of English language skills in writing than in speaking.
If your EFL international students are entering with IELTS scores under 9, which most will, they will make errors in grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Most of these errors will not impede communication, so students will easily be able to demonstrate whether or not they understand and/or can apply the content of your module. In other cases, low language proficiency will prevent students from clearly and fully expressing themselves. This leaves you having to guess whether students know the content of your module or not.
When developing marking criteria or making decisions about how to deal with language in assessment, it is important that you recognize that language learning is complex and grammatical development, in particular, is slow. Sending students to study skills classes or grammar workshops will not achieve immediate results.
This type of discussion works best if you have examples of student writing in front of you as this is essentially a benchmarking exercise.