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 test and 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.
What can you do?
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.
- Introduce the features in your textbooks. Many introductory textbooks already highlight key words in the readings, provide useful in-text definitions and/or provide a glossary at the end of the chapter or the book. At the beginning of your module, spend some acquainting your students with these features. By making sure that students are explicitly aware of these resources, you can increase the likelihood that they will actively use them.
- You can make students aware of or provide access to good specialist dictionaries or glossaries for your field of study.
- Prepare weekly vocabulary lists for students highlighting key terms from the lectures, seminars and related readings. Yes, this does sound just like the spelling lists you had in primary school, but EFL students respond very well to this kind of supportive direction. It helps to ensure that they are targeting their energies on the terms and concepts that are important, rather than finding themselves at sea in a new discipline.
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.
What can you do?
- Ensure that any information about upcoming exams given out in lectures or seminars is also made available in writing.
- Make use of Brookes Virtual to provide students with structured outlines in advance of your lectures. These can assist students in getting both the main points and detailed information as they take notes during lectures.
- Point out key vocabulary and spell it out, so that students can easily make connections between the new words they see in their reading and the words they hear in your lectures.
- Make clear links between each week’s lectures and between lectures, seminars and module reading.
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.
What can you do?
- International students are often overwhelmed by reading lists. Provide guidance on how students can prioritise among the texts they are required to read.
- Talk about the reading texts in lectures and seminars. This helps to make the links between class work and independent study more explicit. It also provides an incentive for students to read throughout the course rather than letting it all pile up at the end of the semester.
- Encourage multi-cultural reading groups or study groups. These can provide opportunities for students to raise questions and relate personal understandings in a smaller, safer group environment. They can also reassure international students that their knowledge base is equal to that of their home student classmates.
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.
What can you do?
- Talk to your colleagues and try to answer the following questions on a programme level.
- What level of communication and language skills are integral to mastery of your course content?
- What level of communication and language skills are required of graduates in your discipline?
- Might it be appropriate to adjust language accuracy requirements according to the type of assessment task? e.g. It may be appropriate to have more relaxed requirements when students are writing under timed conditions and without access to resources
This type of discussion works best if you have examples of student writing in front of you as this is essentially a benchmarking exercise.
- Tell your students what your requirements are and explain your rationale.
- Give your students diagnostic assessments early in the module and mark them using the same language criteria you intend to use on your exams. Provide clear feedback on what needs developing.
- Collaborate with staff in ICELS. They are specialists in teaching second language writers and will have insights that tutors for home students may not have.