Joey and the Thesaurus

I can’t believe I’d never come across the episode with Friends where Joey gets a thesaurus! This episode would be so great as part of a lesson teaching dictionary and thesaurus skills. You could cover issues of register, the issue of translating multi-word phrases, common vs. proper nouns, and avoiding the “word salad” phenomenon of stringing words together that don’t make sense on the sentence level.

Friends hasn’t aged well on many levels, but this clip could still work well in the classroom.

Hat tip to Fiona for telling me about this.

EAP Online: Helpful Resources

Before COVID-19, I will admit I didn’t know a whole lot about teaching EAP or any language online. Using technology to complement face-to-face teaching had long been an interest of mine, but best practices for designing and delivering a 100% online EAP course was a new area for me. But, when the pandemic hit, there was no time to sit around twiddling our thumbs–as a department, we had to proceed with first emergency remote teaching to finish up the winter semester, and then transition of all our English language courses and programs to online mode, as soon as possible.

EAP in higher education institutions falls into this weird space (third space? :), as it draws from pedagogies in higher ed as well as those from more general English language teaching. So in terms of tips, tricks and advice for online teaching and learning, there are two pools of information to be drawn from, which is great. But you have to filter out what’s irrelevant for EAP teaching (i.e. online assessment for biology labs or first-year classes of 200 students; or tips for teaching English online via CLIL to young learners).

So where did I go? I have learned a lot about online education in the last few months from a variety of people and sources:

  • Dalhousie CCE instructional designers Tracy Franz, Saira Akhtar-Alwazeer and my other colleagues at Dal ESL have shared a lot of knowledge and expertise.
  • Twitter, as always has been a great source of professional development and knowledge. In particular, lots of useful stuff has come through via the hashtags #AcademicChatter for general HE, #CdnELTChat for general ELT and #tleap for EAP-specific discussions.
  • There was an amazing #CdnELTChat held on May 12 (summary here) with instructional designer Linda Manimtim where there was a great discussion about applying the principles of instructional design to language teaching.
  • The BALEAP email listserv has a lot of lively discussions, and the BALEAP TELSIG has held several webinars and events around online EAP.
  • For resources on academic integrity in online courses, Sarah Elaine Eaton’s blog and webinars are great.
  • Universities’ Centres for Learning and Teaching/Teaching Excellence, etc. (they seem to be called something different at every institution), such as Dal’s Centre for Learning and Teaching, have great blog posts, Twitter discussions and webinars about online teaching and learning in HE.
  • Nathan Hall’s blog is an amazing resource on individual digital tools and other aspects of online teaching and learning of languages.

I recently did a workshop for teachers at East Coast Language College about teaching English online, where I could share some of this knowledge I’ve gained and discuss the experiences we’ve had at Dalhousie as we’ve transitioned more than 1000 hours of EAP and ESP curriculum to 100% online. Here are the slides from that talk:

Defending your Thesis Remotely

I recently defended my doctoral thesis remotely! This was supposed to be a face-to-face defense (or viva, short for viva voce exam, as they call it in the UK) at the UCL Institute of Education in London, which suddenly had to be turned into a remote viva once travel restrictions prevented me from leaving the country.

I know there are a lot of others out there with defenses/vivas scheduled in the coming weeks and months that may end up having to do them online. Here are some of my tips for defending your thesis remotely.

Think of it as an event, and you’re the producer. With a face-to-face defense, you don’t have a lot of control over the physical aspects of the experience. You show up to a certain room at a certain time, do your defense, and go. But with a remote defense, you can be in control of almost everything–short of the questions that examiners ask you, of course! The room, facilities, technology, etc. are all within your control.

Pretend you’re filming a movie or staging a play and think about all elements of the experience from the point of view of the examiners. Think about every link in the chain, and what is needed for it to function smoothly. And similar to the performing arts, practice makes perfect–make sure you rehearse not just the answers to your viva questions, but rehearse using your whole technical set up. Here’s what I tried to think about before my viva:

  • Staging and composition. I really think that if your image is coming through into the examiners’ computers clearly with minimal distractions, the examiners can better focus on what you’re saying. On the other hand, if the backdrop is chaotic, or you are looking into the camera at a weird angle, or if it’s hard to see or hear you, then it sets a negative tone for the session and will detract from your research. Set up your computer and do a video call to a friend or snap a few photos with your webcam to see the the angle of the camera and also what the backdrop is. Do you have to put your computer up on some books so that you can look straight into the camera rather than down or up your nose? Do you have to shift some furniture in the background or hang a sheet (no really!) to cover up a distracting or unprofessional background? I shifted a few pieces of furniture so a lovely oil painting of the Nova Scotia coast could be the background during my viva.


    And the best part of a viva via webcam is that you can have all sorts of notes, cheat sheets, motivational posters, luck charms, photos of celebrities–whatever you need–around and with you during the viva, just out of frame of the webcam. Even more than what you would take into a F2F defense. So make sure you have a good set up with enough space to spread out what you need.
  • Lighting. Lighting really influences the quality of the image your examiners will be speaking to during the defense. The goal should be a clear image so that the examiners don’t have to strain to see, and therefore focus on you. Don’t have a light source behind you because your face will be dark. Place a light outside the frame of the webcam, perhaps behind your computer, so you’ll be looking into it and it will illuminate your face. The important thing is to test it out beforehand and adjust as needed.
  • Sound. Sound is really important because it’s how you will hear the questions, and how the examiners will hear your responses to them! In most situations you have two options for your microphone: the microphone built into the webcam, or an external microphone, for example, on a headset or cellphone earbuds. (I use something like this.) If you’re in a large, echo-y room, I would recommend using an external mic as it will be closer to your mouth and will make the sound quality better. For the in-coming sound, it’s the same–you can either use your computer speakers, or connect headphones or earbuds to the computer. It’s a good idea to always have headphones/earbuds on hand in case the in-coming sound on your computer is so loud it’s being picked up by the microphone, and will cause the examiners to hear your voice in echo. This is very distracting and unpleasant, so if this starts to happen, you’ll want to plug in your headphones to stop it. Like the camera image, you’ll want to test out the sound aspect of your set up with a friend beforehand.
  • Eye Contact. Remember that you have to look into the webcam to make eye contact with the people on the other end of the video conference, rather than looking at their eyes as they appear in their images on your screen. This is one I always forget, so during my viva I put a bright post-it note with the two examiners’ names right above my webcam, so I’d be reminded to look at it instead of my screen. Others put a pair of googly eyes or some other thing by their webcam lens as a reminder. Just make sure it’s not blocking the camera!

The Tech!

This is the aspect of the remote defense that strikes fear in the heart of most! There are three aspects of the tech related to a remote defense that you have to think about, set up, troubleshoot, and make several back-up plans for: the hardware (your device), the software (the program you’ll be using to make the call) and the internet connection. If you’re less than confident about tech, try to find someone who will help you get a primary set up and a backup ready, and who might be on hand during your defense just in case you need some tech help. That’s another advantage of the remote viva–you can have your whole entourage waiting in the wings to support you and no one will know!

  • For hardware, be it a desktop computer, laptop or phone, make sure it’s all up to date so that it doesn’t randomly shut off to install an update in the middle of your defense. Make sure there aren’t any embarrassing or weird files on your desktop if you’re planning to share your screen. And make sure you know the password to get back into the computer if it does restart just before or during the defense. Make sure you know how to silence or shut off all alerts and notifications for the duration of the viva so that you (and the examiners) aren’t being distracted or interrupted by dings and beeps or notification pop-ups. Have a backup device on hand that you could use in a pinch to do the exam if your primary device dies at the last minute–for example having your phone ready to use if your laptop stops working.
  • For software, the choice of video conferencing program is a big decision. In some cases, the university might dictate which program to use. If personal video-calling software such as Skype is suggested, push back on it. Try to get a more professional option that is made for meetings or online education (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, etc.). They have a more professional interface, and functionality such as screen sharing, the ability to present a Powerpoint, etc. that you will need for your defense. Install the software on your primary device as well as your backup in advance, and have any logins saved in the device (so you’re not scrambling on the day of trying to remember passwords under pressure). It’s important to rehearse using whichever program in advance so you get used to where all the controls and buttons are so that when you’re nervous during the viva, you can still do what you need to do, and don’t accidentally disconnect the call while trying to raise the volume or put your PPT on the screen.
  • For the internet, if you can, connect to your modem via a cable, rather than relying on Wifi. It’s definitely worth buying an inexpensive ethernet cable (and any necessary adapters for your laptop) to do this if possible as it will make your connection much faster. If not, try to find a spot where the Wifi is strong, and be aware that if others are using the internet connection to do bandwidth-heavy tasks such as gaming, streaming videos or making video calls, it will slow down the connection for you. As for backup, if the Wifi gave out, or was inexplicably slow and causing an unreliable video connection, would you consider switching to your phone and using cellphone data for the defense? Video conferencing uses between 270-600MB/hour, depending on the program used. So if you have a good data plan, it might be worth considering it as a backup.

Remember, for the remote viva, you’re in control! Good luck and break a leg, everyone!

Language Teaching and ‘The Crown’

I’ve been watching season 3 of The Crown, and I got excited when I realized that episode 6, Tywysog Cymru, was about language learning! Prince Charles is sent to Aberystwyth, Wales, to learn Welsh in advance of his investiture as Prince of Wales. It’s 1969, so a time of strong Welsh nationalism in opposition to London’s rule and the monarchy, and on top of it all, Charles’s tutor ends up being Tedi Millward, the Welsh nationalist politician.

My nerdly anticipation was short-lived, however; from the language teaching perspective, I was a bit disappointed in this episode. There just didn’t seem to be much teaching happening. (Rather, much good teaching.)

For example, on Charles’s first day at the university, after first meeting Tedi and then launching into a debate on Welsh sovereignty for a few moments, Charles is just randomly taken to a language lab and left there repeating a bunch of phrasebook-like language: How are you? What is your name? do you speak Welsh? There was no lead-in to this activity, nor does Charles receive anything written to support this exercise. “We learn through imitation; like everything in life, if we pretend we’re something long enough, we might just become it,” Tedi tells him allegorically, betraying himself (or at least the film version of himself) as quite the audiolingualist.

Indeed, most of the language “teaching” in the episode is simply Tedi translating investiture speech(es) Charles had written in English into Welsh, and then him coaching Charles to be able to recite it with phonetic accuracy. Tedi coaching Charles on the pronunciation of the the Welsh word for ‘atmosphere’, awyrgylch, is an example of all my least favourite bad pronunciation teaching tropes. First, Tedi uses negative, emotional and mystifying language to describe the series of phonemes in the word: “It’s like a verbal assault course of all your worst sounds scattered one after another like traps.” Why would you say that to someone, setting them up to stumble and hesitate on this word, instead of, for example, looking at the phonemes in the word and comparing them to the phonemes in the student’s L1 and identifying which sounds might come easier and which ones will have to be taught anew?

To my non-Welsh-speaking ear, it seems there is only one phoneme that might be completely novel to an English speaker (the final one in the word). Why wouldn’t you start there, talking about how that sounds is articulated, finding some similar or identical sounds in languages Charles knows, and work on it in isolation first, and then word-finally? So the non-language folks wouldn’t get bored while watching this, you could work all kinds of clever allegories, veiled comments and double-entrendres about independence, imperialism, etc.

Another bad pronunciation teaching trope is when teachers don’t explain things or give instruction, but just yell “No! Like this!” and repeat a sound over and over. It’s kind of like translation by volume, but with pronunciation. When coaching Charles on the pronunciation of the first sound in the word awyrgylch, a diphthong involving an open back vowel, Tedi just yells “No!” at Charles’s closed and fronted approximation of the sound and repeats the sound again. C’mon, Tedi, give the guy a little explanation here!

What I think the episode does a very good job of is showing the dynamics of a monolingual English-speaker used to being part of a language and cultural majority experiencing a minority language situation for the first time. You really get a sense of Charles’s awakening, as he moves from clueless arrogance about Welsh and the Welsh struggle–“But Wales is England!”–to having empathy and understanding of the situation so much so that his investiture speech includes pro-Welsh sentiment (though this is played up more in The Crown than his speech in real life.)

Having lived in both Quebec and the Basque country, I’ve seen people in all stages and steps of this transformation–both by English speakers as well as other majority language speakers–countless times.

Language Teacher as Language Learner

A colleague and I were recently discussing the issue of which aspects of our professional practice as language instructors are informed by our formal training, which by our classroom teaching experience and which by our own personal experience as learners and users of additional languages. The topic came up in regards to the issue of the acquisition of metaphorical competence. For both of us, our own experiences of the process of becoming aware of the metaphorical schemata we hold in our L1, and then overcoming those to fully acquire metaphorical competence in other languages greatly informs how we approach teaching from the most basic structures to collocations, phrasal verbs, and idioms.

Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of travel and work in one of my additional languages lately, doing a lot of meetings and presentations in Spanish across Latin America. This has also made me reflect on how much of my teaching is informed by my own experiences in learning and using additional languages. Very practical strategies for learning and communication are another area that I draw on, sharing my own strategies with my students. There are the things we always advise our students to do—we all have our old chestnuts—but it’s good to have a reminder every so often of some of the real-life challenges that may come up and some practical advice on how to cope.

Here is what has stood out for me lately:

Predict and Prepare

One mantra I always emphasize when working with advanced users of academic English preparing for academic presentations, conferences or their thesis defence is predict and prepare. In advance of any particular event or context where they will have to talk about their research or discuss ideas in their field, they should think hard to predict what they have to talk about, and questions they may be asked or the responses they may have to give. Then, I advise them to actually sit down and prepare a list of the key words, concepts, terminology, expressions they will need to draw on in doing all of the above. They should not just make a simple list, but include common synonyms or collocations and related word forms, as well as pronunciation. Most people are used to the concept of rehearsing presentations, but I encourage students to also practice smaller-scale or more informal sections of these communicative events, such as Q and A responses, answers to certain predicted interview questions, and rebuttals to criticisms of one’s research.

I’ve certainly had to practice what I preach in this respect with regards to my recent work in Spanish. When presenting in English, I don’t tend to script things too closely; I’ll prepare notes or points on a Powerpoint and then speak off of them rather extemporaneously. But in Spanish I’ve been speaking about an area with a lot of specialized terminology, which I’ve really had to research and prepare for. Thankfully, a lot of the questions I receive are easily predictable, so that has helped me focus my preparation.

Regional variation and Register

I’ve done work in 7 different Latin America countries in the last while, each with its own patterns of second person pronoun use (tu, usted, vos, etc.) and variation in register. I’ll try to read up on the use of pronouns in each country before I get there, but there’s only so much an article can tell you. I try to be very sensitive and observant around patterns of use and how they vary in service encounters, meetings and when speaking to and advising  youth and prospective students, where the age factor comes into play. But it’s tricky! I try to err on the side of formality if in doubt.

This has inspired me to put more emphasis on register in my classes. Sometimes there can be a tendency to view English as simple in this respect, as there is only one second person singular pronoun. But I am feeling inspired about spending more time on examining the other ways register, hierarchy, respect, distance, etc. are expressed in English in interpersonal encounters, and encouraging learners to be observant and sensitive to these phenomena. I used to spend a lot of time approaching register in this way when I taught a lot of business English, but in an EAP context I find the focus tends to be on informal vs. academic writing and speech. I think the regional variation in register in Anglophone countries is also important, but as is usual in many ELT materials, the discussion tends to stop at British vs. American differences. Those trying to figure out register in Canada are left to figure it out for themselves! Observation of patterns and sensitivity become all the more important.

Informal Recasts

Awareness of the fact that even recasts in formal classroom settings go ignored most of the time has left me determined to try to listen for them and incorporate them to improve my accuracy, especially of vocabulary. For example, in a conversation with a student, I had used the term biología marítima to refer to marine biology, but he replied using the term biología marina. “Whoops!”, I said to myself, and took note to correct that term in my internal dictionary.

Does awareness of the research around recasts and the fact that they often lead to very little uptake make learners more likely to listen for them, take them in, and therefore make them more likely to be effective? I think it does, and always bring this up in class, especially in speaking and pronunciation classes.

Paraphrasing

Finally, not that there as any doubt, but these experiences have driven home the importance of fluency and confidence (over accuracy) in asserting yourself and being accepted as a user of a particular language. Many people, whether subconsciously or consciously, hold the idea that fluency (interplaying with pronunciation here) in a language reflects your cognitive state. So in real-life professional communicative situations it’s best to just employ any strategies necessary to get on with things, rather than getting hung up on grammatical mistakes or blanking on a particular piece of vocab. Finding time in class not just to discuss these strategies, but to practice them via role plays or other activities is very important.

Teacher Qualification Frameworks and Equity in Hiring

Lots of university language centres in Canada get a big influx of EAP students in the Fall semester, and that often means hiring on more instructors. Although that’s not the case with our centre this year, it’s got me thinking about hiring.

In Canada, language schools or institutes might operate within a couple of different accreditation or certification frameworks in terms of the qualifications of academic staff hired: TESL Canada Professional Certification, a provincial certification process, or if it’s a Languages Canada-accredited language training institution, their Classification of TESOL Qualifications.

TESL Canada and Languages Canada are great organizations, and their existence and advocacy has contributed immensely to the professionalization and raising standards of English language teaching in Canada, especially with regards to teachers on government-sponsored immigrant language programs (Burnaby 2003; Sivell 2005; Chafe and Wang, 2008), and with regards to private language schools.

At the same time, the teaching of English for Academic Purposes in the higher education context seems to be a bit of a different beast in terms of the qualifications, background and experience of value in a potential instructor. For example, advanced degrees, research experience, familiarity with academic discourse(s) in different disciplines and published academic work is all of great value in an EAP instructor. BALEAP’s TEAP Competency Framework reflects this in a way that general ELT certification frameworks don’t (and can’t).

I also think that some aspects of the general ELT certification and accreditation frameworks work against diversity and equity in hiring, especially in a context like Canada. For example, for TESL Canada certification a teacher’s training has to have been carried out at an institution on their list of accredited training programs. This list is, in my opinion, very short, and every institution on it is located in Canada. If your training is from another institution, you have to apply for an onerous and expensive prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) process. In an industry as globally-mobile as TESOL, and in a country with as much immigration as Canada, this is quite out of touch with the reality on the ground, where a great number of us (myself included) have training, qualifications and experience from outside the country.

Similarly, TESL Canada has a very narrow definition of acceptable English(es). They require any applicants for certification who have not completed an undergraduate degree at an English-speaking university in one of the countries on this list to show proof of language proficiency. Lists of this type are common in university admissions, etc., but this particular list has a couple of notable omissions, such as Pakistan and India. In these two countries, English-medium higher education is very common, and there are also a significant number of Canadians who have received their education there. Why are they not on that list?

Finally, both TESL Canada and Languages Canada TESOL Qualification criteria prescribe training programs with a very specific minimum of observation and practicum hours. While recent certificate, diploma and degree-programs in the Anglo world might be likely to include these elements that is not the case in many contexts around the world. Folks who have received their TESOL training in the context of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in many different countries would not have had observations or practicum placements, as it’s simply not the norm.

Why flexibility and ability to exercise judgement in hiring are extremely important, as they allow me to hire who I consider to be qualified and a good fit for a given position, be they born, raised and trained in Canada, a recent newcomer to Canada, a Canadian with diverse worldwide experience, or a speaker of one of a variety of World Englishes. If someone has a degree in TESL from another country with no practicum, but a ton of teaching experience, then I can hire them. If they speak Indian English, I don’t have to subject them to an IELTS test. If they have a master’s in biology on top of their other qualifications, I can value that and put them on a science writing course. Languages Canada provides some flexibility by stipulating, for example, that “there will be a valid rationale provided for the employment of any teachers or academic leader without the ELT/TESOL qualifications specified.” This is extremely important not just to allow hiring to reflect the difference between EAP and general ELT, but to ensure I can hire a complement of qualified, experienced and engaged teachers that reflects the diversity of the Canadian population. Our educational program is the richer for it.

ELT and International Higher Ed

I’ve been neglecting my blog, I’m afraid. It’s ready to blame it solely on my doctoral thesis, which nearing completion, but it’s not just that. My professional role has expanded to include the realm of international higher education, which has meant a bunch of missions abroad representing the university, our English language unit, and Canadian higher ed in general over the past year and a half or so. Mostly to Latin America, and usually with a consortium or co-op such as the CALDO Consortium, Languages Canada or EduNova, these missions have been not only extremely interesting, but have given me some new insight into the the role of language in the internationalization of higher education.

For example, the growth of international education has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of English language as a medium for teaching, learning and research. As a result, English-medium instruction, language training for students and academics, and language capacity-building play an important role in many international partnerships. As well, policies and practices such as language proficiency requirements for admission, and standardized language testing continue to be points of discussion. However, the potentially important role language in international education is often underestimated. How innovative approaches to language can contribute to sustainable and successful initiatives is not adequately discussed.

I see this lack of attention paid to the role and potential of language in international higher ed as especially glaring  when it is done by Anglo-Canadian institutions. Going into meetings with institutions from places where English is not the dominant language, language proficiency, training, assessment and EMI are often prominent concerns, brought up right from the start in discussion of student and faculty mobility and joint research collaboration, etc. A monolingual mindset is prevalent at many Anglo-Canadian universities (more on that in my thesis!). This means that sometimes Canadian institutions don’t seem to think that these are important concerns and don’t address them as they build programs. Sometimes institutions don’t see language teaching, learning and research as “proper” scholarship, and miss opportunities for things like short-term language courses to be a first step in collaboration between two institutions while more complicated agreements get worked out for things like joint doctoral degrees or other more involved sorts of collaboration.

Language Awareness for All

Forever35 Podcast: Two friends that like to talk about serums

Yes, so I love podcasts! (And have talked about them on this blog here and here.)I was listening to the Forever35 podcast the other day, (getting some advice on serums and the like, as one does), and there was a relative controversy that erupted over micellar water/eau micellaire–not over the cosmetic product itself, but over the pronunciation.

The show hosts had commented on a previous episode about not knowing how to pronounce the name of this product, so various people called in suggesting pronunciations: someone from Switzerland giving /mi.sɪ.’lɛ
ʁ / , and someone from the US suggesting /maɪ.’sɛ.lər/. The hosts kept making a big deal out of how different these pronunciations were, and that they still didn’t know which one was the “right” pronunciation.

What struck me about this whole podcast was the lack of language awareness. These weren’t two differing pronunciations of the same word, but the pronunciations of two separate words in two completely different languages. It wasn’t that one was right and the other wrong; one is correct in English and the other correct in French. It’s not really a debate. Now if it had been a debate on the wheres, whens and hows of, for example, using French loanwords for cosmetics or other products in English, it would have been interesting. But it was two people not really noticing the difference between two completely different languages. (Don’t worry, it was cleared up on the following episode, after a bunch of listeners who were probably thinking the same thing as me called in to clear up the (non-)debate!

To me it seemed like such an example of the monolingual mindset (Clyne, 2005), a denial of societal de facto multi/plurilingualism in the context of monolingualism in the dominant majority language (in this American case, English) as the default standard. Amongst all various other phenomena associated with the monolingual mindset is a lack of interest in, or value put on learning /speaking of other languages, as it is seen as something difficult outside the realm of ordinary people. The hosts of the podcast were so thoroughly immersed in a monolingual mindset that it didn’t occur to them that the two pronunciations of micellar/micellaire might actually be in two languages; they could only comprehend them as being variants on the English word, one of which had to be wrong.

I don’t bring this up to try to brag about the fact that I happen to know English and French and so this stood out to me. Rather, it was a reminder to me that there are lots of people who live in different contexts where a monolingual mindset is the status quo, and sometimes those same people end up moving to Canada to study and joining our language classes.

In an EAP context I like to do a lot of (critical) language and linguistic awareness-raising of everything: socio-cultural contexts of language use, language and power, phonological awareness, awareness of the history of English, social variability of language use, etc.. I like to make comparisons between English and other languages, as well, as especially where relevant to talk about vocabulary loanwords, or to compare syntactic phenomena.

These are such interests of mine, and I’ve been studying/talking about them for so long, if I get too excited I might get carried away: my teacher talk getting too jargon-y, and I might dive too fast and too deep into some of the topics I’ve mentioned above. But if someone is coming from a context where the monolingual mindset it present, their language awareness might be at a very low level. In that case, the language awareness pieces would have to be very carefully scaffolded to make sure everyone in the class was on the same page, and that learning outcomes were being achieved by all members of the class.

The HE IELTS Blame Game

This article is a real head-shaker: More than 400 students in India told to retake language tests after Niagara College flags concerns. As the subtitle to this article puts it, “an Ontario college has raised questions over the validity of the scores of a popular international standardized language test submitted by students applying from India after a probe found “inconsistencies” in language proficiency”.

I’m shaking my head over so many aspects of this situation. There are so many leaps of logic. And it seems like they didn’t really take the time to consult people that understand the IELTS exam and its shortcomings and/or the interplay of English fluency and teaching/learning in higher education. 

  • So, the faculty of this college flagged 300 students for being “at risk academically” (How? Using what tool/metric/method? Did unconscious bias/systemic racism play a role in who gets flagged as it has and does in lots of other Canadian higher ed contexts? ).
  • This was more than the 150 students flagged last year. (Did the demographics of the students admitted to the college also change in this time?)
  • The student flagged were made to take an in-house language test. (Was this test? Who designed it? Was it valid/reliable? Who corrected it? Does it test what the IELTS tested? Does it test content knowledge?) 
  • The college found 200 out of the group that did the in-house test were failing in their academic programs because their English was not “at the required level”. (Wait, what? How did we jump from students’ language proficiency to failing their academic programs/being “at-risk”? Don’t they realize that you can fail a course for many reasons?) 
  • The majority of the students who failed the in-house test were from India and had done the IELTS at IDP centres in India (How many more Indian students did the college admit this year over last year? How many cities and centres are we talking about?). So the college freaks out about the discrepancy between the IELTS score and the score on the in-house test, alerts IDP and IRCC (!) about these ‘inconsistencies’, making it sound like there’s testing fraud at IDP centres. (Do they not know how common it is for there to be a discrepancy between IELTS scores and real-life language ability? That you can get a 6.0 IELTS (the score required for admission to Niagara College) and not be able to meet the academic demands of higher education, which are much more complex and broad than what is tested on the IELTS?)
  • The college is paying for 400 Indian applicants to be re-tested (Where? With what test?) before they can be admitted for January. 

It seems to me like this college opened the floodgates and admitted a very large number of students who use English as a second/additional language from India, all at once, without considering or making any arrangements for (1) students’ development of academic language and literacies appropriate for the Canadian college context or (2) developing their faculty’s skill and ability to teach a culturally and linguistically-diverse student clientele (3) adapting curriculum to a very culturally and linguistically-diverse student body whose academic language and literacies are varying and will need support and development.

This college does not seem to understand that the IELTS exam only tests what it tests, and that is only a tiny sliver of the broad spectrum of linguistic and academic skills needed to succeed in English-medium higher education. So someone can get a 6.0 (or higher!) on the IELTS and still be unable to succeed at university. Think of the IELTS as testing running speed, and studying in higher education as soccer. I may be a very fast runner, and running is an important part of soccer, and I have to be able to run a certain speed to get onto the soccer team. But just because I can run fast doesn’t mean I’ll be able to play soccer well or be a star player. I need some training in some of the other skills involved in soccer, like dribbling, passing and shooting. 

As well, this college doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that many people can train specifically for the IELTS exam, and without any fraud or nefarious tricks, get a score much higher than what their real-life language ability would suggest.  You could go to any university or college in Canada and test first-semester students on an in-house language test and you’d find lots of students with a discrepancy between that test score and their IELTS score. It’s simplty the nature of the beast. Far be it from me to defend IELTS or IDP, but it seems like in this case they’ve become scapegoats for an inadequate institutional response to very rapid changes in admissions demographics for this college. 

Institutions can make a fuss about IELTS scores, but it won’t be enough to ensure an equitable teaching and learning environment for students from all linguistic backgrounds. Regardless of what a certain IELTS score for admission may be, institutions have to change their curricula, integrating time and space for the development of academic language and literacies into their courses and programs. If you want a very diverse group of students to possess certain skills, you have to teach them!

LPP Conference 2018

CaptureI’m thrilled to present at the Multidisciplinary Approaches to Language Policy and Planning conference this week at OISE in Toronto.

My session is based on my on-going doctoral research is entitled A Discursive Exploration of English Language Policy at Linguistically-Diverse Canadian Universities. As can happen, I submitted that title and abstract months ago, and as I’ve progressed in my research in the meantime, a more accurate title would now be “Language-as-problem” at Linguistically-Diverse Canadian Universities. To find out why, you’ll just have to attend the talk! 😉

At conference where sessions are limited to 20-30 minutes (as this one is) I always find just as some good conversations get going, things get cut off. So I’ve directed attendees to this blog post to continue the discussion and Q &A about the topic and findings I raise in my session. If that’s how you got here, welcome!

I’d love to hear your reflections on the themes raised in my talk in light of your own context. Here are some questions you might consider:

  • Do you see any of the phenomena I discussed in my talk in your particular context?
  • What recommendations for language, literacy and internationalization stakeholders in a Canadian HE context would you give in light of today’s discussion?
  • How do we go about changing discourses?