International Student Academic Support
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THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS
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Most faculty are aware of the basic advising information for international students regarding their visa status:
- Students need to be registered for a full-time schedule of classes (at least 12 credits undergraduate or 9 for graduate) in order to maintain their student visa.
- Students can register for only 3 online course credits per term unless their total load is over 12 credits..
- Depending on whether the student is on a regular 4-year degree plan, has transfer credits, or is part of a 1+3, 2+2, or 3+1 agreement with a foreign university, they may or may not need typical undergraduate LACC, major, or minor courses.
When in doubt about advising, contact or direct the student to one of the International student Advisors in the Office of International Education and Development (Maaske Hall), or Qin Ma, the International Student Educational Advisor, in the Office of International Student Academic Support (APSC 501).
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David Foster Wallace told the following story at the Kenyon College commencement in 2005.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Wallace had his purpose for the story, but mine is to say that for humans, language is our water—it is the medium through which most of our social and intellectual lives transpire, and it is usually transparent to us, its myriad of structural rules and pragmatic choices processed subconsciously. Until we are confronted with a language we don’t know.
Many faculty and administrators are multilingual and well-traveled and therefore have a good idea what our international students are going through linguistically, but the experiences of most faculty are markedly different from those of our students. An adult traveler or researcher abroad enjoys the comfort of status and the knowledge that language issues are temporary and have few long-term effects. And those who venture to another country as a graduate student typically have the maturity and intellectual experience to meet their language challenges head on. A child or young adult who moves to a different country typically has the support of parents at home or lives with a local family.
However, the majority of our international students are young undergraduates who are short on experience living alone, confidence using English, and the immediate support that would allow them to deal effectively with living and studying in English. And the consequences when they don’t understand a lecture or a written assignment are enormous.
Likewise, to continue with the water metaphor, many faculty members are familiar with the ‘sink or swim’ approach to language acquisition and to learning methods that emphasize grammar rules and vocabulary memorization. However, the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and the applied linguistics of language teaching has grown tremendously over the past 30 years. To place students into classes and trust that they will pick up the language eventually is naïve given what we now know about SLA; rather, we can employ principled and systematic language instruction that will allow our students to more quickly develop relevant academic English skills.
For example, you might think that the best strategy for reading comprehension is to look up words in a dictionary as you come to them. However, studies have shown that this is not efficient and it distracts students from focusing on the main idea of the text. A better strategy is to use context clues and inferencing skills to make educated guesses for the meaning of unknown words. However, students should keep a journal of new words, especially to keep track of ones that are relatively frequent or especially important for understanding the content.
Finding the dictionary definitions for selected words and writing them along with example sentences will be very effective. But again, you might not be aware that not all dictionaries are created equal. These days almost every publisher who produces a typical English monolingual dictionary for native speakers also produces a “learners dictionary”. These typically contain far fewer words (the most frequently occurring 7 to 10 thousand rather than 30, 40 or 60 thousand) because each word has more information. What kind of information? Not the irrelevant history of the word, but the forms it comes in, examples of how it is used in authentic sentences, typical syntactic patterns and words that commonly co-occur including idioms, and notes that indicate whether a word is formal, informal, slang, or offensive—all information that is seldom in a dictionary for native speakers.
Furthermore, Mark Davies at BYU has produced one of the most helpful vocabulary learning devices on the internet. At http://www.wordandphrase.info you can enter a word that you want information about, search for it, and on one screen find out: how frequently it occurs in the 450 million word Corpus of Contemporary American English, and how frequently it is used in academic writing, contextual synonyms, and examples of its use in a variety of labeled academic domains.
In WordandPhrase.info, a search for the word ‘elucidate’ in the general corpus, will tell you that this verb is not among the most frequent 3000 words in English (it’s relatively uncommon), it’s typically used in the Academic register, it is usually followed by a noun phrase, typically appears in its –ing form or a the to-infinitive, and you can click to see synonyms that are either more or less specific.
A student who performs that same search but in the academic corpus only, can see that the word is among the 3000 most frequent words in academic writing, but most commonly appears in the Humanities and least commonly in Business. Students with different majors can use this information to be more selective and efficient in their vocabulary study
Students can also search for a phrase such as “elucidate the relationship” if, for example, they need to paraphrase a sentence that uses this phrase. By searching for this phrase and selecting contextually appropriate synonyms for ‘elucidate’ the student can quickly retrieve a list of far more frequently occurring words in this position.
I provide this level of detail for two reasons: 1) to give readers examples of tools that they can encourage their international students (or any language learners and students in general) to use, and 2) to emphasize that the teaching of English is an established field of applied linguistics; thus, students who are taught by trained professionals will gain English proficiency far more quickly than those who are merely put into regular classes and encouraged to socialize with English-speaking peers.
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Assessing Language Proficiency
It might be helpful for you to know a little something about how the language proficiency of international students is assessed and the level that is typical of students at WOU. Of the several widely available standardized tests of language proficiency, two are the most frequently used—the TOFEL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). At WOU a student can submit a “passing” score on either of these two to meet admissions requirements. The most current version of the TOEFL will report a score on a scale of 0 to 120 with a Standard Error of Measurement (SEM) of 5.64 (link). IELTS scores are reported on a scale of 1 to 9 (at .5 increments) with an SEM of about .385 (link).
Though no standardized test is a perfect assessment of an individual ELL’s ability to understand and produce English, both of these tests employ a range of reading, writing, listening, and speaking items that have been continually revised over many years to achieve the most reliable and valid results that are possible for such large-scale tests. Of course, any student may perform slightly better or worse on different versions of one of these tests or on different days and many contextual and affective factors may compound this variation, but in my experience, the differences between a student who received a 5 on the IELTS (or equivalent on the TOEFL) and one who scored a 6.5 is readily observable in both conversation and writing. Likewise, in reviewing the Writing 115 grades for international students and their scores on the standardized language tests, there is a correlation between lower test scores and lower final grades. There will always be students whose standardized test scores do not reflect their actual language skills, but I believe that these mismatches are prominent not because they are extremely frequent (I don’t think they are), but because they are anomalous, making them more noticeable and memorable.
In order to apply for admission to WOU, students must submit a score of 5 or greater on the IELTS or at least 61 on the TOEFL. While these cut-off scores are lower than those at most universities, they are equivalent to the lowest cut-offs at a few other institutions. According to research by ETS (the TOEFL producer) a 61 on the TOEFL is equivalent to a low 6 on the IELTS (http://www.ets.org/toefl/institutions/scores/compare). Given this imbalance in the admissions requirements, it is not surprising that most students in the last several years have sought admission to WOU using the IELTS because it will be easier for them to achieve a 5 on the IELTS than a 61 on the TOEFL. In any case, both test makers caution against screening students solely on test scores, and both recommend that for university study, students should have higher scores than what most universities set as cut-offs for admission (link).
Using standardized language proficiency tests for admissions decisions is not controversial, but setting cut-off scores is, because each institution (and programs within them) can choose their own acceptable levels, and these levels have a direct impact on both the university’s recruiting, admissions, and enrollment on one hand, and the ability for students to adjust to life in the US and succeed academically on the other.
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The challenge of listening in class
International students typically feel much more confident reading and writing because they can work at their own pace, reread, and rewrite. Speaking and listening, however, must be processed in real-time and given that most of students’ class time is spent listening and that the information gained is crucial for their academic success, listening is a foremost concern. Furthermore, before students came to the US, they usually had many opportunities to read and write formal English, but very few chances to listen interactively (as opposed to the less-interactive nature of media consumption) to long stretches of English.
If an international student is clearly struggling to understand the spoken English in your class, here are some tips for the student and for you.
Tips for students (listening)
- Carefully complete all assigned reading in advance of class meetings, keep a journal of new content vocabulary, and practice pronouncing these words. All of this will make it easier to hear and understand these words when they are used in class. Research into the connection between vocabulary knowledge and listening comprehension has reported that anywhere from 35% to 50% of the variance in listening comprehension is due to the breadth (mostly) and depth of vocabulary knowledge though good listeners can compensate for lack of vocabulary by inferencing and focusing on the main idea rather than specific details (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012, pp. 59-60). Likewise, this pre-lecture study provides background knowledge that plays a “crucial role in listening comprehension” (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012, p. 67).
- Sign up for the Conversation Partners program—the best practice for listening and speaking is to listen and speak to a real person.
- Ask professors if they will allow you to audio record class lectures. This practice has many benefits: 1) the student can listen to the lecture again to pick up any missed content and grasp the overall structure of the discourse, 2) when listening again, the student can familiarize him/herself with difficult pronunciations that are particular to the course content and professor, thus, making these easier to process in the future, 3) the mere presence of the recording device will help the listener stay focused on the overall goal of comprehending class content, 4) the reassurance offered in #1 leads to less anxiety while listening; research into L2 listening has revealed that the anxiety learners feel because of the pressure to understand a lecture in real-time with no second-chances is a significant distraction from the task at hand: listening for meaning. The recording gives them the freedom to listen for the main ideas and be part of the class because they have the confidence and self-efficacy to go back later and pick up details.
- Be a metacognitive listener: come to a lecture ready to employ your vocabulary, knowledge of lecture structure and style, discourse signals, and inferencing skills to draw content meaning about the day’s topic. Research shows that students who employ a bit of self-monitoring (conscious attention to listening strategies) have better comprehension and retention.
- Watch English movies, and experiment with turning the subtitles on or off. Watch a scene without subtitles and see how much you understand, then watch it again with subtitles, and again without. Watch the movie in pieces or the whole thing then later again with or without subtitles. Note: courtroom dramas like A Few Good Men, Presumed Innocent, JFK, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. will have scenes of extended ‘lecture-style’ speech that is similar in formality and logical development to classroom discourse—much more than the informal conversation typical of TV sitcoms.
A note on grammar (syntax): quite a lot of research has demonstrated that for language learners, focusing on the function words (articles, prepositions, conjunctions) and syntax of sentences in lectures is less important and even a distraction from grasping the meaning. Rather, students should be advised to focus on the global meaning as emphasized in key words and phrases. (Vandergrift and Goh, 2012, pp. 61-62)
On the other hand, students should be directed to pay attention to discourse structure signals in lectures (“First, let’s look at…” “To sum up so far…” “and, to repeat…” “but more importantly…” etc.). If students have an idea of the overall schema, or script knowledge, of how academic lectures typically develop, these phrases provide important signals to logical development, emphasis, and meaning structure. This is also why it is very beneficial for teachers to provide an outline of lectures for international students to follow along with.
Tips for teachers during lectures
- Slow down.
- Provide concrete examples for any difficult concepts.
- Use visual aids.
- Provide an outline of the lecture for students to follow or use for note-taking.
- Be aware that cultural references (including most jokes) will not only not be understood, but will make international students feel even more like outsiders. In Patricia Duff’s (2004) analysis of classroom interaction (cited in Ortega, 2009), she found that the teachers and native speakers would tell jokes and anecdotes and structure their discussions around what they assumed were common knowledge references to television, celebrities, and current events. While such talk can effectively connect academic subjects to relevant personal knowledge, for the ELLs “such talk only served to silence them and weaken their learning of the subject matter. Interestingly, none of the participants in these classrooms showed much awareness of just how difficult these interaction events were: fast-paced, full of slang and with many speakers contributing at the same time. Instead, the silence of the ESL peers was interpreted by the teachers, the … [domestic] students, and even the ESL students themselves, as shyness and limited language ability, attributes associated with dominant ideologies of ‘being Asian’ and ‘being a newcomer’” (Ortega, 2009, p. 238).
Vandergrift, L. and Goh, C. (2012). Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action. New York: Routledge.
Ortega, L. (2009). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. London: Hodder.
Duff, P. A. (2004). Intertextuality and hybrid discourses: The infusion of pop culture in educational discourse. Linguistics and Education, 14(3/4), 231-76.
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The challenge of speaking during class
The basis of many international students’ reluctance to speak in class are both linguistic and cultural. It is likely that students had few opportunities to practice speaking in English in authentic communicative situations before coming to the US. In schools in some countries standards for using “correct” grammar and pronunciation are seen as so important that students feel strongly inhibited while attempting to speak, and their memory resources are diverted away from communicating ideas toward choosing the right surface form. This results in less fluent, halted speech and typically negative feedback (frustration) from listeners which creates a cycle of self-conscious embarrassment and lack of confidence. Other students display more fluent speech, but with grammar, word choice, or pronunciation inaccuracies that, in extreme cases, inhibit communication.
I should note here that among the productive language skills and levels of linguistic structure, pronunciation (second language phonetics and phonology) is the area in which learners are most likely to never attain native speaker proficiency, nor should they be expected to. Studies of listening comprehension when the speaker has a dialectal or non-native accent have shown that for willing listeners, after a short time of accommodating to a speaker’s accent, there is no loss of comprehension. In other words, students (and all people with an accent that is different from the local variety of English) should be encouraged to speak without suffering public correction. Any significant miscommunication will be obvious and subsequent negotiation for meaning will result in appropriate, contextualized learning for the speaker who wants to communicate and the listener who wants to understand.
Speaking in educational contexts is also culturally embedded. In the countries that many of our international students come from, students are not only punished for speaking out of turn, but may be discouraged from speaking at all. There are a host of reasons for this from orientations toward traditional authority to the realities of large classes (60 to 90 students) per teacher at the elementary to high school levels to emphasis on the reception and storage of facts rather than co-construction of meaning. The result is that for many international students, speaking in any language in class is an odd practice, and speaking to the teacher and peers in English even more obscure. Attitudes toward group work may be similar as students have no experience playing the various group member roles (leader, recorder, facilitator, contributor, questioner, task-master, etc.) that American students are socialized into; and some students may see discussion with peers as a waste of time because more accurate information can come directly from the instructor.
Unfortunately, it is entirely possible for international students to listen and speak in English only during the 12 hours per week of their classes. Many international students live off-campus with same-country peers, watch TV and movies in their native language, talk or text-chat at all hours with friends and family in their home country, and eat at restaurants where they can order in their mother tongue. Traveling and shopping in groups, international students will often rely on one group member to do the English communicating when necessary. As faculty and staff, we must do everything possible to encourage international students to interact in English and practice their speaking and listening skills both in and out of class.
Tips for students (speaking)
- Don’t be afraid to speak. Your pronunciation and grammar do not need to be perfect for you to be understood.
- As with listening practice, reviewing and pronouncing content-specific vocabulary that is likely to be part of class discussion will improve students’ fluency and confidence.
- Students should form study groups with other international students or with native speaker classmates in order to practice academic speaking in a less threatening environment than in front of the entire class. Working with a course tutor can also accomplish this goal.
- Becoming involved in the Conversation Partners program is an excellent way for students to practice speaking in English.
Tips for teachers to promote student speech in class
- Encourage students to speak. When the message is not clear, be patient and helpful: ask simple clarification questions; try to rephrase the student’s words into more standard language. This ‘recasting’ during communicative exchanges puts just enough emphasis on form that students notice and learn from the more appropriate structure while not significantly distracting from the message at hand.
- Provide opportunities for students to practice speaking with a partner or in a small group before speaking to the entire class. Before discussion time, allow students a few minutes to write about the topic, then share with a partner or group that they are comfortable in (require that students actually read or summarize what they wrote).
A modification of this is to inform students that they will be called on to tell what their partner thought. This especially encourages partners to help each other get their messages straight and it removes the anxiety of getting the content right since each student only has to venture what their partner thought.
- If possible, provide a list of discussion topics and questions before the day of class.
- Because international students often sit together in class, it may be beneficial to assign students to mixed (international and domestic) working groups who they sit next to and collaborate with during class.
- Don’t ignore international students.
Morita (2004) investigated the experiences of international graduate students at a Canadian university. One of her participants offered a poignant reminder of how an instructor’s behavior can influence students in a way that may not show outwardly but that encourages them and helps them learn better:
If someone followed me in all my courses and simply observed me, she would have just thought that I was a quiet person. But my silence had different meanings in different courses. In Course E, the instructor made me feel that I was there even though I was quiet. In the other courses my presence or absence didn’t seem to make any difference… I just sat there like an ornament. (Morita, 2004, p. 587)
Morita, N. (2004). Negotiating participation and identity in second language academic communities. TESOL Quarterly, 38, 573-603.
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The challenge of academic writing
What usually strikes faculty as the most obvious and troubling feature of language learners’ writing is surface errors and mistakes such as misuse of articles (a, an, the), awkward syntax, and incorrect punctuation.However, the challenges that language learners face when producing academic writing go much deeper.
To begin with, the role that writing plays in the K-12 curriculum in many countries that our students come from is very different from here in the US. Our schools have long recognized the importance of writing to learn, writing across the curriculum, and the process approach to writing (brainstorm, draft, revise, edit, share—in a recursive process). American students are accustomed to producing short and extended narratives, arguments, and informative papers. As early as 5th grade students are taught critical thinking skills to distinguish fact from opinion so that eventually they can state their individual perspective while incorporating and indicating information from other people and texts. (This is not to say that American students enter college as professional writers, but that all of them have been exposed to these ideas for many years.)
These are culturally enmeshed approaches that emphasize analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creativity, arguably to the detriment of amassing stored knowledge. While school systems in other countries typically encourage younger students to write real and imagined narratives, writing at upper levels is largely used for short summaries that repackage the information students are taught.
Likewise the rhetorical structure of essays may differ. In many non-European traditions it is considered obtuse to state a thesis up front or directly; the more nuanced writer will provide the right balance of examples for the reader to infer the main point. What to us may seem like indirectness, talking around the point, or beating around the bush, is well-crafted prose in other languages. The same is true for acceptable degrees of digression. Where we would advise to stick to the point, teachers in other countries might praise for an enlightening addition. Note that we are talking about academic discourse, not journalism or creative non-fiction—these English genres do make use of the techniques mentioned above.
American academic writing also requires that broad generalizations be supported by specific examples whereas in other traditions general truths may be accepted at face value. This acceptance of shared knowledge can also transfer to the use of outside sources of information. Quotations or paraphrases of famous scholars, well-known texts, and even information gleaned from websites are part of shared cultural capital that can be used freely with little expectation of explicit referencing.
In addition to all of these differences (not to mention the vocabulary and grammar of English), the visual format of our papers is new to most international students. Most Middle Eastern and Asian countries use A4 (8.27 x 11.69 inch) paper rather than our letter sized (8.5 x 11 inch). Students who bring laptop computers from their own country will often have odd-looking margins because they don’t know (or know how) to change the document size. More significantly, not only do they not know what we expect of standard font, font size, margins, line spacing, and indenting, but it is likely that they’ve never learned the words ‘margin,’ ‘spacing,’ or ‘indent’.
In summary, much of what we take for granted about our student’s writing, aside from being in English, may not be familiar to international student writers.
In language learning (as with much learning in general) it is useful to consider a continuum from errors to mistakes. Pure errors are caused by ignorance and are not the fault of the learner—they signal opportunities for learning something new. Mistakes are missteps that learners make because they are attending to other aspects of the task at hand—when given the chance, we can correct our mistakes ourselves.
Language learning does not progress in a lock-step, linear manner: teaching a discrete skill (for example, when to use the articles a, an, the and when to not mark a noun phrase with an article or how to write an effective introduction and thesis) does not immediately lead to the elimination of all errors and mistakes. Language learning is better thought of as the development of automaticity over time. When learners acquire a ‘rule’ of English (whether through explicit instruction or incidental uptake), it will likely be overgeneralized and misapplied until the intricacies of its use are worked out through extensive production that includes noticing one’s mistakes in comparison to the usage that students are attempting (whether that is standard writing, formal speech, or the grammar and pronunciation of casual speech).
The point here is that when a student produces learner English, it is a good idea to determine whether you are seeing an error or a mistake. Errors will require instruction and some aspects of English are more difficult to learn than others. Mistakes, however, especially in writing, can be corrected by the student if given time to revise. Revision is an important step in the process of noticing differences and making language more standard, but it takes a great deal of exposure and practice to go from learning to making many mistakes and consciously fixing them, to making few mistakes to automatically producing the target language.
Hopefully by the time international students reach your class they will have passed WR115 for International Students in which all of the above aspects of English academic writing are taught while vocabulary and grammar are strengthened. But 10 weeks, and a handful of formal and informal essays and papers is only a start. WR135 and the newly required LING 136 will provide another term of practice, but it is likely that most international students will still exhibit a range of mistakes in their writing throughout their college career. With this in mind, here are some tips for helping students write better and dealing with students’ papers.
Tips for students (writing)
- First and foremost, understand the assignment. If you have any doubt about what the instructor expects, ask him or her, and/or take the assignment to the Writing Center for help.
- Writing a good paper requires much more than one night of work. Plan to finish a draft several days before it’s due so that you can visit the Writing Center at least once. Save the last day before the paper is due for editing: read every sentence carefully. Print your paper the day before it is due—never just before class.
- Take a copy of the assignment, any class notes, and any outside sources with you to the Writing Center.
- Carefully compare your paper to any examples that the instructor provides.
- You may have been told that academic sentences are long and complicated. This may be true often and on average (compared to the language of newspapers, fiction, and conversation), but these sentences are produced by experienced writers who understand the connections between all of the information in their sentences. If you tend to write long sentences but are not sure about their grammar and punctuation, your reader may not understand you. It might be better to use shorter sentences to make the meaning clear. On the other hand, if you write nearly all short sentences with no mistakes, you should work on combing the information of some sentences into others so that the writing is more efficient and the most important information is in the subjects and verbs of sentences with extra details in the adjectives, prepositional phrases, relative clauses, and adverbial phrases.
Tips for teachers (writing)
- For any written assignment, provide an explicit set of instructions for handout or download.
- Provide at least one example of a final product (the same or similar assignment) and discuss it carefully in class.
- Emphasize the importance of budgeting time in the writing process—including a checklist with dates on the assignment sheet is even better.
- When reading and commenting on papers, focus on content.
- Realize that rhetorical structure is not a universal (see above)—students may need help organizing the paper the way you want it, but this may not be a sign that they do not understand the content.
- Try not to be distracted by surface errors and mistakes with articles, prepositions, punctuation, spelling, and grammar that do not obscure meaning. This is not to say that these misuses are ok, but that they should not be of primary importance.
- Know a little about morphology. Many languages either lack prefixes and suffixes entirely (Chinese) or use them quite differently (Spanish). English learners will naturally focus on the root or stem of a word and may not even realize that they have not used the correct suffix for a given context. The addition of the –s to verbs to ‘agree’ with third person singular subjects (I explain. He explains.) and the –ed past tense marker and marking for plurals actually provide little meaning to a sentence, and their misuse rarely causes confusion. On the other hand, readers may be thrown off by a sentence like:
The company manage practice are insufficiently for successful.
Based on this sentence, you may think that the student has only a vague notion of their ideas. But simply correcting the suffixes yields:
The company’s management practices are insufficient for success.
Students who are directing their attention the core meaning and the message they are trying to convey may not notice those tiny endings of words. Remember that the form of the student’s English may not match a complex and nuanced understanding of the topic.
- Know a little about morphology. Many languages either lack prefixes and suffixes entirely (Chinese) or use them quite differently (Spanish). English learners will naturally focus on the root or stem of a word and may not even realize that they have not used the correct suffix for a given context. The addition of the –s to verbs to ‘agree’ with third person singular subjects (I explain. He explains.) and the –ed past tense marker and marking for plurals actually provide little meaning to a sentence, and their misuse rarely causes confusion. On the other hand, readers may be thrown off by a sentence like:
- It bears repeating that knowledge of English does not correlate to intelligence or potential.
- Encourage use of the Writing Center, but teach students how to use it in productive ways. If the topic or form of the assignment is especially challenging, advise international students to take any class materials to the Writing Center with a very early draft. Too many students assume that the Writing Center is the place you go on the night before a paper is due in order to fix mistakes. When the Writing Center tutor is confronted with a paper that possibly or obviously does not fit the assigned topic, but the paper is due tomorrow and the student only wants sentence level corrections… students end up turning corrected papers that are irrelevant. The best use of the Writing Center is for students to first check that the content and organization of the paper are appropriate, then at a later appointment, after the student has tried to eliminate all of their mistakes themselves, get help with editing. Writing Center tutors are trained to focus on repeated errors and mistakes and teach students to fix them themselves in the future. If a tutor simply corrects every problem, the student will be so focused on mechanical surface changes that they won’t actually learn anything from their corrections. This is why papers that have been seen by tutors often still contain mistakes. It will be helpful if faculty emphasize these points to international students.
Note: the language acquisition principle at work here was formulated by Stephen Krashen as the “I+1” rule. The “I” stands for the learner, and the “+1” is the zone of maximum learning, meaning linguistic elements that are comprehensible to a student, but just beyond their current abilities. If students don’t attempt to correct their own mistakes before visiting the Writing Center, the tutor will only be pointing out mistakes that the learners could have fixed themselves if they’d given the time and effort. Thus, the learner is stuck at their current level with little opportunity for learning. On the other hand, if the tutor corrects errors that are beyond the comprehension of the learner (I+2, 3, 4, etc.), not only will the more advanced levels not be understood, but they will detract so much from the +1 level, that no learning will occur.
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The challenge of academic reading
International students typically report that among the four language skills, they feel most comfortable reading. Nonetheless their primary challenges in this area will be vocabulary and the syntax of academic sentences. Determining the meanings of words can be time consuming, and when a text contains too many unfamiliar words, understanding the content is jeopardized. If new vocabulary is not excessive, students can still be challenged by sentence structures with such high information density that they are unable to accurately process the connections between discrete units of information in and across sentences. The latter is especially important because, unlike being unsure of a word’s meaning, students may not know that they have an inaccurate understanding of the text due to its sentence level complexity.
Tips for students (reading)
- Do not look up every new word in a dictionary or translator as you read. You will need to use your own judgment here, but if you are looking up more than one word per sentence, you might not be able to focus on the overall message. It will be better to use the context to understand unknown words and guess their meaning as you go. If it is not too distracting, make a list of new words that you can check on later. As long as looking up words is not too distracting it is a good practice.
- Do keep a written journal of new vocabulary words. If you make a list of new words during or after reading a passage, you can see which ones are repeated and you should be able to decide which ones are most important for understanding the content you are learning. The repeated words and content words are the ones you should study by adding the appropriate meaning, example sentences, and other usage information to your vocabulary journal.
- When you look up the meanings of words, use a monolingual “learners dictionary”—not a translator.Automatic translators are well-known for being inaccurate because they do not consider the context of the English word and many translators may not have high quality translation and definition software. A learners dictionary will provide much more useful information about a word, some of which you should include in your vocabulary journal.
- Use wordandphrase.info. This is an excellent resource for knowing how common a word is. If it is in the top 3000 words and/or common in your academic area, you should learn it. In the wordandphase, you can see many examples of how the word is actually used in real sentences. You can also see synonyms that are more general and more specific and you can look up phrases to find appropriate synonyms for accurately paraphrasing.
- Focus on the grammatical subject and main verb of independent clauses—this is where the core meaning of English sentences is located. Subordinate information (less important details related to the subject and verb) are located in adverbial verb phrases, noun modifiers, and prepositional phrases.
- Preview any reading by looking at the section headings to get an idea of what the chapter or article is about and how the information is organized.
- Write a brief outline and summary as you are reading. Academic texts usually put the main ideas at the beginning of paragraphs, so focus on first sentences.
Tips for teachers (reading)
While there may not be a lot that teachers can do to make their readings more comprehensible for language learners, there are a few practices that should be beneficial.
- If any of your readings are in electronic form, please contact the Office of International Student Academic Support. If you send us electronic copies of materials, we can use freely available online linguistic analysis software to make lists of key words that are specific to academic writing in general and to particular subject areas. If you also provide us with a course schedule, we can email these lists to you for distribution to students in advance of the reading dates. Seriously. We can do this for you.
If we have time, we may also be able to identify sentences that are particularly syntactically challenging, and, thus, would be good candidates for class discussion.
- As implied by the previous sentence, we recommend that faculty highlight at least one syntactically complicated sentence per reading for detailed study during class time. There are many benefits to this practice: 1) modeling the kind of close reading that we expect of all students, 2) emphasizing the importance of the readings and the language they are conveyed in, 3) clarifying for students the relationship between the linear words in a sentence and the hierarchical meaning structure of the information contained therein, and 4) improving students global language skills by focusing on the form and meaning of the message and paraphrasing / summarizing / clarifying together. You may be surprised at how unpacking a single sentence as a class or in small groups can reveal misunderstandings, multiple interpretations, and ultimately improved reading comprehension for all students.
- Create an outline or other type of graphic organizer of the information for students to fill out as they are reading.
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Accounting for culture is a difficult task—there are hemispheric, national, ethnic, gendered, and social cultures all of which are dynamic and at no level completely homogenous; to use Triandis’s terms, any individual will be more or less idiocentric, sharing the perspectives of the group, or allocentric, at odds with the group that they nonetheless identify or are identified with. Given WOU’s population of international students, I will briefly address common difficulties they experience with (the overly general notion of) ‘American culture’ and the more specific concept of ‘American academic culture’—the organizational and behavioral norms of our colleges and universities.
It should be noted, that all of the cultural adjustment issues presented below are extremely compounded by any lack of English proficiency in both real-world interactions and written domains that are different from the academic English that students have studied.
Outside the classroom, cultural issues, while definitely important, may not be as significant as we might expect. Unlike many Americans who travel abroad and face difficulties adjusting to new and unknown social structures and norms of behavior, the majority of international students have spent years consuming international and American media—this is not to say that Desperate Housewives and Fast and Furious are representative depictions of life in the US, but that most students arrive with a great deal of both stereotypical and accurate conceptions of US culture couched in the understanding that 1) they will need to acculturate, and 2) the degree of acculturation is a matter of their own control. Sherry, Thomas, and Chui (2010) point out that despite the suggestions in the previous literature that adapting to new cultural norms is a major problem, 65% of the students in their study “indicated they had ‘no problems’ at all adjusting to the cultural norms of the United States,” and an additional 18% had “few” or “little” problems while only the remaining 17% indicated that they had difficulties adjusting (p. 38).
In my experience at WOU, the situation is similar, and I suspect that this is due to students’ awareness and expectations of difference but more importantly to their insularity as university students. Outside of the university, most students’ interactions with Americans are limited to shopping and securing housing and utilities. Though I have heard students complain about these interactions which are culturally situated, they constitute only a fraction of students’ lives, and I hear many more positive compliments about American friendliness. However, there is one particular adjustment issue that is of concern for many students.
Food. Our primary populations are Chinese and Saudi Arabian, and both groups value their ethnic cuisine and the social rituals of dining as essential elements of their culture and identity. Though both groups are exceedingly familiar with American fast food, most students doubt their ability to subsist on it alone and bemoan the lack of availability of familiar staples for cooking. Students must regularly drive to Salem, Corvallis, and more likely Portland, to buy supplies. It should not be surprising to know that no food source on campus provides authentic dining choices for these students. Fortunately for the Chinese population, there is at least one local restaurant that caters to their needs, but no such venue is present for students seeking Middle Eastern or halal options. Compounding this difficulty is the fact that many students, though they are expert consumers of their cultural foods, are less experienced cooks. Many Americans may view this lack of familiar food as a minor detail, but for some international students, this posses a significant barrier to life in the US and even to a healthy diet because they are even less prepared to cook nutritious meals with items from local grocery stores.
Academic culture, more specifically, posses many challenges for international students. When they enter our educational system, they will probably find that it is very different from their previous school expereinces. These differences go far beyond the ones that American students, who have been socialized into our system for at least 12 years, experience when they transition from high school to college.
Discussion-based, interactive teaching rather than lectures requiring passive reception of information may be entirely new. This includes American’s expectations of individual contributions to discussion and
content that diverges from, adds to, and/or challenges course readings.
Valuing of peers’ perspectives and teachers’ role as facilitator rather than exclusive expert:The privileging of authority is enacted differently across cultures. One form that it takes in many countries that our international students come from is honoring teachers by accepting their words and the words of textbook authors as the only necessary and the final words. What should matter to students is knowing the information that is given to them by the experts. For students who have spent a lifetime being receptive learners, our approach to education can be both liberating and incredibly challenging on a number of levels.
Working in groups: American students have been socialized into the various roles that individuals play in group interactions, but most international students have little experience working in groups or familiarity with expectations for members’ roles.
For students who have never or rarely studied in mixed-gender classrooms, these interactions can be awkward especially at first.
Liberal arts courses: More accustomed to science, humanities, or technical ‘tracks’ in their previous educational experiences, many international students will have less familiarity with the background in a variety of subjects that faculty assume American high school graduates enter with. Likewise, some students may question the value of courses outside their majors; however, many international students find the breadth of classes and ability to choose a liberating and enjoyable part of our system.
Timeliness: though most of our international students come from school systems that enforce punctuality, for a variety of reasons, this trait seems to be forgotten by a small but persistent percentage of international students. Possible reasons that I have heard from students are: the perception that US classrooms are “casual,” “open,” and “free”. Confronted with the relatively informal and egalitarian situation in US classes, the students incorrectly apply the polychronic approach to time that characterizes most non-academic social situations in their own cultures. Some students are simply sleep-deprived for a variety of reasons which combines with a lack of experience living on their own and managing personal schedules to make them late. Still other students live outside of Monmouth which, when combined with the previous reasons, leads them to underestimate commuting time which is often shared with friends who may be delayed despite the timeliness of your student.
Out of class
Homework and papers that count for significant portions of students grades: Accustomed to grades based almost entirely on tests, many students don’t grasp the importance other assignments. Showing students the syllabus and breakdown of their final grade will not be enough to overcome these entrenched ideas; students need to be reminded of the importance of constant production for success in our system.
Meeting with professors: To many students visiting a professor’s office is seen as a punishment or sign of poor performance. Though teachers all over the world devote time above and beyond their duty to students, in many places this does not include individual consultations. Though international students are informed about and encouraged to use faculty office hours, this practice is not part of their schema of academic culture until they have practiced it–thus, they will need more encouragement than expected in order to begin visiting instructors’ offices.
Group projects: As with in-class group work, students may find it difficult to negotiate the expectations of small-group interaction. This can easily lead to negative stereotype creation by domestic students and a cycle of miscommunication and unsuccessful interactions.
Assignments that require critical analysis, personal responses, and finding information in outside sources: These writing genres may be unfamiliar to students who will in turn be unsure about what is expected of them in terms of the content and organization of the final product.
Non-negotiable standards: In some cultures various terms (prices, time allotments, business favors, bills) are more commonly determined by an explicit or implicit negotiation between parties rather than by pre-determined, fixed standards. Students who are more accustomed to this style of interaction may have difficulty accepting that it is the cap on enrollment that determines the number of students in a class, not the number of desks in the room; that the validity and reliability of an examination are more important than the immediate needs of the person at the next desk, or that instructor’s standards for grading must adhere to departmental and university standards even to the detriment of a particular student’s academic standing. The back-and-forth interaction of bargaining that can make many Americans uncomfortably nervous and even angry is seen as a healthy, mutually beneficial way of life in other cultures.
Course selection: Most international students have little to no experience selecting and scheduling courses because in their previous institutions this is done for them, and they may have difficulty juggling an international, general, and faculty advisor. They may unaware or unclear about their degree requirements and/or the consequences of their course selections.
Registration: Building on the previous challenge, online registration can prove difficult for students who are unfamiliar with the timing and steps of this procedure. All international students are required to enroll in First Year Experience (FYE) for International Students during their first term, and this class informs students about nearly all of these issues, but some students will still have difficulties in later terms.
Infrastructure: Students are likely to be unfamiliar with the organization of university administration with its range of offices and duties. This can prove very frustrating for them especially when they are passed from building to building and office to office in their attempts to meet visa requirement, pay bills, set up online accounts, and seek advising, academic, and social support.
Student services: For international students the services available to assist them come in a dizzying variety that may be confusing to them. They may also attach a stigma to seeking support for anything from course tutoring to personal counseling.
Tips for teachers (academic culture)
- Allowing international students to audio record classes will allow them to focus class time on the whole message and engaging in discussion rather than trying to keep track of details which they will likely see as crucial to successful listening.
- Provide structure for group work by clarifying roles such as organizer, recorder, questioner, encourager, etc. to the class (or even assigning them to individuals).
- Compile a list of relevant background information that you expect domestic students to bring to a class but that international students might not. If given in advance, students can use Wikipedia to gain some degree of familiarity with the topics.
- If a student is habitually tardy, please meet with this student (or refer him or her to ISAS) to discuss his or her reasons for tardiness and the significance of what the student is missing during the beginning of class. It may be necessary to make an individual or group accountable by documenting tardiness with a clear and measurable effect on the student’s final grade.
Out of Class
Emphasize to students both the percentage of the final grade that assignments are worth and a suggested amount of time that students should use to complete the work.
- If you see that an international student in your class is struggling, talk to him or her at the end of class and suggest that the student come visit you at your office and set an appointment time. Assure students that they are not in trouble and that faculty welcome students who visit their offices—it shows that they are good students who are concerned with learning. Talking to the student in person initially may work better than email because some students do not regularly check their WOU email (despite having been told how important it is).
- When assigning group work or projects, if possible assign groups and distribute international students as much as possible—and, when possible, assign international students to domestic students who are cooperative and organized.
- If a student attempts to negotiate a grade with you, a helpful strategy is to depersonalize the topic by referring to a specific rubric, to department standards, or to the need for standards that transfer to other universities. Appeals to authority are also useful—emphasize that you grades are subject to scrutiny by department heads and deans. Likewise, if students implore you to add them to a full class, make it clear that enrollment caps are decided by committees, set for good reasons, and to make an exception would single you out as not following departmental guidelines. In any case, do listen sympathetically to the student; it is likely that he or she has serious or desperate concerns and it may be a good idea to refer them to an international student advisor, general academic advisor, or the Office of International Student Academic Support.
Sherry, M., Thomas, P., and Chui, W. H. (2010). International students: A vulnerable population. Higher Education, 60: 33-64.
Lipson, C. (2008). Succeeding as an International Student in the United States and Canada. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Personal and Social
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As with cultural challenges, the difficulties that students have fitting in at the university are partly a product of language proficiency and partly cultural. A student’s success at striking up a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance can be severely limited by a lack of vocabulary and pronunciation confidence as well as insecurity about what topics of conversation are appropriate. For many students the risk of sounding strange or stupid is greater than the reward of entering new social groups, and this can quickly lead to loneliness and isolation.
Making friends: Many international students—even the ones who are confident speaking English—report that it is difficult to make friends with their American counterparts. What do American college students talk about? How do I, an outsider, enter a conversation without butting my way in unwanted?
People from other cultures sometimes think that Americans are shallow because they are overly friendly to strangers and outwardly gregarious to acquaintances and they say things like “we should get together some time” though the meeting is likely to never happen. International students may interpret a friendly conversation after class or in a line as a significant sign of a personal relationship rather than idle talk. It probably does not help that many international students are actively seeking friendship whereas American students are already comfortable (or uncomfortable as the case may be) with their circle of social connections and are unwilling to admit an international student who may effect the domestic student’s standing or the existing group dynamic. Likewise, international students who are accustomed to meeting with friends to cook and eat together may find American parties extremely awkward, and vice versa for an American who is invited to hang out with a group of international students.
These differences in the expression, degree, and activities in personal relationships (as well as linguistic barriers) make it difficult for international and domestic students to form significant friendships.
Tips for Students and Teachers for helping students make friends
- Encourage students to participate in the Conversation Partners program–see webpage here.
- Encourage students to use the Health and Wellness Center. Whether it is a game of basketball, a badminton match, swimming, yoga classes, rock climbing, or using the equipment, playing together poses few linguistic challenges and provides opportunities to socialize and make friends.
- Encourage students to become involved in student Clubs and Organizations. ASWOU offers many opportunities, and clubs are always welcoming to new members–see list of clubs here.
Homesickness: This longing for the relationships, places, and routines of home is compounded by culture shock and the other challenges that international students face. Many domestic students also feel homesick, but with two important differences: 1) they are better equipped to fit in with new social groups, and 2) their home is on the same continent. International students who feel homesick will be more isolated, and if they seek the comfort of friends and family back home via live internet video, voice, or text, it is likely to be the middle of the night here. Once these patterns are set, students may exist in a liminal space between continents and cultures where day and night, physical and virtual, past and present are blurred. Students who stay up late or all night to interact with people who are not physically present, sleep during the day, and are tired during classes. All of this makes isolation and depression more probable than if they were on the same sleeping, studying, eating, and interacting schedule as their domestic peers.
Tips for Students and Teachers for helping students overcome homesickness
- Limit time spent online communicating with friends and family back home to a certain time each day (maybe one hour). While it is important to maintain these relationships, international students need to get out and form new relationships with people here at WOU–see the tips above for making friends. This pay off in better sleep and study routines as well when students adjust to life in college.
- Students can visit the Student Health and Counseling Center where a counselor can help them deal with their adjustment issues–see the webpage here, and FAQs here.
Becoming part of the school community: In some countries, university students are required, expected, and often willing to participate in collective activities forming groups ranging from student housing units to classes, to academic disciplines. These rallies, performances, sporting events, and other social activities, build a kind of collective solidarity that is not typical of American university campuses. On campuses in the US sports and entertainment events are the primary social gatherings in addition to clubs and organizations. For many students simply hanging out on campus, studying in the library, and using the other facilities make the campus feel like home.
Tips for Students and Teachers for helping students become part of the WOU campus
- In addition to all of the above tips:
- Suggest that students attend sports and entertainment events on campus. Many international students will be unfamiliar with the variety of events that are available–therefore, if you have international students in your classes, please make an effort to announce to your classes upcoming events that are happening on campus and encourage attendance.
- Meet one of your international students somewhere on campus outside of your office to discuss your class. Help students get out and experience their campus 🙂
by Dr. Rob Troyer, Assistant Professor of Linguistics
& Director of the Office of International Student Academic Support
Page last updated on Sept 15, 2014