Common Challenges and Issues

The challenges and issues described here were identified through a national survey, interviews with university staff and case study research. You can add a contribution by clicking on the Feedback tab – either to suggest other challenges and issues for inclusion, or to propose alternative solutions to the issues raised below.

Readings on a number of common challenges and issues in the field of post-entry language development are listed on the AALL Database.

Issue:

Academic staff members are busy people who are experts in their discipline area. They may feel that there is no time within their curriculum to include English language development activities, or that English development is unnecessary, or that they lack the time to make changes to their unit of study, or that they are not competent to provide instruction or assessment in this area.

Solution:

Any embedding of language development activities will be more attractive to discipline specialists if it ultimately reduces academic staff members’ workloads or makes their job more stimulating. A number of studies have reported on embedding processes that have been highly successful in both engaging academic staff and achieving satisfactory student results. It is not possible to describe a generic process that will guarantee success because each context and each set of individuals will differ. However, as a general principle, the most effective outcomes appear to be obtained when disciplinary and language experts collaborate in a spirit of mutual respect to develop and enact a context-specific strategy.

Readings:

  • Arkoudis, S., Baik, C., & Richardson, S. (2012). English Language Standards in Higher Education. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.
  • Mort, P., & Drury, H. (2012). Supporting student academic literacy in the disciplines using genre-based online pedagogy. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 6(3), A1-A15.
  • Stappenbelt, B., & Barrett-Lennard, S. (2008). Teaching smarter to improve the English communication proficiency of international engineering students - Collaborations between content and language specialists at the University of Western Australia. Journal of English for Academic Purposes 9, 198-210.

Issue:

There is little shared understanding within higher education about the nature of language and how it should be developed. Notions of ‘English language proficiency’, ‘academic skills’ and ‘academic literacy’ do not share the same history or pedagogical traditions. Recently, there has also been some attention drawn to ‘professional skills’, which are presented as a distinct body of language related skills. The various perspectives appear to be incommensurable. What is more, it is not always clear whether universities are seeking to address low entry levels, promote language used in the disciplines or produce graduates trained in communicating in an employment context.

Solution:

If they are to develop shared objectives for language development, institutions need to adopt a strategic and whole of institution approach to the issue. They also need to consider the role of language within higher education; for example, whether language development is better viewed as a teaching and learning issue than an issue of support provision. This is possibly the most challenging issue with regard to language development in higher education, as the development of a shared perspective will inevitably involve some stakeholders having to revise their current beliefs, attitudes and approaches, and there are no generic solutions.

Readings:

  • Arkoudis, S., Baik, C., & Richardson, S. (2012). English Language Standards in Higher Education. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.
  • Kift, S. (2009). Articulating a transition pedagogy to scaffold and to enhance the first year student learning experience in Australian higher education. Final Report for ALTC Senior Fellowship Program. Strawberry Hills: Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Retrieved from http://www.olt.gov.au/resources.
  • Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with ‘study skills’. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457-469.

Issue:

Most stakeholders in Australian universities and beyond have a view on the nature of tertiary English language proficiency, and the level of English proficiency that is appropriate for tertiary study. However, these views tend to differ widely, and there have been few systematic attempts to establish agreement among stakeholders on what English language proficiency is and what levels are appropriate for entry and graduation.

Solution:

It is essential that any institutional plan should be based on a theoretical or philosophical position on language proficiency if it is to be coherent, sustainable and embraced by the wider university community. To achieve this, it is necessary to ensure that language scholars and researchers are consulted when an institution-wide approach is initiated. With regard to an entry level of proficiency, there is no ‘right’ level since ‘language proficiency’ is a social construct. When setting an entry level as measured by a test or course result, Institutions need to take into account not only the measuring instrument itself, but also the quality and extent of the post-entry support that they can offer, the type of courses they run, the kind of students they intend to attract, the type of reputation they seek to establish or maintain, and the kind of careers that graduates are likely to enter.

Readings:

  • Harper, R., Prentice, S., & Wilson, K. (2011). English language perplexity: Articulating the tensions in the DEEWR “Good Practice Principles”. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 2(1), 36-48.
  • Murray, N. (2011). Ten ‘Good Practice Principles’… ten key questions: Considerations in addressing the English language needs of higher education students. Higher Education Research and Development, 31(2), 233-246.
  • O’Loughlin, K. (2008). The Use of IELTS for University Selection in Australia: A Case Study. IELTS Research Reports 8, Report 3. http://www.ielts.org/researchers/research.aspx
    Benzie, H. J. (2010). Graduating as a ‘native speaker’: International students and English language proficiency in higher education. Higher Education Research and Development, 29(4), 447-459.

Issue:

Many staff involved in academic language and learning believe that the resources allocated for student English language development are inadequate.

Solution:

If universities are genuinely interested in developing the English language proficiency levels of their students, then they need to ensure that adequate resources are allocated to this process. Language development can progress slowly and tends to be a labour-intensive process, particularly at postgraduate level. An institutional plan or strategy needs to factor in resource allocation on an ongoing basis. An institutional plan or strategy needs to factor in resource allocation on an ongoing basis, and this should include funds for developing a strategy, piloting it, revising it as required and evaluating it. Ongoing resources are also required for implementation and for professional development of staff. The Association for Academic Language and Learning (AALL) produces statistics on the ratio of academic language and learning staff to students. These statistics can be helpful in guiding a university towards appropriate levels of staffing. Universities that decide to implement a post-entry language assessment will need to factor in the cost of development, piloting, validation, administration, maintenance, marking, updating, assessor training and management.

Readings:

Issue:

Some universities are unsure whether it is appropriate to introduce an institution-wide PELA. There are many different models in place across Australia’s universities and it is not yet clear whether they serve a useful purpose or not.

Solution:

There are numerous issues to consider prior to introducing a PELA. More information about this is available on the Post-entry Language Assessment pages of this website.

Readings:

  • Ransom, L. (2009). Implementing the post-entry English language assessment policy at the University of Melbourne: Rationale, processes, and outcomes. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 3(2), A13-A25.
  • Dunworth, K. (2009). An investigation into post-entry English language assessment in Australian universities. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 3(1), A1-A13.
  • Elder, C., & von Randow, J. (2008). Exploring the Utility of a Web-Based English Language Screening Tool. Language Assessment Quarterly, 5(3),173-194.
  • Knoch, U. (2012). At the intersection of language assessment and academic advising: Communicating results of a large-scale diagnostic academic writing assessment to students and other stakeholders. Papers in Language Testing and Assessment, Vol. 1, 2012. Available from http://www.altaanz.org/about-plta.html

Issue:

All universities in Australia offer a wide range of activities that are designed to assist students to develop their language in their educational environment. Research indicates, however, that the students who have the greatest developmental needs are the least likely to take up the opportunities available.

Solution:

The most fundamental way of ensuring that all students take responsibility for developing their own language is to integrate language development into discipline-based units and ensure that it is assessed. There is an extensive body of research that illustrates how assessment can promote, even drive, learning. If students are sent a message that language is irrelevant to disciplinary success, they will have no incentive or need to improve their language use. Another effective approach is to encourage communities of learning such as peer learning groups, where students develop language capabilities as a corollary of involvement. A third approach is to ensure that any adjunct programs are directly relevant to students’ discipline areas and needs.

Readings:

  • Arkoudis, S., Baik, C., & Richardson, S. (2012). English Language Standards in Higher Education. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.
  • Baik. C. & Greig, J. (2009). Improving the academic outcomes of undergraduate ESL students: The case for discipline‐based academic skills programs. Higher Education Research and Development, 28(4), 401-416.
  • Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with ‘study skills’. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457-469.

Issue:

While there are numerous excellent initiatives in place across Australia’s universities, many of them owe their continued existence to dedicated individuals. When those people leave their institution, the activity is discontinued, and the opportunities for language development become ad hoc or serendipitous.

Solution:

A sustainable strategy is one which is proofed against staff movements or inadequate management. Some effective ways of achieving this are to (a) incorporate language development into mission statements, graduate attributes or other key institutional pronouncements; (b) to embed language development into units or courses of study through assessment criteria, assignment activities and unit or course outcome statements; (c) to incorporate language development into institutional policies approved through the committee system; (d) to appoint a specific body or committee as responsible for monitoring student language development; (e) to incorporate language development as an element to consider in quality reviews, annual reviews and other regular monitoring activities.

Readings:

  • Arkoudis, S., Baik, C., & Richardson, S. (2012). English Language Standards in Higher Education. Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press.
  • Briguglio, C. (2011). Quality and the English language question: Is there really an issue in Australian universities? Quality in Higher Education, 17(3), 317-329.
  • Baik, C., & Greg, J. (2009). Improving the academic outcomes of undergraduate ESL students: The case for discipline‐based academic skills programs. Higher Education Research and Development, 28(4), 401-416.