English training for int’l grad students is stretched to the limit

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Friday, October 26, 2007

When Linli Zhu GS arrived on campus this semester from China for his first year as a doctoral student in the Division of Engineering, he found himself unable to register for an English class.

Although the Center for Language Studies provides some international graduate students – primarily those whose English proficiency is insufficient to work as teaching assistants – with English classes through the English for International Teaching Assistants program, Zhu was locked out. The two classes the ITA program is running this semester are both filled past capacity.

When he contacted the staff of the ITA program at the beginning of the semester, Zhu was told it was too late. I was “told the class is full, so she sent me an e-mail and told me to look for someone with who I can take another class,” he said, referring to a conversation with one of the program’s coordinators. “She also suggested I go to the International House (of Rhode Island) to practice my English.”

Zhu, who is not working as a TA in his first year at Brown, is planning to try to enroll again in the ITA program next semester. Nevertheless, he said he feels the University should provide better support for international graduate students. “I think it’s necessary for international students (to receive language instruction). … I think Brown should give us more English classes for the first semester we are here,” he said.

For the students, teachers and the undergraduate consultants who work with the ITA program, this semester’s classes already feel stretched. “In general I think an appropriate student-teacher ratio for the type of English that we are teaching – which is advanced-level, specialized language training – a ratio of one instructor to 24 students is standard throughout the field,” said Barbara Gourlay, the coordinator of the ITA program. Currently, Gourlay and the program’s other teacher, Kathy Brenner, are teaching classes with a ratio of one instructor to 30 students.

Compared to similar programs at other universities, Brown’s ITA program is both new and small in scope. Brenner and Gourlay said these more “mature” programs have large staffs that enable them to provide more services to a broader array of students. “The Ivy League schools have been a little bit slower to address the needs of the international students. The demand has been higher at the larger state institutions,” Gourlay said. “Brown started the ITA program in 1992, but across the nation, ITA programs were started in the late 70s, early 80s. So we’re a little bit behind. We also don’t have the generalized English language program that can support a lot of the issues (international students face), so we end up trying to accommodate things beyond the scope of a specialized program.”

At Brown, Gourlay and Brenner are the program’s only two staff members. They are responsible for teaching, administrative work and evaluating international TAs’ language needs. A team of undergraduate consultants, who help with everything from teaching to evaluation, assists them. Even with this additional support, the program’s resources appear to be stretched.

“I think the class sizes are larger than usual. I’ve witnessed for the first time this year a student being turned away,” said Katrina Lencek-Inagaki ’08, who has worked as an undergraduate English consultant with the ITA program for three years. “I think that most improvement comes from having speaking time and practice and getting individual attention … so the more students there are the more difficult it is to work with them individually and address their specific problems.”

Although the classes are primarily focused on teaching international grad students the language skills necessary to be effective TAs, the teachers, consultants and students all spoke passionately about the program’s role in helping international graduate students acclimate to working in the American academic system and living in the United States in general. In and out of class, many of the ITA program’s activities incorporate language learning into experiential activities.

“We do things in class such as reading Sunday comics that are fun and culturally engaging,” Lencek-Inagaki said. “I’ve taken my students to Spike’s to have hot dogs and practice vocabulary words like ‘sauerkraut.’ ” In class, there is also a focus on teaching students informal language tools, including American idioms, slang and body language, she added.

While many of the same things can be said about standard language classes, Brenner stressed that the ITA program’s offerings are unlike other language classes at the University in an important way: For the international graduate students taking classes in the ITA program, there is a firm deadline for achieving a high level of competency because they will all be placed into a classroom as TAs one or two semesters in the future.

“I think the program is really good for international students when we first come to America,” said Jie Liu GS, who is studying psychology. “We think we are prepared but that is not the fact. You need to pick up the language very quickly for your TA job.”

Ultimately, the ITA program is structured with this specific goal in mind. Students are expected to reach a level of English proficiency that is appropriate to the type of teaching they will be doing.

“Historically the largest number of (international graduate) students have come from the sciences, and so when we work with international graduate students, we have to help them develop communicative skills for their discipline. So we work a lot with question-and-answer interactions,” Gourlay said. “When we switch to students from the humanities and social sciences, that requires some more discussion sections.”

Moving forward, the distinction between preparing science grad students and humanities students to be TAs will be key. One of the priorities identified in the September report of the University’s internationalization committee is to diversify the international component of the graduate student population by trying to attract more scholars from abroad in the humanities and social sciences. If the administration is successful in this effort, the work of the ITA program will only get harder as its students are increasingly pursuing more advanced English proficiency.

“The challenge in chemistry and physics is sometimes the international students can do lab sessions, so only they only need to get level-three English,” Liu said. “But for psychology, I need level-two English, and that’s a lot of work and it requires a lot of practice.”

Liu felt that smaller classes and the increased instructor attention would help international students develop discussion skills more quickly. “When I took the English class, there were no native speakers in the class except for the professor,” she said. “I think that if they got more native English speakers in the class, it would be really helpful.”

In addition to the classes, the ITA program runs a three-week language and acculturation orientation open to incoming international graduate students. However, since the University only funds 20 students’ participation in the program, enrollment is limited to those in physics, chemistry, math and applied math. Gourlay and Brenner both agreed that it would “absolutely” be better for all arriving international graduate students to be able to participate in the program.

Dean of the Graduate School Sheila Bonde said she is working on a proposal to integrate the ITA program’s summer language orientation into a “graduate preparation program that would present fuller orientation and acclimatization opportunities for various groups of students that would that need that extra time,” including international students, minority students and students who start working in a laboratory early.

Bonde admitted that the ITA program is currently overstretched and argued for expanding the support available to non-native English speakers, but she stopped short of backing a language program for all non-native speakers.

In addition to the expanded orientation, Bonde hopes to standardize the assessment of international graduate students’ English proficiency. Currently, assessment is conducted in a piecework manner by department evaluations and Test Of English as a Foreign Language scores.