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English language tests: poor preparation?

Foreign students in the UK need fluency, not just a certificate, says Karen Harris

Eduardo Fuentes illustration (3 July 2014)

Source: Eduardo Fuentes

The fault lies with a system that treats English proficiency certificates as an automatic guarantee of readiness, rather than as a single aspect of preparation and assessment

The Home Office moved to prevent three universities from sponsoring new international students amid concerns about widespread cheating in English tests last week (“Visa licence freeze: sector hit by wave of suspensions”, News, 26 June). In the wake of this, one thought is that even if the universities involved could not have known about what was apparently going on in Educational Testing Service test centres before BBC Panorama’s investigation, aired in February, they should have realised something was wrong from the poor English of the students they were admitting on the basis of their Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores.

Yet, regardless of which English test international students take, it is not uncommon for those with high marks to flounder when they get to university. Despite the students’ best efforts, their language ability often doesn’t enable them to flourish on degree-level courses. This is stressful for them and causes frustration for their tutors and classmates.

Some might blame departmental policy and the low entry requirements for some courses in terms of language level; others might criticise the English exams’ grading criteria. But I believe that the fault lies with a system that treats English proficiency certificates as an automatic guarantee of readiness, rather than as a single, somewhat limited aspect of preparation and assessment.

I have no experience of TOEFL, the main test administered by ETS. Since it reflects American English, it is more popular in North American universities. But I do have extensive experience with its UK rival, the International English Language Testing System, and its limitations. Skill in IELTS essay writing, for example, merely demonstrates a student’s ability to cobble together a superficial argument in a reasonably coherent format. It can actually encourage a formulaic approach to English, which has little to do with sophisticated command of lexis and structure. As anyone who has successfully bluffed their way through a foreign language exam will know, it is easy enough to learn a few impressive-looking phrases and regurgitate them somewhere in your 250-word showpiece.

At most, an IELTS essay written under exam conditions might give a baseline for an individual’s raw English level, so that suspected cheating elsewhere can be more easily identified. But when it comes to gauging preparedness for a university course, the standard “introduction/paragraph for/paragraph against/conclusion” structure is inadequate. BA or MA assignments often take a very different format, such as case studies or research projects, and require time and disciplined thinking.

Sadly, the other elements of the IELTS exam do not make up for the essay’s failings. In another part of the writing section, students have about 20 minutes to describe some visual data. The lack of any requirement to speculate or use their own insight runs counter to the “don’t just describe: analyse!” principle that informs academic writing. Meanwhile, the reading paper encourages scanning at speed for specific information, rather than critical engagement, and the speaking test focuses on general interest topics, not concerning itself either with academic discourse in the student’s specialist area or different genres of speech, such as presentations and debating.

The result is that IELTS preparation courses offer exam hothousing rather than meaningful academic preparation. And although the final grade might give some indication of a student’s current level of ability, the picture is at best rough and incomplete.

The way forward seems to lie in two interconnected areas. First, English courses ought to be far more integrated with the higher education sector, allowing exam practice to be supplemented with lectures, critical thinking workshops, student-led presentations and project work involving both primary and secondary research. (Whether this could also precipitate some long-overdue changes to employment practice is another matter: IELTS courses tend to be run in private language schools, where teachers are often underpaid.)

Second, I advocate the expansion of pre-sessional English courses – not only as an alternative pathway for those who didn’t quite make the grade in English tests, but as a rigorous preparation programme in academic discourse for all international students who require it, including those already holding unconditional offers. And yes, there’s potentially a strong case for rolling out this kind of provision to home students too.

It’s naturally a challenge for anybody to plan, research and write a clear and persuasive paper of several thousand words, evaluating conflicting viewpoints and using evidence to support a case, while staying on topic and following the necessary conventions. But in a foreign language – and very possibly an alien culture – this challenge can become overwhelming.

It should not be left to overburdened course teams and insessional English for Academic Purposes tutors to compensate for the inadequacies of the current system. Supporting our international cohort through the challenges of degree-level study needs to start earlier. Otherwise even those international students with legitimate pass marks in English tests will continue to struggle.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • The author writes that "they should have realised something was wrong from the poor English of the students they were admitting on the basis of their Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores".

    The sudents in the Panorama programme (and at these suspended universities) were not taking TOEFL. They were taking TOEIC; an entirely different test, generally not accepted by UK universities for Tier 4 visa purposes and focused on language for the workplace.

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  • I feel this just highlights the need for the Foundation Colleges for International students. From my understanding most of the Foundation courses will have an English module teaching students how to cope with English at University Level, i.e. essay writing.

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  • And the other feature of TOEFl, a vastly superior test to IELTS, is it is not an exclusively American or American English test. when it was revamped in 2005 ETS took great care to use a wide variety of world Englishes, no doubt for commercial gain.

    However, there is so much ignorance surrounding this unfortunate and misguided decision to declare war on TOEFL. It is tragically a combination of University administrators and ignoramuses such as the author of this piece who are contributing to the destruction of one of the UK's most successful industries.

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