Students learning to use academic English in higher education

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It was thought that many students who enter universities and colleges would have gained better than average qualifications in school and could well have begun to study in their school the subject that they are studying in universities. One might expect that the task for such people would be relatively easy – to use the basis of their educational experience and strong competence in English to make sense of the structure and lexis of the more advanced academic Englishes they newly encounter. Unfortunately, many such students fail to meet the standards expected of them by their tutors and examiners.

In comparing the two extracts written by two Open University students, it can be seen that the first one appears to be less aware of how to use paragraphs although the essay is laid out in paragraph form as most of the paragraphs consist of only one sentence. Ideas are not developed and the essay lacks cohesion. Linguistic style of the student gave an impression that the student’s understanding of the topic is somewhat disjointed. In terms of content, this student addresses some of the question but does not develop her argument in any detail.

The student identifies relevant information in the teaching materials but seems unsure of how to use it. Sentences such as ‘There is also self sufficiency with the cows producing milk and possibly meat’ do not relate to the general thread of the essay. There is also no proper referenced examples from academic reading or research findings given.

Few technical terms are used and where they are used as in the sentence, ‘The genra of Wivenhoe park is an everyday life scene, a landscape’, it is difficult to know if the student understands what they mean as no subsequent explanations of what is meant by the terms are given. The mispelt word ‘genra’ may indicate uncertainty about the term. The essay contains several spelling mistakes and some important punctuation marks. Sentence structure is simple and invariable – suitable for informal genres. Most of the sentences consisted of a main clause plus one phrase or dependent clause.

There are few cohesive devices – for instance the student does not use pronouns or relative clauses to link ideas between sentences or paragraphs. The style is repetitive. She repeated the phrase ‘ there is’ four times. (Mercer & Swann, p297)

The second essay is better organized. It has a strong introductory paragraph and each of the subsequent paragraphs takes one idea and expands on it. This writer is better at relating what has been learned from the university course to the painting she is describing. She begins correctly by acknowledging the essay question in the first paragraph and each paragraph appears to be clearly related to one aspect of the question There is also some indication that the student wrote an essay plan.

The student also handles the subject-specific lexis with some confidence. Using such words as ‘landscape genre’, ‘visual references’ also reflected her academic style. The second writer is obviously a more competent academic writer. This more favourable impression is created by correct spelling and a better use of punctuation but also by some lexical and syntactic features which are well illustrated in this sentence ; ” Both pictures belong to the landscape genre, although Pegwell Bayalso has a conflation of genre and narrative, in that it depicts a scene in everyday life and also includes visual references to the Victorian interests of Geology and Astronomy.” (Mercer & Swann, p297)

Informal evidence suggests that many students, including many for whom English is a mother tongue, appear to have problems in learning to write academic English. They have difficulty in writing English in a way that meets the conventional requirements of the academic discourse community of the subject they are studying. (Mercer & Swann, p316)

Difficulties faced by Native students in English

There could be several possible explanations. One of which is that when students enter university, they have to take on a new identity as they enter the culture of higher education and language use is part of this culture. They have to learn appropriate ways of behaving and a set of rules for using English, many of which are unwritten.

Take the example of the ‘seminar’ or ‘group tutorial’ as a teaching method. Although small group work is increasingly found in the final years of secondary schooling, students are unlikely previously to have experienced seminars where a topic is discussed with several other students under the guidance of a tutor, often using a piece of written work by one of the students as a starting point. (Mercer & Swann, p295)

In order to participate fully in the seminar, a student needs to learn rules about turn-taking and how far it is appropriate to criticize another student’s work, as well as knowing the appropriate register in which to make comments. In addition, the ‘language’ of the seminar will be the discourse of the academic subject. Academic discourse includes specific lexical, and grammatical features. It is also marked by distinctive textual and stylistic features. Learning to write academic English means learning a set of skills which gives helps to command all these features. They are also expected to use the technical discourse of a subject, to write in an academic style and to follow the conventions of essays, laboratory reports or research papers. All these can be quite confusing to new students. (Mercer & Swann, p295)

An important aim of higher education is to enable students to become fluent speakers of the discourse or relevant academic communities. For any student, the truth remains that academic success usually depends on following the conventions for academic English in the relevant field of study. When lecturers and tutors present students with texts written in one or more varieties of academic English, expecting students to write assignments in English which approaches these models and so is appropriately ‘academic’- the students tend to be lost.

Most study skills texts focus on the surface forms of language needed for academic study. They assume that students can learn a set of language ‘tools’ which when applied to their assignments, will result in writing that looks like academic English. One weakness of many such tools is that they do not encourage students to make a link between English conventions that they are expected to use when writing essays and the ‘academic’ ways of thinking that they are expected to demonstrate in their writing. (Mercer & Swann, p 303)

Finally, it is noted that teachers of specific subject in higher education rarely deal with requirements explicitly. Though a variety of approaches have been developed for helping students improve their competence in English, surprisingly little systematic research has been done on the nature and extent of the problems students encounter when attempting to become academic English users. (Mercer & Swann, p 316)

Difficulties faced by non-native students in English

‘Academic English’ is a collection of genres of English, each of which is shaped by the functional requirements and social conventions of academic communities of discourse. Familiarity with the conventions or ‘ground rules’ which apply to any genre of academic English is an important factor in a student’s progress. (Mercer & Swann, p 315)

In recent years, English has become increasingly dominant as a world language in higher education. This means that students whose mother tongue is not English now often have to develop a high level of competence in the language to pursue their studies. Moreover, study in higher education requires a special kind of competence in English.

Ballard (1984) did a comparison of the experience of Australian-born and overseas students in Australia universities. She examined the writing of students who had been referred for extra help with writing and study skills. She concluded that all students had to go through a linguistic and cultural learning process, as there was a disjunction between school learning and university study.

Overseas students, however faced an added dimension: they had to learn the intellectual traditions of Australia which were sometimes very different from those of their own education systems. Ballard uses the term ‘cultural shift’ to describe the learning demands made on students and ‘double cultural shift’ to refer to the experience of the overseas students. (Mercer & Swann, p295)

In order to become a writer of ‘academic English’ a student has to become sensitive to a sociocultural context, that of an academic community with its own discourse, and then create an identity for herself or himself which maintains some kind of equilibrium between this and their ‘non-student’ persona. Some students find this very easy: they learn the ground rules quickly and write competently and confidently from their first assignment. For others it is a slower process.

Most books are written for English speaker. When it comes to books for students who are users of English as a second or foreign language, there is considerable overlap between books on study skills and those on teaching English for academic purposes. Take Smith and Smith’s (1990) A Study Skills Handbook, for example. At first glance the student may not realize that the book teaches academic English. Yet it has sections on argumentative and descriptive essays and in many ways combines the study skills approach of Fairbairn and Johnson with a more explicit concern with English usage.

There is also an increasing overlap between courses for learners of English and those that are designed for students whose first language is English. Many courses and texts on academic English have become eclectic in their approach and teaching methods.

For mother tongue speakers, English is first learned in the home and, as the medium for the first personal relationships, carries many emotional resonances. Subsequently, it is expanded at school and used to forge a wider range of social relationships. However, it continues to be the language of intimacy between friends, although often expressed in a different dialect and/ or accent from that in school. Later, it also becomes the primary means for expressing certain aspects of abstract thought.

For second language speakers, however, English may not be used in the home, and is often first learned at school. It may not have been used across a wide range of social settings, and so may not have the same emotional resonances as is the case for the first language speakers. For people who live in a society where English is not generally spoken and who have learned it in school, the language has very few functions outside the educational sphere although it may be perceived as an important language in terms of an eventual career.

Non-native speakers who arrive in Britain may face a number of language problems of which neither they nor their hosts may be immediately aware. Although such problems may be perceived initially as cultural, they tend to manifest themselves through subtle misunderstands of language. More often, they are the result of linguistic choices which have slightly different meanings in different cultures. Even though some students may have been taught English through a fully communicative syallabus, and may be familiar with a wide range of linguistic ‘behaviours’ in their home country, it is extremely unlikely that they will have been exposed to the full range of cultural variation that occurs within the British Isles. (Mercer & Swann, p 316)

Many students learned the core English which is taken to be representative of the language as a whole. On entering university, many foreign and second language students discover that it fails to meet all their linguistic needs. Not only do they need to learn an enlarged repertoire which will enable them to socialize with such diverse social groups as their landlords/ladies, fellow students and lecturers, they also need to learn the specific discourse skills appropriate to carrying out a range of different linguistic tasks within a number of different academic disciplines.

The presentation of seminar papers is often a major source of anxiety for foreign language students. Not only do they worry about their accents, they are also unclear about the levels of formality that are appropriate to such occasions. For example, the essays German students are usually expected to write are typically ‘term papers’ and are considerably longer and more formal than those produced by British students. One student in attempting to adapt to the British discourse style, assumed it was necessary to be much more informal and produced an essay which used the term ‘the child’, ‘the little one’ and ‘the kid’ in the same paragraph, leading to stylistic inconsistency. (Mercer & Swann, p 314)

According to the linguist Bhatia (1993) there is a common expectation in academic discourse across the world that writers should make their reasoning explicit in the text, so that other researchers can evaluate that reasoning. And knowing the nature of academic English it is understandable that students, whether native English-speaking or non native English-speaking cannot cope with the language demands of their higher education studies.

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