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English language tests: poor preparation?

Foreign students in the UK need fluency, not just a certificate, says Karen Harris
July 3 2014
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 Panoramas 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 doesnt 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 students 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 individuals
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 essays 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 dont 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
students 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 students
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 didnt 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, theres potentially a strong case for rolling out this
kind of provision to home students too.
Its 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.