by Barbara Black
Teaching linguistically diverse students is one the great challenges facing
instructors at Concordia, yet there were only eight of them out
of a potential 1,552 in the room.
The occasion was a workshop organized by the Centre for Teaching and Learning
Services on March 7, led by Queens University education expert Dr.
The advantage of such a small group, however, was that they could freely
share their difficulties and the ways they have found to deal with language
deficiencies among their students.
Their remarks revealed a wide range of approaches. To some extent, these
seem to depend on the academic subject, and the expectations placed on
Business and engineering students are heading directly for the job market,
where they will be expected to interact with colleagues and clients, verbally
and in writing. Woodhouse said that these goals should be put before the
students early in their studies, because there is no avoiding them.
On the other hand, an instructor in one of the humanities departments
said that she allows students to write assignments in whatever language
they want, and she can usually find someone to read them. She often meets
students who cant express themselves well, but appear to be able
to master complex arguments.
Woodhouse remarked that professors, and the institution itself, often
put undue emphasis on finishing an assignment or an exam on time. Why
do all the students have to stop writing their exam at the stroke of the
clock? Does it serve the learning process? she asked.
She surprised many of the participants by telling them that non-native
speakers may take up to four times longer to read text than native speakers.
This is why some students hardly have time to finish their exams
most of their time was taken up with deciphering the questions.
A business professor agreed that reading text in English is a major hurdle
for many students.
She asked her class to read an article taken from a newspaper. Many students
were stuck at the word crutch, used in the article to describe
the way a business was using a practice to prop up its operation, so she
started editing the text, taking out the difficult words, the idioms and
the metaphors. She was uneasy about having done this, but the unfamiliar
words were distracting her students from the task at hand.
Woodhouse said that newspaper style is highly idiomatic. Academic language,
on the other hand, is deconceptualized, abstract, and at the highest level
of linguistic development. In other words, its hard. Each discipline
has its own rhetoric, its own subtle style of expression, which must be
In general, she said, students must be given as much support as possible,
without lowering standards or playing favourites.
There are all sorts of strategies: providing vocabularies and word lists
in advance, structuring lectures clearly and summarizing at the end, getting
students to restate the main idea in their own words, speaking slowly
and clearly but emphasizing key points, and leaving a minute at the end
of the class to ask for points that might have been unclear.
However, when asked how much they should correct students mistakes,
Woodhouse wouldnt lay down simple rules. It may be useful to give
them a rule (say, the difference between the contraction its and
the possessive its), but it is best to refer the student with real language
problems to an expert, she said.
Concordia is well equipped with this kind of help, starting with Counselling
and Development, which has an active unit called Student Learning Services
(-3555 at Loyola, -3545 SGW) and the Student Success Centre (-7369).
The Centre for Teaching and Learning Services is available to any
Concordia teacher, at 848-2495.