CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

March 14, 2002 Language deficits challenge teaching skills



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 Queen’s University education expert Dr. Ros Woodhouse.

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 the student.

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 can’t 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, it’s hard. Each discipline has its own rhetoric, its own subtle style of expression, which must be learned.

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 wouldn’t lay down simple rules. It may be useful to give them a rule (say, the difference between the contraction it’s 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.