by Alison Ramsey
A student with poor English skills can hide behind some clever strategies. By selecting essay-free courses, keeping quiet in class, listening carefully, and using survival skills developed in previous schools, he or she can get along pretty well -- until the last barrier of the University Writing Test (UWT), which is a requirement for graduation.
"Some fail the test, then come to us," said Ritva Seppanen, an experienced teacher in the English Department. "It's difficult to tell a student that they won't be graduating."
Failure on the UWT can delay graduation by as many as three terms as students acquire the grammatical groundwork to pass it at the second sitting. Students are urged to take the test early, but often don't, despite the fact that failing does not count against them. Fear may be one reason; procrastination is another.
"I've had people come in in a panic and say, 'I need to see a learning specialist right away! My term paper is due tomorrow!" said Dr. Sup Mei Graub, head of Counselling and Development. The department's Student Learning Services and Writing Assistance Program both help students improve their writing skills.
The English Department did placement tests for 817 students between March and September, and is a good source for students interested in such basics as grammar, sentence structure, researching term papers, and how to write a simple composition (the core of the University Writing Test).
The English as a Second Language (ESL) service of the TESL Centre tested 847 students during the same time period, and 644 were enrolled in ESL courses for the fall term. In the ESL courses, students are taught reading and writing skills useful in an academic setting. There is also extensive grammar instruction, especially at the lower level.
There is no single profile of a student in need of English training. They may be learning English as a second, third or fourth language. They may be francophone, allophone, international or exchange students. Some have good conversation skills, but cannot read or write well. Others are the opposite. The common denominator is that they must acquire basic writing skills to graduate.
Here's a tip: Writing the University Writing Test early takes the pressure off, and gives you self-confidence that is reflected in the rest of your studies.