“Academic Language is nobody’s mother tongue…” is one of the many colourful quotations you will notice splashed across the walls of CELFS when you next visit. But how relevant are Pierre Bourdieu’s words to our pre-sessional students and teachers?
Since teaching on last summer’s pre-sessional the answer is becoming ever-more apparent. Teaching both home and international students on the Academic Language and Literacy (ALL) programmes across a range of disciplines, I have come to realise just how essential it is for us to train students to focus on their lecturers’/tutors’ expectations and department criteria.
There is often an assumption that students (especially those with English as a first language) understand terms such as critically evaluate, analyse and synthesize sources but gentle probing often reveals that many learners do not understand what such terms mean or how to apply them in practice. A law undergraduate recently told me “I have no idea what they want me to do when they say critically analyse” while another said “I thought I had to agree with the essay question”. One of my postgraduates (a qualified psychologist from Bristol) told me at the end of a session on structuring an argument, “I’ll eat my hat. I didn’t think these sessions could be useful for me.” Our job is therefore to unpack academic terms used in the assessment criteria and help students apply them to their work, whether it is essay writing, presentations or lab reports.
On the pre-sessional, if we consider the criteria for SAQs (Short Answer Questions) 80% of the marks is weighted on Task Fulfilment (such as answering the question) and Task Organisation (such as developing a coherent line of argument) while 20% is for language and style. Most pre-sessional students come to us with an average of 6.5 at IELTS; they may still have general language issues (articles!) but our job is not to eradicate such fossilised errors (hard to do in 6 weeks) but to help students develop their critical thinking skills and enable them to really focus on the criteria so they can achieve the highest possible grade for entry onto their chosen degree programmes.
My colleague, Julia Gardos, who has worked on the longer 10 week pre-sessional does highlight that inaccurate language production will impede the communication of ideas – therefore greater focus is required on language work for some students: the higher weighted criteria cannot be accessed without accurate language. That said, language work should explicitly link to the criteria, for example, academic vocabulary for being precise and achieving the right tone, and grammar for being concise (noun phrases!). This year sees the start of the 14 week pre-sessional which is likely to feature more language work.
On the ALL programmes, some of my international students did in fact become mentors for the home students, offering sound advice on use of tenses and home students helped international students to express ideas during seminar work. All students became much more focused on the criteria, and learnt to use them as a check-list for peer review and editing and reflecting on their own work.