Has EAP instruction at Canadian
universities been successful?
by Robert Berman
Because most universities in Canada are engaged in aggressive programs of internationalization, and Canadian immigration has increasingly drawn from language groups other than English, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students using English as a second language in undergraduate university programs. This increase has resulted in: 1) changes in policies regarding language admission requirements; 2) a heightened concern over the use of language proficiency testing in the selection of students for university admission (Clapham, 2000; Simner, 1998); and, 3) a proliferation of support programs that are either available to or required of L2 students as part of the undergraduate admission process. What these support programs share, according to the guidelines provided by the Canada Language Council, is their overall intent to prepare L2 students to use EAP at university level and to help with these students’ transition to Canadian general academic and discipline-specific culture. However, a survey of EAP programs across Canada (Berman, 2002) reveals little consensus on fundamental approaches, designs or procedures within these programs, and an absence of research to document their effectiveness. There is little research regarding specific EAP program outcomes at university level (Berman, 2002; Cheng & Myles, 2002; Fox, 2002) or how much time is required to support L2 students with such programs while they adjust to the demands of academic study. Given the increasing number of L2 students in undergraduate programs at Canadian universities, the varying nature of EAP approaches and the lack of studies, particularly large-scale comprehensive studies regarding the key causal factors that account for success or failure, this study is of critical importance at this time, not only to Canadian universities and society, but internationally as well (Hyland & Hamp-Lyons, 2002).
Funded through a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) researchers from three Canadian universities, the University of Alberta, Carleton University and Queens’s University, set out to answer six questions, the first two of which will be answered in Phase One of the study, or its first year, and will be addressed here:
1. Is EAP important in L2 students’ success in their undergraduate studies?
2. What other key factors contribute to (or impede) the success of L2 students?
3. What are the stages in the inter-cultural transition of L2 students?
4. What role does EAP play in the transition of L2 students to undergraduate study?
5. What pedagogical interventions best meet the needs of L2 students in the process of transition?
6. What EAP program support has the greatest benefit for the least cost?
During Phase One, we interviewed 72 people from the three universities, as set out in Table 1, i.e. 34 students, 10 EAP instructors and 28 professors.
From the data, on the one hand from the students, and on the other from the professors and instructors, researchers independently generated a number of “categories” of data, as exemplified in Table 2, which is one researcher’s categorization of the data generated by professors and instructors, and is included for illustration only.
Table 2 Teacher / Professor Categories, as Analysed by Researcher “J”
The research team then agreed on the most salient categories of data, which I will present here, and incidentally, will be used after further modification, to create a questionnaire that will be administered to students, professors and instructors at all three universities in Phase Two of the study.
Among the students, we established that the data could be grouped into six major categories, i.e.: Tradeoffs; English Use; Strategic Choices; Gaps in Perception; Personal Relationships; and EAP Program Differences.
Under Tradeoffs , we noted that there was a general consensus among the L2 students not only that they needed to work harder than L1 students, but among many that they had to sacrifice their academic interests for a high GPA. A number of students referred to their choice of subjects having to do with the utilitarian consideration of being able to achieve high grades rather that any real interest in the subject. Moreover, many referred to parents’ wishes trumping their own interests , and having to go abroad for long-term gain, despite their initial reluctance to do so.
Under English Use, we grouped the following recurring comments: students’ requirement for more time to process information; their need for social or interpersonal relationships with L1 speakers to really learn the language ; and their need to avoid classes with too much speaking, writing and reading. Note that the categories overlap considerably.
On the matter of overlap, it is clear that under Strategic Choices, there is considerable overlap with the two previous categories.Here we grouped the student comments demonstrating their frequent choice of courses or majors that fit their language and academic abilities, often in subjects such as Mathematics or Economics rather than in subjects that would have required more reading and writing. Some made strategic choices to consciously to speak English, seeking out opportunities to speak English in their accommodations, neighbourhoods or classes.
Students’ Gaps in Perception constituted another category of data. Many questioned the need for doing EAP homework and saw English classroom and summative tests as barriers to success. Their range of language self-awareness was great. For example, some who were rather difficult to understand noted that spoken English was their strong suit. The perception that L1 students “just party” was interesting.
In their Personal Relationships, many L2 students gave the impression of being lonely, although there is no indication that as a group they are any lonelier than L1 students. Almost all had friends from their own cultural community; few had L1 friends. We are now wondering, given students’ isolation from the Canadian context whether homestay does not offer considerable help in assisting L2 students come to grips with both English and local social behaviour.
Finally, we had our suspicions confirmed by students that there are substantial EAP Program Differences across Canada, for example with some universities offering programs to assist students in particular fields such as Engineering or Literature. Moreover, some programs are fully integrated into undergraduate studies while others operate quite separately within the university. Programs have different admission standards and different class sizes.
Professors and Teachers
The main categories of data we recognized among professors and teachers were: Time; Perceptions of Student Needs; Program and Course Context; Student Success; and Perceptions of Student Attitudes;
Among the professors and instructors, probably the most salient category of data could be grouped under the heading, Time .Professors confirmed what the students had told us: that their pace was considerably slower than that of the L1 students. L2 students were also said to need a great deal more of professors’ time for interaction and to receive feedback.
Professors’ Perceptions of Student Needs were interesting. Students were said to need more: Technical and specialised vocabulary; idiomatic language; improved skills in writing, including referencing; in Critical thinking; and in communication in general. L2 students were also said to need greater speed and more interaction with L1 students.
Program and Course Context was an important category of data. Professors reported being far too busy, teaching classes that were too large often assisted by TAs who themselves were second-language students with poor English proficiency, unable to help undergraduate students to improve their communication skills. There seemed to be a distinct difference between the maternal attitudes of the largely female EAP instructors and the “sink or swim” attitude of the Engineering and Business professors whom we talked to.
As for Student Success , L2 Engineering students were said to get fewer co-op placements that L1 students. Professors also noted that far too often, language problems are not seen until students’ fourth year of study, by which time it is too late to remedy their language. Consistently, we were told that the students having the greatest difficulty were those that had entered university studies from Canadian high schools. These students were said to possess only superficial fluency, and clearly had little language support either in high school or at university.
Overall,Professors’ and Teachers’ Perceptions of Student Attitudes were that L2 students were hardworking and motivated, though more in their own discipline than in EAP courses; that language problems are causing some students frustration and stress; and (again) that L2 students who have gone through Canadian high schools are in the most need, but receive the least help. Finally, it was pointed out on a number of occasions that EAP students become appreciative, later, after their EAP courses are over.
To answer one of the questions posed at the start, “Is EAP important to L2 students’ success?” our findings to date point to an un-resounding “Yes, probably”. For one thing, students who have taken EAP tend to be quite positive. For example, with regard to writing instruction, one said, “I didn’t even know there was structure in writing in English to begin with, so that’s one thing I really learned.”
Another reported, in reference to learning how to listen to lectures: “I learned at least how to follow the logic from [EAP] because to me, before, each sentence are separated. … Even though I translate it, I don’t know how to put it together. To make it like, what this mean, right? … Also I know how to follow the professor… and what is the biggest point he is saying. When should I pay attention to him, stuff like this.”
In regard to the second question, “What other key factors contribute to (or impede) the success of L2 students?” it seems clear that “bravery” for want of a better word is an important factor. Students who take risks to put themselves into an English environment seem to benefit from their risk taking. This student, who purposely sits beside “Canadians” in class is illustrative of such behaviour:
“Second-language people would like to stuck together…in the lecture because they feel safer and easier… I didn’t feel it works out perfectly to me. Because first of all, we’ll end up sitting together and talking in Chinese…so I tried to jump to some like normal seat with like making Canadian friends.”
Parents are also an enormous factor. Here is one illustrative example, reported by a young man who was studying in Beijing when he got a phone call from his parents:
“One day…my parents phone me when I was in Beijing, they tell me… ‘Come home.’ Then: ‘You can go to Canada.’ They just made that decision, and I was so surprised.”
This dialogue with another student is also illustrative:
“I want to study here … but my parents want me to…PhD.” [laughs]
Is that also your goal?
“No, actually, I prefer just studying college, like children or something…and find a job.”
Do you talk to your parents about your goals?
“Yeah, many times, but they won’t change their mind, and so I can’t change because they control me.”
Whether parents help or hinder their children is a question that will not be answered here, but it is clear that they wield enormous power.
Another crucial factor must be the discipline instructors’ own English communication skills. One professor reported: “We use a lot of TAs... All undergraduate courses have TAs. Most of those TAs are foreign students. And so they barely even understand the language so they’re in no position to help improve…students’ English. So there’s a real disconnect…yes it would be nice to have better writing skills, but how do we achieve that?”
In addition, discipline professors’ available time is clearly an important factor. One reported: “We’ve been under pressure…to increase our student numbers…so we’ve been very aggressive at marketing.... Going forward, I think is dependant on swinging in the other direction… we’re gonna have to cut back…’cause it’s killing the faculty and staff, trying to support this number of students.”
Our study has just begun. Nevertheless, we can already say that EAP seems to be having at least some success, but that we have a long way to go, especially to better serve the special language needs of students going into particular disciplines. Furthermore, there are certainly other important factors weighing in upon the success, or lack thereof, of L2 students in their academic studies, such as their inclination to take risks, parental control, and the available time and language skills of discipline specific professors and TAs.
Berman, R. 2002. Toward a common concept of English for academic purposes. Paper presented at the conference of the Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics, May, Toronto.
Cheng, L. and Myles, J. 2002. Presented as a paper at the conference of the Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics, May, Toronto.
Clapham, C. 2000. Assessment for Academic Purposes: Where next? System, 28, 511-521.
Fox, J. 2002. Tracking validity: Test impact over time. Presented as a paper at the conference of the Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics, May, Toronto.
Hyland, K. & Hamp-Lyons, L. 2002. EAP: Issues and directions. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 1, 1, 1-12.
Simner, M. 1998. University reactions to the Canadian Psychological Association’s position statement on the TOEFL. Presented as a paper at the Social Responsibility of the Language Tester, Summer Institute, July, Ottawa.
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