Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

What happens when a student who has failed TEE English enters an Australian university?

Julienne van Loon
School of Communication and Cultural Studies
Curtin University of Technology
What happens when a DEETYA funded student with a recent fail in TEE (or equivalent) English, is accepted into a degree program? This dilemma session focuses not so much on mature age entry students, nor students for whom English is a second language, but on students who have only recently finished high school and have entered the university with literacy levels that are likely to affect their ability to do well in written assignments.

This dilemma session begins by outlining some of the systems in place at Curtin University and other universities across Australia which attempt to aid and retain students who have entered university without a satisfactory pass in TEE (or equivalent) English. How can we best support them? Which methods are the most successful and most equitable? Do these students succeed?

The dilemma session considers these questions before the backdrop of broader issues such as the move toward a more financially driven and outcome driven tertiary environment, the closure of literacy support centres on some campuses, the move toward teaching language skills across the curriculum, the implications of introducing local full fee paying students and the so called 'decline' of English in school and in higher education.


Written English literacy levels have been identified as a challenge for full fee paying overseas students in terms of their ability to successfully complete their degrees at Australian universities, and most universities have responded with a systematic approach to helping overseas students reach the English literacy standards required.

But what of the local student with literacy skills that are likely to make it difficult for that student to succeed at written academic tasks? What systems do or should exist for these students so as to make their path at university easier, to improve their success rate and to promote equity and inclusivity in the higher education environment?

Given a learning disability has been diagnosed and acknowledged by the student, there are specific practices teachers can apply, such as oral examinations and prepared lecture notes. But what about those students for whom there is no specific problem diagnosed? How can we as lecturers, respond equitably and adequately to students with severely weak academic literacy skills?

Tertiary teachers in the communication skills fields are sometimes expected, unreasonably, to work miracles on students who have had problems with literacy all their lives. As Paul Brock emphasises, literacy does not develop in a vacuum, nor does it develop in "lock-step, easily identified, hierarchal stages" (Brock 1998: 16) Realistically, in the short term and in large classes, only limited positive changes to a student's literacy levels can be made.

Systems in place at Curtin University

Many courses at Curtin University do require a pass in TEE English, or equivalent, as a basic entry requirement. However in the science and technology areas , in particular, there are students who have traditionally done very well in the non-language areas, but still struggled interminably with English. My colleague, Ursula Pantelides recently compiled some statistics from a popular science degree program and found that 29.16% of a sample of seventy-two school leavers did not a achieve a pass grade in TEE English. A further 34.72% of the same cohort had received a pass grade of between 50-59%.

At Curtin University, a native English speaking student without a satisfactory pass in TEE English is quite often recommended to complete a special literacy support unit called Communication Skills 111. This unit prepares the student to better succeed in other units, particularly further communication skills units that may be significant units for the student's degree program. The student may also, where a learning disability has been diagnosed, be assisted by the disabilities officer at counselling services and, where appropriate, entitled to special exam conditions. It is significant that severe literacy weaknesses as a result of recognised learning disabilities such as dyslexia or behavioural/learning problems such as ADD, have become increasingly common amongst tertiary students in today's tertiary system (Stickels & Neil, 1998).

I am not attempting to subscribe to the myth here that literacy levels amongst Australian school leavers are getting any worse than they used to be, and I would agree with Brian Cambourne in his summation that

Rather than a decline in literacy standards the data strongly support a quite different interpretation; namely that given the incredible increase in the complexity of literacy demands over the last 20 year, given the increasing number of students (especially boys) who are staying on at school... our schools and teachers have held the literacy line. (Cambourne, cited in Brock 1998: 16).
Rather, I am seeking to highlight the sheer number of students who are most likely to be struggling with basic academic literacy skills at a tertiary level, and positing the questions 'How can we best support them?' and 'Which methods are the most successful and equitable'. Even perhaps 'Are these students too often forgotten about once they've entered the university system?' The transfer from school writing contexts to tertiary writing contexts is not an easy one for the most literate students, and one of my concerns in this area is that those students really struggling with academic literacy skills may be being forced to spend a great deal of time, effort, money and anxiety on work for which they may receive some very negative and uninspiring results, a course of events which can easily lead to students dropping out of their chosen programs all together.

In my own experience, the Communication Skills 111 unit at Curtin University has been able to achieve some satisfactory results. Students are introduced to some of the basic concepts which occur in later communications skills units and to some of the genres in which they are likely to be asked to engage with in their own degree programs. Negotiated learning and the ability to cater, to some extent, for individual differences are both written into the unit. Of the 37 students who completed the unit in Semester One, 1998, 78% passed the compulsory Communication Skills unit which they went on to in Semester Two 1998. The Communication Skills 111 unit is not compulsory for students who have failed TEE English however. Many students who were counselled and encouraged to complete the Communication Skills 111 unit at the beginning of the year actually chose not to. It is significant that 53% of those students did fail the mainstream communication skills units which are significant units in their own degree areas.

Systems utilised at other universities within Australia and New Zealand

It seems that there is no clear system for either stating the presence of or systematically dealing with students who have not passed entrance exam English levels across Australian university campuses. They do not fit into a defined DEETYA equity group. In terms of developing academic literacy, systems and methodologies do vary to some extent from university to university and are subject to change according to both new developments in theory and pedagogy as well as, of course, budgetary constraints and the increased requirements for financial accountability within Australian universities.

The University of Wollongong, at least when I worked there in the early 1990's, funded a Student Learning Assistance centre, which students from across the university could attend for individual help and advice on academic literacy skills. The centre also ran short courses for specific schools and departments on matters of academic literacy as they related to the various disciplines. Recently, due to funding model changes, this centre has since been greatly dismantled.

The last decade's body of literature about writing across the curriculum has also changed the approach which various tertiary institutions have adopted in relation to literacy support. Jane Madden, for example, has documented an experiment in teaching communication in an engineering context at the Victoria University of Technology. Here a complex team-teaching relationship between communications teaching staff and engineering lecturers saw some excellent language development in context and in smaller class sizes, actually removing the need for additional literacy support options and improving student writing across the board. Nevertheless, Madden stresses, the experiment only really worked where the engineering lecturers saw the value of language development in context and were supportive of language development generally. Sadly, not all engineering lecturers did see the value, and the experiment has since been restructured to one where the communications units are once again taught as separate (although more carefully contextualised) and the literacy support class options have returned.

Glenis Wong-Toi (1998), of the Student Learning Centre at the University of Auckland documents the way in which that university's learning centre provides individual assistance to students and generic skills workshops. Interestingly, many departments and schools within the University of Auckland also fund staff within their department to provide their students with additional written communications support. Wong-Toi also describes a joint venture between that university's learning assistance centre and the commerce faculty to aid students with academic literacy weaknesses that works well using a combination of workshops and individual assistance but which, predictably, continues to have to justify its existence. "Most staff," she writes, " involved in these types of programmes are temporary and transient, reflecting the marginalised status of such programmes, which are not considered to be truly academic" (Wong-Toi 1998: 229).

How can we best support these students?

The answer to this question relies, to some extent, on the pedagogical approach to academic literacy which is taken by the university or by individual schools or departments within the university. It relates to questions of expertise, that is, whether literacy specialists need to be involved or whether literacy is seen to be better developed within the discipline by discipline area experts. It also relates to questions of the nature of academic literacy and whether weaknesses in this area are read as a skills deficit or part of more complex puzzle. As Street writes " We already know that literacy is much more than just a skill: the last decade of research and practice in literacy has made it apparent that literacy is a social practice that varies from one context to another and is part of cultural knowledge and behaviour not simply a technical competence to be added on to people as though they were machines being upgraded." (Street 1996: 8)

Can we treat students with low academic literacy skills in the same way as we treat those with fully diagnosed learning disabilities? That, is, provide whatever positive assistance is required in such a way that, "Assistance given to students with disabilities and changes to teaching practice will only serve to increase academic standards, not lower them" (Post Secondary Education Disability Network, Western Australian, 1994). Research demonstrates again and again that reducing educational failure is more a matter of good teaching practices and quality instruction, thus benefiting all students, not just those with weak academic literacy skills (Skittles & Neil, 1998: Westwood 1998). But good teaching practice is most effectively achieved with small class sizes and plenty of face to face interaction between student and other students and between students and staff. These two basic elements of good teaching practice are getting harder to maintain and/or justify in a poorly funded higher education environment, particularly one which is (at least at some universities) seeking to introduce full fee paying local students who have not met the basic entrance cut off scores.

Conclusion and open floor discussion

"The transference of literacy skills from one set of contexts to another is not a simple process" (Brock 1998: 19). It is even more challenging for those students whose approach to literacy and language has been complicated by failure. I would like to open this issue up to the floor with the following questions as sign posts and welcome active discussion.

Reference list

Brock, P. (1998). 'Breaking some of the myths - again'. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 21(1), 8-26.

Madden, J. (1998). 'Teaching Communication in an Engineering Context - An Experiment' in ACSC 1998 Teaching Communication Skills in the Disciplines: The proceedings of the Australian Communication Skills Conference, eds. J. Tapper & P. Gruba, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, pp. 106-113.

Pantelides, U. (1998). '"Do we really need to be here?": Meeting the needs of reluctant learners in communication skills classes' in ACSC 1998 Teaching Communication Skills in the Disciplines: The proceedings of the Australian Communication Skills Conference, eds. J. Tapper & P. Gruba, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, pp. 136-144.

Street, B. (1996). 'Literacy and power', Open Letter, 6(2), 7-16.

Stickels, C. and Neil, G. (1998). Do students with specific learning disabilities create a specific teaching difficulty for you? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 318-321. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf98/stickels.html

Westwood, P. (1998). 'Reducing Educational Failure'. Australian Journal of Learning Disabilities, 3(3), 4-12.

Wong-Toi, G. (1998). 'Joining forces: A combined faculty and learning support venture to improve communication skills of commerce students' in ACSC 1998 Teaching Communication Skills in the Disciplines: The proceedings of the Australian Communication Skills Conference, eds. J. Tapper & P. Gruba, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, pp. 228-236.

Please cite as: van Loon, J. (1999). What happens when a student who has failed TEE English enters an Australian university? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 451-454. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/vanloon.html

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