|Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]|
Department of Languages and Intercultural Education
Curtin University of Technology
In this study, a four part survey was administered to a class of 18 students studying on the English Language Bridging Course at Curtin University to find out more about their perceived listening and speaking language needs. This course is of one semester's duration, and is designed to prepare overseas students for mainstream study. These students have met all academic admissions requirements for enrolment at Curtin University, with the exception of the level of their English language proficiency. In addition to the students, seven English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors completed part of the survey, providing their impressions of the perceived needs of the students. While the perceptions of students and instructors generally differed, both groups seemed to be in agreement about the importance of listening skills for academic success. This study was a small scale replication of a previous study carried out by Ferris (1998) with ESL students in three institutions in California, and like the current study, provides some useful input for future groups of students preparing for mainstream studies.
It is important to try to ascertain the specific language difficulties faced by such students, both before and during their mainstream studies, so that the content selected suits the range of language and cultural backgrounds represented. While the move towards tertiary studies presents challenges for all students, overseas students face specific problems, however, once these are recognised they can be addressed through appropriate teaching and intervention.
At this point it is worthwhile to draw the distinction between 'subject lecturers' and 'ESL lecturers/tutors'. Those classified as subject lecturers are lecturing in a specialised field/faculty/department within a university, in a situation where the dominant medium of instruction is the lecture. Although suitably qualified in their own discipline area, lecturers typically have no formal teacher training, and no specialised knowledge of teaching English to speakers of other languages. In contrast, ESL lecturers/tutors are specially trained to teach non-native speakers of English (NNS) students, and work intensively with such students in a language skills based program, usually within a short time frame so as to prepare students to commence their formal studies. In addition, and unlike their subject lecturing colleagues, they tend to work with much smaller groups (usually no more than 20). Although ESL lecturers/tutors usually operate within independent language schools, most Australian universities run pre-tertiary courses for prospective NNS students to enable them to prepare for mainstream studies. They therefore form an important bridge for international students and their mainstream studies. However, while such courses provide a useful introduction to university study and address a range of basic English/academic skills, studies have consistently shown that students whose first language is not English will need ongoing support with a range of language related skills for the duration of their studies. The purpose of the current study is to explore the particular aspects of support that are required, especially with regard to aural/oral language needs.
Until recently, needs analyses in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) have focused on more general academic literacy skills, while needs analysis on academic aural/oral skills was "virtually nonexistent" (Ferris 1998, p. 291). This notion is supported by Flowerdew (1995, p.1) in his introduction to a collection of papers on research conducted by various authors on the theme of 'academic listening'. In particular, he identified the need to investigate the importance of pronunciation, oral participation in small and large group discussions, different lecturing styles and format, and general listening comprehension for successful participation in tertiary courses. A recent publication by Flowerdew and Miller (2005) contrasts the focus of earlier research in second language listening, where the skill was taught in isolation, with emphasis on the product, with more recent studies which emphasis the need to encompass a range of dimensions (including cultural, social and affective) that provide a more comprehensive approach, with the emphasis on the process.
These suggestions by Flowerdew are also borne out by the results of a study conducted by Ostler (1980) in which she surveyed the academic needs of 131 ESL students enrolled at the University of Southern California about the relative importance of various academic tasks across the four macro-skill areas (reading, writing, listening and speaking). Although these four areas were surveyed, Ostler concluded that the ESL university students in general needed most help in developing academic speaking abilities (for example, talking to lecturers). Subsequent studies have identified both listening comprehension and speaking as areas of 'need'. This includes the areas of general listening and more specifically listening to lectures, as well as the oral skills needed to take part in discussions, or to communicate with students and lecturers. One study to reach such a conclusion was that carried out by Ferris at California State University. Ferris (1998) conducted a comparative needs analysis study on students' views of academic aural/oral skills by administering a survey of 768 ESL students at three tertiary campuses, asking their views about:
their college instructors' requirements regarding listening and speaking skills, their own difficulties in meeting those requirements, and the relative importance of seven selected academic aural/oral skills or tasks. A subsample (n = 476) of the students' survey responses was then compared with those of 206 instructors at the same institution to assess the degree of agreement between the two groups of informants. (Ferris, 1998, p. 289)One theme that emerged consistently in Ferris's study was that the students lacked confidence related to their listening abilities, their fluency, and/or their pronunciation. Students appeared convinced that they could not understand their instructors, that their native English speaking peers were irritated by them and that their own speech was unintelligible. Professors, in contrast, were certain that students avoided classroom interaction because of cultural inhibitions. (Ferris, 1998, pp. 310-311)
Ferris's work led her to believe that instructors are not always accurately able to identify specific areas of difficulty, nor can they tell why these areas are problematic. Conversely, the students are not always the most accurate informants on what professors actually require. She therefore stressed the need to use both student and faculty informants when looking at the needs and difficulties of ESL students in various academic settings. This would help to provide a well-rounded picture of the academic needs of those students whose first language is not English.
Present day funding and resource constraints put pressure on pre-tertiary courses to focus on those skills deemed to be the most needed (in particular reading and writing), and as a consequence, students frequently find that they do not have enough opportunity to practise speaking and listening. As a result some enter their mainstream courses ill-prepared to cope with the aural/oral demands made of them. Jordan (2002) in Farr (2003, p.67) 'cites studies which empirically conclude that the initial difficulties students encounter in the L2 academic environment are primarily in the domains of listening and speaking'. Furthermore, Flowerdew and Miller (2005) emphasise the growing need for international citizens who are able to understand a range of varieties of English spoken around the world.
The current study is informed by those studies that have explored the various listening and speaking language needs of NNS students in English medium universities. In particular it extends the work of Ferris, who after extensive investigation with students and lecturers, concluded that "ESL students could benefit from increased attention to academic aural/oral skills development prior to (or at least concurrent with) taking subject matter courses" (Ferris, 1998, p. 314). Thus this study is driven by the need to identify those specific aural/oral language needs from the perspective of lecturers and students involved in the English Language Bridging Course at Curtin University of Technology. As indicated by previous research these needs may include: difficulty with general listening comprehension, poor levels of oral participation, unrealistic lecturer expectations, and, differences in lecturing format and styles.
In a study of lecture comprehension strategies of 26 foreign graduate students studying in an English medium environment for the first time, Mason (1995, p. 204) found that lecture comprehension problems could be identified on a range of levels; processing the lecturer's manner of speaking, accommodating a new educational system, and adjusting to unfamiliar lecture formats. Students from different cultural backgrounds can be intimidated by the large group format, and in another study expressed a preference for working in small groups (Mulligan & Kirkpatrick, 2000).
Whilst Ferris (1998) found that students and professors agreed that it is essential for the skill of note taking to be mastered, the processing required to understand lectures created special problems for NNS students. Specifically, they needed strategies for coping with the various lecturing styles of mainstream lecturers. Ferris found that some instructors "unlike EAP lecturers, mumble, talk quickly, do not provide visuals, and use inaccessible vocabulary or slang" (Ferris, 1998, p. 310). In addition, students are often confused by lecturers who use mostly local references and who do not use the appropriate devices to signal changes in topic or focus.
These findings, taken from a range of studies, suggest that for international students there are a number of needs. While some of these studies have included large sample sizes, others have included a smaller cohort of participants. Therefore it is unclear how representative such findings are for all students, particularly as they come from diverse backgrounds and study in a range of situations. Thus there is a need for institutions enrolling international students to conduct their own needs analysis so that the content of ESL/pre-tertiary courses can be appropriately fine tuned on a regular basis to suit the specific difficulties faced by their current students. By doing so, institutions can assist their students to gain maximum benefit from their tertiary studies. It is the aim of the current study to embark on such an undertaking for students involved in Curtin University's English Language Bridging Course.
The students at ELBC are typically divided into discrete classes of approximately 20 for the duration of the full time, one semester course; but for 2-3 periods per week, a single lecture is presented to the entire intake (usually 100+). All classes undertake the same four units concurrently. They are not streamed according to ability or first language. Because the course is very intensive, it is imperative to make sure that only the most suitable and beneficial activities for the students' needs are retained in the course. In the best interests of the students, it is only fair to take into account the input from both lecturers and students in the hopes of attaining a balanced view, and this approach was also applied in the current needs analysis study. To do so, an amended version of Ferris's (1998) study (see Appendix) was administered to a group of 18 students and seven (ESL) lecturers. The three questions that guided the research project were as follows:
|Country of origin||n||First language||n|
The demographic information provided by the students also indicated that many of them had been learning English for several years. However, most of them indicated that they had been in Australia less than 12 months, and as a consequence they still may be struggling with accents, slang and local references. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most overseas students who take this course do not live with English speakers, and many admitted that they do not read local newspapers, listen to the radio or follow the news on TV, all of which would not only enhance their general listening skills, but could also provide a context on which to base at least some of the content they are required to process. This information could be very useful in orientation sessions for forthcoming groups.
The second part (B) was designed to ascertain the kinds of skills undertaken in class. While this was originally aimed at finding out what was needed in mainstream courses, the current study merely sought to find out which skills the students actually used in their (ESL) course. To do this they were required to provide responses to the question: In your current class, do you...? The results of Part B are presented in Table 2.
|11.||Participate in small group work||8||10||0|
|12.||Ask the teacher questions||3||14||1|
|13.||Discuss assignments with classmates||6||11||1|
|14.||Complete homework without help from others.||15||3||0|
In Parts C and D the trends that emerged regarding the aural/oral needs of the students in the study are outlined with particular reference to the students' and lecturers' perceptions about the level of importance of certain listening/speaking skills. First, the results of the students' responses to Part C are presented (see Table 3 below). Missing data indicates cases where students did not provide complete responses. Because correlational analysis requires a minimum of 30 subjects (Locke, Silverman & Spirduso, 1998, p. 165), with such a small number of respondents, such analysis was not undertaken in the current study. Instead simple tables are used to present the data and indicate the findings. The students were given a list of 7 listening/speaking skills, and were asked to rank each one in order of importance relative to the others, with a ranking of 1 being the most important. The ranking and relative importance of each skill is represented by a cross in the grid. For example, Table 3 indicates that most of the students ranked the pronunciation of English with a 1, 2, or 3, and therefore regarded it as being very important in relation to the other skills.
|a.||Pronunciation of English||5||4||3||0||1||1||1|
|b.||Lecture note taking||1||3||1||2||4||3||1|
|c.||General listening comprehension||6||3||0||2||2||3||0|
|d.||Ability to give presentations||1||1||1||5||3||2||2|
|e.||Ability to participate effectively in class discussions||1||1||2||1||3||3||4|
|f.||Ability to communicate effectively with other students in small
group discussions, projects or out of class study groups
|g.||Ability to communicate effectively with lecturers in or out of class||1||2||3||3||0||1||4|
|Other (please describe)|
Firstly, the students surveyed seemed in agreement that general listening comprehension and pronunciation (in that order) were high on the list of important skills; there also seemed to be agreement that the ability to participate effectively in class discussions (as opposed to small group discussions) and the ability to communicate effectively with lecturers were not as important. The ability to give presentations tended to rank low on the list, while there was a full range of responses for lecture note taking. At this point in the course the students had not yet attended many large lectures, nor had they been required to do their formal presentations. Judging from the responses presented, it would seem that at this stage, they were merely grappling with the need to understand and to be understood. This would be consistent with problems associated with most international students in the early stages of their studies in the host country.
Only three students listed additional skills in the 'Other' section. These were:
Two students stressed the importance of improving vocabulary in terms of communicating with other people, and the necessity to provide the opportunity to increase their vocabulary (as it stands, vocabulary is only dealt with formally in the Tertiary Studies Skills module).
Two students indicated the need to be provided with practice opportunity especially in relation to pronunciation; one in particular expressed embarrassment and frustration when people could not understand her. This concurred with the findings of Ferris, 1998, however, it should also be noted that this problem generally seems to cause more angst to the students themselves than to the lecturers. In addition, one student had difficulty in understanding 'Australian pronunciation' and felt that it took some time to get used to different accents. Another student felt that listening and speaking were more important than reading and writing, and that exposure to the English language outside class was very important, adding that her English improved greatly when she went to live with a local family.
General communication skills
Three students said that they needed more listening and speaking practice in general, and one said that she needed the listening/speaking skills to be able to interact with others in a group situation.
Two students felt that more facilities were needed; for instance, one suggested the use of a language laboratory.
|a.||Pronunciation of English||1||1||0||1||0||1||1|
|b.||Lecture note taking||1||0||0||1||0||1||3|
|c.||General listening comprehension||2||2||1||0||1||0||0|
|d.||Ability to give presentations||0||1||1||0||2||3||0|
|e.||Ability to participate effectively in class discussions||1||0||3||1||1||0||0|
|f.||Ability to communicate effectively with other students in small
group discussions, projects or out of class study groups
|g.||Ability to communicate effectively with lecturers in or out of class||1||0||0||1||1||2||1|
|Other (please describe)|
With such a small number of respondents, it was difficult to trace any pattern within the group itself. Overall the ESL lecturers seemed to indicate support for the relative importance of general listening comprehension, the ability to participate effectively in class discussions, and the ability to communicate effectively with other students, as compared with taking lecture notes and giving presentations. However, the lecturers were divided as to the importance of pronunciation.
Only one lecturer in the current study provided additional information in the space provided, indicating that using correct intonation patterns was important for overall comprehensibility, more so than correct pronunciation of individual sounds. This suggestion reflects an observation made by Ferris (1998), namely that lecturing staff are more concerned about students making an attempt to participate in class, even if they feel their pronunciation is not perfect. Students, on the other hand are reluctant to take part if they feel that their pronunciation is not native like.
From the point of view of pathway courses such as the English Language Bridging Course, both the tutorial group format (where students are divided into class groups of about 20) and the larger (100+) lecture group can be effectively utilised, the former for teaching specific speaking and listening skills and the latter for practice in dealing with large lectures. This can take the form of model lectures in a range of disciplines and representing a range of organisational patterns. Perhaps the findings of this and other studies will go some way towards informing those involved with future curriculum planning for the English Language Bridging Course.
Ferris, D. & Tagg, T. (1996a). Academic listening/speaking tasks for ESL students: Problems, suggestions, and implications. TESOL Quarterly, 30, 297-320.
Ferris, D. & Tagg, T. (1996b). Academic oral communication needs of EAP learners: What subject-matter instructors actually require. TESOL Quarterly, 30, 31-58.
Ferris, D. (1998). Students' views of academic aural/oral skills: A comparative needs analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 32, 289-318.
Flowerdew, J. (Ed) (1995). Academic listening: Research perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Flowerdew, J. & Miller, L. (2005). Second language listening: Theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jordan, R. (2002). The growth of EAP in Britain. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 1(1), 69-78.
Locke, L.F., Silverman, S.J. & Spirduso, W.W. (1998). Reading and understanding research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Mason, A. (1995). By dint of: Student and lecturer perceptions of lecture comprehension strategies in first-term graduate study. In J.Flowerdew (Ed), Academic listening: Research perspectives (pp. 199-218). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mulligan, D. & Kirkpatrick, A. (2000). How much do they understand? Lectures, students and comprehension. Higher Education Research & Development, 19(3), 311-335.
Ostler, S.E. (1980). A survey of academic needs for advanced ESL. TESOL Quarterly, 14, 489-502.
Thompson, S. (2003). Text-structuring metadiscourse, intonation and the signalling of organisation in academic lectures. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 2, 5-20.
|1.||Your country of origin|
|5.||Name of degree course completed in your country|
|6.||Name and level (undergraduate or postgraduate) of intended degree course in Australia|
|7.||How long have you been in Australia?|
|8.||How long have you been learning English?|
|9.||Have you attended school in Australia?|
|10.||Are you a/n:||Permanent resident International student|
|B.||In your current class|
Do you..? (for each question, choose one of the following three options)
always sometimes never
|11.||Participate in small group work|
|12.||Ask the teacher questions|
|13.||Discuss assignments with classmates|
|14.||Complete homework without help from others|
Please rank all skills below from 1 to 7 in order of importance (1=most important)
|a.||___ pronunciation of English|
|b.||___ lecture note-taking|
|c.||___ general listening comprehension (other than formal lectures)|
|d.||___ ability to give presentations|
|e.||___ ability to participate effectively in class discussion|
|f.||___ ability to communicate effectively with other students in small-group |
discussions, projects, or out-of-class study groups.
|g.||___ ability to communicate effectively with lecturers in or out of class.|
|___ other (please describe):|
If you have any comments about listening or speaking requirements in your university classes or about your own problems with these activities, please write them here.
|Author: Patricia teaches English as a Second/Foreign Language, working on a range of programs since commencing at Curtin in 1987, and is currently teaching on the English Language Bridging Course. She has had extensive experience in language testing at Curtin, the IELTS test centre for Western Australia, and has recently completed an Education Doctorate entitled Issues of English language proficiency for international students.
Patricia Dooey, Department of Languages and Intercultural Education, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6845. Email: P.Dooey@curtin.edu.au
Please cite as: Dooey, P. (2006). Identifying the listening and speaking needs of international students. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/dooey.html
Copyright 2006 Patricia Dooey. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.