Supporting Advanced-Level English Learners

All non-native speakers, regardless of proficiency, need some language support through their academic careers. Advanced-level learners (students at the high B2, C1, and C2 CEFR levels, or above 75% on Vital English’s PAL proficiency test) still need their teachers, administrators, and peers to support their language development. With that in mind, here are some support ideas for schools:

  • All teaching staff need to understand that it takes 5-7 years of full immersion in an English-speaking school environment to develop full academic language proficiency. Unless students have done significant academic work in English before they arrive at your school, they will – at the very least – need support with language that is only used in the classroom. (When, for example, was the last time you used the word “amplitude” outside of a physics class? Why would we expect anyone – English learner or not – to know the word before it’s taught?) PAL’s subject-specific learning modules will help prepare students for the language demands of specific courses, but they cannot replace the patience and understanding of the adults around them.
  • Speaking and listening abilities will develop quickly for most students, but reading and writing skills will take time – and patience – to perfect, even for advanced learners. Keep in mind that cultural norms in different countries affect students’ previous academic lives, and that skills that are assumed of American students cannot always be assumed of international students. Even when a student has strong language skills, their previous teachers may not have expected independent thought, critical thinking, or any type of writing. And even when students have been taught how to write essays in their native languages, the style of writing may not parallel – in fact, may directly contradict – writing norms in English.
  • Non-linguistic factors may affect students’ linguistic capabilities. A fight with a friend, an all-nighter studying, or family issues at home may interfere with a student’s ability to read a text or answer a question in class – not because they don’t have the language skills or vocabulary, but because emotional issues are getting in the way. Yes, this is true for domestic students as well, but it can be particularly influential and more noticeable for English learners, and teachers are more likely to judge them for it without understanding the backstory. Culture shock, which comes and goes throughout a student’s time away from home, can also play a factor.
  • Even if the school does not have an ESL program, someone on staff should be trained specifically in second-language learning and be able to assist English learners. This person could be a teacher in the learning services department, the international student coordinator, or a teacher of world languages. Students may not need full ESL support, but they will benefit from having someone on campus who understands their needs as language learners and can advocate for them when necessary.

Schools often get mired in the assumption that advanced-level learners need no language support and therefore can be treated like linguistic peers of native English-speaking students. However, expectations can and should be tempered with an understanding of second language learning principles, academic vs. social language, and cultural norms.

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