What is Language Proficiency?

by Jaime Buchanan and Ruth Radwan

What is language proficiency?

When we talk about language proficiency, what exactly do we mean? In most academic circles in the Western world, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is the gatekeeper qualification for university entrance. In the US, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is used as a language ability benchmark. What does achieving a particular IELTS or TOEFL score mean, in terms of a student’s ability to access the curriculum at an English medium university?

All students taking the IELTS complete tests in the four skill areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. The overall score is an average of the four. In TOEFL, students also take tests in the four skill areas, and receive an overall averaged score. Some institutions set minimum thresholds for individual scores, while others only require an overall minimum score.

The University of Cambridge in the UK, for example, requires a 7.5 overall IELTS score, with no individual score lower than a 7. Oxford asks for a 7.0 overall, with no individual scores of less than 6.5, while King’s College, London, demands a 7.5 for students planning to study one of the professional disciplines, such as medicine, engineering, or law. In the US, where the TOEFL iBT remains the standard, both Harvard and Yale require a TOEFL iBT score of at least 100, or an IELTS band 7.

While many of the best universities in America and Britain require minimum scores in each skill, this is not always the case. In some institutions, students may enter, provided they have the minimum overall required score, which could look something like this:

Speaking: 7 Listening: 6.5  Reading: 5 Writing: 7 Overall: 6.5

While this score represents a student speaking and writing at the requisite level, their reading comprehension is significantly lower than the level of ability identified by an IELTS band 7.

For universities, this means that a student who achieves an IELTS 7 can be considered to have ‘good’ English language skills. An IELTS 7 demonstrates that the user can generally handle complex language, although there will be occasional exceptions. This is important, because complex language defines the nature of the kind of academic texts found in coursebooks, journal articles and research papers. An IELTS band 9 represents the language skills of an educated native speaker.  For most mother tongue undergraduate students, studying content-heavy academic texts requires high levels of focus and regular clarification of key terminology and concepts, so we can begin to conceptualise the enormous challenges faced by non-native language users in academic settings, many of whom may have achieved a band 6 in the reading skills paper.

A student who achieves an IELTS 6 is described as being a ‘competent’ English user. These students have a general understanding of subjects that are abstract or more concrete in nature, and are often able to understand technical discussions within their discipline. However, a ‘competent’ user can still expect frequent difficulties coping with complex academic texts. This means that students who enter university study at this level will still require support when dealing with demanding reading loads.

 

Increasingly, many institutions worldwide are accepting undergraduate students with an IELTS band 5. This is described as a modest user, whose skills are described as coping with the language as opposed to demonstrating mastery or even competency of it. The expectation of an IELTS 5 student is the ability to handle the majority of basic communication within the chosen field, but numerous challenges in accessing academic language must be expected. When an institution accepts students at an IELTS 5 and does not set a minimum threshold, a student’s individual IELTS profile could look like this:

Speaking: 6 Listening: 4 Reading: 4 Writing: 5 Overall: 5

While a band 5 is described as a ‘modest’ user, a band 4 is labeled as a ‘limited’ user. A limited user does not have the language skills required to function successfully in the language, and definitely lacks the language skills required in an academic environment. A band 4 in listening and reading means only the most basic information can be successfully conveyed or understood. The enormous challenges for a student entering an academic institution with this level of language competency becomes immediately evident.

Elizabeth Jones, assessment supervisor at Zayed University’s Academic Bridge Program in Abu Dhabi created this analysis of an undergraduate business course text in order to demonstrate the type of reading that can be expected of students with an IELTS band 4 or 5 reading ability. In the following text, words that this type of student would not know have been blanked out:

 

The first thing he did was ………… a clear ……… and ………….. to …………….. and …………… Apple employees. Jobs decided that to ………………., Apple had to introduce …………………, ……………… PCs and related digital ………………. He …………….. an ……………………….. planning ………………… and created a team ………………… that allowed ……………………. and engineers to …………… their skills to develop new PCs. He ……………….. ………………. authority to the teams, but he also …………………. …………….. timetables and ………………. “……………..” ……………, such as bringing new products to ……………. as quickly as possible, for these groups. One result of these ………………. was Apple’s …………….. new line of iMac PCs, which were quickly followed by a wide ………………. of …………………… PC-related products.  

Probable unknown words and phrases:

authority  challenging  considerable  create      equipment  established  goals  instituted  *pool  motivate  process  range  structure  stylish  sleek  survive  vision  delegated       energize  futuristic  programmers      state-of-the-art         across-the-board

Excerpted from Contemporary Management, 6th Ed.

Unsurprisingly, this fairly basic text has been rendered incomprehensible when viewed through the lens of a band 4 of 5 reader.

Universities have responded to the issue by providing both pre-sessional and in-sessional bridging programs. However, the expectations for progress are sometimes unreasonably optimistic. Research suggests that it takes approximately six months of intensive tuition in an English medium environment to progress from one IELTS band to the next. However, a number of factors can influence this; for example, the students’ mother tongue can impact considerably on the pace of progress. In addition, there is a major difference in the language development of students who study in immersion environments (Canada, the US, UK, Australia, etc.) and those who may only use English for study purposes, while conducting their day-to-day lives in their mother tongue in their home country. With the significant growth in English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) institutions worldwide in recent years, this is an important consideration.

So what’s the takeaway? Knowing your institution’s guidelines and language proficiency admissions requirements is essential. If you have students who have achieved a band 5 in IELTS reading, the amount and type of reading that they can complete on your course will be very limited. This has huge implications for their ability to access course content and produce thoughtful, critical evaluation of the discourse in their assignments. As many professors are aware, the consequences can be disastrous. Faced with this situation on high stakes courses, students often simply fail, plagiarize or seek academic ‘ghostwriters’ to complete their assignments.

This is why studying the field of EMI is gaining such momentum; as academics, we have a moral obligation to support students who have been accepted into our institutions in a systematic and meaningful way. In addition to developing an awareness of the support networks available for those students, such as language-related tutorials or mentoring, university instructors need to consult with language specialists when developing courses and engage in professional training and skills development so that they can more effectively meet the needs of students with this profile.

Watch this space for our next blog for a more detailed analysis of specific student needs and approaches to developing practical strategies to address them…