International Students: Canadian Trends

November 24, 2008

Canada does not attract as many international students as the U.S., U.K., or Australia, but they are working to change that. This post reports on the Canadian government’s efforts to recruit more students and explores recent problems with student visa fraud.

Imagine Canada
In September, the Canadian government announced that international atudents will be able to apply for work permits and remina in the country for up to 3 years after graduation. This would encourage graduates to use their education in Canada and would pave the way for their eventual naturalization.

In October, provincial education ministers met in Fredricton, New Brunswick, and announced a countrywide brand to recruit international students: “Imagine Education in Canada.” They plan to market Canada as an open, welcoming society and its colleges as world-class institutions of higher learning.

Visa Fraud
Unfortunately, Canada lacks the infrastructure to enforce visa laws. According to an internal report by the Canada Border Services Agency (obtained by the Vancouver Sun), the CBSA is only able to investigate 5% of alleged visa fraud. This enforcement gap means that people can obtain a student visa, arrive in the country legally, and then enter the workforce–circumventing the more rigorous immigrant visa process. I’m sure that many readers based in the U.S. can relate to my experience that some students come to the States and do the same thing. If this can be accomplished in a country with a well-funded enformcement apparatus, it must be that much easier in Canada.

Where is this Going?
If the Canadian government takes the initiative to market the colleges and universities of the whole country, this will undoubtedly help them to recruit more of the best and brightest students in the owlrd. Their 3-year work permit is like none I’ve heard of elsewhere and will also go a long way toward encouraging more students to choose Canadian colleges.

That being said, if Canada develops a reputation as an easy-visa country, this will attract a different applicant pool altogether. In that case, top-tier colleges run the risk of wasting valuable recruiting resources and doing serious damage to a carefully crafted national brand.
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International Students Add $15.54 Billion to U.S. Economy

November 18, 2008

This fall there have been a number of reports in the news about internatinoal student enrollments at English-speaking colleges and universities. This week’s posts will focus on reported trends and conflicting predictions for the future of international students.

This is an important issue for several reasons. Graduate programs are able to recruit the best talent from a growing global pool of students. Many ESL programs at colleges and private langague schools like Kaplan and GEOS depend on international students.

A third reason for us to all pay attention to where international students choose to study is the size of their financial contribution to local and national economies. A recent study published by the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) reports that last year international students and their families added $15.54 billion to the United States economy.

This is no small figure. With money like this at stake, we can expect institutions worldwide to increase their recruitment efforts. The rest of this week’s posts will be about how colleges in different countries are responding to all of this.
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Texas TESOL: more student interest in online software

November 11, 2008

Hello everyone. Well, it looks like live blogging from conferences is not likely in the cards for me. By the time evening rolls around and it’s time to comment on the day’s sessions, I’ve got so many other events going on that I don’t get back to my computer until late. For international TESOL, I’m working with some of my colleagues here to put together a daily brief of the best sessions. This would be a service mostly for teachers who can’t attend TESOL–kind of like reading the highlights of a sporting event you miss.

Texas TESOL’s attendance was down a little this year. They usually average 1000 attendees, but this year saw around 800 or so, according to conference organizers. Based on conversations with teachers at the conference, a big contributor to the lower attendance was school districts cutting back on funding for substitutes etc.

A big trend at TexTESOL that I noticed was the continued interest of students in accessing ESL software online. (See an earlier post on this)

The stories generally went like this: Teachers told me that they had bought software for their language labs a few years ago. Everyone is happy with the content and thinks that it is making a difference in the students’ learning. Lately, though, students have been asking about using the software at home.

Since the schools sank significant funds into the network version of the software, many of them are hesitant to make the jump into online versions. It seems, though, that ESL students are beginning to expect that software should be accessible from any computer.

Some of the big publishers (Pearson Longman included) have been moving in this direction and are offering significant options for online software. Others appear to believe that students will not want to pay the extra cost of online subscriptions and are only developing CD-ROM based software. I think it will be very clear sooner rather than later who is right on this point.
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Trends from Ohio TESOL: Technology and Speaking/Writing

November 7, 2008

Ohio TESOL had around 700 attendees this year, making it one of the most well attended state TESOL conferences nationwide. This is especially impressive at a time when a lot of districts are cutting back on funding for teachers to attend conferences. The conference was a great opportunity for me to talk to a lot of ESL teachers about the current state of ESL methodology. A few recurring themes emerged: the use of technology and teaching productive skills (speaking and writing).

Technology and Software for ESL Students
Many teachers reported that they are exploring what technology can do for them and for their students. They described experiments with Moodle and social networking sites. I also heard a lot of interest in commercial ESL software. By far the biggest buzz was on what’s available online rather than on CD-ROM. Some teachers have been trying out different projects and assignments online for a while now, but the majority were just starting to explore their options. As student access to the internet broadens and teacher familiarity with available software increases, I predict significantly higher use of technology in ESL.

Productive Skills
Whenever we talked about Reading/Writing or Listening/Speaking classes, teachers shared with me a renewed emphasis on speaking and writing–especially in academic contexts. As one teacher put it, “We don’t want to have listening courses with a little bit of speaking at the end. We’re focusing on developing students’ speaking skills at the same time as their listening skills.” I heard the same about Reading/Writing courses–a real move toward full integration of writing into reading. While I didn’t get enough confirmation to say this strongly, I believe that much of this comes from the realities in mainstream courses. Students need to be prepared to participate orally in class and are increasingly being asked to do more short writing assignments (often in online discussion boards). My prediction here is that more ESL teachers will begin to reexamine their curricula and pump up the writing and speaking components.

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Ohio TESOL: Fostering the “Community” Part of Online Community

November 3, 2008

Sorry to have been away for a full week. I was out travelling in Texas and Ohio, and I got behind in my blogging. I even missed a few days over at ESOL World News. It was an interesting experiment for me, and I think I can ensure that there is no interruption this week when I go to TexTESOL.

At Ohio TESOL, the trend was definitely the growing emphasis on technology in langauge learning. Many people presented on using various free resources in langauge classrooms, but the most interesting sessions for me were the ones that described the possibilities for online learning.

Dawn Bikowski easily had the most interesting session of the conference. She described parameters for helping students to move from just posting messages toward developing an actual online community.

One of the issues Bikowski brought up was that, for many people, text-based communication can be impersonal. What makes social networks and blogs work so well in creating a sense of community is that they make the communication personal again. People can upload photos and play games with each other. They can take personality quizes, post the results, and share them with friends.

Bikowski recommends that online communities should foster opportunities for students to express themselves as individuals. Participants should share information about themselves and what they do outside of class. Informal langauge should be encouraged in any situation that does not otherwise require formal langauge. When possible, sharing photos or other personal media will also be helpful.

All of these strategies will make the online community feel less like another set of assignments and more like an engaging space. This will result in learners being more motivated to participate and complete all of the activities that are set.
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Trends in Vocabulary Instruction: Frequency Lists Rise in Popularity

October 27, 2008

What words do students need to learn? This question has been around as long as there have been langauge teachers and langauge classes. In my conversations with ESL teachers at community colleges and university IEPs, I have been hearing more and more interest in frequency lists to help answer the question of what words to teach.

What is a frequency List?
A frequency list presents the words that are used frequently in a given context. These are generated from large, principled databases called copora (sing. corpus). Corpora allow researchers to identify words, phrases, grammatical forms, etc., which are used by particular people in particular contexts. This is important because what is common usage in an academic textbook is not the same as what is common in a restaurant conversation.

Why the Rise in Popularity?
With a lot of linguistic research, it takes some time before real-world applications are apparent. With frequency lists, however, there is immediate application. Instructors can see which aspects of the English language are more prevalent in different registers and can make more informed decisions about their courses.

What are the Most Popular Frequency Lists?
Most Common Words in English–Most publishers and a few other websites have a list of the most common words across all registers. The top words in these lists tend to be function words like the or of. No one list has, so far, become the most definitive “most common” list.

The General Service List (West, 1953; revised by Bauman and Culligan, 1995) is a list of the 2000 words of most “general service” to learners of English. The GSL is not the most frequent 2000 words, but rather words that were considered to be the most valuable. This means that frequency was taken into account, but not only frequency in its creation.

The Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000) is a list of the most generally “academic” words in English. Coxhead analyzed college textbooks across a range of disciplines, deleted GSL words, and then selected only those words with the most usefulness in multiple academic subjects. Thus, the AWL is not a list of general English, nor is it a list of content terminology. Rather, it is a generally applicable list of academic English.

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Schools Score Low–Cite ESL Students

October 23, 2008

Updated 10/27 (see below) 

The past month or so has seen several reports of schools posting lower test scores and singling out ESL students a one of the main causes. (for example, Des Moines, Evanston, Hattiesburg, San Diego, Sacramento, Joliet) These articles tend to follow the same storyline. If it weren’t for large and/or growing numbers of ESL students, all would be well. Each of these articles presents a more or less charitable view of the language learners (to be dealt with later), but the causes of the lower scores are generally the following.

Limited ESL Instruction
Many schools do not have dedicated language instruction for language learners. Rather, teachers come into the classroom and help individual students during the flow of the mainstream class. It’s difficult to imagine most students (and especially older ones) doing well without some kind of explicit, sequenced instrtuction about their new language. The most serious issue is students development of academic language skills (see Jim Cummins’ work) as opposed to conversational fluency.

Limited Number of ESL Teachers
Further complicating matters is the significant shortage of certified ESL teachers in most school districts. This is especially serious in districts that have not had significant ESL populations in the past. A sudden shift in demographics can leave a send a large influx of language learners to a district who has never had to address English acquisition in a concerted way.

Lack of Appreciation of Length of Time Needed to Learn a Language
Possibly the most serious challenge to any K-12 ESL program is understanding that students will need a relatively short period of time to become fluent enough to function with their classmates but will need much more time to develop the kind of academic knowledge and skills that they will be tested on. Some states limit ESL instruction to only lower grades as though no older students who immigrate do not need the same kind of classes as younger ones. Others limit the number of years that a student can take language classes to some arbitrary length of time (Oregon may be next)

I’m afraid that the scope of this blog (and my own background with adult language learners rather than children) limits proposing much in the way of solutions. Much could be addressed if there were more funding for ESL programs. That’s difficult to communicate to many parents who don’t take a very charitable view off language learners and who would prefer that the money go to other programs. The one good thing you’ll ever hear me say about No Child Left Behind is that it is raising the profile of students like English Language Learners and is sanctioning schools who don’t meet these students’ needs.

Update 10/27–Mary Ann Zehr over at Learning the Language raises some good points about this post. For example, she was absolutely on target that I missed the fact that

“the tests ELLs are taking are designed for native-English speakers and are not very good at measuring what second-language learners know and can do.”

In fact, the Evanston example above attributes much of their low scores to the fact that Illinois recently changed its policy about testing ELLs. In the past, ELLs were given a less complex test (one assumes less complex linguistically) than native English speakers.

Thanks, Mary Ann!

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