Elaine Hirsch discusses the importance of English language proficiency for College Teaching Assistants.
Learning about how to derive the Black-Scholes formula in a 7:30 AM finance class is a challenging feat in itself; most students would rather not have to worry about understanding their teaching assistants’ English while they’re at it. Unfortunately, you’ve probably had similar experiences in classes taught by master’s degree candidate TAs, and incidences such as these form the basis for establishing guidelines regarding English language proficiency in higher education.
Language proficiency is commonly defined as a person’s ability to speak or perform in an acquired language. In order to evaluate an individual’s abilities, the Test of English as a Foreign Language was established by the Educational Testing Service and is administered worldwide to measure the ability of people to employ college-level English in terms of listening, reading, speaking, and writing skills.
However, the burden of applying this standard through admission guidelines falls to individual states and universities. For instance, the University of Illinois at Chicago requires applicants whose native languages aren’t English to demonstrate above minimum scores on either the TOEFL or the exam of the International English Language Testing System within two years of application.
Similarly, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “non-native English speaking graduate students who are prospective teaching assistants are encouraged to demonstrate oral English proficiency prior to arriving on campus” by meeting specific requirements on either the TOEFL or IELTS. The university also administers the Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit and an English proficiency interview on campus. Clearly, while the expectation is graduate students confirm language proficiency in advance, the university also evaluates them upon arrival.
Along with valid TOEFL or IELTS scores, the University of Buffalo requires all international students who have been awarded teaching assistantships to take the SPEAK test before class registration, or even in some cases prior to admission to a particular program. On the west coast, the University of California also requires either the TOEFL or IELTS.
Why all the fuss? Beginning in the 1990’s, Penn State University considerably increased its employment of international teaching assistants (ITAs) and found attempts to promote ITA efficacy also required looking at barriers that might hinder communication. To minimize impediments, the University made the commonsensical stipulation that ITAs be sufficiently proficient in English to communicate clearly.
The university reasoned it was “not fair to ITAs to place them, without excellent preparation, in situations in which teaching conventions and domestic students’ expectations may differ greatly from their earlier experiences.” Additionally, undergraduates often come from communities lacking diversity, and “it is not realistic to expect that all these students, especially when struggling to learn difficult course material, will automatically adjust to unfamiliar accents.” Put another way, increasing numbers of ITAs meant greater necessity for English proficiency requirements for the sakes of students and TAs themselves.
In case you think this is solely an American issue, a study of English teachers in Iran found language competence to be the most important aspect among good teachers. It appears that regardless of whether teaching assistants are of native or foreign origin, fundamental language proficiency is not only desirable but essential. Of concern to institutions of higher learning is the welfare of both teaching assistants and the students trying to learn from them.
Do you think all College Teaching Assistants should have English qualifications?