Lara Storton has seventeen years of experience in ESL, teaching English for Academic Purposes, IELTS and Exam Preparation and teacher training in Asia, Europe, Australasia, and the UK. Recent works include the Oxford Online Skills Program (Academic) Reading and Writing levels A2-C1 and Milestones in English Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book at B1+ level.
As a teacher, one of my greatest pleasures is seeing my students finish their course of study at school and move on to bigger and better things. For many of them, this means going on to university – an opportunity to study their area of special interest, pursue their dreams and gain the qualifications they need for a successful career. I am proud to say that many of my students have done just that, gaining desirable jobs in finance, marketing, aeronautics, design and tourism to name a few. Making that initial leap from school to university education in your own language is challenging enough, even more so when you are doing it in a second language. Not one of my former students has said that it was easy, but they all agree that it was worthwhile. You want your students – so packed with potential – to walk into their first university seminar brimming with confidence and enthusiasm, ready to engage, question and share their views. So how can you help them achieve that?
The key to success is confidence.
Of course some people have more confidence than others when it comes to putting their opinions forward. At university, your students will be expected to contribute to seminar discussions, workshops and debates, discuss ideas and theories with their peers and respond appropriately to their contributions. This is something that you can encourage your students to do in every lesson, building their confidence gradually as they move through their course of study.
Take every possible opportunity to engage and involve the students personally in the lesson content:
- Raise their ‘schema’ (knowledge and interest) on a topic by asking them questions, e.g. Do you know anything about this topic? Have you ever read/heard about this? What do you know about it?
- Ask them whether the content of a text or listening relates to their own experiences and to give their personal responses – do they agree/disagree with the writer/speaker and why?
- To promote independence, put them into pairs to have mini-discussions on these points and then report back to the class.
Every opportunity you give your students to engage personally with a topic will fire their imagination and enhance their motivation
More than words
A challenge for non-native students at university is understanding the underlying (hidden) meaning in academic texts whether they are written or spoken – in lecture or discussion form. In English, so much meaning is conveyed through how something is written or said (or in some cases not written or said).
Where possible, draw your students’ attention to the more subtle discourse features such as:
- understanding the writer’s intention or purpose
- inferring meaning from context
- considering whether a source is valid or biased
- encourage them to be curious, to delve deeper to find hidden meaning and intentions.
At first, your students may not be used to questioning or constructively criticising the work of a published academic. However, this is acceptable and even encouraged in at university level in many countries. Your students may need time and practice to come around to this way of working, but that’s OK, these things take time.
Say it right
Of course some people have more confidence than others when it comes to putting their opinions forward. That first university seminar is a great milestone in academia for native and non-native speakers alike. When to speak? What to say? Who to say it to? How to respond if someone speaks to me? Will I say the right thing? What will my tutor/lecturer/peers think of me and my opinions? That brings us back to confidence again.
To help your students get it right first time you can:
- Draw attention to how they should give and respond to opinions appropriately.
- Remind them that it isn’t just what you say, it’s the way you say it – being too direct might cause offence while being indirect could lead to confusion or misunderstanding.
- Encourage them to watch debates, current affairs programmes, podcasts and lectures on TV or online.
- Teach useful phrases for softening responses, e.g. That’s a valid point but I’m afraid I disagree. / I’m inclined to disagree with you because …
- Highlight hedging phrases such as tend to / seem to to avoid making generalisations.
- Remind your students that conversations are a two-way thing – you don’t just wait for your turn to speak – you listen and respond both verbally and physically – with appropriate body language such as a nod of the head or politely indicating another speaker to go ahead if you accidentally interrupt them
- Give students plenty of opportunities for collaboration and interaction during lessons in order to help them practise and hone these essential conversation skills.
- Most importantly, encourage them to have a go and say what they want to say because their contributions are as valuable as any other person in the room.
The leap to university is only the beginning but at least with your help they will have started on the right foot.
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