March 2014
Hye Ri Stephanie Kim, University of California, Los Angeles, California, USA & Innhwa Park, West Chester University, West Chester, Pennsylvania, USA

Hye Ri Stephanie Kim

Innhwa Park

There is now an increasing number of international teaching assistants (ITAs) supporting undergraduate courses in U.S. colleges. Although this has contributed to the diversity and globalization of education, some ITAs not yet equipped with adequate language proficiency to engage in instructional activity at the college level have raised some concerns (Anderson-Hsieh & Koehler, 1988; Williams, 1992) and led many institutions to implement policies that require prospective ITAs to have a minimum score on tests such as the Test of Spoken English. Some institutions have also developed their own oral proficiency exams to measure ITAs’ performance in contexts that resemble actual teaching tasks. The University of California Los Angeles developed its own exam in 2004, the Test of Oral Proficiency (TOP; Farnsworth, 2004), which has successfully been administered during the past decade.

As part of a larger project that examines qualitatively whether the exam tasks elicit the target language that test takers (TTs) would use in their teaching, here we identify and show one aspect of TTs’ rhetorical organization: the ways in which TTs resume their presentation after an interpolated question-answer (Q-A) sequence initiated by student questioners. In particular, we examine (1) different ways in which TTs transition from the Q-A sequence to their main presentation and (2) whether such different ways systematically correspond to the TTs’ proficiency levels. Among a variety of strategies used by different levels of TTs, we found one particularly effective resumption strategy used by the TTs who passed the exam (and thus were exempted from taking an ESL class): referring to the previous topic and foreshadowing the upcoming topic. In this article, we provide an example of and discuss the resumption strategy used by high-proficient TTs.

Data and Method

Data: Test of Oral Proficiency (TOP)

The recorded data are drawn from the TOP, developed by UCLA’s Office of Instructional Development to test the oral English ability of international students who plan to teach at the university. The test assesses whether their English proficiency is sufficient for conducting normal teaching assistant duties. The whole exam consists of three tasks. The second task, from which the data used for our study are drawn, is a syllabus presentation, a task TAs typically perform on the first day of class. During the exam, in addition to the TT and two raters (trained graduate students), two questioners (trained undergraduate students) are present, acting as students in the classroom and asking questions about the content of the presentation. The TT’s performance is scored according to four categories (pronunciation, vocabulary/grammar, rhetorical organization, and question handling). Those who receive a non-passing score are not permitted to work as a TA and are asked to retake the exam. These test-takers may choose to, but are not required to, take an ESL course designed for ITAs to retake the exam. On the other hand, those with a marginal passing score are required to take an ESL course designed for ITAs before or while they work as a TA.


We had access to 182 video-recorded tests conducted between 2008 and 2010, which included 37 failing TTs, 27 marginally passing TTs, and 118 passing TTs. We then transcribed and analyzed the second task of each test using conversation analytic methods (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). The data contained a total of 145 target resumption sequences, which were categorized into the four types of transitions in Table 1. These transition types are not mutually exclusive. That is, TTs may use different transition types in combination.

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Results and Analysis

For the analysis of resumption strategies used by different groups of TTs, each strategy was coded, counted, and categorized in terms of TT groups as well as resumption strategies. Then the percentage of the use of each resumption strategy was calculated within each TT group. The results show that both low-proficient and high-proficient TTs most frequently resort to simple word-level transitions (Type A), followed by the projection of the upcoming topic (Type B). The most salient difference among different groups of TTs was the use of Type C: While TTs with a failing score deployed Type C strategy only 3.7% (n = 1) of the time, TTs with a marginal pass did so 6.5% (n = 2) of the time, and TTs with a passing score 14.9% (n = 13). In addition to a simple one-word or phrase resumption (Types A and B), high-proficient TTs use a sophisticated resumption strategy (Type C), which enables them to refer back to the previous topic while simultaneously indicating the upcoming topic.

Below we provide one example of Type C resumption strategy used by high-proficient TTs. As the TT provides the guidelines for a term paper, he presents three stages of the assignment: topic approval, progress report, and paper submission. Upon his summative statement about the first stage, So: then you have a topic. chosen. (line 8),Q asks a follow-up question, requesting further clarification on whom to meet with for topic approval (lines 10–11).

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In his response to the question, the TT provides not only clarification, but also relevant additional information regarding the professor’s office hours (lines 12–14). After responding to another follow-up question about his own office hours (lines 16–17), the TT resumes the sequence that was halted in line 9 (line 19). In addition to the conjunction a::nd, the TT uses the prepositional phrase after you choose topic, recycling words from his prior turn (in line 8). He then moves on to state the second stage of the term paper assignment, which is writing the progress report. By using the prepositional phrase, the TT refers back to the prior sequence while indicating a move to the next stage. In other words, he makes a seamless transition from the interpolated Q-A sequences back to the halted presentation.


Analyzing qualitatively the language elicited by the task, our preliminary study reveals one interesting resumption strategy deployed by high-proficient TTs after an interpolated Q-A sequence: referring back to the previous topic while indicating the upcoming topic. Although both low-proficient and high-proficient TTs frequently resorted to simple word-level transitions (Type A) followed by indications of the upcoming topic (Type B), Type C was deployed significantly more frequently among high-proficient TTs. The implications for these preliminary findings are twofold. Most broadly, identifying a variety of ways of making transitions at different sequential environments is a first step in learning a wide repertoire of rhetorical organizational skills used by prospective ITAs. Second, the study suggests the usefulness of qualitative analysis of performance-based oral proficiency exams. The qualitative analysis of the TTs’ language shows how the test elicits the language needed for the tasks TAs use to perform in the classroom. The test task and the procedure (i.e., simulated, with student questions) elicit the language needed not only to organize their discourse while presenting, but also to maintain the flow of their presentations while successfully responding to student questions.


The authors contributed equally to this work. We are grateful to the UCLA Office of Instructional Development for allowing us to use the data.

Anderson-Hsieh, J., & Koehler. K. (1988). The effect of foreign accent and speaking rate on native speaker comprehension. Language Learning, 38, 561–570.

Farnsworth, T. (2004). The effect of teaching skills on holistic ratings of language ability in performance tests for international teaching assistant selection (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of California, Los Angeles.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50, 696–735.

Williams, J. (1992). Planning, discourse marking, and the comprehensibility of international teaching assistants. TESOL Quarterly, 26, 693–711.

Hye Ri Stephanie Kim (PhD, UCLA) is a lecturer in the Writing Programs at UCLA. Her research interests include conversation analysis and its applications to language learning and teaching. She has published her papers in Research on Language and Social Interaction and Journal of Pragmatics.

Innhwa Park (PhD, UCLA) is an assistant professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures at West Chester University. Her teaching and research interests include writing pedagogy, educational discourse, and conversation analysis. She has published her research in Discourse Studies and Journal of Pragmatics.