LETTER FROM THE EDITORS
We are very pleased to bring you a special collaborative edition of the Applied Linguistics and International Teaching Assistant Interest Section newsletter. We thought that combining our efforts would grant us all a great opportunity to become familiar with colleagues across Interest Sections and to exchange ideas. By drawing on each of our Interest Sections, we have been able to pull together a substantial issue with a number of research-based articles which present new thoughts and provide insight for the challenges that face researchers and teachers alike.
In our first featured article, Timothy Farnsworth discusses several oral assessments currently used for ITA screening and provides practical suggestions on how these assessments can be used by ITA program coordinators. Greta Gorsuch reports on some of her recent research on discourse intonation, discusses challenges for ITAs’ development of this skill, and suggests some instructional implications. Hye Ri Stephanie Kim and Innhwa Park qualitatively examine prospective ITAs’ performance on an oral assessment, focusing on the use of effective classroom communication strategies. Finally, Lucy Pickering puts forth a conceptual model that presents ITA training as an example of conversational involvement and inspires another way to approach ITA training.
In addition to these featured articles, our Grad Student Corner offers a glimpse into some ITA perspectives of their experiences participating in their institutions’ ITA programs. Although we hear from ITAs from only a few institutions, we hope this section will provide a brief introduction to the ITA student population. For those of us who are experienced ITA professionals, these ITA attitudes, expectations, and perspectives offer an opportunity to reflect on our own practices. For those of us who may not work with the ITA student population, their voices can still speak to us about how to improve our teaching and research styles to meet the needs of our learners.
This issue also serves as our last newsletter before our national TESOL convention. We are looking forward to seeing you all at this year’s annual convention in Portland, Oregon. For information on sessions, including Academic Sessions and InterSections, please see the ITA leadership update and the AL leadership update in this newsletter.
During the convention on Thursday, all Interest Sections will be conducting an open Business Meeting. The Applied Linguistics IS, which is celebrating its 40th year, will meet at 6:45 in room B117 of the Convention Center. The International Teaching Assistants IS will meet in room C121 of the Convention Center. Please come join your colleagues as we take some time to get to know each other better and discuss the recent developments and future directions of our groups.
Finally, we’d like to extend a sincere and heartfelt thank you and goodbye to our editors who are leaving us. Olga Griswold will be leaving her co-editorial position with AL Forum this March, passing the torch to Ben White of Marshall University. Jana Moore will continue as an experienced and masterful AL Forum co-editor. And Pauline Carpenter and Ruth Roberts-Kohno will pass on the ITA IS newsletter duties to Sarah Emory of Carnegie Mellon, who will serve as editor, and Mary Jetter of the University of Minnesota, who will serve as editor-elect. We welcome those coming in and wish you a good year.
We hope you enjoy this issue as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it all together.
Olga Giswold, Jana Moore, Benjamin White, Pauline Carpenter, and Ruth Roberts-Kohno
ALIS and ITAIS Editors
UPDATE FROM ITAIS CHAIR
I am writing this letter with great delight, as we hope this joint newsletter with Applied Linguistics brings together a collaboration that provides inspiration for our work.
We seem to live in an age of changes where reinventing ourselves is the new constant. In this new way of life, it seems like the one constant we can rely on is change. Expectations, standards, generations, culture, internationalization, economy, communication, organizational structures, disruptive technology, and more shift seemingly overnight.
How do we lead these changes? What should we do to partner inside, and outside, of TESOL to lead these changes? How can we take advantage of new technologies? I believe the simple answer is in us. We—teachers, researchers, and students alike—can come together to partner and collaborate for the best results. Committing to this newsletter is part of this path. Another step along the way may be attending Applied Linguistics or International Teaching Assistant sessions in Portland. Very soon many of us will be joining together for TESOL 2014. As we look ahead to Portland we have an opportunity to join together to explore ideas, share our knowledge and experiences, and learn from colleagues. I am including information about some of the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) sessions in the hopes that we can get together to continue to engage in conversation. We invite you to join us for these and other ITA sessions:
ITA IS Steering Committee Meeting
Wednesday, March 26, 7–9 pm, Convention Center PB 251/252
ITA IS Open Meeting
Thursday, March 27, 5–6:30 pm, Convention Center, C121
Much thanks to Robert Elliot, University of Oregon/ITA member-at-large, who has arranged our Thursday night dinner at Jake's Famous Crawfish. Please refer to our ITA Listserv conversations about menu, time, cost, payment, receipts. We have a private room and space for 40–50 folks.
On Friday, March 28, we have three amazing sessions planned:
Toward a More Inclusive TESOL Profession: Diverse Contexts, Collaborative Endeavors
9:30–11:15 am, Convention Center D131
An InterSection where we are collaborating with Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL and Teacher Education ISs, with presenters Brock Brady, Seonhee Cho, Davi Reis, Elena Stetsenko, and Ke Xu.
Recent Research Regarding ITAs: Theory and Practical Implications
1–2:45 pm, Convention Center OB 201
Our ITA Academic Session featuring Greta Gorsuch, Dale Griffee, Thomas Nakayama, Kyoung-Ah Nam.
Classroom Pragmatics: Research and Best Practices for Avoiding Potential Pitfalls
1–2:45 pm, Convention Center B116
An InterSection with Speech, Pronunciation, and Listening and Intercultural Communication ISs in which Anna Moldawa-Shetty, Veronica Sardegna, Elena Stetsenko, Tunde Csepelyi will share multiple perspectives and practical ideas.
Please note that we are working with TESOL to shift one of these panels so they are not taking place concurrently. If you know of other TESOL sessions that feature anyone from the ITA Interest Section, please share them with me or via the ITA list (and via the ITA TESOL community).
Congratulations to our incoming ITA steering committee:
Chair: Rebecca Oreto
Chair-elect: Liz Tummons
Secretary: Elizabeth Gillstrom
Members-at-large: Barbara Beers, Elise Geither, and Stephen Daniel Looney
Newsletter editor: Sarah Emory
Newsletter editor-elect: Mary Jetter
I am really looking forward to the convention. We hope many of you can join us in Portland. Click here for our current ITA session schedule.
P.S. Special thanks to Pauline Carpenter, ITA Newsletter editor, for all her work on the joint newsletter with Applied Linguistics and our ITA newsletters. If you haven’t seen the latest ITA newsletter, check out http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolitais/issues/2014-01-15/email.html
UPDATE FROM ITAIS INCOMING CHAIR
Hi all! This is Rebecca Oreto, current chair-elect and upcoming chair of the ITA IS!
In my letter today, I want to write a short essay titled “What I Love About the ITA Interest Section.” TESOL is a wonderful organization, but it is a big one, and the ITA IS has been a real home to me within the bigger group. It has allowed me to make a strong personal connection with a group of people who have many of the same concerns as I do, who are trying to solve the same problems as I have, and who are dealing with the same types of constraints as I am. And the best part about it is, these people, these ITA trainers, are really good at what they do. They are great models: great teachers, dedicated professionals, and sincere colleagues. The other members of this IS make me want to be better at my job. They challenge and inspire me. And I can’t imagine a better reason to be involved with a group of people.
I look forward to serving as your chair in the upcoming year, and I hope to see as many of you as possible at TESOL 2014!
UPDATE FROM ALIS CHAIR
This is my last From the Chair column, as I am getting ready to exit. Dr. Hayriye Kayi-Aydar will become ALIS chair in just a few minutes (see Hayriye's item in this newsletter). Hayriye's leadership skills and administrative prowess will surely become the stuff of legend and pure awesomeness. ALIS is fortunate to have her at the helm. Welcome! And good luck.
ALIS People News
Dr. Olga Griswold, who has been co-editor of the ALIS Forum for the past almost 4 years, has decided to step down from her position, but not to step out of ALIS. For a while, I found myself bemoaning the Forum's fate and anticipating disaster. Olga, we will miss your people and editorial skills. Thank you very much for your years of dedicated, excellent, and much-needed service to the Forum and ALIS. Thank you.
Serendipity and good fortune continue to accompany the (blessed) Forum. May it be blessed. Dr. Benjamin White has volunteered to co-edit the ALIS Forum with Jana Moore, our continuing co-editor and pillar of stability. We thank him for doing this. Ben, we are delighted to have you, and the Forum needs you. Welcome. We promise to help in every way that we can.
Jana Moore and her family are also on the move. From Japan to Honolulu, Hawaii. My bet is that the beaches are better in Hawaii than in Tokyo (there are no beaches in Tokyo outside of a few select clubs), although there are probably fewer bento boxes prepared for lunch in Hawaii. Jana, our sincere best wishes to you in your new beginnings.
Kara Hunter is also moving on from her position as ALIS immediate past chair. Kara has worked tirelessly and persistently on IS elections, slates, candidates for vacant positions, bio statements, statements of purpose currently required by the TESOL Central Office of all those who aspire to ALIS greatness, emails, and expressions of gratitude. Kara, our turn to be thankful to you for the tremendous amount of work and dedication you have given to the cause of ALIS for the past 3 years. Well done, and thank you.
Nihat Polat is the new-new ALIS chair-elect-elect, who will begin his term as chair-elect on Saturday, March 29, at the convention closing. Nihat will serve as ALIS chair during 2015–2016. Welcome. Congratulations and our best wishes on your ALIS election.
Nihat's biography is below:
Nihat Polat (PhD, University of Texas at Austin) is an associate professor of applied linguistics and L2 teacher education and the director of the Master’s and Teacher Certification Program in ESL at Duquesne University. His research interests include identity, socialization, motivation, beliefs, self-concept, cyber ecologies, and gender in L2 acquisition as well as the nature of change in teachers’ pedagogical beliefs and practices. He has published in numerous journals, including Modern Language Journal, Language Learning & Technology, Linguistics and Education, and so forth. He is also a consulting editor for the Journal of Educational Research.
ALIS Is Turning 40
ALIS will turn 40 this year! This is a major benchmark that deserves a big celebration. ALIS dates back to 1974, and its original early members included Robert Kaplan and Bernard Spolsky. At the time, ALIS served as the only applied linguistics venue for pedagogical and research activities in the United States. During the Open Meeting in Dallas, some advanced the idea that ALIS should host a reception to mark this important event.
To mark the occasion, Robert Kaplan has graciously accepted our invitation to join us during the ALIS Open Meeting in Portland, 6:45–8:15 pm, Thursday, March 27, B117, Convention Center. Bob, thank you very much for being willing to join us. We genuinely look forward to this opportunity to rub elbows with the ALIS Founding Father, who made this oldest IS come into existence. Thank you very much—we are grateful. In addition, our thanks also goes to Tommi Grover and Multilingual Matters/Channel View Publications for helping us organize our reunion with Robert Kaplan. Thank you.
Other important applied linguistics leaders and TESOL big-wigs who might, may, can, or will come to the Open Meeting include Marianne Celce-Murcia, Neil Anderson, and Rosa Aronson, TESOL Executive Director.
It goes without saying that all receptions—even small ones—cost money. TESOL Central Office will provide refreshments (cookies, so please be sure to have dinner before or after) and soft drinks (soda, tea, and coffee).
Come one, come all. Please attend the Open Meeting on Thursday evening and bring your own sandwich, apple, or candy bar. We will clank our plastic containers, sing sea shanties, and celebrate in earnest. ALIS is the one of oldest ISs at TESOL.
ALIS 2014 Convention and Proposal Statistics
This is important for all of you who are proposal submitters. You know who you are. Here are ALIS proposal statistics, quick and dirty:
ALIS unique reviewers who read and rated convention proposals for various ISs (and not just ALIS)
Proposals submitted to ALIS
Sessions allotted to ALIS (all types, except the invited sessions)
Potentials (not included in the allotted)
Conclusions, quick and dirty:
- The acceptance rate of all ALIS proposals: 18.75%
- The acceptance rate for concurrent sessions: 16.18%
- The acceptance rate for poster sessions: 62.50%
In short, if you'd like to have a better chance of getting your proposal accepted, posters is the way go. My own personal conclusion is that only masochists submit proposals for concurrent sessions.
Unfortunately, I have no statistics for other ISs. It would be great, however, if TESOL would make them available. Would be great, wouldn't it? (A rhetorical question.)
To Keep in Mind for the Future
TESOL proposal reviewers who submitted their application forms in 2012 had to submit them again in 2013 because now there is a new piece of software to process them. One aspect of the new online form that has caused a lot of headaches is that it allowed checking off only two to four boxes for the reviewers' areas of expertise. Of course, in the ESL/EFL world, where most teachers and researchers typically work with a number of L2 skills, such a small number of areas proved to be very limiting. The current design of the software simply refused to accept the completed form if one checked more expertise boxes. On the bright side, potential reviewers who worked their way through the 45-minute training video in 2012 did not have to repeat it in 2013.
Finally and conclusively yours,
UPDATE FROM ALIS INCOMING CHAIR
Dear ALIS Members,
Greetings to all and best wishes for 2014! We are all excited while getting ready for the 2014 TESOL Convention in Portland. Before moving on to some important details and announcements regarding the convention, I would like to thank Eli Hinkel (current chair) and Kara Hunter (past chair) for all they have done for the ALIS. From the proposal review process to new chair elections, Eli and Kara have contributed to ALIS in many ways. I also would like to thank each of you for choosing ALIS as your primary Interest Section as well as for your continuous support.
My first task as the incoming chair was to organize the ALIS Academic Session and at least one InterSection. I am very pleased to tell you that for the 2014 Convention, ALIS organized one Academic Session and collaborated with Speech, Pronunciation, and Listening and Intercultural Communication ISs in organizing two InterSections. If you are new to TESOL, you may not be familiar with Academic Sessions or InterSections. Here is a quick introduction for you. Each Interest Section in TESOL is expected to organize one Academic Session for the convention by inviting leading scholars in the field. InterSections, similar to Academic Sessions, are organized through the collaboration of at least two Interest Sections. As stated on the TESOL’s website, these sessions focus on “topics of relevance to and across interest sections, providing a collaborative forum for attendees and seeking innovative and cross-disciplinary approaches and situations.” Therefore, Academic Sessions and InterSections are the highlights of the convention each year.
This year at the convention, in the ALIS Academic Session, Bonny Norton, Patricia Duff, Kelleen Toohey, and I will be talking about new directions in identity work. From the use of technology to language socialization and new theoretical frameworks, we will address various exciting topics. This session is scheduled for March 29, 9:30–11:15 am. The InterSection, titled “Social Interaction and ELT Across Settings,” will host panelists Richard Young, Joan Kelly Hall, Gale Stam, and Elaine Tarone on March 28 at 3 pm. In another InterSection ALIS is involved in, Adrian Holliday, Bonny Norton, Thomas Nakayama, and Joe McVeigh will discuss building intercultural competence. I invite each of you to join us at these exciting sessions.
Finally, as the incoming chair, I would like to briefly address my major goals for the ALIS:
- Increasing our membership by at least 15% by the 2015 convention and expanding our visibility within TESOL International Association; I hope you will help me accomplish this goal by inviting your colleagues to join ALIS
- Creating new networking opportunities among current members (details soon!)
- Strengthening communication among members
- Creating collaborative research opportunities and helping members stay on top of the latest research and instructional practice
Increasing the number of proposals and reviewers for the 2015 convention by at least 15%
You will hear more often from me after I officially become the chair at the convention this year. As always, I am open to hearing additional ideas and plans you might have. You can reach me either at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the ALIS email list. I really hope you will join the 2014 ALIS Academic Session and the InterSections as well and continue to support your very own ALIS. Looking forward to seeing you in Oregon!
STANDARDIZED ASSESSMENTS AND ITA CERTIFICATION PROGRAMS
This brief article discusses several oral assessments used for ITA screening. Although they have some similarities, they each differ in important respects. Table 1 gives some information on the assessments mentioned in this article.
Table 1: Some Oral Assessments used for ITA Certification
TOEFL iBT Speaking
Educational Testing Service
Test Taker (TT) responds to computer prompts; responses recorded
Speaking scores from 0-30
Mostly for health care and ITA certification
Retired (formerly Educational Testing Service)
TT responds to paper / audio prompts; responses recorded
0 – 60 in 5 point increments
Mostly for initial employment certification
Knowledge Technologies Pearson, in.
TT responds to computer prompts; responses scored immediately
Total scores 20-80; Sentence Mastery, Vocabulary, Fluency, Pronunciation subscores
Four studies have examined the TOEFL iBT Speaking test with respect to ITA screening. Wylie and Tannenbaum (2006) conducted standard-setting sessions to establish minimum recommended TOEFL Speaking cut scores for ITA screening, and to establish a TOEFL Speaking equivalent to the Test of Spoken English (TSE) score of 50, from a possible range of 20 to 60 on the test. Xi (2007) compared TOEFL Speaking scores with scores on locally administered ITA exams at four universities and investigated the potential for various cut scores to minimize false negative and false positive results. She found a wide range of correlations between TOEFL Speaking and locally administered exams and concluded that the degree of correlation between TOEFL Speaking and the locally administered tests was partially a function of whether the local exams attempted to measure aspects of teacher competence. Farnsworth (2013) examined the construct validity of TOEFL Speaking for this purpose by comparing scores on TOEFL Speaking with an in-house teaching performance test, the Test of Oral Proficiency (TOP) at the University of California, Los Angeles, finding that the two tests indeed measured the same speaking factor to a great extent. Finally, Lim et al. (2012) looked at the validity of using TOEFL Speaking scores for ITAs. Their criterion measure was the SPEAK test. They found moderate correlations between the two tests, but they did not find a cut score at the high end accurate enough to exempt candidates from the SPEAK requirement.
In order to investigate the current state of practice regarding TOEFL iBT Speaking use in ITA programs, Farnsworth (2012) conducted an online survey upon which this article is based. Coordinators of ITA assessment programs were asked about the makeup of their institutions and the size of their ITA population. They were then asked to describe their ITA certification policies and specifically their policies regarding the TOEFL Speaking test. Seventeen participants responded to the survey. Participants responded from overwhelmingly research-oriented institutions, with only one participant reporting his or her institution as more teaching oriented. Most respondents were from large research institutions.
The institutions very often used the TOEFL Speaking score as a prescreening measure to exempt high-scoring students from an in-house performance test. Nine institutions (of seventeen) implemented the TOEFL Speaking test in this way, with cut scores ranging from 23 to 28 points. An example of a typical response was the report on the policies of Purdue University. Purdue accepts scores of 27 or higher on TOEFL Speaking as evidence of ITA language competence. Students with lower scores must take an in-house teaching performance exam to be certified. Oklahoma State University, another large public research university, reports the same policy (a high TOEFL Speaking score exempts students from the local performance test) but with a cut-off score of 26 instead of 27. Both participants reported the cut-off score “working well” as an initial measure. Cornell University has an identical policy but requires a 28, based on a perception that lower scores are “all over the place” but that a very high TOEFL score is a reliable indicator of ITA proficiency.
Only five survey participants reported SPEAK test use, and only two of these relied exclusively on SPEAK to make these decisions, with the other three SPEAK users also accepting TOEFL Speaking scores. Since the SPEAK test has been the primary tool used for ITA assessment over the past two decades, this may represent a fairly major change. One institution reported interest in moving from SPEAK to the Versant English Test, a fully automated computer-scored oral assessment that has been the subject of much debate in the testing literature during the past decade.
Respondents to the survey reported mixed impressions of TOEFL Speaking use in practice. Some respondents, who utilized the scores, reported that “it seems to work” or “as an initial measure, it works well,” whereas others reported that the TOEFL did not measure the appropriate skills. For example, one participant reported:
The iBT cannot replace our test since the iBT does not look at teaching skills, awareness of U.S. classroom, ability to use their language skills to successfully convey information to learners. However, based on our own analysis of past ITA tests, we now allow students with iBT ≥ 26 to be tested by just one rater rather than 4.
Other respondents reported varying degrees of satisfaction with and confidence in TOEFL Speaking scores, saying that scores in the middle range are less useful as predictions of ITA communicative success. For example, one participant said, “We see that there are correlations at the higher levels of the iBT with oral proficiency tools such as the OPI. Anything below a 24 is all over the place.” Overall, the survey results indicate that TOEFL Speaking is in fact widely used to make these decisions.
Of course, the practical advantages of using TOEFL iBT Speaking scores for ITA certification will be obvious to any ESL or testing program coordinator; TOEFL scores will in most cases be already available from the institution’s admissions department, and elimination of in-house performance testing could save substantial resources. One major advantage of using TOEFL iBT Speaking would be that incoming students and departments could make ITA decisions in advance of student intake. Clearly, though, not enough is known about how using these scores instead of an in-house measure may impact programs, students, and departments. All but one (Lim et al., 2012) of the TOEFL-specific studies described in this paper rely on experimental testing, and operational TOEFL Speaking scores may well have properties quite different from those derived from experimental studies, due to practice effects or other issues.
In terms of practical recommendations to ITA program coordinators, the following may be tentatively concluded. The TOEFL Speaking test seems to measure the language needed by ITAs to a certain extent, enough so that very high iBT scores may be useful for ITA certification or that very low scores might be sufficient evidence to prevent candidates from teaching. There is no definitive answer as to the ideal cut score, however, and different institutions may decide on more lenient or more stringent cut scores depending on demand for ITAs, local resources, and other factors. Available research in addition to the anecdotal evidence gathered from the survey indicates that cut scores of 26 or higher seem to minimize the danger of false positive classifications (candidates who pass but are not truly qualified). A cut score of 28 would probably result in very few false positives (Xi, 2007), but relatively few candidates are likely to reach this high bar. The limited available research and anecdotal evidence suggest that scores in the range between 22 and 25 do not predict ITA success with sufficient accuracy (Lim et al., 2012) and local performance measures should be used.
American Psychological Association, American Educational Research Association, & National Council on Measurement in Education. (1999). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.
Farnsworth, T. (2012, April). TOEFL iBT Speaking for ITA certification: State of practice and outstanding validation questions. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Language Testing Research Colloquium, Princeton, NJ.
Farnsworth, T. (2013). An investigation into the validity of the TOEFL iBT Speaking test for international teaching assistant certification. Language Assessment Quarterly, 10, 274–291.
Lim, H., Kim, H., Behney, J., Reed, D., Ohlrogge, A., & Lee, J. E. (2012, March). Validating the use of iBT Speaking scores for ITA screening. Paper presented at the TESOL Annual Convention and Exhibit, Philadelphia, PA.
Wylie, E. C., & Tannenbaum, R. J. (2006). TOEFL academic Speaking test: Setting a cut score for international teaching assistants (ETS Research Memorandum RM-06-01). Princeton, NJ: ETS. Xi, X. (2007). Validating TOEFL Speaking and setting score requirements for ITA screening. Language Assessment Quarterly, 4, 318–351.
IMPROVING DISCOURSE INTONATION FOR INTERNATIONAL TEACHING ASSISTANTS: HOW SLOW THOU ART
In a recent study I used audio-supported repeated reading (RR) and awareness-raising tasks for a 14-week semester to help ITAs improve their discourse intonation (DI). I believe that DI is difficult to learn as implicit knowledge. Further, any changes in DI and spoken fluency might be ITAs having greater or less success applying explicit knowledge to their talk.
New Numbers and Known Things
In 2011–2012, there were 300,430 international graduate students enrolled in U.S. universities, and 164,394 were supported by those schools, likely as teaching assistants (Institute of International Education, 2013). Ninety percent came from countries in which English is not widely used (Institute of International Education, 2013). At many institutions, many undergraduate science and math courses are taught by ITAs. Indeed, ITAs make undergraduate education possible and as instructors are contributors to undergraduate learning.
ITAs must teach using English, their L2. Although many ITAs have developed some control over L2 lexis and syntax and are high-intermediate to advanced learners, they have little experience using their spoken English for social and instructional purposes. Thus ITAs struggle with spoken fluency, in particular prosody.
DI and ITAs
DI is the use of pause groups (associated with fluency) and sentence-level stress and tone choices (associated with prosody) for communicative purposes. DI is used to emphasize and differentiate ideas, begin and end topics, and express social relationships (Pickering, 1999). Evidence suggests that the ability to use DI is essential for ITAs’ success as instructors (Hahn, 2004), yet DI is acquired late and with difficulty (Pennington & Ellis, 2000). Because use of appropriate DI is a basis for listener perceptions of spoken ability, we need to devise and test pedagogical interventions to bring about improvements in learners’ DI.
ITAs’ Implicit and Explicit Knowledge
A few years ago I came to the conclusion that I needed to work with ITAs’ implicit and explicit knowledge. Prosody (DI) is an abstract system and is hard for learners to apply to language use. If ITAs have only explicit knowledge (what we teach and have them practice), they cannot apply what they know while talking due to L2 processing constraints. So if they are struggling with what they want to say in the L2, anything we teach them about using prominence on important words, or not breaking up idea units with pauses, will go out the window. The “default processing mode” for L2 acquisition processes “is implicit” (Doughty, 2003, p. 292). To use DI requires complex knowledge, which according to Doughty (2003) is acquired as “implicit knowledge leading directly to procedural ability” (p. 291). At the same time, DI should also be taught in order to raise learners’ awareness. This would result in explicit, declarative knowledge. Over time and with practice, this knowledge may become proceduralized and available for talk.
In 27 treatments, seven ITAs in an experimental group did combined implicit knowledge–building awareness-raising tasks and audio-assisted RR treatments. They also had 14 weeks of explicit DI instruction. They were L1 Mandarin speakers and had been in the United States an average of 8.43 months. They had not “passed” an intensive workshop and semester-long course, and in the parlance of the ITA program had “stalled out” with SPEAK test scores averaging 40. The SPEAK test (ETS, 1996) is a spoken performance test, and a score of 40 means an ITA lacks the communicative competence to explain content and manage classrooms.
I worked with the experimental group’s explicit knowledge by using materials focused on thought groups, prominence, and tone choices that linked specific forms to meaning. I used listening tasks based on authentic classroom recordings. ITAs engaged in rehearsed and free speaking practice, teaching simulations, and feedback sessions.
I worked with the experimental group’s implicit knowledge using awareness-raising tasks and RR sessions. Each awareness-raising task included a debriefing session in which participants were asked to speculate on how the feature was related to the speaker’s intended meaning.
Then came audio-supported RR treatments:
- Participants silently read a segment of a 500-word popular science text once. Instructors answered any questions on word meaning and other issues.
- Participants read the same text a second and third time while listening to an audio file of the text.
- Participants silently read the text a fourth time.
The texts were 500-word segments of science texts taken from Science for Students. These are original pieces on astronomy, chemistry, and other subjects at the secondary school level. They needed to be easy enough so that the input from them would be comprehensible and learners could focus on specific DI features in the audio model as they built up experience with the text through the repetitions.
For comparison, seven ITAs who were newly arrived in the United States formed a control group. They also had SPEAK scores of 40 and were L1 Mandarin speakers. The control group had 3 weeks of explicit DI instruction, but no input treatments.
I wanted to know if there were changes in both groups’ use of DI in audio-recorded and transcribed parallel read-aloud and free-response tasks. The read-aloud task would capture changes in ITAs’ explicit knowledge, and the free-response task would capture changes in ITAs’ implicit knowledge. For both groups the pre- and posttest read-alouds were paragraphs from freshman texts in their disciplines. Participants read their passage aloud for both the pre- and posttest. The free-response task was participants’ recorded extemporaneous response to the query “Tell me about your research.”
The participants’ talk was transcribed. The audio files and transcripts were randomly assigned a code number so that I did not know whether I was analyzing the talk of an experimental or control group member, or of a pre- or posttest. The audio files and transcripts were analyzed for speech rate, pause groups, prominence, and tone choices.
The good news was that explicit and implicit instruction in DI did not slow down participants’ speech rates from the pretest to the posttest on both read-aloud and free-response tasks, suggesting that learners did not divert attentional resources to a focus on form (DI). In the read-aloud condition in which processing burdens were reduced, both groups improved slightly over time on planning versus hesitation pauses, prominence, tone choices, and length of tone choice groups. This suggests participants had sufficient attentional resources, and explicit knowledge of DI, to apply DI to their talk.
In the free-response task, processing burdens were increased as participants in both groups had to encode their own speech. On most measures, there was little evidence of change in implicit knowledge of DI for either group. Both groups sounded choppy and largely monotone. However, the experimental group’s speech was more “musical,” with a greater variety of rising and falling tones, and they encoded longer rising tone pause groups, suggesting they had some implicit knowledge of the discoursal value of rising tones. These improvements were slight, however. Clearly, implicit knowledge is difficult to form.
Suggestions for Instruction
We should continue instruction in DI. In some conditions ITAs are able to use explicit DI knowledge. Implicit knowledge growth is slow, but this is not a reason not to find ways to develop learners’ implicit DI knowledge. This is especially true if done in pedagogically worthwhile ways. The RR treatments are pedagogically worthwhile, because they support vocabulary building (so ITAs know where to use prominence) and provide consistent models of DI connected to discoursal meaning. Perhaps the RR texts should be limited to 300 words; the experimental group may have had too many things in the visual and aural input to pay attention to.
What This Means for ITA Programs
As a colleague put it, “acquiring L2 implicit knowledge is really just a hard, slow slog through a muddy field.” Many aspects of L2 development are slow, and this is a fact that cannot be finessed. There is no magic bullet. Further, our classes are not intensive enough to bring about improvements in ITAs’ DI. Many ITA programs expect their ITAs to practice outside classes, but I do not know whether ITAs do practice, nor whether the practice is useful. Faced with the slowness of ITAs’ L2 development (see TESOL’s Position Statement on the Acquisition of Academic Proficiency in English at the Postsecondary Level), ITA programs need to have the best theory-driven answers with which they can defend themselves and explain to impatient administrators why ITA courses are an essential part of any “internationalization” plans universities hold dear. We need to characterize L2 learning as something different than learning content such as history, and as proceeding more slowly with greater in-class and out-of-class effort. To administrators, it may seem that our ITA programs are ineffective, when it is in fact the slowness of L2 learning which is salient, and also sometimes the fact that some ITAs come to us with low abilities.
Doughty, C. (2003). Instructed SLA: Constraints, compensation, and enhancement. In C. Doughty & M. Long (Eds.), The handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 256–310). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
ETS. (2009). TSE—Test of Spoken English. Retrieved from http://www.ets.org/portal/site/ets/menuitem.fab2360b1645a1de9b3a0779f1751509/?vgnextoid=b5d7d898c84f4010VgnVCM10000022f95190RCRD
Hahn, L. (2004). Primary stress and intelligibility: Research to motivate the teaching of suprasegmentals. TESOL Quarterly, 38, 201223.
Institute of International Education. (2013). Open doors 2011/2012 fast facts. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors
Pennington, M., & Ellis, N. (2000). Cantonese speakers' memory for English sentences with prosodic cues. Modern Language Journal, 84, 372–389.
Pickering, L. (1999). An analysis of prosodic systems in the classroom discourse of native speaker and nonnative speaker teaching assistants (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
Greta Gorsuch (EdD, Temple University, Tokyo, Japan campus) is professor of applied linguistics and second language studies at Texas Tech University. She has taught EFL in Japan and Vietnam, and currently teaches applied linguistics and ESL in the United States.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM HIGH-PROFICIENT TEST TAKERS' RESUMPTION STRATEGY
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.
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).
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.
REVISITING PRACTICE: A MODEL OF CONVERSATIONAL INVOLVEMENT FOR THE ITA CONTEXT
A hallmark of good practice in any profession is the will of its practitioners to revisit the principles that underlie the choices they make in their day-to-day work. ITA practitioners know this very well as we continue to maintain an exceptional level of professional dedication despite increasingly limited resources and frustrating reversals in administrative policies. The initial framework that I describe below was conceived in light of the current situation many of our programs find themselves in with regard to pedagogical options. As will be clear, it is a conceptual model and is not designed for immediate implementation in ITA classrooms; however, I hope it may encourage discussion on how ITA instruction and applied linguistics may inform each other’s practice.
Forming ITA Practice
At their initiation in the 1980s, ITA programs were essentially triage operations. Their shape was largely driven by the growing alarm of stakeholders in U.S. tertiary education that something was amiss. As Kaplan (1989) noted at the time, “it came as a great surprise to campus administrators, legislative bodies and taxpayers that there was a problem” (pp. 110–111).
In response, program resources were put into place in institutions to quickly and efficiently qualify this group of instructors. An English for specific purposes (ESP) focus was typically employed. Course designs reflected specific disciplines or contexts, and classroom activities comprised pedagogical tasks designed to mirror the real-world tasks in which the ITAs were about to engage. Early examples of literature in the field reflect this focus in ITA training with titles such as “The Communicative Needs of ITAs in the Undergraduate Physics Lab,” “The Language of Teaching Mathematics,” and “Question-Based Discourse in Science Labs.”
In recent years, however, we have been faced with an increasing shortfall in program support, including the dismantling of some dedicated ITA programs across the United States. Even large institutions whose programs have traditionally been at the forefront of ITA research and development have been targeted for significant reduction or cut altogether. If we are to be faced as a profession with ever-diminishing resources, at least in the short term, can we consider alternative models of practice that can harness fewer resources for greater good?
The initial framework that I outline here evolves from models of conversational discourse developed in applied linguistics. It prioritizes the features used by interlocutors to collaborate in everyday interaction and proposes that classroom discourse can be fundamentally reconfigured as a form of conversation in the sense that it is “a co-operative achievement between at least two participants” and “involves the study of the use of language in communication and the relations between linguistic features and contexts of situation” (Tsui, 1994, p. 3). Accordingly, the basic principles of interaction underlying conversational discourse may be productively accessed by both ITA practitioners and teaching assistants themselves once we bring them to the forefront of our practice.
A Conversational Involvement Model
The first iteration of the model comprises three principles anchored in discourse: the three-part exchange, the underlying dialogic nature of all spoken discourse, and prosodic orientation in talk. These principles demonstrate the fundamental ways in which teaching discourse aligns with interpersonal, conversational discourse. Interacting with these are two pedagogical or learning principles, metaknowledge and informal learning, which suggest ways in which discourse-based tenets might be successfully communicated in the workplace. The model is shown in Figure 1 and described in detail below.
The Three-part Exchange
The three-part exchange is the structure at the heart of the conversational model proposed by Amy Tsui (1994). This has typically been regarded as a feature of classroom discourse (i.e., Initiation, Response, and Feedback, or IRF, sequences) and one that is not generalizable to conversational discourse which is usually described in terms of two part adjacency pairs. Tsui argues, however, that the three-part exchange should be considered the “natural basic unit of conversation” as interlocutors use the third follow-up move to signal some kind of acknowledgment such as in the example below:
B: Where is he staying?
A: He’s staying at the ah the Chung Chi Guest House
B: Oh, I see (Tsui, 1994, p. 29)
When viewed in situ, Tsui proposes that the final move (whether it comprises verbal or nonverbal acknowledgment) is often crucial for the perceived success of the interaction:
It may be too strong a statement to say that when the follow-up move does not occur, its non-occurrence is noticeable and noticed in the way the absence of a second pair part is, but it is certainly true that when it does not occur, it is often perceived by participants to be deliberately withheld for social or strategic reasons. (p. 42)
This conceptualization of the basic building block of successful interaction clearly aligns classroom discourse with conversational discourse and leads directly to the second principle of an enhanced view of the dialogic nature of classroom discourse.
The Dialogic Nature of Spoken Discourse
A distinction has often been made between the transactional (information-giving) nature of classroom discourse as opposed to the interactional (rapport-building) nature of conversation. I have argued elsewhere that this dichotomy does not adequately describe what happens in the moment-by-moment interaction that typifies the classroom. Rather, close inspection of the classroom context supports a view of classroom discourse as a cooperative achievement between participants regardless of whether the hearer(s) are able to verbally respond to the message. An example of such a feature is the deictic function of the rising tone that is often used by teachers to indicate their presumption that the information they are communicating is shared by the students (Pickering, 2001). From this perspective, teachers are continually in an ongoing negotiation with students. Thus, teaching discourse becomes a systematic variant of more overtly dialogic discourse events and restructures the role of the teacher as a co-participant.
Prosodic Orientation in Talk
This principle is a consistent feature of interaction in English. Designed to minimize the gap between conversational interlocutors, it describes the process of melodic or prosodic matching typical in interaction in which interlocutors match their prosodic immediacy behaviors such as pitch register, speech rate, rhythm, or volume to those of their interactants in order to signal a positive orientation toward their co-participants. This principle is uniquely important to face-to-face interaction as it establishes shared participation; conversely, a lack of orientation, or prosodic mismatching, can signal dissonance or the perceived absence of shared understanding. One famous example of mismatched conversational prosodic style is Deborah Tannen’s (2005) “machine gun question talk” in which the fast pace of speech and frequent overlaps used by some interlocutors disconcerts others at a Thanksgiving dinner.
The behaviors which constitute conversational principles such as prosodic orientation are largely tacit and, as a rule, participants are unaware of the crucial role they play in interaction. They are easily overlooked and yet powerfully affect interactional success when taken in aggregate and viewed cumulatively over time. Due to the nature of these features and the need to highlight their role in teaching discourse, I include a pedagogical or learning principle which I term metaknowledge and by which I mean knowing something about what you already know or are learning. This is an initial characterization of how ITA practitioners and ITAs themselves can bring these conversational behaviors to the surface to be observed and discussed. It is also closely tied to the second pedagogical principle of situated learning.
ITAs are both teachers and students in their workplace; as such, they are in a unique position to observe the multiple roles that they and those around them take on in the institution. Traditionally, however, ITA education has been an example of formal learning in that it typically takes place in a classroom-based environment that is controlled by the teacher. In contrast, informal or situated learning is focused on the learning that takes place in the workplace itself and derives from the people, activities, and events within which the learner is immersed. This type of learning is also described as experience-based learning, incidental learning, and even “karma in the walls and halls.” In order to become present to situated learning, learners are encouraged to observe and challenge their experiences in the workplace and then reflect on them. Crucially, it is self-directed and occurs when learners “continually scan their environment, heighten their awareness around learning, pay attention to goals and turning points, and develop skills of reflection while taking action” (Marsick & Volpe, 1999, p. 1).
The model of conversational involvement outlined above has several features that distinguish it from traditional conceptualizations of ITA practice. The skills that are developed are not domain- and register-specific, and learners apply the principles in whatever workplace environment they find themselves in. It is a general purpose model rather than one based in ESP. However, it is also a model that can be used in conjunction with more standard ITA curricula as these broad conversational principles apply independently to interactional success. Because this is not yet a model designed for implementation, my next task is to provide a roadmap for how we might integrate these principles into our day-to-day practice.
I thank Gordon Tapper and Kathi Cennamo for fruitful discussions regarding the current dilemmas faced by ITA programs. I also thank Pauline Carpenter, an anonymous reviewer, and the organizers and presenters at the TESOL 2013 ITA Academic Session, “Recent Research Regarding ITAs: The Dynamics of Interaction,” from which this piece has evolved.
Kaplan, R. (1989). The life and times of ITA programs. English for Specific Purposes, 8(2), 109–124.
Marsick, V. J., & Volpe, M. (1999). The nature and need for informal learning. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 1(3), 1–9.
Pickering, L. (2001). The role of tone choice in improving ITA communication in the classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 35, 233–255.
Tannen, D. (2005). Conversational style: Analyzing talk among friends. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Tsui, A. B. M. (1994). English conversation. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Lucy Pickering is associate professor of applied linguistics and director of the Applied Linguistics Laboratory in the Department of Literature and Languages at Texas A&M-Commerce. Her interest in ITA research and program development began with her dissertation research in 1999 in which she investigated the prosodic patterns of ITAs. Most recently, she co-authored a textbook for ITAs titled English Communication for International Teaching Assistants (Waveland Press).
GRAD STUDENT CORNER
INTERNATIONAL TEACHING ASSISTANT VOICES
Samira Daneshgar Asl
My name is Samira Daneshgar Asl. I am in my third year as an oceanography PhD student from the Islamic Republic of Iran. I took the ITA program because I thought it would help improve my English skills and aid my ability to be a better professor and presenter. In my experience with regard to being an international teaching assistant, I have found that there is no real guide to perfection in your English training. That being said, I have found that above all things one should have an abundance of patience in your learning. Learning English, alongside studies that you are preparing to teach, is quite difficult to master along with maintaining a competence in your field. What I first noticed, as I began to learn, were the accents of the other ITAs. Hearing the American accent and wanting to speak as clearly as possible was difficult when I was surrounded by other accents from other countries all trying to do the same thing. Not everyone pronounces English in the same way, and speaking with a coherent ability is something that must be mastered in order to build confidence.
I can’t speak for all students, just the ones I have had conversations with. When my foreign colleagues and I would speak about our English skills, we are consciously aware that we are not great speakers of English. Our desires are to be able to speak English with our own accent “washed out,” if you will. Therefore, our primary concern is having access to instructors that speak with the accent in English that we wish to adopt. Not only to emulate their mannerisms in presenting, but to also master the linguistic ability to pronounce words in the same way. We look up to these individuals and wish to mimic their abilities, but when we don’t have (or have inadequate) access to them, we feel disheartened and less motivated. This is just my own observation.
I am suggesting that nonnative speakers should be taught by native speakers. Imagine if you will a beam of light. If that light has many filters in front of it, it cannot illuminate a room as it once had. Now look at nonnative ITAs, each one representing a filter in the linguistic process. They each have their own opacity and will dilute the amount of linguistic ability. I guess what I am trying to say is that my colleagues and I just want the same amount of instruction, or at least the opportunity to have it. We all want some sunshine.
Finally, the best activity that really helped increase my confidence was constantly giving presentations. This exercise forces you to apply what you have learned, and the nature of feedback being applied to future presentations helps build your confidence with the hope of making you a better speaker and presenter.
Alberto Miras Fernandez
I am a 30-year-old Spaniard who came to the United States 9 months ago. Currently, I am studying for an MA in Spanish and English as a second language.
How I ended up in the middle of Texas is a long story, but the point is that I did not expect to be as happy, at ease, and as integrated as I am right now. It is not the first time I lived in another country. Before coming here, I spent 2 years in Bristol (England), but astonishingly the cultural shock that I had in Texas was negligible compared to the one that I had in England. As I have been constantly saying since I arrived, people in this state are the friendliest people I have ever met; my colleagues are from many different countries, and I have felt very welcomed by Americans.
I work as a language tutor, a job that I love because it gives me the opportunity to talk with many students from around the state and show them the culture of my country, Spain, which fills me with pride. In the United States I have met a lot of new people, from many different linguistic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. I had to learn to relate to these people with respect and comprehension, without taking anything for granted and being very open-minded. Spanish society is not as rich and multicultural as is society in the United States, and this affects the way people relate to each other. Teaching in Texas for me meant meeting and trying to understand people with very different backgrounds from mine, learning new ways of interpreting the world, and becoming a real citizen of the world.
In terms of training, the educational system in the United States is very different from the Spanish one. I did not expect to take so many courses before I could start teaching Spanish as a second language, but they have been very useful. Courses about sexual harassment, research, or privacy are essential to know what and how to deal with problems and difficult situations that may arise during the semester. For instance, students’ privacy (grades, evaluations, exams) is a serious matter in Texas, and students worry a lot about it. Learning these rules has been for me the first step to understand and integrate into the American system.
On a different note, my job as a Spanish tutor from Spain in a state where there is a large population of Spanish-English bilinguals from Latin America (mostly Mexico) challenged me on a personal and professional level. Besides having to learn a lot of new vocabulary in order to understand and be able to teach Spanish in a more effective and useful way, I have discovered differences and similarities between Spain and Mexico that I did not expect to find. Since my job involves helping students to better understand the Spanish language and culture, I really had to study to be able to help them understand not only the Peninsular Spanish and culture, but also the wide varieties of Spanish languages and cultures in the world.
In conclusion, this experience has been extremely positive and if I had the chance, I would do it again without any doubt. I am very excited about the next 3 years I will stay here, and who knows? Maybe this is just the beginning of something even bigger than just the adventure of teaching and studying in the United States.
I started to teach an ITA course on classroom communication in my second year as a doctoral student, having taught ESL for two semesters. By that time, I had overcome the insecurities of transitioning from my native (Ukrainian) classroom culture to the North American one. I felt quite confident in what I was doing in the classroom, which was not the case with my ITA students. Our first class began with my question, “Why do you think you are here?”, and the answer was “Because our English sucks.” These words, coming from high-level speakers of English accepted to a PhD program at an American research university, reveal how insecure ITAs can feel speaking English. With that level of confidence, they have to step into a North American classroom and interact with students, including native speakers, maintaining the authority of an expert. The challenges here are manifold: a novice teacher in a new culture speaking a nonnative language. These complexities shape three components of ITA training that overlap, interact, and feed into each other: language, culture, and teaching.
Learning to use language effectively should start with building confidence. One way to do this is through dissolving stereotypes and creating new models. My students get their first surprise as I share that they do not have to sound like native speakers. In fact, their accent may be something that they want to keep as part of their identity. What they need to accomplish is making themselves understood, which can be achieved even in one semester. Once students realize that, I share another secret: They do not have to perfectly pronounce each sound to make themselves understood. Equipped with proper thought groups, emphasis, and intonation, they can become successful speakers without being native speakers.
Learning to navigate culture in relevant ways should start with questions. A typical piece of advice for ITAs to explore culture by communicating with native speakers is often met with a question: “I go to American parties but I stay with my plate in the corner since I don’t know what to talk about. Can you give us a list of topics?” Acquiring cultural conventions within a classroom is even more challenging since they have to be embodied by ITAs in the actual teaching. A “simple” recommendation to smile and make eye contact can be the most difficult thing to implement: “I don’t smile in Chinese,” one of my students said. Enacting cultural conventions may involve part of your identity so deeply ingrained that you wouldn’t want to compromise it. Or would you, for the sake of teaching?
Learning to teach should start with creating a teaching persona. Making ITAs comfortable in the role of a teacher is an important part of training. I always ask them to think of a classroom as a special place, where you do not have to be the same person as in everyday life. As you inhabit your teaching persona, elaborate on all the details: develop teacher voice, expressive body language, and an appealing manner. Such “complex” things as proper organization, clear explanations, and handling student questions come surprisingly easily after ITAs learn to exude confidence, energy, and passion for teaching. Finally, face real students! Practicing teaching segments with actual undergraduate students can be a daunting but priceless experience that may answer another ITA puzzler: “Why do American students ask questions?”
I came from China and am currently a PhD candidate majoring in geochemistry. The TA supervisor in our department, Dr. Woody Wise, suggested I study in an ITA program to improve my English and teaching technique since I started to teach Geology 1000 Lab only 4 months after I came to the United States. Before that, the only tutoring experience I had was to help my high school classmate with her math homework. So the first time teaching Geology 1000 was literally the first time for me to speak in front of 25 people using another language, which, obviously, I did not handle very well. I used a whole weekend to write down everything I needed to say in the class and memorized it, like a squirrel trying to save hazelnuts for winter, as much as possible. If you ask me to use three words to describe my feelings before I gave my first class, I would say nervous, anxious, and terrified. For one thing, I needed to explain very complicated topics, such as the theory of plate tectonics, the rock cycle, how to locate the epicenter of earthquakes, how to calculate half-life of radioactive decay, and more to my students. For another, I needed to use English to explain these very complicated topics to my native speaker students.
However, just like every cloud has a silver lining, after knowing my difficulties, the department advisor offered me an opportunity to take English language training and advanced ESL international education training. The first lesson I learned is what the most important thing for being a TA is. It turns out that English is not the most important thing; neither is the professional knowledge. Showing you care about your students is the most important thing. So I started to try to remember all my students’ names in the new semester, offer them more flexible office hours, and think more carefully about my class schedule and teaching technique. I was also trained in many other essential aspects referring to teaching, such as how to introduce my syllabus, how to define concepts and explain processes properly, and how to interact with my students to maximize active learning. All these skills are very helpful and necessary for me to improve my teaching. For example, most of my students are not majors in geology, so it would be very difficult for them to understand some specific concepts, such as mafic and felsic magmas, normal and reverse faults, if I could not give them a clear definition. Besides, one of the most important tasks for my students in this class is to identify rock and mineral samples based on the identification flow charts. Since they need to do it step by step, it would help them a lot if I could show the identification process to them effectively and precisely.
Thanks to the intense English training and ESL TA training class and my favorite teacher Maria, now I can walk in my class comfortably and confidently. I miss those Tuesday and Thursday afternoons when I had my English class. It’s truly a fun experience from which I also learned a lot. I hope every ITA can get an opportunity as I did, which is having the intense English class at first and then taking the TA training class. And having a native speaker as a language partner is also an amazing idea; especially when your language partner has a potential career plan of being an English teacher in foreign countries.
ABOUT THIS COMMUNITY
CLOSING LETTER FROM ITAIS EDITOR
Dear ITAIS Colleagues,
It is hard to believe that a year as come to an end. I have had such a fun time working with colleagues from the ITA group, the AL group, and with folks at TESOL on this newsletter. And to all of the authors I have had a chance to work with in the creation of the last 2 years’ issues, it truly has been a pleasure.
I would like to especially thank Rebecca Oreto, who patiently taught me the ropes in my year as editor-elect. She is very organized and helpful and, therefore, great to work with. And thanks to Ruth Roberts-Kohno, who jumped in blindly at the last minute to help out as editor-elect for this past year. In the coming year, a new team will come in: Sarah Emory will be our new newsletter editor, and Mary Jetter will be helping out as editor-elect. I look forward to future issues put together by this team.
Finally, I would like to thank Sarah Sahr from TESOL, who has been amazing and so easy to communicate with during the publishing of each issue. She made it a very smooth process. And to all other Interest Section leaders, especially our chair Kim Kenyon, thank you for contributing your letters and updates and for suggesting potential authors to approach.
For those of you who did not have a chance to submit an article yet, I highly recommend it. Our community grows with the sharing and exchanging of ideas, and submitting an article to our newsletter is a great way to get involved.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be your editor for the ITA IS. It’s been a blast. I hope you all enjoy yourselves at the convention. I will sadly not be participating this year.
All the best to everyone,
CLOSING LETTER FROM ALIS EDITOR
Dear AL Community,
I can’t believe that it is that time already—the convention is upon us, and my time as a co-editor of the AL Forum is nearly up. Making the decision to step down was not easy. I’ve had so much fun working with Jana and all of you, and I have learned so much in the past 3 years that I am sad to give up the work. Still, my other duties call me, and it is important for the AL Forum to have a co-editor who can dedicate his or her full attention to every issue.
On that note, I have great news: We do have precisely such a person. Dr. Ben White will be officially taking over my position at the AL business meeting in March. In fact, Ben has been an active co-editor since this past fall, working tirelessly on the latest issue of the newsletter produced jointly by the Applied Linguistics and International Teaching Assistants Interest Sections. He has been fantastic to work with, and in him and Jana Moore, our community will have an excellent team of efficient, organized, and extremely professional co-editors.
I’ve enjoyed serving as an AL Forum co-editor tremendously, and I remain a constant reader and active AL IS member.
My best to all,