Foreign T.A.s must pass English exam

By Patrick Wade

The University requires all prospective teaching assistants who are not native speakers of English to take an oral English proficiency exam prior to entering the classroom.

The policy is not new, but rather the result of legislation passed by the Illinois State Senate in 1986.

According to the Web site of the Office of the Provost, the University has been monitoring non-native English speaking teaching assistants since 1980. Effective in fall of 1988, only international students who passed the initial prescribed oral English proficiency screening assessments were eligible to teach. The University created this policy in response to the legislation passed by the state Senate.

Diana Steele, measurement specialist in the Center for Teaching Excellence, said that most international teaching assistants come to the University with a Test of Spoken English score.

The University also offers the SPEAK exam, where graduate students are presented with questions and voice their responses to the questions into a microphone. They are then graded by two trained raters on both the comprehensibility of their English and how well developed their responses are. The student must earn 50 out of a possible 60 points to pass the exam, Steele said.

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Graduate students who do not pass the SPEAK exam are usually required to take an English as a second language course.

Ruth Watkins, vice provost and professor of speech and hearing sciences, said that although it is hard to determine whether this policy directly affects student grades, it is still important to the classroom to have an instructor who is proficient in oral English.

“It’s valuable for students to feel comfortable with the level of efficiency of their teaching assistant,” Watkins said.

She also said that while the method for assessing the level of proficiency of spoken English is not perfect, the SPEAK exam creates a minimum requirement for all instructors to meet.

William Welburn, associate dean in the Graduate College, which works to ensure the quality of graduate degree programs, said that it helps when teaching assistants get used to a language that they did not grow up with.

“Some of this involves becoming comfortable enough to be able to communicate effectively with students in another language,” he said.

Sean Hostert, freshman in Business, finds it difficult to absorb information when an instructor cannot clearly speak English.

“It makes the whole learning process difficult, because instead of focusing on material, you’re concentrating on understanding the language,” Hostert said.

The Student Code outlines procedures students may pursue when they feel that their teaching assistant cannot clearly communicate in English. If the department head finds that a substantial portion of the class is having difficulties understanding their instructor, a new instructor would be promptly assigned. Students also have the option to be transferred into a different section.

Steele says that comprehensibility can be a very individual reaction to an international TA’s accent and style, and students must be responsible for their own curriculum and come forward if they feel they are having a problem communicating with their instructor.

“Ultimately, every undergraduate needs to be an active participant in his or her learning, so they certainly shouldn’t wait until the end of the semester to express their concerns about an international teaching assistant’s oral English ability,” Steele said.