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June 14, 2010 — New English language learning program eases transition to university

by Christine Elias — Monday, Jun 14, 2010

June 14, 2010
Christine Elias

Imagine for a moment that you are an excellent high school student — you're bright, articulate, and you love a good debate.

Now picture your happiness when you are accepted to the University of Toronto, one of the best schools in the world. It's an exciting opportunity. Sure, it means moving to a new country for your studies, but you're ready — and only a little bit nervous.

But once you've settled in, you realize it might be a little harder than you thought. A new country, a new school and, for some international students, a new language — English — can make the transition a lot more challenging than expected.

This is the situation that some international students face. They can speak read and write in English but they may lack the confidence to fully express themselves. This is where the Arts & Science English Language Learning (ELL) program can help.

"When I first came to U of T, I was shy and afraid of making mistakes so sometimes I was not speaking at all, which was not a brilliant idea," says Julia Teng, a first-year Rotman Commerce student from Mauritius. "But thanks to the ELL's email 'homework' and the Communication Cafes, I gained confidence. I'm now able to express myself."

In fact, Teng was so impressed by the program that's she's spearheading an ELL student association "where students can socialize and learn from one another in a friendly and supportive environment."

The program, based on the highly-successful English Language Development program at UTSC, is much more advanced than a typical ESL class. ELL is specifically designed to help students develop the advanced language skills required for a successful transition to university.

"Proficiency in reading, writing, speaking and understanding English is critical to a student's success. Adapting to university-level work can be challenging enough but when learning involves a second or third language, the difficulties can perhaps seem insurmountable," said Leora Freedman, the project's coordinator since its inception at New College in 2008. "But they're absolutely not, and we help students to see that."

The program has several components: Communication Cafés where students meet throughout the year to develop their oral language skills though a series of activities designed to build confidence, vocabulary and critical thinking skills. The Reading eWriting module of the program continues the conversation online, where students apply the new skills they're learning in a two-way email discussion.

"When I began Reading eWriting, my summaries were short and not clear enough. But as time passed, words came easily to me and I could write for more than an hour. I finally understood what critical thinking meant — I knew automatically which points to focus on or which examples to keep in mind for arguments," said Premal H. Brahmbhatt, a fourth year life sciences student.

During the summer months, an intensive academic English course is also offered. The next session runs from August 23 to September 1, with priority given to incoming first-year students. The course provides 24 hours of classroom instruction and group activities in addition to individual student conferences at the end of the course.

"The English Language Learning program is just one example of the many curricular innovations designed to enhance the learning experience of our undergraduate students, says Suzanne Stevenson, Vice-Dean, Teaching and Learning. "Watching this pilot program grow over the past two years tells us that the ELL is filling a real need."

The ELL, funded by the Faculty of Arts & Science's Curriculum Renewal Initiative Fund, began at New College and has since expanded to support all undergraduate students in Arts & Science. While the program is primarily for students whose first language is not English it is also open to native speakers seeking to improve their English language skills.