This article is co-authored by Dr Rosalie Goldsmith & Dr Deborah Nixon, Academic Language and Learning team (IML).

The problem – Academic language and learning support does not always reach those who need it most. In our case, student and staff evaluations showed that some entry level students were missing the support they needed to succeed in their studies.

Our solution – The Embedding English Language framework was created in response to this issue, and aims to provide a university-wide, ongoing approach to embedding academic language, discipline-specific discourse and professional communication in the curriculum. 

The framework screens all commencing students using an assessment called OPELA (Online Post-Enrolment Language Assessment); this identifies students who need additional academic language support, who are then directed to attend language development tutorials (LDTs) attached to one of their core subjects. 

How it works: Language Development Tutorials (LDTs)

The tutorials focus both on developing students’ language in their chosen discipline and on meeting requirements of subject assessment tasks. This means that tutorials provide opportunities to:

  • Develop English speaking, writing and reading skills and better understand subject content
  • Learn strategies to manage language development and improve organisational and study skills
  • Ask questions in a safe, supportive environment and learn about support options at UTS
The learning cycle: Goal, activity, evidence, reflection

More generally, students are encouraged to take an active role in their learning through ‘learning cycles’. These include setting personal goals and using activities and techniques that work for the individual student. The learning cycles offer a tool or framework for continuously improving language, not just in a single teaching session, but throughout the student’s degree and beyond.

Does it work? Measuring impact and student feedback

Feedback from faculty staff and students has been very positive. Tutor feedback indicated that a greater sense of ‘belonging’ was evident, for example through students’ understanding of other services available to them at UTS.

Student responses demonstrated that they were grateful for the language support, but have also gained confidence and competence in their academic work:

“…[we set] measurable goals. So, we have to achieve it. […] we know how to do it and set for ourselves to improve in the future as well”  

“Every week… every Monday evening I know okay, I start a new week and I have to get some positive to push myself to learn English” 

“It was interactive, engaging, so it was more like a fun way of learning English. Not too much pressure to do something”

Language Development Tutorials not only give students guidance and access to focussed feedback from tutors on their spoken and written language development, but also create opportunities for students to develop autonomy in enhancing their communication practices and structure to work on specific language goals over a period of time.

What we learned: lessons in building belonging

As the ALL team designed and taught the language development tutorials, we learned about the importance of creating a safe space for students to practise speaking, work in small groups, and develop confidence in tutorial participation. During remote learning especially, we learned about the challenges that students face in online environments where they don’t always have access to a quiet study space, they might have limited access to online resources, and they have to deal with unstable internet connections. In these contexts, we provided different modes of communication such as Chat, Teams channels, and the good old phone call. 

In a nutshell, we learnt a lot about the online learning environment in 2020. We plan to apply this knowledge as we continue with the program. For example, we plan to make expectations very explicit in tutorials around participation and collaboration (including Zoom etiquette) and to establish effective ways for students to share information. We will also have a better understanding of why some students don’t want to turn their cameras on (low bandwidth, no privacy, less than glamorous surroundings…). We want to ensure that students, tutors and faculty staff all understand the intention and purposes of the EEL framework.

Professor Shirley Alexander, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and Students) summarises the importance of developing strong academic and professional communication skills in this short video:

If you or your students would like to know more about OPELA, please explore the information and FAQs shared here, and in the article below.

This topic was originally shared as a 10-minute presentation by the authors at the 2020 UTS Learning and Teaching Forum under the theme of ‘Building Belonging’. ‘Building Belonging’ was one of six themes at the Forum, which focussed on connecting current practice with future directions at UTS. 

Feature image by Dylan Gillis via Unsplash

  • Thanks for outlining the EEL program Rosalie and Deb – it’s so important to help students with language and communication skills, and as we are discovering, these are vital in every discipline and profession. And yes, for building belonging!

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