English as a Second Language at MSU

Emily Hobrla

November 7, 2019

College is difficult, but completing a degree in a second language is even harder. According to the MSU Board of Trustees Policy committee, the Times Higher Education ranks Michigan State University as #9 on the list of 25 US universities with the most international students. With 5,741 international students making up approximately 12% of MSU’s student body, it is not surprising that MSU’s English language learning structures are so comprehensive.

As an American undergraduate who speaks English as my first language, I had not considered the actuality of going through college in another language until I worked at the Summer English Program for the International Teaching Assistant Program this past summer.

At the Summer English Program, I helped TAs with varying levels of English proficiency become more comfortable speaking in a TA setting. We practiced introductions, syllabus composition, and cultural differences between the United States and other countries. We also talked about the culture at MSU. At this program, I was working with Ph.D students, mostly in the fields of chemistry and math, to help them improve their English in preparation for the MSU Speaking Test, which is an English proficiency test required by MSU for Ph.D. students to become TAs.

Dr. Dan Reed, the Director of Testing at the English Learning Center, is one of the main liaisons for English language learning at MSU. Dr. Reed explained his work with the ELC and provided an overview of the different tests that international students take at different stages of their academic careers at MSU. The first test is the TOEFL, or the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Both prospective undergraduate and prospective graduate students take this test prior to application to MSU and submit it for review with their application to the university. For undergraduates, this is the only English language proficiency test that is required. However, for TAs, there is additional testing that must be completed, the amount depending on the student’s performance on the initial test. This initial test is the MSU speaking test, and it is modeled after a test developed by ETS, a private, nonprofit testing company (ETS also makes the TOEFL and the GRE.)

This is where Dr. Reed’s expertise comes in. At the ELC, a lot of his work is staying up to date on the research about the most effective ways to administer and evaluate English as a second language tests. He said that the ELC faculty’s survey of the research helped them to develop the MSU speaking test and its standards for grading.

At the Summer English Program, I had heard titterings from the TAs about what the MSU Speaking Test was like. Having taken numerous practice tests each, they were all pretty familiar with the layout, and some even had jokes about the opening lines of the voice recording of the test’s instructions. Dr. Reed said that the test is all machine delivered. The students sit in a room with headphones on, which play a recording of the speaking prompts. The student then replies with their response to each of the prompts. Each prompt is asking the student to discuss a certain topic, with a total of 12 questions. Dr. Reed said that there is not much special preparation that a student needs to do for the test, and also that it is not graded on whether the student presents correct information, rather, they are graded on if they are able to elaborate. The ELC website does list some test prep resources on their website though, like examples of past questions.

The way that this test is graded is a question that Dr. Reed says comes up fairly often among both international students and people who have hard about the test. He says that the question bias is sometimes raised and cites a study where subjects rated people’s English worse if they saw that they were people of color. He makes sure that MSU takes this into account and that people have nothing to fear, especially with the structures MSU’s ELC has in place.

At the ELC, the people grading the tests are the ELC faculty, who all have extensive higher education and training in English as a second language learning. They also are extremely diverse. Because MSU’s ELC is actually one of the best university ESL programs in existence, the faculty is comprised of some of the top researchers in the field.

Dr. Reed’s coworker, Heekyoung Kim, majored in English Language and Literature at Sogang University in South Korea, and completed a Ph.D. in ESL education at Texas A&M University. Working at Clemson University, and came to MSU’s ELC in 2006 where she now works as a testing specialist. Another ELC faculty member, Luca Giupponi is from Bergamo, Italy, and completed his Masters in TESOL at Arizona State University. He now works at the Center for Language Teaching Advancement, a branch of the ELC. Most faculty have had extensive language teaching experience abroad as well. Most importantly, all faculty at the ELC are devoted to student success, and want students to do well on the speaking test.

To grade the test, the faculty score the test against a rubric that contains samples of what each level of English proficiency sounds like from level 1 which is low English ability to level 5 which is high. Then they match the TA’s recording to the samples of speech on the rubric. Dr. Reed said that there is sometimes some ambiguity and these factors all work to combat any potential bias or hindrance to students taking the MSU Speaking Test.

Dr. Reed says that he considers stakeholders to be important in the discussion surrounding the MSU Speaking Test. The stakeholders closely related to the MSU speaking test are most immediately, the TAs who are taking it with the hopes of teaching undergraduate classes at MSU, and also the students who are in the classes that the international TAs are teaching. TAs came here to complete their postsecondary degrees, and have an advantage in the workplace if they can demonstrate teaching abilities. Being able to understand what the lecturer is saying is important for comprehension of the content of the material. The next stakeholder is the university, because if parents and students are not satisfied with the quality of instruction, enrollment will decline and the university will lose money and reputability. Dr. Reed said that the speaking test was a solution for the numerous complaints MSU received about Teaching Assistants’ unintelligibility in undergraduate classrooms. Since developing the speaking test, the complaints have ceased.

This does not mean that the speaking test is barring TAs from teaching. Dr. Reed says that the best part of MSU’s ELC compared to other universities’ is the appeal process that allows students to try another test to demonstrate their English proficiency. If a student gets below the required 4 out of 5, then their department can submit an appeal. The student may then take the two required support courses and take the face-to-face test. After this process, the appeal is almost always successful. Dr. Reed said that 99% of graduate students who wish to teach at MSU end up doing so sometime during their schooling. A lot of MSU students are not aware of the English language teaching structure at MSU.

This, combined with never meeting international students until coming to college, can lead to ignorance. I asked Dr. Reed what MSU undergraduates can do to help their international TAs, and he said the most important thing is “[e]mpathy. Put yourself in their shoes.” Imagine if you had to teach organic chemistry, calculus or English literature in a second language. Remember that the next time a TA stumbles over their words a bit. They came here to study just like everyone else, and with a little empathy, we can form an international network of Spartans.

Emily Hobrla (@emilyhobrla) is a Senior studying Professional Writing with a focus in Editing and Publishing and research interests in Linguistics and . She loves making new friends in the PW major and beyond, and is excited to contribute to The Current with writing and editing work. Outside of school, her interests include fashion, tennis and squirrel watching.