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By Cally Guerin

In recent weeks I’ve been involved in a number of different situations focused on assessing the English language skills of international students, which has made me think yet again about what is most important in this regard for those entering the world of doctoral writing. An article in Times Higher Education served as a timely reminder that this continues to be a vexed issue at all levels of university study in this era of internationalisation. It is also useful to remember just how complex it is to accurately assess language levels, especially under high-stakes exam conditions.

In Australia, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is commonly used to determine English language competency. All four language skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) are tested in four separate parts of the exam. Another widely accepted language test, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), is conducted online and includes tasks that integrate writing, reading and listening.

At my current university, international students are required to have an entry level IELTS score of 6.5 or higher. This is equivalent to the 79-93 range in TOEFL. But what do these numbers mean? IELTS explains:

Band 7: Good user
Has operational command of the language, though with occasional inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings in some situations. Generally handles complex language well and understands detailed reasoning.

Band 6: Competent user
Has generally effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriacies and misunderstandings. Can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations.

According to this measurement, our students are usually somewhere in between. (For more information, go to http://www.ielts.org/institutions/test_format_and_results/ielts_band_scores.aspx.)

This may sound adequate, but what 6.5 or 79-93 looks like in real life may seem like quite a lot of inaccuracies to some supervisors faced with drafts of their students’ writing. Maybe most sentences have small errors such as absent or misused articles (a, the), uncountable nouns used as plurals (researches or evidences), lack of agreement between subject and verb (participants has reported), or wrong word forms (have observe).

On the whole, I’m not too fussed about what I would regard as ‘surface errors’ like these. So long as the sentence structure is more or less in place, and the reader can understand what the student is getting at, I am more than willing to work with that. But I am aware that as a former English language teacher I bring particular skills to this task that others may not necessarily have.

Working as an editor for academics whose first language was not English also taught me useful lessons about writing and English competence. In that position my employing company policy stated that editors were not to intervene with ‘corrections’ unless there was actually a mistake – it was not regarded as appropriate to impose personal or stylistic preferences on others’ writing. There is an important distinction between actual errors and personal preferences that is relevant to doctoral students too. When we urge doctoral writers to ‘find your own voice’, they may choose to include some stylistic quirks that are not strictly conventional in academic writing, yet communicate valuable aspects of their own perspective on the topic. Again, it’s necessary to consider whether or not it is ‘wrong’, or whether it might be quite acceptable to many academic readers.

I think it’s also very important to recognise what an author is achieving in their writing, rather than focusing on what is not grammatically accurate. For example, doctoral writers should be commended for successfully ensuring that all the relevant information is present and properly referenced; that the overall argument is structured into a logical sequence; and that the headings and paragraphing clearly communicate the central ideas. Instead of noticing only what’s wrong with the writing, supervisors can encourage students by taking time to acknowledge what is right with it too. On the path towards developing writing skills, such positive feedback can be very heartening.

But lots of other supervisors are less comfortable—and much more impatient—with what I would regard as an acceptable level of English language competency. So where do you draw the line regarding how much English is enough? Do you expect the first draft to be entirely free of any grammar errors? Do you find yourself reworking nearly every sentence so that in the end it feels as if you’ve written the entire thesis yourself? What would you like the English language entry level to be for doctoral candidates at your university? I suspect that many of our readers have very strong opinions on this topic and it would be great to hear from you.