Finally fluent

A little extra help can make all the difference

Sure and confident in Spanish, UBC graduate student Claudia Diaz found herself anything but during her first year of graduate studies at the Faculty of Education in 2011.

“Although I had lots to share, I found myself holding back because I didn’t want to slow down the discussion,” says Diaz, who moved from Valparaiso, Chile to earn a master’s in early childhood education at UBC’s Vancouver campus.

Diaz holds a BA in psychology and worked as an educational psychologist in Chile for almost a decade. It was frustrating, she says, not having her say on familiar topics like teacher-children classroom dynamics.

A year later, all that has changed, says Diaz. She credits the Academic English Support (AES) program for helping her close the gap between her Spanish- and English-speaking selves. Diaz was one of 300 students in the AES program, piloted during the 2011-2012 academic year.

“It was really, really helpful,” says Diaz. “That support was crucial. Without it, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to share my ideas and experiences. Now, I can talk to my profs and classmates about anything.”

AES is an initiative of the Office of the Provost and Vice President Academic, offered by UBC Continuing Studies in collaboration with the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. Aimed at students whose first language is not English, the year-long program is available free to graduates and undergraduates enrolled in degree credit programs.

To start, each student goes through an individualized needs analysis that targets areas for improvement. They receive help from English language teaching specialists, who are also trained coaches, to work through their learning plans which include self-study websites and short-focus courses.

Diaz says she now enjoys better command of the written word. “The AES program partners with the UBC Writing Centre which has really excellent courses. All the content was contextualized learning, geared to help us write better papers or proposals.”

This year, the AES program will enroll 1,000 students, a number that will most likely double in future, says Andrew Scales, academic director of the UBC Continuing Studies English Language Institute.

He explains that UBC’s English-language admission standards require students who speak English as an additional language to possess a minimum level of proficiency in English. To get into UBC, students must score a minimum of 6.5, compared to nine, which is the proficiency level of an educated native English speaker.

“Academic English not only requires a high level of proficiency, but the ability to express ideas in specific conceptual frameworks using discipline-specific discourse,” says Scales. “For students who begin their university studies with a basic proficiency, the specialized usage, precision and subtleties of academic English can be a bit daunting.”

All the more reason, says Scales, for UBC to pioneer a new model of language support. “As far as we know, this is the first program of its kind in the world because it’s sustainable, cost-effective and scalable. It also emphasizes learner autonomy which has been the trend in English language teaching.”

Similar to coaching elite athletes achieve peak performance, the AES program can boost student confidence and ability whether it’s speaking at seminars or polishing an essay.

“A student who is brilliant and outstanding in their field may just need that extra support to succeed to the best of their ability especially during key periods when they’re feeling frustrated or discouraged.”

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