Talking about communication

Students, faculty and administration discuss the topic of teachers with English as a second language

Denise Stockley is director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning. She instructs a course that teaches communication skills to teaching assistant candidates.
Denise Stockley is director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning. She instructs a course that teaches communication skills to teaching assistant candidates.
Photo: 
If a Queen’s graduate student filled out an English Proficiency exam when applying to their program, they must complete an English Communications Assessment before becoming a teaching assistant.
If a Queen’s graduate student filled out an English Proficiency exam when applying to their program, they must complete an English Communications Assessment before becoming a teaching assistant.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo

When a lecturer’s communication skills are criticized by student evaluations, Denise Stockley is available for consultation.

Stockley is the acting director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL). She said faculty and graduate students often come to her after receiving negative student responses to University Survey of Student Assessment of Teaching (USAT), particularly lecturers with English as a secondary language.

“We’re hearing from USATs that students are making comments about accents,” Stockley said. “There’s a difference between accent reduction and a movement to effective communication.”

Stockley told the Journal that USAT evaluations brought to her by the concerned lecturers who received them are often insensitive. She said one of the student responses brought to her attention read “go back to your own country.”

“That was probably one of the nicer comments on that USAT evaluation,” Stockley said.

She follows up on a negative USAT evaluation by auditing the class. She said she often finds the lecturer’s communication skills to be sufficient.

“It wasn’t an issue of language, it was an issue of tolerance,” Stockley said of a specific audit she performed. “There needs to be a willingness to listen.”

Stockley said her main concern is deciphering whether the lecturer’s communication skills are in need of improvement or if student approach to lecturers with English as a second language needs improve.

“When your learning is affected, there’s an issue,” she said. “We need to find out what the issue is.”

Selection of professors is based on the candidate’s written publications and an interview process. There are currently no mandatory courses or workshops as part of the official faculty agreement. There is a more clear-cut policy for teaching assistants (TAs). This policy was amended after a 2002 report from the Sub-Committee on the Training of Teaching Assistants at Queen’s.

The sub-committee’s report was commissioned by the Senate Committee on Academic Development to review the then-existing TA training policies which were “primarily a departmental responsibility.” The report submitted nine recommendations.

Since then, teaching assistants who have completed a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or an equivalent in order to apply to Queen’s are now also required to complete an English Communications Assessment (ECA), before teaching.

The ECA consists of a written response, an interview and a teaching demonstration. Candidates who fail the ECA must complete a 12 week course, titled English Language Communication Skills for Teaching Purposes. It is the only mandatory ESL course offered to teaching staff and focuses exclusively on clear communication in the classroom.

“Accent reduction is not the purpose of the ECA,” Stockley said. “It’s communication.”

Stockley said 53 graduate students took the ECA this year and 14 were required to enroll in the communication course, a tally similar to other years. Thirteen of the 14 students took the course this semester mandatorily, with two other students choosing to elect it.

“We have more demand for people who want to take it,” she said, adding that the ETC used to hold three sections of the course, but had to cut the extra sessions because of a lack of funding.

“We have people who are English speakers who want to take it,” Stockley said. “It’s about communicating in a classroom … If we had the other sections open they’d be full.”

Stockley said teaching in a non-native language is a challenge that the University community should acknowledge.

“Personally, I admire them,” she said. “The fact that these people are so highly educated and can come to teach in a second language should be applauded.”

David Felkai, Sci ’12, said while he admires the courage of his teachers, he can’t learn if there’s poor communication. “I couldn’t care less if English is their first or second language,” David Felkai said. “What it comes down to is if I can understand what they’re presenting.”

Felkai said communication is a bona fide occupational requirement for faculty and teaching staff.

“It may not be the most important part but it’s a part that you can’t go without,” he said. “No matter how qualified a prof you may be, if you can’t present the material there’s a problem.” Felkai said he’s noticed a correlation between a lecturer’s poor communication skills and attendance in his classes.

“Most of the class didn’t go to the lecture because you couldn’t understand what the prof was saying,” he said. “It was really too bad because all the material he was presenting was good, you could tell he really cared.”

Felkai said he has encountered the issue two or three more times and has had to adjust his learning style to accommodate.

“It was pretty much a correspondence course,” he said. “In the end I didn’t take the course very seriously.” International Vice-Provost John Dixon said working to understand a teacher with English as a second language is a valuable experience for Queen’s students.

“In some cases it may take a little effort and time for a listener to become familiar with a ‘foreign’ accent, but the listener has an obligation to make this effort,” Dixon told the Journal via email. “Indeed, it is a learning experience to develop this ability, and is something that prepares us for engagement with diverse people in the world.”

Dixon said students should consider their own ability to understand before discounting the lecturer and their course.

“It is important to distinguish between a) the expectation that faculty and TAs/Teaching Fellows will have appropriate competence in the language of instruction, and b) the issue of the instructor’s accent,” Dixon said. Approaching a professor or teaching assistant to talk about a language barrier sounds uncomfortable, but Anna Vanderlaan, ArtSci ’12, said she wouldn’t hesitate if her learning was in jeopardy.

“If it had been a big enough issue that would have affected my lab, I definitely would have,” Vanderlaan said of her experience with a TA last year.

Although she found herself asking other TAs questions when her TA had difficulty understanding, she said the experience last year equipped her with a skill not outlined in the course description.

“I got better at communication,” Vanderlaan, said. “At some points I had to mime … He was having trouble understanding me but he always tried to answer, which was nice.”

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