IATEFL 2016 What is this thing called Academic English Language Proficiency? (Dr Pamela Humphreys)

Pamela works in Australia at a University in Queensland, in the area of in-sessional support. She also has many years of pre-sessional experience.

The number of students studying in English language contexts has increased massively since 1975 (0.8m) – in 2012 it was 4.5m and rising. “All the known world has a second language for advanced education” (Brumfit). English language proficiency is a critical factor for academic performance according to Cho and Bridgeman.

Let’s start with communicative competence, term coined by Hymes in the 60s but it was the work of Canale and Swain in the 80s that gave us this framework. Conceptual frameworks in academic education draw on this framework. In Canale and Swain, grammatical competence is joined by discourse competence, sociolinguistic competence and strategic competence. Since then, the framework has undergone several iterations. Bachman takes strategic competence out, subdivides the competencies into organisational (grammatical and textual) and pragmatic competence (illocutionary and sociolinguistic).

What’s quite interesting is that despite the fact we have 30-40 years of knowledge of these competencies, we don’t know how they interact or the relative weightings, of importance. Pamela also wanted to find out how they interact with academic english proficiency.

Cummins came up with Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)  and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).

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He shows that the latter takes longer to develop and that there is little transference between the two. This was talking about children. Pamela wanted something similar for adults in higher education. A conceptual or theoretical model for Academic English Language Proficiency. She couldn’t find anything. Though there is a lot of information relating to academic discourse. We know a lot about it. EAP/ESP/ESAP, genre analysis, discourse analysis, corpus linguistics and academic literacies.

“Academic writing is not a single undifferentiated mass but a variety of subject-specific literacies” (Hyland, 2002:352)

She found four models.

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Murray has a tripartite system. Academic literacy is not just study skills or socialisation but a plural literacies about social practice and making meaning, about identity and power. Professional literacies are what they need once the move into their working environment post-study. English language proficiency is something that can be cashed in to develop these other skills. Is there a threshold that students must surpass before they can develop these other literacies?

This vertical conception of academic literacy was criticised, of course. Harper, Prentice and Wilson include the same notions but with no threshold, they can be developed concurrently, not necessarily equally, but concurrently. They believe there is a core that can be used in all three contexts, everyday, professional and academic.

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O’Loughlin and Arkoudis (2012) take a different approach, dividing it into entry into higher education, time spent in education and the exit. The student lifecycle option. At entry they need a general academic communicative ability but as they go through their degree they need to develop more specific communicative language ability, specific to the discipline and by the time they graduate they need to have developed the language and skills necessary for their future trajectory.

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Mahboob in his Language Variation Model is talking about how language varies in different contexts with different uses.

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So he talks about the uses, the user and the mode. Uses can vary from the everyday to the specialised (including academic). Mode can vary from written to oral. Another dimension not shown is time. This gives rises to 8 different domains. Probably all of the last four apply to academic contexts.

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In terms of a summary, if we draw on all these frameworks, we know that language requires multiple competences, that there are varying contexts of use and proficiency should/can change over time. Pamela wanted to bring it all together to make one conceptual framework. (The frameworks we have looked at are conceptual not validated.)

She comes up with:

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She has three competences, three contexts of use (seen quite a lot in the academic frameworks) and they all intersect. She doesn’t think the lines are solid. The third aspect is proficiency, as we hope it will improve in the course of doing a degree.

It can show different levels of development:

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It can show change over time:

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So that is her conceptual framework. How can we use it? It can be used for key stakeholders in the industry who are not experts, people who don’t understand what language is about but need to. Could also be used with teachers and students. It could be used to help in curriculum development, to track what has been included. What you tick or want to tick will depend on your context e.g. pre-sessional may not include the professional tick. At least it would be a principled decision. With students, you could use it as means of finding out what students feel confident and less confident about.

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Of course language is very complex, so underlying this 3×3 is the complexity of what we have already see, so we can unpack this. So we as linguistics can unpack the different aspects involved in each square.

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Here are Pamela’s references:

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p.humphreys@griffith.edu.au

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