Challenges And Risks For The Polytechnic Education Essay

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For anyone studying in a second or additional language, before content becomes knowledge it is first language. Students are accepted onto degree programmes with an English language proficiency of IELTS 5/ CEF B2 and yet the language demands of our degree programmes for many students are pitched at a much higher proficiency level. This has produced two worrying effects that represent a real risk to the Polytechnics educational goals and the success of our students. Though we have language support for some courses, a substantial amount of students are 'crises managing' the language demands of content courses and secondly many tutors are either not addressing language issues in class room delivery or are implementing ad-hoc, short term solutions to go around language issues.

In order that students can succeed at their degree and diploma studies it is essential that we put in place an English language strategy (ELS) that is focussed on both language and content knowledge acquisition which will maximise the learning experience of all students. How will this need to be addressed? How will it be mapped across the degrees and how will it be assessed- in which courses, by whom ?

2. CEFR Benchmarking and Graduate Profile- taking students from B1/B2 to C1

Polytechnic students are expected to develop their language skills to C1 level of the CEFR.

to the point where future graduates can:










I can understand extended speech even when it is not clearly structured and when relationships are only implied and not signalled explicitly.

I can understand long and complex factual and literary texts, appreciating distinctions of style. I can understand specialised articles and longer technical instructions, even when they do not relate to my field.

I can express myself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. I can use language flexibly and effectively for social and professional purposes. I can formulate ideas and opinions with precision and relate my contribution skilfully to those of other speakers

I can express myself with clarity and precision, relating to the addressee flexibly and effectively in an assured, personal, style.

I can present clear, detailed descriptions of complex subjects integrating sub-themes, developing particular points and rounding off with an appropriate conclusion

I can express myself in clear, well-structured text, expressing points of view at some length. I can write detailed expositions of complex subjects in an essay or a report, underlining what I consider to be the salient issues. I can write different kinds of texts in a style appropriate to the reader in mind.

3. English Language Needs and Language Demands

In order for students to meet these benchmarks and of course to succeed at their studies and transition into the workplace learners need to be able to demonstrate English language proficiency in two key areas of language: BICS and CALP.

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)

This area of language development focuses on language of social interaction, and to a lesser extent, work place communication. Communicative events occurs in a clear, concrete context. BICS language events are usually easily comprehensible. Thinking skills associated with BICS rely on lower order thinking skills (LOTS) as tasks are much less cognitively demanding: identifying information, sorting objects into sets. The growth of BICS is dependent upon the provision of planned and repeated language learning activities which are:

Concrete, practical, hands-on activities

contextualised with planned language experiences

provide opportunities for purposeful language practice.

(for e.g. during the recent Industry visits - asking questions to gather information on a clearly defined topic)

BICS encompasses three major areas of pragmatic competence:

Using language for different purposes, such as: greeting, informing , demanding, promising and requesting.

Changing language according to the needs of a listener or situation, such as: talking differently to a friend, colleague, tutor, boss; giving background information to an unfamiliar listener; speaking differently in a classroom than at a party.

Following rules for conversations, discussions and meetings, such as; taking turns in conversation, introducing topics of conversation, staying on topic, rephrasing when misunderstood and using and being aware of non-linguistic codes.

adapted from

BICS skills are benchmarked in the CEFR in a range of indicators, one of which is sociolinguistic appropriateness:


Can perform and respond to a wide range of language functions, using their most common exponents in a neutral register

Is aware of the salient politeness conventions and acts appropriately

Is aware of, and looks out for signs of, the most significant differences between the customs, usages, attitudes, values and beliefs prevalent in the community concerned and those of his or her own.


Can recognise a wide range of idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms, appreciating register shifts; may, however, need to confirm occasional details, especially if the accent is unfamiliar.

Can follow films employing a considerable degree of slang and idiomatic usage.

Can use language flexibly and effectively for social purposes, including emotional, allusive and joking usage.

Indeed, the CEFR descriptor for Spoken Language Use comprises five qualitative aspects of spoken discourse. We need to ensure that Polytechnic students have learning opportunities to develop their BICS sufficiently to progress from B1 to C1 which represents a substantial growth in language proficiency.







Has enough language to get by, with sufficient vocabulary to express him/herself with some hesitation and circum-locutions on topics such as family, hobbies and interests, work, travel, and current events.

Uses reasonably accurately a repertoire of frequently used "routines" and patterns associated with more predictable situations.

Can keep going comprehensibly, even though pausing for grammatical and lexical planning and repair is very evident, especially in longer stretches of free production.

Can initiate, maintain and close simple face-to-face conversation on topics that are familiar or of personal interest. Can repeat back part of what someone has said to confirm mutual understanding.

Can link a series of shorter, discrete simple elements into a connected, linear sequence of points.


Has a good command of a broad range of language allowing him/her to select a formulation to express him/ herself clearly in an appropriate style on a wide range of general, academic, professional or leisure topics without having to restrict what he/she wants to say.

Consistently maintains a high degree of grammatical accuracy; errors are rare, difficult to spot and generally corrected when they do occur.

Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously, almost effortlessly. Only a conceptually difficult subject can hinder a natural, smooth flow of language.

Can select a suitable phrase from a readily available range of discourse functions to preface his remarks in order to get or to keep the floor and to relate his/her own contributions skilfully to those of other speakers.

Can produce clear, smoothly flowing, well-structured speech, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).

As language learners develop BICS, which in an immersion setting can take several years, students studying in a second and or additional language are also developing their CALP.

Polytechnic students need to develop three areas of language use.

General academic language (GAL): the language used in academic settings across subject areas and genres. GAL lexis comes from a very different register and tends to be more formal and abstract when compared to the language of BICS. GAL also relies on less used language patterns for example passive forms.

Content obligatory language: is the lexis and language structures that students need to learn to succeed in chosen field of study. eg. periods of art history; names of the different types of electrical fields.

Functional language: includes all the language needed to fully engage and perform in an academic context. For example; recognising and explaining a point of view; presenting solutions to problems; interpreting data.

Turning to the CEFR illustrative indicators for CALP we can see once again the considerable learning that has to take place to meet C1 indicators:

Grammatical Accuracy


Communicates with reasonable accuracy in familiar contexts; generally good control though with noticeable mother tongue influence. Errors occur, but it is clear what he/she is trying to express.

Uses reasonably accurately a repertoire of frequently used "routines" and patterns associated with more predictable situations.


Consistently maintains a high degree of grammatical accuracy; errors are rare and difficult to spot.

Reports and Essays


Can write short, simple essays on topics of interest.

Can summarise, report and give his/her opinion about accumulated factual information on familiar routine and non-routine matters within his field with some confidence.

Can write very brief, reports to a standard conventionalised format, which pass on routine factual information and state reasons for actions.


Can write clear, well-structured expositions of complex subjects, underlining the relevant salient issues.

Can expand and support points of view at some length with subsidiary points, reasons and relevant examples.

Processing Text


Can collate short pieces of information from several sources and summarise them for somebody else.

Can paraphrase short written passages in a simple fashion, using the original text wording and ordering.


Can summarise long, demanding texts.

Can summarise a wide range of factual and imaginative texts, commenting on and discussing contrasting points of view and the main themes.

Note taking


Can take notes during a lecture, which are precise enough for his/her own use at a later date, provided the topic is within his/her field of interest and the talk is clear and well structured.

Can take notes as a list of key points during a straightforward lecture, provided the topic is familiar, and the talk is both formulated in simple language and delivered in clearly articulated standard speech.


Can take detailed notes during a lecture on topics in his/her field of interest, recording the information so accurately and so close to the original that the notes could also be useful to other people.

Presentations and Point of View


Can explain the main points in an idea or problem with reasonable precision.

Can convey simple, straightforward information of immediate relevance, getting across which point he/she feels is most important.

Can express the main point he/she wants to make comprehensibly.


Can qualify opinions and statements precisely in relation to degrees of, for example, certainty/ uncertainty, belief/doubt, likelihood etc.

4. Demonstrating Graduate Profile Attributes

Many, if not all of the graduate profile attributes involve language and our students will be expected to perform at a reasonably high level of language competency as the indicators below suggest:

Work Tasks


Can understand clearly written, straightforward instructions for a piece of equipment


Can understand in detail lengthy, complex instructions on a new machine or procedure, whether or not the instructions relate to his/her own area of speciality, provided he/she can reread difficult sections.

Meetings/Formal Discussions


Can follow much of what is said that is related to his/her field, provided interlocutors avoid very idiomatic usage and articulate clearly.

Can put over a point of view clearly, but has difficulty engaging in debate.

Can take part in routine formal discussion of familiar subjects which is conducted in clearly articulated speech in the standard dialect and which involves the exchange of factual information, receiving instructions or the discussion of solutions to practical problems.


Can easily keep up with the debate, even on abstract, complex unfamiliar topics.

Can argue a formal position convincingly, responding to questions and comments and answering complex lines of counter argument fluently, spontaneously and appropriately.


Can express him/herself with relative ease. Despite some problems with formulation resulting in pauses and "cul-de-sacs", he/she is able to keep going effectively without help.

Can keep going comprehensibly, even though pausing for grammatical and lexical planning and repair is very evident, especially in longer stretches of free production.

Spoken Fluency


Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously, almost effortlessly. Only a conceptually difficult subject can hinder a natural, smooth flow of language.

5. Language Development Strategy

Given that students are transitioning from the foundation programme or as a direct entry student with relatively low levels of language proficiency when compared to the language demands of degree courses, it is crucial that the Faculties develop and implement pedagogical appropriate, engaging and transparent language development strategies which will meet students' language needs, scaffolds their content learning and simultaneously develops their current level of English language competence.


English language competence for the purposes of the English Language Strategy (ELS) is defined as a student's ability to organise and deploy the English language in a range of academic contexts which may range from group discussions and presentations to report writing to comprehending and solving mathematical problems

Though developing linguistic accuracy is also important, our focus is on developing academic and communicative language competencies and is not limited to language as a formal system which focuses on grammar and syntax.


The impetus for the pedagogical approach of the ELS is driven by the key fact that

Students cannot develop academic knowledge and skills without access to the language in which that knowledge is embedded, discussed, constructed or evaluated. Nor can they acquire academic language skills in a context devoid of content. (Crandall, 1994:256)

As previously stated in a range of policy documents, the Polytechnics core pedagogical philosophy is Student Centred Learning. Complimenting and extending this philosophy, the ELS is built on a Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) pedagogy.

Content and Language Integrated Learning

Do Coyle one of the leading architects of CLIL, defines it as a:

"dual focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for learning and teaching both content and language. That is, in the teaching and learning process, there is a focus not only on content, and not only on language. Each is interwoven, even if the emphasis is greater on one or the other at a given time. CLIL is not a new form of language education. It is not a new form of subject education. It is an innovative fusion of both." [1] 

Central to CLIL pedagogy is what is known as the 4c's :

Figure Adapted from Coyle et al. 2010 p.41

As the above figure above shows CLIL is a multi-focussed pedagogy which takes account of the synergetic relationship that exists between all four elements.

As part of the Polytechnics ELS we will include a fifth C: context which will take account of our students learning histories, preferred learning styles and the role of ours student's first and additional languages. (Farsi, Hindi, Tagalog)

Central to CLIL pedagogy is the importance of both cognitive and linguistic challenge. Through collaborative lesson planning (content tutor with language tutor) or as an adjunct to content lessons (language teacher providing pre-content lesson support) students are taken through a task arc which gradually increases both the linguistic and cognitive difficulty of tasks through which learners acquire content knowledge but also use language to solve problems and, at the same time, solve language problems. (see Figure 2)

Cognitive Demands



Linguistic Demands

Figure 2. CLIL Matrix from Coyle, D. et al. 2010 p.68

Problem Based Learning

To ensure an appropriate level of cognitive challenge of learning tasks, Problem- based instruction will be phased in, in varying degrees, across the foundation programme.

PBL is directly aligned to the Polytechnic graduate profile as it develops student's abilities to:

Think critically and be able to analyse and solve complex, real-world problems

Find, evaluate, and use appropriate learning resources

Work cooperatively in teams and small groups

Demonstrate versatile and effective communication skills, both verbal and written

Use content knowledge and intellectual skills acquired at the university to become continual learners (Delaware ref?)

Facilitated by tutors, once a culturally relevant real-world problem has been identified, students work together in learning teams to source relevant information on the problem and to process the information within a meaningful conceptual framework (Delaware p6) and then to report their findings to the other learning teams.

One of the key features of PBL that as Delaware points out is that students

"recognize that knowledge transcends artificial boundaries since [it] highlights interconnections between disciplines and the integration of concepts".(p.7)


One of the central tenants of CLIL methodology ( one of the four C's) is COGNITION. In lesson planning tutors need to ensure that there is a balance between the linguistic and cognitive demands of any task.

With proper scaffolding by the tutor, students are able to move from cognitively lower-order processing (eg. remembering, comparing) to higher-order (analysing, evaluating, creating) processing. Obviously, PBL fits into this realm of higher order processing. In fact, PBL is part of Task Based Learning - so the idea is not really new to many tutors.

However, PBL with students studying in a second or additional language, has to be carefully managed. As students linguistic levels do not usually match their cognitive levels - a lot of language support is needed. What is the point in asking students to solve complicated real world problems if they don't have the language to be able to discuss/plan/research and then write about/present their findings and solutions?

However, learners studying in a CLIL context are in fact used to dealing with comprehension deficits when constructing a conceptual representation from linguistic input, and when appropriately scaffolded by enabling activities, use context information to compensate. They are trained to go on focusing on a text, even if they do not understand large parts of it as they have built up a kind of tolerance of ambiguity when working in L2.

Indeed as Lena Heine (2010) argues, by focussing on the L2 language during a PBL lesson it leads to "a deeper semantic processing of the conceptual content" (p.161) The point to note here is that contrary to expectations, with the appropriate tutor handling, L2 proficiency is not necessarily a deficit to be overcome in order to have a successful PBL lesson.

Tutor Training

The tutors best able to support their students' needs are those who carefully plan to meet the range of language learning needs by employing a range of content delivery strategies and enabling activities that support both content and language promoting the development of language for content understanding

The ELS also encourages teaching focussed initiatives including:

Collaborative lesson planning which incorporate language outcomes for content classes

Just-in-time language workshops which support assessment tasks (for example Pronunciation Workshops for PAL presentations)

Promotion of English language competency feedback for students for assessments for all non-language courses

Grading of the language of formative and summative assessments to ensure that tasks specifications are pitched at the appropriate comprehension level

choosing listening and reading/viewing texts which are appropriate to the age of the student and their language level (e.g. more advanced than the ESL learner is currently producing independently to ensure there is new linguistic material to learn, but not so prohibitively difficult as to prevent access to meaning [2] )

identifying and teaching the socio-cultural assumptions which are implicit in texts

identify language needs not just in terms of vocabulary items or a genre, but language at all layers (i.e. genre, meaning, structures, words, inflections, sounds).

pre-teaching cultural /conceptual knowledge and vocabulary

identifying and teaching the meaning of new and unfamiliar key vocabulary

providing visual support (pictures, DVDs) to help in understanding a new concept

providing multiple opportunities for students to engage, in interesting ways, with a text

explicitly teaching the grammar structures at text, clause, group and word level student/teacher talk about ideas and organisation of the text required

providing models of the spoken or written language the student is required to produce

deconstructing these models in order to: highlight the organisational structure of the text, identify and teach important vocabulary, identify and teach relevant grammatical structures

providing opportunities for reconstruction of models (e.g. jumbled sentences, jumbled paragraphs, cloze activities, dictogloss activities, dictations)

participating in teacher-guided joint construction of a text, following deconstruction activities

providing opportunities for independent writing/speaking, valuing innovative language structures which may indicate language development, and

providing opportunities for practice of language output.

Support language output by using graphic organisers, writing templates, glossaries etc.

Tutors need to know

their learners in terms of their levels of language ability

the intended curriculum subject matter, in terms of its language usages and demands

the language demands of assessment.

They also make the language load visible by:

planning for the language required for their unit of work

modelling and teaching the language required for their unit of work

constantly monitoring the language produced by their students as they experience the unit of work

assessing the language of the students

reporting on the language levels of the students.

When there is no alignment of language learner needs to the curriculum, language learners can be excluded from much learning.

Current Content Language Support for Degree

1st Year

Presently, in the first year of the degrees, there is a range of content support material being developed and trialled. The material is presented 'just-in-time' to support student's upcoming content lessons. There is also a range of integrated assessments which are assessed for both language and content outcomes. Language support is not offered for all subjects. (check this for each degree)

As the language lessons are delivered just-in-time there is no language development syllabus. With respect to English language proficiency, students range B1 to C2 from making difficult to benchmark students language levels.

Streaming of degree business students according to language proficiency is being trialled for semester A 2010.

2nd Year

Second year students are now coming on stream and language development will be divided viz:

two class hours of language support (mainly for required reading)

four hours for the Cambridge Business English Communication course -

irrespective of the students major.

Based on: Langua/CLIL Anne Rasanan 2008

Challenges and Risks for the Polytechnic

When we compare the language support and development being offered in first year and being proposed for second year students described earlier to the range of content and integrated learning (CLIL) strategies diagrammed above, it is evident that CLIL implementation for degree content courses ranges from NON-CLIL i.e.

No concern for language learning

No pedagogical collaboration

Incidental, unsystematic and limited exposure to L2

To features of ADJUNCT- CLIL for some courses i.e.

language support coordinated with/integrated in subject content and takes place simultaneously

It is to be noted that many of the features of integrated learning are not currently featured in degree course planning and delivery. Nor do many content tutors employ scaffolding strategies outlined earlier.

Indeed, as we have grown as an institution, we are witnessing a range of often ad-hoc and short term and/or quick fix approaches to English language demands of courses. These include:

Maths tutors teaching in Arabic, bilingually, using a student-translator, avoiding language by extracting it from Math problems, English only.

A critical reading assessment was dropped from a course as students don't know how to do critical readings

Tutor speaking in English only whilst the students spoke only in Arabic

Students not understanding assessment requirements due to the level of language

(see Communication Committee's decision paper going to SMT)

Indeed this gap between the proficiency required to manage the language demands of courses and students current levels of proficiency can widen as they progress through their degree studies unless there is a clear pedagogic strategy to manage the complexity of language and the increasing cognitive complexity of courses. LDS narrows this gap by upskilling English proficiency and simultaneously through appropriate teaching strategies deepens students content knowledge. (CLIL research shows this)

Without a language development strategy two risks:

Many students will not reach C1

Many Polytechnic students, like many international students studying in Australia, New Zealand and the UK spend much of their time 'crises managing' the language demands of their courses, assessments and all the policies and procedures that run alongside degrees and end up with a far less content knowledge compared to their native speaker classmates.

How will this need to be addressed? How will it be mapped across the degrees and how will it be assessed- in which courses, by whom ?

The Foundation ELS also has a language awareness and advocacy function which seeks to promote English language competence as a key success indicator for degree studies and as one of the key employability skills.


Job description

David McMaster

July 2010.