English Language Learners in Higher Education: An Exploratory Conversation

By Harrison, Jamie; Shi, Hong | Journal of International Students, March 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

English Language Learners in Higher Education: An Exploratory Conversation


Harrison, Jamie, Shi, Hong, Journal of International Students


Study abroad has long been an avenue for college-aged students to experience other cultures and gain real-world experience while receiving an education, and the United States continues to be a popular destination for students from around the world. According to the Open Doors 2014 report, enrollment trends of international students in U.S. colleges and universities show continued and steady growth since the 1950s (Institute of International Education, 2014). Current 2013/2014 data indicate an 8.1% growth over the prior year with 4.2% of the total U.S. higher education population being international (Institute of International Education, 2014). Students studying at the undergraduate level make up 41% of the international student population, with graduate level students making up 38% (Institute of International Education, 2014). Many universities have included recruitment of international students as a high priority in institutional planning, and for-profit pathway programs tied to corporate entities are on the rise in the U.S. (Redden, 2014). With this in mind, understanding the needs of high level adult English language learners (ELLs) in mainstream university settings is paramount to providing appropriate instruction and services.

LITERATURE REVIEW

While many studies have focused on diverse populations' access to and success in postsecondary institutions (Walpole, 2007), there have been few studies that focus on ELLs in particular (Kanno & Cromley, 2013). Furthermore, the recent Access to Success initiative, a federal program proposed by administrators of public postsecondary institutions, targeted low-income and minority students with no special emphasis on language minority students in their goal to increase college access and attainment (Engle & Lynch, 2009).

Few studies have been conducted that focus on the academic experiences of ELLs in higher education. Instead, studies remain centered on the cultural aspects international students encounter in mainstream settings in higher education. Banazzo and Wong (2007) report findings of a study about Japanese international female students' experiences of discrimination, prejudice and stereotype. Another study presents the narrative of one Chinese student's perceptions of invisibility (Hsieh, 2007). Valdez (2015) also invokes the concept of invisibility in her examination of 15 Chinese international students. While also focused on participants' perceptions of how they were viewed by other students and faculty, inarguably an important topic, the study did not strictly address classroom pedagogical practices. With the changing demographics of student populations at universities within the U.S., there is a call for more culturally responsive teaching practices. Wang and Machado (2015) argue for more training at writing centers to help address the language acquisition and academic needs of international students. These efforts, as recognized by the authors, are seldom enough (Wang & Machado, 2015). Lin and Scherz (2005) call for a "paradigm shift for professional practice" (p. 28). More instructor training is needed in culturally responsive practices and students and instructors should be mutually responsible for the learning that takes place in the classroom (Lin & Scherz, 2005).

Research suggests that success at the postsecondary level is contingent upon target language proficiency which itself is related to many factors (Bifuh-Ambe, 2011). Bifuh-Ambe (2011) notes that ELLs must employ a variety of learning and cognitive strategies; yet little research has been done to identify available resources beyond what writing centers are doing to meet needs for students and faculty (Wang & Machado, 2015). With limited special assistance available for ELLs once they have entered the mainstream university classroom, these students are challenged by language difficulties, differing academic environmental expectations, and occlusion of background knowledge. …

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