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International colleges and English language education

By Juliette Calow, Head of English, Bellerbys Oxford

Posted by Hannah Oakman | November 14, 2016 | International

At Bellerbys College Oxford – a specialist international college – we prepare students from 34 different nations for university study. Whoever they are, wherever they’re from, they have to adapt and adjust to the UK’s unique educational system and its culture. More than anything, however, they need to speak the language: without the right IELTS score, they can’t get on a university course – and without a working level of English, they will feel alienated from their classmates and their learning environment. 

More often than not, our students are up to the challenge – but as an international college we must simultaneously balance linguistic, academic, and pastoral obligations. Over time, we’ve developed strategies to help our international cohort rise to the challenge and make the most of their UK education. 

Challenges and obstacles 

The minimum criterion for acceptance on Bellerbys’ foundation courses is IELTS 4.5, which denotes ‘limited’ English: a student who understands the language on this level can communicate very basically, but only in familiar situations, and struggles to express complex ideas. Of course, the actual level of competence varies; some students begin at a low IELTS whilst others have more advanced comprehension. This can cause problems: how do you reconcile the needs of a pupil with near-fluency, and a pupil with a merely functional command of the language? 

Additionally, the level of English required for each course varies. For something like maths, you might be able to get by with fairly unsophisticated English, but what about law, politics, economics – those subjects where an understanding of academic language is essential?

Finally, students have problems beyond English. For example, they may well put on a brave face, but every pupil is affected by homesickness to some extent or another, and everyone struggles to integrate at first. This can unbalance their efforts to improve their English and adjust to the UK education system.

Striking a balance 

To prepare a student for university, an international school has to simultaneously improve their subject matter knowledge and their English language skills. For this reason, smaller classes are generally preferable to larger ones, as some students will require extra attention to help meet these two goals. 

Diverse classrooms are in fact better learning environments, as students are unable to talk together in their mother tongue and are instead forced to communicate with their classmates in English as a lingua franca. It can be tempting to retreat to the comfort of a native tongue, but the more that students are immersed in English, the better.

It’s important not to use a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to teaching and that students are treated as individuals with varying needs and abilities. Teaching to the average level of comprehension rarely works: it bores those who are closer to fluency and it alienates those who are further away. Some students will need extra English teaching hours and those in higher sets will benefit from more complicated extension work. 

The assessment structure should naturally vary from subject to subject but it’s advisable to start small and build up to more complex tasks. International students benefit from regular assessments which they can use to measure progress and evaluate whether they’re on track to meet their goals, particularly if they need to raise their IELTS to a certain level to meet university requirements. At Bellerbys we set a big target for students to work towards, with a 1,500-word research essay at the end of the foundation programme. 

It’s also important that the non-academic side of the course is not neglected. Students should be welcomed with a comprehensive induction programme that acquaints them with tutors, staff, host families and their fellow pupils. A social calendar is key to helping students settle in and become comfortable with speaking English in a more relaxed and informal context.

A better experience 

English is a complex language: it has completely different grammar, syntax, morphology, and in some cases a completely different script. International schools are at their best when they empower their students: when they look behind IELTS and address their real needs. With the necessary attention, resources and extracurricular support, students should be able to improve their English, focus on their studies, and secure a place at their chosen university. 

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