Academic literacy and the nonnative speaker graduate student

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Academic literacy and the nonnative speakergraduate studentGeorge Braine1,*Department of English, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong KongAbstractIn this paper, I examine the acquisition of academic literacy by nonnative speaker graduatestudents who choose to study in the English medium. For these students, the concept of aca-demic literacy extends beyond the ability to read and write. I will critically explore ourunderstanding of academic literacy by summarizing the research on this issue, identifying thestrengths and weaknesses of the surveys and case studies that have been conducted. I will thenpoint out the areas that need to be examined, and better approaches that could be utilized toenhance our understanding of academic literacy. Having been a nonnative speaker graduatestudent myself, I will integrate into the paper anecdotes of my experience in gaining academicliteracy in order to both enrich the paper and to substantiate my claims.# 2002 Published byElsevier Science Ltd.Growing up in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1960s and 1970s, I had been up tomy ears in American culture and politics. My father had bought me a subscriptionto the Readers Digest when I was 12, and I was also reading Free World, a magazinedistributed by the United States Information Agency (USIA). I listened to the Voiceof America regularly and keenly followed the Vietnam War. American pop andcountry and western were the most popular types of music on Radio Ceylon. Later,as a novice teacher of English, I began reading the Forum magazine which the USIAsent me, my only exposure to what could be termed professional literature in theteaching of English.So, when I arrived in the US in the mid-1980s for graduate study in applied lin-guistics, I thought my long-term acquaintance with America and my maturity hadprepared me for life at an American university. I had been married for more than 10Journal of English for Academic Purposes1 (2002)$ - see front matter # 2002 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd.PI I : S1475-1585(02 )00006 -1* Tel.: +852-2609-7445; fax: +852-2603-5270.E-mail address: (G. Braine).1 George Braine is an associate professor of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He hasconducted research on English for academic purposes since the late 1970s.years, had some experience of foreign travel, and was condent of my language andsocial skills. Because I arrived on campus a week after the fall semester had begun,the only space available on campus was a large room in a coed dormitory, to beshared with ve other students, four of whom were undergraduates. One was thepresident of the universitys gay and lesbian students society, with a hectic sociallife, and the others were fun loving students out to have a good time, especially atthe beginning of the academic year. The lights were never switched o in the room,the phone rang around the clock, and visitors dropped-in at all hours of the day andnight. The sounds of doors swinging open noisily and banging shut, of running feetand the giggles of young women, pervaded the hallway.Nothing had prepared me for this. I could not sleep for two weeks. Physically andnervously exhausted, I appealed to an international student advisor, who arrangedmy move to an o-campus apartment. That allowed me to survive and complete mystudies. Some of my classmates were not so lucky. One who had taught English foryears in his country was traumatized with embarrassment when he was told that hisEnglish prociency was low and was required to take full-time ESL courses for awhole year before being allowed to take graduate-level courses. Another classmatefrom Africa, who had learned English as his third language, simply disappearedfrom the university when he too was asked to take a year of ESL courses. A thirdclassmate, unable to cope with the long parting from her family, saw her studiesfalter as a result.Academic literacy has been narrowly dened as the ability to read and write thevarious texts assigned in [university] (Spack, 1997). Spack was writing in the con-text of a study that described a young Japanese students journey through theAmerican undergraduate curriculum. On the other hand, anyone who has attendedgraduate school, or taught graduate courses, or supervised graduate students is wellaware that the acquisition of academic literacy that is essential for graduatestudies is more than the ability to read and write eectively. As my own experienceand that of my classmates described earlier amply indicate, graduate students notonly need to build interactive relationships with their teachers, thesis supervisors,and peers, and develop eective research strategies and good writing skills, they alsoneed to adapt smoothly to the linguistic and social milieu of their host environmentand to the culture of their academic departments and institutions.Simply stated, a knowledge of ones chosen eld of study, research skills, andgood reading and writing skills form only the foundation for the acquisition ofacademic literacy. To build upon this foundation, graduate students must adaptquickly to both the academic and social culture of their host environments, and thepersonalities and demands of their teachers, academic advisors, and classmates.Graduate students need to acquire advanced academic literacy, and this acquisitiononly comes, whether these students like it or not, along with complex and oftenconfusing baggage.In this paper, I will rst summarize the more relevant research that has been con-ducted so far into the issues that concern academic literacy and nonnative speaker(NNS) graduate students. After evaluating these studies and pointing out what theyreveal, I will indicate the areas that need further study and argue for the need to give60 G. Braine / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1 (2002) 5968voice to current and former NNS graduate students themselves so that they canexpress rst-hand how they acquired academic literacy.1. Research on academic literacy and NNS studentsThe earliest attempts to determine academic literacy were the surveys of under-graduate academic tasks, a popular form of applied linguistics research for decades(see Bridgeman & Carlson, 1984; Johns, 1981; Kroll, 1979; for instance). Later,Horowitz (1986) and Braine (1989) analyzed course syllabi and writing assignmentsto obtain a better grasp of undergraduates writing needs. Research also focused onteachers evaluations of students writing and their judgments of the frequency andseriousness of the students writing problems (see, for instance, Bridgeman & Carl-son, 1984; Johns, 1981; Vann, Meyer, & Lorenz, 1984).1.1. Survey researchAt the graduate level, three surveys that have left a lasting impression are those ofCanseco and Byrd (1989), Casanave and Hubbard (1992), and Jenkins, Jordan, andWeiland (1993). Canseco and Byrd (1989) conducted the pioneering survey of writ-ing tasks assigned to graduate students, focusing on business administration coursesat a university in the US south. They analyzed 55 course syllabi from 48 graduatecourses and determined that seven formats (examinations, problems and assign-ments, projects, papers, case studies, reports, and what they termed miscellaneousassignments) were assigned in these courses. Casanave and Hubbard (1992) surveyedteachers at Stanford University on the writing they assigned to doctoral students, onhow they evaluated students writing, and on their perceptions of the studentswriting problems. Responses were received from 85 teachers in the humanities andsocial sciences (HSS) and science and technology (ST). Jenkins et al. (1993) cast awider net, surveying engineering teachers at six US universities that enrolled largenumbers of NNS graduate students. Their objectives were to determine the prevail-ing practices in writing in graduate engineering programs and to explore the atti-tudes of engineering faculty members about writing skills needed within thegraduate programs and beyond. They received 176 usable responses to theirquestionnaire.1.2. Case studiesAs researchers in applied linguistics began to acknowledge that qualitativeresearch would provide more comprehensive data than surveys and textual analysis,case studies became more prevalent in the research on academic literacy. Four of thebetter known case studies are summarized here.Belcher (1994) studied two graduate students from China and one from Koreamajoring in Chinese literature, applied mathematics, and human nutrition, respec-tively. The objective of the study, which was conducted at a major US university,G. Braine / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1 (2002) 5968 61was to examine the relationship between these students and their academic advisorsand how the students functioned as members of their disciplinary communities.Over a 10-week academic quarter, Belcher met with the students during a 2-h weeklysession of a dissertation writing class in which the students were enrolled, read theirdissertation installments weekly, and discussed their writing as well the advisorsresponses to the writings with the students. She also met with the advisors in themiddle of the term for loosely structured interviews and met them again 1 year afterthe dissertation writing class had ended.Schneider and Fujishima (1995) focused on a student from Taiwan who wasenrolled at a graduate institution on the West Coast of the US. They examined thedevelopment of both spoken and written English of the subject over a period of foursemesters, collecting both textual and anecdotal data from the students writingsamples, journal entries, TOEFL scores, course grades, his English teachers, hissubject area teachers, and the student himself. Due to low TOEFL scores, the sub-jects admission to a program in international Public Administration had been con-ditional and he was required to take 16-weeks of full-time English courses beforecommencing studies in his major.Dong (1996) studied three Chinese students majoring in biochemistry, genetics,and ecology at a US institution in the south. The objective of her study was todetermine how native-speaker advisors initiated non-native speaker students to theirrespective disciplines through explicit and implicit instructions in knowledge trans-formation skillscitation norms, citation functions, and dissertation writing for-mats. During a 6-month period, Dong observed the advisors and the students as thelatter wrote the rst chapter of their dissertation, collected textual data (such asdrafts of the dissertations, published and submitted journal articles, and stylemanuals), conducted background interviews with the advisors and the students. Sheobserved two writing conferences and two lab meetings between the advisors and thestudents.Riazi (1997) used questionnaires, interviews, textual analysis, and process logs tostudy four Iranian doctoral students in their second year of residency at a Canadianuniversity. His objective was to determine how these students acquired academicliteracy appropriate to their chosen disciplines. The study was conducted over 5months as the subjects, all education majors, prepared for and performed writingtasks assigned in their graduate seminar courses.Riazi did not attend the seminars nor did he meet with teachers and advisors inthe course of the study.1.3. InterviewsGosden (1996) investigated how Japanese doctoral students wrote research articlesin English, handled translations from Japanese to English, and revised their articlesin response to external critiques by interviewing 16 doctoral students majoring inphysics, chemistry, and cell biology at a Japanese university. At the time of thestudy, the students were attending an academic writing class taught by Gosden andwere writing and revising their rst research article in English.62 G. Braine / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1 (2002) 59682. Evaluation of the earlier researchFirst, the surveys. Although they provide useful information on certain aspects ofadvanced academic literacy expected of NNS graduate students, surveys never-theless have clear shortcomings: they tend to impose preconceived classications ofacademic tasks, or to focus only on narrow aspects of the academic milieu (such aswriting tasks or teachers viewpoints), or to ignore the contexts in which the tasksare assigned and carried out. In fact, Jenkins et al. (1993) explicitly refer to theshortcomings of survey research. Casanave and Hubbard (1992), claiming that sur-veys alone cannot provide all the information about NNS graduate students aca-demic needs and problems (p. 45), recommend the use of in-depth case studies ofgraduate students and their teachers through the use of interviews, observations,and the analysis of course syllabi.To a large extent, these shortcomings were overcome in the case studies thatfollowed. The researchers, who as English instructors had direct contact with thestudent subjects (as in the case of Beicher, 1994, and Schneider & Fujishima, 1995),or shared cultural and linguistic background with the subjects (as in the cases Dong,1996, and Riazi, 1997), gained valuable insights into the lives of NNS graduatestudents as they navigated the complex and sometimes frustrating world of theacademy. Nevertheless, most case studies focused only on a brief period in a stu-dents academic lifesuch as 10-weeks or 5-monthsand, except Schneider andFujishimas (1995) study, did not obtain data from multiple sources. Academic lit-eracy is generally acquired over an extended period of time in a complex, dynamicmanner, and data from multiple sourcesgraduate teachers, advisors, peers, journalentries, and prescribed and reference texts as well as written assignmentsis neededbefore a complete picture can be drawn.In addition, as far as academic literacy is concerned, a fundamental shortcomingof most of these studies is their focus on writing tasks alone. Admittedly, this wasthe stated aim of most studies (Canseco & Byrd, 1989; Casanave & Hubbard, 1992;Dong, 1997; Gosden, 1996; Jenkins, Jordan, & Weiland, 1993; Riazi, 1997). As Ihave stated previously in this paper, academic literacy is much more than the abilityto read and write, and as I argue later, data has to be obtained from multiple sourcesfor a more comprehensive understanding of the process by which academic literacyis acquired.3. What the research revealsDespite these limitations, these surveys and case studies do provide useful infor-mation on NNS graduate students and their academic needs. From Canseco andByrd (1989), we learn that writing is a major component of graduate business cour-ses, and that it plays a key role in testing. Writing assignments in these coursescontained detailed, highly structured instructions, indicating that course instructorscarefully controlled the assignments. Nevertheless, students needed to interpret theassignments in order to better understand the instructors expectations. CasanaveG. Braine / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1 (2002) 5968 63and Hubbard (1992) found that teachers of graduate courses in the humanities,social sciences, science, and technology consider global features of writing (such asthe quality of content and the development of ideas) to be more important thanlocal features. Teachers in the humanities and social sciences rated appropriatenessof vocabulary use as the main problem in the writing of NNS graduate students.Jenkins et al. (1993), who surveyed engineering teachers, found that the teachersusually evaluated their NNS and NS students writing by the same standards. Fur-ther, surface level errors such as in grammar and vocabulary were evaluated leni-ently. They also revealed that teachers expected a high standard of writing fromtheir students, and ended up writing about 25% of the material in their studentstheses.Belcher (1994) revealed that thesis advisors and advisees may have distinct notionsof culture that could be irreconcilable, that some students may be prone to displaytheir self-assumed brilliance as scholars as opposed to fullling the instructions oftheir advisors, and that lengthy written criticisms of students writing by advisorsmay not help the writers. Most importantly, Belcher found that, as far as relation-ships between advisors and advisees are concerned, dialogic was preferable to hier-archical relationships. A student becomes more receptive to an advisor when thelatter assumes a coworker and a colearner (p. 32) role.Schneider and Fujishima (1995), who obtained data from multiple sources in theirstudy of a Taiwanese student, analyzed their data according to three categories: thestudents English prociency, his sociolinguistic competence and motivation forstudying (p. 8), and his learning strategies. Schneider and Fujishima found that astudents inability to enhance his/her prociency in English could be detrimental tograduate study. Further, a grasp of social graces and social realties, and an inte-grative motivation, instead of a purely utilitarian or pragmatic one, may be essentialfor students to succeed at the graduate level. Furthermore, depending on behavioralstrategies (such as behaving like a model student, pretending to understand whatwas going on in class, planning carefully before writing, and taking time to write)would not compensate for a students low prociency in English, inability toregroup and show exibility when confronted with negative feedback, and inabilityto use eective learning strategies.Dong (1996), who studied three Chinese students, noted the importance of ahands-on approach by the advisor on the students research and writing, such as inproviding careful guidance in the selection of a research topic and help with writingthe thesis. This was more eective than probing in the dark and learning frommistakes, which students resorted to without adequate guidance from supervisors.Dong discovered few conicts between the students L1 and the acquisition of aca-demic literacy in English, and found the major problematic area for students to bethe lack of membership and social contact (p. 453) with their chosen academicdiscourse communities.Riazi (1997), who studied Iranian students in Canada, concluded that graduatestudents interpret writing tasks in terms of their personal, educational, and careerperspectives. The writers attempts to balance their own interpretations with theirunderstanding of audience expectations aected the form, substance, and style of the64 G. Braine / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1 (2002) 5968written product. Learning through writing, the students became better organizedand more logical, reasonable, and communicative, better able to conceptualize andunderstand the topics they were writing on, and able to master new terminology oftheir disciplines and to apply them in their writing.Gosdens (1996) interviews with Japanese doctoral students revealed that none ofthe students had been formally taught academic writing in English, and, probably asa result, the overwhelming majority of them wrote drafts or outlines of their papersin Japanese before translating them into English. Most students viewed revision assimple editing for surface level errors and did not think of their audience as theywrote. The transfer of information appeared to be vertical, from the students totheir Japanese native speaker supervisors only.To sum up, the research reveals that writing plays a vital role in graduate studiesand that teachers of graduate courses generally consider surface-level errors to beless important than global errors in their students writing. The research also revealsthat a sound relationship between the advisor and advisee is essential to the latterssuccess, and that, in the case of NNS graduate students, hands-on help by thesupervisor from the conception of a research project to the writing of the thesis is themost eective. In fact, what is needed is a collaborative relationship between theadvisor and advisee. Further, in order to succeed in graduate studies, students notonly need a high prociency in English and the ability to use appropriate learningstrategies, but also sound social skills. NNS graduate students may need explicitinstruction in academic writing, although they appear to become more accomplishedwriters as they proceed through their course work, research, and thesis writing.4. Where do we go from here?As a NNS speaker who has traversed the path of a graduate student, what I ndlacking in the research are the authentic voices of NNS graduate students. Dong(1996) and Riazi (1997), themselves NNS, no doubt brought their experiences andinsights as graduate students to their research. But, bound by the requirements andlimitations placed on dissertation writing and writing for publication, they havebeen unable to refer explicitly to their own experiences while they reported on otherNNS graduate students. Nevertheless, NNS scholars in applied linguistics arebeginning to nd their own voice (the establishment of the Nonnative Speakers ofEnglish Caucus in TESOL and the publication in 1999 of my anthology Non-nativeeducators in English language teaching are two examples I can think of) and theyneed to add their voice to the issues concerning academic literacy. In fact, thechapters by Ulla Connor (1999) and Xiaoming Li (1999) in Non-native educators inEnglish language teaching are two instances where we hear the voice of NNS aca-demics reecting upon their initiation to the discourse communities of their dis-ciplines. Xiaoming Lis chapter is particularly relevant because she not onlydiscusses the cross cultural issues of learning to write in English as an older graduatestudent, but also her relationships with mentors such as Don Murray and ThomasNewkirk. Reections an multiliterate lives, edited by Diane Belcher and Ulla ConnorG. Braine / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1 (2002) 5968 65(2001), also contains some narrations by NNS scholars on how they acquired aca-demic discourse as graduate students in the US.While these reections provide much insight into the acquisition of academic dis-course, descriptions of relationships with academic advisors, as narrated in the rstperson, are rare. The research discussed earlier has shown the importance of theadvisoradvisee relationship in the acquisition of academic literacy. On most occa-sions, these relationships may proceed smoothly and productively. However, thelarge percentage of all but dissertation (ABD) students and drop-outs from doc-toral studies in the US could at least partially be attributed to relationships thatfailed. However, for former graduate students, these relationships could be too sen-sitive or painful to describe or reect on. On occasion, the power of a single advisorto decide ones fate could become an emotionally harrowing experience for a stu-dent. I am aware of one advisor who delayed signing on a dissertation till his NNSadvisee completed his assigned work on a dictionary that the advisor was compiling.In frustration, the student threatened to sue the university and this nally paved theway for his graduation. In my case, of the two advisors who co-chaired my dis-sertation committee, one took a hands-o approach from the start. It was the gen-erous help of the other advisor that carried me through. In addition to the lack ofauthentic voices on the acquisition of academic literacy, I nd the earlier researchwanting in another respect As an academic based in Asia, I am aware of the thou-sands of NNS graduate students who pursue their Masters and doctoral studies inthe English medium at universities in Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Asiancountries. The ndings of the earlier studies (except for that of Gosden, 1996, whichwas conducted in Japan) may not be relevant to Asia because, for the most part,they were conducted at North American universities where non-native speaker stu-dents are from heterogeneous language backgrounds and are compelled to useEnglish for communication with their teachers, advisors, and peers, and live andconduct research in environments where English is the main language of communi-cation. In contrast, NNS graduate students in Asia must operate in environmentswhere they are able to use their L1 for research and communication with their tea-chers and peers, and yet must read and write in English. At present, I am not awareof triangulated studies focusing on these students.Whether conducted in Asia, North America, or elsewhere, research on the acqui-sition of academic literacy by graduate students must be in the form of case studies.Case studies provide rich information about learners, about the strategies they useto communicate and learn, how their own personalities, attitudes, and goals interactwith the learning environment, and the nature of their linguistic growth. Case stud-ies are also descriptive, dynamic, and rely upon naturally occurring data, and aretherefore the most appropriate for studying the acquisition of academic literacy. Thesubject students themselves could provide the most important data, such as theirsociocultural and educational backgrounds, previous educational experiences, lan-guage learning histories and strategies, and research experience. Data could also becollected through interviews with teachers and thesis advisors, observations of lec-tures, seminars, and students oral presentations, observations of studentteacherinteractions during lectures and seminars, observations of interactions between66 G. Braine / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1 (2002) 5968students and thesis supervisors, textual analysis of selected text and reference booksused by the students, and the textual analysis of papers and theses written by thestudents and the feedback given by their supervisors.Consider the case of graduate students from China enrolled in Hong Kong uni-versities for degrees awarded in English. If we are to study the acquisition of aca-demic literacy by these students, the most appropriate research questions would beas follows: What are the linguistic, educational, and cultural backgrounds of grad-uate students from China studying in Hong Kong? What are the reading and writingtasks required in graduate programs in Hong Kong? How eectively do these stu-dents perform these tasks? What characteristics of the students background help orhinder them from adapting to Hong Kongs academic environment in general andthe specic academic departments in particular? The research methodology couldconsist of interviews with students, interviews with teachers and thesis advisors,analysis of course outlines, writing assignments, and text/reference books, observa-tions of lectures, seminars, and studentteacher/advisor meetings, and the analysisof students writing. Only carefully planned studies providing data from multiplesources will give us the information we need for a clearer understanding of howNNS graduate students acquire academic literacy.ReferencesBelcher, D. (1994). The apprenticeship approach to advanced academic literacy graduate students andtheir mentors. English for Specic Purposes, 13, 2334.Belcher, D., & Connor, U. (2001). Reections on multiliterate lives. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.Braine, G. (1989). Writing in science and technology: an analysis of assignments from ten undergraduatecourse. English for Specic Purposes, 8, 315.Bridgeman, B., & Carlson, S. (1984). Survey of academic writing tasks. Written Communication, 1, 247280.Canseco, G., & Byrd, P. (1989). Writing required in graduate courses in business administration. TESOLQuarterly, 23, 305316.Casanave, C., & Hubbard, P. (1992). The writing assignments and writing problems of doctoral students:faculty perceptions, pedagogical issues, and needed research. English for Specic Purposes, 11, 3349.Connor, U. (1999). Learning to write academic prose in a second language: a literacy autobiography. InG. Braine (Ed.), Non-native educators in English language teaching (pp. 2942). Mahwah, NJ: LawrenceErlbaum.Dong, Y. (1996). Learning how to use citations for knowledge transformation: non-native doctoral stu-dents dissertation writing in science. Research in the Teaching of English, 30, 428457.Gosden, H. (1996). Verbal reports of Japanese novices research writing practices in English. Journal ofSecond Language Writing, 5, 109128.Horowitz, D. (1986). What professors actually require: academic tasks for the ESL classroom. TESOLQuarterly, 20, 445462.Jenkins, S., Jordan, M., & Weiland, P. (1993). The role of writing in graduate engineering education: asurvey of faculty beliefs and practices. English for Specic Purposes, 12, 5167.Johns, A. (1981). Necessary English: a faculty survey. TESOL Quarterly, 15, 5157.Kroll, B. (1979). A survey of the writing needs of foreign and American college freshmen. English Lan-guage Teaching Journal, 33, 219227.Li, X. (1999). Writing from the vantage point of an insider/outsider. In G. Braine (Ed.), Non-native edu-cators in English language teaching (pp. 4355). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.G. Braine / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1 (2002) 5968 67Riazi, A. (1997). Acquiring disciplinary literacy: a social-cognitive analysis of text production and learn-ing among Iranian graduate students of education. Journal of Second Language Writing, 6, 105137.Schneider, M., & Fujishima, N. (1995). When practice doesnt make perfect The case of a graduate ESLstudent. In D. Belcher, & G. Braine (Eds.), Academic writing in a second language: essays on researchand pedagogy (pp. 322). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.Spack, R. (1997). The acquisition of academic literacy in a second language: a longitudinal study. WrittenCommunication, 14, 362.Vann, R. J., Meyer, D. E., & Lorenz, F. O. (1984). Error gravity: a study of faculty opinion of ESL errors.TESOL Quarterly, 18, 427440.68 G. Braine / Journal of English for Academic Purposes 1 (2002) 5968


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