Column: International TAs tested before teaching

By Gus Bode

As the ITA coordinator for the Center for English as a Second Language, I feel compelled to address the two letters written responding to “Course helps TAs, students understand each other” from Jan. 26.

First, it is wonderful to see a dialogue opened on this issue. The topic of international teaching assistants on campus is a nationwide issue, one not limited to SIUC. However, to that end, there are some misconceptions, which need to be clarified.

This is not a dichotomous situation. It is not about the undergraduates learning to listen, nor is it about the ITAs learning to speak English. It is about both.


First, the ITAs who come to SIUC (and universities across the country) are screened for oral proficiency prior to their entry into a classroom. The ITA testing includes three people – a language specialist, a representative of the university administration and a faculty member. Their oral proficiency is rated and ITAs are given assignments based on their oral proficiency. SIUC and its various departments are committed to high-quality education. Testing – and, when necessary, training – of the ITAs is a part of that commitment.

Furthermore, ITAs do speak English. They are required to take not only the GRE, but also the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) prior to their admission. The required score for graduate studies is higher than that of undergraduate admissions. These ITAs have studied English for many years in their home countries, or they would not be here. Period. They are content specialists.

Not all students of English will – or physically can – achieve native-like fluency. It is a misconception that learning a language is like learning a math formula or flow chart. Language is fluid. Language is dynamic. Most significantly, language is difficult. Idioms, technical terminology and inconsistencies in grammar and pronunciation rules make English very easy to learn superficially, but extremely difficult to learn at a native-like level. Even in the US there are differences in pronunciation. We learn to adjust to them.

ITAs are not dealing just with language issues; they also are coming into an American classroom with 20-plus years of cultural training from their home countries. That training includes degrees of formality and behavioral expectations, not to mention the need to be experts in their content areas.

The undergraduates, who often appear to be on the other side of the issue, come to class with their own 20-plus years of academic and cultural training. They are not being expected to learn another language to be in a classroom with an ITA. Comparing visiting Germany (where the language needed is highly superficial and social in nature) with professionals who have extensive language training is inaccurate. The request of ITAs is to be patient and to be a responsible student.

The conflict arises when these two very different expectations collide.

As ITA coordinator, I conduct observations of the new ITAs in their classrooms. On my evaluation form for the undergraduates is a question that asks what undergraduate students can do to improve. One of the most common responses is “to be patient,” followed by, “the [undergraduate] students need to do their work and prepare for class.”


The suggestion from Hao’s letter on Monday is not that undergraduates need to learn the language of the ITAs; rather, they need to be aware of cultural and academic differences and learn to listen. Go beyond the pronunciation, and be an active participant in the classroom. I can cite a number of studies showing that pronunciation is rarely the problem with comprehension in the classroom. The problem is generally the attitude that students bring with them. This is not to discount the undergraduate argument, because sometimes listening is difficult. However, given time, comprehension occurs if the undergraduate is willing.

It is not an “us against them” scenario. The compromise is this – the ITAs are tested and do have access to training. They are making an effort to improve their language. Being here in the US is evidence of that. The undergraduates can also contribute by not using a lot of slang in the classroom, speaking clearly and slowly, and asking for specific clarification, among other things. Having an ITA is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the world that we are a part of. They come here expecting to be ambassadors for their homelands. ITAs are fortunate to have such a wonderful population of American students from which to learn about American culture. Undergraduates, you are ambassadors for your country as well. You never know whom you are going to work for when you leave here. SIU hopes to prepare you accordingly.

Cheryl Ernst is the coordinator for international teaching assistants at the Center for English as a Second Language