Style and Substance: how second language affects academic attainment


Style and substance original -International

By Sue Daley-Yates, University of Huddersfield

Reading Martin Binks’ post on how students need “know-how” as well as “know-about” (Binks, Feb 15, 2016) reminds me that, in their writing, university students need ‘style’ as well as ‘substance’. This is particularly relevant for those for whom English is a second or additional language (L2: international and overseas students). As well as needing knowledge (know-about), students need to be able to write well critically (style) as well as correctly (substance).

The challenges facing international and overseas students are well documented in terms of adapting to a foreign culture and different educational system. The difficulties of reading and writing in a second language have usually been attributed to poor language skills, which can be exacerbated when they have to communicate in an academic genre, using what Ingvar Lunderg describes as “decontextualized language”. Moreover, reading academic texts may present difficulties for L2 students who may have to read to decode the words before they are able to determine the sense of what they are reading and to interpret the key points being made. As Kaiko Koda suggests, inefficient decoding can add more complications: “Because... [decoding] is resource demanding, it severely restricts readers’ involvement in higher order comprehension operations, such as text integration, inference, and reasoning”. If students are also translating what they read into their own language and then attempting to make sense of the text before translating it back into English, it is not surprising that, not only does this take extra time and effort, but may account for the weak writing skills noted by their lecturers.

With the increasing numbers of international students opting to study at UK universities, to address issues with English language and to develop understanding of university academic writing conventions, effective support needs to be put in place. Moreover, it was highlighted by Robin Peterson and Bruce Pennington in 2012 that weak language skills may be the result of an undiagnosed learning difficulty such as dyslexia in the first language that impacts on second language acquisition and may be affecting reading and writing skills. Therefore as with UK home students, diagnosing a learning difficulty such as dyslexia in international and overseas students may increase performance and attainment.

This leads me on to a somewhat controversial issue relating to student support for L2 learners, particularly international students - that of proofreading - to proofread or not to proofread, that is the question. Teachers get ‘very hot under the collar’ about this issue and appear to be divided into those who agree that proofreading should be offered and those who see it as a ‘step too far’. A few years ago I came across a stimulating guest article by Dr Shani D’Cruze on Louise Harnby’s blog, The Proofreader’s Parlour, and I became convinced by the argument she put forward, that universities should consider offering proofreading for international and overseas students.

Many universities have developed policies to attempt to ensure that proofreaders only point out mistakes and do not correct them or insert words of their own. However, few universities in the UK offer proofreading internally with the result that there is no control over where the student goes externally, i.e. on the internet and of course we all know that there are websites where students can pay for proofreading that is in fact, editing and where they can even buy essays. I would argue that, with the amount that international students pay in tuition fees, they should expect some kind of organised proofreading service within their university, as in Australia and the US and this would mean more control over the process and help to ensure students get effective, ethical support. Having said my piece / peace, I will now ‘duck back down behind the parapet and await the flak’….

Sue Daley-Yates is an Academic Skills Tutor in the Business School at the University of Huddersfield and supports home, overseas and international students with their academic skills and study skills.