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Tips for International Students and ESL Teachers: Five Ways to Continuously Improve English Language Skills

International students often arrive in Canada with an excellent English Language Proficiency exam score. Different colleges and universities require different exams. When a student successfully passes the exam, they expect their level of English to be good enough to keep up with college-level texts and to complete writing assignments. Students quickly discover they have more to learn!


Academic experts at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, examined the issue and made this conclusion about proof of English proficiency exams:

“In fact, these tests only measure EAL students’ generic language proficiency because they are not at all based on any particular discipline and/or a subject field. As different disciplines in higher education have different linguistic demands, it is not at all clear whether the test score can predict successful performance in academic studies once the students are accepted into universities and/or colleges. On the contrary, the entry level of the students’ English language proficiency needs to be regarded merely as ‘a starting point for further development,’ meaning EAL students need to continuously improve their English language proficiency in their academic journeys in higher education.”

In other words, just because the students are trained to pass English tests doesn’t mean they are prepared to study in English successfully.

You can read more about what the Queen’s team learned about Writing Across Borders by following this link https://www.queensu.ca/ctl/resources/global-engagement/writing-across-borders.

The main question is, how can international students continuously improve their English?

Here are some quick tips to start with:

  1. Accept that continuous improvement in any skill is challenging work. When International students arrive at their Canadian schools, they are expected to adjust and adapt immediately. That expectation is unfair. Students need to dedicate themselves to learning to survive and thrive. Working while studying, at least for the first year, should be avoided. Accept that learning to live in a new place takes a lot of energy.
  2. Slow down. Many students are in the habit of scanning texts in search of answers. The goal, instead, is to take time with the material to learn the terms that are used in your topic area. Students must get the full effect and understand every word they read. This is especially true when reviewing instructions for completing essays, lab reports, and problem sets.
  3. Reflect and make connections. Part of slowing down means pausing to think about the readings and other learning material. Students should ask themselves these questions after each reading session:

How does this new information connect to my experiences or to what I have seen in the world?

How does this approach build upon what I learned in the past?

Do I need to change or adapt my approach to the topic based on this new information?

These questions are at the beginning of the critical thinking and analysis expected of you.

  1. Halve talking time and double listening time. English is spoken differently in every part of the world. There are different accents, different local expressions, and different conversation styles. Absorbing more of the language means listening more and speaking less, and for the first six months or so, most of the talking should be questions.
  2. Treat learning like playing a game. Learning is a challenge. It’s hard work. If students can approach their learning of English like play, they will enjoy the process more.

Here’s an example of a game that will improve writing and understanding the different parts of English as they are used, not explained! This is easy to play alone. If you are playing with a group, all students should start with the same sentence from any text.


Leonie guides Malvika through The Sentence Game. The game is an enrichment activity designed to support International students in the continuous improvement of their English language skills.


Here is one from the Ontario Driver’s Training manual:


“You must wear a helmet whenever you are riding on a snowmobile.”


The challenge is to change one word at a time until you have a new sentence.


First, let’s replace the word snowmobile:


You must wear a helmet whenever you are riding on a horse.


Now, let’s keep the horse and replace another word, like must with should.


You should wear a helmet whenever you are riding on a horse.


Let’s have some fun by exchanging the word helmet for gown.


You should wear a gown whenever you are riding a horse.


A verb is an action word, so let’s replace the verb to wear with the verb to buy.


You should buy a gown whenever you are riding a horse.


Now, let’s substitute buying for riding.


You should buy a gown whenever you are buying a horse.


It’s time to get rid of the word whenever. Let’s use the word if instead.


You should buy a gown if you are buying a horse.


Now, let’s change up the first ‘you’ in this sentence.


I should buy a gown if you are buying a horse.


That second you? It’s out of the sentence now.


I should buy a gown if they are buying a horse.


Groups of students can compare their newly created sentences and the choices they made. As students improve, they can try the game with more complicated sentence structures from academic texts.

Exercises like these are part of all English as a Second Language courses.

Are you an ESL teacher with materials like the exercise we described? Check out the Teach with Edusity link on the site. Work with us. https://edusity.com/teachers


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Kate Baggott

Head of Content and Communications at Edusity
Kate Baggott is the Head of Content and Communications for the Edusity family of companies that includes Edusity.com, TheBabbGroup.com, ProfessorServices.com and Cudoo.com

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