International student Ace Shi was a straight-A student in Shandong, China, before coming to the University of B.C.. He went to an English-taught high school, and he aced his standardized tests for his Canadian college applications.
Now, as a fifth-year biology major at UBC, he rarely receives A’s on his writing assignments.
He is not alone.
Among Chinese students, with almost 5,000 people at the undergraduate and graduate level, many are challenged by English academic writing and are failing behind.
Students dissatisfied with current resources
UBC provides roughly 250 half-hour appointments per week for guidance on papers at the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication.
But the services are inadequate for non-native English speakers, say many students.
“I have too many errors. We only get to the first paragraph in one session. It doesn’t improve my overall writing skills,” said Jim Ku, a fifth-year computer-science major voiced the same concerns and also complained about the short appointments.
Ace Shi went to the centre once in his first year and never went back.
“They gave advice on essay structure, but it was too general. It’s not for non-native English speakers,” he said.
With 20 years of experience teaching Chinese students, Alison Bailey from the Asian Studies Department said that she notices a recent decline in their English-writing quality.
“I had to fail six students in the last in-class essay exam,” she said. “I feel a duty to help, but I just can’t help them all.”
Bailey used to edit all of her students’ papers in detail. This is now impossible, as she has 250 students per semester.
Standardized tests don’t prepare students
To ensure their English skills are sufficient for university-level academics, UBC requires most incoming students with English as their second language to score 90/120 overall and 21/30 on the writing section of the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Some Chinese international students think, however, that getting a high score on those tesets doesn’t mean they can write complex English essays to the level of their Canadian fellow students.
Recent UBC finance graduate Jason Yao scored 114/120 on TOEFL with a 29/30 writing score — greatly exceeding the bare minimum requirement — but he still felt unprepared for class assignments.
“It’s the standard five-paragraph essay, which doesn’t help academic papers,” said Peggy Soltani, who prepared students for the English-language tests in China.
TOEFL is not the only test ESL students must write. UBC has other measures to prepare non-native English speakers for academic coursework, including the Language Proficiency Index. Most Chinese international students need to score 30/40 on the writing section of the index to enroll in mandatory UBC English writing courses.
“The writing section (of the test) wanted us to write in extremely simple sentences,” said Serena Jiao, a UBC economics alumna, “You can’t do that in school courses or at your job.”
UBC Extended Learning offers two non-credit online courses, Writing 098 and 099, for $520 per course. They are meant to help students develop university-level composition skills.
But they have low appeal.
Fourth-year accounting student Cary Zhong said UBC needs more strategies to address writing-related issues of international students.
“International students pay enough already. There should be a better solution.”