The Importance of English Language Proficiency for College Teaching Assistants

Elaine Hirsch talks about the significance of English language proficiency for College Teaching Assistants.

Learning abstruse concepts in a 7:30 AM finance class is a challenging feat in itself; most students would rather not have to worry about understanding their teaching assistants’ English while they’re at it. Unfortunately, you’ve probably had alike experiences in classes taught by master’s degree candidate TAs, and incidences such as these form the basis for establishing guidelines regarding English language proficiency in higher education.

Language proficiency is commonly defined as a person’s ability to speak or perform in an acquired language. In order to examine an individual’s abilities, Educational Testing Service has established Test of English as a Foreign Language and is administered worldwide to gauge the ability of people to employ college-level English in terms of listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills.

However, the burden of applying this standard through admission guidelines falls to individual states and universities. For instance, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “non-native English speaking graduate students who are prospective teaching assistants are encouraged to demonstrate oral English proficiency prior to arriving on campus” by meeting specific requirements on either the TOEFL or IELTS.

Similarly, the University of Illinois at Chicago needs applicants whose native languages aren’t English to demonstrate above minimum scores on either the TOEFL or the exam of the International English Language Testing System within two years of application.

Along with valid TOEFL or IELTS scores, the University of Buffalo requires all international students who have been awarded teaching assistantships to take the SPEAK test before class registration, or even in some cases prior to admission to a particular program. On the west coast, the University of California also requires either the TOEFL or IELTS.

Why all the fuss? Beginning in the 1990’s, Penn State University stepped up its employment of international teaching assistants (ITAs) and promoted ITA efficacy looking at the barriers that might hinder communication. The University made the commonsensical stipulation that ITAs be sufficiently proficient in English to communicate clearly.

The university reasoned it was “not fair to ITAs to place them, without excellent preparation, in situations in which teaching conventions and domestic students’ expectations may differ greatly from their earlier experiences.” Additionally, it is not prudent and easy to saddle undergraduates, often come from the communities lacking variety, with unfamiliar accents who are already struggling to learn difficult course material.

Put differently, increasing numbers of ITAs meant greater necessity for English proficiency requirements for the sakes of students and TAs themselves.

In case you think this is solely an American issue, you need to mull over it again. In Iran, a study of English teachers indicated that language competence was the most important aspect among good teachers. It seems that irrespective of whether teaching assistants are of native or foreign origin fundamental language proficiency is not only desirable but essential.    

Do you think all College Teaching Assistants should have English qualifications?