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Language Teacher

The Language Teacher

Overview of a Study Abroad

Kathleen L. Geis & Fukushima Chitsuko

Niigata Women's College

Niigata Women's College (NWC) is a junior college located in Niigata City, Japan. Founded in 1963, NWC is one of the oldest women's junior colleges in Niigata City. As a prefectural college, it has a good reputation, and the quality of its students is high. Approximately 760 students are enrolled in four departments. The English Department has an enrollment of 200 students: 100 first-year students and 100 second-year students. The required courses for the English major consist of a balance of English and American literature, linguistics, and English as a second language. The requirements for the major are flexible enough to allow the student to choose further study in any of the above areas.

The Department of English at NWC offers a two credit course for English majors who study abroad in an approved intensive English program. The English language study abroad course begins in July and ends in August. Although the course is available to all students, it is inevitable that more freshmen than seniors participate, since students must begin interviewing for jobs in their senior year.

This course became a part of NWC's curriculum in 1994. That year the Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) six-week summer intensive English program was approved. CESL is a unit of the Linguistics Department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC), Carbondale, Illinois, USA. One student enrolled in the course. In the following year, in order to boost enrollment, two faculty members escorted the students who enrolled and went to CESL. Enrollment increased to nine students. In 1996, recruiting efforts were intensified, and 24 students enrolled in the CESL program which had one faculty escort. Although other language schools qualify for the two-credit study abroad course the majority of students who enroll in the study abroad course choose the faculty-escorted trip to CESL.

Language Schools

Criteria for approving language schools. In order to be approved, the program must be located in an English-speaking country and meet for at least four weeks wit] 25 hours of study per week. In addition, the school must emphasize academic English, including reading, writing, grammar, and conversation, rather than emphasizing sightseeing and conversation. Schools that are affiliated with a college or a university are sought; however, independent language schools that meet the contact hours and skills criteria, and which demonstrate competency in pedagogy, can also be approved.

Selecting CESL for the escorted study abroad course. There are several reasons why CESL was chosen for the escorted program. The most practical reason is that the faculty escort graduated from SIUC. This has been an advantage for creating meaningful workshops on living in Carbondale. Another reason is that SIUC's branch campus, SIUC-Niigata, is located in Nakajo, Niigata, which is only 40 minutes by train from Niigata City. The branch campus is a resource for information. Finally, SIUC-N offers a transfer program which allows for a potential extension of the study abroad experience. It is hoped that students who participate in the study abroad course will use the transfer program at SIUC-N to enable them to go on to get a four year degree from SIUC. One student who participated in the 1995 trip has already received a scholarship from SIUC-N and began the program in June 1997. Next year a rise in the number of transfer students is anticipated as the 24 students who participated in the study abroad course last year become eligible.

Preparation for the English Language Study Abroad Course

Recruitment. The first-year students and their parents are introduced to the idea of an English language study abroad course and to the faculty escort during the orientation at the beginning of the school year. Usually in the first month of school, three representatives from SIUC-N explain the American educational system, SIUC, and Carbondale to the first-year students.

Addressing parent and student concerns. After the students and parents have been introduced to the idea of studying abroad, meetings between the faculty and interested students are scheduled almost weekly to address the concerns of the students and their parents. Specifics such as language school selection, tuition, housing, and living costs are covered. In addition, students' fears about their ability to succeed in the program are addressed. The students are presented with a realistic picture of what to expect. They are all told that relying on only English to live and study in the United States will be intimidating for the first few weeks, but that after this initial shock they will quickly adapt and understand well enough to succeed.

Workshops. After students and their parents have made firm commitments to enroll in the English language study abroad course, meetings and workshops are conducted addressing almost every aspect of their trip. A faculty member helps the students step-by-step through the student visa process, application for admission to the language school, selection of housing, and transportation arrangements. In addition, students are advised about safety tips for living in the U.S.; roleplay ordering food in restaurants; learn about tipping in restaurants, cabs, and hotels; view maps of the university and the town which include the location of the dormitory and supermarkets; and receive information about things to bring along.

Group organization. In 1996 the size of the group, 24 students, made some sort of organizational structure necessary, but ours was not entirely satisfactory. The students were organized into four groups of six members each. Each group had a leader selected for her ability to handle problems and speak English. One of the leaders was chosen as leader for all groups. If a student had a problem, but felt that she could not relate her problem in English, she could go to her group leader. That group leader could communicate the problem to the head leader who could contact the escort at any time. The escort contacted the head leader every few days, as it would have been impossible to track down all 24 students to see if they were okay. This hierarchical structure was used a lot during the travel within the United States to make sure that no one was missing. It was also used during the first few days in the U.S. when much business regarding housing, enrollment and shopping had to be accomplished.

The head leader complained directly to a faculty member about this hierarchical structure. This year there will not be a head leader. The faculty escort will communicate directly with each group leader, so the burden will not be so heavy for one student.

Problems with a large group. The faculty escort had a difficult time finding suitable transportation for a group of 24. Carbondale is a small town with a population of approximately 25,000 residents and 22,000 college students. It is located two hours away from St. Louis, the nearest small city with a major airport. There are no regularly scheduled trains or buses from St. Louis to Carbondale. Carbondale has a new in-town bus system, but usually there is only one bus per hour.

CESL will only pick up the students from the small local airport and does not provide transportation for the students' daily needs. The dormitory which housed the students, Ambassador Hall, had offered to help with the transportation for daily needs, but the escort felt Ambassador Hall had already been asked to do too many special things for the group and that it was her responsibility to take care of the students for the first few days. This year the students and escort will accept Ambassador Hall's assistance with transportation.

Special arrangements had to be made when traveling to and from the airport in St. Louis. In addition, the first shopping trip required the escort and 24 students to wait on the street for the local bus which was rather late. The 24 students and faculty escort also walked to school together for the first few days. Naturally the group was noticeable. Once the students learned the basics of public transportation and felt comfortable enough to find their own way to school and back, they were able to break into smaller groups. However, the smaller groups of perhaps five to eight students were still large enough to make the students feel conspicuous and isolated within a Japanese environment.

The other problem was that the large group increased the social isolation often experienced by people in a foreign country. Two dormitory choices were made available to the students, but they all chose Ambassador Hall which advertises a greater degree of involvement with international students. In spite of the staff's day-to-day interaction with the students and occasional outings, the students counted on each other for social interaction, and only towards the end of their stay did they start to make friendships with non-Japanese people.

This year Ambassador Hall is taking an even more active role in developing a social network for NWC's students. They are currently seeking non-Japanese roommates for NWC's students with some measure of success. In addition they are aware of the student's complaints of isolation and will try to create even more opportunities for staff and resident interaction.

CESL provides some outside class activities for the students during each session, but they do not take day-to-day responsibility for the students' social lives. The variety of nationalities in CESL's classes provides a good opportunity to meet people from other countries, but it takes time for these relationships to develop.

As a result of the above problems last year, many students told us the number of participants in the escorted program should be limited to 10 or 15. This year recruitment was less active which reduced the size to 12 students. Until a way is found to overcome the difficulties associated with a large group, the group will be limited to no more than 15 students.

Evaluating Students' Progress

Assigning grades. CESL evaluates each student's progress and gives a number grade upon completion of the session. This grade has a strong influence on the grade given by NWC for the study abroad course. Currently only CESL's grade and the relative difficulty of the course work is considered in the assignment of a grade for the study abroad course. Several other ways have been tried to measure the students' improvement, but a satisfactory method has not been found.

The first approach used to measure the students' improvement was to give the students oral interviews, one before they went abroad and another after they returned. Although students showed changes in their attitudes, this could not be objectively measured. Each student also submitted a written report of her experiences, but since there was no reports submitted before the program, there was nothing by which to measure progress.

The second approach was to use the students' entrance and exit TOEFL scores given by CESL. However this proved problematic, as some students' TOEFL scores actually decreased by 20-40 points after six weeks of intensive English study at CESL, while one student's score increased by 70 points. We believe the TOEFL may not be fined-tuned enough to measure improvement over such a short period and perhaps students' anxiety before departure and upon arrival affected the reliability of these scores, as "global assessments of proficiency, such as course grades and standardized achievement tests, are negatively (MacIntyre & Gardner, 1994, p. 301) associated with anxiety." Table 1 summarizes the change in TOEFL scores over the six-week period.

Table 1

Summary of %_/Exit TOEFL Scores








Student A Student B Student C Student D Student E Student F Student G Student H Student I Student J Student K Student L Student M Student N Student O Student P Student Q Student R Student S Student T Student U Student V Student W Student X

423 420 387 410 450 417 407 407 413 430 417 423 457 433 417 400 483 443 427 410 403 440 413 337

450 453 423 427 463 447 407
14 2713 23 __ 23 40 20 40 23 30 _ _ _ 36 57 _ 7 26 13 24 23 34 70 20 23 40

It seems necessary to consider the relative difficulty of the course work at CESL for several reasons. First, the students are placed into program levels at CESL according to their entrance TOEFL score. Since these scores are not 100% reliable, there is reason to question the appropriateness of the placement. Furthermore, the grades received by NWC's students at CESL clearly reflect a correlation between the difficulty of the course work and the students' levels of success, as shown in Table 2. Table 2. Summary of Students' CESL Scores

Number of students in this level


Average of grades

Standard deviation

(Lowest Level ) GE1 GE2 AE1 AE2 EAP1 EAP2 (Highest Level)










86 62



As Table 2 indicates, the students who were placed in the lowest levels received the highest grades and those in higher grades received lower grades. If CESL's grades were accepted without considering the levels that the students were placed into, the students who were placed in the lowest levels, with grades in the 90s, would be rewarded for having had easier course work and the students who were placed in the highest levels, with grades in the 70s, would be penalized for having had harder course work. Therefore, a decision was made to subtract five points from the grades of the students who were placed in the lowest levels, and to add five points to the grades of those who were placed in the highest levels. This is the method currently used.

Although it might appear that the students at lower levels are not being given fair credit for their efforts since they earned their own grades, this method can be justified. NWC admits students to its English Department through an entrance exam. Although there is variation among the students' abilities, they are all given equal course work and are graded according to their performance on that course work. At NWC, students are not given placement tests and, as a result, are assigned easier or harder course work and then given a grade that only appears to be equal for equal work. Given our situation, it is felt that a grade cannot be given for the study abroad course which appears to be equal when in fact the students studied material which was not equal in difficulty of content, especially when that lack of equality reflects poorly on students studying difficult material.

Positive changes in the classroom. The students benefit from the course work at CESL and from the practice of using English to live; however, it is felt that the most enduring benefit is the increase in the students' level of motivation. This motivation is difficult to measure and to use as an indicator of achievement, and "skepticism about using attitudinal assessments as key indicators of proficiency in a second language is well founded" (Teweles, 1996, p. 221). In spite of the controversy over motivation, it is felt that the study abroad course has had an extremely positive impact on the ESL classes at NWC, especially in getting generally silent Japanese students to speak freely about everyday topics in pairs and small groups. Perhaps a better way to articulate this change in motivation is to describe it in terms of experience and success abroad, reinforcing this with practice in Japan, the role of the returning students as models for the students who did not go abroad and exposure to an intensive English language program.

All of the students who went abroad were able to complete the tasks required for daily survival, successfully completed the CESL program, and received certificates from CESL. During this experience they had many opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom to use English to accomplish a wide variety of tasks. These experiences built confidence and created face validity for the use of English as a means of communication. It also showed them their weaknesses.

After the study abroad course and back in the classroom, it was often noticed that the students who had gone abroad were most at ease with talking in their groups during free conversation practice. Having these 24 students from the study abroad program as role models in freshman conversation classes is a significant advantage for the teacher, especially in large classes, since it eases the burden of encouraging students to speak.

In addition, it is common knowledge that in Japan many college students do not expect to work as hard as their counterparts in the United States do. "For students with such expectations, intensive English language study is a shock. They are expected to study language for 20 or more hours a week and complete daily homework (Roy, 1996, p. 7)." Although Roy is referring to American branch campuses in Japan, the same expectations of students exist in intensive English language programs in American campuses in the United States.

Negative changes in the classroom. There is a slight tendency for some students to apply in Japan the casual student behavior which they observed in the U.S. Six weeks is too short for them to clearly understand the norms of American casualness, and at times their casualness comes across as rudeness. However, they are sensitive to the responses their behavior elicits and soon moderate it to a degree that is open and pleasant rather than offensive.


One challenge for NWC's escorted study abroad program is to develop a non-Japanese social network for the study abroad students. The combination of having familiar Japanese classmates close at hand and the short six-week stay makes it advisable to seek situations that will facilitate the development of contacts outside their group.

Another challenge is to develop a more reliable method to assign grades for the study abroad course. The current method is based on a small database. It is possible that in the following years the grades which the students receive may not correlate so neatly to the class level and CESL's grade. Finding an objective method of measuring a student's individual progress would be a meaningful addition to our current grading system.

In spite of these problems, it is felt that the study abroad course has been a benefit to the students who enrolled in it and to the English Department as a whole. The study abroad course requires a strong commitment from the faculty, but it is worth the work when the positive changes in the students and the classroom are so clearly visible.


Maclntyre, P.D., & Gardner, R.C. (1994). The subtle effects of language anxiety on cognitive processing in the second language. Language Learning, 44 (2), 283-305.

Roy, R. (1996). The itch American universities can scratch in Japan. The Language Teacher, 20(2), 7-9,19.

Teweles, B. (1996). Motivational differences between Chinese and Japanese learners of English as a second language. JALT Journal, 18 (2), 211-228.

Article copyright © 1998 by the author.
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Last modified: May 20, 1998
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