Students who take up university studies overseas face a multitude of challenges, chief among them the second language. Of the nearly 10,000 second language speaker students at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a majority face difficulties related to the language that affect their studies and ultimately their grades. Some seek support, but many do not. A survey of 1,200 students who had been diagnosed as needing language support but had not taken up the advice revealed that many of them were confident they would improve over time, or did not think they needed to improve at all; this in the face of evidence to the contrary. Many also complained that they did not have time to improve their language. Some had room in their programmes for one of the ESOL for-credit courses offered by the Faculty of Arts but for most this was a luxury they (felt they) could not afford. And frankly, if they did, it would be unlikely that the University would be able to cope with the demand. Clearly a different type of support was called for.
The University asked us to set up an English Language Self-Access Centre (ELSAC) to provide students with an option to choose their own time to work on their English. The Centre is open 7 days per week, and students do not need to book a time. They can work for as long as they want to, and may come as often as they want. Some of the materials are accessible through the Internet, in which case there is no time or access limitation at all. Students can work on skills that are important to them and focus on topics related to their studies or interests (Gardner & Miller 1999). The individualisation this affords is a real bonus for busy students, but it potentially comes at a price; many students do not have the skills to work independently and without proper support they may be unable to gain much through self-access, or even become demotivated (Benson & Voller 1997).
This was our main challenge in developing the Centre, and we tried to find a solution in offering different types of support. Broadly, there are 3 categories: 1) The materials, 2) the staff, 3) the activities/workshops. The reason why materials are mentioned first is because the entire system hinges on an Electronic Learning Environment (ELE) that was developed by our team. The ELE is a computer programme that helps students identify their language needs and set their own goals. It monitors students' performance and identifies mismatches between goals and materials usage. For example, if a student has identified speaking as their priority skill and then works mainly with grammar resources, the computer prompts them to rethink their approach. Similarly if a student appears not to be on target to reach their learning goals, the computer encourages them to spend more time on the skills they are lagging in. The ELE has a catalogue through which students can find and access electronic resources, including (digitised) audio materials, videos, CD-ROMs, web pages, DVDs, and more—over 1,100 resources in total. The aim of the ELE is to stimulate students to reflect on their own learning rather than just present them with materials. Students are asked to always go through a number of steps when using the ELE – identify needs, develop a plan, use the materials, monitor progress, and reflect on the learning experience: the same stages an autonomous learner would go through independently.
Although the computer can provide some support, it was soon found that additional help is needed by many students (Reinders 2002). This is offered through the staff who work in the Centre during all opening hours. Assistants provide support to students doing self-study or pair-work, and consultants offer language advisory sessions and facilitate workshops. The assistants use a Student Monitoring System, which in essence is just a way to record what students work on, ensuring that students are familiar with the materials and have a plan to use them, and monitoring their progress. Assistants provide follow-up through email and suggest additional resources and strategies for the skill(s) a student is working on. They also offer students who have finished their work for the day English Takeaways according to the skills they are working on. These are small tasks that encourage students to use and practice their new knowledge during their studies so as to encourage transfer from the learning environment to the university environment.
Many students need more support than this, however, especially at the beginning stages of their self-access experience. For them, a private language advisory session is booked with one of the consultants. During the session together, they discuss the student's difficulties and negotiate priorities and a plan. A follow-up meeting is usually arranged, during which the student reports on the work they have done, and the consultant provides feedback. The various stages of the students' self-directed learning are gradually made more explicit by the consultant, and more and more support is withdrawn until the student is able to study independently. Likewise, the workshops offered in the Centre are skills- and not content-based. With so many students from so many backgrounds and with so many levels and interests it would be difficult to offer meaningful language input. For that we use the materials. The workshops focus on strategies for improving reading speed, or give practice in how to participate in discussions. Other topics include how to proofread one's own writing and understanding assignment topics and lecturers' feedback. Together, the consultants, the assistants, the materials, the ELE, and the workshops—along with the many other parts that couldn't be described here (such as a diagnosis for all incoming second language students)—interact to provide a coherent set of support to our students.
A system like the one described here takes a lot of time, effort and money to build up. However, individual parts of such a system can be developed independently and over time. For example, a roaming support person could provide advisory sessions by setting up visiting hours in different faculties or offer language counselling in a language school at certain times. Or a small materials bank could be made available either in a room (perhaps as part of a library?) or on a computer network. Many materials are available in electronic format and, if coded, could be made part of an existing cataloguing system.
Perhaps the most important contribution a self-access centre can potentially make is in fostering in learners an awareness of the language learning process. By making explicit the different stages involved, and by giving learners a chance to engage in this self-study process, they will get a taste of what is expected of them when they enter a new academic environment. In a way it is doing what teachers are more and more beginning to focus on: the teaching not just of language, but also of language learning.
Benson, P. & Voller, P. (Eds. 1997). Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning. Harlow, Longman.
Gardner, D. & Miller, L. (1999). Establishing Self-access. From Theory to Practice. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Reinders, H. (2002). Supporting Self-directed Language Learning. Paper presented at the 13th AILA World Congress of Applied Linguistics, 16-21 December, Singapore.