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Reflections on ITA Language Training, English Fluency Certification, and Beyond

By Thomas W. Adams

Plug "ITA" into an Internet search engine and at the top of the list you are likely to find this acronym unpacked as the International Tennis Association, the International Trade Administration, and the International Trombone Association. Scroll down a bit and you will spot International Teaching Assistant, the topic of this column. Apologies to disappointed enthusiasts of tennis, trade, and the trombone.

We welcome this opportunity to share with the Penn community some of our reflections on ITAs, and we do so from the perspective of the language training and certification tests offered through the English Language Programs (ELP). Part of the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS), we are the campus experts in English as a Second Language (ESL).

SAS has much to be proud of in its record of support for ITAs. When the Pennsylvania legislature passed the English Fluency Act (EFA) of 1990 requiring that all instructional personnel of undergraduates be certified as proficient in English, Penn found itself in the enviable position of being one of the few universities in the state with an established language training program for its ITAs. Indeed, the first seven-week training program at Penn was staged in the summer of 1983.

Interestingly, the EFA does not attempt a definition of English proficiency needed for certification, leaving that untidy detail to each institution of higher education in the state. Penn defines the term largely along linguistic and socio-linguistic boundaries requiring ITAs to be:

…always intelligible to a non-specialist in the topic under discussion, despite an accent or occasional grammatical errors. General and field-specific vocabulary must be broad enough so that the speaker rarely has to grope for words. Listening comprehension must be sufficiently high so that misunderstandings rarely occur when responding to students' questions or answers. While teaching, the speaker should be able to use transitions to show the relationships between ideas, and to set main points apart from added details. When asked an ambiguous question, the speaker should be able to clarify the question through discussion with the student. When asked to restate a main point, the speaker should be able to paraphrase clearly. When challenged, the speaker should be able to defend his or her position effectively and appropriately.

There is much to recommend the criteria for certification contained in this definition. Material breakdowns in oral communication often occur when speech is not delivered clearly, when the wrong word is used, when listening comprehension is compromised, when approaches to textual organization depart from rhetorical patterns and conventions of cohesion commonly accepted in the academy, and when clarification and elaboration are not supplied.

Mastery of these criteria can be a very tall order for many prospective ITAs. Research in second language acquisition shows that: 1) the path of language development is characterized by frequent ups and downs as restructuring of information and reformulating of hypotheses occur; and 2) the rate of language development is not constant, with learners making the most apparent progress at beginning stages and "plateauing" at later stages.  Identified below are a few other major factors affecting successful outcomes along with specific implications for the ITA population.

Second Language (L2) Aptitude and Learner Motivation: Numerous studies indicate aptitude for acquiring an L2 is the strongest predictor of success, followed by motivation. Intelligence, at least as measured by IQ, is not a strong predictor of success. This helps explain how ITAs who excel in their academic disciplines can struggle with L2 development.

Emotional and Physical States: The learners' affective and physical states can vary widely and can have a major influence on their readiness for and receptiveness to L2 learning. Some ITAs experience adverse effects of disorientation and fatigue in the first few months in this country; consequently, the time needed for settling in competes with language training. Fear of failure can also have debilitating effects on learning.

First Language (L1) Background:  The learners' L1 is a major factor in L2 development. The rate and path of L2 development as well as the use of different grammatical structures and their associated discourse functions can differ according to the learners' L1. Native speakers of Romance languages, for example, often show accelerated rates of development in learning English because many cognates exist in both their L1 and in English. Most prospective ITAs at Penn, however, have L1 backgrounds that are not closely related to English, so the challenges are greater for them.

Personality: Personality traits also effect L2 development. For example, socially reserved learners can be disadvantaged in the development of L2 oral communication, and many prospective ITAs who struggle with certification are adjusted members of societies that place great value on social reserve. Conversely, L2 learners are more likely to be successful if their personality traits include open-mindedness and tolerance for ambiguity.

Even if we were to grant for the moment that none of the aforementioned factors present an insuperable obstacle to certification for our ITAs, they will nonetheless remain highly susceptible to miscues in communication until they become sufficiently attuned to the mores of the educational culture in which they will be operating.

While the challenges to prospective ITAs clearly are formidable, we can report that most meet them admirably. Several years ago, we examined the efficacy of our training options, which include a seven-week intensive training program and a follow-up course during the fall semester for those ITAs who do not attain certification upon completion of the summer training program.  Over a three-year period 103 of 110 (94 percent) prospective ITAs who participated in our training programs attained certification in accordance with the Penn fluency policy.

Alas, success in our training program is no guarantee of success in the field. Much depends on how effectively ITAs are able to manage new situations and to remain confident in their abilities to do so.  Success will also be gauged in part by one factor over which ITAs have little or no control—the unreceptive attitudes ITAs find among some in the undergraduate population, in particular those who: 1) have had minimal exposure to non-native speakers of English; 2) have had little international exposure; 3) are involuntarily assigned to classes or recitation sections or labs taught by ITAs; 4) are taking courses outside of their major or primary areas of academic interest taught by ITAs; or 5) are taking courses in fields that often engender anxiety (e.g., math, natural sciences).

Well documented in the literature and termed the "Oh No! Syndrome," this phenomenon often is triggered by the detection of overt markers of cultural and linguistic differences in behavior. Strongly accented speech, for example, is a good predictor of how undergraduates assess the teaching effectiveness of their ITAs—the higher the level of perceived accent, the lower the teaching ratings.

It would be reassuring to believe that communicative encounters involving participants from different cultures will result in enhanced shared understandings and improved interpersonal relations.  They certainly can, but at times they will produce anxiety, frustration, and even hostility. Intercultural communication is an inescapable part of life at Penn, in our society, and throughout the world. We must all share in the responsibility to accommodate to this circumstance. Our ITAs already do.

Dr. Thomas W. Adams is associate director of special & service programs at the ELP with oversight of programs in support of international students.

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See for the previous essays.

If you would like to submit an article for this series, contact Larry Robbins, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning,



  Almanac, Vol. 51, No. 11, November 9, 2004


November 9, 2004
Volume 51 Number 11


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