An Asset-based Understanding of International Students in Higher Education

This month we are publishing International Students’ Multilingual Literacy Practices edited by Peter I. De Costa, Wendy Li and Jongbong Lee. In this post the editors introduce the book’s main themes.

In the second language (L2) community, international students are often viewed as “English language learners” whose limited linguistic and cultural repertories need to be remediated by the “experts” (i.e. instructors, supervisors, and native English-speaking students). Our edited volume promotes an asset-based understanding of international students in US higher education and calls for a similar stance to be adopted in comparable educational contexts. Funded by a university grant to promote inclusiveness and enhance academic quality, we invited graduate students in Second Language Studies, TESOL, and the Writing, Rhetoric and American Culture (WRAC) programs as well as instructors in the first-year writing program to jointly investigate how international undergraduate students acquire the English language and develop their academic discourse in first-year writing classrooms.

Data were collected during the 2017-2018 academic year, when the number of international students at the university exceeded 6,500. Over the course of that year, the contributors to this book – most of them international students or scholars themselves – traced the learning pathways of individual international students both within and outside first-year writing classrooms. Our team of researchers documented fascinating stories of how international students with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds drew on their cultural and linguistic assets, social and academic networks, and university resources to navigate the turbulent academic waters and (re)construct identities as capable multilingual writers and speakers.

In Part 1 of this book, the chapter authors describe the participants’ multilingual literacy practices in diverse spaces, including the writing classroom and writing center, and show how these practices shaped and, in turn, were shaped by the students’ own identity development.

Part 2 reports how the international students marshaled their communicative resources to make sense of the auxiliary services offered by the university and other sources, such as the university’s writing center and the active Chinese student community network on a social media platform.

Part 3 introduces readers to theoretical and pedagogical orientations worth considering in the teaching and researching of international students. Central to our investigative enterprise is the students’ use of multiple languages and semiotics to construct meaning in their social and academic encounters.

A unique feature of this book is that it showcases the result of a collaborative, interdisciplinary research project while at the same time providing a glimpse into the collaborative process at all stages of the project. Readers are thus afforded the opportunity to see how a data set can be analyzed from multiple theoretical perspectives and through diverse analytical frameworks. Additionally, the book’s readers – in particular graduate students who are interested in collaborative work – will benefit from our behind-the-scenes accounts that highlight matters that deserve greater attention and care when researching collaboratively.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Languaging Myths and Realities by Qianqian Zhang-Wu.

Crossing Borders, Writing Texts, Being Evaluated

This month we published Crossing Borders, Writing Texts, Being Evaluated edited by Anne Golden, Lars Anders Kulbrandstad and Lawrence Jun Zhang. In this post the editors explain how the book came together.

Zoom and Teams are wonderful for communication, but, alas, they cannot make up for real encounters with new and inspiring colleagues at international conferences. This book is the results of such a get-together. As Norwegian researchers in the field of second language learning and use, we have long been concerned with how some groups of students struggle to satisfy the requirements of language mastery in the new country, particular when it comes to writing. How great then to meet and get to know researchers from other corners of the world having the same concerns! Two of us met at the 14th Symposium on Second Language Writing in Auckland, New Zealand in 2015 and then three of us incidentally met again in 2017 at the American Association for Applied Linguistics in Portland, USA.

We all wondered if the experiences some groups of students had from their prior schooling with writing texts did not match the expected way of writing in the new language or in the new areas of study. Do the language tests they have to take function as strict gatekeeping with borders too difficult to cross or bars too high to jump? For us this was a question of social justice and we saw the task of teachers and researchers as a two-front struggle: On one front, scholars should critically examine testing regimes and raise public awareness about the hidden agendas implicit in language tests. On the other front, scholars should develop research-based knowledge about tests and testing practices, including concealed or unconscious norms as well as raters’ bias, so that institutions of adult education, schools and universities can better prepare learners for the tests they are required to take. We decided to address these questions at the next Sociolinguistic Symposium, which happened to be in Auckland the year after. This is where this book started, at the colloquium in Auckland in 2018. Now it is out. Zoom and Teams would not have been able to initiate this.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Languaging Myths and Realities by Qianqian Zhang-Wu.

Five Myths About International Students Debunked

We recently published Languaging Myths and Realities by Qianqian Zhang-Wu. In this post the author explains what inspired her to write the book.

With the internationalization of higher education, millions of multilingual international students travel across the border to pursue tertiary education in Anglophone countries. In the United States, the largest international student host country in the world, Chinese international students represent the largest ethnic group. How do newly arrived Chinese international students negotiate their identities and draw upon their bilingual resources to navigate English-medium instruction at the tertiary level? How do they function linguistically across academic and social contexts? How can higher education institutions in English-speaking countries understand the within-group variabilities and dynamics among Chinese international students in order to provide better academic and linguistic support? Seeking to unpack these questions, my monograph Languaging Myths and Realities: Journeys of Chinese International Students draws upon rich ethnographic methods, including a 4-month digital ethnography, over 500 hours of bilingual language logs, semi-structured interviews, and texts analysis of writing samples among many other data sources, to closely examine Chinese undergraduate students’ first-semester languaging journeys in American higher education.

As a former Chinese international student pursuing tertiary education in the US and now an English professor working in an American university, I have always been fascinated by the mismatch between multilingual international students’ English language proficiency as measured by high-stakes standardized assessments and their actual ability to function linguistically across contexts. For instance, despite my perfect score in reading as measured by TOEFL, upon arriving in the US in 2012 as an M.S. Ed student in TESOL, I found myself scratching my head when reading about common academic concepts such as “L1 as a scaffold” and “English as an auxiliary language.” Similarly, regardless of my full mark in the TOEFL listening subtest, I was panicked when the barista repeated my order of “a small coffee with nonfat milk” as “a TALL skinny latte,” even though in reality the “tall” latte I finally received was way shorter than I had thought.

My lived experiences have made me curious – if high-stakes gatekeeping standardized language proficiency assessments do not always linearly predict multilingual students’ ability to meet the linguistic demands in English-medium environment, how can higher education institutions in Anglophone countries deliver linguistically responsive instruction to support their growingly superdiverse international student populations? I carried this question with me throughout my years as a graduate student. When I finally became an English professor specialized in multilingual writing and working closely with multilingual students in 2019, I did not hesitate to dedicate my very first monograph in life to explore this topic.

In my book Languaging Myths and Realities: Journeys of Chinese International Students, I took a unique insider-outsider perspective to examine the lived first-semester languaging experiences among 12 Chinese undergraduate students studying in American higher education. Through the lens of bioecological model of human development and languaging theories, my research has found that Chinese international students are not simply “Chinese international students.” My participants, while all able to meet the TOEFL threshold for university admission and are too often categorized under the catch-all umbrella term of “Chinese international students,” went through drastically different journeys during their initial experiences studying in English-medium higher education. Depending on their various language and education experiences prior to tertiary education, these students demonstrated complex within-group dynamics linguistically, academically, and socially. This has prompted me to propose a continuum to capture multilingual international students’ varying degree of academic and linguistic readiness for tertiary education in English-medium countries. I argue that higher education researchers, administrators and instructors must adopt a developmental perspective in understanding the dynamic languaging experiences of students from culturally, racially and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Challenging the largely misconceived homogeneity of Chinese international students has served as the foundation for my book to further unpack the diverse languaging practices, educational equity for international students and progressive pedagogies for English language users from various linguistic backgrounds. Joining the broader discussions on monolingualism and racism in American higher education, my book triangulated rich ethnographic data from various multilingual and multimodal sources to debunk 5 commonly held myths regarding international students including:

  • Myth 1: TOEFL results accurately predict international students’ abilities to function linguistically on college entry
  • Myth 2: An English-only policy is necessary in college classrooms to help international students improve their linguistic functioning in English
  • Myth 3: First Year Writing guarantees international students’ successful writing performances in content-area courses
  • Myth 4: English is responsible for all the challenges facing Chinese international students
  • Myth 5: Chinese international students are well supported in American higher education, both linguistically and academically

For more information about the book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Making Language Visible in the University by Bee Bond.