How to effectively tutor students online who have weak English

You know the situation as a faculty member – you have 15 minutes allocated per student draft, 20 minutes allocated per tutorial, and no time for your own research. You’re already frustrated. Then, you get a tutee that just doesn’t seem to understand what you’re saying or be able to write and speak coherently.  Now, you have to actually tutor this student online and it’s not their poor work you’re dreading, but their poor English. 

“How did this student get into this university?” you might ask.  But they did, and now you have to deal with their English problems through headphones and cheap microphones. Then, when you are conducting your lessons and tutorials online,  technological problems inherent in online tutoring emerge like scratchy microphone, poor connection, lack of good headphones, internet cutouts, and very importantly – no body language “cues.”  

For over a decade my company has been working privately with thousands of Masters and PhD students online to prepare them for some of the world’s leading universities.  We have also helped hundreds of professors learn how to teach in English. In this brief article, I aim to give colleagues who are struggling some techniques to help the students who 1) have English language problems that might prevent good understanding, and 2) are tutored online. 

“Breathe, it’s OK”  Use anxiety-reduction techniques.  The WHO 2019 results show that mental health conditions account for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10–19 years, half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but most cases are undetected and untreated; globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents; and suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds.  So, get students to breathe deep, make them feel valuable to you, and always make sure they can ‘save face’ – otherwise, an English mistake can cause significant stress that could have very negative effects.  As human beings we all get frustrated when online equipment fails or the two-way communication is interrupted by delay.  But if you get frustrated, then that energy will be passed onto the student even in the virtual world.  Make sure to always “keep calm and carry on” even when the limitations of technology irritates you. 

“What are the key words”  Give them relevant vocabulary lists before coming to classes or tutorials. Provide the vocabulary embedded in chunks and teach it aurally as well as in writing.  This is especially effective with students from what Hofstede called ‘high context’ cultures like the Japanese. In their culture, the context of the conversation – what is not said but felt, implied with facial expression, nuance, and other ‘cues’ – creates the shared meaning, whereas Americans for example like to “talk it out.”  In an online tutorial this difference can cause miscommunication. Also, many students who are not confident in English will hesitate in speech and take a lot of extra time that you don’t have to give.  Yet if they know the key words and concepts before the tutorial, they will connect these mentally when they listen and as a result feel more confident in expressing them verbally. 

“Let’s help each other”  Set up peer writing support groups. Collaborative learning is an excellent way to develop community with your students while leveraging the ones with better English to help the ones struggling.  This can be done easily within your LMS by creating a Forum or other Chat function. But it must be designed in a way that gives all students benefit and, yes, sometimes needs to be part of the grades in order to get them to contribute.  Make sure to include the requirement to respond to other people’s posts, like many MOOCs on EdX and others do.  This gives students the necessary writing practice in English that they desperately need.  

“Look at this picture or graph”  Use visual aids as much as possible, and UDL to make sure everyone can understand.  Language learners need pictures, and as 40% or more of us are visual learners first, any picture will help as long as it’s relevant to the discussion. You can have these in a folder on your desktop for easy access, and paste them into the video conferencing tool at the opportune time. Some techniques are discussed in the Faculty Focus blog

“Clarify please”  when using a foreign language without perfect fluency, it is normal to translate in one’s head, which ends up sounding like Google translate.  Students in general have difficulty expressing themselves but when it’s with a professor and the topics are complex, they often will try to articulate something but use wrong words, or speak around the point. When they are online in a group, they have an opportunity to avoid interaction even further. Remember, in many languages indirect speech is the norm, and maintaining the power hierarchy is more important than giving input into a discussion.  So make sure to ‘call out’ the quiet students and give them a voice, otherwise they might never say a word and only the dominant students will talk talk talk.  Online tutoring makes this easy, because you can mute people, or call on specific people to contribute easily as their faces (in a video conferencing tool like Zoom) are right in front of you rather than 50 feet away in a lecture hall. 

“Ask about their culture”  This is very motivating for students, first because it recognizes their unique background and also gives them an opportunity to share in the teaching process with something they feel comfortable with. Online tutoring can be quite impersonal so it’s important to break the ice. With this technique, you can even learn the differences in how they are educated and have more ability to support the next student from their country.  This Faculty Focus blog touches on ways to integrate multicultural learning into your lessons.

In these times where even traditional classes are moving online, it’s important to understand that we are speaking through equipment that is imperfect, that our speech may be misunderstood or may be cut off, and that we might think a student’s English is terrible but it only seems that way because they are used to more context than just speech.  Also, the speech itself is limited to the delays of the bandwidth or quality of equipment which varies.  So let’s avoid getting frustrated because of weak English and just be happy that we have students from all over the World wanting to hear what we have to say. 

The difference between standardized test writing and real academic writing

Most students are planning to take an IELTS, TOEFL, SAT, ACT, GMAT, or GRE type exam and you have been told that this is the “important” thing.  You believe that if you have a certain score that you will have enough English ability and academic writing skills to pass your degree.  This is a LIE.  These tests are “proficiency” tests and are standardized.  That means that they use quantitative measures, in other words NUMBERS BASED ON AVERAGES to determine your English or other discrete abilities on certain tasks.  In order for them to get these numbers, they have to create “generic” tasks, so everyone answers the same questions. 

It is common knowledge amongst higher education professionals that IELTS, GRE, and SAT won’t help you pass your degree, publish papers, or do anything valuable. The Academic style of “reading into writing” is much more realistic and valuable to students. It will help you write professionally, use sources, write effective arguments and sophisticated reports, and publish papers. 

But to understand why standardized test writing is “inferior” and academic writing “superior”, you will need to know a little bit about statistics. 

This is good general knowledge that you need anyway, so let’s review two concepts “validity” and “reliability” and see how they connect to standardized tests: 

  • Validity is the extent to which a concept, conclusion or measurement is well-founded and likely corresponds accurately to the real world. … The validity of a measurement tool (for example, a test in education) is the degree to which the tool measures what it claims to measure
  • Reliability is the extent to which the measurements of a test remain consistent over repeated tests of the same subject under identical conditions. An experiment is reliable if it yields consistent results of the same measure. It is unreliable if repeated measurements give different results. It can also be interpreted as the lack of random error in measurement.

One example of the difference between reliability and validity of experiments is a common bathroom scale. If a person weighs 200 lbs. and steps on the scale 10 times, and it reads “200” each time, then the measurement is reliable and valid. If the scale consistently reads “150”, then it is not valid, but it is still reliable because the measurement is consistent over multiple attempts. If the scale varied considerably around 200 (188, 207, 191, 211, etc.), then it would be considered ‘valid’ but not ‘reliable.’

In Academic English, the TOEFL, IELTS, and PTE exams are all “reliable” but none of them are really “valid”. 

Let me explain with a story.  I had a student who wanted to go for an LL.M law degree. He had to pass a PTE exam.  He thought “If I take the test 15 times my score will improve.”  So he took the test 15 times within one week!  Here are his results: 47, 48, 51, 52, 50, 49, 48, 48, 53, 50, 51, 50, 49, 53, 52

After he took the tests he said “I want to quit! I am not improving. I will never succeed”  but the student mistakenly thought that he could improve his score merely by taking the test. 

If he was right, then the test would be useless.  Good thing for PTE he was wrong!  His scores show that the PTE is a “reliable” measurement of his skills, because he answered different questions each time but came up with a very similar score.  If he did some studying of English and then took the test one month later, his score would probably be higher.  But since he only took the test without learning more English, the answers are “consistent over time.”  

Or reliable.  

So these tests are reliable measures of your English and other proficiency in general. But none of the questions on the PTE, IELTS, TOEFL, GRE, SAT, ACT, or GMAT will ever be seen on an actual degree program. 

Why, you may ask?  Why would they test us on questions that we will never see in our degree, if the whole purpose of the test is to see how good our English or general ability is for the university?!  

Because the word “standardized” means to make ‘standard’ for a broad population.  These tests are made for every degree, and therefore they cannot be specific to any degree.  They can be specific to certain skills like “reading comprehension of an academic level text” but the problem is that they 1) only provide general texts or content, so this is far away from reality of university where the content is in a specific genre 2) the content is “timed” so needs to be only an “extract” or short text whereas in university you are required to read whole chapters and dense articles, and 3) they test you in one short sitting whereas in university you are expected to take notes, organize your thoughts, and weeks or months later use the material to write up an essay, report, or create a presentation. If “validity” means that the test item “corresponds to the real world” then these standardized tests fail miserably. 

Summary: Don’t be fooled into thinking that an IELTS, TOEFL, GRE, GMAT, SAT or ACT test will “prove” your ability to study at university.  In fact, it is the opposite – you might feel overconfident because of your good score and miss key details or fail to learn key academic skills necessary for you to complete university-level work.  

Trump gandalf

Legal-Linguistic Analysis: Trump’s ‘Though’ isn’t Quid Pro Quo

Legal-Linguistic Analysis: Trump’s ‘Though’ isn’t Quid Pro Quo

President Trump was acquitted of all impeachment charges on February 6, 2020, following more than a month of impeachment proceedings, legal arguments, and political grandstanding on both sides of the aisle.  Trump’s impeachment could have been avoided long ago simply by breaking down the President’s words, before the articles of impeachent, before the Senate trial, before any request for witnesses. The President’s language has gone back and forth between Republicans and Democrats since the businessman came down that escalator and announced his candidacy.  Now that the impeachment is over, we can only wait for the next drama to play out Washington. But the language used by President Trump remains, and must be analyzed by breaking the arguments and language down to their basic semantic usage. Words, like elections, have consequences, and using semantic analysis, you can decide for yourself whether Trump’s ‘perfect’ phone call included a ‘quid pro quo’ from a linguistic perspective. Guilty! Or Innocent! One doesn’t have to go beyond the words of the president himself.  

“I want you to do us a favor though.” 

This is the so-called ‘damning’ statement or the ‘smoking gun.’  If the gun is smoking, there must be fire.  For the purposes of this article, I will only consider the linguistic content of this passage, and through the discussion, hopefully provide the tools for anyone to analyze the other parts of the call, witness testimony, and other facts surrounding the case. “I want you to do us a favor though.” Based on my expertise in the English language, especially with my background in legal English, the conclusion based on this passage is that no matter what the president may have intended, this statement is too vague to create a true quid pro quo situation. 

Quid pro quo definition:  a favour or advantage granted in return for something.

Latin is seen throughout the law.  It’s almost a cliche, from the res ipsa loquitur to the mens rea. The Latin phrase ‘quid pro quo’ originally implied something was substituted for another thing (i.e., this instead of that).  More modern uses of ‘quid pro quo’ was first seen, in English, in the mid 1500s and was accepted to mean generally that ‘something’ of ‘value’ was exchanged reciprocally, with a clear connotation of personal interest.  Under the common law, quid pro quo suggests that an item or a service has been traded in return for something of value, particularly in cases where equity of value is in question, furthering the concept of reciprocity of exchange.

For a quid pro quo to be considered bribery under U.S. Federal Law, there must be an ‘identifiable exchange’ between parties, for example political contributions in exchange for official acts.  

The primary question, in the analysis of whether quid pro quo exists, is who the associated parties are.  A casual observer would see the parties implicated here are President Trump himself and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.  However, considering President Trump’s words, the parties seem to be the royal court as much as the king himself. 

The Royal We:  I or Us?  

“‘I’ want you do to ‘us’ a favor, though.” 

In English, pronouns are used to define the subject in a sentence.  Here, it is unclear who the president is talking about because he speaks in mixed pronouns.  The president starts with ‘I’. Whether he is speaking of himself as ‘I’ personally or speaking on behalf of the office makes no difference.  The use of ‘I’ clearly indicates that President Trump was referring to himself in the passage.  However, he follows up with ‘us,’ without defining who exactly that ‘us’ is.  Is it merely a slip of the tongue, or was he trying to implicate a larger group due to his use of the plural pronoun. Under plain and basic English rules, his use of ‘us’ could mean nearly anything: his family, the party, the nation, other nations, the world?  

In politics, the connotations of ‘us’ are vast, and can be beneficial like the United Nations, or devastating as Nixon’s gang of plumbers.  This usage could indicate that President Trump welcomes countries all countries, of course including China and Russia, to investigate corruption of U.S. officials. From a linguistic perspective, this could easily be true as the President could argue that the subject of the sentence could be more ‘us’ than ‘I’ and thus reflect the interests of his office rather than his personal gain.

The Dude agrees

The royal we, or majestic plural (pluralis majestatis), is the use of a plural pronoun to refer to a single person who is a monarch. The more general word for the use of a we, us, or our to refer to oneself is nosism.  As described above, the ‘royal we’ can clearly be seen from the passage. Trump’s usage of this linguistic device makes it unclear who exactly is referred to by ‘I’ and ‘Us.’  While this may seem unimportant, language and usage, especially coming from the Leader of the Free World, can implicate severe and serious consequences.

But the royal we is not the only interesting linguistic device in the passage.  Consider the use of the phrase ‘favor, though.’

“I want you to do us a favor, though.”

The ‘favor’ in this context is undeniable, as he directly refers to the Bidens in subsequent statements.  But our analysis is not complete. ’Favor’ is an important word here because there could have been laws broken by the type of favor requested. There could have been criminal charges based on a favor, but not by use of the word ‘favor’ alone. Consider this example:

“Can you do me a favor?”

What exactly is a favor?  It’s concisely defined as overgenerous preferential treatment. At this point, there is no obligation on either party.  The person being asked has not agreed, nor so much as asked for additional information. There is no ‘return’ of ‘something for something.’  In other word, the exchange requirement of a quid pro quo is not seen, and without some kind of acceptance, through words or actions, of the thing or action being asked for.  But the word ‘favor’ is also clear in the President’s statement.

So the ‘I or us’ was arguably asking for ‘overgenerous preferential treatment’ with the word ‘favor.’   This analysis is quite straightforward, and based on the above, should be clear to anyone from any political polarization.  Again, I am not commenting on the President’s intent, nor the nation’s political climate in this article.  I am merely considering the actual words used to clarify the legal meaning of those actual words.  However, this passage is not done just yet.  Only with the addition of the conjunction ‘though,’ the statement is complete and we can finally finish our linguistic work.  

“I want you to do us a favor though.”

The linguistic question is whether the inclusion of the word ‘though’ creates a quid pro quo.  As with the use of ‘but’ or ‘however,’ the use of the word ‘though’ may or may not imply a condition.  Of course, when a device may or may not imply a condition, the meaning can be argued from various positions.  The impeachment managers argue ‘though’ created a conditional structure, or more clearly ‘if you do X then we do Y’ or ‘If you investigate the Bidens then we give you the aid.’  In other words, the ‘though’ in this context implies the favor itself, in this case the withholding of previously funded aid unless the Ukrainians publicly investigated the Bidens.  

But, does ‘though’ mean ‘unless’?  

The President’s lawyers argue that it does not.  When the President says ‘favor, though’ he means anything but a condition. He could be saying ‘hey, but there was this thing in addition I wanted you to consider’ or ‘but my interests are also to combat corruption in Ukraine.’  His defense said in the impeachment trial he was ‘raising a concern’ through giving a specific example of the larger corruption issue. 

No one expected the President’s lawyers (nor the President himself) would ever agree with the Democratic impeachment managers, especially on the linguistics of a partial transcript of a telephone call with a foreign President whose English might not be up to that level of nuance, even if that linguistic analysis could very well turn the case to one side or the other.  

Both sides do agree on one thing linguistically, though.  They can agree that “though” is used in the sense of contrasting two items as a conjunction.  Both sides also agree that the President is using Spoken, rather than Written English. So in any case we cannot judge adequately from a transcript the intention found in the speaker’s tone. 

So is ‘though’ being used as a synonym of ‘however?’  Especially in spoken English, we can use ‘though’ (but not although or even though) with a meaning similar to however or nevertheless.  In these cases, we usually put it at the end of a clause.  Does ‘though’ in the sense of ‘however’ imply consideration?  At common law, consideration is the exchange of something of value for something else of value. 

In this case, Trump’s statement with ‘though’ does imply consideration, because he directly asks for something of value – the Biden investigations – in exchange for something of value – the missiles already promised. He seems to tag the word ‘though’ onto the end of the ask for a favor to indicate a favor for a favor, or indeed, a quid pro quo.  

Consider this transaction as the most basic of contracts, and to form a valid contract, 4 elements are required: offer, acceptance, intention to create binding relations, and consideration.  We saw that the term ‘though’ fits the criteria of consideration. Interesting, in most Civil Law jurisdictions, the concept of consideration is not a part of the equasion.  Instead, they use the concept of ‘cause,’ meaning basically that both parties to the contract have a reason for entering it.  Since the United States is a common law country, we’ll stick to that analysis.

To form a valid contract, there must be an offer and an acceptance.  The impeachment managers argue that Trump’s statement itself constitutes an offer under contract terms.  It, at least, indicated that President Trump wanted something from President Zelensky.  The asking for a favor could be seen as an offer, even if the specifics of the deal itself only revealed themselves at a later date.  Where this contract fails is a lack of an acceptance by President Zelensky.  Had he responded to President Trump’s request by saying “Yes sir, we’ll investigate the Bidens, make TV appearances regarding same, and will get you a great photo of Joe and Hunter Biden in a prison jumpsuit.  Just give us the arms,” then clearly this would have been acceptance.  But this didn’t happen, at least with the information known at the time of this writing.  Therefore, as ‘perfect’ as this call was according to the President, even if he did offer an ‘implied’ contract, he didn’t get a “yes” from the other side.  

It’s unclear whether Presidents Trump and Zelensky intended to bind themselves to the contract.  There simply is not enough information known at this point of time.  Could this be seen as a contract of adhesion, at least from President Zelensky’s perspective?  Do the President’s words hinge his relationship on the exchange?  Not really. Does he aim to create a specific binding relationship based on the words in the conversation?  Not really.  Is the intention from both sides to develop a stronger relationship through a political favor.  Absolutely!  

But under any contractual analysis, there was no contract developed even if an offer was presented and consideration clear from the terms mentioned in the conversation.  

The use of spoken English rather than written is an extremely important consideration here.  Could President Trump simply have said something he didn’t intend?  It’s conceivable.  Could his grammatical mistakes be causing the confusion?  What was the tone of his statement?  Was the President making a statement or asking a question?  That is also unclear from the statement.  We don’t know the President’s tone on the call, for example take a look at  Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen saying this exact phrase in different voices:

Gandalf agrees

Although the actors and comedians see no other option than dismissing Trump’s perfect call as a ‘guilty phrase,’ use of ‘though’ at the end of a sentence is clearly a conjunction meaning ‘however’ in Spoken English, and use of the word ‘though’ doesn’t linguistically imply a binding relationship through a necessary condition.  On Thursday, February 6, 2020, the United States Senate acquitted President Trump on all impeachment charges stemming from this ‘perfect’ phone call.  The laws and rules of English linguistics agree with their assessment.  President Trump is therefore linguistically innocent. Based ‘bigly’ on his general language, he might be guilty of corrupting English, though.  

Think the DuoLingo or Pearson PTE is as good as the IELTS or TOEFL? None of them will help you with your Masters degree.

The highly-esteemed lecturer walks into the auditorium, dead silence emerges as some ruffle their books and get their pens ready to write down the great wisdom unfolding into their minds. The professor begins to unlock his bountiful knowledge in quick and colorful speech.

“But wait, what is the professor saying again?”

This is the real-life situation of students at university who have English language problems. For decades, the standardized test monopoly of IELTS and TOEFL have limited the failure rates of students who can’t read or write, listen or speak, comprehend or express. Yet their dominance has never been more challenged than now, when we have the entire world on the internet and are breaking away from a standardized testing paradigm altogether.

But a failing English admissions testing paradigm doesn’t stop the profit-making schemes of companies like Duolingo and Pearson who are giving students and universities simply more of the same, except a little cheaper through automated speaking and writing scores.

But “cheap” is exactly what these tests are from a human potential perspective. Although “valid” and “reliable” as general language assessments, these tests were never a replacement for immersion and study abroad courses – which are effectively limited to those with scholarships or rich families. So kudos to the standardized test makers for enabling millions of people to get on their degrees in English. Too bad that it doesn’t help students actually pass their degree. Too bad it doesn’t excite students’ intrinsic motivation to learn – rather kills it.

An increasing number of international students, most of whom have “sufficient” or even “great” IELTS scores, are failing on their university degrees. Take a look at this development in Australia:

No alt text provided for this image

Now we are full force into the 21st Century, and standardized tests are still the norm? It seems from at least 5 angles that the IELTS and TOEFL have seen their day, and need to be replaced by something better for students and lecturers. Sadly, the “new and improved” tests like Pearson PTE and Duolingo only recreate the problems that led to so many failures in the first place.

Let’s look at some reasons why these tests aren’t fit for 21st Century students and some possible solutions you can implement right now:

Reason #1 Standardized tests are not academic, nor do they lead to academic knowledge

Although ‘reliable’ meaning that these tests are consistent within their own questions and answers, they do not reliably measure the test takers’ ability to manage academic work. First, the test questions relate to comprehension of general texts and lecture extracts that are inauthentic – lecturers don’t actually talk so perfectly – and also the length of the activities only shows that the test taker can concentrate on short texts or audio extracts, not the larger, detailed, and comprehensive academic lectures and texts they will face at university.

The clearest example is the writing section of these exams, which is one whole page and lasts only 45 minutes. I have never seen a lecturer give a “one page essay” assignment on a random topic. Never. And I never will, and the test taker never will, because the truth is that IELTS and its friends are not academic, nor does their ‘randomized’ version of validity transfer to academic knowledge – because academic knowledge is based within and across disciplines – anything but a random topic or a generalized exam.

Solution: For a long time, universities have offered “pre-sessional” and “foundation” courses to students on-campus, which cover the types of actual work necessary at university. Many of these programs offer direct entry if the student reaches a decent score. This doesn’t guarantee that the student will complete their degree work with high quality, but it is a much better measure – because each university knows their own students and faculty whereas standardized tests are context-independent. At Advanced Language Institute, we have developed a 75-hour pre-sessional course for Masters students, fully online, with personal tutorials and – importantly – about the same price as an IELTS or TOEFL. Learn about the Masters Bridge in English here.

Reason #2 Students want to learn something, not just pass a test

You see them, rows and rows of Chinese students sitting there heads hunched over the paper and pencil test like their lives depend on it. Actually, their lives do depend on it. If you don’t get the right “score,” you don’t get in to the right university and you are shamed and doomed to be seen as a failure. The problems inherent in the 19th and 20th Century positivist paradigm are clear in the weaknesses of today’s standardized English admissions tests.

But then I look at my five-year old daughter, I see curiosity, I see creativity, I see independent thinking, I see critical thinking – she LOVES learning. And in fact, all kids do and all humans do in our natural environment. Learning is beautiful.

But our societies have constructed a “norm” of “ability” in “English” that can somehow not be observed from the student’s passion for learning, creativity, intelligence, or a portfolio of successful interpersonal interactions – it can only be seen from results of a computerized exam that nobody would ever prepare for or pay for if they had another option that included learning for its own sake.

Solution: “Whole child” education to start with. I can’t talk enough about early childhood education and offering the child a broad spectrum of possibilities.But by the time they’re ready for university their minds have already been warped towards testing, so the IELTS seems natural. The best way around this is to dispense of the test or have a really low minimum (lower the stakes) and add other measures like subject-specific area reading comprehension, pre-sessional and in-sessional support, research methods classes, rhetoric classes, writing labs and so forth. All of this can be done online by the way.

Reason #3 Students should already have a sufficient body of work to show their English ability

So with DuoLingo and PTE the standardized exams are getting weaker and weaker from a student production perspective, yet more and more “convenient” from a marketing perspective – and pretty cool from a technology perspective. But how do we really know that any student has mastered the English language for academic purposes?

Currently, universities judge that a student has achieved a certain level of Academic English from a 15 minute pre-determined conversation, a one-page essay, a brief description of some data, and the rest basically multiple choice questions with a 50% chance of guessing the right answer. But the students can “cram” and prepare for situations they can already expect – in real life, speaking situations are far more spontaneous and writing situations much less randomized. In fact, most students – if they actually prepared for the test – will have a body of evidence such as practice essays, recorded speech, and high school or university English scores.

Although these last scores are unreliable due to ecological validity problems, what is reliable are documents and recorded texts such as paper submissions, blogs and other published material, recorded speech in interviews or many other possibilities. Standardized tests don’t value any of the test taker’s “portfolio of work,” and thus turn the test taker literally into a number, rendering all of their previous hard work meaningless. Thus, to the student, their hard work is meaningless, it is only the results that matter – the results that never took into account the student’s previous or current English work.

Solution: The way to fix this problem is with portfolio-based assessment. If you have at least three ‘artefacts’ of a sufficient length and depth and can prove that they are the applicant’s original productions, then an English language professional can judge its level within minutes. Add another one if you want a ‘double blind’ type of standard. What about the language of the arts? Some students have hobbies, ranging from gaming to fashion to fishing to sailing where they all use some English – have them prepare over the course of 3-4 years by collecting their English work. You might even learn something about sailing.

Reason #4 Standardized tests don’t account for interpersonal skills

One single 15-minute invigilated examination session with two people staring at you is not anything like a group discussion on a sensitive topic or a private tutorial to discuss a problematic draft. Nor do the listening and speaking tasks pick up on “cues” that indicate a person with exceptional interpersonal/emotional intelligence that flow through language. Group skills, long listening, asking questions, use of irony and humor, and building on topics are just some interpersonal skills not covered in standardized tests.

It is well-known that Emotional Intelligence is the key skill area of the future, so much so that in recent studies ranging from McKinsey to Deloitte, interpersonal ability is seen as the most important skill set for employees of the future – as technology and automation overtake many roles, there simply won’t be jobs for people who are good at passing tests, but there will be plenty of work for graduates who know how connect with other humans (and the planet) emotionally.

Solution: Look “holistically” at applications. Allow for other qualifications to make an impact on your university’s admissions decisions besides standardized tests. For example, many universities have interviews where they can “feel out” the student and get an idea of their language ability. Otherwise, there are many Emotional Intelligence online courses and workshops that students attend. If these are conducted in English and the student receives a certificate, why not create a system where qualifications like this are accepted in lieu of a standardized test score? In addition, looking holistically will give you much more insight on the student’s attitude and competencies than some paper scores.

Reason #5 Standardized tests don’t account for industry or specific language knowledge

This is one of the areas where IELTS and TOEFL haven’t ventured, due mostly to limited market demand and replacement products like the LSAT in law or the CanMed in Medicine.

But subject-specific vocabulary is also one of the most important areas of academic study – to know the language of the field, and be able to learn it quickly.

None of the abovementioned tests looks outside of the generalized bubble to meet the standards of any specific discipline. Then what is their substance? The student who has grown up learning about things called “eishörnchen” and another “squirrels.”

It’s decidedly much easier for the English speaker in subject specific areas, like each course is in university has its own vocabulary. As you raise in level, so do the demands of knowing subject-specific language yet not a single masters degree site I’ve seen has a subject-specific language requirement on their admissions page. When a student’s first degree is in Bulgarian then he might come to his Masters degree class calling them “kateritsa.”

Solution: If you can’t create a subject-area language course or test that includes vocabulary, then teach students how to learn vocabulary and concepts from their reading and listening activiites. If a student watches hours of Youtube and reads tons of LinkedIn blogs like I do, then there are pleeeeennnntttyyyy of new words, phrases, and linguistic novelties to be found in their field. For example, today I learned the concept of UID or Universal Instructional Design. Of course I know these three words independently, but putting them together in a concept was something I picked up on a blog. Now I can go and explore more on the topic and then watch sailing or squirrel videos, but if I were a student then jotting down the words and submitting them to my Quizlet or other app for further memorization.


It’s up to the schools to change, not the students. Basically,

as long as there are standardized tests that have little relevance to their study program yet are required for entry, students will beat their heads against the wall to pass them.

It’s our responsibility as educators and parents to quell this nightmarish cycle of repetition and memorization, this outdated generalized and ineffective way of judging capability. Welcome to the age of personalization and the internet, IELTS and TOEFL. And for the new tech-savvy competitors DuoLingo and PTE – you could have done better for the students than the same old song and squirrel.

Email Do’s and Don’ts for Lawyers

  • Don’t: Hit “send” when you are emotional.
    • Tip: Ask yourself how you would feel if this message appeared on the front page of, say, the Times. If you’re comfortable with that, hit “send”.
  • Don’t: Blindly hit “respond to all”. The circle of recipients should be as small as possible. No one appreciates receiving emails that have little to do with them.
    • To: People you expect to respond
    • cc: People who should be informed
  • Don’t write long emails: Give a quick context and answer; put the rest into a memo and attach it.
    • Advantages: (1) psychological, (2) help from MS Word.
    • If the email is much longer than one screen, the reader will have to print it out anyway.
  • Do: Respond quickly to important emails.
    • Firms/partners differ in how quickly they expect their lawyers to respond to client emails. But nobody likes a long silence. So try to answer immediately (15-minute rule), at least to acknowledge receipt and tell them when to expect a full answer – then tag the email so you don’t forget.
      • Tip: If you are in a meeting, on vacation, or otherwise don’t want to follow the 15-minute rule, set your account to generate an “away” email. This is done too rarely and is better than silence.
    • Tip: Discuss with the client how they want to communicate.
      • Medium: Email, phone, in person?
      • Frequency?
      • With whom: Group, one main contact?
      • How the lawyer/client will keep the client/lawyer apprised of the matter?
    • Do: Memorialize in an email important non-written communication.
      • Tip: Request a return email confirmation.
    • Do: Delete the thread. It can be annoying and get you in trouble.
      • Tip: If the string should be kept, read the entire string.
    • Do: Think about the subject line.
      • Informative?
      • Change it if the topic of your discussion changes. This also makes it easier to file, find, or forward.
      • Short, with the most important words early. Mobile devices have limited subject line space.
    • Do: Add the addressee and subject line last.
      • Helps you draft an appropriate subject line.
      • Avoids the danger of sending the email before it’s ready.
    • Do: (Usually) include as a “cc” anyone you mention by name in the email.
    • Do: Triple check name and title before hitting “send”.
    • Do: When you type “I attach…”, stop and attach the document.
    • Do: Make life easy for partners when you prepare emails to be sent in their name.
      • Delete the internal correspondence/instructions.
      • Insert the partner’s (not your) email signature details.
      • Insert/change the subject line (see above).
      • Provide the names and email addresses of the recipients.