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Two Ielts bands in six months?

Matt Salusbury asks whether scholarship students can realistically get their English levels up to speed in the limited time available

Putting students with a low language level through a pre-sessional English course in the hope they’ll be able to pass a Ielts or Toefl test and develop enough proficiency to progress on to an English-medium degree course is a risky business.

Brazil’s Ciencia sem Fronteiras (CsF, also known as Science without Borders or SwB) scholarship scheme offers its students fully funded pre-sessional English courses for three or six months to achieve this, and the UK HE International Unit reports there are some 900 Brazilian students currently on such courses in Britain. But with some of them starting these courses with an Ielts band as low as 4.5, how realistic is the prospect of them reaching the level needed in the time available?

In the May 2014 Gazette we looked at the question of how quickly a student can improve an Ielts score, but with reference to ELT and linguistics doctoral students on courses requiring at least Ielts 7.0. A bachelor of science degree would generally require a minimum of at least 6.0 (Toefl 75). For specialist areas such as oceanography and marine biology, you’re looking at 6.5 or 7.0 (Toefl 85 and 95). Research degrees (rather than taught MAs) usually call for a 7.0.

These minimum scores by subject are based on Bangor University’s website, one of a small number of UK university websites that lists requirements by each course subject. Averages, though, can be misleading when it comes to language learning. Good linguists tend to make faster progress, whereas scientists and mathematicians may struggle.

The student’s mother tongue also has a pronounced effect: speakers of non-Indo-European languages are likely to take a quarter to a third longer than European language speakers, according to research from Australia. Students who are already bilingual (for example in French and Arabic from the Maghreb), progress faster – they have less difficulty learning a third language than monolingual students. The academic culture a student comes from also has an impact. Neil Murray of the University of Warwick told the Gazette that British academic culture’s emphasis on critical thinking is also of key importance.

A useful estimate of how long it will take to raise a score is available on the University of Birmingham website (www.birmingham.ac.uk/International/eisu/presessional/english-eap-length.aspx). According to the website, if a student’s writing level is half an Ielts band below their average score they will need an extra five weeks on average.

Birmingham’s Length of Course (EAP) table gives an estimate of a minimum of 31 weeks (well over six months) for a student starting a pre-sessional course with an Ielts score of 4.5 (Toefl 52) and needing to get up to an Ielts 6.0, which is the minimum needed for entrance to a science degree – many universities would expect 6.5. To rise from a 4.5 to a 6.5, Birmingham calculates, would need 42 weeks, about nine months.

Estimates such as Birmingham’s tend to be cautious. Dorota Pacek, director of the English for International Students Unit at the University of Birmingham, told the Gazette, ‘The tables are based on an average student: we have plenty of Chinese students, but also Middle Eastern and CsF Brazilians.’ Brazilians have a European language, written in a Latin script, and find the study culture and conventions of academic life in the UK far less daunting than, for example, most Chinese students. One would expect Brazilians to progress a lot faster.

Pacek said of progressing from an Ielts 4.5 or equivalent to 6.5 within six months, ‘This is very doubtful. Normally we say students need 42 weeks (a full academic year) to improve their English sufficiently if they start with Ielts 4.0, and 31 weeks (three terms) if they start with 4.5. It is unrealistic to expect that the Brazilians will improve sufficiently in half or a quarter of that time. Anecdotally, our CsF students do progress a bit faster than, for example, students from China or Saudi Arabia, but certainly not twice as fast. We would be setting them up for failure and raising false hopes.’

It should be noted that Brazil’s education system means the Teofl format is likely to be more familiar than Ielts, so the majority of CsF students arrive in the UK with a certificate for a Toefl score rather than an Ielts band. CsF UK’s website says currently only Toefl or Ielts are allowed for its scheme, but that it is exploring the use of other tests for future rounds.

Andrew E. Seymour, assistant director of the International Study & Language Centre at the University of Reading, said, ‘You are probably not allowing enough time – 4.5 to 6.5 in three months is most unlikely. In general, I would expect a student with 4.5 in each skill to need at least thirty weeks of intensive tuition to reach 6.5 in each skill, and if the writing score is only 4.0 they would probably need at least forty weeks.

‘However, there are students who progress much quicker, just as there are some who have studied a whole year without even achieving 6.0,’ he added. ‘It also depends how well trained the students were before they took Ielts and how accustomed they are to a UK-type education.’

Wayne Trotman, a former Ielts examiner and current Gazette book reviewer and EAP writing coordinator at Kitap Celebi University in Turkey, commented, ‘I think it’s possible to move from 4.5 to 6.0 in six months, but feel that getting 6.5 would, for the majority of students, take a fair bit longer. I think the Birmingham scales are much more realistic.’