This paper reports on a study exploring variation and change in language proficiency amongst international undergraduate students who had been identified as requiring English language support. Specifically, it investigates changes in IELTS scores and in students’ perceptions of language proficiency in their first semester of study.
The study employed a concurrent mixed methods design in which quantitative and qualitative data were collected simultaneously and analysed separately before comparing results. Quantitative data was collected using an IELTS Academic test at the beginning and end of one semester, while qualitative data comprised two rounds of focus group interviews conducted in the same semester. Fifty-one participants undertook both IELTS tests. The initial round of focus groups was attended by 10 participants and the final round by 15.
This study found that the main improvement in proficiency as measured by IELTS was in Speaking. All four sub-scores of the Speaking test showed statistically significant gains: Fluency and Coherence and Pronunciation showed gains of almost half an IELTS band score and these were found to be highly statistically significant. There was little shift in Writing scores except in the subscore of Lexical Resource and only marginal mean score gains in Listening and Reading. The study distinguished between low-scorers, mid-scorers and high-scorers. The low-scorers obtained significantly higher scores after one semester of study, perhaps reflecting the more rapid progress often made at lower levels of language proficiency, while the mean improvement amongst mid-scorers and high-scorers was not found to be statistically significant.
In investigating the relationship between IELTS scores and GPA, Listening and Reading were found to be strongly correlated with GPA in the first semester of study, while Speaking and Writing were not. Further investigation of correlation between their IELTS scores and GPAs found that this strong correlation between GPA and Listening and Reading was maintained in their second semester of study but not in their third semester. This finding points to a relationship between language proficiency test scores and academic achievement for students in their initial year of study, but primarily with the receptive macro-skills, which may have implications for setting entry requirements if borne out by larger studies.
Focus group data suggested that students did not have unrealistic expectations of academic study, even if their perceptions of their English proficiency did not always match their actual IELTS levels. Students were able to articulate a range of strategies they had developed to raise proficiency while at university, as well as a range of obstacles that hindered language development. A key finding in comparing the focus group data with the IELTS scores was that proficiency is a complex and contested notion.