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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


Linguistic and Socio-cultural Challenges of ESL Graduate Students: The Example of Academic Presentations in History and Engineering Courses

Sandra Zappa-Hollman.

Framed within a language socialization perspective, this paper explores the linguistic and socio-cultural challenges faced by English as a second language (ESL) graduate students enrolled in a western Canadian university. This qualitative study reports on the experiences of three ESL students in a history course and three in an engineering course, as they prepared for and delivered a presentation.
Transcribed portions of the actual presentations evidenced the type of struggles these ESL students went through. This information was complemented with the students' perceptions on their performances, which come from interview data. Notwithstanding their high oral competence in English, some students still felt that their language skills fell behind those of their native speaker peers, thus putting them at a disadvantage. In addition to this language difficulty, the students described the unsettling feelings they experienced as a consequence of trying to learn the rules of academic life in a different educational system. In general, students felt that most instructors were oblivious to the students' lack of (or limited) knowledge of the expected behaviours in the North American classroom. Once again, this seemed to position ESL students at a disadvantage.
As a conclusion, the paper addresses the need to further raise the awareness of the situation of ESL students among instructors and native peers. This can be done by providing accurate and explicit descriptions of tasks (such as the oral presentation), by encouraging among students a net of support and collegiality, and by creating spaces for dialogue and reflection on academic experiences (inside and outside the classroom). Further research needs to investigate other types of oral academic tasks from a socio-cultural perspective, for the type of knowledge revealed when looking beyond the cognitive aspects of language acquisition promises to be extremely useful in light of the current multicultural classroom makeup.


Sandra Zappa-Hollman  (Canada)
PhD student, The University of British Columbia
Department of Language and Literacy Education, Faculty of Education
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages; American Association of Applied Linguistics

Sandra Zappa-Hollman is a Teacher of English as a Second/Foreign language (Argentina), and holds an MA in TESL degree from the University of Bristish Columbia (Canada), where she is currently pursuing doctoral studies. She has an eight-year experience teaching EFL to K-12 and adults, and in Canada she teaches ESL to adult learners. Her main research interest include identity and second language learning, sociocultural approaches to language acquisition, academic discourse, and action research.

  • Oral Academic Presentations
  • ESL Graduate Students
  • Linguistic and Socio-cultural Challenges

(30 min Conference Paper, English)