Transferring Skills for University Success

robyn_brinks_ps (1)  Robyn Brinks Lockwood, with Sara Davila 

The challenge of having a C1-level learner in class may be familiar to many teachers. You have an international student, who, for all intents and purposes, is a highly advanced English speaker who seems perfectly prepared for the challenge of university life. It’s easy to have a conversation, and the student can follow along in a discussion with other non-native English speakers with relative ease. There are no obvious gaps in vocabulary, and language use, with a few minor exceptions, is grammatically flawless. This is a learner that a teacher assumes would do well in any field of study. And yet, this very same student who is energized and ready to learn will suddenly end up in an English language course to further build their language skills. Why? What happened?

Essentially, regardless of C1-level learners’ high mastery of fluency with spoken communication, they are still not ready for the rigor of academic study required to be successful in academic classes in their field of specialization. In some ways, such learners are jumping off an English language-learning cliff. They are moving from classes with tightly leveled content for listening and reading and minimal writing requirements into an environment where the expectation of professors is that they have already attained the ability to successfully read and understand 50 or more pages of reading a day, participate in 90-minute lectures, and successfully write detailed and lengthy research-based papers. What can language teachers do to help address the needs of these already highly advanced learners?

What a C1 Learner Needs

It becomes a needs analysis problem. The reality is that these learners need challenging content that is quite different from anything currently available. In order to be successful, these learners need to be prepared for the rigorous expectations of their professors, and this is where things become tricky for our English language students. Outside of the English language learning classroom, English language learners are just students. An engineering professor or a chemistry professor, or even the professor of literature, does not view ELLs differently from other students. The expectation is that any student attending the class, ELL or native speaker, be prepared to do the work without special assistance from the professor to adjust content, level materials, provide vocabulary lists, or create reading and listening prompts to scaffold materials. This is a catch-22 for ELL learners; professors are respecting their ability to perform as well as native speakers, but ELL learners still need some support to be successful. English language teachers are very willing to scaffold and support learners toward success. And that very same scaffolding is the principle blocker for the C1-level student.

Scaffolding is good practice. Learners in any environment need supportive steps that will help them become successful. As students become more skilled, though, it is important to start encouraging more application of knowledge and skills and independence in learning. Take for example the process of teaching reading that will be familiar to most teachers.


Figure 1. Reading process for English language learning

Before introducing a new reading passage, teachers will most likely activate schema by asking learners what they know about a particular topic or theme addressed in the reading. Following this, teachers will set the context by looking at how the topic or theme may relate to learners’ lives. Next, there are some pre-reading questions whose answers can be found in the reading. These questions encourage students to think about the content and begin to make some predictions about what information will be gained in the reading. In short, it is a great practice for learners and an excellent support from teachers. Before reading, and depending on the teacher, vocabulary that may challenge students will be introduced and reviewed either before or after the pre-reading task questions. By doing so, students have a sense of what specific words mean, especially words that hinder learners’ successful comprehension of the reading. With all this support in place, the English teacher may then provide additional support by having students read and identify the gist and then answer specific comprehension questions before examining some inference-based ideas that can be made from the reading. Fortunately, we know students will stay engaged with many English language reading passages, as they are often written around high-interest topics: something that is both motivating and engaging. Finally, there may be short follow-up discussions for students to share reactions to the reading or further personalize the themes and topics to relevant aspects of their learning or culture.

As described, this is great reading practice and can truly help students build useful skills that will aid in comprehension of texts over time. For the C1 learner, though, this process provides so much support that it effectively throws up a barrier to learning for a number of reasons when it is time to dive into textbooks. First, few economics or engineering professors will activate schema or provide a context for reading passages. Next, passages are not going to be leveled for English language learners and will be extensively long, spanning ten, twenty, thirty, or more pages. There will be little or no introduction to new or confusing vocabulary words. Passages will not be of the highest interest but instead cover required and sometimes extremely complex information that learners must understand in order to be successful in their learning. Finally, follow-up questions will not be focused on comprehension, but rather will focus on application where students will need to do something with the information to demonstrate understanding. The entire process is very different from what a learner has experienced in their English language learning environment. This is the very real problem that the C1 learner faces. 


Figure 2. Reading process in core content course

Solutions: How to Guide the C1 Learner

This is not a problem without potential solutions. It is important to keep in mind that there is no real failing in the language education system the learner has previously utilized. In fact, it is a testament to the language education system in that it has helped students reach this C1 level. At this very high level, the solution is working more on helping learners apply skills learned in English language courses without the support and guidance provided by the English teacher. Let’s continue to think about this in terms of reading.

To address the challenge for the C1 learner who needs to be able to read large amounts of text, many teachers have turned to extensive reading. This solution makes the most sense, as it is easy to institute as long as a large enough volume of reading and reading content can be acquired. At the same time, perhaps you may recall being asked to read a few hundred pages of any text you didn’t want to read and forcing yourself through it. How much information can you recall from forced reading? Forced extensive reading is not much fun when English is your first language, so imagine the challenge for those who have learned English as a second language.

Extensive reading as a practice also doesn’t address the core issue for the highly advanced learner: processing complex texts. At this level, students need to understand which reading strategies to apply and when in order to be successful with highly complex texts. Let’s take a look at the kinds of skills learners at this level need to demonstrate with complex text.


Skills [1]


Can critically evaluate the quality of sources used in a linguistically complex text. C1 (76-84)


Can critically evaluate the effectiveness of a linguistically complex discursive essay. C1 (76-84)


Can understand a critique of a linguistically complex academic text. C1 (76-84)


Can compare the presentation of a key concept in different texts by different authors using different styles of writing. C1 (76-84)


Can understand the use of paraphrasing in a linguistically complex academic text. C1 (76-84)


Can critically evaluate the effectiveness of a linguistically complex problem-solution essay. C1 (76-84)


Can infer the interviewee’s opinion on a subject from a long and linguistically complex interview transcript. C1 (76-84)


Can understand complex arguments in newspaper articles. C1 (76-84)


Can critically evaluate the effectiveness of a linguistically complex argumentative essay. C1 (76-84)


Can distinguish between literal and allegorical meaning in a literary text. C1 (76-84)


Can understand a linguistically complex poem. C1 (76-84)


Can understand complex or extended metaphors in an academic text. C1 (76-84)


Can infer the author’s attitude in a linguistically complex academic text. C1 (76-84)


Can infer meaning in a linguistically complex academic text. C1 (76-84)


Can recognize that ideas are parallel in a linguistically complex academic text. C1 (76-84)


Can critically evaluate the effectiveness of a linguistically complex descriptive essay. C1 (76-84)


[1] Descriptors of performance at level supported by the Global Scale of English. To download all the descriptors available in the Global Scale of English, visit English.com/gse


As we can see by looking at validated descriptions of performance at this level, massive brute-force reading as a strategy will not be enough to support the C1-level learner in mastering the text. Rather, more complex literacy skills, such as those related to evaluating the quality of content, reputability of sources, and effectiveness of arguments are important for learners working with content at this level. The practice that will be most effective for learners in the classroom is one in which learners work with these more complex skills while processing a lengthy, complex, and perhaps even dry text.

Preparing for University Success

In order to help our learners achieve success in earning their degree, English language teachers must challenge learners more. To do this, we may find ourselves stepping beyond our comfort zones as English teachers to work with content that is difficult and challenging. However, this is the content our learners must work with. To be the best possible English teachers supporting modern learners, there will be a need to embrace teaching topics that are dry, difficult, and outside of our field of expertise. Using authentic texts aligned to the curriculum and expectations of science, technology, engineering, the arts, and technology (STEAM), we can adapt our language learning objectives to prepare our learners for the challenge. Take for instance some of the reading skills reviewed above. The resulting class would include some of these objectives and may look as follows:

  • Understand implication and inference
  • Make strong inferences and avoid weak ones
  • Distinguish between deliberate implications and direct statements
  • Paraphrase
  • Identify and use equivalent and near-equivalent expressions

Each of these skills is perfect for the English language classroom, but also reflects the level of challenge of a C1 learner. The next piece is content. For the learning objectives stated above, we can use content from an economics course. A reading passage may look something like this:


 Figure 3. Example of rigorous, authentic economics text

This article continues across several pages, meaning a long and rigorous reading for learners. The content is important for understanding the field of economics, though perhaps not the most exciting passage our learners have ever read. Again, however, learners need to be prepared to read textbooks designed to impart specific information rather than excite and engage learners.

reading sample

After reading this content, what do learners do? In more general education classrooms follow-up activities connected to readings (or lectures) require students to use the information provided to address a specific problem or describe an action. For example, a learner using an economics textbook first reads about how equilibrium pricing works, then is required to use the equilibrium pricing model to determine the price of a new product. These are the types of problems that learners in the English classroom also need to learn to address. Here is an example of a similar activity for English language learners, where students demonstrate their ability to process the passage and apply information learned, not just address comprehension. critical

Figure 4. Example of processing questions common in authentic textbooks

Of course, for learners to be successful with a passage, we need to be explicit in developing reading skills that move beyond comprehension. Our learners need to develop the ability to read and comprehend, but also to read and use information presented in complex authentic content. This is where we can bridge scaffolding for English language learners and the needs of content. The difference between traditional scaffolding and this type of explicit scaffolding with rigorous content is that the latter will realize the goal of transferring skills from the English language classroom to the Economics 101 classroom. The following is an example of how to introduce a reading skill and prepare students to apply that skill to a complex authentic reading.


Figure 5. Example of English language instructional materials to address C1-level academic skills

As the complexity of what our students do with language continues to develop, teachers working with academic preparation also need to be prepared to introduce new levels of complexity into our classroom. Our main teaching objective in EAP settings needs to match that of the students’ goal — success in the university setting. By taking students out of their comfort zone, embracing this new explicit scaffolding, and using truly authentic content that has not been adapted in any way into our classrooms, C1 learners can finally cross the bridge into a full-time, L1 courses (in general education as well as classes within their majors) without having to return to the second-language classroom.

Robyn Brinks Lockwood teaches courses in English listening, speaking, and writing for international graduate students. She is also the coordinator of the American Language and Culture undergraduate summer program.  She is an active member of the international TESOL organization, serves as Chair of the Book Publications Committee, and is a past chair of the Materials Writers Interest Section.  She is a frequent presenter at TESOL regional and international conferences. Robyn has edited and written numerous textbooks for writing, speaking, and listening English courses and TOEFL® preparation as well as ancillary materials to support teachers.



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