ITAIS Newsletter

ITAIS News, Volume 13:1 (March 2008)

by User Not Found | 10/27/2011
In This Issue...
  • Leadership Updates
    • Letter From Our Chair
  • Articles and Information
    • Highlights From the TESOL 2007 ITAIS Academic Session
    • “Do You Know China?”: TAs Journey Into New Territory for International Education Week
    • What’s Out There: Relevant Research for ITA Professionals
    • Online Resources to Check Out
    • Member Profile: Cheryl Ernst, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
    • Other Conferences

Leadership Updates Letter From Our Chair

Gordon Tapper,

Greetings from the Sunshine State! I know that all of you are busy surviving day to day and trying to get your ducks in a row for the New York TESOL. If you’re like me, some of those ducks are pretty squirrelly.

Concerns related to TOEFL-IBT versus SPEAK, program/testing funding sources, and curricular innovations continue to dominate discussion on the ITA electronic discussion list. Kudos to those contributing to these discussions and continuing to share the information that is the lifeblood of our institutional and professional identities.

TESOL 2008 will be held in New York City, New York, April 2-5, 2008. The theme this year is “Worlds of TESOL: Building Communities of Practice, Inquiry, and Creativity.” Registration and housing is open through the TESOL Web site (

The selection of proposals was, as it always is, exceptionally difficult. Our ITAIS is probably the most aggressively academic and professional IS in TESOL and the proposal submissions always reflect this. Because of a compressed conference this year we had only 8 slots for papers/workshops and 11 Discussion Group sessions. I would like to thank the proposal readers for their conscientious work on behalf of our IS.

Read the complete listing of 2008 ITA Interest Section offerings and create your itinerary in advance at
Congratulations again to Mary Jetter, University of Minnesota, currently chair-elect, for all of her hard work on this year’s conference, and who will become acting chair of ITAIS for 2008–2009 following the closing of the business meeting in New York.

ITA Academic Session 2008: Best Practices in ITA Training
ITA programs and their missions are as diverse as the students they serve. Some focus solely on language whereas others incorporate pedagogical and cultural instruction. In this session presenters discuss their research and its applications to the varying aspects of our field. Topics include fluency, curriculum development, and evaluation.

Soonhyan Kim, The Ohio State University
Keiko Samimy, The Ohio State University
April Ginther, Purdue University
Keith Otto, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Sincere thanks to Mary Jetter, chair-elect, for her hard work organizing this broadly appealing and relevant Academic Session.

ITA InterSection: ITA Professionals As Material Writers
Successful material writers share their experiences in developing materials for their own ITA classes and then discuss how these materials get published for use beyond their own classrooms. Topics include the process of generating ideas, writing up activities, working with publishers, and using video clips as springboards for materials.

Kudos to Kathi Cennamo and Susan Greene for their work with the Material Writers IS in organizing this much-needed InterSection.

ITA IS Business Meeting
All ITA IS members are invited to the business meeting on Thursday from 5-7 p.m. at Park Suite 5 in the Sheraton.

ITA Social 
If you’ve reserved your spot, remember the ITA Social will be held Thursday, April 3 at 8:00 p.m. at Bukhara Grill, 217 East 49th Street (between 2nd & 3rd Avenues), 3rd floor - private room. 212-228-2775.

Interested in volunteering to work at a PCI in NY? Contact Margo Sampson at Someone is needed Tuesday from 1-5 p.m. 

I very much look forward to seeing all of you in New York. Feedback or questions? Please don’t hesitate to contact me at or 352-392-3286.

Articles and Information Highlights From the TESOL 2007 ITAIS Academic Session

Pamela M. Pollock,

Whose English are we teaching? More and more ITA professionals and policymakers are coming up against the same types of questions: “Well, he went to high school in his home country in English. Why is he required to participate in your program?” With Gordon Tapper as the organizer, along with panelists Lucy Pickering, Don Rubin, and Catherine Ross, the 2007 ITAIS Academic Session explored the implications of world Englishes for ITA professionals. A consideration of world Englishes served as an important introduction to many complex challenges underlying undergraduate/ITA interactions: pragmatics, communicative style, bias, and undergraduate expectations, as well as perceptions about knowledge and academic engagement.

Lucy Pickering began by introducing relevant terminology: English as an international language (EIL), English as lingua franca (ELF), and World Standard English. She then talked about a paradigm shift and the relatively new phenomenon of English language speakers who have never actually spoken to a native speaker.

Pickering made an important distinction between intelligibility and comprehensibility. Being comprehensible implies that the listener can understand the complete message, whereas being intelligible implies that listeners can understand individual words. Speakers of outer circle Englishes bring new pragmatics to the language that blur the distinction between intelligibility and comprehensibility, causing different types of misunderstandings (i.e., a supportive laugh becomes an embarrassment). Comprehensibility thus lies between interlocutors. Pickering suggested that we implement ITA courses that do not focus solely on form, but rather combine the importance of form and function. Her concluding statements asked us to reflect on whether ITA professionals will maintain the traditional dynamic between international students and native-speaking students, or whether we will be the heralds of new practices.

Don Rubin then joined the discussion. He shared what may seem to us a paradox: “How can I tell my students that they need to adjust to my variety of English and still say I am a student-centered teacher?” His main point was that undergraduates’ perceptions of ITAs are not greatly changed by ITAs’ language abilities. He measured the effects of race and nationality of TAs on undergraduate perceptions and found an 11% penalty for being an international speaker. Race, he said, had no effect.

Rubin argued that undergraduates need to learn to adapt to nonnative speakers and that “the listener is not always right.” At the moment, students often shop for classes and ITAs usually lead the “leftover” sections. As ITA professionals we need help improving relationships between undergraduates and ITAs so that they are able to “leap across the threshold of foreignness” and into a productive communicative zone. Reaching such a zone requires a cooperative construction of comprehensibility. He agreed with Pickering and argued for a focus on function rather than form in ITA classes.

Finally, Catherine Ross discussed her work interviewing undergraduates, faculty, TAs, and ITAs at the University of Connecticut. She learned from undergraduates that students who expect to understand will be more likely to find a speaker comprehensible than will students with an “oh no” attitude. One reason for being conflicted about having an ITA as an instructor was content anxiety. As one student put it, “I switched sections, because I already have enough trouble.”

She cited undergraduates’ feelings of powerlessness when faced with an ITA. She made the connection with the general literature on undergraduate experiences (see Kuh, 2005). Freshmen are not at a cognitive level to be able to move beyond the dualistic stage (Perry, 1999). They perceive teachers as having all the authority and expect them to explain truths in the classroom. Students at this stage avoid when they do not understand: They stop coming to class or doing homework, and begin to feel that putting in added effort will not help. Clearly students at such a level are unable to participate in what Rubin called a cooperative construction of comprehensibility.

Ross also pointed out that the current generation of undergraduates expects to do well without putting in a lot of effort, and shared a statistic from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE): 41% of undergraduates study for 10 or fewer hours every week. Ross suggested that instead of blaming communication problems or poor classroom experiences on ITAs, undergraduates need to learn how to learn and move beyond a dualistic perspective of knowledge.

In conclusion, the session brought to light a number of challenges that ITAs face when interacting with undergraduates. The speakers all seem to agree that function may be more important than form in ITA instruction. Moreover, undergraduates should be encouraged to take more responsibility for their learning and communication skills regardless of the variety of English spoken by their TAs or instructors. The session served to inform and broaden the considerations of ITA professionals as universities become increasingly international.


Kuh, G. (2005). Student engagement in the first year of college. In M. Upcraft, J. Gardner, & B. Barefoot (Eds.), Challenging and supporting first year students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, W. G., Jr. (1999). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years: A scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (Originally published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968, 1970)

“Do You Know China?”: TAs Journey Into New Territory for International Education Week

Kate Martin,

Author's note: International Education Week (IEW;, a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, celebrates the benefits of international education and exchange. It serves in part to promote programs that prepare Americans for a global environment. Last year, graduate students enrolled in the University of Minnesota's International TA Program were encouraged to engage their undergraduate students in a short activity to highlight their international status in honor of International Education Week.

Picture a calculus classroom at a large, public university. Undergraduates trickle into their seats. The teaching assistant, a first-year PhD student from China named Haoran, quietly greets students as usual. Then, instead of starting the class by solving improper integrals from section 3.4, Haoran announces that it is International Education Week and distributes a quiz entitled "Do You Know China" [Link to the quiz at the end of this article.] Amused, the students play along. First, they answer five true/false questions, including "Beijing, as the capital, is the largest city in China" and "Chinese people nod to disagree and shake their heads to agree." (Both are false.)

The now fully engaged students move on to part II. Here, they must match simple Chinese characters with their meanings. When going over the answers, Haoran points out how the character for farm, hieroglyphically represents rice fields. After class, he reflects, "Students were more interested in China than in calculus!" This is a revelation.

Across campus, other international TAs were equally pleased by students' openness and curiosity as they dabbled for the first time in "internationalizin" their classroom teaching. Yi, another math TA from China, taught her students three Chinese expressions: "Yes," "No," and "Any questions?" She explained that when she asked "Any questions?" in Chinese, they could respond with either of the first two expressions (or in English). She reported that students seemed to enjoy communicating with their newly acquired vocabulary words.

Small efforts such as these can highlight for undergraduates the unique opportunities associated with having international instructors. The TAs, by the same token, may be pleasantly surprised that students are genuinely interested in them and where they come from. Muhammad, a TA for a biomedical engineering lab, invited students to ask him anything at all about his home country, Jordan. That there were so many quality questions delivered with such enthusiasm led him to surmise that students had been wanting to learn more about him and his background, but had not been comfortable initiating such an exchange.

For TAs who might otherwise be reluctant to stray even briefly from their subject matter, International Education Week (November 17-21, 2008) provides a persuasive rationale for talking to students about their home country, culture(s), or language(s). Of course, activities of this nature need not stray far from the subject matter. Imagine, for example, Haoran's "Do You Know China?" quiz asking the age at which most Chinese students learn calculus or having students match mathematical terms to their corresponding characters. The most direct approach to internationalizing is to incorporate illustrative examples from one's homeland whenever applicable. One economics TA from Turkey does so by using the lira to dramatically exemplify inflationary concepts for his students.

At the University of Minnesota, these classroom activities fit into a broad commitment to internationalize the undergraduate experience. Consider that one of seven recently adopted UM Undergraduate Learning Outcomes ( reads: "At the time of receiving a bachelor's degree, students will demonstrate an understanding of diverse philosophies and cultures in a global society."

Because most undergraduates on the University of Minnesota campus will not study abroad but will learn from international instructors, lecture halls, labs, and classrooms become increasingly important venues for students to develop their global citizenship skills. It is my hope that these activities during International Education Week will encourage TAs to internationalize on a more regular basis. Though these efforts in isolation will not achieve the university's broad goal, in the scope of an international graduate student's teaching experience, the impact of sharing aspects of one's cultural and national identity with undergraduates can be extremely positive.

Unfortunately, however, not every experience is positive. For Ivan, who was teaching introductory piano, the experience proved disappointing. When he invited his students to ask him whatever they wished about Russia, the few questions they posed reflected common stereotypes about Russian culture. "How much does a bottle of vodka cost?" or "Do people really wear those big furry hats?"

Though these questions demonstrate precisely why internationalizing is needed, that is little consolation to instructors like Ivan when facing superficial or offensive perceptions about their cultures. What he needed was a strategy to move students from stereotypes to substance. As Ivan's ITA course instructor, I realize I had neglected to prepare him to anticipate possible undergraduate stereotypes and consider ways to respond. Had I done so, Ivan just might have parlayed the stereotypical questions into deeper inquiries about Russian composers or about contemporary life in his country.

For undergraduates, internationalizing activities at their best can provide both an energizing non-U.S. perspective on the discipline and some fresh insight about their instructor as a person. A kinesiology TA named Lee treated internationalizing more broadly. When teaching a sports marketing class, he used International Education Week to highlight sports that are popular in his home country of South Korea. However, he also invited international students in the class to share which sports are played most in their home countries, creating a brief but lively forum for multinational perspectives.

The possibilities for internationalizing activities are as broad as the number of international instructors teaching across the disciplines at universities. As international TA program directors and instructors, our role may be as simple as providing the initial encouragement and a list of possible activities (see the pdf below) and facilitating a discussion on handling stereotypes that may arise. Uniquely equipped to provide students with non-U.S. viewpoints, international instructors themselves will determine the appropriate paths on the journey to internationalizing campuses.

International Education Week Ideas

Haoran's Quiz

What’s Out There: Relevant Research for ITA Professionals

Kate Martin,

Bent, T., Bradlow, A. R., & Smith, B. L. (2007). Segmental errors in different word positions and their effects on intelligibility of non-native speech: All's well that begins well. In O. Bohn & M. Munro (Eds.), Language experience in second language speech learning in honor of James Emil Flege (pp. 331-347). Philadelphia, PA: Benjamins. 

Bradlow, A. R., & Bent, T. (2008). Perceptual adaptation to non-native speech. Cognition, 106(2), 707-729.

Ching-Shyang Chang, A., & Read, J. (2006). The effects of listening support on the listening performance of EFL learners. TESOL Quarterly, 40(2), 375-397.

Fung, L., & Carter. R. (2007). Discourse markers and spoken English: Native and learner use in pedagogic settings. Applied Linguistics, 28(3), 410-439.

Gorsuch, G. J. (2006). Discipline-specific practica for International Teaching Assistants. English for Specific Purposes, 25(1), 90-108.

Hoekje, B. J. (2007). Medical discourse and ESP courses for international medical graduates (IMGs). English for Specific Purposes, 26(3), 327-343.

Im, J. (2007). Native English speakers' perceptions of intelligibility in the extended discourse produced by non-native speakers. Masters Abstracts International, 46 (01). (UMI No. 1446068) 

Jenkins, J. (2006). Global intelligibility and local diversity: Possibility or paradox? In R. Rubdy & M. Saracen (Eds.), English in the world: Global rules, global roles (pp. 32-39). London, England: Continuum.

McGregor, L. A. (2008). An examination of comprehensibility in a high stakes oral proficiency assessment for prospective international TAs. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Texas - Austin.

Mehra, B., & Papajohn. D. (2007). "Glocal” patterns of communication-information convergences in Internet use: Cross-cultural behavior of international teaching assistants in a culturally alien information environment. International Information & Library Review, 39(1), 12-30.

Munro, M., Derwing, T., & Morton, S. (2006). The mutual intelligibility of L2 speech. SSLA, 28, 111-131.

Papajohn, D. (2006). Standard setting for next generation TOEFL Academic Speaking Test (TAST): Reflections on the ETS panel of international teaching assistant developers. TESL-EJ, 10(1), 1-7.

Rajadurai, J. (2007). Intelligibility studies: A consideration of empirical and ideological issues. World Englishes, 26(1), 87-98.

Ruhe, V., & O’Brien, J. (2008, March). Using Messick's framework to validate a teaching performance rubric for International Teaching Assistants. Paper to be presented at the 2008 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York, NY. Request a copy of the paper

Saif, S. (2006). Aiming for positive washback: A case study of international teaching assistants. Language Testing, 23(1), 1-34.

Trentin, A. (2008). A world of education: The influence of culture on instructional style and perceived teacher effectiveness. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. 

Trofimovich, P., & Baker, W. (2006). Learning second language suprasegmentals: Effect of L2 experience on prosody and fluency characteristics of L2 speech. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 28(1), 1-30.

Xi, X. (2007). Validating TOEFL® iBT Speaking and setting score requirements for ITA screening. Language Assessment Quarterly, 4(4), 318-351. Retrieved February 25, 2008 from

Xi, X. (2008). Investigating the criterion-related validity of the TOEFL Speaking scores for ITA screening and setting standards for ITAs (TOEFL iBT Research Rep. No. TOEFLiBT-03). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Retrieved February 25, 2008 from

Online Resources to Check Out

Mary Jetter,

Teaching Guide for Graduate Student Instructors 
This well-designed Web site from University of California-Berkeley features video clips of five graduate student instructors. Each clip is broken down into short segments, each illustrating a different aspect of teaching. These include such teaching tasks as calling roll, showing relevance, giving directions, and ending a class. 

Orientation to College Teaching
This San Fransisco State University site features a variety of units on topics such as teaching styles, presentation strategies, promoting reflection, and overcoming anxiety. The teaching style unit is especially interesting as it has video of one topic taught in five different styles.

Language Functions in the Lecture Room
This British Web site presents language functions and vocabulary following Bloom’s taxonomy (presentation, giving an explanation, the teaching of skills, the process of evaluation, reaching a synthesis) and classroom functions such as greetings, developing facts, and summarizing. The vocabulary and grammar are presented in chart form.

Teaching Perspectives Inventory
As the site states, “The Teaching Perspectives Inventory can help you collect your thoughts and summarize your ideas about teaching.”  Students can take an online survey and get immediate results.

Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire 
Take this 44-question survey to determine your preferred learning style. The article that accompanies the results helps students to understand their preferred learning style, and provides suggestions for ways to study. This survey can be used with ITAs to discuss how learning style affects teaching as well as how to create activities with multiple learning styles in mind.

MICASE: Clarifying and Confirming 
The English Language Institute at the University of Michigan has put together a new self-study unit on clarifying and confirming. The unit includes exercises on identifying the steps in the process of clarifying and confirming, as well as strategies to use when doing so.

Member Profile: Cheryl Ernst, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

Kate Martin,

Kate Martin: Cheryl, thanks for agreeing to be featured in this issue. Can we start with just a brief bio?

Cheryl Ernst: Sure. I’m finishing my dissertation on ITAs at Southern Illinois University, where I also teach full-time in the Center for English as a Second Language. I’ve taught in Japan, Finland, Ohio, Boston, Anchorage, and now Carbondale. I’m on my way back to Alaska, but not the warm half of the state—to Fairbanks where my husband just accepted a position.

KM: How did you get your start in the TESOL field?

CE: The love of cultures, language, and socializing, too, I guess. I’ve always enjoyed the learning and sharing that happens while living abroad and this seemed like a good fit. Sadly, I’ve not lived abroad as much internationally as I would have liked to, but I’ve loved all of my teaching experiences. I certainly find cultural differences even in the various regions of the United States I’ve lived in.

KM: One of the reasons Gordon Tapper suggested you for this column was the research you’ve done on topics relevant to the ITA community. Can you tell us about your research?

CE: I am currently writing a case study of an ITA program. As the ITA coordinator, I discovered a disconnect between the three primary parties in ITA work: the students, the departments, and the administration. Basically I interviewed a small collection of representatives from each group and I discovered that a large number of inconsistencies, misconceptions, and misinformation that we can fix—if we are aware of the problems. Some of the problems would still be invisible to us were it not for my case study. Fortunately, I work for an institution that does make an attempt to improve on its own weaknesses. The “powers that be” have been very interested in my study and results. They have already implemented changes to improve transparency and efficiency.

From my research I created an interview checklist that other institutions could use to identify holes in their own system, based on those that I found in ours.

KM: What future directions do you see your research taking? 
CE: I hope to continue with ITAs and the international student population in general. I love the mix of graduate students and IEP where I work. I would like to continue with the assessment of programs and training. We currently are doing observations of all new ITAs and I’ve really enjoyed that. I’ve even had ITAs come back and ask me for copies of their letters for references, scholarship documentation, or departmental reviews. These ITAs generally tell me that my observation was the only one they had and my letter is the only record of what they did in class, beyond the student evaluations.

KM: What ideas, methods, or technologies have you been experimenting with lately in your own teaching?
CE: Allison Petro, a well respected and active contributor to the ITA field, introduced me to shadowing with video, so we’ve been doing that more. I also have been trying to do more with video and reflective teaching. We have always recorded the ITAs but I am working on getting them to be more critical of themselves and to increase self-monitoring. They won’t always have a teacher looking over their shoulder, so they need to become that critical eye for themselves. I find I am still battling the “teaching = punishment” attitude, so they focus on content rather than delivery. We have started playing the “communication as transferable skill” card. By this I mean I’m trying to connect their teaching to presenting at conferences, applying for jobs, making proposals, participating in meetings and training sessions, and so on. Nothing new, I think, but sometimes we get wrapped up in the details and lose sight of the big picture.

KM: Do you have a favorite ITA-related story from your research or teaching experiences?
CE: One of my first observations was in a lab class and I recall one of the undergraduates who was completing the formative feedback sheet that we ask them to do, and he turned to his friend and said, loud enough for me to hear, “No foreign exchange student should be teaching any of my classes!” That was the moment of realization for me that we have a lot of work to do—and it can’t stop with the ITAs. I’ve been trying to find away to educate the undergrads, as has everyone else! I loved the term foreign exchange student and the absolute arrogance with which this student made his statement. He was demeaning on so many levels. I’m too polite to include my first thoughts here, but suffice to say there were lots of &&$$$@@##@@ included. This situation is actually what got me thinking about my dissertation topic. I’m sad I had to witness the attitude firsthand, but I think I discovered a really interesting topic as a result.

KM: What’s one thing you hope to do in New York next month that’s not conference-related?

CE: Not conference related, hmmm, that’s a tough one. I’m on TESOL’s Professional Development Standing Committee, so we’re pretty busy at the onset of the conference. My daughter, Sinikka, is coming along and my parents will fly in to show her around (so I can work!). I guess I’m jealous of her opportunity while I’m living up the TESOL life. I hope to see The Lion King while I’m there and just have some time watching Sinikka enjoy the sights of the city.

KM: Is there anything you’d like readers to know about you that I haven’t asked yet?
CE: I’m pretty dull, all in all, and I’d hate for that to get out. :)

Other Conferences

10th Annual Digital Stream, March 17-19, 2008 [Monterey, CA]
Best uses of technology in the foreign language classroom. Keynotes to be delivered by Rebecca Oxford and Barbara Sawhill. [Digital Stream already took place, but is held annually in Monterey, CA.]

2008 POD Conference, October 22-26, 2008 [Reno, NV]
Professional and Organizational Network in Higher Education. This organization has an ITA group.