ITAIS Newsletter

ITAIS News, Volume 8:2 (September 2003)

by User Not Found | 10/26/2011
In This Issue of the ITA Newsletter...

Letter from Our Chair
Dial Up Fluency: Using Phone Interviews to Assess the Speaking Ability of International Applicants
News from Our Regions
ITA-IS Steering Committee 2003-2004
Editor's Note
About This Member Community

Letter from Our Chair

Diane Cotsonas, University of Utah

Greetings! I hope you all had a relaxing summer. As the academic year gets underway, it's also time to begin to make plans for the TESOL 2004 in Long Beach, California. But first, a reflection back to TESOL 2003 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Despite unrest in the U.S. and the world, TESOLers once again came together to exchange ideas and experiences at the annual convention. The weather was good overall, with only a couple of rainy periods during the week. As always, our Interest Section had a great line-up for the ITA-IS program. For those of you who were unable to join us, I encourage you to log onto our website and browse the online handouts at

Plans are well underway for TESOL 2004 in Long Beach, California. Be sure to mark March 29- April 3 on your calendars. I'd like to thank all the proposal readers for their help in the adjudication process this summer. We had over 60 proposals submitted this year, and more than 20 readers to read and rate them. The number of slots available, however, was small - a total of 17 45-minute slots, mostly due to Long Beach being a smaller venue than Baltimore.

However, we also have Discussion Groups, Intersections, and our Academic Session to look forward to, not to mention poster sessions, Electronic Village sessions, and everything our fellow TESOLers in other Interest Sections are planning.

Information on the convention is available at and is updated from time-to-time, so bookmark it on your browser and check it for updates. I will also send reminders to our electronic discussion list, so if you are not already on it, be sure to sign up.

Please write me with any questions or concerns you have in regard to ITA-IS or TESOL matters. I'm here to serve you.

2003-2004 ITA-IS Chair

Dial Up Fluency: Using Phone Interviews to Assess the Speaking Ability of International Applicants

Peggy Allen Heidish, Carnegie Mellon University

The Intercultural Communication Center (ICC) has been responsible for the ITA (International Teaching Assistant) Training program at Carnegie Mellon University since 1986. Over the years, our center has developed a partnership with our graduate academic departments, advising them on such issues as setting standards for using standardized language assessment tests, running workshops on cross-cultural differences in the classroom, and troubleshooting if problems arise with their international students. For the past 10 years we have also helped departments assess the spoken language fluency of international applicants (many of whom are potential ITAs) by offering the option of "pre-admission phone interviews." The interview is intended to supplement the TOEFL by providing a more complete picture of an applicant's language proficiency so as to determine whether applicants have the specific threshold of fluency needed to handle work in a particular department. Some departments have also found the interview to be useful for selecting applicants who would be able to pass the ITA test within a reasonable amount of time.

The inception of pre-admission phone interviews

In the early 1990s, our center was asked to interview applicants to a department that required a high level of participation in class discussions. The department had gone through several years of bringing in international students who were unable to participate in these classes despite having achieved the required TOEFL scores. The department requested that the ICC make phone calls to these applicants to evaluate their levels of spoken English and, for those applicants who were not fluent enough, to recommend intensive ESL programs in the summer for those who would most likely be able to develop their fluency. The department was very pleased with the process and felt that these interviews helped bring in students who were more prepared to handle the language demands of their particular program.

Word of the interviews spread, and eventually another department asked us to conduct phone interviews specifically to select applicants who had sufficient background with spoken English so that they would be able to pass the ITA test in a reasonable amount of time. This department had experienced a great deal of difficulty with their international TAs. It offered many undergraduate core courses and so required a large number of TAs. At the same time, the majority of its graduate students were international, so ITAs made up the bulk of the TA pool. Many of their international students had arrived on campus with unusually low levels of spoken English (despite 600+ TOEFL scores), and some had taken years to gain the fluency needed to pass the ITA test. This was very costly to the department, which had to hire TAs from the outside while at the same time supporting graduate students who couldn't work. The department had been ready to close admission to international applicants when they learned about our phone interviews and so asked us to interview all of their international applicants. The phone interviews proved to be very useful, and we were able to make recommendations that helped this department select/admit a group of international Ph.D. students who were able both to pass the ITA test in a reasonable amount of time and to succeed as teachers. The department had fewer students failing the ITA test and reported higher scores for their ITAs on the faculty course evaluations.

Furthermore, an increasing number of our departments rely on our pre-admission phone interviews as an additional assessment to supplement the artificially inflated TOEFL scores of students from countries that offer excessive test prep courses. The interviews are also useful to assess the language skills of those students who do not have access to the Test of Spoken English (TSE).

Goals of interviewing

In the phone interview, we are trying to determine if applicants have the threshold of fluency needed to handle graduate work in a particular department. Some departments require graduate students to teach undergraduate classes almost right away (a task that would require both a high level of spoken fluency and an awareness of U.S. discourse style), while other departments may be more concerned about the students' ability to interact in interdisciplinary research teams. In some cases, departments might decide to reject applicants who score below a particular fluency threshold because the investment needed to master that level would not be realistic given the demands of graduate work. In other cases, departments may decide to accept the applicant contingent upon their participation in an intensive pre-matriculation language training program. Moreover, through the interviewing process, departments can gain a realistic expectation about the time the students would need to develop fluency once matriculated.

In addition to assessing both general and field-specific fluency, we also look at some of the variables that can impact a person's ability to develop language skills once they are in the U.S. academy. For example, we look at the speaker's ability to: (1) deal with unexpected questions and to ask for clarification if they do not understand, (2) handle the anxiety caused by a phone conversation in another language, (3) "guess intelligently" and (4) be willing to try to communicate despite gaps in fluency. We also note when applicants use good teaching strategies to explain their academic interests (for example, one student with limited vocabulary used his everyday experience with the Internet to explain the kind of search engines he is researching in computer science).

Many of the applicants we interview clearly lack academic fluency in English, as would be expected given that they have not studied their field in an English-speaking environment. However, we try to determine whether they have the potential to develop technical vocabulary and to adapt to the U.S. classroom style. Departmental feedback indicates that these assessments have been useful and accurate. For example, another department that requires a large number of TAs each semester was ready to refuse to admit applicants from certain Asian countries because many of the students from these countries had taken years to pass the ITA test (and some never passed). However, by using pre-admission interviews, the department has been able to select the graduate students from those countries who are able to function as TAs.

The importance of using trained interviewers

Our experience with pre-admission interviews has led us to believe that this type of interviewing is best done by ESL professionals with experience in ITA testing and training and/or in working with advanced fluency students. A number of faculty who had done their own interviews reported that they had then found that their students could not handle the work, illustrating that it is very easy for untrained raters to misinterpret the fluency of nonnative speakers. For example, the faculty member may do most of the talking or allow students to speak entirely in jargon, and then assume the student is highly fluent. For example:

Faculty: We are doing research on the XYZ gene, making use of Dr. Smith's analysis on synthetic components and this use of flux capacitors within a digital framework. Are you familiar with this type of approach?

Student: Yes, flux capacitor is very useful.

The same student may have demonstrated much less fluency if he or she had been asked to give an opinion on Dr. Smith's work. We have found that students may prepare "essays" about their work (e.g., "I feel that (my field) is tremendously benefit for mankind and that studying in your department will provide a unique opportunity for develop my ...") and then be unable to answer questions that deviate from the script (see Appendix 1:Sample of interview with an overly prepared applicant). Untrained raters are often unaware of these pitfalls, and judge that the applicant reading from a script is much more fluent than he or she actually is. When we conduct interviews, we draw on many of the techniques we use in our ITA testing: we ask for clarification of jargon or technical terms (where being outside of the student's field is an advantage); we look for the speaker's ability to reword or simplify, noting if the speaker is able to negotiate meaning; and we rate pronunciation, grammar usage, fluency and listening as separate and independent skills.

Scoring and reporting interview results

We typically send a brief e-mail report to the department contact summarizing the applicant's language proficiency and making recommendations about the student's ability to enter a particular graduate program. We have also developed a detailed scoring guide so that departments can understand what a particular applicant would be able to do given their current fluency (see Appendix 2: Reporting interview results to academic departments).

Logistics: Getting the word out to the campus community, charging for the service and verifying test results

Every spring we send a memo to all academic departments, reminding them about the interview and setting up a clear procedure for requesting interviews and reporting results. I am sometimes invited to meet with graduate admission committees to talk about their needs and to help them establish a protocol. We could not possibly interview every applicant, so each department needs to find a way to prescreen and prioritize. For example, one department first eliminates applicants on the basis of GRE scores, research interests, interviews by advisors, etc., and then asks us to interview only the students in the final cut. Also, in the interest of time, we have found it crucial to pre-schedule the interviews by e-mail and thus insist that departments send us e-mail addresses for each student. Finally, we charge $50 per interview to help cover the cost of the phone calls and of our time (see Appendix 3: Sample memo to departments regarding how to request interviews, payment and getting results).

Departments sometimes ask how we can verify that the person being interviewed is the applicant. We cannot do this, and we do not even try. However, I offer this thought: without some kind of oral interview or an assessment test such as TSE, departments have no information about an applicant's spoken language skills. In addition, I believe it is unlikely that an applicant would have a "ringer" fill in for them in a phone conversation about their professional interests. The bigger concern seems to be that applicants may have over-trained for the TOEFL while not putting time into developing their spoken language. Also, as we explicitly tell departments in the memo (see Appendix 3), the interview should supplement, not replace, other forms of assessment, and is "a rough measure" which cannot provide the in-depth assessment or security provided by the ITA test or an in-person interview. Finally, if there were a concern once a student arrived on campus, the department has the option of comparing the student's pre-admission interview score to his or her "placement interview", the on-campus interview we offer to all incoming international students during the orientation period in August. The placement interview uses the same 25 point rating scale as the pre-admission interview but has a very different goal; it is used to place students into the appropriate language classes but is never used to screen applicants. Any student who demonstrated a significantly different level of spoken English in the placement interview would stand out as having "cheated" somehow on the pre-admission interview. However, during our 10 years of pre-admission screening, this has never happened.


Having worked with pre-admission interviews for over 10 years, I have found that the interviews are of great benefit to the individual graduate departments, to the applicants, and to our ITA training program. The departments are able to select those applicants who are most likely to pass the ITA test within a reasonable amount of time, or at least to have realistic expectations about the number of incoming students who will be able to TA in the first year. The applicants who are selected as a result of the interviewing benefit by being more likely to have the set of skills needed for success in their graduate programs. In addition, applicants with low TOEFL scores but strong speaking skills are able to demonstrate their strengths in the interview. The departments that have used the interviews continue to request them year after year, and the number of requests continues to increase. Last year, for example, we interviewed 197 applicants for 17 different departments.

Interviewing has also had a very positive impact on our center. First, we have the opportunity to work with a group of students who are more likely to be ready for advanced language work and ITA training rather than for basic ESL. Interviewing hundreds of students has also enabled us to explicitly define the set of language and communication skills needed for successful applicants to our university. Finally, the interviewing process has provided another forum for sharing our expertise with the campus community and has made us an integral part of the admissions process in many departments.

The following appendices are available as PDF document from

Appendix 1: Sample of interview with an overly prepared applicant
Appendix 2: Reporting interview results to academic departments (sample e-mail)
Appendix 3: Sample memo to departments regarding how to request interviews, payment and getting results

About the author(s): Peggy Allen Heidish,, 412-268-4979, Peggy Heidish is the Director of the Intercultural Communication Center at Carnegie Mellon University. She has been involved in ITA training and testing for the past 18 years.

News from Our Regions

The New England ITA Network (NEITAN)

The New England ITA Network continues to meet every semester. Our last meeting was at Boston University in May 2003. The focus was on technology, including the telecommunications technologies which allow universities to interview potential international graduate students before they arrive on campus. In the morning, we had demonstrations of Polycom and Access Grid, which allowed us to connect and discuss the pros and cons of these systems with Ghislaine Kozuh at the University of Texas and Lynn DiPietro at Indiana University. In the afternoon we had a presentation from the publisher, Longman, on their new English language CD ROMs.

Our next meeting will be October 24th at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Representatives from Educational Testing Service will give a presentation on changes in the up-coming new generation of the TOEFL. Our members have also organized an ITA panel for the New England regional NAFSA conference in December.

Allison Petro,
Director, English Language Studies
University of Rhode Island

Catherine Ross,
Director, Teaching Assistant Programs
University of Connecticut

The New York Consortium of ITA Programs (NYCITAP)

NYCITAP'S next meeting will be held at NYS TESOL, Nov. 7-9 at the Hilton Rye Town, Rye Brook, NY on Saturday, November 8. For further information on the meeting time and location, please contact Vel Chesser. The pre-registration deadline for NYS TESOL is Oct. 16 and can be done only by mail. The hotel reservation deadline is also Oct. 16. You can get all information about the conference on the NYS TESOL website:

The NYCITAP@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU continues to provide a great forum for New Yorkers to discuss ITA related issues. Anyone interested in subscribing can also contact Vel or Derina.

Vel Chesser,
Professor, Languages, Literatures and Linguistics
Syracuse University

Derina S. Samuel,
Associate Director, TA Program of the Graduate School
Syracuse University

ITA-IS Steering Committee 2003-2004
Immediate Past Chair Newsletter Editor-Elect
Catherine Ross Chris Fox
University of Connecticut University of Missouri-Columbia
Chair Historian
Diane Cotsonas Derina Samual
University of Utah Syracuse University
Chair-Elect Member at Large
Barbara Willenborg Colleen Meyers
University of Pennsylvania University of Minnesota
Secretary Member at Large
Allison Petro Janet Benger
University of Rhode Island Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
Newsletter Editor Webmaster (
Ingrid Arnesen John Bro
Cornell University University of Florida
Editor's Note

Ingrid Arnesen, Cornell University

I'm pleased to serve as the ITA-IS newsletter editor this year and to have this opportunity to learn and to hear from all of you. I wish to thank Darlene Parvini for her advice and for all her contributions to our interest section, and I would also like to congratulate her on her new faculty position in the biology department at Belmont University. Many thanks our Chair, Diane Cotsonas, and to Peggy Heidish for her fine article in this issue, and to the NEITAN and NYCITAP folks for providing updates and contact information for their groups. I am hoping that we will hear from our other regional networks in upcoming issues. The e-section format allows us to publish our newsletter more frequently, so that we may include full-length articles in addition to news from the nation and the regions, and I'd like to send out a renewed invitation to all IS members to share their articles and news. Thanks,


About This Member Community

International Teaching Assistants Interest Section

Statement of Purpose: The International Teaching Assistants interest section (ITA IS) serves TESOL members who work with nonnative-English-speaking teaching assistants as researchers, teachers, and program administrators.

Chair: Diane Cotsonas, University of Utah,
Chair-Elect: Barbara Willenborg, University of Pennsylvania,
Newsletter Editor: Ingrid Arnesen, Cornell University,
Web site:
Community e-list: Sign up at

More Resources:
  • ITAIS Newsletter Volume 9 Issue 2: March 2004
  • TESOL San Diego Academy: June 25-27, 2004
  • International Teaching Assistants
  • Looking at Progress in a Pronunciation Class
  • ITAIS Newsletter Volume 9 Issue 1: March 2004