ITAIS Newsletter

ITAIS News, Volume 9:1 (March 2004)

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

Letter From the Chair
Letter From the Chair-Elect
From the Editor
Why the Japanese Have Difficulty Communicating in English
Introducing ITAs to the U.S. Secondary School System
High School in the United States
ITA-IS Steering Committee 2003-2004
Call for Volunteers
About This Member Community

ITA photo.
Chair, Diane Cotsonas, Outgoing Chair, Catherine Ross, and Chair Elect, Barbara Willenborg at TESOL 2003.

Letter From the Chair

Diane Cotsonas,

ITA Electronic Discussion Lists. Important announcement about ITA-IS and electronic communications. The ITA Interest Section has an official e-list for members, ITAIS-L ( Another useful list for anyone interested in ITA issues is ITA-L (, whose subscribers include both ITA members and nonmembers. Please join us on these optional lists! You can subscribe to ITAIS-L at Subscribe to ITA-L by visiting ITA's Web site at and clicking on Discussion List in the left-hand column. There will be numerous updates and information about the convention on the lists in the upcoming weeks, and it's a wonderful resource year-round. Once you subscribe, you will also have access to archived discussions.

ITA-IS Program at TESOL's 2004 Convention in Long Beach, California, in the United States. As the annual convention fast approaches, I'd like to first thank all the proposal readers who worked with me through a very difficult adjudication process this past summer. A new online proposal system was used--and it was less than perfect, to put it mildly. However, we made it through and came out with a terrific program. More than 60 proposals for paper, workshop, colloquia, and demonstration sessions were submitted, and we had to choose 15--a tough call! But the resulting program, including the discussion groups and academic session planned by Barbara Willenborg, the ITA-IS chair-elect, should prove to be informative and exciting.

Planning Your Convention Time. The Online Program Planner is back! This handy tool allows you to view the complete TESOL convention schedule online, plan your own itinerary, and view session handouts. You can access the Online Program Planner under "General Information." Presenters, you have the option of uploading handouts for your sessions. More information on that will be forthcoming. Stay tuned to and to the ITA-IS e-list.

Third Annual ITA-IS Social. At the 2004 TESOL convention in Long Beach, the ITA-IS will continue its tradition of having a social after the Business Meeting on Wednesday night. The social stems from an interest in continuing the discussion and camaraderie begun at the Business Meeting. IS members used to go to dinner in small groups, but many of us thought it would be good to reserve a place ahead of time where we could go en masse, and so the ITA-IS Social was born.

Cara Wallis has generously agreed to coordinate the planning. She and I will be in touch with everyone on in a few weeks with details about how to reserve your place. Please plan on coming to the Business Meeting from 5-7 pm. At the close of the Business Meeting, you will have an opportunity to stop by the All Interest Section Networking Reception and have a snack while you meet people from other interest sections. The ITA-IS Social will begin with a cocktail hour (buy your own) so that people who wish to stop by the reception can arrive at the social in time for dinner.

ITA-IS Information Booth. Although Jane O'Brien will not be able to join us at the convention, she is still coordinating the collection of materials and staffing of the booth. The easiest thing would be for members to bring brochures or flyers from their programs for distribution at the booth. It would also be nice to update an informational notebook that was started years ago. If you don't have a brochure, a short description of your program would be nice. I have designated some money for photos to post at the booth. If you would like me to print up a photo, send a high-resolution JPEG file (with information about your institution and program and the year the photo was taken) to Jane O'Brien at

Thank You! I've welcomed the chance to serve as your chair. It's been a great learning experience, and I encourage all of you to consider volunteering to help the IS in any way you can, either by nominating yourself for an office or by volunteering at the booth. If you have any questions or suggestions whatsoever, please e-mail me at

Best regards,

University of Utah

Letter From the Chair-Elect

Barbara Willenborg,

When I first interviewed for the job of ITA coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, my now-supervisor asked me to role-play counseling a student who had failed the certification test. Luckily, I had no trouble doing it. All ITA trainers have experienced this unfortunate situation and have experienced talking to unhappy undergraduates about their ITAs who have been certified. The importance of the decisions ITA trainers make about who should and should not be certified cannot be overstated. It is imperative that we all have the most valid and reliable tests possible.

To this end, the ITA-IS will focus on certification assessment issues for this year's TESOL academic session, "Issues in High-Stakes Performance Testing." The presenters have the rare combination of expertise in both ITA training and assessment. This assessment theme will be reinforced by the regular program session, "ITA Exit-Testing Issues and Considerations," and the discussion group, "How Changes with TOEFL/TSE Impact ITA Programs." I urge everyone to come to Long Beach with their burning assessment questions in mind, and I hope that by the end of the week we will all have ideas for improving the validity and reliability of our certification tests.

This year the ITA-IS has been able to schedule 10 discussion sessions and to work with the Speech, Pronunciation, and Listening Interest Section ("Designing Content-Specific Pronunciation Materials") and the Teacher Education Interest Section ("Maximizing Microteaching") to create two fabulous Intersection sessions. These will be great opportunities to see what ESL professionals with a different focus have to contribute to the work we do (and vice versa, of course).

I would also like you to mark your calendars for the ITA Interest Section Planning Meeting. It will take place Friday, April 30, at 5 pm (room TBA on e-list and at the TESOL convention). Whether you are new to ITA training or are a veteran, I welcome you to attend this meeting to help plan for the coming year.

I look forward to talking with you at the TESOL convention in March. If you won't be joining us in Long Beach, please contact me by phone (215-898-2049) or e-mail ( about any ideas you have for improving our interest section.


Barbara Willenborg
University of Pennsylvania
Ross photo.
Outgoing ITAIS chair Catherine Ross receiving her thank-you certificate from TESOL Board Member Jun Liu, a former ITA and student of Susan Sarwark at The Ohio State University. TESOL 2003, Baltimore.

From the Editor

Ingrid Arnesen,

As winter wears on throughout the "north country" and beyond, I am sure many of you will join me in looking forward to the upcoming TESOL convention in Long Beach. The convention promises to offer a vibrant program of ITA papers, discussion groups, and academic sessions, thanks to the efforts of our chair and chair-elect. We can also look forward to our third annual ITA-IS social!

In this issue, I am pleased to include two articles by international graduate students, which present differing cultural perspectives of interest to ITA trainers. Shingo Kaiya's paper, written in response to a causal analysis essay assignment, provides historical insight into the causes of the particular difficulties faced by Japanese learners of English. The second essay offers a glimpse of the U.S. educational system from the perspective of a Chinese student, Angela Leung, of Hong Kong.

Many thanks to all those who have contributed to the newsletter. There's still time for others of you to submit your articles and news. The deadline for submissions for the next issue is March 22, 2004.

I look forward to seeing you all in Long Beach! Think Spring!

Ingrid Arnesen
Cornell University

Why the Japanese Have Difficulty Communicating in English

By Shingo Kaiya,

Approximately 190,000 Japanese students are currently studying in foreign countries, the majority in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In addition, many Japanese are working abroad. Most of them, however, face an unexpected difficulty: They are much less able to communicate with native speakers of English than they expected. For example, in class, some students cannot catch what English-speaking students say, so they cannot participate in discussion. At professional conferences, the conduct of Japanese conferees is called the 3Ss: Smile, Be Silent, and Sleep. Surprisingly, they have studied English for approximately 10 years at junior high school, high school, and the university, which teach English as the most important subject. Therefore, they come to wonder why they have so much trouble despite their long period of English education.

Not only education specialists but also students and businesspeople have discussed the causes of this situation. The factor that many people regard as most significant is the English language curriculum in Japan, which concentrates too much on grammar and reading. The general English class style in Japan is as follows: Students read and translate a textbook before class, and in class the teacher explains the correct translation, grammar, and idioms. On tests, students are required to answer grammatical questions, read a short paper, answer questions about the contents of the paper, and translate very short Japanese sentences into English. The style of the university entrance examination is almost the same as that in earlier schooling. Therefore, students tend not to study speaking and listening because they do not need to do so as long as they are in Japan.

Students and their parents complain about the lack of native-English-speaking teachers, which is another cause of the Japanese people's difficulty with speaking and understanding oral English. In class, students have almost no opportunity to speak and listen to native speakers of English. What is worse, many Japanese English teachers cannot speak English fluently. It is no wonder that students taught by teachers who lack an ability to communicate in English cannot speak or listen to English themselves. One Japanese English teacher said that when she visited the United Kingdom, she was ashamed to tell people that she teaches English in Japan.

Recently, education specialists have argued that a late start learning English has led to this problem. Indeed, these specialists insist that language should be learned between 2 and 13 years old; but in Japan, English is not taught in elementary school. In addition, a significant difference in the structure and pronunciation between Japanese and English accounts for further difficulty.

Of course, these are direct causes of the problem. Few people, however, have analyzed this problem from the perspective of the history of Japan. From the 15th century to 1853, Japan had maintained a national isolation policy. In 1854, Japan ratified the Treaty of Peace and Amity with the United States and reopened the country; after which Japan realized that it was significantly behind the United States and European countries in many areas. Japan wanted to catch up with these countries as soon as possible, but to achieve this goal it needed many people who could understand specific and difficult English books and papers to attain state-of-the-art knowledge and technological expertise. In this situation, it was natural that English language education focused on reading ability; there was little necessity to listen and speak. This educational system worked very well, and Japan succeeded in catching up with developed countries in a very short time.

Focusing on reading in English education lasted through the mid 1980s. As Japan attained a presence in the world, however, it became necessary to play a more active role. In this new situation, Japanese people had to lead discussions and express their opinions. This meant that the ability to communicate, that is, to listen and speak English, became more and more important. English was no longer just a method of attaining information; it was also a valuable tool for the Japanese to express themselves. Nevertheless, Japan has not changed its English language education system. As a result, the educational system that had once been called a successful model became a system unmatched to the present situation.

Japan delayed starting a reform of English language education, but it has tried to change its system. Unfortunately, so far it has not succeeded. However, it is not difficult to specify the reason for the failure; most Japanese do not have to speak English as long as they are in Japan. Therefore, they do not have a sense of the urgency about the problem and do not regard it as serious. This means that the poor English skills of the Japanese is not only associated with its educational system but also with its social and business practices.

Of course, several solutions have been discussed--starting English language education at an early age, requiring schools to hire at least one English language teacher who is a native speaker, or introducing listening and speaking tests on exams for entering university. These solutions can surely improve the situation, but are they enough?

Because the Japanese need to learn English to communicate with people from other countries, I suggest a new solution--invite many international students to Japanese schools. The best way to improve one's English skills is to use the language. Unfortunately, Japanese students have very few opportunities to speak and listen to English. Therefore, the Japanese government should offer more opportunities to support students coming from foreign countries. Although the number of international students in the United States was approximately 580,000 in 2002, the number of international students in Japan was only 96,000 in the same year. Inviting more international students to Japan would not only be meaningful for improving their Japanese students' English skills but also for developing human relationships between Japanese students and those from other countries.

Thus, in order to resolve the problem, support from outside the education world is needed. Private companies might offer another effective solution. If the top Japanese companies required students to interview in English, those who really wanted to work for these firms would have no other choice but to master the language. Indeed, compared to Japanese students, Korean students make greater efforts to learn English because Korean companies require high English skills of their employees.

Therefore, educational professionals in Japan should not try to resolve this important issue alone, rather they should ask government and business leaders to become involved in resolving the problem cooperatively.

Shingo Kaiya is a Master's Degree candidate in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in the United States.

Introducing ITAs to the U.S. Secondary School System

By Dean Papajohn,

Most international teaching assistants (ITAs) realize that preparation for university studies varies from country to country. Yet, it is rare to find an ITA that knows very much about the specifics of secondary education in the United States or how that background might affect teaching college undergraduates. To help bridge this gap, the ITAs and prospective ITAs in ESL 406: Communication for International Teaching Assistants at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), in the United States, were given a tour of Urbana High School. Prior to the tour, the students in ESL 406 were asked to submit questions. Their questions tended to revolve around four areas: classes, students, teachers, and high school systems. The following is a sampling of their questions:

  • How will the teachers keep the students participating in class discussion?
  • Are high school classes the same level of formality as university classes?
  • What kinds of courses do they have? Do they choose their own?
  • How long do they stay in school?
  • What is the class size?
  • Do high school students put much emphasis on exams and getting a good score?
  • What kinds of programs are there for students outside of class?
  • What would students most like to change about high school?
  • Do teachers have to stress their authority in order to control students?
  • What do teachers do to encourage creativity and team spirit among students?
  • How do teachers make complex concepts like math easy or fun to learn?
  • We've heard a lot of articles which report Americans have poor geographical and historical knowledge. Is the U.S. high school education responsible for this?
  • What is the main goal of a high school education in the United States?
  • How does a high school determine its policies and regulations?

Generating these types of questions helped activate the schemata of what might be important for ITAs to know about the U.S. secondary education system. It also built anticipation for the high school tour. During the tour of the high school, the ITAs got to see the school facilities, including classrooms, lunch room, gyms, athletic fields, automotive and wood shops, and so forth. Even though Urbana High School is more than 100 years old, with various additions and modernizations, one student from Korea wrote,

First, I cannot help mentioning their big, bright, clean and nice building. I was really overwhelmed by the great learning environment. Comparing to the Urbana High School building, my high school building is just an ugly, gray, dark box. In the box there were more than 1,500 students, and in a small class room we had around 60 students.

A student from Thailand commented,

Some students can drive their own car to school. ...Students in the U.S. are more independent. They don't have to wear any uniform to school. In contrast, students in my country need to wear uniforms and they have to have their lunch in school because they cannot go out until they finish all classes. Here students can go out to have lunch outside of school.

The ITAs learned that class size generally ranges from 20 to 30 students, with a total enrollment of about 1,300. They also noted the presence of hallway monitors and felt the rush of students between class periods. They were generally surprised to learn that students have their own hallway locker. One student from China observed,

It seems that the classrooms are classified by its function, or the course taught... In China, they are usually classified by the grade and class... If your grade has your own classroom, you can put schoolbags in it safely. It seems an Urbana High School student couldn't place his/her schoolbags at first sight. This is solved by allocating enough closets [lockers] for the students along the corridor.

The high school dean was knowledgeable and answered the questions the ITAs wrote beforehand and any new questions that arose during the tour. After the tour, the ITAs were asked to reflect on the tour and to write a 700-word essay. The essay was graded on five areas: format, English usage, reflection on the U.S. high school system, cultural comparison of high school systems, and application to teaching college freshman.

Back in class, the ITAs read peers' essays and discussed their reflections as a class. The ITAs developed perceptive insights from this activity and were challenged to articulate what they learned. Feedback from the ITAs on the high school tour has been very positive. It seems they appreciate the way it prepares them to teach at UIUC but also helps them to see a part of U.S. culture they normally would not get to see. Below you can read an essay written by one of the students in this class.

Dean Papajohn is a specialist in education in the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He has worked with ITAs for more than 10 years and has coauthored a chapter describing the ITA program at UIUC in the Case Studies in TESOL Practice Series: English for Specific Purposes.

High School in the United States

By Angela Leung,

I really enjoyed last week's high school tour. It was my first time visiting a U.S. high school, and I learned about the learning experience of U.S. high school students. This experience gave me insights on how the education system in my home country is different from that in the United States. The tour also better prepared me to teach students in a U.S. university.

I think that students in the United States have a lot of choices with regard to what courses they can take. Although they are required to fulfill certain course requirements in order to get into college, they have plenty of course choices. Unlike students in my home country, students in the United States do not have to specialize in certain areas to prepare for public examinations. In Hong Kong, all students have to declare their area of specialization in high school. They can study either in the science stream (subjects include chemistry, physics, biology, and additional mathematics) or the arts stream (subjects include literature, history, and geography). It seems that streaming may deprive students of the opportunity to further explore their interests and to receive a broader general education.

I am very impressed by the bilingual program targeted for international students. The small class size is perfect for language learning. The bilingual program teaches English while teaching the contents of another subject, which seems like a very cost-effective teaching method. While students take required courses, they learn English at the same time.

I found that U.S. students are given more time to develop their interests and to participate in extracurricular activities. They have more free time after school to participate in sports or student organizations. A lot of high school students in my home country do not devote so much time to nonacademic activities; many of them actually take courses offered by tutoring institutions to receive extra help after school. The tutoring institutions help students prepare for public examinations. The teachers there are very familiar with the examination syllabus and examination-taking skills. Many students pay a large sum of money to attend the tutoring sessions, hoping that their public examination results can be improved so they can secure a place in college. I do not think that the education system in the United States is so examination-oriented.

U.S. high school students have to take certain required courses in order to get into college. One of the required courses for some colleges is public speaking. After I came to the United States, I noticed that U.S. students are very opinionated and very willing to express their ideas. There is a lot of interaction between professors and students in the classrooms. I think the training these students receive in high school helps them develop their public speaking skills and encourages them to voice their ideas. Students in my home country are not as expressive, which I suppose is because Asian cultures place a different value on talking. It seems that talking is essential and natural for promoting better thinking with students in the United States, but in other cultures silence may be more desirable. Silence may convey attentiveness and encouragement to the speaker and is a highly valued response in some East Asian cultures. I do not necessarily think that the students who talk more are more intelligent or that the education system that encourages talking is more beneficial for learning. People in different cultures pursue learning in alternative ways. Some people are intelligent because they can reason in speech, but some are intelligent because they are thoughtful and sensitive in silence.

The high school tour gave me insight on how to effectively teach a class of freshman in my department. Many of them like to have a lecture or a discussion session that is conducted in such a way as to allow more room for independent thinking and the exchange of ideas. They do not prefer a class in which the instructor does all the talking while they just passively listen to the lecture. Group discussion would therefore be a very good teaching method to incorporate in a lecture or lab session. Following the group discussion, I can ask students to share with other classmates what ideas they have come up with during discussion. I can let students talk about their ideas openly and listen and respond to others' ideas. Then they can build on each other's ideas. I think they can benefit more intellectually from taking part in this active thinking process.

Angela Leung is a teaching assistant in Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in the United States.

ITA-IS Steering Committee 2003-2004

Immediate Past Chair
Catherine Ross
University of Connecticut

Diane Cotsonas
University of Utah

Barbara Willenborg
University of Pennsylvania

Allison Petro
University of Rhode Island

Newsletter Editor
Ingrid Arnesen
Cornell University

Newsletter Editor-Elect
Chris Fox
University of Missouri-Columbia

Derina Samuel
Syracuse University

Member at Large
Colleen Meyers
University of Minnesota

Member at Large
Janet Benger
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Webmaster (
John Bro
University of Florida

Call for Volunteers Volunteers Needed!

Please consider signing up for a 4-hour block at the 2004 TESOL convention in Long Beach! Volunteering provides the opportunity to meet new folks, contribute to the success of the convention, and can even re-energize you for the rest of the convention. Please sign up at

About This Member Community International Teaching Assistants Interest Section (ITAIS)

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.

ITAIS Leaders, 2003-2004

Chair: Diane Cotsonas,
Chair-Elect: Barbara Willenborg,
Newsletter Editor: Ingrid Arnesen,

Web Site:

Discussion E-List: Visit if you are already subscribed to ITAS-L, or visit to subscribe.

More Resources:
  • Fully Qualified, but Still Marginalized
  • President's Message: February/March 2000
  • Position Statement on International Education (March 2003; PDF)
  • ITAIS Newsletter Volume 8 Issue 2: September 2003
  • ITAIS Newsletter Volume 9 Issue 2: March 2004