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including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Language Institute strengthens international students' English skills

By Netta S. Smith

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 37 - August 8, 1996

In a classroom at 203 West Roanoke St., students from Japan and Korea and their instructor read and discuss stories on the front page of the latest Roanoke Times. Across the hall, a group of Thai students practices English conversation.

For 48 weeks out of the year, these and other international students are enrolled in intensive English-language study in the Virginia Tech Language Institute. The students, varying in number from 20-75 per eight-week term, come to the institute for a variety of reasons.

Some are planning to enroll at Virginia Tech as graduate or undergraduate students and are working to strengthen their English-language skills before they matriculate. Some are spouses or children of faculty members or currently enrolled students. Others are members of the Virginia Tech community, such as post-doctoral students, enrolled graduate students, and visiting staff members.

But more than 50 percent of the students enrolled at the institute have come to Blacksburg specifically to study English.

About a third of the students coming this fall have relatives in Blacksburg, and most of the rest have had friends or relatives who have been to Virginia Tech as regularly enrolled students or students in the language institute.

According to Judith Snoke, director of the Virginia Tech Language Institute, the university's reputation draws many students to the institute. "Virginia Tech is known as a quality school," Snoke said. "And Blacksburg has a reputation as a safe and welcoming community." Word of mouth is the institute's best recruiting tool, she says.

To enroll as an undergraduate or graduate student at Virginia Tech (and most other American colleges and universities), a student must score at least 550-600 on the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). The language institute helps them prepare for this test and also provides practice in pronunciation and oral presentation, academic vocabulary, newspaper reading, academic study skills, and more.

New students are able to work on listening and conversation skills until they are comfortable in an all-English classroom. Part-time students can plan their own program using a variety of classes. Intermediate and advanced classes focus on developing students' ability to read and write fluently and accurately in preparation for academic study.

"People come into our center and are able to go through a period of adjustment," says Snoke. "They get not just English skills, but preparation for living in a new country. They are ready after a term or two to start serious studying."

A graduate student helps plan social and cultural events, including concerts, bowling and ping-pong tournaments, dance parties, and amusement-park visits, for institute students. Lower-level classes go on field trips around town. In the past, several students have participated in university-sponsored recreational sports activities and have gone on trips through the Venture Out Program.

The institute has adopted a fluency-based approach to teaching reading and writing, with students reading five to eight book-length works a semester. "Most have never read a novel in English," Snoke said. "We're working to increase their reading speed, which is crucial if they are going to be able to keep up in their academic classes."

The program also includes a great deal of writing, with a computer-based writing program. Most entering students are computer literate, Snoke says, which is a big change from what she saw six to eight years ago.

All of the institute's teachers have master's degrees or the equivalent. One has been with the program for 15 years and another for 10.

Snoke began the program at New River Community College in 1980. It moved to Virginia Tech, under the Division of Continuing Education, in 1991. She started working with the program because she had an opportunity to work with spouses of international students who needed English skills to function in this country. Now, she is working more with young people who are preparing for academic study in the United States.

"There's a big change in who the students are," Snoke said. "There was a time when we welcomed international students because we felt we were helping them. Now, international students come in very well-prepared and go back to their society with a lot of resources that can benefit Virginia Tech from the linkages."

Many former institute students maintain research and business ties with the university, Snoke said.

The age of institute students has ranged from 12 to 70, but the average age of today's students is the mid to upper 20s. Snoke said she likes having a mix of ages in the classes. "When someone who's 60 years old speaks, everyone listens."

Nations of origin for students fluctuate depending on international political and economic situations. "Right now, we have a lot of students from Korea, which reflects that country's economic health," Snoke said. Many also are from Thailand.

The graduate school has an arrangement with the Thai government to bring in Thai students. There also is an agreement with the Turkish government. "These students bring brothers and sisters and other family members to study at the institute."

Visiting scholars can elect to take pronunciation and conversation classes through the institute.