Academic writing skills and / or professional language proficiency as a learning path in your study programme

Why is language proficiency relevant to your study programme? 

Ghent University educates its students to be astute communicators, which is essential in our network society. Students enhance their communicative skills by training academic and professional language skills during their studies. In most programmes, these linguistic learning outcomes are situated in both areas: good academic writing skills are a prerequisite to successfully complete the Master’s dissertation, which is mandatory by governmental decree, and sound professional language proficiency is necessary for language-savvy professional activity. 

The level of (academic) language proficiency also decides the success of the students’ throughput and output. Poorly mastering the language of instruction, both Dutch and English, impedes knowledge acquisition. However, not all students are able to individually acquire the required language proficiency during their study programme and are thus in need of support. 

Enhancing students’ language proficiency is an essential part of Ghent University’s structural and integral language policy. A functional language policy ensures a more successful student throughput and output as well as a proper level of language competency for (initial) professional activity. 

What does Ghent University consider as academic and professional language proficiency? 

The word ‘language proficiency’ often gets a narrow definition. Many people (only) think of a correct form of language, namely spelling, grammar and punctuation. Ghent University, however, opts for a broader definition of academic and professional language proficiency, and defines both terms following the example of the Nederlandse Taalunie (Union for the Dutch Language) and VLIR (Flemish Interuniversity Council)

Academic language proficiency consists of three components: language cognition, skills and attitude. These components are strongly related: students cannot acquire and develop them separately from one another. 

  • The component ‘Language cognition’ covers what students implicitly and explicitly know about academic language: linguistic proficiency (e.g. spelling, structure), field knowledge (e.g. academic style, jargon), familiarity with procedures (e.g. strategies to understand the development of an argumentation) and metacognition (reflecting about own academic language proficiency). 
  • The component ‘Skills’ comprises the four skill domains concerning linguistic actions, namely reading, listening, speaking and writing. 
  • The component ‘Attitude’ refers to the attitude towards academic language (proficiency), whether or not taught, in an academic context. Examples of attitudes positively impacting academic proficiency are willingness to adopt an academic register, precision, critical mindset, self-reflection and daringness. 

Professional language proficiency covers the language proficiency required for specific job profiles. Ghent University considers this as good communication and cooperation skills, for example being able to clearly communicate with a target audience, both within the own field and at a multidisciplinary level, properly reacting to delicate issues, etcetera. Examples of these language tasks can be found in ‘How to enhance language proficiency in educational and teaching activities?’

How can you translate academic and professional language proficiency to learning outcomes? 

Language proficiency as a goal

Training academic and professional language proficiency belongs to the fourth field of competence of Ghent University’s competency model, namely ‘competence in cooperating and communicating’. On the one hand, study programmes will engage in academic writing skills, predominantly in preparation of the Master’s dissertation (DS-0010). On the other hand, some study programmes formulate competencies in function of the existing and future job profiles (DS-0003, DS-0015 and DS-0016).

The examples below show how a study programme can formulate specific linguistic learning outcomes. The illustrated competency model can also serve as a source of inspiration. 

From the study programme of Philosophy: 

  • Oral and written communication about the own philosophical research both with experts and with a lay audience. 

From the study programme of Mathematics:

  • Presenting own research, thoughts, ideas, opinions or proposals within the context of professional activities (also in a second language). 
  • Communicating orally and in written form about new developments, underlying rationales and opinion forming in (the periphery of) the field and with both experts and non-experts. 
  • Project-based working in a mathematical context: setting objectives, focused reporting, keeping track of end goals and the development path. 

From the study programme of Veterinary Medicine, main subject Pet Animals:

  • Fluent written communication of the results of (own) scientific and clinical research to professional colleagues and other higher educated in Dutch or English 
  • Fluent oral communication of the results of (own) scientific and clinical research to professional colleagues and other higher educated in Dutch or English 
  • Comprehensible communication of scientific and clinical information to people without a distinct academic background, including clients in a veterinary practice, with respect to confidentiality and privacy. 
  • Communicative skills to handle difficult situations (such as a dissatisfied client or a bad news conversation) in the practice. 

Language proficiency as a means for study progress

If study programmes engage themselves in terms of academic language acquisition, they can avoid a situation where an insufficient mastering of the language of instruction hinders study progress. This is in alignment with the strategic objective of ‘talent development’ (DS-0029), which states, among other things, that a study programme has to optimize intake, throughput and output with an eye for diversity in the student population. Clear communication is essential for this academic language acquisition, both in written and in spoken teaching materials (DS-0020, DS-0021). Hence, study programmes should focus not only on students’ but also on lecturers’ language skills of students. An approach starting from study progress does not introduce separate learning outcomes, but shows that language skills are actually inherent to a couple of separate competencies, e.g. regarding examination, internships, quality management, internationalization and diversity.   

How can you train language skills in educational and teaching activities? 

Linguistic support, in terms of language tasks, is often offered outside of the curriculum because this is more feasible and practical. However, research has shown that an integrated approach is more appropriate to improve the students’ language skills, which means that language should be taught and tested in conjunction with content throughout the curriculum. Study programmes should investigate how to develop, implement and / or optimize this integral approach in a logical way and thus ideally create a learning path for language skills.  

How can you develop such a learning path? 

  • First of all, check if the support structure within the programme suffices. Should this not be the case, it can be enhanced by showing the need for language skills development via operational objectives in the education monitors, in terms of both academic writing skills and professional language proficiency. 
  • Next, gather colleagues who detect this need and have deciding power in a study group. As a study programme, give this group the mandate to develop the learning path. Should this be impossible, you can take this need along when the programme wants to implement a study programme revision, or when it considers new learning paths. A first task of such a study group is to list all focus points: which means are available? More specifically, this concerns deployable staff members, room occupation, time investment, ICT-support, etc. The analysis will show what is practically feasible
  • After this practical preparation, the study group focuses on the content. The members start from the linguistic learning outcomes, both academically and professionally, and link these to the starting competencies. The latter should thus first be clearly phrased: which level of language proficiency can a study programme expect of its starting Bachelor students? The final terms of secondary education can act as a guideline. Additionally, Ghent University opts to check the required minimum level by means of the SIMON says test. An official language test is discouraged as this always concerns a snapshot and it is difficult for a study programme to offer adequate remediation. A better method is to give a language task with concrete feed up and feedback during the first weeks of the academic year. Students should, for example, write a summary of a short academic article. To that end, they receive clear instructions in the form of an overview and various good examples. This way, students know which level of language proficiency is expected of them.  
  • Next, the study group maps the existing language tasks as each study programme already has integrated writing and speaking tasks in its curriculum, also outside of language courses, but often these still have to be aligned with one another. Reveal possible overlap and gaps, and ensure a vertical and horizontal structure. Vertical implies that each year offers increasingly difficult language tasks; horizontal means that there is a clearly noticeable coherence between course units in which language skills are included within one model trajectory year.  
  • Furthermore, make sure that the language tasks are appropriate. Consider adding extra tasks if necessary.  
    • If your study programme wants to engage itself for the quality of Master’s dissertations, integrate academic writing tasks in each model trajectory year. This way, your students gradually practice typical academic language use, namely using abstract vocabulary, deploying cognitive skills & logics, and combining several sources. An example can be found in the programme of Biomedical Sciences: 
      • In the first year, students write an explorative paper. They choose a topic themselves, look for academic sources and thus define their research question. Their writing task consists of a description of their searching strategy, a selection of potentially interesting articles and a personal reflection. 
      • In the second year, they are assigned a topic, define their research question and choose five primary article sources.  Based on this input, they write two sections of an academic review paper, namely materials & methods, and results. 
      • In the third year, they develop these sections into a full review paper including an abstract, an introduction, a discussion, a conclusion, etc. 
    • To train professional language skills, a study programme can implement various job-specific language actions by means of which the student shows to take account of contextual, social and pragmatic factors. Examples of such authentic educational tasks can be found in terms of communication: 
      • with the target group: the bad news conversation, the lawyer-client conversation, etc. 
      • within the own field: reports of meetings, a letter from a physician to a specialist, etc. 
      • between various fields: an email conversation between a physical therapist, psychologist, medical doctor, etc. 
  • Integrate the language tasks in existing course units. This way, you enhance not only linguistic competency, but also study progress. In the ideal scenario, the content of a course unit is the starting point for training academic or professional language skills. Should this not be possible, a separate course unit of academic language skills can act as a solution. In that case, it is essential to link this course to content of other course units. Using separate educational content in such a complementary course unit is less successful: students do not immediately see the benefit and find it difficult to transfer the skills. 
  • A learning path for language skills can only be successful in case of adequate support for all language tasks. Train your lecturers in didactics of language development. This supports students in the language acquisition process: lecturers ideally do not only have eye for activating, language-stimulating methods, but also for linguistic feedback and evaluation of language proficiency

How can you test language proficiency? 

Because any type of examination requires language skills, they are actually implicitly tested in each course unit. However, that does not mean that you can subtract points for every linguistic error. This can only be done if the course sheet explicitly lists language proficiency as a learning outcome, and if language skills are trained in class. 

Use rubrics

Language use can be evaluated in specific academic and professional language tasks which list correct language use among the learning outcomes, e.g. a presentation or writing assignment. Use a rubric to increase the reliability of the evaluation. A rubric is a list of evaluation criteria with assigned scores or quality levels. For writing assignments, Ghent University’s Academic Writing Checklist can act as a source of inspiration. 

Align the evaluation of linguistic competencies within a study programme

Come to an agreement about the rubrics you will use as this will make evaluation uniform and reliable throughout the curriculum. A language skills learning path requires common evaluation criteria and tools. The latter should form a reoccurring topic of discussion for study programme committees and examination committees. 

Additionally, provide a sufficient number of evaluation moments: each learning outcome should be tested at least twice. The competency matrix is a convenient tool to map where, how and which aspects of the leaning outcomes occur in education and examination. 

Do you want to know more?

  • Berckmoes D. & Rombouts, H. (2010). Academische taalvaardigheid voor elke student. De meerwaarde van een taalmonitoraat op maat. In: D. Van Hoyweghen (red.), Naar taalkrachtige lerarenopleidingen. Mechelen: Plantyn.
  • De Wachter L., Heeren, J., Marx, S. & Huyghe, S. (2013). Taal: noodzakelijke, maar niet enige voorwaarde tot studiesucces. Correlatie tussen resultaten van een taalvaardigheidstoets en slaagcijfers bij eerstejaarsstudenten aan de KU Leuven. In: Levende Talen Tijdschrift Jaargang 14, nummer 4 
  • Herelixka C. & Verhulst S. (2014): ‘Nederlands in het hoger onderwijs; een verkennende literatuurstudie naar taalvaardigheid en taalbeleid’, in opdracht van de Nederlandse Taalunie
  • Raad voor de Nederlandse Taal en Letteren & het algemeen secretariaat van de Taalunie (2013). Startnotitie Nederlands in het hoger onderwijs, Nederlandse Taalunie  
  • Raad voor de Nederlandse Taal en Letteren (2015). Adviesrapport Vaart met taalvaardigheid. Nederlands in het hoger onderwijs, Nederlandse Taalunie 
  • VLIR-nota (2016). Talige startcompetenties voor het universitair onderwijs. 
  • Van den Branden, K. (2015). Onderwijs voor de 21ste eeuw. Een boek voor leerkrachten en ouders. Leuven: ACCO

Last modified Feb. 9, 2022, 2:29 p.m.