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I am working as a TA for a seminar course and class presentations are considered a significant part of the total mark for the course.

Some of the students in the class — who mostly happen to be international students — do not perform the best presentation in terms of the communications of ideas with the audience.

It is mostly because of their thick accent and other flaws in their English, making the presentation hard to understand for the audiences.

What is the best marking strategies in these situations?

I am skeptical about commenting on this issue and discussing the problem with the students or reducing a part of the mark for the lack of communication quality, as I am afraid it would come across as racist.

The university is in North America and about 80% of the students are native speakers of English.

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    Since you're a TA, this would seem like a good question to ask the course instructor... – Nate Eldredge Nov 2 at 21:48
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    That is true. but I am also interested to know about the general consensus, laws, or policies on this issue as well. Mostly, as a takeaway that would be useful in my future career. – CoderInNetwork Nov 2 at 21:50
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    English is my first language but I am not from the USA, and you'd probably have a hard time understanding me. Would I be marked down? It would be wise to consider the intended audience as a strong factor in this, rather than just your opinion/understanding – Darren H Nov 3 at 11:56
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    There's really no such a thing as a "standard English accent", and I've seen native English speakers barely understand each other (and admitting that afterward). How would you grade a native English speaker with a thick accent that you couldn't understand? – Massimo Ortolano Nov 3 at 12:38
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    How this should be answered depends greatly on whether or not “student shall communicate effectively in English” is one of the course objectives. – WGroleau Nov 4 at 1:20

10 Answers 10

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There are two ways to interpret the issue that is being raised. One is that the people simply have accents and not completely correct grammar in spoken English... but not to the point that it seriously impedes intelligibility. The other is that their English is so poor that it does greatly impede intelligibility.

The former is of little consequence, of course. The latter is a serious problem, in fact. It's not about bias for/against languages/nationalities, but about the context in which one operates. If one cannot communicate effectively, that's a minus. Even if/when people are "understanding", it's still not a plus, but a minus. Overcoming such an impediment should have a pretty high priority... as opposed to simply believing that such an issue solves itself in time. In particular, this will not happen for people whose English is sufficiently compromised that they spend nearly all waking hours with their fellow speakers, and thereby never practice the local language (as Dir. of Grad. Studies in Math. at my university on two different occasions, and participating in such issues for 35+ years, I've seen many cases).

In particular, outside of super-special cases, it serves no grad student well to have English be an obstacle. It will significantly obstruct their hiring on teaching-communication grounds, if nothing else. And, unavoidably, it reduces the impact of their portrayal of their research work.

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    That's a well-reasoned explanation why poor English can be a real problem and should thus probably be addressed by actions. I still wonder if you could comment on the actual actions suggested (downgrading and commenting on it). – lighthouse keeper Nov 3 at 9:38
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    Strongly agree, +1. I would also mention that it gets to the point of being an honesty issue. There people are expecting and receiving degrees that state/imply that their instruction was in English. – Martin Argerami Nov 4 at 1:22
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    Gloweye It implies you are not very good at understanding accents. – gnasher729 Nov 4 at 15:53
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    @Gloweye Your argument would hold more water if there existed a standard version of English. To my (and many other ESL speakers') chagrin, such a thing doesn't exist. – Denis Nardin Nov 4 at 16:37
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    And crucially fatal to Gloweye's argument, the "standard" RP accent is not "default" British English in any meaningful sense. It has never been spoken by a majority of people even within England, it's not recognised as typical English, and there's more than one variant on RP. While some people do speak it more-or-less naturally, its use as a standard is performative. Everyone speaking English "has an accent". It's true though that, objectively, some of those accents are more widely understood than others. – Steve Jessop Nov 5 at 0:16
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Some decades ago, my professor summarized it roughly like this:

  • The professional vocabulary must be right.
  • The grammar should be right, but errors are acceptable if they don't affect meaning.
  • The pronounciation is optional.

The goal was to train students to write acceptable papers, and to understand (or be understood by) other students who are benevolent and largely have the same accent.

I haven't been in academia for some years, so standards might have shifted at least in some places. Being able to present your results is part of scientific process.

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    I don't think pronunciation is optional. Incomprehensible pronunciation would render the first two points irrelevant! – user76284 Nov 4 at 3:23
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    @user76284, see the text under the bullet point. The main goal was to write proper papers. Being understood by other students was also important, but a posh accent certainly wasn't. – o.m. Nov 4 at 5:34
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    I see we meant different things by pronunciation. – user76284 Nov 4 at 6:03
  • The view that writing is more important than speaking may be a bit outdated and/or domain-specific. Writing deficiencies can now be better patched with the help of computers than in the past, whereas verbal communication is more important, both with the focus on conferences that disciplines like CS have and more globalised collaborations aided by the ease of video calls. – leftaroundabout Nov 4 at 11:47
  • @left Computers are still of little help with, for example, grammar. And they don't help with spelling either if the spelling is so far off that the actual word is not encompassed in the suggestions. – Matt Samuel Nov 4 at 18:38
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I wish to elaborate on paul garrett's point, which I agree with:

It's not about bias for/against languages/nationalities, but about the context in which one operates. If one cannot communicate effectively, that's a minus..

Specifically, I do not agree with a popular approach that assigns some fixed fraction of the marks to "presentation" and the remainder to "content". In my opinion, marks should instead be assigned for "effort" and "content". Majority of the marks should be for "content", and should accurately reflect the amount of content that the student successfully conveys to the target audience. This applies to all types of student work.

For presentations in particular, this does mean that if a student is unable to convey any content whatsoever to the target audience, it is fair to give zero marks for "content". Poor English grammar or pronunciation is not an issue until it begins to affect the ability to correctly understand the content that the presenter intends to convey.

This also means that if the presenter successfully conveys the content via slides and hand gestures, then an inability to convey well that same content verbally is less of an issue. More often than you might think, presenters who speak perfect intelligible English fail to convey their presentation content well.

I do not think that anyone would dare to accuse you of unfairly giving lower marks if practically the whole class cannot understand what the presenter is saying. But you must make it clear beforehand that the grading will be based on how well the content is presented.

To preemptively avoid any accusation of racist bias, you can offer to give some feedback on students' presentations prior to the actual presentation date, but students have to request in advance if they want this feedback. During these feedback sessions you can specifically point out how they can improve their delivery of the presentation. But this is extra work, and not necessary for fair grading.

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    Incidentally, like Buffy, I know a guy who has a stutter (will stop and start in the middle of sentences almost entirely beyond his conscious control), but his speech is otherwise normal. Everyone just has to have the patience to wait at each 'pause'; there is no real difficulty in understanding him. Thus in such a case, I feel it would be unfair to take marks off. – user21820 Nov 3 at 12:11
  • I agree with the principle, but how to ensure that it is actually the student having a really bad pronunciation and not you being unable to understand them (it being only "midly bad")? – Ángel Nov 3 at 22:07
  • @Ángel: One indirect way is to have a short Q&A after the presentation and observe what the other students ask and their reactions. One direct way is to collect peer feedback or evaluation of some sort. But even if you don't do this, it's really quite difficult (for a teacher who is a native English speaker) to be unable to understand more than the students can. In any case, it may be reasonable to penalize the student for failing to communicate the content to you, simply because you are a major part of the target audience. – user21820 Nov 4 at 6:01
  • After all, as Martin and Nelson said in a comment on paul's answer, the course is supposed to be conducted and assessed in (standard) English, and the teacher is hence a proxy for the English-speaking target audience. If the teacher has a poor grasp of English, then they have to fix that first before even asking about grading someone else's English presentation. – user21820 Nov 4 at 6:04
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I think it would be a serious breach to downgrade people for something not really in their control. They will surely improve in time if they stay in English-speaking countries. But you can also do a few things to make it easier. One is to make sure these folks aren't mocked by other students. Respect for all. Another is to ask that presenters also give outline handouts prior to the talk. This can help.

You might also want to reassure people before and/or after that you respect them, knowing that these things are actually harder for them than for native speakers.

I once had a person who was an extreme stutterer. Really extreme. The course project presentation called for everyone's participation. I didn't let him off the hook and he did his best. People happily knew what was going on and so just let him struggle with his words. After it was over, I complimented him privately for his bravery.

Of course, the presentation has to be properly organized with the appropriate information, just as for any student. And you may need to set aside time, generally, for questions when people don't understand.

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    Setting aside things like a stutter, people have the same control over their proficiency in a language as they do for the topic of the presentation or for the techniques used for organizing a presentation. – Tobias Kildetoft Nov 3 at 6:55
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    @Tobias Kildetoft. Beside that I would be less accommodating than Buffy, I am at best in control of the effort I might or not put in a foreign language, but for sure I am not in control of my pronunciation. It is superficial to equate the control I can have on a (new) topic to that of my vocal chords. It is not exactly as to control heart beat but you should get the point. I can distinguish twenty regional accent and even city ones if not suburbs, all in one and the same language. – Alchimista Nov 3 at 9:17
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    @Alchimista I think it's more about grammar than accent. – FooBar Nov 3 at 9:29
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    Why did you not also quote the "other flaws in their English"? And even it is an extreme accent, that's something you can work on. (And that's exactly what is expected e.g. for actors which main task is also to communicate) – FooBar Nov 3 at 9:41
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    @TobiasKildetoft, I'm pretty sure that isn't true for students who are recent arrivals from some non English-Speaking place. If you move to, say, China, how will your pronunciation seem to locals in the first few years? It hasn't been very many years ago that people from Mississippi and people from Brooklyn, NY had a hard time understanding one another. Television news changed that and regional accents are disappearing, but both those places are nominally English-Speaking. – Buffy Nov 3 at 11:08
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In my view (and in agreement with Buffy's answer), it is inappropriate and rather unfair to penalise someone for their "accent" (presumably you mean their "pronunciation"; having an accent which does not impede correct pronunciation, is generally not a problem). This is true even if what they say sounds like complete gibberish to anyone in the audience.

However, it is also entirely fair to point out that this is a non-trivial issue, and that the presenter shouldn't just shrug it off simply as "this is how I speak".

There is a lot of nonchalance when it comes to putting an effort to correcting one's accent, when it is actually a big obstacle to effective communication, and pointing out that, it is in fact a problem that could be worked on going forward, is more than fair.

With regard to such a presentational context specifically, while it may be unfair to comment on what their accent is like 'now' -- since they have little control over it in the short-term -- it is not unfair to point out that they should work on it, and that, in the meantime, it is a limitation they should be aware of, and try to mitigate against in their presentation. Therefore, what you could mark, is the extent to which the rest of the presentation showed an effort to overcome this limitation, by using appropriate visuals, quotes of the important phrases, logical flow of slides and argumentation, etc. If, given their 'limitation', they failed to convey their message "because" of their presentation, rather than "despite" of it, then it is fair (or at least "less unfair" * ) to reflect this in the marking.

This should hopefully encourage the student to both improve on their presentation technique, as well as point out that language is an issue that deserves to be improved in its own right (if possible).


*: there is still a degree of "unfairness" if you do that, in that other students would not have had to make the same effort, so I would treat carefully even with that. If you penalise someone on that basis, it should be minimal, and according to a marking scheme that would have affected other students equally.


"Is this racist?"

Having said that, just to address the "is this racist" point. Consider this thought experiment.

You are a student, who's been chosen to represent your university in an international competition, taking place in, say, China. The competition itself is in English, but, as it happens, it turns out that this year most of your competing presenters who made it to the finals, are from Asian-speaking countries. When it's your turn to present, you naturally speak in flawless Queen's English, but as a result, the large majority of your audience and panel who is more used to "Chinese English" fails to understand you. Meanwhile, they were perfectly comfortable understanding the other presenters.

You finish last, and the feedback on your card was "sorry, we just couldn't understand you; perhaps you could work on trying to sound more 'Chinese' when you speak".

  • Would you consider this a racist attitude? I suspect you might.

  • Would you consider being disqualified on that basis to be unfair? I think you would.

But, would you also accept that, given the context, your inability to speak in a way that would make you understood, while 'not your fault', is still in fact 'a problem'?

What if the organisers had warned you of this before the competition? Wouldn't you have made sure your slides and flow of presentation could make up for that fact so as to minimize the impact? And if you hadn't made that effort, would your disqualification still feel as unfair?

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    Or for another thought experiement: suppose that you are presenting in French, in France, and for reasons best known to yourself and your high school French teacher, you have never made any attempt to pronounce French words the way French people do, instead you speak as if reading English words spelled the way the French words are. Someone in your French audience says they don't understand you. Which (or both) of you is taking a racist attitude to the whole business? – Steve Jessop Nov 5 at 0:26
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    Fundamentally, if you are speaking a language that is not your first, you probably won't try to develop an accent that will pass "undetected" by a native speaker, but you must do some work on pronunciation. Whether that work is part of what the questioner is supposed to be grading is another issue on top of that, of course. – Steve Jessop Nov 5 at 0:30
  • @SteveJessop Is there even a way of consistently pronouncing unknown words in an "English" way? – Paŭlo Ebermann Nov 6 at 0:35
  • @PaŭloEbermann: not entirely consistent no, since English spelling is so irregular. "ghoti" could be pronounced either like "goatee" or, stretching a point, like "fish". But you can guess within the ballpark of the pronunciation of unknown English words, and if you make some simplifying assumptions about the most common pronunciations of various letter combinations, you can do the same for collections of letters that aren't English words. It won't be "correct", I just mean it as the extreme edge of what happens when you speak a foreign language and literally don't cultivate any accent! – Steve Jessop Dec 6 at 14:56
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Mark them in accordance with the assessment's marking criteria.

Each assessment item should have a sheet of marking criteria that will dictate what is required to reach each grade level for that assessment piece, usually divided up into multiple areas with different weights.

In an oral presentation, it's likely that one of the areas you'll be assessing is their communication or presentation skills; if their accent makes it difficult to understand them, you would naturally mark them down in this area, the same as you'd mark them down if they spent the whole presentation mumbling or reading off of printed notes.

The amount you'd mark them down would depend on the wording of your criteria sheet - you'd evaluate whether or not they met the requirements for each grade level in this area, and give them an appropriate mark for it.

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I have serious reason to believe that the planet from which the little prince came is the asteroid known as B-612.

This asteroid has only once been seen through the telescope. That was by a Turkish astronomer, in 1909.

On making his discovery, the astronomer had presented it to the International Astronomical Congress, in a great demonstration. But he was in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said.

Grown-ups are like that . . .

Fortunately, however, for the reputation of Asteroid B-612, a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to European costume. So in 1920 the astronomer gave his demonstration all over again, dressed with impressive style and elegance. And this time everybody accepted his report. - Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince

So I suggest using the content of the presentation as a basis for their marks, and ignore the accent/grammar/presentation style. You can comment on those, but don't give them worse marks for that in this case.

If the course is an English language course, then it's the complete opposite. Mark their language and accent, but not the technical part.

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Bottom line, grade according to the published criteria

While it varies, most major projects should have well established criteria ahead of time for the students to focus on. Items such as use of proper grammar and word choice may or may not be on it.

The type of class matters

You didn't mention what type of class this is, and I think that matters a great deal, especially if no clear list of criteria was provided ahead of time. If this is a class in English, Public Speaking, or Law then it seems reasonable to put a great deal of emphasis on the actual presentation. Use of the correct words and use of correct grammar would be expected in a case like this and you would expect the person giving the presentation to take steps such has thoroughly rehearsing with emphasis on those items. If outside help was not forbidden, they might even do a presentation before a test-audience who could provide feedback on those matters ahead of time. In a sense this is not entirely fair to people who do not have English as a native language, but learning how to present well to a broad-based audience is explicitly a part of the education in topics like that and it is a disservice to the students to not emphasize those items and provide incentives for the students to emphasize them.

On the other hand, in a field such as theoretical math or physics the art of the presentation is probably less important and it probably only makes sense for the presentation itself to affect the grade to the extent it impacts the ability to understand the material presented.

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The course is, as I hope, intended to improve students' presentation skills so they can deliver their results more effectively on the international stage, not only on the local backyard called university. English is not my mother tongue, therefore I need to translate the speaker's speech from their accent to english I understand and then to my mother tongue. When giving a talk, I have to translate my thoughts to english on-the-fly. I do my best to pronounce all the word correctly even with nuances (sheet vs. sh*t, bed vs. bad); I do my best to use correct grammar structures; I do my best to avoid my-languages-homonyms misunderstanding (word-to-word translation of "Your eyes September" gives a sense in Czech) yet I make mistakes. I need to be corrected when I commit such to be able to avoid them in the future.

Throughout the time I've developped shortcuts and I am "thinking in simple english" to reduce the delay between question and answer. But it took a long time and I needed to be interacting in english only with no workarounds.

I have also attended sevaral international congerences with speakers ranging from grads to tenured professors from all over the world.

Trust me, Scottish english, French english, Correan english, Russian english,... all with their accents, grammar leaks combined with speaker stress made a lot of talks unable for me to process.

Therefore:

  • Do comment on the students' grammar, vocabulary, pronounciation errors. That's how they can learn and improve.
  • Do not include this in the final assessment. Give the points only according to the actual quality of their work.
  • Try to give a presentation of your work in either german, french, spanish, etc. and ask native speakers for assessment.
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    "yet I do mistakes. I need to be corrected" -- well, since you set the bait for me, I'll bite. This is one of those areas of make/do distinction. Should be, "I make mistakes" :-) – Steve Jessop Nov 5 at 0:37
  • @SteveJessop Bite taken... – Crowley Nov 5 at 8:55
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For grading - I would only deduct points if it was quite difficult to understand. If a native-English speaker ALSO spoke too fast, or combined words, would you take a deduction there? I try to be very generous grade-wise with international students, because they are dealing with a lot.

Some students are ahead in their written ability than their speaking ability -- it's the difference between having time to proofread, vs creating words in real time.

Try to identify PATTERNS: not 15 instances of confusing words, but perhaps a tendency to not be distinct with the last consonants in a word, or a set of vowels that are confused. Don't give someone more than 2 speaking issues to work on: it can be overwhelming.

Many US Universities have an English Language Center (for foreign students: separate from the English department that does the writing and literature classes) to help them with conversation and pronunciation. Let your students know about these resources.

If the ELC has too limited a schedule, email that center to let them know that you have students who would like to improve, and ask for suggestions for resources. (This email can also help them have "proof" if it's a budget issue and they can't hire enough tutors to cover the hours your students need.)

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