Language Status Quo/alx

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Language Status Quo
Contributors Christian Köppe, Mariëlle Nijsten
Last modification May 16, 2017
Source Köppe and Nijsten (2012)[1][2][3]
Pattern formats OPR Alexandrian
Learning domain

You assume that students are at a sufficient level of general foreign language competences, i.e. they have knowledge of basic common vocabulary and grammar and can use the language. You now want to start teaching a course in this foreign language, with a foreign language as a medium of instruction so as to improve the use of this language in a professional setting.


Without knowing the actual level of foreign language competences of the students it is likely that the language parts of the course design are either too difficult for the students which hinders them in grasping the content or are too simple for them which means that their language understanding probably does not improve.

In undergraduate or graduate programs, students will often have different levels of language proficiency due to their different backgrounds.

Cultural Background. Some courses are taught in a foreign language — often English — to attract students from abroad and enable them to take part. The level of language proficiency and the way these students have learned the language in their original countries affects the way the foreign language can be used in such a course. A second background issue may be the students’ level of academic English which can vary greatly, depending on the type of education students have had before entering the course and their knowledge of academic language in their first language[4][5]

Available Material. In many domains, like e.g. ICT related subjects, the written classroom materials used are often available in English only, making it harder for instructors to teach these subjects in their mother tongue, as it forces teachers and students to translate parts of the texts used into the mother tongue, e.g. when giving explanations or answering questions. This results in poor quality translations and negatively affects both the teaching and the learning process.

Educational Career. Many courses (or studies) define minimal language requirements, like language courses which have to be attended and finished. This just gives an indication of the minimum level a teacher can expect from the students and still does not say anything about the variety of language levels present among students.

Standard Language. Even though it shows that the understanding and general knowledge of the foreign language is at a sufficient level, it still can lead to problems. In technology courses, the content contains a lot of specific terms — jargon is used as well as language-structures with content-specific semantics. Knowledge of this vocabulary is not reflected by standard language certificates.

Context-specific pretests. Pretesting is often aimed at a narrow range of aspects: what do students know on the subject? What is their general language proficiency? What is needed for competence based learning or integrated learning, is a specific pretest on communication competences used while performing selected professional and educational tasks in a specific branch or sector you train students for. Context-specific pretests are often tailor-made, though their components may be selected from existing proficiency tests.


Therefore: Get to know the language level of all students at the start of a course to obtain a realistic overview for your specific professional and educational goals. Use appropriate tests that include both general language competences and context specific linguistic competences, such as class room language, formal academic language, and core professional activities in your field. This is the basis for an adequate language integration in the course design.

The Language Status Quo (Language Status Quo) is usually gathered by one or more tests and should cover the aspects relevant for the course at hand. These aspects can include:

1. general language competences — Grammar and general vocabulary, but also reading, listening, writing, and speaking.

2. content-specific language competences — Knowledge of the course domain language, like jargon or often used language constructs etc. The Content-Obligatory Language (Content-Obligatory Language) and the Content-Compatible Language (Content-Compatible Language) can be used for testing these aspects.

3. language-related competences — Like giving (or daring to give) presentations in the foreign language, discussing problems in the language, speaking the language in front of a group, or creating formal writings in the foreign language.

The first aspect can be covered by looking at which courses in the foreign language the students already followed or the language certificates the students own. It is helpful to use proficiency tests based on international standard frameworks for language examination, such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) or Association of Language Testers of Europe (ALTE). But, as described earlier, there are more aspects which are (usually) not covered by such tests.

In some cases it can be useful to determine the content-specific language competences of the students, if e.g. the students in a course have different educational backgrounds. If the students follow a fixed study scheme and it can be assumed that they have a more or less equivalent level of language knowledge, this aspect can be omitted.

Commonly used proficiency or placement tests (often) do not include the competences to use the language in different educational and professional contexts. Missing these competences can lead to situations where students are not able to give a presentation because they have trouble speaking in front of groups in the foreign language (and not because they don’t understand the content). These tests (often self reflective) give a clearer picture on how students apply the language.

Knowing the students’ current levels per aspect forms the basis for an appropriate set-up of language elements in a course. Depending on the relevant aspects the following consequences can be identified:

– Difficulties in grammar and general language competences can be improved by promoting Metatalk (Metatalk) and including the missing parts in the Content-Compatible Language (Content-Compatible Language).

– Depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the students’ competences to read, listen, write or speak the foreign language, an accordingly balanced mix of the four leaves of the Lucky Language Clover (Lucky Language Clover) should be included in student activities.

– If content-specific language competences already are present, then the Content-Obligatory Language (Content-Obligatory Language) and the Content-Compatible Language (Content-Compatible Language) can be adjusted to cover a broader or deeper range of language aspects. Another consequence could be that less exercises need to put the focus in both content and language aspects.

– If content-specific language competences are not (sufficiently) present, then the missing parts of the Content-Obligatory Language (Content-Obligatory Language) and the Content-Compatible Language (Content-Compatible Language) should be taken into account during course design or course adjustment. Exercises should expose the students repeatedly to these language aspects in different ways, e.g. by letting them research the meaning of different content-specific words, using Commented Action (Commented Action) during lectures and working groups, or let them give presentations which require the knowledge and usage of content language (and also makes use of the Lucky Language Clover (Lucky Language Clover)).

– If the students have shortcomings in language-related competences then include exercises which let them develop and practice these competences.

De Graaf et al. suggest that students should be exposed to input at a (just) challenging level[6]. In order to determine this level, knowledge of the Language Status Quo (Language Status Quo) is required. This can also be used as the first check of the Language Monitor (Language Monitor). The following checks can then be compared with the beginning situation.

One advantage of testing is that students will become more aware of their language proficiency and that they are able to determine themselves whether their language competences need further improvement. A disadvantage of applying this pattern is that it requires more work from the teacher and also extra time from the students.

The authors applied this pattern at the beginning of a course which was taught in English to students whose mother tongue was Dutch. They had to fill in a short survey stating their last followed courses in English and the grades received for those. The levels of these courses were known to the authors, making it easy to relate the grades for these courses to levels of international standard frameworks like the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Furthermore they were also asked to fill in a self-evaluation about their competences and ease of giving presentations, reading technical documentations, explaining technical problems, etc. The test showed the most students were afraid of giving presentations in English at the beginning of the course, so the amount of exercises and assignments which required student presentations was increased, starting with just giving small presentations about a small-scoped problem and ending with a presentation of their final project result.


  1. Patlet first mentioned in Köppe, C., & Nijsten, M. (2012). A pattern language for teaching in a foreign language: part 1. In Proceedings of the 17th European Conference on Pattern Languages of Programs (EuroPLoP 2012) (p. 10). New York:ACM.
  2. Also mentioned in Köppe, C., & Nijsten, M. (2012). A pattern language for teaching in a foreign language: part 2. In Proceedings of the 19th Conference on Pattern Languages of Programs (PLoP 2012). New York:ACM.
  3. Pattern published in Köppe, C., & Nijsten, M. (2012). Towards a Pattern Language for Teaching in a Foreign Language. In Proceedings of the VikingPLoP 2012 conference. Saariselkä, Finland.
  4. Carrell, P. L., & Eisterhold, J. C. (1983). Schema theory and ESL reading pedagogy. TESOL quarterly, 17(4), 553-573.
  5. Schleppegrell, M. J., Achugar, M., & Oteíza, T. (2004). The Grammar of History: Enhancing Content‐Based Instruction Through a Functional Focus on Language.TESOL quarterly, 38(1), 67-93.
  6. De Graaff, R., Koopman, G. J., & Westhoff, G. (2007). Identifying effective L2 pedagogy in content and language integrated learning. Vienna English Working Papers, 16(3):12–19.