Penn State program helps international students sharpen English skills

January 05, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- Some international students studying at Penn State face a big hurdle that most U.S.-born students take for granted—the ability to communicate clearly in English. To help students develop practical English skills, the Intensive English Communication Program (IECP) devises innovative learning experiences that challenge their students to immerse themselves in the language. One new method they’ve developed is a public poster display -- an end-of-semester activity that gives students a chance to gain confidence with the English language while discussing topics they’ve researched throughout their IECP courses.

Before embarking on her bachelor’s degree in immunology and infectious disease in spring 2010, Amal Sayed, from Saudi Arabia, knew she first had to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

“At first I was really nervous,” said Sayed. Though she never had trouble with public speaking in her native Arabic, she felt anxious about presenting information to English speakers.

“In my field I will have to speak in public and give lectures,” Sayed said. “I think this was good practice for my line of work.”

Psychology graduate Takhmina Nurmagambetova, from Kazakhstan, agreed.

“The session helped me in different ways,” she explained. “First I had to search for a lot of information, which pushed me to read, learn and understand more. Then I had to talk to many different people and express myself as clearly as possible.”

The IECP poster sessions launched last spring semester, with students tackling a wide range of issues with global impact, including climate change, hunger, alternative energy development and commonly held misconceptions about Muslims.

“I wanted to focus the assignment in a way that would be inclusive of all the diversity within the group of students, while exploring topics that affect the public as a whole, on the global scale,” said IECP instructor Jessica Arends.

This December, building on the success of the pilot program, 12 students presented their research on different aspects of globalization to a group of over 100 attendees at the Global Connections Lounge in Boucke Building on Penn State's University Park campus.

“Since our final theme for the course was globalization, students researched and presented on the extraction, production, distribution and disposal of an everyday product,” said Arends.

Students researched everything from shampoo, bubble gum and chocolate to paper, electronics and natural gas. They had to analyze each stage of production, indentify unsustainable processes and research alternatives. This research required the ability to summarize, analyze, synthesize and properly cite sources in order to avoid plagiarism.

The purpose of the seminar course is to integrate the language skills students will need to be successful at the university level: reading, writing and grammar, but also public speaking skills.

Arends pointed out that a poster display is a bit different than a presentation. It’s more informal, allowing people to ask more questions. Students can’t plan a script, but must think on their feet.

“When I ask for feedback on the course, this is the assignment that is the most appreciated,” Arends said. “Previous students have said it has helped tremendously in preparing them for university classes as well as professional presentations.”

For more information on the IECP, send an e-mail to or visit online.

Penn State’s Intensive English Communication Program (IECP) provides quality language instruction to nonnative speakers of English. The program emphasizes the language and skills needed for academic success in college or at a university, but also includes cultural education to prepare students for daily life in an English-speaking environment. The Intensive English Communication Program is part of Penn State Outreach, the largest unified outreach organization in American higher education. Penn State Outreach serves more than 5 million people each year, delivering more than 2,000 programs to people in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, all 50 states and 114 countries worldwide.

  • Ali Al-Khalaf, left, a student of Penn State's Intensive English Communication Program, talks about his research.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010