Vol. 2. No. 1 A-1 March 1996
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Academic and Non-academic Difficulties:> Perceptions of Graduate Non-English Speaking Background Students

Ed Burke
Language & Literacy Education,
Queensland University of Technology

Claire Wyatt-Smith
Language & Cultural Studies
Griffith University, Australia


This paper reports a study of the academic and non-academic demands as perceived by a group of Australian non-native English speaking students in the first semester of the postgraduate studies. It draws on relevant research and relates this to the participants' responses to a written questionnaire and follow up face-to-face interviews which captured insider perspectives about academic difficulties: the use of L1; the match between lecturers' teaching styles and students' preferred learning styles; listening, speaking, reading and writing; library and other resource usage as well as other non-academic demands.


In 1990 the Federal Government gave tertiary institutions throughout Australia the brief "... to ensure that Australians from all groups in society have the opportunity to participate successfully in higher education" (A Fair Chance for All, 1990, p. 2). This brief is in keeping with the government's much publicised (and criticised) rhetoric about education as the key to economic recovery--the means to make Australia into the clever country. While the connections between higher education and economic well- being at a national level continue to be a matter of debate, it is clear that "the student body at Australian universities is becoming increasingly multilingual and multicultural" (Kirkpatrick, 1995, p.43).

It is also clear that universities throughout Australia have responded to the government brief in various ways. The English as a Second Language Working Party at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia, is currently investigating how student diversity has an impact on teaching and the implications of such diversity for the thorny matters of assessment policy and [-1-] practice. Similarly, in 1995, the Centre for the Enhancement of Learning, Teaching and Scholarship at the University of Canberra, Australia, is implementing a new project funded by the Higher Education Equity program to support the development of cross cultural curricula. In addition to these and many other initiatives at the institutional level, research has been undertaken within a number of universities to examine specifically the learning difficulties of student groups identified as at risk. While some of these studies have defined diversity in the broadest sense, for example, Barnett's 1994 study in the University of South Australia identified six at risk groups, another study, the Castleton, Flemming & Harvey (1993) project involving first year non-English speaking background (NESB) students in the Queensland University of Technology, Faculty of Education, examined the educational experience of a particular cohort.

There is no suggestion here that it was the Australian Government's brief which focussed university attention for the first time on the need to address difficulties experienced by the various groups of students. Clearly, this is not the case. There are several published studies of the academic and cultural demands placed on overseas non-English speaking background (NESB) students at Australian universities that actually predate the brief by some years (Ballard, 1980, 1982, 1987; Ballard & Clanchy, 1984; Phillips, 1985; Samuelowicz, 1987). Rather, the brief highlighted the need for staff at universities and colleges not only to rethink their attitudes to literacy requirements and literacy support for students, but also to examine other non-academic demands of migrants and refugees now resident in Australia. This move to consider both the academic and non-academic demands and the very real interplay between them represents a holistic approach which has the potential to yield richer profiles and greater understanding of NESB students.

Background to the Study

The present study investigated both perceived academic and non- academic demands of a group of Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds (ANESB) during their first semester of postgraduate studies at a university in Queensland, Australia. Their literacy- related and other non-academic demands are reported here and reflect the researchers' view that these demands are interactive and can affect the quality of student learning and ultimately, success with studies. From the outset it is worth emphasising that the investigation examined students' perceptions of their difficulties and in this way sought to make available insider perspectives.

While anecdotal evidence suggests that ANESBs have to make considerable cultural, social, intellectual and personal adjustments when they undertake studies at Australian universities, only limited research has been done to date about what these students actually [-2-] perceive to be their difficulties at the graduate level. Published work on the extent to which the literacy difficulties of tertiary students are affected by cross-cultural variables is so far patchy (Reid, 1994). By and large, there has been equally little research about non-academic demands faced by ANESBs--demands which may be sufficiently strong to determine whether students continue with their studies.

Recent critical-cultural insights into literacy as social practice (Kress, 1985; Gee, 1990, 1992-1993; Street, 1991), as distinct from a neutral, universal skill, were helpful to the researchers by enhancing their understanding the nature of the adjustments required of ANESBs. Also helpful was Gee's (1990) distinction between primary Discourses learned at home and the secondary Discourses of school, universities, and the wider society. In Gee's view, learning a new Discourse involves learning a combination of forms of language use, and ways of behaving and believing. As Kramsch (1993) points out, learning involves thinking about, reflecting on and solving cultural problems with language. These insights, in combination, allow attention to focus on (i) the interrelatedness of language and culture; (ii) the complex ways in which language use is not simply related to, but is fully bound up with, contextual factors; and (iii) how specific literacy problems could arise from culturally different learning styles and traditions. More specifically, they allow due attention to be given to how student and lecturer are culturally constructed, that is, they have learnt accepted ways of using language, of interacting with others, and of being (Gee, 1990) within their culture. To pick up Gee's (1992-93) metaphor, they have been tuned into ways of life.

A key assumption underpinning the study is that graduate ANESBs bring to Australian universities a rich array of representational resources, both cultural and linguistic. These resources are understood to be fully related to cultural background, gender, age and social class. Further, they are dynamic in nature, and therefore remain susceptible to change over time and within new cultural environments. An additional assumption is that matches (and more importantly, mis-matches) could occur between the resources available to ANESBs and the various academic and non- academic demands made of them during their studies. The approach taken to examining these matches and mis-matches was to probe the students' own perceptions of the educational demands and other difficulties they faced during the first semester of postgraduate studies. Importantly, the aim of graduate studies is (i) to equip ANESB students with necessary knowledge and skills to find employment and in many cases, to take up leadership and other roles in Australian workplaces where, typically, English is the primary means of communication; (ii) to familiarise them with Australian work practices which may be unfamiliar; and (iii) to enable them to [-3-] participate fully in day-to-day life in this country.


The present study builds on and extends the Castleton et al. (1993) project, previously mentioned. While both studies shared an interest in what Kirkpatrick (1995) referred to as academic biliteracy, the present study differed from the Castleton et al. project in the following ways:

  1. It identified and documented the perceived academic, cultural and personal difficulties which affect the performance of ANESB students in the first semester of postgraduate studies;

  2. It involved students in three faculties: Arts, Education and Health;

  3. Some of the participating students had undertaken previous tertiary studies at overseas institutions where English was not the sole medium of communication;

  4. An English language proficiency assessment was not an entry requirement to their studies; and,

  5. It set out to draw implications for effective teaching practices for ANESB students.

From the beginning, it was anticipated that the definition of an ANESB person would be problematic, and to address this, other universities' Equity reports were scanned for workable definitions. In one report, for example, the term NESB referred to those who self-identified that (i) their home language was a language other than English; (ii) their country of birth was not Australia; and, (iii) they came to Australia at least seven years after birth. For this study, only the first indicator was used to determine an ANESB. The indicators (ii) and (iii) were rejected because of the potential to admit toomany exceptions. For example, an eight year old born in Papua New Guinea or Singapore may well be a monolingual English speaker prior to arrival in Australia. The researchers decided that the term ANESB would include permanent residents of Australia who self-disclosed that they primarily spoke a language other than English at home.

In the next stage of the study, the university's Student Admissions Unit was asked for data about new postgraduate ANESB students in three faculties. A total of seventy-four graduate ANESBs were identified and all were mailed a questionnaire (Appendix 1) which comprised twenty-one questions under six categories: personal data (place of birth, length of time in Australia, mother tongue, history of prior studies ... ); first language (L1 use at [-4-] home and in present studies ...); English language usage (perceived competence in macro and microskills of speaking, listening, reading and writing ...); academic skills (participation in lectures, tutorials, workshops; seminar presentations; comprehending Australian accent and colloquialism, note-making, note-taking, skimming, scanning ...); facilities and resource usage (library, computer laboratories ...); and support (student guild, administration, medical and counselling services ...).

Of the 74 mailed questionnaires, 37 were completed and returned. As a result of follow-up telephone calls, 31 of the respondents agreed to participate in one or more face-to-face interviews. Though each interview was structured to provide opportunities to elaborate on information supplied in the mailed questionnaire, participants were also invited to identify and comment on other difficulties, both academic and non-academic, which they experienced during the first semester of their studies. A portfolio was developed for each participant to include (i) biodata supplied by Admissions; (ii) the completed questionnaire; (iii) an audiotape of each interview; (iv) transcripts of key segments of the recorded talk; and (v) detailed reflective commentaries written up by the researchers immediately after each interview.


The participants for this study were new postgraduate students who ranged in age from 23-53 years with a mean of 36 years. They included 21 females and 10 males; they came from 12 different countries: Chile, China, Serbia, Fiji, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Taiwan, Holland, Hong Kong, Sudan, Australia; spoke 20 different native languages: Cantonese, Arabic, Portuguese, German, Russian, Mandarin, Greek, Dutch, Vietnamese, Singhalese, Polish, Tamil, Urdu, Hindi, Singhalese, Croatian, Serbian, Turkish, Italian, Spanish; and, had spent from 1 to 37 years in Australia, 10.2 years on average. The group comprised 29 masters and 2 doctoral students, the nominated countries of undergraduate studies being Australia (11), Sudan (1), Hong Kong (6), Taiwan (2), Holland (1); South Africa (1), Vietnam (1), Sri Lanka (2), India (1), Fiji (1), Serbia (1), China (2), Chile (1). Of the 31 participants, 29 self-reported being bilingual and 2 trilingual.

The study took account of the view expressed by some writers, for example, Burns (1991), that previous research has tended to treat all NESB students, overseas students and Australian-residents, collectively as though they were homogeneous. The notion of homogeneity and its blurring of cultural distinctiveness was explicitly rejected in this study, given the study's central concern with the effects of cross-cultural variables.

The following table makes clear the cultural diversity of the cohort.[-5-]

             COUNTRY OF BIRTH       NUMBER
               Australia            3
               China                1
               Holland              2
               Hong Kong            6
               Sri Lanka            3
               Taiwan               2
               Yugoslavia           2
               Other Asia*          3
               Other Adriatic*      3
               Other Europe*        3
               Other*               3

*Other Asia: Vietnam and India Other Adriatic: Greece, Croatia and Turkey Other Europe: Germany, Portugal and Poland Other: Sudan, Fiji and Chile

Data Analysis

First, the data in each participant's portfolio were analysed to identify cultural, linguistic, educational and other variables. This profiling made it possible to map the cultural diversity of the cohort. Second, during the one-to-one, face-to-face interviews, which were tape-recorded, each participant was asked to elaborate on his/her mailed questionnaire responses. The responses, both written and oral, were analysed by the researchers for what they could reveal about each participant's perceptions of academic and non- academic difficulties. Specifically, the recorded talk was coded manually using the following keywords from the mailed questionnaire: personal data, first language, English language usage, academic skills, facilities and resource usage and support. Third, reflective commentaries written by the researcher were then scanned to determine any additional insights from the participant responses which may not have been revealed in the recorded talk. For example, comments were entered about the interviewees' apparent confidence with spoken English and their willingness to respond fully to the written questionnaire and to the one or two face-to-face interviews.

The researchers adopted a qualitative approach to data analysis which permitted recurring themes in the body of the recorded talk and other data to be identified and analysed. As suggested earlier, the researchers' primary concern was with unearthing and making available for examination perceptions that do not readily lend themselves to scrutiny by others , and in some instances, even by the participants themselves. The main themes and issues that emerged in [-6-] the data have been used to organise the following discussion of findings.

Academic Demands

Several writers, including Ballard and Clanchy, 1988; Brash, 1989; Kalantzis, 1993; and McLoughlin, 1995, have drawn attention to cross cultural teaching- and learning-style differences. Phillips (1990) identified typical differences between Asian and Australian teaching, learning and assessment styles. With a clear emphasis on difference (as distinct from deficit), Phillips also made the point that the majority of " ... overseas students are consciously aware that there is a difference in the way they are expected to acquire and understand information in Australia." (p.770).

The Influence of Participants' Previous Studies

The participants in the present study were asked during the interviews whether their previous academic studies had prepared them for their first semester of graduate studies. Fewer than half perceived this to be the case. A recurring theme in the recorded talk was that previous undergraduate studies had been of little or no help for graduate studies. The following comments make this clear: "Entirely different scene to what I have been used to." (Sudan); "More rote learning and exams (in my country).... In Australia learning has to be more independent.... Too much reading." (India); "My previous studies were in a different field." (Hong Kong); "The systems are quite different. ... There the approach was teacher-centred. Here it is self-directed and reflective" (Hong Kong); "... and my previous studies were too long ago to be of help."(Sri Lanka); "(Here) things are different and new." (Sri Lanka)

According to Ballard and Clanchy (1991, p.11) "cultural and intellectual traditions differentially shape and inform education". The writers claim that those shaping influences are nowhere more evident than in regard to (i) styles of teaching and learning, (ii) the roles of teachers and their students,and (iii) the nature and functions of assessment. The participants' comments above support Ballard and Clanchy's claim. Further, they show that under the influence of different cultural traditions, the participants perceived that there were apparent disjunctions between their earlier studies and graduate studies. These disjunctions should not be interpreted as criticism of the quality of the undergraduate programs. Such criticism is unhelpful as it fails to recognise that the participants had previously learnt accepted ways of being student and of doing university. These ways were now not always appropriate: some were being challenged. Hence, the participants were well aware of the need to adjust to new ways of being student. They were also aware of how critical it was for them to make these and other adjustments as quickly as possible during the first semester if they were to complete their studies successfully.[-7-]

Participants' Use of the Mother Tongue

As previously indicated, all participants were bilingual and though some were trilingual in languages other than English, none used this invaluable resource to access texts, reports, journals or other materials in their mother tongue (L1) or in their other languages, excluding English, during the first semester of graduate studies. Two participants reported that they found no relevant materials in the L1 in the university library; several reported they had not looked for materials in their L1; one felt her L1 (Mandarin) and L2 (Japanese) were of no use for her present studies; and during the interviews, a few participants said that because English was the medium of all instruction and the lingua franca of workplaces as well the wider Australian community, they were obliged to read and access resources in English only.

Teaching Styles and Learning Styles

Of the 31 participants, only a few reported a fairly strong sense of conflict between their lecturers' teaching styles and their preferred learning styles. While this finding is encouraging, also evident in the recorded talk was the participants' keen awareness of their own limitations in the four English macroskills and in their computing skills. The following comments suggest this: "I am lost in classes of fifty or more students. I like one-to-one." (India); "[I] get scared-off by computers. I get too anxious to learn." (Italian); "Found it difficult to listen, write notes, copy down what was on overheads. Overheads should be given as handouts." (Dutch); "Lecturers here talk very quickly.... The minute they put the overheads, they take it off ... cannot take notes" (Sudan); and "Can't watch (the lecturer), listen and take notes at the same time." (Sri Lanka); ..[I] use 5.33 disks on my word-processor at home but can't use anything I do on Campus." (German)

While some of the comments indicate the participants did experience at least a measure of anxiety in their learning, there were no self-reported severe problems of intellectual culture shock as reported in Ballard (1987) and Burns (1991) especially in approaches to knowledge and academic authority. However, a small number of participants, mainly from Asia, perceived that their lecturers "don't have much time for appointments" (Hong Kong). Some reported that when they wanted clarification of points from a lecture or about an assignment, they sought help from fellow students. One participant reported going to a lecturer for advice about the first assignment and after giving several drafts and redrafts of it for feedback, was bewildered when the lecturer requested a formal letter of appreciation for the help given. Her comment, "I felt intimidated by her (the lecturer)."(Taiwan) reflects the perception of some ANESBs about the power difference between lecturer and student--an area of potential cultural conflict and confusion.[-8-]


Those participants who had been exposed to English as the medium of instruction at school or in previous tertiary studies perceived they had little or no difficulty understanding the English used by the lecturers and students. Those who perceived they had difficulties listening to English tended, once again, to come from countries where English was not the main medium of instruction. During the interviews participants reported: "(Australian) accent, speed and colloquial English are difficult for me." (Hong Kong); "Lecturers here talk too quickly. ...[I] cannot take notes." (Sudan); "Can understand about eighty percent but Aussie accent makes it difficult.... Listening in another language makes me tired." (Taiwan); "The accent makes meaning unclear." (India); "I need more content and local knowledge to follow conversations (in class). People speak quickly." (Hong Kong); and, "Australian accents of lecturers and classmates were difficult." (Sri Lanka)

One participant told how she tape-recorded each three-hour lecture session during the first weeks of the semester and took notes as she replayed the whole recording at home. She perceived there were benefits from doing this, even though she described the experience as "boring and extremely time-consuming" (Vietnam).


A few participants, particularly those who came to Australia from countries where English was not the lingua franca of education, perceived they had difficulties speaking English during tutorial sessions and lectures: "We learn American English (at home) and have problem with (Australian) colloquialism." (Taiwan); "(I have) trouble finding right vocabularies ...(this) upsets my flow of ideas." (Hong Kong); "Finding the correct lexis for general conversations (is difficult)." (Hong Kong); "I have minor problem with expression." (Hong Kong); "[I] spent three to four times longer (than Australians) preparing seminar presentations." (Vietnam); "During Prac I had pronunciation problems." (Hong Kong) and "Difficulty making my meanings clear." (India)


Though only three participants perceived they had problems comprehending what they read in English during the first semester, most indicated that new discipline-specific terminology was a major cause of difficulty for them. During the interviews, participants reasoned that unfamiliar terminology caused them to read considerably more slowly than their Australian peers; to overuse general, specialist or bilingual dictionaries while they read; or, to waste time reading and re-reading articles or texts for seminars and assignments. A few participants perceived that Australian English speaking (AES) students did not experience reading [-9-] comprehension problems and thought AESs read articles and other academic texts once with full comprehension.

Several participants reported the amount of reading during first semester was inordinate. They claimed that the heavy reading requirement resulted in surface level reading for assignments and seminar presentation. The same participants reported that because there was so much to read and because they read slowly, they had insufficient time to do required pre-reading for lectures.


Writing was perceived by almost all of the ANESB participants to be their greatest difficulty. Generally, the participants' comments about this macroskill concur with Silva's (1992) findings that ESL students were well aware of differences between writing in their L1 and in English. The following comments from participants in the present study reflect a similarly high level of awareness: "I can't use the professional way of writing [in English]. ... drafting essays takes very long time." (Taiwan); "It's not that I don't understand the content. ...I know what I want to write but I sometimes find it difficult to put into words so the writing [in English] flows. The lecturers seem to think it doesn't flow." (Polish); " ... [I] write slower [in English] than Australians but I manage." (Hong Kong); "I have difficulty making meanings clear [in English]." (India); "Trying to write error-free work [in English] takes much longer time." (Hong Kong); "Need more time than English speaking students. We have to draft, draft again, draft again ...three or four times before I think it is all correct." (Hong Kong); "Using bilingual dictionary takes too much time [because I] translate from Chinese to English." (Hong Kong); and, "I find it hard to think through an idea before writing (in English)." (Turkey)

Course Expectations and Assessment Requirements

Several writers (Samuelowicz 1987; Drury & Webb 1990; Silva 1992) have drawn attention to the need for lecturers to make explicit their expectations for the whole course, including assessment items and grading procedures. A considerable number of participants in the present study reported that they were uncertain of what lecturers expected of them as graduate students. They also perceived that they, as non-native English speakers, needed very explicit directions and much more guidance than English-speaking students. Two participants said that they had to ask Australian students to proof-read their assignments, overheads and handouts for seminars to ensure they were appropriate. One person reported that his wife proof-read and edited all of his assignments to ensure they were relevant to the topic and error free.

The participants who had attended English medium institutions for their undergraduate studies were more confident about their [-10-] ability to successfully complete academic tasks. They reported that their success to date was due to the fact that they had mastered the required genres, including relevant terminology and syntax. However, even this group spoke of the need to be "finely attuned to lecturers" expectations which, generally speaking, tended to remain implicit. This finding points to how the rules of play were often unknown to ANESBs.

Non-Academic Demands

Managing Work and Study

Many of the participants reported difficulty managing work and study commitments as most were part-time students who worked full- time and attended lectures in the evenings. Typically, they reported arriving on campus only a few minutes before lectures began and leaving for home immediately afterwards. Hence, there was little, if any, time for them to interact with lecturers and their peers on campus. Several participants said they had to discuss their problems or queries with Australian classmates over the phone. Three Asian participants said they telephoned other Chinese-speaking students after lectures to discuss the difficulties they experienced with lecture content, seminar preparation or assignments rather than "waste the lecturer's time" (Hong Kong).

All participants felt strongly that there should be designated postgraduate rooms for students to meet with lecturers and one another to exchange ideas about lectures or to clarify issues related to assignments. The canteen, which was currently used for this purpose, was considered unsuitable as a meeting place because it was too busy and noisy before lectures and was closed by the time evening lectures finished.

Library and Other Facilities

Most of the participants said they did not attend Orientation Day because they were at work and were reluctant to take time off. Some now regretted this decision because they missed the library tour where they were shown how to access books, journals and other resources in their disciplines. Participants who attended Orientation perceived that they benefited from the visit to the library as they were shown the different locations of materials, resources and equipment for their interest areas.

Though all participants were complimentary about the help they received from library staff whenever they requested assistance, they had general complaints to make about the library: "..the books are outdated" (Sri Lanka); the difficulties in using computerised retrieval tools, such as ERIC and Austrom, to find references; the unavailability of resources in the library and having to use [-11-] inter- library services for journal articles and books; waiting in line to use the photocopiers; and spending long periods of time photocopying from microfiche.... A major complaint by many participants was that they wasted time searching the library shelves for books which the library computers showed to be available for loan but were not on the shelves or in sorting trolleys. No complaints were made about the lack of materials in the participants' L1s.

A small number of participants found they were unable to access the word-processors in the computer laboratories to prepare seminar handouts and assignments as the computers were always being used by other students in the afternoons, evenings and at weekends. One participant described herself as computer-shy and said she felt very intimated because lecturers expected assignments to be word- processed. Another reported being too busy with work and graduate studies to attend a word-processing course, a situation which made her anxious and in turn, this affected her studies.

Support Facilities

Many participants said that they were acutely conscious of their own limitations in English and were not aware that ESL counsellors were available to help them with their difficulties. Some Asian participants knew of this facility but felt that as graduate students they were responsible for overcoming or remediating their own English language weaknesses. They refused to go to the ESL counsellors for help with seminar presentations and assignments.

Several participants knew psychological counselling services were available on campus, however, no one had sought counselling. Many participants, particularly those from Asia, reported that they resolved personal and academic difficulties with their family members, relatives or friends. One participant perceived she could not, under any circumstances, discuss personal or academic problems with "a stranger" (Hong Kong).

Almost all participants did not use the other facilities (medical services, the canteen, student union, Equity or the sports centre) because these were closed when they were on campus in the evenings and at weekends. One participant perceived that he came on campus only to learn.


First, this study set out to investigate and report insider perceptions of academic and non-academic demands made of ANESB graduates in the first semester of studies at an Australian university. Clearly, the findings support research that shows how cultural, linguistic and personal variables impact on these [-12-] graduates and point to the merit of adopting a holistic approach which addresses both sets of demands.

Second (and equally important), by extrapolating from the data and relevant literature, the researchers identified implications for teaching staff. If ANESB students are to make good progress early in their studies and ultimately succeed, it is paramount that their teachers:

  1. are critically aware of how they themselves have been culturally constructed and the implications of this for classroom practices;

  2. develop cross cultural awareness especially in terms of possible disjunctions between culturally distinctive epistemological traditions. (In the absence of such awareness, inadequate performances of students could well be misinterpreted as signalling incompetence or an unwillingness to adjust to learning in an Australian institution);

  3. bridge the academic gap for ANESB students by ensuring that their teaching methods and student learning styles are complementary;

  4. make explicit their expectations as they relate to course requirements, including assessment items;

  5. establish realistic or attainable goals and monitor continually student progress to these. (If these goals are perceived by students to be unrealistic they may impede learning.)

  6. identify at risk students early in a program of study and initiate appropriate intervention measures;

  7. are available for student consultation and provide detailed feedback on all aspects of the ANESB students performance;

  8. provide opportunities for students to access relevant resources in the L1 to maximise learning;

  9. make advice available to ANESBs, particularly part-time students, about efficiently managing work and study demands; and,

  10. advise ANESB students of all support facilities available to them as non-native speakers of English and as a graduate students, encourage them to use these, explaining to them that in this society there is no stigma in working with ESL or psychological counsellors to overcome academic or non-academic difficulties.[-13-]

This study has reported how a group of thirty-one Australian students from non-English speaking backgrounds perceived the academic and non-academic demands made of them during the first semester of their graduate studies. The researchers feel that mirror image studies could investigate how lecturers perceive the same demands as they relate to their own course delivery, their teaching practices and resource provision for ANESB learners in their classes.


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