Good ELF in English-medium instruction

Note: this is the first in a series of posts reviewing the doctoral dissertation of Jaana Suviniitty, Lectures in English as a Lingua Franca: Interactional Features.


The early posts of this blog have been dealing with the internationalisation of higher education in Finland, especially with current events in Aalto University. But Aalto’s Business School isn’t the first to switch to English-medium instruction (EMI), and ELFA project member Jaana Suviniitty has been deeply involved with the move to EMI in another division of Aalto – the Dept. of Forest Products Technology in the School of Chemical Technology. She recently defended her PhD, which is based on her work in language support in the early days of an MA program’s transition to English-only instruction.

In addition to providing support to department personnel, Jaana was tasked with evaluating lecturers’ English. To this end, she video recorded 21 lectures by different teachers, of which all but one were native speakers of Finnish. Since English as lingua franca (ELF) interaction necessarily involves speakers who don’t share a first language, only those lectures were included in which at least one audience member was not also a native speaker of Finnish. In addition to Finnish speakers, the students came from diverse first-language backgrounds: Swedish, Hindi, Spanish, Bengali, English, Japanese, Norwegian, Czech, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Estonian, German, Chinese, Hungarian, Thai and Lithuanian – typical ELF.

ELF and “good English”

So how to evaluate “good ELF”? This is still an active question, but rather than superimpose an idealised “native speaker model” on the ELF interaction, Jaana chose to let the students be the judge. Moreover, the purpose of EMI isn’t to create beautiful poetry from behind a podium; the goal is intelligible instruction that prepares the students for professional life. With this in mind, Jaana gave audience members a questionnaire after each lecture for information on students’ perceptions of their own and lecturers’ English and their overall lecture comprehension.

Figure 1. English skills of students and lecturers, as evaluated by the students (Suviniitty 2012: 77).

Figure 1. English skills of students and lecturers, as evaluated by the students (Suviniitty 2012: 77).

As can be seen in Figure 1, the large majority of students viewed their lecturers’ English as either excellent or good. In fact, many perceived their lecturers’ English as better than their own: 29% of students ranked their teachers’ skills as excellent, while only 11% of students placed themselves in this top ranking. But in general, students didn’t see their English or that of their instructors as being a problem in itself.

Turning to the contents of the lectures, the students responded to two opposing statements: “I understood the contents of the lecture well” and “I did not understand the contents of the lecture”. Figure 2 below shows how these responses were distributed on a four-level Likert scale of agreement/disagreement. The students overwhelmingly disagreed with the “did not understand” statement, while the “understood well” statement was more mixed between “agree” and “somewhat agree”. So, while the lectures were generally comprehensible, something was still creating variable perceptions between the lectures and instructors.

Figure 2. Students' responses to opposing questions of "I understood the contents of the lecture well" and "I did not understand the contents of the lecture" (Suviniitty 2012: 78).

Figure 2. Students’ responses to opposing questions of “I understood the contents of the lecture well” and “I did not understand the contents of the lecture” (Suviniitty 2012: 78).

Challenging vs. accessible

By asking a series of four-level Likert scale questions on lecture comprehension (and language-related problems), Jaana was able to rank the individual lectures on a continuum of “accessible” and “challenging”. While the range of comprehension values wasn’t especially broad between the 21 lectures (none of them appeared to be particularly incomprehensible), she identified two outlier cases on the accessible and challenging ends of the spectrum for transcription and closer analysis.

Using discourse analysis in a data-driven approach, she first examined the transcripts of the two outlier lectures to find features that may have influenced the student perceptions of comprehensibility. It was apparent that a major difference was the abundance of questions posed by the instructor in the accessible lecture, and the relative absence of these in the challenging lecture. This directed her attention more generally to interactional features used in the lectures.

In addition to the two outlier lectures, Jaana transcribed two more lectures on the challenging side of the scale and two more on the accessible side. With six transcribed lectures altogether, she narrowed the scope of interactional features to three prominent categories:

  • control acts, such as directives and requests
  • questions, both audience-oriented and content-oriented
  • repetition, including lexical (word-level) and rhetorical repetition

In future posts, I’ll discuss Jaana’s findings concerning each of these interactive features and how they contributed to better comprehension in the accessible lectures. Insofar as these features lie in the intersection of good English and good teaching, these findings should be of interest to everyone concerned with the quality of EMI and ELF in academia.

Update: click here for the second post on control acts in accessible ELF lectures.

Suviniitty, Jaana (2012). Lectures in English as a Lingua Franca: Interactional Features. Doctoral dissertation, University of Helsinki. Available online:


3 thoughts on “Good ELF in English-medium instruction

  1. Ray Carey says:

    Thanks, Antonio! One of the reasons I started the blog was because several PhDs from the ELFA project are being completed this year. Also Niina Hynninen will be defending her dissertation in one week’s time on language regulation in academic ELF. So I’ll be staying busy!

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