• Search
  • Lost Password?

FAQs: English Language Studies (ELS)

The ELS program is a regular academic program and is open only to matriculated MIT students. Our grade- and credit-bearing classes meet according to the MIT academic calendar and involve homework and exams. Our curriculum is designed for non-native English speakers to foster effective communication in a variety of academic and professional contexts. Any bilingual/ESL undergraduate or graduate student earning a degree at MIT can register for an ELS subject.

Students from outside the MIT community are not accepted in the ELS program except through cross-institutional registration with approved privileges from MIT (e.g., Harvard University, Wellesley College, and Boston College).

Q: Aren’t all entering MIT students proficient in English?

A: “Proficiency” is a tricky term.  Students who have some proficiency in English conversation or general writing and perform well on standardized assessments of general English, such as the TOEFL exam, are frequently unprepared for academic communication in U.S. higher education.

Q: Why does MIT have English language subjects?

A: Developing academic language competency is a cognitive, cultural, and disciplinary process that takes place over time with instruction, hard work, feedback, and support.

Academic and professional communication differs from the fundamental language study that many new MIT students have undertaken.  MIT students are required to start participating actively in this communication-intensive environment from the moment they arrive on campus.  They will be making presentations, participating in teamwork and meetings, proposing and writing up research, and serving as recitation or lab Teaching Assistants.

Students take academic subjects in ELS to

(a) learn the norms for communicating in academic and professional life,

(b) improve accuracy and appropriateness of expression within this new context, and

(c) develop the intuition and habits needed for successful communication within disciplinary and international professional communities.

Q: How are the academic subjects in MIT’s ELS program different from English language classes elsewhere?

A: ELS instructors have designed the curriculum and teaching methods in response to the needs and interests of MIT students within MIT’s communication culture.

The program is informed by current research and best practices from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including professional and cross-cultural communication, second-language acquisition research pedagogy, discourse analysis, and contrastive rhetoric. This foundation creates an informed, efficient, and effective teaching and learning culture for MIT students and allows for discussion of differences and similarities among Anglo-American and other cultural communication norms—important knowledge for global professionals.

Q: How do I know which class is right for my student or me?

A: The best place to start is with the results of the base-line English writing and speaking assessments provided to first-year students:

  • for undergraduates: the Freshman Essay Exam (FEE) and English Diagnostic Review (EDR);
  • for graduate students the English Evaluation Test (EET) and the Graduate Writing Exam (GWE).

The assessment results and recommendations for coursework are disseminated to the students, their academic officers, and their advisors across the Institute before Registration Day.

Students who are interested in an ELS subject but who have not received FEE or EET recommendations are encouraged to review our course offerings, meet with an ELS instructor to identify a suitable subject, or both.

Q: Who should take ELS courses in their first year of study?

A: Graduate students whose English Evaluation Test (EET) results indicate limited control of the academic language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and/or writing) required for higher education will benefit from immediate instruction and guided practice in academic English.  Two subjects, both offered fall and spring semesters, are designed for these students: 21W.219 (writing) and 21W.224 (listening, speaking, and pronunciation).

Second-language acquisition research indicates that formal instruction is critical for most users of English as an academic language with limited proficiency. Students also seem to make the greatest progress in modifying their pronunciation with instruction during their first year in an English-speaking environment.  Therefore, we think students for whom the ELS subject “Listening, Speaking, & Pronunciation” is recommended, and who take 21W.224 in their first year at MIT, will benefit more than if they wait until subsequent years.

For the same reason, students with limited reading comprehension and production of academic written texts require instruction to work toward accuracy, clarity, and appropriate tone in academic writing.  Students who are recommended to take the ELS subject “Foundations of Academic and Professional Writing” (21W.219) and take it within two or three semesters of arriving at MIT will be much better prepared to read critically within their discipline and to write up their research.

Q:  Are ELS courses suitable for language study by non-student members of the MIT community?

A:  Not usually. Because the ELS curriculum is designed for regular MIT undergraduate and graduate students; the materials, assignments, and pace are often a poor fit for the needs or desires of non-student members of the community.

ELS subjects are part of the regular, academic curriculum, which is covered by tuition. Registered students are expected to have fulfilled any prerequisites for the classes, and like all academic subjects at MIT, classes meet regularly every week over the full semester. Class activities and graded assignments allow students to tackle a wide range of academic speaking and writing activities, to receive frequent constructive feedback from peers and instructors, and to track their progress.

Post-doctorate fellows and other employees who are interested in studying in the ELS program will find information on the Advanced Study Program site.

Q: Do graduate students need an EET or FEE recommendation to register for an ELS subject?

A: No. Any undergraduate and graduate student user of English as an academic language—including native English speakers—can register for an ELS subject (although some newer electives, 21W.237 and 21W.240, offer undergraduate credit only).  Most of our courses are offered each semester.

Native English speakers sometimes take our advanced workshops because the curriculum, as in all our classes, covers much more than grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation. As stated above, we also address Anglo-American expectations in document structure across different genres (e.g., theses, proposals, research articles), tone, and academic style, including cover letters and personal statements.

Q: MIT students are extremely busy. Why add to the time crunch by taking additional courses?

A:  Efficient and effective communication is key to academic (and professional) success. MIT’s ELS subjects involve strategies to develop efficiency, accuracy, and academic appropriateness in the four language skills: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. At the same time, students can draw on their interests, coursework in their particularly disciplines, and their research activities as bases for most of their ELS class assignments.

This task-based pedagogy provides each bilingual student with a practical and more individualized approach than conventional language or writing classes provide. It also allows students to expand their linguistic flexibility and adapt to different communication contexts—e.g., making presentations, facilitating meetings, proposing and writing up research, leading recitations, or communicating with the public—with strategic organization, precise word choice, and audience-friendly sentence structure.

Q: Will students speak and write like native English speakers after taking an ELS course at MIT?

A: It is unlikely. Native-like proficiency in a second language is unrealistic, and unnecessary, for most people for the following reasons:

  • Adult learners of English usually have different levels of proficiency across the four skills. For example, one may have strong listening and reading skills but weaker speaking and writing skills, or one may be a proficient academic writer but be unable to carry on an intellectual conversation in English.
  • One can be a “native speaker” of more than one language, but even multi-lingual adults may have academic proficiency in only one language.
  • The nature of a student’s native language, as well as their native pedagogical and communication culture, greatly influences the ease with which she learns a second language.
  • Unlike children’s acquisition of their first language, adult second-language acquisition is not linear. Rather, it typically demonstrates dips, plateaus, and peaks, and language proficiency can improve or deteriorate over time.
  • Academic English proficiency generally takes up to seven years to achieve in an ESL environment, so ongoing support is needed.

However, one does not need to speak or write “like a native speaker” to convey the ideas in their course work and research clearly, accurately, and efficiently. Thus, the goals of ELS courses are to help students

(1) identify and understand their individual strengths and weaknesses,

(2) improve their accuracy and efficiency, and

(3) increase their confidence in communicating appropriately in academic and professional contexts.

These are realistic goals, and ELS coursework provides the systematic instruction, scaffolded practice, and feedback to help students reach these goals.

Q: How do the academic subjects in MIT’s ELS program differ from English language classes elsewhere?

A: Again, ELS instructors have designed the curriculum and teaching methods in response to the needs and interests of MIT students within MIT’s communication culture.

The program is informed by the current research and best practices from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including professional and cross-cultural communication, 2ndlanguage acquisition and pedagogy, discourse analysis, and contrastive rhetoric.  It allows for discussion of differences and similarities among Anglo-American and other cultural communication norms–important knowledge for global professionals.

This multi-disciplinary foundation creates an informed, efficient, and effective teaching and learning culture for MIT students.