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UIC TA Handbook - Not Just for International Teaching Assistants

By Barbara Boockmeier

Former International Teaching Assistant Coordinator, English
UIC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


The Culture of American and UIC Higher Education

As my comfort and ability in English improved, there were many more doors to open and opportunities to experience -- more than I could have imagined.
                                                                                        International Teaching Assistant, Genetics

Functioning well as a first-year TA, whether you are a Native-Speaker TA (NSTA) or an International TA (ITA}, presents a considerable number of challenges. At many larger American universities like UIC, the student population is comprised of sizable numbers of international students or native-born students for whom American English is not their first language. Communication problems frequently top the list of student concerns at American universities, especially those as diverse linguistically, culturally, and academically as UIC.

Improving Your Communication Skills

The following mental dialogues show the shift in attitude experienced by one ITA over the course of a semester:

ITA:  Why do they ask such silly questions?

Student: How can he be a TA? Listen to his English!

ITA: They have to work as well as go to school.  Maybe they are not paying attention because they are concentrating on something outside of school.

Student: I can get my questions answered if I am willing to communicate with my ITA.

ITA: They are very nice.

Student: The ITA is the same as us!

There are many ways to develop communication skills, even when the sound (pronunciation, intonation, rhythm) and grammar systems are incomplete. These adjustments involve compensation skills that are very effective, and are easier to apply than waiting to acquire native-like pronunciation and grammar.

The following are practical compensation skills for effective communication:

  • Slow down (it sounds simple to do, and it is simple, but it takes practice - this is the number one most effective way to become more intelligible). Slowing down allows the speaker time to produce clear sounds and the listener time to interpret the sound that has been received.
  • Be honest about language difficulties, but assure students of your confidence to communicate effectively. They may have some useful ideas or suggestions on how to increase your effectiveness.
  • Use the chalkboard and visuals to support the spoken communication. Write on the board or overhead a general outline of what is going to be covered in that class. You may want to include key words that will be introduced. This boosts both the listeners' receptivity and ability to interpret the sound. (See Visual Presentation Technology.)
  • Encourage the use of office hours. It is much easier to adjust to each other's sound and to establish communication confidence in a one-on-one situation.
  • As an ITA, be sure to check out the pronunciation of key words before presenting them. (This is most effective if done with a native speaker, not necessarily a graduate student.) This checking out applies even to terms that you have been using the English forms of for many years. It is very frustrating for you and embarrassing for the students to find out that you have been explaining something very familiar to them but they were not able to catch the sound of the term presented.
  • Go over your presentation (be it review, discussion, solutions to problems, or general classroom instructions). Practice it out loud and practice keeping the pace slow.

Academic Diversity: Complications and Appreciation

At American universities, one of the biggest surprises for TAs is the wide range of ages, abilities and readiness, as well as the range of reasons for taking the class that is encountered in undergraduate courses. Frequently, ITAs initially perceive American undergraduates to be weak in math and science but, after a few terms, they often come to appreciate the creative thinking that students generally put into problem-solving. TAs, especially ITAs, often need to network with each other to come up with active learning situations that will engage the students to apply the principles being taught. (See Active and Collaborative Learning Strategies.)

In large lecture classes, the TA is often the link between the professor and students through discussion groups, lab sessions, or grading homework and quizzes. In general, TAs and students establish a more informal relationship, with TAs coming to know their students as individuals, their abilities and preparedness. It is not the TA's responsibility to ensure that every student will pass. However, it may be the TA who first becomes aware of a student having problems in class and it is very appropriate for the TA to encourage students to make use of on-campus support services, departmental tutoring programs, and/or TA office hours. While you should not assume that everyone knows how to study or how to do passing work, many American undergraduates catch on quickly when assist­ ed.

Reaction to Informality

Many ITAs are surprised by the general informality that exists in undergraduate classrooms and elsewhere on campus. Behaviors such as drinking, eating, reading the newspaper, talking to each other during class often shock and offend ITAs (and many NSTAs too).

It is helpful to talk to more experienced TAs to find out how they deal with these issues. It is important to note that the general informality present does not mean a lack of respect for classroom etiquette. Informality does not mean students control the classroom, but it can feel like it if you're not comfortable with it. It is important to find a way to establish the comfort or formality level you need in order to teach effectively and that appears reasonable to your students.

As the term progresses, if you find yourself still reacting emotionally to certain situations, discuss them in class with the students or privately with a student if it is an individual issue. Don't ignore it -- it won't go away. There is probably nothing you will encounter that TAs before you have not had to find a way to deal with--ask them or your faculty supervisor for advice.

Undergraduate Expectations of TAs and Instructors

American undergraduates expect TAs and instructors to do the following:

  • To be prepared.
  • To explain things clearly {in a way they can understand) and follow a consistent plan.
  • To interact with them by encouraging and assuming participation and effort. {They view it as the instructor's responsibility to establish a dialog, not theirs.)
  • To be honest with them about things {explanations, answers to questions, grading, etc.). Tell them if you do not know the answer to the question.
  • To make eye contact when interacting.
  • To listen to what your students are really saying or asking and not respond to what you think they have asked or said. If you are unsure of what they are saying, ask for clarification. {This takes patience, confidence, and practice.)
  • To be aware of the varied academic backgrounds of your students and see them as individuals. As individuals, students have the right to choose whether or not to be responsible for their work and to expect and accept the consequences.
  • To not criticize them individually in the class setting, and to be considerate of them in and out of class.
  • To respect the privacy of grades.
  • To not exhibit favoritism in assistance, grading, or availability.

Things That Students Will Respond Positively To:

  • Using their names.
  • Being open with them about communication insecurities, but appearing confident that communication can occur.
  • Being given feedback.
  • Waiting for their responses after you have asked a question, giving them time to think and construct their responses. If you do not wait, and answer your own question too quickly, you will have conditioned them not to bother to try to answer. A good guideline is the 10-20 second rule -­ practice waiting 1O to 20 seconds before adjusting the question, giving them clues, or answering it yourself.
  • Using methods which involves them in their own learning, this is also called active learning. {See Active and Collaborative Learning Strategies.) When providing explanations to your students use examples, analogies, and problems which relate to their experiences or to your past subject matter experiences. {Do not expect to pull these suggestions out of your head -- ask other TAs for assistance.)
  • Encouraging them to make use of office hours. This clearly demonstrates to your students that communication can take place and gives you an opportunity to address study/review skills. You may have to require it to make it happen, but it's worth it.
  • Having a sense of humor. This does not mean telling jokes every day, but being open to the irony and humor of everyday occurrences.

ITA and NSTA Interactions

Being in the US doesn't necessarily mean we will have a good understanding of American culture. Participating in a variety of on-campus programs provides ITAs, as well as American students, with lots of opportunities to appreciate each others' cultures.
ITA, Sociology                                                                                          

It appears to be human nature or instinct that when some­ one walks into a room he/she looks for a kindred person (a person similar to them in some apparent way -- often culturally). But if we limit ourselves and our interactions to only our "like" groups, we are missing many important opportunities for growth.  Part of UIC's uniqueness is the variety of opportunities it offers for exchange of cultural perspectives, experiences and awareness.

"Small talk" or light conversation is very culture-based, so it is challenging to use it to initiate conversations cross­ culturally. "Real" questions (those seeking information -­ time, directions, specifics on events, etc.) are more concrete and have a built-in end so they are less threatening.

People are more likely to exchange simple pieces of information than to jump in and make light conversation with a non-native speaker.

These modest everyday "small talk" pieces are essential for building larger conversational pieces and relationships. Begin with a request for a small piece of real information: What time do you have? Where is the department meeting? You may have the information already, but remember that is not the purpose of asking the question. If you know the answer to the question before you ask, you will know if the person understands your question and if you understand the response. It is the process that is crucial to linguistic development, not the actual information exchange.

Sometimes departments take the initiative to create communication situations, knowing that ultimately it makes for a better team. Not all departments do this. In general, both NSTAs and ITAs have a greater appreciation for each other when they make the effort to incorporate these "small exchanges" into their regular department and cam­ pus life. It's like trying a strange food -- it takes initiative to try it, and small tastes over time to come to appreciate it.

The most negative responses to ITAs (the lack of English proficiency being the obvious complaint) come from fresh­ men and sophomores. They do not see any reason to struggle to understand the ITAs. Juniors and seniors have experienced ITAs, and come to accept and appreciate them.

Language Assistance

As you've probably noticed, there is a big difference between using a language in a controlled and comfortable setting such as a language classroom and using it in the real, uncontrolled, never-knowing-what's-going-to-come­up-next situation that you find yourself in when you make a cultural transition. It is confusing, frustrating, and embarrassing, but it is also natural and must be worked through if you are going to take full advantage of the opportunities before you.

For the majority of incoming ITAs, it appears to take about 3 months to develop a comfort level that feels tolerable. It is important to know that this is normal and almost no one avoids experiencing it. It does get easier to communicate. That's also the next problem -- once you can communicate and function reasonably, you get very little feedback on your language use. You may think you are understanding what someone is saying and you may think that they are understanding you but this is not always the case. If you want to become a successful communicator in another language, you must get feedback letting you know what you are missing and where the "intelligibility gaps" occur when you speak.

If you are an ITA, your department may have required that you take the SPEAK test (the institutional version of the TSE - Test of Spoken English} when you first arrived. They must submit a Certification of Proficiency in Oral English for every ITA who teaches or has instructional contact with undergraduates. This certification of proficiency can be achieved by a passing TSE or SPEAK score or by departmental interview or teaching demonstration. If you are certified proficient, it does not mean you speak English perfectly. It means that the intelligibility of your oral English is sufficient for the average under­ graduate to understand. If you want to improve the sound or fluency of your English, you will need to get some focused feedback.

If you are not certified proficient in oral English, you must improve your intelligibility in order to be retained as a TA.

The ITA Program

The ITA Program administers the SPEAK and provides oral English recommendations. It also offers courses and workshops to assist you in developing your intelligibility and classroom communication skills. Course recommendations and placement are determined by SPEAK scores and registration is through the ITA program.

If you pass the SPEAK test or are certified by some other method, you may still contact the ITA Program for an evaluation of your English ability and feedback on general intelligibility. The program can help you determine how to improve your English.

At the beginning of my TA work, I had problems with both understanding my students and making myself under­ stood. The /TA Program gave me a way to improve my English communication skills. After one year of studying and training in the /TA Program, I have built up my confidence to fulfill my TA work. Now I have made great progress in my English communication, but I know I still have a long way to go.
ITA, Physics

Other Sources of Language Assistance

I learned English from the book. At first, nobody could understand me because I pronounced English in my own way. On-campus resources helped turn my Chinglish into English.
ITA, Kinesiology

International Teaching Assistant Program (Graduate College)

All newly appointed international TAs must have their spoken and listening English language ability evaluated by the ITA Program prior to beginning their initial teaching appointment.  If the ITA’s TOEFL or IELTS or PTE-Academic scores are at or above a certain level, the evaluation consists of a conversation with an ITA staff person.  If below, the evaluation most likely will require registration in one of the ITA Programs English courses.

Courses are:

  • GC 510 – Communication and Teaching Methods for ITAs, 3 semester hours
  • GC 511 – Communication and Interaction Skills for ITAs, 3 semester hours
  • GC 509 – Advanced Pronunciation, 1 to 2 semester hours

The ITA Program also requires attendance at the Campus-Wide New International TA Orientation before the beginning of every Fall term for newly appointed international TAs.

See more information at

Graduate College

The Graduate College requires attendance for all new TAs at the Campus-Wide New TA Orientation before the beginning of every Fall term for newly appointed TAs.  For international TAs this orientation is in addition to the Campus-Wide New International TA Orientation.

The Graduate College also offers individual courses on college teaching, and a Campus Certificate in the Foundations of College Instruction.  Information is at  Students may take individual courses or all three for the certificate.

Academic Center for Excellence (ACE)

The Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) offers the following courses which can aid with English ability:

  • ASP 050 - Speaking, Reading, and Writing in English as a Second Language
  • ASP 055 - Communication Skills for International Graduate Students

Writing Center

The Writing Center offers tutoring assistance on writing projects. See

Tutorium in Intensive English

The Tutorium in Intensive English offers English instruction for additional fees.  There may also be restrictions on courses if you are a current UIC student in a degree program.  Information is at

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