English language communications skills--what are the issues for international pharmacy students?

Author:Stupans, Ieva

Like any other group of professionals, pharmacy graduates in Australia need good English. The authors teach pharmacy at the University of South Australia. Here they explore factors that appear to affect their efforts to help international students improve their English skills.


The issue of English language competence is highly relevant for graduates entering the pharmacy workforce. The Competency Standards for Pharmacists, (1) developed by the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, have outlined the essential characteristics of pharmacists including' effective problem solving, organisational, communication and interpersonal skills, together with an ethical and professional attitude ...' Pharmacists need to be able to communicate both verbally and in a written format with people in the community, colleagues and other health professionals using cogni-tively complex English. (2) It is acknowledged that: 'The quality of communication between patients and health care professionals is fundamental to providing effective healthcare'. (3)

Developing appropriate language skills is a challenge for University of South Australia pharmacy staff, where a high proportion of pharmacy students are full fee paying international students--in 2007, 56 per cent of students in the third year of the program were international students from mainly south-east Asian countries, such as Malaysia and Hong Kong. Anecdotally, as many as 50 per cent of these full fee paying international students seek to obtain permanent residency subsequent to their completion of a traineeship period under the supervision of the Pharmacy Board of South Australia.

For entry into the pharmacy program international students are required to meet the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score of 6.5. The 2006 IELTS handbook indicates that an IELTS band of 6.5 for linguistically demanding programs is 'probably acceptable', however it points out that further English study is required. (4) University data indicate that only 15 per cent of international students are accepted for entry on the basis of taking an IELTS test. Entry through alternate pathways accounts for the remaining 85 per cent. The University of South Australia, along with most other Australian universities accepts alternative pathways into degree programs for example, 12 months study in English, in a recognised Foundation program.

The relationship between the IELTS score, basic interpersonal communication skills and cognitive academic linguistic proficiency and the level of language competence, both oral and written, required of a pharmacist is not intrinsically clear. However, it is important to acknowledge that the Australian Pharmacy Examining Council, which is responsible for the recognition of overseas pharmacy qualifications, has specified an IELTS of 7.0 for candidates prior to commencement of examination processes, clearly providing an indication of pharmacy registering authority expectations. But international graduates from Australian universities are not required to demonstrate the attainment of this English language requirement prior to meeting the skills component of an application for Australian permanent residence.

At the University of South Australia a compulsory English language comprehension task has been introduced into the assessment requirements for one of the third-year courses in the pharmacy program. The task involves the student reading an unseen article of a general nature from an Australian pharmacy journal and then proceeding to summarise the article to the examiner both verbally and in a brief written report. Students are required to pass this component in order to pass the course, and therefore there are opportunities to resit the assessment task. Failure to pass the course precludes progression in the program. Students who do not pass the assessment are directed to English language support from the University's Learning Centre. In 2007,37 per cent of all students (both international and local) enrolled in the course failed the communication assessment task. All, except one student of this group, were international students. The remaining student was from an English-as-a-second-language background.

This study explores the differences between two groups of international undergraduate pharmacy students, those who passed and those who didn't pass this English language comprehension test. It then identifies language issues (both academic and social) and language behaviours in the group of students who didn't pass. The study aims to increase staff understanding of the similarities and differences in language backgrounds and language behaviours of these groups of students in order to facilitate development of further strategies to assist students to improve their English language abilities.


Two international student groups were investigated. First, a group that passed the English language comprehension test (60 students) and, second, a group of students who did not pass (39 students). The first part of the study used a questionnaire made available through the University of South Australia's online survey tool TellUs. This survey sought to clarify personal and schooling background details of these two student groups. Seventeen of the 60 international students who passed the test, and 29 of the 39 students who did not pass responded to the invitation to participate in the online survey. Data collected through TellUs are automatically de-identified.

The second part of the study used focus groups to gain insights from students who did not pass the English language test. The purpose of the...

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