English Comprehensibility Program
for Non-native Speakers of English
University of Pittsburgh
May 1, 1997 - Revised May 1, 2004

Since 1978 the University of Pittsburgh has administered a testing and language improvement  program for its international graduate students who are appointed as Teaching Assistants or Teaching Fellows (TA/TFs).  In 1990 the legislature of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania enacted a law, which requires institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth to certify that all instructors of undergraduates are fluent in English. The enactment of this legislation presented an opportunity to evaluate and improve our previous program.  Here is an updated description of the testing and language improvement programs which are currently in effect.  These programs continue to be evaluated by the Office of the Provost, the affected departments, and the English Language Institute (ELI).


All graduate students, including language TA/TFs, who are not native speakers of English and who have been appointed as TA/TFs must be tested before being assigned any teaching duties.  This includes students who have attended universities in the United States including the University of Pittsburgh and those who have been TA/TFs in other U. S. institutions.


Type of Test

To assess proficiency in spoken English, an interview test is administered by two members of the ELI staff.  A faculty member from the TA/TFs department or a related department participates in the interview so that material generic to the discipline and to the teaching assignments of the TA/TF can be covered.  Each TA/TF receives a score using the Non-native Speaker Interview Scale for TA/TF Certification. The interview test procedure takes about one half hour per TA/TF tested.

The interview test format has been formulated by the ELI staff so that the test will remain consistent when administered by different evaluators.  The ELI staff doing the grading receives training in conducting the test.

Test Scores and Implications for Teaching Assignments

The two interviewers from the ELI assign the test score, in accordance with the descriptors in the Non-native Speaker Interview Scale for TA/TF Certification, immediately after the interview is finished.  TA/TFs who receive scores of 4 or 5 may perform any teaching assignment.  TA/TFs who receive a score of 3 may work in labs or do one-on-one tutoring but may not teach classes or recitations.  TA/TFs who receive scores of 2 or 1 may not do any teaching but may be assigned grading or other duties that do not involve working with students.

TA/TFs who receive scores below 4 are recommended to take either a special course, Ling. 18, or small group tutoring.  Whether TA/TFs attend these English language classes or not, departments may ask for a retest if the TA/TF might be assigned to a teaching responsibility which requires a higher English comprehensibility score.

Time of Testing

In the Fall Term, all newly appointed TA/TFs who are non-native English speakers are tested during the week preceding classes.  Additional testing for new TA/TFs occurs in the week following the end of undergraduate classes in December and April.  Re-tests of TA/TFs who received scores of less than 4 on a previous test may also take place at these times.

Departments may also ask the ELI Testing Supervisor to schedule additional tests at other times.  The tests will be conducted in the English Language Institute.

In rare cases a test result may be appealed by a department, and a second test with different interviewers given if requested by the department of the TA/TF and approved by the ELI Testing Supervisor.

Graduate students who are not yet TA/TFs are tested if this is requested by the department which wishes to appoint them.

Administration of Testing and Reporting of Testing

Before each term, letters are sent by the Provost's Office informing all departments and schools of the testing policy and telling them of their responsibility to schedule tests with the ELI for their new non-native English speaking TA/TFs. Departments or schools have the responsibility of sending a list of names of students to be tested to the ELI Testing Supervisor, arranging with the Supervisor for a time for testing, supplying a faculty member to be present during the test, and notifying students of the time and place of the test.  Re-tests for TA/TFs who were tested previously and did not receive a high enough score to teach are scheduled in the same manner.

It is the responsibility of the academic dean/department chair, after notification of the TA/TF's scores, to record the test scores and to complete the Certification of English Language Fluency form and submit it together with the appointment form to the Office of Faculty Records, Room G-48 in the Cathedral of Learning (see Procedure 02-02-16). The ELI Testing Supervisor is responsible for responding to departmental requests for testing, for maintaining contact with the departments and schools, for maintaining contact with teaching personnel, for scheduling testing sessions either for new TA/TF appointees or TA/TFs needing repeat testing, for assigning interviewers to each session, for informing the TA/TF of the score and language improvement work recommended, for sending the scores and recommendations for language improvement work to schools and departments, and for responding to requests for information about test scores or test performance.



Linguistics 0018 is recommended for students receiving scores of 1 or 2 on the Interview Test. The course meets four hours per week and is taught by an experienced ELI instructor.  The main focus is English pronunciation, grammatical accuracy, fluency and listening comprehension. At the end of the term the TA/TFs are retested.  Those who do not pass are required to continue in the language improvement work.  TA/TFs register for this three-credit class (graded S/N).  In addition, the Ling. 0018 instructor writes midterm and end-of-term reports on each student.  Copies of the reports are sent to the TA/TFs and to their departments.

Ling. 0018 is normally only offered in the Fall Term.  However, if a sufficient number of TA/TFs need the course in the Spring Term, it can be offered then.  In the Summer Term TA/TFs with low scores receive additional hours of tutoring.


Tutoring is recommended for TA/TFs who get a score of 3 on the initial test. It is also offered to those who, when retested after language improvement work still get scores below 4.  TA/TFs are assigned to groups of 5 to 7 and meet one hour per week for a total of 12 or 13 hours.  The objective is to make the TA/TFs aware of their errors in using English and suggest ways to improve.  The TA/TFs may also be assigned to listen to tapes in the language laboratory.  As in the Ling. 0018 class, tutoring instructors write midterm and end-of-term reports on TA/TFs.  Copies go to the TA/TFs and to their departments.


After checking that the TA/TFs score on the ELI test permits the TA/TF to teach at that level, the department investigates the complaint, usually by designating a faculty member to observe a class taught by the TA/TF. If the problem is serious, the TA/TF may be removed from the teaching assignment. The TA/TF will not be retested for English, but the ELI Testing Supervisor should be informed.

In all cases, the TA/TF will be given help in improving his or her English, if that is the problem, and/or his or her teaching skills.


Annually, by September 1 of each year, the University of Pittsburgh files a statement of certification with the Department of Education indicating that all individuals who teach and who were hired since the effective date of the English Fluency in Higher Education Act, or hired subsequent to the last annual certification, are fluent in the English language.

Exempt from certification to the Commonwealth are individuals who teach graduate courses; courses in which the primary language of instruction is not English; student participatory and activity courses such as clinics, studios, seminars, and laboratories; special arrangement courses such as individualized instruction and independent study courses; and
continuing education courses.

Prior to certifying to the Commonwealth, a check is made by the Office of the Provost that all courses defined by the Commonwealth have been taught during the prior year by faculty or TA/TFs who have the proper level of English comprehensibility.