The Start is the End!

It’s almost the start of another academic year at Winchester, (Tuesday of Welcome week as I write this). Today is also the pre-sessional exam board. Our tutors have already been teaching for 12 weeks. So with that in mind, and sparked by a conversation over coffee this morning, let’s look at what a pre-sessional programme should do. The points below are all taken from feedback and expectations of students both past and present.

A pre-sessional should:

‘Teach grammar and vocabulary’ – yes and no. This sounds like a very basic expectation of any language class, (from the view that language is made up of grammar and vocabulary). By the time you get to the pre-sessional you have probably got most (if not all) of the nuts and bolts grammar you need. Additionally, the formulaic verb phrase teaching that helped you get this far isn’t as useful in academic contexts. It is true that there are words which are much more common in academic contexts. SEE Coxhead LINK. Practicing sentences with dummy subjects (ones that start with it/this etc.) can also be useful as it’s often left out of grammatical syllabi, or glossed over in application, and you will use this frequently in academic writing. Of course applying some of the grammar and vocabulary knowledge you already have; work on good drafting, proofreading, rewriting and editing skills is invaluable. So teaching grammar and vocabulary no teaching proofreading and editing of that grammar and vocabulary yes.


‘Raise my IELTS score’ – No, proficiency point exams like IELTS can do no more than provide an indication of proficiency in a language. They occur on a single day and can be prepared for and even coached through. Your IELTS might go up (or it might not) the language skills you need at Uni are very different from what you need for IELTS. For example writing you will be writing an order of magnitude more for even first year papers that is possible within the framework of IELTS. What’s more what you write will be expected to be polished through several (or at least a few) drafts, supported with reasoning, citations, data, research, evidence, analysis and argumentation, again hardly possible in a couple of hundred words.

Creative Commons attribution information. Testing times. ©comedy_nose via Flickr

‘Let me on to my University course’ – Well yes if you’ve been required to take a pre-sessional before starting then this is something you need to do. However, this wording gives the impression you’re not really engaging with the pre-sessional in its own right. Any good pre-sessional prepares you for your course of study, but this is much more complicated that the tick box or a traffic light system this implies. Some Universities have separate pre-sessional programmes for different streams of study while this may be in part due to different requirements it’s also because different fields of academia tend to express themselves differently. And when you have so little time to prepare it can be a benefit to prepare very specifically. For example in many business focused programmes reports are much more common than traditional essays. In the arts and humanities (and also business) you’ll almost certainly have to stand up and give a convincing (argumentative) presentation. Whereas in the sciences you might need to report on research or give a presentation of data, but you want to let the facts/data convince the audience not try and argue them into agreeing.

The challenges of academic writing in ESL

‘Help me settle into life in the UK’ – We do pride ourselves at Winchester on the pastoral care of our students. Naturally, we’d argue that all good pre-sessional programmes do this. However, this isn’t something that will get a lot of classroom time devoted to it and even more than adjusting to the academic life this can be a very personal issue. Some students will want to study here for purely academic reasons; others will be much more keen to integrate socially as well as academically. Additionally, every different culture will need to adapt differently, and every student personally.


‘Teach me how to do well at Uni’ – Yes this is another thing that every good pre-sessional programme does. Academic culture can be subtly (or quite unsubtly) different at different institutions let alone countries, even ones that share a single language. Many of our American international students have struggled with differing expectations, despite going to school their whole lives in English. Our pre-sessional at Winchester engages lecturers from around the University to teach and give guest lectures, workshops and seminars every week. The current heads of both the English Literature and English Language Programme are former ELTSU tutors. We’ve had lectures from Linguistics, Education, Business, Sport, Music, Archaeology, History and many more.