Post-Entry Language Assessment

The Post-Entry Language Assessment (PELA) is an academic writing test that is designed to gauge the academic writing abilities of research degree candidates who have English as an Additional Language (EAL). The test helps the Graduate Research School to understand how best to support candidates in developing their writing skills. Those who do require assistance will receive targeted and flexible support tailored to their requirements. People undertaking a PELA will be asked to write an academic paragraph in response to a statement. The outcome of this assessment will determine each candidate’s writing support plan. The most intensive level of support will involve regular contact with writing support staff and attendance at compulsory peer support sessions, as well as further writing assessment and a re-test. The PELA was established by the JCU Graduate Research School (GRS) and has been operating since the beginning of 2013.

This test and its associated program of English language support are conducted via Zoom.

Assessment Dates

PELA tests are scheduled at regular intervals, depending upon numbers of candidates who fit the criteria for PELA testing. Associate Professor Liz Tynan will be in touch with all candidates who are required to take the test – you do not need to self-identify.

Purpose of PELA

Although language is not the sole defining factor of academic success, there does appear to be an aptitude threshold below which candidates may experience difficulty in managing their study. Research suggests that research candidates who have English as an Additional Language often encounter diverse and greater challenges in their postgraduate research experience than their native English speaking counterparts, particularly in their efforts to develop their academic writing skills in English to meet the demands of thesis writing.

Inadequate English skills put research candidates at risk of delayed or non-completion, or of significant stresses and obstacles throughout candidature. The PELA is designed to pick up on these potential problems early, and put in place effective measures to avoid complications later. A JCU HDR requires a high standard of academic writing, and the PELA has been successful in ensuring that all EAL HDR candidates who require assistance will receive it in a timely and effective manner.

Candidates who are required to undertake the PELA test will be contacted by the Graduate Research School as soon as possible after they commence. Note that both international and domestic candidates may be required to take a PELA test, depending on their language background. The PELA must be undertaken by any EAL research degree candidate entering JCU who falls into the following categories:

  • Received an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) score below 7.0 overall or for any sub-skill (writing, reading, speaking or listening);
  • Received a waiver of JCU English Language Requirements (ELR), including candidates who received a waiver on the basis of the GRS’s Pre-Entry Language Assessment (PrELA);
  • Gained ELR on the basis of two years’ tertiary study in English in an approved country;
  • Transferred from a current Masters by Research to a PhD and would have been required to do the PELA on entry to the Masters;
  • Has undertaken (or is undertaking) a Direct Entry English pathway program;
  • Received a writing score of below 23 for the Internet-based TOEFL (or 5.5 for paper-based); or
  • Received a score below 65 for a Pearson test.

Experience has shown that even though a candidate has been accepted into the degree, those who fall into the categories above may still have language issues during research degree candidature. The PELA will give JCU a better idea of whether candidates are likely to struggle with writing, and put in place measures to assist them from the beginning.

The PELA is a quick test. Candidates will be given five minutes to read the information in the paper and plan their response to the question. They will then have 15 minutes to prepare a short response in the form of a single paragraph. For integrity reasons, they are invigilated by Zoom while undertaking the test, but do not have to answer any questions orally. They must return their completed test paper within 10 minutes of the conclusion of the test.

HDR candidates do not need to do any preparation before the PELA test.

The marking criteria are based upon those used by the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), although they have been adapted to fit the needs of a research writing test. The criteria cover language usage elements such as grammar and punctuation, and also for the capacity of the candidate to develop a simple argument. These criteria are included in the PELA document and candidates are allowed five minutes before the start of the test to read through this material.

Within seven working days of completing the test candidates will be sent an email informing them of the result and explaining what they need to do next. The email will be copied to their primary advisor as well.

What do the results mean?

If a candidate receives a Band 3 result (that is, a Fail) they will be required to meet with Associate Professor Liz Tynan from the GRS and a learning advisor from the Centre for Education and Enhancement to discuss their compulsory writing support plan. The primary advisor will be kept informed about the writing support plan as well. This plan will operate for an initial period of between six and nine months, at which time the candidate will be asked to undergo a second PELA test to gauge their progress in developing their academic writing skills. Depending upon the outcome of that second test, the student will either be deemed to be an independent academic writer without further obligations under PELA, or an extended writing support plan will be devised.

If a candidate receives a Band 2 result (that is, a Borderline Pass), they will be invited to attend a meeting with Associate Professor Tynan and a CEE learning advisor to discuss an optional, but highly recommended, writing support plan. This plan will operate for an initial period of approximately six to nine months, at which time the candidate may opt to undergo a second PELA test to gauge their progress in developing their academic writing skills. Depending upon the outcome of that second test, the candidate may still need some assistance and a new plan will be devised.

If a candidate receives a Band 1 result (that is, a Pass), they will not be required to participate in a writing support plan, although they may opt into the support available if they wish.

A Band 3 (Fail) result does not affect degree enrolment. Instead, it should be seen as a clear signal that the candidate will require academic writing support, and they will be required to participate in the writing support program.  Band 3 candidates are expected to participate in a tailored writing support plan that will be structured to fit around fieldwork and other research project commitments.  If the candidate consistently does not participate without a good reason, future one-on-one academic writing or editing assistance may not be provided.  A Fail grade for PELA points to serious academic writing problems, and candidates benefit when they approach the support offered in a positive manner.

A writing support program provides specified activities that must be undertaken by anyone receiving a Band 3 result, or which are recommended for anyone receiving a Band 2 result. A primary element of the plan is regular attendance at a peer writing support workshop. This workshop is designed to work with the writing and reading currently being undertaken by the candidate – it does not involve assignments or other unrelated work.  Other elements of the plan may include compulsory attendance at specified professional development workshops, one-on-one sessions and a follow-up PELA at the end of the initial nine-month plan.

Yes, the primary advisor will be copied to the message that each candidate receives notifying them of their PELA result. All advisors are welcome at any time to seek further information from Associate Professor Tynan about the PELA results for any research degree candidates they are supervising. .

As identified in James Cook University’s English language and Numeracy Policy (2012), “JCU has a responsibility to ensure that all students develop key graduate attributes including a level of English language and numeracy proficiency that will allow them to participate effectively and productively in their courses and subsequent employment” (p. 2), and that, “The University provides a supportive social and academic environment which promotes students’ language and numeracy development” (p. 2). Arising from this, the Policy identifies a number of procedures for supporting Higher Degree Research (HDR) candidates to develop proficiency in English language and numeracy; one such procedure is the use of a diagnostic tool to identify candidates’ academic language needs early in their candidature. While the internationalisation of higher education has seen a growing number of HDR students from a diverse range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds enrolling in James Cook University (JCU), the literature suggests international Non–English Speaking Background (NESB) research students often encounter diverse and greater challenges in their postgraduate research experience than their domestic native English speaking counterparts (e.g. Allison, Cooley, Lewkowicz & Nunan, 1998; Bartlett & Chanock, 2003; Cadman, 2000; Larcombe, McCosker & O’Loughlin, 2007), particularly in their efforts to develop their academic writing skills in English to meet the embedded demands of thesis writing.

Further information about the PELA may be obtained by contacting:

A/Prof Liz Tynan
Senior Lecturer and Co-ordinator, HDR Professional Development Program
Graduate Research School

Dr Putu Mustika (Icha)
Learning Advisor
Centre for Education & Enhancement