Popular book club helping international students hone their English language skills

By Colin Czerneda, May 26, 2017
photo by Colin Czerneda     Students in the McMaster English Language Development (MELD) program have been meeting weekly in small groups to read, study and discuss Lawrence Hill’s 'The Illegal' and, in the process, hone their English language skills.

An extracurricular book club aimed at helping students develop English proficiency has grown from a few interested students to a popular and powerful method for students to engage with their English language curriculum.

For the past several months, students in the McMaster English Language Development (MELD) program have been meeting weekly in small groups to read, study and discuss Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal and, in the process, hone their English language skills.

The MELD Book Club, intended to provide students with the opportunity to develop their English language skills outside of the classroom, is the work of Tilly Wark, a recent graduate of the English & Cultural Studies program who drew on her own undergraduate experiences to develop the club.

She says she was particularly inspired by a course she took on modern British literature. “There was no such thing as an incorrect answer,” says Wark. “Any response was acceptable so long as we as students could support our arguments.”

During Book Club sessions Wark says she encourages discussion, asks questions, and even plays music and short videos to engage with students. “I once had a TA who would start every tutorial with an ice breaker question just to get us in the mood to talk,” she says. “I thought it was a fantastic idea, so that's how I start every Book Club session.”

Wark says that what began as a small book club meeting with a handful students has now grown to include nearly every student in the MELD program. She adds that student engagement during sessions has also increased dramatically.

“In the early Book Club sessions, the students were fairly passive,” says Wark. “Many would speak quietly, or write only a few lines with a written activity.” She says the transformation into a talkative and engaged group happened slowly over a few weeks, but the results are clear. “They have become a creative group, they challenge perspectives with their responses, especially during round-table discussions,” she says.

Students in the MELD program are given a “passport” booklet that encourages them to engage in extracurricular programming including the MELD Book Club. This year many students exceeded the 21 hour requirements with some completing nearly fifty co-curricular hours.

Students in the MELD program are given a “passport” booklet that encourages them to engage in extracurricular programming including the MELD Book Club. This year many students exceeded the 21 hour requirement per semester, with some completing nearly 50 co-curricular hours.

The MELD program, introduced three years ago, is intended for international students who want to improve their English language skills in preparation for enrollment in an English-language program at the university level. Extracurricular activities, like the MELD Book Club, that encourage students to practice their language skills outside of a traditional academic setting feature significantly into MELD programming.

“This has been our most successful year to date in MELD,” says Anna Moro, Associate Dean of Humanities and MELD Director. “Our success rate was 98% with our largest class yet. What we did differently this year was to increase significantly the co-curricular opportunities for our students, including weekly Book Club meetings.”

“I attribute our increased success in part to the expanded opportunities for student engagement beyond the classroom,” adds Moro. “We know that greater overall engagement leads to greater academic success.”

The MELD Book Club will continue next year under the guidance of Tilly Wark who will invite the next cohort of MELD students to participate in the Club starting in September.