Carnegie Mellon University

Advice for Incoming Students who are Nonnative English Speakers

Newly admitted international students often ask for advice on how to best improve academic English before beginning their programs at CMU. Below are some techniques that have worked for many international students currently at the university.

  • Take advantage of ICC online materials
    Our center offers materials to help students develop academic language skills and an understanding of US academic culture. Videos and written materials particularly recommended for incoming students include:
  • Watch online videos on topics in your academic field
    This can help you strengthen listening skills, develop vocabulary, and develop a better understanding of how these topics are presented in the US academic environment. A good place to start is to watch CMU professors and students giving presentations.
  • Audit or view online courses in your field
    This can help you develop the language to discuss fundamental concepts from your field in English. Some useful sites include: Academic Earth, iTunesU, The Floating University
  • Become familiar with academic English
    Read a variety of textbooks, articles, and webpages related to your field. If possible, find out which textbooks will be used in your first semester classes and read them in advance. Many nonnative speakers find that it will take them longer to complete reading assignments, so beginning that work now will help in your first semester at Carnegie Mellon.
  • Work on listening comprehension and academic fluency
    Make use of DVDs, online videos (particularly in your field), and films, and, if possible, through conversations with native speakers. Some suggested sites include: TED; PBS; NPR.
  • If you want to continue language classes
    Attend only an advanced ESL program that focuses primarily on academic English. As an admitted student, you have already achieved TOEFL or IELTS scores that are past the level of basic ESL programs, so continuing to attend those programs will not help to develop a higher level of academic fluency.
  • Arrive on campus in time for the Graduate Student Orientation
    Attending Graduate Student Orientation will give you additional practice with academic language and support your adjustment to the culture of the university.
  • Of special interest to students who will work as teaching assistants (TAs):
    Watch the video, Teaching in America, to get an overview of the language and cultural adjustments faced by international faculty and TAs.

Begin with your TOEFL or IELTS speaking score: the chart below will help you understand what your speaking score says about your ability to communicate in graduate classes at CMU.

TOEFL Speaking IELTS Speaking Significance for Academic Communication Tasks
≥ 28 ≥ 8.5 Has a strong mastery of oral proficiency; above level appropriate for ICC work.
26—27 8 Has a high level of oral proficiency; able to communicate in most academic situations; may need to improve pronunciation, field specific vocabulary, or cultural understanding.
24—25 7—7.5 Has the oral proficiency needed for basic academic work, but should take ICC training to prepare for tasks requiring higher levels of fluency (e.g., giving presentations, working in interactive research teams, serving as a TA).
18—23 6—6.5 Has the basic oral proficiency needed to begin academic work, but needs on-going language support to continue to develop academic proficiency.
≤ 17 ≤ 5.5 Many gaps in the oral proficiency needed for academic work at CMU; needs intensive language work, but is not yet at the level to benefit from most ICC offerings; supplement with outside ESL.

Nonnative speakers of English who will work as Teaching Assistants (TAs) are required to take the International TA (ITA) test. The chart below will help you better understand how much language work, if any, you likely need to do in preparation for the test and for success as a TA.

Rough correlation of TOEFL* speaking scores to ITA test scores

ITA Test Score

TOEFL Speaking Restricted II Restricted I Pass
≥ 28 Immediately Immediately Immediately
26—27 Immediately Immediately Within first semester
24—25 Immediately 1—3 semesters Can't predict
18—23 1—3 semesters Can't predict Unlikely to achieve
≤ 17 Can't predict Unlikely to achieve Unlikely to achieve
Above prediction of scores and time needed to reach those scores assumes on-going participation in ICC work. *(We do not have sufficient data on IELTS to be able to include that test in this chart)