Assistant professor of linguistics and English language, Troy Cox discusses the Church Educational System’s new project for English language learners and his leadership in developing the program’s key assessments.
PROVO, Utah (May 18, 2017)—When BYU-Idaho started their Pathway program in 2009, they could never have predicted the far-reaching effects it would have. Now, just eight years later, Pathway has expanded into a worldwide English learning and college prep program administered online. Doctor Troy Cox, assistant professor at the Center for Language Studies at BYU, has been heavily involved in the program’s expansion, working to develop placement tests and certification exams for the English language learning portions of the program.
Originally, BYU-Idaho’s Pathway program was established to prepare members of the Church in the United States for a college education through BYU-Idaho online. Administered through priesthood leadership at the stake level, the program teaches future students study skills, math, English grammar, and skills like balancing a checkbook. Every Wednesday night, Pathway participants meet in a group with Pathway missionaries who lead a devotional. In this way, the program strengthens its participants both academically and spiritually.
After a few years, however, they noticed a change in the demographics of Pathway students. “What they found is that the number of non-native English speakers that enrolled in the program was huge. It started moving to South America,” Cox said. Many were drawn by the promise of a quality education at a fraction of the cost. Pathway students who successfully completed the program were offered tuition at BYU-Idaho online for the same price as their Pathway tuition.
Cox explained, “One of the things [nonnative English speakers] really liked about [Pathway] was that it was helping them improve their English.” However, their abilities weren’t always to the level that would allow them to succeed in English college classes. Yet Cox explained that in non-English speaking countries, being able to speak English opens doors to jobs in retail, tourism and hospitality, among other sectors of the economy.
Although the Church decided they wanted to create a program to help these students gain a higher level of English ability with which they could then enter Pathway or get a job, Cox said that at the time, they didn’t have a product to do so. BYU-Hawaii had been helping students from around the Pacific Rim learn English well enough to attend the university for years, and BYU-Idaho had already mastered the delivery of Pathway. C.E.S. decided to combine the expertise of the two universities, along with the self-reliance services of the Church, which focused on literacy and money management to create a program that addressed a larger goal of “self-betterment” for its members.
“The spiritual component of this is key,” Cox was careful to point out. “We are a very ‘bookish’ church. If you’re not able to read well, then you’re more likely to turn down callings [or] avoid going to a class because you don’t want to be called on to read.” With increased literacy skills, members will not only have increased educational and work opportunities, but they will gain an ability to engage with the word of God on a deeper level.
In order to accomplish any of these goals, however, the Church needed a way to test people’s English ability at the beginning and the end of the program. For this task, they turned to Doctor Cox, who was at that time working in BYU’s English Language Center (E.L.C.).
Cox said, “My area of research is language testing. We’ve been doing a lot with language testing [at] BYU. [At the E.L.C.], I oversaw all of the testing of people that were nonnative English speakers.” Cox has published numerous articles on the subject, as well as being an Oral Proficiency Interview tester and trainer for the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Language (A.C.T.F.L.).
The work done in Provo is the perfect complement to the efforts of BYU-Hawaii and BYU-Idaho to create a program on such a large scale. Elder Kim B. Clark, in his address, “CES: The Lord’s Educational System for His Church,” said, “There is a great spirit of cooperation in this work. Out of this will come very powerful learning experiences for literally thousands and thousands of people.”
Cox explained that finding a way to create powerful, accurate assessments that are also low cost is crucial. The placement test at the beginning of the program must be accurate enough to place people according to their abilities but simple enough to be administered online in people’s homes. As for the assessment at the end of the program, Cox explained that it must determine true language ability, as BYU will provide all who pass it a certification of their English language ability to show to employers and educational institutions. Called the E.I.L. (English as an International Language) Certificate, it “will qualify students and prepare them for further employment and . . . education,” explained Elder Clark.
Cox described some of the methods, or item types used in the assessments, such as the lexical-grammatical item type. He explained, “We take a sentence and we eliminate all of the punctuation, capitalization and spacing, and then we have people re-type it. We found that this has been pretty predictive in assessing their writing abilities.” In addition, there are multiple choice, listening, fill in the correct word, error detection and reading comprehension sections.
Cox discussed the more difficult task of efficiently and cheaply grading the speaking and writing sections of the final assessment. “The speaking part is problematic on the technology end. Audio takes a lot more bandwidth.” Not every Church building or stake center currently has the internet connectivity to support a speaking assessment. The human grading component can also get expensive. Comparative judgment and language processors are two options being researched.
Elder Clark commented, “Assessment tools are absolutely crucial for this effort. [It] turns out that [making low-cost powerful assessments is] extremely difficult. But the folks at BYU and their English Language Center [are] world class in assessment tools for English language instruction. [It is] one of the amazing miracles that has taken place [in the project].”
—Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)
Olivia covers news for the Center for Language Studies for the College of Humanities. She is pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.