Every year, about 100,000 college and university students from around the world come to the United States on a cultural exchange program that allows them to work in seasonal and temporary jobs. Considered to be one of the State Department’s most successful examples of public diplomacy efforts, the Summer (referring to “summer” in the home country of exchange visitors) Work and Travel Program, brings future leaders from dozens of countries to the US, and sets specific goals for participants, their host employers, and the organizations that recruit and sponsor them on the J-1 Cultural Exchange visa.
It’s clear that the interaction with US citizens, the experience of US culture and the travel in the United States goals get met. But what about the chance to “practice the English language”? The program regulations require that exchange visitors when working, work alongside Americans, and in jobs that give them opportunities to speak and improve their English.
New Hampshire-based GeoVisions, one of more than 40 State Department designated sponsors of the Work and Travel Program, teamed up with iTEP, International Test of English Proficiency, to do a two-stage testing pilot project (could be expanded to a larger universe of exchange visitors) to determine the impact of participating in the Work and Travel Program on English conversation skills. iTEP is a globally-recognized exam that measures conversation skills in a stand-alone test, or as an element of tests that measure grammar, reading, writing, listening and speaking. The iTEP Conversation exam is a thirty-minute internet-based, on-demand test with modules that measure vocabulary, verbal fluency, decision-making, reading aloud, and other skill sets essential to conversational ability.
One hundred university-aged students from five South American countries took part in the first round of tests before participating in the winter intake of the Work and Travel Program. These students were bound for ski and warm weather resorts throughout the United States. They would be hosted on an exchange program, and work in a variety of seasonal and temporary jobs alongside American workers and interacting to various degrees with English- speaking visitors. After the work portion of their program, the students had an opportunity to travel throughout the United States before returning to classes at their home country institutions.
After the students returned home, they were invited to take the iTEP exam a second time to determine whether they had made progress in their English conversational skills. 20% of the students opted to participate in the second round of exams, and these 20 students were representative of the original group of students who took the exam, and the original group was chosen at random from students participating in the broader work and travel program.
Read the study to view the conclusions of this research. The study confirms that Summer Work and Travel as a program is an effective way for visiting students to improve their English conversation skills. The preliminary research upholds the claims of sponsors and their overseas partners who promise gains in language expertise through participation on the program. It further demonstrates that the position a student takes at a host employer is not a significant factor in how much language improvement can be attained.
Importantly, the improvement in iTEP English language test scores validates the Department of State goal that exchange programs have sufficient opportunities for exchange visitors to practice speaking English. On the Summer Work and Travel program, our research shows that such practice leads to an increase in English Conversational skills. The iTEP Conversation exam is a unique measure of these successes.