Vantage College brings innovation to teaching international students

Through innovative instruction, small classes, and a collaborative atmosphere, Vantage College is creating a unique and comprehensive first-year experience for international students.

The shift: Integrated, disciplinary language support for English language learners 

Come spring 2018, the first cohort of students in the Vantage One program will be graduating UBC. Vantage One is a unique first-year program in UBC’s Vantage College, which opened in 2014. The 11-month program is designed for international students with strong academics, but who do not quite meet the university’s English language admission standard. In addition to taking courses in one of four streams—Arts, Engineering, Management, or Science—students also take academic English courses to accelerate their language learning. But rather than general language instruction, Vantage One provides integrated, discipline-specific support. With a team of faculty and staff who embrace collaboration and innovation, Vantage College is reimagining language learning.

The Academic English Program

The work at Vantage College is informed by systemic functional linguistics, a framework which looks at the relationship between language and its function in social contexts.

“Language is a meaning-making system,” explains Alfredo Ferreira, a lecturer in the Science stream of the Academic English Program (AEP). “Language is a set of functional structures that have evolved in society for people to make and exchange meaning.” Ferreira says the program aims to teach students how language choices affect meaning and context. To do this, they look at how language is used within specific disciplines.

In the Vantage One program, students take disciplinary courses within their chosen stream. This is supplemented by courses within the AEP, which includes LLED 200, a foundational academic writing course, and VANT 140, a content-linked language enrichment course that examines the language and texts used in the students’ disciplinary courses.

“A lot of other programs, nation-wide and around the world, offer general academic English, whereas ours is really situated in the disciplines,” explains Jennifer Walsh Marr, a lecturer in the Arts stream of the AEP. “We’re using authentic texts and authentic discourse to then talk about how language is used.”

Sandra Zappa-Hollman, director of the AEP, says “What we’re trying to do here is draw on the disciplinary content and the kinds of literacy skills and oral skills that the students will need to be able to deploy in the future, to create pedagogical strategies and materials that will prepare the students to be ready to meet those demands.”

According to Zappa-Hollman, there has been much research and literature that suggests a disciplinary-oriented focus on language is beneficial to students in higher education. Looking at this research, as well as courses in UBC’s Department of Language and Literacy Education, Vantage College created a program that is the first of its kind in Canada—a comprehensive first-year experience for international students, with small classes, innovative teaching methods, and disciplinary instructors working alongside full-time academic English lecturers in one coordinated, collaborative program.

A collaborative approach

Vantage One students take disciplinary courses—such as political science, psychology, and math—alongside students in their stream. These courses, which are the same as general first-year UBC courses, are taught by departmental instructors seconded to Vantage College. The collaboration between the disciplinary instructors and the AEP instructors is a key element to Vantage One’s success.

“I’m directly tied to not only the disciplines of the students, but the actual courses that they’re taking with the instructors that are teaching them,” explains Amber Shaw, a lecturer in the Arts stream of the AEP.

Instructors regularly meet and visit each other’s classes to see what students are learning. “We all have the same students, so we can see [where] they need more work,” says Shaw. “It makes it one cohesive program for the students.”

This collaboration also helps students understand the connections and differences between disciplines. Shaw points to one example of how Vantage College is embracing collaboration.

“We’re doing a combined field trip. They’ll get credit in each of their classes for doing parts of the field trip,” Shaw says. “They’re able to see that different disciplines talk about things in different ways and for different reasons.”

The teaching strategies

Vantage College’s mandate is to be a “living lab”—a hub for innovation in teaching and learning. Some of the approaches that instructors are using to engage students include:

Project-based learning 

In her classes, Shaw uses project- and team-based learning, where students work in the same team throughout the semester. One of the projects her students work on is a podcast.

“The idea is to get practice with reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but doing it through the disciplinary lens,” Shaw explains. “They’ll be outlining a podcast, scripting it, recording it, revising it. And the idea is at the end of the semester, there will be 10 podcasts that are shared across the classes, and they can be used as study aids for final exams.”

Shaw notes that having a project-based class gives students more agency—they can choose what they want to work on, and explore different interests.


Neil Leveridge is an instructor in the Science stream of the AEP. In his class, students formed debates on topics given by their Science disciplinary instructors. Leveridge asked students to contribute to a wiki, which he formed as a timeline. “This was a real visual way that students could see how everything was connected,” he explains.

Students were only able to use what they created in the wiki for their debates, which motivated them to create thorough content. This also meant that students could see the content their opponents were using, and vice versa.

The debate process was captured using 360-degree web cameras in the classrooms, so students could see how their classmates were preparing or responding to the debates. Rather than telling his students what to do, Leveridge says the cameras were a good way for students to see first-hand the different strategies students were using.


After disciplinary instructors noted that some students were having difficulty describing and explaining mathematic concepts and processes, Ferreira developed an assignment using the Collaborative Learning Annotation System (CLAS). CLAS is a learning technology tool developed in UBC’s Faculty of Arts that allows students to record, share, annotate, and comment on videos.

Students analyzed a math solution given by a professor, and identified the stages of the solution and the tones used. Ferreira explains that tones can be key to understanding a solution, especially when the solution is only given verbally. For example, to signal a new stage in a math solution, speakers start on a high tone and end on a low tone—but disciplinary instructors noted that students were often using a flat tone throughout the solution.

Students were then asked to record their own solution to a similar problem. They uploaded their solution to CLAS and submitted a transcription, with analysis of their staging and tone. Peers were asked to assess each other’s solutions, which further helped them understand and reflect on the link between math and language.

Blended learning 

For Walsh Marr, it was important to give her students alternative ways to participate. “We’re dealing with multicultural, multilingual learners who don’t necessarily manifest in western norms of active participation in the classroom,” she explains. “I think it’s really important for students to get appropriate assessments, timely feedback, and opportunities to practice outside of just the face-to-face classroom,”

To give students the opportunity to participate outside of class, she built online participation tests on the learning management system. These tests, she explains, could be taken anytime that worked with the student. Some of the practice problems were also included on final assessments.

“For me, participation is participating in the learning, and so acknowledging the work that’s done in [the learning management system] also validates their participation towards their learning in a less extroverted, performative kind of way,” says Walsh Marr.

What’s next 

After completing the Vantage One program, students enter their second year of study in general UBC courses. Many students who have completed the program have come back as mentors for the new cohort of students.

For the instructors, seeing the journey of their students has been tremendous. “It’s been incredible to see students just really, really excel, who would not have previously been allowed into UBC,” says Leveridge.

As Vantage College continues to grow, the team hopes to keep working on innovative approaches to education. “I have a lot of freedom to try things that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do in another context,” Shaw says, noting the importance of having a safe space to try out different teaching techniques.

Ferreira hopes that the work at Vantage College will shift people’s understanding of English language instruction.

“English for academic purposes is often viewed as a kind of service discipline to other disciplines,” Ferreira says. “There is no separation between language use and knowledge. We create knowledge through language, and understanding language helps us create knowledge better.”

“I think what we do,” he adds, “is breaking some stereotypes around what academic language literacy teaching is, and can be.”

Further reading

UBC Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Showcased Project: On supporting academic English development across disciplines

On content and language integration models:

Brinton, D. M., & Snow, A. (2017). The content-based classroom: New perspectives on integrating language and content (2nd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. DOI: 10.3998/mpub.8198148

Brinton, D. M., Snow, M. A., & Wesche, M. B. (1989). Content-based second language instruction. New York, NY: Newbury House.

On systemic functional linguistics:

Halliday, M. A. K., & Matthiessen, C. M. I. M. (2014 [2004, 1994, 1985]). An Introduction to Functional Grammar (4th ed.). London & New York: Routledge.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics approach. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Feature image photo credit: Paul Joseph