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How important is English language proficiency for academic success?





Date Published

27 February 2024

Written by Jasmin Silver, independent educational consultant and researcher

Jasmin has over 12 years of experience in the education sector and specialises in enhancing language teaching and learning through the application of research.

As an admissions professional, you want to recruit applicants who will thrive in their studies, make a valuable contribution to the academic community in your institution, and overall have a positive student experience. Making informed admissions decisions is crucial to this aim.

Students raising their hands in a class

The role of English in admissions decisions

The number of courses taught in English is on the rise and so too are the number of international applicants wishing to study at English-speaking universities. In these contexts, an important decision is whether an applicant’s level of English is suitable for the programme. Getting these judgements right ensures that students have the best chance of success in their programme and that your institution maintains its standards and reputation for high-quality education.

Key questions to support your admissions decisions

To make informed decisions, knowing the answers to these questions will be key:

  1. How important is English language proficiency for future academic success?
  2. What impact does language proficiency have on student experience?
  3. How can your institution effectively assess and support your applicants’ language proficiency, at the admissions stage and beyond?

This article brings together some of the latest research into this area to answer these questions and help you make the right admissions decisions.

English proficiency linked to academic success

Higher education programmes taught in English naturally need students to have a certain level of language proficiency to be able to succeed academically. In these courses, English is a vital tool needed to understand and engage with the course content. A student’s English proficiency level is therefore likely to have a big impact on their academic success.

“a recent study found that English language proficiency was the strongest predictor of academic success for students”

In fact, a recent study found that English language proficiency was the strongest predictor of academic success for students enrolled on a Business Administration English-Medium Instruction (EMI) course in Turkey (Curle, Yuksel, Aizawa, Thompson, & Rakhshandehroo, 2024). Similarly, several studies have found that international students in English-speaking institutions who have higher IELTS band scores tend to be more successful in their studies than those with lower scores (Stigger, 2019).

So let’s explore lessons from the academic experiences of international students at English-medium institutions. We’ll also look at the factors that enable them to learn and thrive academically.

Barriers to understanding

Research suggests that international students’ level of language proficiency has a significant impact on:

  • their ability to understand lectures (Zhou & Thompson, 2023)
  • the time and effort needed to grasp content (Breeze & Miller, 2011)
  • their emotions: lower levels are linked to more frustration and anxiety (Breeze & Miller, 2011).

IELTS Infographic - Key challenges for students with lower levels of English proficiency

The role of working memory

Key challenges for international students with lower levels of English proficiency are identifying key points and key words in fast, connected speech as well as being able to organise their knowledge in lectures (Zhou & Thompson, 2023).

The authors of this study suggest this has to do with the increased demands on working memory that students with low levels of proficiency face. The limited capacity of working memory means students’ attention is mainly dedicated to deciphering individual words rather than to deeper understanding of the learning content.

Academic reading

Another key feature of many higher education courses is the amount of academic reading students are expected to do as a source of input for their learning of course content. In a recent study of an EMI context in Japan, academic reading was seen as one of the most challenging skills for students (Aizawa, Rose, Thompson & Curle, 2023).

Previous studies suggested that reading difficulties may be largely due to the number of unfamiliar words, particularly technical and academic words, included in academic texts (e.g. Uchihara & Harada, 2018).

This has caused pressure on faculty in some institutions to choose alternative, less difficult reading texts for their classes, which has led to concern about the effect this will have on the quality and depth of learning (Moore, Morton & Price, 2010).

Participating in the course

Many students with lower levels of speaking proficiency report finding it difficult to express themselves and participate in discussions with other students and lecturers (Yildiz, Soruç & Griffiths, 2017). For example, in a study of Chinese international students with low levels of speaking proficiency at a Canadian university, students reported significant and wide-ranging difficulties participating in their academic and social lives, including:

  • not being able to communicate well enough with peers and lecturers to ask for help with academic difficulties
  • as a result, spending excessive amounts of time studying on their own leading to exhaustion and burnout
  • experiencing emotions such as frustration, embarrassment and shame (Xing & Bolden, 2019).

IELTS Infographic - The impact on students with lower levels of English proficiency

Academic writing

Writing is often a key skill needed to succeed academically, with many courses assessing students’ progress and achievement using extended pieces of writing such as essays, dissertations, and theses. In addition, the process of academic writing contributes to the development of thinking and understanding necessary to succeed (Abouzeid, 2021). Research suggests that key challenges in academic writing for those with lower levels of English proficiency include:

  • use of grammar, vocabulary and specific terminology (Abouzeid, 2021)
  • clarity and cohesion, expression and grammar (Uitdenbogerd, Lynch, Harland, Thevathayan, Hamilton, D’Souza & Zydervelt, 2018).

The study mentioned above by Uitdenbogerd et al. (2018) was carried out with international Computer Science PhD students in an Australian institution. The authors found that students were distracted from the main focus of their programme – research – by English writing challenges, and that this also had a big impact on their supervisors. These supervisors reported spending a lot of time and effort editing their students’ work, leaving less time to focus on the content of the students’ writing.


Whether in speaking or writing, having lower levels of English proficiency limits the extent to which students can demonstrate their learning. Indeed, studies suggest that these students are disadvantaged in assessments due to not being able to sufficiently demonstrate their knowledge (e.g. Alhamami, 2021).

Other success factors

The international students with lower levels of proficiency participating in Xing & Bolden’s (2019) study reported feeling strong negative emotions, as mentioned above. These emotions may affect students’ motivation in the course, having negative effects on academic success (e.g. Curle et al, 2024).

The effect of proficiency on confidence is also an important factor. Another recent study by Brunsting, Smart & Bingham (2022) reported that students with higher IELTS scores reported feeling greater levels of English language confidence at university, which in turn led to less academic stress. The authors also suggested that this may have contributed to these students receiving more social support from other students. These factors would also likely influence academic outcomes.

Friends talking and laughing in campus

Other non-linguistic factors which may interact with English proficiency to affect academic success are self-efficacy, self-regulation, goal-orientation and support from peers and institutions (Zhou & Thompson, 2023; Soruç, Pawlak, Yuksel & Horzum, 2022; Aizawa, 2024).

Implications for admissions professionals

As English proficiency is likely to play a significant role in the success of international or EMI students at your institution, it is important to have valid and accurate assessment which gathers information on candidates’ language levels when making admissions decisions.

Tests of English which are more academically oriented, such as IELTS Academic, will give you more helpful information about applicants’ ability to thrive in their studies than more general tests of English.

Student with hand up in class

Even when using an English proficiency test such as IELTS, which includes tasks that are designed to introduce students to what they’ll encounter at university, there may still be discipline-specific language and skills which cannot be assessed practically or reliably in such a test. Due to the challenge this presents it is important that in-sessional support is offered to students speaking English as a second or foreign language. This would ideally be created in collaboration with subject faculty to ensure support is appropriately tailored to the programme.

Further guidance

For guidance on setting minimum English language standards for admissions, a good starting point is the information provided from reputable test organisations (e.g. IELTS band guidance).

You should also contact your test provider to discuss in more detail how the test tasks relate to your courses. This will help you to make better decisions on minimum English language standards and better determine in which areas students are likely to need extra language support.


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