Eleven ways to support international students who use English as a second language

We must all work to foster a compassionate and encouraging experience for our international student community

Peter O'Rourke's avatar
12 May 2024
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International students holding up flags of their home countries
image credit: iStock/didesign021.

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Created in partnership with

University of Exeter

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Internationalising university campuses is becoming a priority, with record increases of international students who now make up almost a quarter of all UK university students. Universities can follow some key principles to ensure these students transition well into academic life in the UK, no matter where they are from or what their level of English is (or appears to be). 

I worked for more than a decade teaching international students academic and general English, study skills and intercultural competence. Lecturers working with international students frequently raised concerns and sought my advice on integrating their students. Feedback from lecturers has included:

  • Students seem reticent
  • Students struggle with expressing themselves orally
  • It appears students understand, but then their work falls below the expected standard
  • Students aren’t taking on board feedback and suggestions.

On the other hand, some of the international students I worked with would often confide in me, saying:

  • “I don’t always understand the feedback”
  • “I find it hard to articulate myself during seminars and group work”
  • “My tutors are very busy” or “I haven’t heard back from them”
  • “My English is terrible.”

There is sometimes a disconnect between what lecturers and international students are thinking. Here are some key pointers to help resolve this. 

1. Don’t make assumptions about English level

Do not presume to know what a student’s level of English is. They may seem much weaker than they are, or much stronger. Language learners have strengths in different skills and usually benefit from encouragement. If you know their language exam score, remember that this is an overall score; they will have strengths and weaknesses. To get a feel for their level, engage directly with the student; be patient and encouraging; use general topics as routes into conversation and build confidence. 

2. Realise that this is a work in progress

Remember that any English language university entrance exam is a little like a driving test. You only really learn to drive after passing the test through practice on the roads. In the same way, students need to practise their language skills proactively. Students who pass have met their institution’s requirements and are therefore entitled to be there and should feel that. 

3. Don’t conflate silence with lack of interest or ability 

Confidence and language ability may be a factor if students seem reticent. Engage on a one-to-one basis with students when you can to check how they are getting on. International students want to be here and to do well.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of pair work

Regularly use it or small group discussion to give students the chance to rehearse their comments or questions. Foster a culture of peer-to-peer discussion with pairs, trios and small groups before opening up to larger group discussions. It’s important to mix the pairs up too. Don’t always let the same students work together.   

5. Nominate students to contribute to discussions

As some students may lack the confidence to jump in or struggle to find a space when others dominate, actively nominate them, especially after pair work. Make sure you have established this approach from the start.

6. Allow for silence/pauses

Students may be forming a response in their heads so it’s important to be patient and allow enough time.

7. Discourage excessive reliance on translation software

Promote active listening and participation by using eye contact, pair work and providing space for thinking in discussion and group settings. 

8. Value and highlight intercultural perspectives 

Take advantage of international students’ social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds to bring other perspectives into discussions. Think about what the views, impacts and situations might contribute to the conversations. 

9. Encourage independent reflection

Tell your students to go away and think then write reflectively about their learning and engagement in a journal. This can lead to better articulation of ideas and deeper thinking. 

10. Be sensitive to intercultural perspectives

In some cultures, the teacher-student relationship is very structured, so think about how you can encourage students to feel relaxed about talking to you or talking in front of you. Sharing your own experience of university study and the interactions you had with your tutors can help students relate to you and see you in a different light. Encourage students to address you by your first name, if they are happy to, and to come to you during your office hours. 

11. Think about tone 

Respond to students’ emails or queries in a timely fashion. Think about how you come across in your communications. If students use an inappropriate tone, seek ways to address that. For example, you can bring it up in a tutorial, or you can give general guidance on expectations and the dos and don’ts of student-teacher communication.  

Much of this advice lends itself to teaching contexts, but it is also relevant to professional services and support staff and will ensure international students have a positive experience on campus. Moving to another country, studying in another language and investing lots of time, money and effort is a huge undertaking, so we must all work to foster a compassionate and encouraging experience for our international student community. 

Peter O’Rourke is a researcher development manager at the University of Exeter.

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