How to support multilingual international students in the classroom

Multilingual students face unique challenges that affect their participation and communication in the classroom, but educators can take steps to make them feel welcome

Andrea Feldman's avatar
14 Feb 2023
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University of Colorado Boulder

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The number of international students studying in the US each year hovers at around 1 million, with slight drops since the pandemic. At the University of Colorado Boulder, we have seen the number of international students triple since 2009. Students come from countries as varied as China, India, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to name a few.

Although all international students must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for admission, their English language proficiencies vary widely across the four language domains of listening, speaking, reading and writing. While some students bring strong social or conversational language skills, for example, they may struggle with English for academic purposes. Many have not been immersed in an English learning environment unless they attended an English-speaking high school.

Most faculty have expertise in a disciplinary field and are not likely to have received preparation in English language development. Working with multilingual learners can present challenges but can also be rewarding. Multilingual learners come to the classroom with an array of experience and backgrounds. By recognising the needs of these students and supporting them, you can create a more inclusive, safe and welcoming learning environment for everyone. 

Considerations for faculty teaching international students

It is natural for faculty to count on shared norms for classroom behaviour and participation. Cultural differences in expectations for teacher and student roles can create surprising and even confusing interactions. Here are a few things to consider:

Participation and communication look different 

Many students come from cultures where speaking up in class is not common practice. Silence is a way to show respect for the instructor, and in some cultures, it may be a face-saving strategy when a student is not certain of an answer. Silence may also represent a student trying to keep up; learning a new language is difficult and it can take extra time to process what is being said. You may need to give students more time to prepare a response before they can participate. 

International students often lack contextual knowledge 

A student may not have had certain experiences that are common to students raised in the United States and therefore may struggle with understanding. For example, using American sports metaphors such as “cover all your bases” or “drop the ball” might elicit puzzled looks. Or if students are asked if they are “buffs”, they might think they are being called overly masculine.

Plagiarism is relative 

Academic dishonesty and plagiarism are Western concepts and values that are not universally shared or understood. International students who are being supported financially by family or their home governments often feel tremendous pressure to succeed and may make unfortunate choices before they understand that what they are doing is considered to be wrong. It is not uncommon in some countries to memorise and recite verbatim from experts, without the practice of citation; this may be seen as respecting authority and not as dishonest.

Cultural differences affect expectations of teacher-student roles 

In many cultures, it is common to see teacher-centred classrooms emphasising passive learning, rote v critical thinking, waiting for explicit instruction and indirect communication. Students may be surprised to be asked to offer their opinion or say anything that might contradict their teacher.  

Reminders and recommendations 

  • If course content is US-centric, include, welcome and respect global perspectives.
  • To address participation and communication, provide a sample email assignment where students are required to email the instructor. For in-class participation, allow for small-group work or jot-pair-share to give students time to construct their responses.
  • Avoid jargon where possible or explain phrases where contextual knowledge is key to understanding.
  • Be explicit about expectations around plagiarism. Use examples to show students how not to plagiarise. Simply saying: “Plagiarism is a crime” is not sufficient. Know that in the vast majority of cases this is not done intentionally, and international students may not understand what they are doing wrong. Avoid being punitive right away; rather, work with students to help them learn and try again.
  • Be clear in your instructions for course assignments. Provide examples of finished assignments showing format, content and clear learning objectives.
  • Adjust pedagogical approaches. Seek regular feedback from students: Ask: “What about this is not clear? What questions do you have?”
  • Provide students with frequent feedback in multiple ways. Be consistent and clear; even a short response is fine to help them understand how they are doing.
  • Use group work effectively. Pay attention to the size and composition of groups. Assign specific activities or roles in the group. Construct groups so that English is used.
  • Build redundancy into your course communications: post, email and announce assignments and expectations. Follow each course meeting with an email with key instructions and deadlines.
  • If an international student is not an active participant in the class, or your course policies indicate that they should be disenrolled, remember that dropping an international student (or suggesting that a student drop) can impact a student’s immigration status. Contact international student and scholar services first to see if this is a possibility.

Your overall approach can go a long way towards helping international students feel welcome in your classroom. Build connection and trust by being intentional in your interactions.

  • Learn your students’ names and how to pronounce them correctly
  • Have empathy. Find ways to get to know your international students and their preferred learning styles. Maximise office hours and allow appointments outside office hours if needed.
  • Be authentic. Find ways to share your own life and culture and connect with common experiences.
  • Try not to show favouritism to domestic students. 
  • Learn how to deal with silence. Silence can mean active thinking and could be a sign of respect for the instructor. Provide a longer wait time after asking questions. Give students time to think and understand the cultural dimensions. Create a safe environment where international students can participate.

Andrea Feldman is coordinator for English as a second language writers and a teaching professor of distinction at the University of Colorado Boulder. This is taken from her blog post “Supporting multilingual international students in the classroom”, written for the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

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