A universal design approach to teaching multilingual students

An explanation of how universal design for learning can improve teaching for multilingual international students and domestic students alike

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

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There is a belief among many university faculty and administrators that to serve multilingual students well, we need to design our curriculum and pedagogy for them as a special case. Although it seems counterintuitive, this may, in fact, hamper efforts to serve multilingual students – and all students – well. Following the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) enables us to develop strategies that support multilingual learners alongside all students.

Universal design strategies attempt to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities. It eschews a one-size-fits-all model of teaching and focuses instead on diversity and flexibility in curriculum design from the start, reducing the need to adapt practices to accommodate individual learners later on.

The three principles of universal design apply to the multilingual classroom: multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement.

Multiple means of representation

The way we process information is reflected in the way we speak. Likewise, our perception of the world is highly influenced by language. For example, some students learn more by reading, while others prefer lectures or discussions. Oral participation is common practice in some cultures, while active listening is common in others. Educators need to bear this in mind when considering how to present critical concepts and major points of enquiry, engage background knowledge and provide models for writing.

Multiple means of expression

In the universal design classroom, students can be encouraged to read and write translingually, on topics that bring the world, and students’ experiences, into the classroom. In my classes, through research, reading and writing on global issues, students write about what they know, and learn from one another.

For instance, for an assignment on cross-cultural sustainability, one of my Thai students wrote about the unsustainable nature of toilet paper in Thailand. The paper was successful because of the contextual information about the introduction and subsequent adoption of toilet paper in Thailand, Western imperialism and emulation of all things Western, and alternatives, which could apply widely to all cultures.

By leveraging the unique blend of experiences and knowledge that each student brings into the classroom, we can ensure that all learners benefit from new insights and a welcoming environment.

Multiple means of engagement

Some students are more comfortable learning with risks and challenges, while others prefer safety and support. Dynamic, interactive and social forms of learning may not suit everyone. There is no one way of engaging students that works all the time, for all students. However, there are ways to provide multiple means of participation so all students can find their optimal learning situation.

Not all students have the same intrinsic or extrinsic motivation for learning. Extrinsic rewards, such as grades, do not exclusively prepare students for successful work and future learning. Knowledge is best retained through intrinsic motivation, such as curiosity and passion for the field, self-discipline and discovery.

Applying UDL

While it is natural that faculty count on some shared norms for classroom behaviour and participation, cultural differences in expectations for teacher and student roles can create some surprising and even confusing interactions. A UDL approach anticipates those differences and leverages them for the benefit of all. One area where these cultural differences can play out is classroom dynamics.

Classroom dynamics

Faculty have often asked me how to encourage their multilingual students to participate in class. Many students come from cultures where speaking up in class is not common, and their silence may indicate respect for the instructor, or it may be a face-saving strategy when they are 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. The truth is that both multilingual and native-speaking students vary in their processing time and focusing attention.

Giving extra time before expecting a response, as well as rephrasing the question, are helpful strategies. Yet it is important that native English-speaking teachers, who may be uncomfortable with silence, understand that, culturally, silence has a multiplicity of meanings. International students may be used to large lectures where participation is not encouraged.

Allowing for different types of participation strategies can benefit all students, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Some specific techniques I’ve developed include:

  • Give explicit instructions, in multiple ways (on the syllabus, orally in class, follow-up emails, on the learning management system)
  • Use consistent patterns for presenting information (explain learning outcomes; ask students what they know about the material; ask how it fits in with the rest of the classroom material)
  • Provide models for written assignments
  • Hold and extend office hours to meet students’ needs, especially for remote students in different time zones
  • Prime students for class discussion: use think-pair-share activities; assign specific discussion leaders or partners; allowing students to prepare their thoughts with an in-class or homework written assignment; giving a list of discussion questions in advance, on the set reading, for example
  • Allow time for brainstorming – some cultures stress reflection before speaking. Give students time to provide a considered opinion
  • Allow silence since this can mean active thinking and, as mentioned above, could be a sign of respect for the instructor. Providing a longer wait time after asking questions gives students time to think and understand the cultural dimensions
  • Creating a safe and welcoming environment where international students can participate.

Another classroom dynamic has to do with formality. As any second or additional language learner knows, metaphors and especially slang can be particularly difficult to understand.

At the University of Colorado Boulder, where our mascot is the Buffalo, when our international students were asked if they thought they were “Buffs”, they replied that they were; however, their interpretation of the meaning was “overtly masculine”, or “buff”. Since everyone thinks they are on the same page, when they clearly are not, no one may even spot the misunderstanding.

Faculty may be used to assigning topics that are familiar to one audience but not another. For instance, many American students could make sense of TV programmes like The Wire or Breaking Bad, but the international students might be left in the dark by wordplay and culture-specific allusions. Faculty also need to be wary of assigning current events or political issues from the American perspective. Prompts may not relate to international students’ backgrounds or goals.

A universal design practice is to consider more open-ended assignments or topics of cross-cultural interest. An assignment that allows students to choose their own topics, within specific guidelines, allows all students to write authentically, and to their strengths.

Andrea Feldman is coordinator for English as a second language writers and a teaching professor of distinction at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

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