Mind your language: inclusive teaching for international students

Learning about your international students and being mindful about how you use language in classes can have a profound impact on students’ experience and attainment

Mark Whalley's avatar
17 Jun 2024
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University of Chester

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International students enrol on courses at universities all over the world. Meeting their needs requires careful planning and reflection to ensure that we help them engage fully and succeed academically while maintaining our academic standards.

I teach on a master’s course in educational leadership to large cohorts of international students from a range of countries with diverse social and academic cultures, so I have had to develop my practices carefully to meet such a range of needs. Here are some of the actions I have taken that have improved my own and my students’ experiences.

Learn about your students

While each nation generally has a dominant academic culture, it is wrong to assume that these generalisations apply to each student. Consider using an activity at the beginning of your course to learn about their school and university experiences. Whether in lectures or seminars, whether using an online platform such as Vevox or by using good old pens and paper, ask students to tell you about how they were taught and assessed in their home countries. Ask them what their lectures were like and what learning experiences they had. Ask them how they interacted with their lecturers and how their lecturers behaved; and ask them about their previous institutions’ expectations in terms of attitude and attendance, among others.

I was surprised at how different were the experiences of my international students from those of my domestic ones. Collecting these data allowed me to understand my overseas students and explain to them how their experiences in a UK institution would differ from what they’d been used to. This helped me to question my own assumptions and adapt my teaching accordingly.

I have also read a great deal about the history and culture of international students’ home countries. I’ve seen an improvement in student engagement when I’ve demonstrated new knowledge based on my research about these places. It shows I care.

Think about language

For all my international students, English is their second or third language. These remarkable people are embarking on master’s level study in an unfamiliar language, so it is worth reflecting on the multiple difficulties they face in lectures and seminars. While they ought to all be functionally fluent, we can recognise that fluency exists on a spectrum from barely coping to expert-level speaking. We must also consider that the majority of disciplines require international students to superimpose subject-specific technical language onto the everyday language that they have acquired. 

Recognising this, I have made a lot of changes to the way I teach and communicate with students in general. Here’s how you can do the same.

Define technical terms: make it clear when you are introducing subject-specific language or even familiar words with different meanings, and reassure students that this is new vocabulary. Compile these words in a glossary.

Explain how the language works: the often bizarre nature of English can pose issues. So, when necessary, a little basic language teaching can help. For example, recently I used the words “unconscious” and “incompetence” in a class, which sparked the need for a discussion on the range of prefixes we use to form negative words in English. Likewise, when using phrases from other languages that are commonplace in English, such as status quo, I explain what they mean and their origin.

Be aware of pace and vocabulary: making a conscious effort to slow down and use more common language can be difficult, especially in a profession in which many of us enjoy the performative element of our work. Nevertheless, we must remember that many of our international students are trying to process what we are saying, so it’s important to put their needs first. Many students use translation apps on their electronic devices, so slowing down helps here as well. Also, bear in mind that if you are using a slide-deck presentation or other visual aids, students have to process this as well. There’s a huge amount to make sense of and giving them enough time to comprehend and process it is vital if you want to maintain engagement. However, a word of warning: be careful not to patronise (and potentially insult) your students, with overly slow delivery and simplistic language.

Be cautious with jokes and anecdotes: many lecturers enjoy telling stories and cracking jokes. They can lighten the atmosphere, make us more relatable and be used to explain and contextualise the content we are teaching, but they risk alienating international students. Imagine trying to comprehend a subject in another language when the lecturer proceeds to digress into an anecdote. You might be baffled by its relevance and it could be filled with culturally-specific elements that render it inaccessible. The same is true of jokes; it is good to maintain a warm and friendly teaching environment, but be conscious that forms of humour are often linguistically and culturally based and might not transcend cultural divisions with ease.

Reflecting on our practice and considering the possible experiences of our students, we can take simple steps to improve the experiences of international students for whom English is not their first language, making the course content more accessible and inclusive.

Mark Whalley is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Chester.

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