Students who speak English as a second language might present unusual challenges to their instructors, but certainly none that can’t be overcome with knowledge and thoughtfulness. This page will introduce a few important considerations and a few strategies for working effectively with ESL students, along with resources for further information.

The Students

The ESL population can be very broadly divided into two groups: international visa students and US residents (immigrant or non-immigrant students who have completed at least a portion of their education in this country). The two groups may have very different characteristics.

International ESL students

Time in US:

  • Undergraduates usually arrive just before classes begin and may or may not have traveled abroad before.
  • Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows may or may not have completed prior degrees in the US.

Cultural comfort:

  • May have studied American culture, though they may not be comfortable or adept in all situations because social codes for acceptable behavior, interaction, conversational topics, etc. vary so widely between cultures.
  • Likely to experience various stages of culture shock (initial enthusiasm, confusion and withdrawal, coming to terms with difference, adapting and feeling at home).
  • May or may not have strong social support network.
  • May have limited comprehension of information with cultural references (e.g., “Mom and apple pie” is loaded with associations and values that will be lost on a student who isn’t familiar with this cliché.).

Language learning:

  • Often called “eye learners” because their knowledge of English has come primarily through textbook study.
  • May never have been fully immersed in an English-speaking environment.
  • May be overwhelmed by the cognitive, psychological, and emotional demands of immersion.

Grammar knowledge:

  • May know many formal rules of grammar.
  • May be very skilled at taking language tests.
  • May not be able to consistently apply the rules correctly.
  • Will probably make frequent mistakes.

Listening/speaking:

  • May have had limited exposure to rapid speech, southern accents, and contemporary slang.
  • Listening comprehension may be limited at first.
  • Newcomers in particular may take a bit of time to find the right English words and structures to express their thoughts.

Writing/reading:

  • May have been taught very different patterns of organization and development, so their texts may seem incoherent or incomplete.
  • May be unfamiliar with typical US forms of writing (e.g., explicit thesis-driven argument).
  • Composing process may be laborious as they struggle to use complex grammar and vocabulary to make their writing more sophisticated.
  • Reading slowed tremendously by repeated use of the dictionary and by processing complex language of university-level texts.

Educational culture:

  • May come from a culture in which students memorize and reproduce knowledge of experts, where students’ critical contributions are unusual or even frowned upon.
  • Relationships with instructors may have been very formal and hierarchical, and asking questions seen as rude or embarrassing.
  • May come from culture similar to US, with interactive discussion, critical analysis, and emphasis on individual achievement.

Resident ESL students

Time in US:

  • Varies from months to years, but at least a portion of prior education completed in US school system.

Cultural comfort:

  • Varying levels of acculturation.
  • May consider themselves completely American.
  • May be unfamiliar with and/or confused by differences between US and home culture.
  • May be torn between two cultures with different family and social pressures.
  • May be quite comfortably bi-cultural.
  • May be able to grasp ideas transmitted through cultural references.

Language learning:

  • Often called “ear learners” because much of their language is learned through immersion in English-speaking environments.
  • Recent arrivals are likely to have had ESL instruction in school.
  • May speak only their first language at home with family.
  • May be fully bilingual or may still be acquiring various aspects of English.

Grammar knowledge:

  • May not have knowledge of formal rules of grammar.
  • May have a more intuitive sense of “what sounds right.”
  • May be better able to generate alternative phrasings than their international counterparts.

Listening/speaking:

  • Usually able to interact with ease, understanding formal and informal spoken language at natural speed.
  • May occasionally have trouble understanding or producing spoken language, but are able to quickly overcome the barrier.

Writing/reading:

  • Will be familiar with typical American essay conventions.
  • Will likely produce texts with expected organizational patterns.
  • May still struggle to write essays that are free of grammatical errors.
  • Reading may also be labored because of new vocabulary.

Educational culture:

  • Through experience, will be more familiar and comfortable with the behaviors and expectations of the US educational culture.

Issues You Might See

These issues may occur with native English speaking students as well, but for reasons unrelated to doing university-level work in a foreign language or with learning to navigate a foreign culture.

  • Limited lecture comprehension
  • Limited class participation
  • Reluctance to use office hours
  • Saying they understand something when it’s clear they don’t
  • Writing that doesn’t meet expectations (strangely organized, lacking expected elements, etc.)
  • Odd vocabulary usage
  • Grammatical errors (either minor or serious)
  • Potential plagiarism
  • Poor test performance

Ways You Can Help Your Students

 

Lecture comprehension

 

Allow students to record lectures.

  • They can listen as often as necessary to fill in their notes, or they can be free to concentrate solely on understanding what you are saying at the moment, knowing that they can make notes later from the recording.

Provide an outline of your lecture.

  • Provide during class and refer to it when you move to a new topic. This helps students stay on track if they get a bit lost.

Emphasize key points.

  • Stressing key words, writing on the board, repeating yourself with emphasis, etc.

Use visuals.

  • Graphs, charts, diagrams, images can all support students’ comprehension of the lecture.

Write down critical vocabulary

  • Especially helpful for names students need for future reference.

Post lecture notes.

  • Make notes available on the class website. Students can compare and revise their own notes for accuracy.

 

Class Participation

 

Post discussion questions or topics in advance.

  • This allows students to consider and formulate initial contributions to group discussions.

Ask questions clearly.

  • Speak in a way that students can understand. Try to avoid the stereotypical “foreigner talk”—excessively slow and loud speech. Just be aware that it can be difficult to understand rapid, idiomatic speech. Slow down a little and try to avoid slang.

Be patient.

  • It may take a moment for the student to formulate a response.

Be understanding.

  • Some students will be very self-conscious about their imperfect English. They may be frustrated by not being able to freely articulate their complex thoughts. They may be concerned that their native-English speaking peers will think they’re less intelligent if they don’t speak perfect English.

Be supportive.

  • Provide a word here and there if you can see the student is groping for a particular expression. If the response is slightly off, try to do something positive with it. You might rephrase the response if it’s just a bit ungrammatical. You might ask clarifying questions. You might elaborate on their response. In any case, your positive reaction is positive reinforcement of their participation.

 

Office Hours

 

Set specific appointments.

  • Many students will be reluctant to “bother you” on their own, but will respond to a specific invitation.

Learn about your students.

  • Get to know their characteristics, backgrounds, goals, and processes as learners. Learn about them so you can help them identify challenges and resources more efficiently.

Ask students to explain concepts.

  • Avoid asking “Do you understand?” or “Is that clear?” It’s natural to smile and nod when you don’t understand. By asking students to explain their understanding of things, you can target precisely where they need more help.

Be understanding.

  • Some students will be very self-conscious about their imperfect English. They may be frustrated by not being able to freely articulate their complex thoughts. They may be concerned that their native-English speaking peers will think they’re less intelligent if they don’t speak perfect English.

 

Writing performance

Provide detailed assignments with clear expectations.

  • Some students have never written a paper in the American style. Some educational cultures value long, meandering introductions. Others value placing the thesis in the conclusion. Others value having only an implicit thesis. Generally, students will write the way they’ve been taught to write. If you have particular expectations, help students by being specific and clear.

Provide examples.

  • Share successful papers if possible, and explain what made them successful. Being guided through examples will help them produce what you’re hoping for.

Discuss your students’ ideas.

  • Guide students before they begin to write and at various points in the writing process. Help them focus the topic and stay on track.

Require a draft.

  • Seeing one or more drafts allows you to provide feedback and direction at the intermediate stage.

Respond thoughtfully.

  • Respond to the content with specific suggestions for improvement (not generic comments like “awkward” or “clarify”).

Expect written accents.

  • You may notice quite a few insignificant errors, like a missing “the” or the wrong preposition or an unnaturally worded expression. Try to ignore these, just as you would ignore a speaker’s accent as you focused on the ideas they were expressing.

Correct serious errors.

  • If there are errors that truly-really and truly-significantly interfere with your understanding of the sentence, help the student by identifying them. You can write one or two possible corrections. You can identify the error and let the student generate the corrections that they can check with you later. You can ask the student to say more about that idea and help find the correct expression.

Teach citation very carefully.

  • Many international students have been taught to reproduce well-respected texts verbatim, with no citation. These texts were easily recognizable to educated readers, and the skillful writer could weave them into their own work. The American emphasis on intellectual property is truly a foreign concept for many students. In most cases, they do not want to violate our sense of academic integrity, but they genuinely do not know how to incorporate sources skillfully with citations. Help them develop this skill with feedback during the drafting stage.

 

Test Performance

Provide a study guide to help focus their review.

Arrange or facilitate a review session, particularly for major exams.

Provide extra time on tests to gain a more reliable measure of student learning.

  • Language and sentence structures used on multiple choice tests are often deliberately challenging. They require students to discern subtle differences in language in order to select the correct answer, something native speakers will naturally do with greater speed and facility than non-native speakers, independent of content knowledge.
  • Research summarized by Grabe (2009) has demonstrated that even fluent non-native speakers read 50-70% slower in their foreign language than in their native language.
  • Writing in a foreign language is similarly slow because of the extra layer of cognitive processing required to produce well-developed, coherent texts in a foreign language.
  • In the interest of gaining a more reliable measure of student learning, providing extended time for assessment to ESL students has been recognized as a reasonable practice by several universities and professional credentialing boards. Reasonable accommodation is determined locally, but ranges between 25% and 50% extended time.

Additional Resources

 

The Writing Center

The Writing Center works with ESL students as developing writers and language learners. In our 50-minute face-to-face tutorials, we collaborate with students to address their concerns at any stage of the writing process: from understanding the assignment, through brainstorming, researching, drafting, revising, editing and proofreading. We help students learn skills and strategies for working through each stage more effectively.

The Writing Center also has ESL Specialists on staff who are available for consultation about working with ESL students. Please feel welcome to call, write, or stop by any time. See our Faculty Resources page for more information about the Writing Center’s services and policies.

The Learning Center

The Learning Center offers free tutoring in math, statistics, sciences, languages, business, economics, and many other classes. These sessions can help students understand complex material, and support their ability to discuss it in class. The Learning Center offers a variety of services for academic support and have been an excellent resource to international students.

Peak Academic Success Program

The P.A.S.S. program has been designed by UNC Counseling and Wellness Services to help students focus their academic goals and work strategically toward reaching them.

Student Organizations

Finding a group of like-minded people can help any student feel more at home. The Student Union hosts this searchable list of student organizations to help every student find a community.

Office of International Student and Scholar Services

The Office of International Student and Scholar Services hosts a conversation partners program, an international women’s conversation group, and an international friendship program to help you meet people in your new community.

Preparing International Teaching Assistants Program

PITAP helps graduate teaching assistants improve their English language and teaching skills for the American classroom culture.

International Coffee Hour

Hosted by several internationally related offices on campus, the monthly international coffee hour is another great opportunity to make friends from across campus.

Reference: Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. NY: Cambridge University Press.