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How to build a classroom community that includes ESL students

“Many international students genuinely need to reflect for a short period before answering a question.”


Is our higher education system being threatened by too many English-as-a-Second-Language students? In a recent article, professors Norm Friesen and Patrick Keeney ventured that too many students are “academically or linguistically unprepared” for academic discourse. The article, “Internationalizing the Canadian campus: ESL students and the erosion of higher education,” touched a collective nerve, with at least 20 comments so far. Some commenters called the professors’ arguments “ignorant” or “racist.”

It’s time to replace this invective with constructive solutions. The problem does exist. It is built into our university admissions system.

To see how, it helps to understand a bit about language proficiency measurement. Non-native speakers are admitted based on their academic record, just as native speakers are. Proficiency in the university’s main language of instruction is assessed by a standardized test, such as the International English Language Testing System Test, in which individual marks for reading, writing, listening and speaking are combined for a total overall score. According to IELTS, the minimum overall score required by most Canadian graduate programs indicates that a student’s proficiency is “probably acceptable” for “linguistically demanding” courses. Anything below that suggests the need for further language study.

But candidates are allowed to test below the admissions cut-off in some skills as long as their combined final score meets requirements. Some institutions accept lower scores, and undergraduate requirements are lower across the board.

As the article by Drs. Friesen and Keeney correctly implies, international students need to be prepared for our system on three levels: academic, cultural and linguistic. Although we often think of linguistic support in terms of writing, it was the emphasis that the authors placed on building a classroom community that really struck me. Here are some techniques that I and my colleagues use to help non-native speakers transition to the classroom environment:

1. Don’t be afraid of silence. Studies have shown that people from Western cultures are comfortable “thinking out loud,” formulating their answers as they speak. But many international students genuinely need to reflect for a short period before answering a question. It’s not a matter of being reluctant; it’s a deeply ingrained habit of thought. That deathly silence following your question can seem to last forever. If it makes you uncomfortable, plan for it: I’ll give you a minute to think about that. And enforce hand-raising. As one of my quieter students told me recently, “The others just answer before I can even know my own opinion.”

2. Use explicit verbal scaffolding. Questions, for example, are marked by subtle changes of intonation or rhythm that can be surprisingly easy to miss. Some questions are rhetorical devices, not meant to be answered at all. Signal verbally that a question is coming and that it’s going to require action on the students’ part: OK, so now I’ve got a question for you. Then pause. Ask the question as directly as possible and write a couple of key words on the board. This sort of scaffolding can also be used to signal digressions, emphasize key points, and so forth.

3. Use the board. Students may recognize a word in a written context but not in an aural one, and they may know the meaning of a word without having the language to define it. Writing key terms on the board or screen as you are saying them need not interrupt the flow of the lecture (simply including the word on a slide is not enough – neither of our national languages is written the way it sounds).

4. Experiment with how you use small discussion groups. Arranging groups in advance is time consuming but it’s a powerful way to build interaction. Some students do better at first in a group of less-fluent speakers; others want to be challenged right away. Try allowing a few minutes for private reflection and then letting the students share their ideas with a partner before entering into a group discussion. Finally, many native speakers do in fact talk very fast. It’s okay to ask them to slow down.

5. Don’t be put off by blank looks. Yes, these are unsettling, but not all cultures signal attention as actively as we do. For many students, the appropriate reaction to a question they can’t answer is silence. Tell them you’ll check back in with them later in the discussion (and then do it), or ask everyone to contribute a short written answer and read a few of them aloud. You’ll be able to figure out fairly quickly who is genuinely lost and who is following the discussion.

Katherine Anderson’s background is in English as a Second Language and test preparation. She teaches in the University of Toronto’s International Foundation Program and currently specializes in teaching English for engineering.

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  1. Stephanie Hobbis / April 28, 2014 at 21:19

    Thank you for continuing the conversation, Katherine!

    Silence as teaching tool in higher education has been gaining in popularity and received largely positive feedback – not only in ESL contexts! Another article on this topic:

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