How can we help ESL students in our classes?
ESL students have to cope with enormous pressures related to their lack of ability to communicate effectively in English as well as their different cultural conditioning and expectations. Experience working with ESL student at the Writing Centre and elsewhere provide evidence on how hard ESL students work to meet academic requirements. Many make dramatic progress in their courses when they receive the necessary support and encouragement.
Almost half the students in our classes speak English as their second (and perhaps third or fourth) language. With their diversity of experience, they can contribute greatly to discussion and sharing within their courses. Unfortunately, many ESL students struggle with various aspects of communication in an academic context. Students who are aware of ESL and English language development support that help them meet their academic needs are generally able to progress further and faster than those who struggle quietly.
Faculty support and empathy for ESL students' struggles go a long way in helping these students.
Connecting with ESL students
Cultural conditioning and shyness, as well as lack of confidence, may prevent many ESL students from going up to their professors to ask questions, or from asking questions in class. Try to initiate a friendly interaction with some of ESL students. Encourage ESL students to see you during your office hours, or to email you. Some students may need assurance that seeing their professors during their office hours is encouraged, and not considered a nuisance, as may be the case in some cultures.
Oral and written communication in class
Speak more slowly in class, and write key terms on the board. This goes a long way in helping those ESL students who have poor listening skills and vocabulary.
Write legibly and avoid too many abbreviations or shorthand versions of what is important. This can help reduce ESL students' difficulty with deciphering unfamiliar writing in their weaker language.
Minimize “unnecessary noise” such as the use of slang, idioms, jokes or references to Canadian or American culture that may make ESL students feel excluded or lost. If you inadvertently introduce such “noise,” you may want to let the ESL students know what you have referred to so that they will not be worried that they have missed out on something.
If you have to deal with complex ideas/concepts, try your best to convey these ideas/concepts in language that is easier for ESL students to understand.
Organize group work in such a way that the group dynamics will be positive/ constructive. ESL students can be invited to contribute their thoughts if they are not forthcoming with expressing them.
Direct some questions to ESL students. You may want to frame your questions carefully so that the language is more accessible to the ESL students. A successful experience is likely to encourage more active and confident participation in the future.
Advise students to form informal study groups or discussion groups, and suggest that they include one or two students from other cultural backgrounds so that they are obliged to use only English in their discussions.
Build some flexibility into your course may provide an option to allow some students to carry out presentations in pairs of groups. This will allow mutual support by presentation partners or group members. Each person can still speak for the same length of time as in an individual presentation, and each member should present a different aspect of the topic or theme.
Most ESL students struggle with reading academic texts due to their lack of vocabulary, knowledge of cultural context, and ability to deal with higher level reading skills such as inferencing and critical thinking using their weaker language. A good first step to helping them deal with their vocabulary problem is to recommend that they use the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English software.
This software makes it simple for ESL students to access the meaning of unfamiliar words when they are reading online. If students are reading from their textbooks, this software enables them to access the meaning and pronunciation of words very quickly. Easy access to pronunciation of words helps students learn the new word because knowing the pronunciation of a word makes it more likely that they notice the word during lectures or when someone uses the word in speech.
Provide written instructions for tasks that you wish students to carry out as part of their learning activities. Assignment instructions need to be written explicitly so that ESL students can process them at their own pace. Oral instructions alone might not register well with some ESL students due to their lack of vocabulary and listening skills.
Make students aware of the seriousness of plagiarism. Many students who come from other cultures have no idea that what may be acceptable academic practices in their countries may be considered plagiarism. Provide appropriate examples to illustrate various forms of plagiarism.
Be as explicit as possible when students try to seek clarification about assignments (e.g. length of a report, details to be included, etc). Since ESL students may be seriously hampered by their English language inadequacies, and they are already struggling with the cognitive load of handling concepts, it is important to reduce additional anxieties and frustrations.
Be aware that some ESL students may have come directly from cultures where the conventions of writing and expression of ideas are very different from the ones here. For instance, some may write in such general terms that their real thoughts do not come through clearly. Indicate clearly what you feel to be their weakness so that they understand why they do not get high marks. This will make it clear to them what they need to work on, and they can seek help where necessary.
Provide students with the criteria that will be used to grade their assignment. The criteria can be handed out together with their assignment.
Feedback on students' work should be more instructive than merely “Unclear”, “Poor” or “Grammar”. Specific comments on particular parts of student essays provide them with valuable feedback for their further development.
When grading the papers, you might like to consider using a holistic approach that focuses on the quality of thoughts being conveyed rather than the deficiency in the grammar and sentence structure. Comments and clearly framed questions in the margins help students understand inadequacies or gaps in their content. A focus on grammar errors would best be limited to one section/page where a large number of errors that impedes a reader's comprehension of the work. In the case of grammar errors, students could be directed to seek further help at the Writing Centre.
Students can be directed to the Writing Centre for personal help. They may specially seek an English Language Development consultation by booking online for an ELD appointment to work on an individualized program for development.
Students can attend a range of useful seminars/workshops conducted by the English Language Development. Information on which workshops are relevant to different areas of need can be found at the English Language Development website.
Students can be encouraged to participate in the weekly Communication Café and Vocabulary Café conducted by the English Language Development program to enhance students' confidence and ability to participate more meaningfully in discussions.