The following guide is meant to support college instructors working with English language learners. It has four main sections:
- Understanding language acquisition
- Creating a linguistically inclusive classroom environment
- Developing supportive assignments
- Providing feedback that motivates revision
We designed this guide for faculty at Baruch College, a highly multilingual campus (where students speak over 100 languages), but we believe the guidance would apply equally at other institutions.
We approach our work with English language learners by recognizing the many strengths of multilingual speakers and writers. In addition to the (already impressive) feat of speaking multiple languages, multilingual students are likely to have a number of corollary skills, such as
- metalinguistic awareness—the ability to think about language use and how language works;
- divergent thinking—the ability to develop multiple solutions to a problem or answers to a question; and
- selective attention—the ability to focus and inhibit attention.
At Baruch, we often work with students who feel that their professors mistake the limits of their written English for the limits of their critical thinking, their subject-level knowledge, and their overall communication skills. Keep in mind that students are often confident, respected communicators in other languages. Focus on helping them translate that expertise into English.
For example, one regular Writing Center user spoke English as a fifth language, and held an MA in her field from her home country. Despite this expertise, she consistently received feedback suggesting she lacked a basic understanding of the discipline. She was eager to work on her English fluency—the reason she was pursuing a second degree in the US and visiting the center—but she still wanted her instructors to understand that her struggle to communicate in English did not reflect her understanding of course content or her expressive facility in Spanish and French. This anxiety around negative feedback was getting in the way of her work, which meant that comments designed to motivate her to improve were instead convincing her to give up.
We keep this student in mind as we develop our pedagogy. As teachers, we sometimes take it for granted that students know we’ve recognized their strengths. By intentionally creating a classroom environment that is encouraging, inclusive, and responsive to student needs, we can alleviate some of the stress that prevents learning while helping students meet their own language learning goals.
Understanding language acquisition
When responding to multilingual students’ writing, remember that language acquisition is a long, recursive process. No matter how hard students work independently to improve their fluency, they will need supportive interlocutors.
- Learning a new language can take 5-7 years of constant study.
It takes about 2-3 years to master everyday, social communication in a new language (what linguistics call Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills), and about 5-7 years to acquire more formal, academic language (or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency Skills). Remember that the writer speaks one or more other languages fluently; their written English does not represent the limits of their thought.
- Languages are learned from regular, communicative, motivated practice and exposure.
Acquiring a new language requires a great deal of input in the target language (including repeated exposure to grammar and vocabulary) and frequent opportunities for meaningful communicative output in speaking and writing.
- Errors are a natural part of language acquisition.
In fact, certain errors are signs of learning (for example, the over-application of agreement rules). Feedback will not lead to immediate correction in the next draft, and that’s not a bad thing! Learning happens even as errors persist.
- Writing conventions vary substantially cross-linguistically.
Latin script’s capital/lowercase feature, for example, is unique, and punctuation and formatting rules of writing are prescribed and non-intuitive. Omitting such details is not a sign of a writer’s intelligence or diligence—just a sign they are still learning these features.
Creating a linguistically inclusive classroom environment
Learn about your students as individuals—rather than assuming all multilingual or monolingual students have the same experiences and needs—and design your lesson plans to encourage active, confident communication.
- Avoid making assumptions.
Although about 40% of Baruch students speak a language other than English as their first or home language (as of 2017), these students come from a wide range of educational and linguistic backgrounds. For example, a student who grew up fully bilingual in New York is unlikely to need the exact same linguistic support as an international student in their first semester on campus.
- Learn more about your student’s language backgrounds, strengths, and challenges.
Supporting multilingual students means valuing your students’ home languages and home cultures in the academic classroom. Consider creating a start-of-the-semester survey that includes questions about students’ linguistic backgrounds. Talk with your students about the writing they’ve done in other languages, courses, or cultural settings, and invite meta-reflection about cross-linguistic, cross-disciplinary, and cross-cultural writing experiences.
- Incorporate linguistically diverse materials into your syllabi.
Include readings and course materials from authors with varied linguistic backgrounds. Videos or guest speakers are also great ways to introduce different language backgrounds, dialects, and accents into the classroom. Where possible, make room for student research to include work in other languages.
- Give students sufficient time to prepare their responses.
Build in wait-time after questions, pausing for at least five seconds of silence. If possible, pre-circulate discussion questions to give students time to prepare their responses. In the classroom, try strategies like freewriting or Think, Pair, Share that allow students to formulate their response before sharing.
- Encourage translanguaging approaches in the classroom.
Translingual pedagogy encourages multilingual speakers to use their full linguistic repertoire. You can create opportunities for students to use translanguaging approaches in your classroom, for example, by encouraging students to brainstorm or take notes in the language they’re most comfortable in.
- Note that many class activities “may tacitly include cultural assumptions or tacitly rely on knowledge of culturally-specific information” (CCCC Statement on Second Language Writers and Writing).
When assigning or discussing topics that do include culturally-specific information or themes, dedicate class time to building necessary context based on what students already know.
- Paraphrase or repeat key information in different ways
Developing supportive assignments
Detailed, clear assignment instructions help students understand your expectations.
- Include all relevant assignment information in one place
Include as much information as possible on your assignment sheet or page, including course and instructor name, due dates, prompt, formatting requirements, submission instructions, recommended sources or references, and relevant campus resources. A clear and comprehensive assignment sheet helps students see all assignment-relevant information at once. Detailed instructions also make it easier for students to get outside support from tutors, counselors, or mentors.
- Review your assignment prompt and instructions for unclear or idiomatic language.
Some common instructional idioms— like cut to the chase, play devil’s advocate, wrap your head around, etc.—can be quite difficult for English language learners to parse. Where possible, reword instructions using non-idiomatic language or include a definition.
- Introduce important background context.
Provide context for any assignments that assume specific knowledge of U.S. history and culture that hasn’t been explicitly taught in class. It can also be helpful to prepare students for challenging readings by previewing new vocabulary or providing a glossary of key terms.
- Clarify academic “action verbs.”
Students have a greater chance of fulfilling assignment expectations if they understand key academic “action verbs” such as discuss, analyze, or reflect. In your assignment description, consider bolding or underlining key verbs and including a brief definition (for example, “First, summarize Zanour’s article by writing her main argument in your own words.”)
- Identify common expectations for the genre or discipline of your assignment.
Since writing conventions vary significantly across disciplines, languages, and cultures, it is helpful to make generic and disciplinary writing expectations explicit. For example, do scholars in your field typically use the first or third person? Present or past tense? Should the student write for you (an expert audience) or for someone else (an imaginary, novice audience)? Consider sharing a model text that highlights structures or conventions you want students to use.
- Clearly identify the main prompt or question.
Use formatting (such as indenting, bolding, or a box frame) to identify the core question(s) students must respond to. Clarify which questions must be answered and which are intended to prompt thinking—often, when students encounter a long list of questions, they believe they should answer each in the order they are listed.
- Use strategic formatting to group and highlight information.
On your assignment sheet, use a clear heading structure that helps students skim and locate important information. Consider bolding or underlining key requirements and expectations (for example, “Support your argument using THREE library resources”).
- Provide students with models or frames for common academic language.
See our guide to “Useful Language for Thesis Statements,” or find more such sentence frames in They Say, I Say: the Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.
- Introduce and discuss assignments in multiple modes.
Providing both written and spoken assignment instructions can help students gain a deeper understanding of expectations and requirements. For a synchronous course, you might read instructions aloud from a Powerpoint or printed handout. For an asynchronous course, you might upload a short video or audio file that describes the assignment.
Providing feedback that motivates revision
Students learn most from feedback that is specific, actionable, and builds on what they already know.
Provide supportive comments that tell students what to do next
- Provide meaningful opportunities for revision.
Whenever possible, provide formative feedback instead of or in addition to summative feedback. Prioritizing feedback at an earlier stage in the writing process creates motivation for students to practice revision and deep engagement with instructor comments.
- Prioritize feedback that helps students revise and learn.
- Research shows that students are able to revise most effectively when
- The feedback responds to the context of the assignment, the class, and the student.
- The feedback is “actionable,” meaning that students can make a specific revision or decision in response to it.
- The feedback builds on what the student already knows, for example, by relating back to instructional language used in class, using a moment in the student’s own writing as a model, or responding directly to a student’s self-assessment.
- Avoid generic feedback or feedback that is difficult to revise in response to.
- Students often have a hard time revising in response to:
- Generic comments
Example: “You need more evidence”
Try instead: After reading paragraph #3, I still had questions about ____. Including additional information about ____ and ____ would make your analysis clearer.
- Rhetorical questions
Example: “Can you make this clearer?”
Try instead: “This section would be clearer if you defined the term ____ because it would help me understand ____.”
- Negative evaluation without explanation
Try instead: When you said ____, I wasn’t sure whether you meant ____ or ____. If you meant ____, it might be clearer to say _____. If you meant ____, it might be clearer to say _____.
- Feedback that lacks indication of next steps
Example: “The grammar is poor and it seems like you didn’t proofread.”
Try instead: For Paper #3, make sure to focus on ____ and ____, as these will help you to do ____. I also recommend making an appointment at the Writing Center to work on ____.
- Generic comments
Make negative feedback constructive
- Engage with the student’s ideas.
Whether feedback is negative or positive, students learn most when they feel the comments are taking their ideas and their writing seriously. Be sure to include feedback about the content of the paper in addition to any sentence-level needs.
- Give students the opportunity to request constructive feedback.
Constructive feedback about writing and language use is often easier to receive when it is specifically requested. Encourage students to identify a focus for their feedback, for example, by asking students to submit a letter alongside their assignment where they identify issues or remaining questions.
- Limit negative feedback to situations where there is an opportunity to revise.
Save yourself time (and spare your students unnecessary stress) by limiting negative feedback if students won’t have the opportunity to revise or apply feedback to a future context.
- Pay attention to the tone of your comments.
Most English language learners are very aware of the areas they need to improve in their writing and communication. Consider whether your comments reinforce oppressive or demotivating messages that students receive in other areas, both inside and outside of school.
- Consider providing feedback in a multimodal form.
In the absence of tone and body language, even the most well-intentioned feedback can sometimes be read as harsh criticism. Experiment with offering feedback in multimodal forms: For example, video feedback can provide paratextual information like tone and body language that softens harsh criticism and provides opportunities for language learning. For synchronous courses, consider using a conference model to supplement written feedback.
- Connect students to campus resources.
Encourage students to make regular use of student support services like the Writing Center or Tools for Clear Speech. You can refer students to the Writing Center by filling out our referral form and letting us know what support the student needs. Additionally, you can request a 15-minute class visit to introduce students to the Writing Center’s services or request a 75-minute in-class workshop focused on a specific writing skill.
- Writing Center: Supporting English Language Learners at the Writing Center
- Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute: Inclusive Pedagogy Guide
- Tools for Clear Speech: Just to be Clear Podcast
- Andrade, M. S. “International students in English-speaking universities,” Journal of Research in International Education 5, no. 2 (2006): 131-154.
- “CCCC Statement on Second Language Writers and Writing,” Conference on College Composition and Communication. May 2020.
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- Schreiber, Brooke Ricker. “‘I Am What I Am’: Multilingual Identity and Digital Translanguaging.” Language Learning & Technology 19, no. 3 (October 1, 2015): 69–87.
- Sommers, Nancy. “Across the Drafts.” College Composition and Communication 58, no. 2 (December 1, 2006): 248–57.
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