By Ittiporn Chuatrisorn, PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident at the University of Maryland Medical Center
The non-native English speaking adult population in the United States is large and diverse. Educational programs serve learners from very different backgrounds and with very different needs.1,2 From my experience as an international student, I have found some teachers to be more understandable and have more effective techniques for teaching non-native English speakers (NNES) than others. This blog essay has been assembled as a resource for you - the instructors and preceptors who are encountering more and more NNES students. I hope to provide you with some ideas on how to teach lectures and lead small groups in a manner that improves listening comprehension for NNES and ways to get your non-native speakers more involved in class discussions.
Monitor how you speak and what you say.2-6 Pause for a couple of extra beats between sentences. By reducing the speed of your speaking, even just alittle, you are giving the audience (NNES and English speakers alike) a chance to absorb what you say. You do not have to cut your rate of speech in half; simply become aware of your speech and slow down! When a professor speaks slowly and clearly this helps NNES understand the concepts and, later, they do not have spent extra hours trying to find the concept in the textbooks or other resources.
Avoid idiomatic expressions and slang.3-6 If you use idioms, slang, or long series of adjectives, define them and repeat the concept in more formal terms. For example, one professor, when explaining how to approach a job interview, said “Do not shake hands like a wet fish when you greet the interviewer.” I had absolutely no idea what the professor meant until the idiomatic expression was explained to me!
Clarify examples that refer to cultural events or norms that may be unfamiliar to people from another country.6-7 Some professors use “Ameri-centric” examples to explain concepts (e.g. references to U.S. history or popular culture). NNES who are unfamiliar with the examples may not understand the concept. You should take a few minutes to provide brief background information. During one lecture regarding drug therapy reimbursement, for example, a professor talked about Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Aetna, and Humana. I had no idea that these were health insurance companies! At the end of that lecture, I did not understand anything. What may seem everyday and commonplace to the lecturer may be alien to the NNES student. Of course, this is not unique to NNES students. English speakers who are not from the US would have similar difficulties – but NNES students likely face even greater challenges when Ameri-centric examples are used.
Use visual aids. Write key words on the board, slides, or otherwise provide visual cues to help NNES process meaning more readily. This can include gestures, pictures, and concrete objects.2-4 I think it is better to start early with visual cues in the class. When the professor repeated key terms, wrote key terms on the board, and prepared a handouts in advance, this really helped me follow the lecture. One of my pharmacy professors had a section of the blackboard site set aside for key terms and an outline of the day’s lesson plan. He posted this information on board prior class. This gave me a refer to if I lost the thread of the discussion.
Provide written instructions about homework assignments and examinations.2,6 Asking if everyone understands the assignment or knows when it is due may not be enough. NNES may be too embarrassed to speak up or may not even understand that you are discussing an assignment.7-8 When I studied in pharmacy school, the professor asked if everyone understood the assignment, no one said a word. However, a Chinese colleague, who had only been in the country for 2 months, did not understand. She misunderstood and presented a wrong topic. As you can imagine, she was very embarrassed! Thus, oral explanations, without written support, could create problems for NNES.
Allow NNES students to record lectures.2 They can listen as often as necessary to fill in their notes. Moreover, they can concentrate solely on trying to understand what the professor is saying during class, knowing that they can make notes later from the recording. In my first semester of school, I was shocked to discover that the professor did not begin at chapter one and continued through the textbook in a step-wise manner, chapter by chapter. And they use a lot of materials outside the textbook. This can create confusion and obstacles for NNESstudents. Access to notes, class recordings, and a list of helpful outside sources helps NNES keep up the class.
Provide NNES students more opportunities to talk about the material. Give NNES time to reflect before asking them to speak.7-8 Many Americans think aloud, but people from many other cultures do not. What this means is that NNES rarely have time to reflect and respond before a native English speaking student (or, worse, the professor) has answered the question and taken over the conversation. In some parts of the world, students are taught to be deferential, never challenging the teacher’s point of view or offering innovative ideas.8 For example, many Asian student would prefer to conform to tradition without trying to present novel ideas. Furthermore, you may experience difficulty-eliciting opinions from Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thailand, and other students who come from educational systems where rote learning is the rule. Thus, you should give NNES a few minutes to write in response to a question before asking students to participate in the discussion.
Some NNES are very self-conscious about their imperfect English.7,8 They may be frustrated by not being able to accurately articulate their complex thoughts. They may be concerned that their native English-speaking peers will think less highly of them. If the response is slightly off, try to do something positive with it. You should rephrase the response but don’t point out grammatical errors.2 Ask clarifying questions and elaborate on their response.
To summarize, NNES students are just as smart as native English speakers and will learn from you if you employ a few simple techniques. These students face many challenges navigating a new academic setting with different expectations, studying in a new language, and adapting to a new culture. These techniques will help you to make your lectures and small group discussions more accessible to them, improve their listening comprehension, and enhance the learning experience for everyone.
Check out these additional resources:
1) Responding to non-native speakers of English (University of Minnesota)
2) Teaching Nonnative Speakers (Baruch College)
3) ESL Instructional Resources (University of Washington)
1. National Center for Education Statistics. Participation of adults in English as a second language classes: 1994-1995. Washington DC. Assessed 1 December 2013.
2. Stevens LP, Jefferies J, Brisk ME, Kaczmarek S. Linguistics and Science Learning for Diverse Population: An Agenda for Teacher Education. In: Bruna KR and Gomez K, editors. The Work of Language in Multicultural Classrooms – Talking Science, Writing Science. 2nd ed. New York: Taylor and Francis Publishers; 2009. p291.
3. Wright WE. Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice. 1st ed. Philadelphia. Caslon Inc. Publisher; 2010.
4. Common Classroom Practices for All English Language Learner Educators. In: Wagner S, King T. Implementing Effective Instruction for English Language Learners: 12 Key Practices for Administrators, Teachers, and Leadership Teams. Philadelphia. 1st ed. Caslon Inc. Publisher; 2012. p107.
5. Tapia AT. Non-Native English Speakers Setting New Standard. New America Media Commentary. Assessed 1 December 2013.
6. Lee DS. What Teachers Can Do to Relieve Problems Identified by International Students. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 1997; 70: 40-51.
7. Nelson GL. How Culture Differences affect Written and Oral Communication; The Case of Peer Response Groups. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 1997; 70: 77-84.
8. Hodne BD. Please Speak Up: Asian Immigrant Students in American College Classrooms. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 1997; 70: 85-92.