How to Support

English-Language Learners, Multi-Language Learners, and International Students

The University of Toronto has many international students, many of whom are studying and living predominantly in English for the first time. As a course instructor in this highly-multicultural environment, you will likely encounter a range of language-competency-levels in your students. Below we will discuss strategies for supporting occasionally overlapping student populations: English-language learners (ELL), multi-language learners (MLL), and international students. ELL are those who are learning to operate in English proficiently enough to earn their university degree. MLL are students who regularly engage in more than one language; some of these students may not have completed all or most of their formative education in English. International students are new to the Canadian and Ontarian education system, which may be very different from their previous education system from their previous education system…which may or may not have been in English.

There are many strategies and supports available at the university that can help you to meet the needs of ELL, MLL, and international students and that can help you to anticipate what those needs might be. For example, the TATP tip sheet of Strategies to Support English and Multi-Language Learners should prove useful for making ELL, MLL, and international students feel like part of the learning environment.

An important caveat: We are not suggesting that you adopt different standards of evaluation of course work for ELL and MLL or international students than for students that you assume are native speakers of English. We do want you to think about how to engage all learners and to best understand barriers they may encounter to learning. While these three groups (ELL, MLL, and international students) each have their own needs, there are some common strategies that will support them all in the classroom.

Establish a classroom culture that acknowledges and utilizes students’ strengths. Leveraging strengths rather than emphasizing deficits can be very powerful. If we focus on the course material and the competencies that students are expected to be developing in the course, rather than focusing primarily or exclusively on students’ ability to communicate in English, we can increase a sense of belonging and motivation to learn. For example, consider: What is the competency that students are being evaluated on? What are other competencies that might actually be getting in the way for certain students—and possibly many students—when proving their mastery of that competency? Essentially, we recommend applying the principles of UID to all aspects of course design in order to allow students to use their strengths in order to learn how to succeed in your course.

When possible, prioritize communication over correct grammar. The relationship of formal communication in English to course competencies will vary between disciplines; there are some fields and levels of study where students who struggle in English will have difficulty with the material itself and have difficulty proving their competency in course material. In a class where the major evaluation is formal essays or other kinds of formal writing, consider scaffolding these assignments so that students have an opportunity to get feedback at several stages, and have an opportunity to correct grammar and style problems (see section 4.2 above on scaffolding). Focusing on whether or not the grader can understand the ideas being conveyed in student assignments will help motivate students to improve and to see the value in communicating well. If you need to show that the high number of errors is distracting and disruptive to clarity, highlight a single paragraph where you mark out all errors rather than every single one across the assignment. Additionally, encourage all students to use academic support resources, such as Writing Centres, throughout the term and emphasize that these are valuable resources for everyone, rather than sources of remedial help.

Augment lessons with aids and techniques that support various type of learning preferences. For example, provide lecture outlines to show how they are organized and explain their purpose. It is also a good idea to present information in both oral and written forms wherever possible. For instance, write key words on the board while you are speaking or construct PowerPoint slides that highlight what you are saying while you are speaking it. During class discussions, rephrase or summarize student responses occasionally so that students who may not have heard or understood have an opportunity to understand important points in class discussion. It is also a good idea to use writing as a way of exploring material and have some ungraded writing in the class. This will give all students multiple opportunities to engage with course material in ways that are not necessarily dependent on perfect command of academic English.

Offer multiple ways for students to participate and ask questions. Provide students an opportunity to carefully construct their questions in writing rather than speaking them on-the-spot. Some ELL and MLL students might need some time to think of ways to articulate a question that they have about course material. Other students who are struggling with the language might simply feel shy speaking up in class and will not ask a question even if they have a clear idea of what they would ask. Alternatives to in-class questions could include: using the discussion-board feature in Quercus (see section 5.6), asking for informal reflection papers throughout the term, or asking students to come with prepared questions at the beginning of class. This will certainly be a benefit to ELL, MLL, and international students, but it will also be a benefit to many other students as well.