Guide To Teaching and Learning

Tips for Working with Multilingual Students

This section has been prepared by Jeanne Lambert, English Language Studies, The New School, with contributions by Jackie Smith and Caitlin Morgan

  1. Discourse in the U.S. Classroom

Discourse in the US classroom, whether virtual or not, requires a lot of jumping in, turn-taking, digression, shifting back to the main point and polite interruption. For some international students, these are new discourse strategies. Some tips to help international students participate in live online discussions:

  • Assign speaking roles in advance (e.g., reading moderation) so students can participate without “jumping in.”
  • Have students write responses before sharing in an open class.  This provides cognitive and linguistic processing time.
  • Think, Pair, Share: 
    • Provide time in class to prepare answers 
    • Pair students up to share their thoughts 
    • then have them share in an open class
  • When possible, refer to the online discussion posts to call on students to contribute what they have already contributed in writing (e.g., “Jiang, can you tell us about your ideas on X from this week’s blog discussion?”) .  This allows students to paraphrase themselves, which is helpful for multilingual students who may struggle to respond with new language. 
  • Try to create groups with diverse communication styles. Because some international students may have trouble jumping into a conversation, there is a danger of their voices being drowned out in a group.
  • Utilize small groups whenever possible for discussion. Minimize whole-class discussions. 
  1. More Discourse in the U.S. Classroom

Some multilingual students struggle to respond extemporaneously.  Students may need more time to form a full response. Tips to help with this:

  • Provide discussion questions in advance of the class to give students time to consider what they will say in the live class.
  • Offer your discussion questions in written form (slide deck/chat) rather than verbal only.
  • With discussion questions, be specific/explicit when possible and refer to pages in the text (e.g., “Do you agree with X that artifacts do have politics (p. 8)” instead of “Do you agree with X?”).  
  • Consider going down the roster and allowing time for each student to respond to the prompts you have provided in writing prior to a live class.
  1. Listening Online

For various reasons (e.g., quality/volume of speakers, not fully seeing facial expressions) listening and comprehension in an online class can be more challenging than in person. Some tips to help with this:

  • Repeat key points 
  • Paraphrase students’ comments before asking others to weigh in
  • Use slides to have key points presented in written form
  • Provide a video in advance of the class it will be viewed, so those who wish to do so can preview the content.
  1. Students miss important information 

At times, instructors or students are not heard (e.g., when you are sharing your screen or perhaps if you move quickly or some other reason). Tips for this:

  • Try not to give important information right after turning on your screen sharing. Sometimes the audio cuts out during the transition to screen sharing.
  • Alternatively, repeat any points you make while you are beginning to share your screen or when you are shifting and moving.
  • Encourage students to use the chat feature to give feedback.  You can agree on a signal phrase all students know to let you know they did not hear what you just said (e.g., “Repeat please” or “RP”).
  • If you want students to refer to a page in a textbook or a particular handout, in addition to telling them what to look at, hold up the page or handout to the camera so that students can see it.
  • Before sending students off to do a task in a breakout room, it’s crucial to make sure that all students understand what they are expected to do. When possible, give instructions verbally, in writing, with images, and also by demonstrating. Then check comprehension by asking students to demonstrate or explain what they need to do.
  • Use “exit tickets.” Online, there is an even greater need for comprehension checks to make sure that students, and especially those for whom English is not a first language, are following. An exit ticket is basically a quick check at the end of the lesson to see what students have absorbed. It can take many forms, such as a quick Zoom poll asking a few questions about key concepts covered in the lesson, or it can be a quick response to what students have learned in the chat box. It can be anonymous or not. 
  • Use the whiteboard in Zoom, an actual whiteboard that you can show students, or an open Google doc that all of the students are in, to note down key terms that can come up during the discussion. In face-to-face classes, writing things down is a crucial aid to students for whom English is not a first language and it should be extended to the online classroom.
  1. Give students additional processing time
  • Do not move to the next slide without warning. Students might need more time to read and process. Encourage them to let you know in the chat box if they need more time.
  • Make reading texts and, when possible, powerpoints that are dense with text available before the lesson rather than expecting students to read and process them in real time.
  • All students, and particularly those who are not native speakers, and particularly online, benefit from seeing a clear agenda for the lesson. Knowing what is going to happen next helps students follow when you move from one activity or concept to another. Start each sync lesson by showing and going over the agenda for the lesson.


  • A thoughtful article with some good takeaways from Duke – The Graduate School
  • One of the best videos about online learning and course planning, with practical tips
  • Detailed article on how to get the most out of using videos 
  • Teaching International Students: Class Participation” – a fascinating video that discusses students’ participation in class from the point of view of international students themselves, with tips that they say would help them.

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