Florianne Jimenez is a Ph.D. student in rhetoric and composition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also the Multilingual Specialist at the UMass Amherst Writing Center. You can find her on Twitter via @bopeepery.
Have you ever stopped to think about how many different languages there are in your classroom? The answer might surprise you. The U.S. continues to take in international students in record numbers, and many college students also identify as Generation 1.5, which refers to individuals who arrived in the US as children and adolescents. Our classrooms have students and teachers with varied, complex relationships to English and other languages, all of which fall under the term ‘multilingual.’
While it’s certainly easy to assume that multilingual students will just ‘pick up’ college-level English as they go, the truth is, a university classroom is a linguistically complex and challenging place. A student’s language background can influence how well they’re doing in your class, as well as how included a student feels in your classroom community. As teachers, we can do a lot to make our classrooms more open to linguistic diversity. Instead of penalizing how students’ language backgrounds differ from Standard English, we need to ensure that multilingual students don’t fall behind.
Design welcoming discussions
A discussion-based classroom can seem like a free and open exchange of ideas, but the speed and pace at which a discussion takes place can often silence multilingual students. The cold-calling and spontaneous hand-raising that may go on in an active discussion can intimidate these students, but there are several ways that the playing field can be leveled for them, as well as for students who are shy and/or anxious about speaking up.
When planning the flow of class discussion, you may want to start class by asking students to refer to some writing or reading that they did in preparation for the class, or to offer a question and have students write silently for a few minutes. This way, you can ensure that all students start discussion with something concrete to refer to. You can even ask students to just read what they’ve written out loud and ask students to respond.
When class discussions get intense, voices can speed up and multilingual students can feel like there’s too much going on. A discussion, after all, has multiple tasks: consulting a text, composing your own responses, taking in your classmates’ and teacher’s contributions, listening for a moment to jump in. Don’t be afraid to take a beat, even in the middle of discussion. If you’re offering a key question to the class, or if a student says something relevant to everyone in the discussion, offer the idea in multiple forms (e.g. say it out loud and write it on the board). Let the prompt simmer in silence, then invite all students to take a minute and write a response to the question. This method slows the pace of discussion without stymying it and allows everyone to respond instead of rewarding students who can quickly come up with an answer.
Create opportunities to improve
Projects, especially term papers, can feel incredibly fraught for multilingual students. When designing a semester project, consider breaking it up into phases where students can brainstorm, draft, solicit feedback, revise, and edit. This is especially true for writing assignments where, especially as a new instructor, you might feel pushed to respond to both global and sentence-level issues in student writing. If you notice that a student needs a lot of language support, this method allows you multiple moments to intervene in the students’ process throughout the semester.
During assessment, stay focused on your class goals
A multilingual student’s paper might contain a variety of errors, which can range from minor ones that don’t interfere with comprehension, to seemingly complete breakdowns in meaning. When reading a student’s paper with the aim of giving feedback, focus on what you are understanding instead of what seems to be missing. Write (or say) back to them what it is you think they’re saying instead of merely commenting, “I don’t understand” or “unclear.” This offers a more constructive spin on the feedback and assessment process, and shows students that you’re actively reading their work instead of judging them.
A paper laden with errors might feel troubling, but this is a moment to remember to return to your class’s goals. Is the student responding to the assignment? Is the student critically analyzing the content? Offer feedback on those larger issues as well as on their errors, as multilingual students are engaging with the content of your class just as much as they’re engaging with the language.
Become familiar with resources for your multilingual students
When working with multilingual students, remember that there may be other resources available for them on your campus, and these can supplement the individual support you’re giving to them as a teacher. You’re not alone, and many people can help! Examples of these are English-as-a-second-language departments, writing centers, conversation partner programs, peer tutoring, and your campus’s international students office. Writing short descriptions of these resources into your syllabus can help multilingual students navigate college outside your classroom.
How have you created a linguistically inclusive classroom? Let us know in the comments!
[Image by Flickr user Elaine Smith and used under Creative Commons licensing.]