Lecturing Series : Teaching Students with English as a Second Language

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Depending on what subject you teach, you may have a number of students in your class who don’t have English as their first language. In some vocational and science subjects, this may be the majority as UK universities try hard to appeal to the lucrative overseas student market. As an early career lecturer, this experience may be unnerving because it means you have to adjust your teaching methods. Here are some tips on how to do this.

Should I assume that their language skills are good enough?

The vast majority of students with English as a second language will be competent and confident enough with English to understand your lectures, labs, workshops or seminars as normal, perhaps with even better language knowledge than the native English speakers! So do not assume that your overseas students will struggle and certainly don’t ‘dumb down’ the work for them.

They will mostly have come to the UK knowing their standard of English has to be high and they will have worked hard to achieve that. Some will arrive early before the new academic year starts to take intensive language courses. Most students will be brave enough to tell you if they are struggling to understand what you are saying.

Watch for signs of students struggling

Having said that some students suffer in silence, hoping that they will improve without having to admit there’s a problem. You will probably only notice that they are in difficulty when they have to do practical work or written work. Speak to that student in private (not in front of their peers) to work out a way to help them improve. They may require a language refresher course or they may simply require more support from you.

How can you support students with English as a second language?

Often a student’s written comprehension will be better than his or her oral comprehension. To support your students struggling with the language, you could provide written copies of lectures so they can study what you have said in written format and look up any words or phrases that they are not familiar with.

While you shouldn’t amend the content of your lectures and seminars, you could try to avoid colloquial or idiomatic phrases. Delivering clear lectures is always important, so having some students with English as a second language in your class might encourage you to hone these techniques.

How should you mark their assessed work?

Ask colleagues for advice on this and also consult the regulations for your university, but mostly, students with English as a second language should not be given special dispensation in their assessed work. If they are able to express their ideas clearly and argue well but happen to have a few wrongly-chosen words or grammatical errors then their work should be marked as you would mark a native English speaker. Sometimes students struggle with the language to such an extent that they are unable to express themselves well enough to complete the task. This can happen to native English speakers as well as non-native speakers. In both cases, the work should usually be marked as seen, but you will need to investigate whether that student needs extra support.

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