TAGS: Encouraging Interaction

One challenge of teaching in a multicultural, multilingual classroom is involving students in class activities. Non-native English speakers may be reluctant to participate in class discussions for reasons similar to native-English-speaking students: they may be uncomfortable with the material, introverted, unprepared, tired, or simply anxious about speaking in class. International non-native speakers, however, may face additional difficulties interacting in the classroom because of their linguistic, cultural, or educational backgrounds.

Language Proficiency

Students with a lower level of English language proficiency may be reluctant to participate because of a lack of understanding of the lecture or the questions asked, or because of an inability to quickly process unfamiliar linguistic material and formulate responses. Additionally, international students may have a lack of self-confidence in their English ability, leading them to question their own pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary choice.

A number of pedagogical suggestions can help students overcome these difficulties. When asking questions:

  • Speak clearly, restate and rephrase the question multiple times, and try to avoid slang or idiomatic expressions.
  • Allow students time to prepare. Provide discussion questions ahead of class either online or as homework.
  • Give students time to formulate their responses. Consider giving them a notecard and a few minutes to compose their answers, or have students quickly share their responses with a partner before responding before the whole class.
  • Ask different types of questions. Consider calling on non-native speakers to respond to questions that require brief, factual answers, or allow students to respond to questions that relate their own experiences to the subject matter. This can boost confidence.
  • Scaffold questions to make use of students' previous knowledge and vocabulary.

If students are having trouble responding to questions:

  • Instead of asking “do you understand?”, ask if specific words or terms require clarification.
  • Rephrase students’ answers (even as questions), or repeat key words of an incomplete answer.
  • Allow a student time to reformulate his/her response and come back to him/her after asking others in the class.
  • If you are having trouble understanding a student’s response, ask the student to repeat specific words in the response, allow others in the class to help interpret, or consider having the student write or spell the key words so that communication can continue.
Cultural or Educational Background

Students may also be uncomfortable participating in class because of their cultural or educational backgrounds. Many international students come from educational backgrounds where class participation is discouraged and there is greater social distance between the student and the instructor. To encourage students to participate:

  • Don’t assume that students are familiar with U.S. academic classroom expectations.
  • Make your expectations concerning class participation clear and explicit.
  • Provide instructions both orally and in writing.
  • Encourage students to come to your office to discuss classroom policies. Set-up specific appointments for students to come to your office.

One of the best ways to encourage all students in the class to participate and interact is through small group work. When developing group work:

  • Create activities that require cooperation. Require students to answer different questions or summarize different parts of a text.
  • Assign specific group roles so that students have the opportunity to participate more or less on different days.
  • Keep groups to four or fewer students.
  • Try to create a non-threatening environment. Require students to introduce themselves and learn each other’s names.
  • Vary the groups so that students work with people from different cultural backgrounds throughout the semester.
  • Allow students to be assessed on individual performance even while working in groups.