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International Student Academic Support


Tips for Teaching International Students



The following tips are taken from the much longer page titled What should I know about international students? located here or from the navigation menu above--the longer version provides context and the reasoning for these tips.



Tips for teachers to promote listening comprehension

  • Slow down.

  • Provide concrete examples for any difficult concepts.

  • Use visual aids.

  • Provide an outline of the lecture for students to follow or use for note-taking.

  • Be aware that cultural references (including most jokes) will not only not be understood, but will make international students feel even more like outsiders. In Patricia Duff’s (2004) analysis of classroom interaction (cited in Oretga, 2009), she found that the teachers and native speakers would tell jokes and anecdotes and structure their discussions around what they assumed were common knowledge references to television, celebrities, and current events. While such talk can effectively connect academic subjects to relevant personal knowledge, for the ELLs “such talk only served to silence them and weaken their learning of the subject matter. Interestingly, none of the participants in these classrooms showed much awareness of just how difficult these interaction events were: fast-paced, full of slang and with many speakers contributing at the same time. Instead, the silence of the ESL peers was interpreted by the teachers, the … [domestic] students, and even the ESL students themselves, as shyness and limited language ability, attributes associated with dominant ideologies of ‘being Asian’ and ‘being a newcomer’” (Ortega, 2009, p. 238).


Listening in class: adivce to give students

  • Carefully complete all assigned reading in advance of class meetings, keep a journal of new content vocabulary, and practice pronouncing these words. All of this will make it easier to hear and understand these words when they are used in class. Research into the connection between vocabulary knowledge and listening comprehension has reported that anywhere from 35% to 50% of the variance in listening comprehension is due to the breadth (mostly) and depth of vocabulary knowledge though good listeners can compensate for lack of vocabulary by inferencing and focusing on the main idea rather than specific details (Goh, 2012, pp. 59-60). Likewise, this pre-lecture study provides background knowledge that plays a “crucial role in listening comprehension” (Goh, 2012, p. 67).

  • Sign up for the Conversation Partners program—the best practice for listening and speaking is to listen and speak to a real person.

  • Ask professors if they will allow you to audio record class lectures. This practice has many benefits: 1) the student can listen to the lecture again to pick up any missed content and grasp the overall structure of the discourse, 2) when listening again, the student can familiarize him/herself with difficult pronunciations that are particular to the course content and professor, thus, making these easier to process in the future, 3) the mere presence of the recording device will help the listener stay focused on the overall goal of comprehending class content, 4) the reassurance offered in #1 leads to less anxiety while listening; research into L2 listening has revealed that the anxiety learners feel because of the pressure to understand a lecture in real-time with no second-chances is a significant distraction from the task at hand: listening for meaning. The recording gives them the freedom to listen for the main ideas and be part of the class because they have the confidence and self-efficacy to go back later and pick up details.

  • Be a metacognitive listener: come to a lecture ready to employ your vocabulary, knowledge of lecture structure and style, discourse signals, and inferencing skills to draw content meaning about the day’s topic. Research shows that students who employ a bit of self-monitoring (conscious attention to listening strategies) have better comprehension and retention.

  • Watch English movies, and experiment with turning the subtitles on or off. Watch a scene  without subtitles and see how much you understand, then watch it again with subtitles, and again without. Watch the movie in pieces or the whole thing then later again with or without subtitles. Note: courtroom dramas like A Few Good Men, Presumed Innocent, JFK, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. will have scenes of extended ‘lecture-style’ speech that is similar in formality and logical development to classroom discourse—much more than the informal conversation typical of TV sitcoms.

A note on grammar (syntax): quite a lot of research has demonstrated that for language learners, focusing on the function words (articles, prepositions, conjunctions) and syntax of sentences in lectures is less important and even a distraction from grasping the meaning. Rather, students should be advised to focus on the global meaning as emphasized in key words and phrases. (Goh, 2012, pp. 61-62)

On the other hand, students should be directed to pay attention to discourse structure signals in lectures (“First, let’s look at…” “To sum up so far…” “and, to repeat…” “but more importantly…” etc.). If students have an idea of the overall schema, or script knowledge, of how academic lectures typically develop, these phrases provide important signals to logical development, emphasis, and meaning structure. This is also why it is very beneficial for teachers to provide an outline of lectures for international students to follow along with.



Tips for teachers to promote student speech in class

  • Encourage students to speak. When the message is not clear, be patient and helpful: ask simple clarification questions; try to rephrase the student's words into more standard language. This 'recasting' during communicative exchanges puts just enough emphasis on form that students notice and learn from the more appropriate strucutre while not significantly distracting from the message at hand.

  • Provide opportunities for students to practice speaking with a partner or in a small group before speaking to the entire class. Before discussion time, allow students a few minutes to write about the topic, then share with a partner or group that they are comfortable in (require that students actually read or summarize what they wrote).

A modification of this is to inform students that they will be called on to tell what their partner thought. This especially encourages partners to help each other get their messages straight and it removes the anxiety of getting the content right since each student only has to venture what their partner thought.

  • If possible, provide a list of discussion topics and questions before the day of class.

  • Because international students often sit together in class, it may be beneficial to assign students to mixed (international and domestic) working groups who they sit next to and collaborate with during class.

  • Don’t ignore international students.

Morita (2004) investigated the experiences of international graduate students at a Canadian university. One of her participants offered a poignant reminder of how an instructor’s behavior can influence students in a way that may not show outwardly but that encourages them and helps them learn better:

If someone followed me in all my courses and simply observed me, she would have just thought that I was a quiet person. But my silence had different meanings in different courses. In Course E, the instructor made me feel that I was there even though I was quiet. In the other courses my presence or absence didn’t seem to make any difference… I just sat there like an ornament. (Morita, 2004, p. 587)


Speaking in class: Advice to give students

  • Don't be afraid to speak. Your pronunciation and grammar do not need to be perfect for you to be understood.

  • As with listening practice, reviewing and pronouncing content-specific vocabulary that is likely to be part of class discussion will improve studetns’ fluency and confidence.

  • Students should form study groups with other international students or with native speaker classmates in order to practice academic speaking in a less threatening environment than in front of the entire class. Working with a course tutor can also accomplish this goal.

  • Becoming involved in the Conversation Partners program is an excellent way for students to practice speaking in English.



Tips for teachers for working with language learners' writing

  • For any written assignment, provide an explicit set of instructions for handout or download.

  • Provide at least one example of a final product (the same or similar assignment) and discuss it carefully in class.

  • Emphasize the importance of budgeting time in the writing process—including a checklist with dates on the assignment sheet is even better.

  • When reading and commenting on papers, focus on content.

  • Realize that rhetorical structure is not a universal—students may need help organizing the paper the way you want it, but this may not be a sign that they do not understand the content.

  • Try not to be distracted by surface errors and mistakes with articles, prepositions, punctuation, spelling, and grammar that do not obscure meaning. This is not to say that these misuses are ok, but that they should not be of primary importance.

  • Know a little about morphology. Many languages either lack prefixes and suffixes entirely (Chinese) or use them quite differently (Spanish). English learners will naturally focus on the root or stem of a word and may not even realize that they have not used the correct suffix for a given context. The addition of the –s to verbs to ‘agree’ with third person singular subjects (I explain. He explains.) and the –ed past tense marker and marking for plurals actually provide little meaning to a sentence, and their misuse rarely causes confusion. On the other hand, readers may be thrown off by a sentence like:

    The company manage practice are insufficiently for successful.

    Based on this sentence, you may think that the student has only a vague notion of their ideas. But simply correcting the suffixes yields:

    The company’s management practices are insufficient for success.

    Students who are directing their attention the core meaning and the message they are trying to convey may not notice those tiny endings of words. Remember that the form of the student’s English may not match a complex and nuanced understanding of the topic.

  • It bears repeating that knowledge of English does not correlate to intelligence or potential.

  • Encourage use of the Writing Center, but teach students how to use it in productive ways. If the topic or form of the assignment is especially challenging, advise international students to take any class materials to the Writing Center with a very early draft. Too many students assume that the Writing Center is the place you go on the night before a paper is due in order to fix mistakes. When the Writing Center tutor is confronted with a paper that possibly or obviously does not fit the assigned topic, but the paper is due tomorrow and the student only wants sentence level corrections… students end up turning corrected papers that are irrelevant. The best use of the Writing Center is for students to first check that the content and organization of the paper are appropriate, then at a later appointment, after the student has tried to eliminate all of their mistakes themselves, get help with editing. Writing Center tutors are trained to focus on repeated errors and mistakes and teach students to fix them themselves in the future. If a tutor simply corrects every problem, the student will be so focused on mechanical surface changes that they won’t actually learn anything from their corrections. This is why papers that have been seen by tutors often still contain mistakes. It will be helpful if faculty emphasize these points to international students.


Writing: Advice to give students

  • First and foremost, understand the assignment. If you have any doubt about what the instructor expects, ask him or her, and/or take the assignment to the Writing Center for help.

  • Writing a good paper requires much more than one night of work. Plan to finish a draft several days before it’s due so that you can visit the Writing Center at least once. Save the last day before the paper is due for editing: read every sentence carefully. Print your paper the day before it is due—never just before class.

  • Take a copy of the assignment, any class notes, and any outside sources with you to the Writing Center.

  • Carefully compare your paper to any examples that the instructor provides.

  • You may have been told that academic sentences are long and complicated. This may be true often and on average (compared to the language of newspapers, fiction, and conversation), but these sentences are produced by experienced writers who understand the connections between all of the information in their sentences. If you tend to write long sentences but are not sure about their grammar and punctuation, your reader may not understand you. It might be better to use shorter sentences to make the meaning clear. On the other hand, if you write nearly all short sentences with no mistakes, you should work on combing the information of some sentences into others so that the writing is more efficient and the most important information is in the subjects and verbs of sentences with extra details in the adjectives, prepositional phrases, relative clauses, and adverbial phrases.  


Tips for teachers to promote reading comprehension

While there may not be a lot that teachers can do to make their readings more comprehensible for language learners, there are a few practices that should be beneficial.

  • If any of your readings are in electronic form, please contact the Office of International Student Academic Support. If you send us electronic copies of materials, we can use freely available online linguistic analysis software to make lists of key words that are specific to academic writing in general and to particular subject areas. If you also provide us with a course schedule, we can email these lists to you for distribution to students in advance of the reading dates. Seriously. We can do this for you.

If we have time, we may also be able to identify sentences that are particularly syntactically challenging, and, thus, would be good candidates for class discussion.

  • As implied by the previous sentence, we recommend that faculty highlight at least one syntactically complicated sentence per reading for detailed study during class time. There are many benefits to this practice: 1) modeling the kind of close reading that we expect of all students, 2) emphasizing the importance of the readings and the language they are conveyed in, 3) clarifying for students the relationship between the linear words in a sentence and the hierarchical meaning structure of the information contained therein, and 4) improving students global language skills by focusing on the form and meaning of the message and paraphrasing / summarizing / clarifying together. You may be surprised at how unpacking a single sentence as a class or in small groups can reveal misunderstandings, multiple interpretations, and ultimately improved reading comprehension for all students.

  • Create an outline or other type of graphic organizer of the information for students to fill out as they are reading.


Reading: Advice to give students

  • Do not look up every new word in a dictionary or translator as you read. You will need to use your own judgment here, but if you are looking up more than one word per sentence, you might not be able to focus on the overall message. It will be better to use the context to understand unknown words and guess their meaning as you go. If it is not too distracting, make a list of new words that you can check on later. As long as looking up words is not too distracting it is a good practice.

  • Do keep a written journal of new vocabulary words. If you make a list of new words during or after reading a passage, you can see which ones are repeated and you should be able to decide which ones are most important for understanding the content you are learning. The repeated words and content words are the ones you should study by adding the appropriate meaning, example sentences, and other usage information to your vocabulary journal.

  • When you look up the meanings of words, use a monolingual “learners dictionary”—not a translator. Automatic translators are well-known for being inaccurate because they do not consider the context of the English word and many translators may not have high quality translation and definition software. A learners dictionary will provide much more useful information about a word, some of which you should include in your vocabulary journal.

  • Use This is an excellent resource for knowing how common a word is. If it is in the top 3000 words and/or common in your academic area, you should learn it. In the wordandphase, you can see many examples of how the word is actually used in real sentences. You can also see synonyms that are more general and more specific and you can look up phrases to find appropriate synonyms for accurately paraphrasing.

  • Focus on the grammatical subject and main verb of independent clauses—this is where the core meaning of English sentences is located. Subordinate information (less important details related to the subject and verb) are located in adverbial verb phrases, noun modifiers, and prepositional phrases.

  • Preview any reading by looking at the section headings to get an idea of what the  chapter or article is about and how the information is organized.

  • Write a brief outline and summary as you are reading. Academic texts usually put the main ideas at the beginning of paragraphs, so focus on first sentences.



Academic Culture: Tips for teachers to assist students' acculturation

In class

  • Allowing international students to audio record classes will allow them to focus class time on the whole message and engaging in discussion rather than trying to keep track of details which they will likely see as crucial to successful listening.

  • Provide structure for group work by clarifying roles such as organizer, recorder, questioner, encourager, etc. to the class (or even assigning them to individuals).

  • Compile a list of relevant background information that you expect domestic students to bring to a class but that international students might not. If given in advance, students can use Wikipedia to gain some degree of familiarity with the topics.

  • If a student is habitually tardy, please meet with this student (or refer him or her to ISAS) to discuss his or her reasons for tardiness and the significance of what the student is missing during the beginning of class. It may be necessary to make an individual or group accountable by documenting tardiness with a clear and measurable effect on the student’s final grade.

Out of class

  • Emphasize to students both the percentage of the final grade that assignments are worth and a suggested amount of time that students should use to complete the work.

  • If you see that an international student in your class is struggling, talk to him or her at the end of class and suggest that the student come visit you at your office and set an appointment time. Assure students that they are not in trouble and that faculty welcome students who visit their offices—it shows that they are good students who are concerned with learning. Talking to the student in person initially may work better than email because some students do not regularly check their WOU email (despite having been told how important it is).

  • When assigning group work or projects, if possible assign groups and distribute international students as much as possible—and, when possible, assign international students to domestic students who are cooperative and organized.

  • If a student attempts to negotiate a grade with you, a helpful strategy is to depersonalize the topic by referring to a specific rubric, to department standards, or to the need for standards that transfer to other universities. Appeals to authority are also useful—emphasize that you grades are subject to scrutiny by department heads and deans. Likewise, if students implore you to add them to a full class, make it clear that enrollment caps are decided by committees, set for good reasons, and to make an exception would single you out as not following departmental guidelines. In any case, do listen sympathetically to the student; it is likely that he or she has serious or desperate concerns and it may be a good idea to refer them to an international student advisor, general academic advisor, or the Office of International Student Academic Support.


Making friends: Advice to give students

  • Encourage students to participate in the Conversation Partners program--see webpage here.

  • Encourage students to use the Health and Wellness Center. Whether it is a game of basketball, a badminton match, swimming, yoga classes, rock climbing, or using the equipment, playing together poses few linguistic challenges and provides opportunities to socialize and make friends.

  • Encourage students to become involved in student Clubs and Organizations. ASWOU offers many opportunities, and clubs are always welcoming to new members--see list of clubs here.



Overcoming homesickness: Advice to give students

  • Limit time spent online communicating with friends and family back home to a certain time each day (maybe one hour). While it is important to maintain these relationships, international students need to get out and form new relationships with people here at WOU--see the tips above for making friends. This pay off in better sleep and study routines as well when students adjust to life in college.

  • Students can visit the Student Health and Counseling Center where a councelor can help them deal with their adjustment issues--see the webpage here, and FAQs here.



Helping students become part of the WOU campus: Advice to give students

  • In addition to all of the above tips:

  • Suggest that students attend sports and entertainment events on campus. Many international students will be unfamiliar with the variety of events that are available--therefore, if you have international students in your classes, please make an effort to announce to your classes upcoming events that are happening on campus and encourage attendance.

  • Meet one of your international students somewhere on campus outside of your office to discuss your class. Help students get out and experience their campus :)



For more context surrouding these tips, see the more complete page titled What should I know about international students? located here or from the navigation menu above.



by Dr. Rob Troyer, Director of the Office of International Student Academic Support
& Assisant Professor of Lingusitics



Page last updated on Sept 3, 2013


International Student Academic Support 503-838-9123 | or e-mail:
Location: APSC 414

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