6 Facilitating Classroom Communication

Supporting Multilingual Students in the Classroom

Taking on the challenge of completing a university-level academic program in a second, third, or fourth language is a significant undertaking for students. For many students, the transition to the complex academic language demands of the university environment is significant, even when previous study has been intensive and adequate to meet entrance requirements. For other students, who may have significant experiencing using a variety of English other than Canadian academic English, adjusting to new forms of language can also be a challenge.

The following strategies can help to create an inclusive classroom environment for multilingual students. Like other inclusive classroom practices, these strategies can be supportive to a wide varieties of students, improving learning opportunities for all.

  • Emphasize important ideas:  This can be done in several ways (in general, communicating using multiple means and strategies is helpful). (1) Include key vocabulary and main ideas on PowerPoint slides (2) Repeat key points using different words (3) Allow a pause after introducing a new or major idea, in order to allow time for processing.
  • Avoid metaphors and culturally-specific references:  These references may be unknown to students from non-dominant cultures, and may confuse rather than clarify the point you are making.  Similarly, humour may also be misunderstood.
  • Encourage discipline-specific vocabulary development for all students:  Particularly in introductory courses with large amounts of new vocabulary,  incorporate a glossary-building activity into the course, where all students define key terms and create their own examples.
  • Provide “gapped notes”: By creating handouts that provide an overall structure for the lecture, with space for students to write their own notes on key points, students can develop their note-taking skills with less worry that they are missing key points.
  • Explicitly provide strategies for pre-class preparation:  While all students benefit from class preparation, this can be particularly helpful for multilingual learners.  Have students complete pre-class reading that includes key vocabulary and course concepts before coming to class. Ask students to prepare 2-3 questions they can ask in class based on their preparation (this can also facilitate verbal participation in class) (Carroll, 2005).

Facilitating Classroom Participation

Some internationally-educated students are unfortunately stereotyped as being passive or unable to contribute classroom discussion.  Limited verbal participation in class can come from a variety of factors, making each student’s experience of class discussion unique. Some factors that can make students hesitant to participate in class are:

(1) Differences in roles of instructors and students across cultures.  Some classroom context may place more value on instructors disseminating knowledge, while students show respect by listening quietly and working to absorb this knowledge. Similarly, criticizing an idea put forward by an instructor, even as a part of a planned dialogue in class, may be viewed as disrespectful (Murdoch University, n.d.).

(2) Challenges understanding and using English in a fast-paced exchange. Some international students have gained their English skills through structured classes that focus on grammar; these students may have excellent reading and writing skills, but limited experience using English communicatively.  Other students may have been educated in English-medium schools, but nonetheless struggle to understand spoken communication in an unfamiliar dialect. For these students, strategies that allow them to reflect and prepare spoken contributions may be valuable.

(3) Hesitancy arising from the experience of linguistic discrimination. Unfortunately, many students who are eager to participate in classes become discouraged by the responses of instructors or classmates to their English language use.  These negative responses include demonstrated unwillingness to engage in dialogue with non-native English speakers, accent bullying, or disrespectful responses to classroom contributions (e.g., Houshmand et al., 2014; Sah, 2019). These experiences of linguistic discrimination can lead students to restrict their own classroom participation. For this reason, creating an environment that facilitates and encourages respectful responses to all student participation is key to multilingual students’ success.

Consider the following strategies to support multilingual student participation:

  • Consider re-framing class participation as engagement in learning, and emphasizing that students are graded based on the evidence that they contribute to their own learning and that of others. This recognizes that there other ways to demonstrate active engagement besides verbal participation in whole-class settings. Consider including activities such as forum posts, active participation in small-group tasks, and attending office hours as a part of student engagement in learning.
  • Allow students to process individually or in smaller groups before sharing in the class.  Think-Pair-Share activities allow a student time to process their thoughts quietly first, then to discuss with a partner or small group, and then to share with the class.
  • Encourage students to bring pre-written questions with them to class.  You might choose to have students read these aloud, or to collect these at the beginning of the class period in order to choose questions to address.
  • Set shared expectations for participation in discussion sessions.  Ensure that all students understand that questioning and exploring ideas either from readings or a lecture is encouraged, and is not viewed as disrespectful.
  • Involve other students in synthesizing stories or less direct contributions from other students.  Allow students opportunities to connect examples to key course concepts. Dmitriov and Haque (2016)  share the following example of how an instructor might integrate a student contribution respectfully into the larger classroom discussion.

    An interculturally effective instructor may validate this approach by saying:

    Thank you, Rose, for that really interesting example. I appreciate how you used the story about the transformation in your home town to illustrate the models that we are discussing. And I just want to check in with the class: can anyone identify the key issues in water management that Rose’s story identified? (p.10)

  • Model comfort with silence and pauses.  Avoid responding immediately during silent periods, and help students understand the role of reflective pauses in discussions.

Supporting Faculty-Student Communication

Conventions for communication between faculty and students in postsecondary institutions often remain an implicit, unstated practice in the classroom environment. This can create barriers for students who are unfamiliar with the expectations of the Canadian classroom.  Supportive strategies to help students engage in the faculty-student relationship can include:

  • Explaining to students how they can contact you.  Consider setting up an office hours appointment for each student in the early weeks of class.
  • Creating an early, low-stakes assignment that allows students to share their background and experiences with you, such as a letter with their expectations for the course.
  • Providing a list of topics that students can use during office hours meetings.
  • Providing flexibility in how students might connect, and sharing these options with the class. Possible options could include traditional office hours, open office hours in the Learning Centre, online office hours, and email communication.
  • Explicitly mentioning norms about relating to instructors in the Canadian context.  For example, you might explain on the first day how you prefer for your students to address you, and that this form of address is considered polite and respectful.  When encouraging students to think critically or challenge ideas, tell students directly that this is a part of their learning, and that it is not considered disrespectful (Dimitrov, 2009).


Carroll, J. (2005). Lightening the load: teaching in English, learning in English. In J. Carroll & J. Ryan (Eds.), Teaching international students: improving learning for all. London; New York: Routledge.

Dimitrov, N. (2009). Western guide to mentoring graduate students across cultures. University of Western Ontario Teaching Support Centre.

Dimitrov, N., & Haque, A. (2016). Intercultural teaching competence: a multi-disciplinary model for instructor reflection. Intercultural Education, 27(5), 437–456. https://doi.org/10.1080/14675986.2016.1240502

Houshmand, S., Spanierman, L. B., & Tafarodi, R. W. (2014). Excluded and avoided: Racial microaggressions targeting Asian international students in Canada. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 20(3), 377–388. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035404

Murdoch University. (n.d.). Working with students from Mainland China: A condensed guide for Australian lecturers. Retrieved August 22, 2017, from http://chinapostgraduates.murdoch.edu.au/

Sah, P. K. (2019). Academic discourse socialization, scaler politics of English, and racialization in study abroad: A critical autoethnography. The Qualitative Report, 24(1), 174+. Gale Academic OneFile. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A581311618/AONE?u=ko_acd_can&sid=AONE&xid=ecb020f0


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