Supporting Multilingual Learners– No additional degree required

by Jessica Samens

Being a community of experts, we can begin to believe certification is prerequisite for good work. However, some of our good work can come without extra degrees.  I began working with multilingual learners unexpectedly when I was offered a pubic speaking course for international students in 2007. My task consisted of hosting interviews with each student who wanted a spot in the course and deciding who needed the course the most. 30 students were trying to get into 12 spots, and by the end of the interview process I knew I had a group of students I desired to help and a calling. My students learned a great deal, and I learned anybody can offer support and understanding.

My crash-course in working with multilingual learners– and the experience I’ve gained since– suggest ways any teacher can begin to engage these vibrant, often overwhelmed, students:

Use of common language

Several of the students I have worked with ask for help deciphering their course assignments. The academic language they can decode, the slang terms aren’t so easy. What we may decide is “common sense” because we have heard a phrase or term all of our lives doesn’t always translate to everyone. Plain language makes the assignment easy for anybody to understand and adds clarity to the directions.

Acknowledge drafting and process

The most terrifying line on a syllabus is “After three grammatical errors, the paper will be returned.” While I value accurate grammar and mechanics, the message this sends to students is “content is secondary.” Instead, offer content support and then focus on editing. Make sure students realize their content was strong but editing was the issue. Provide feedback that highlights the strength of the content and make recommendations on where to find editing support.

Honor diversity of experience

We come from different backgrounds and experiences. I had a student who was unable to write an assignment because her family structure didn’t fit any of the examples given in the assignment. Her apprehension to share her family structure (which she feared would be judged) was even more difficult. Have conversations, learn about students’ lives, and make sure students would feel comfortable talking to you if they can’t relate to the assignment.

Embrace conversation

When I work on- on-one with students, we build trust and connection. English learner students can feel isolated or disconnected from peers in the classroom, making other social support critical. Asking students to share their stories, hobbies, or why they chose their degree builds connection, which leads to trust, which leads to the ability to provide healthy, constructive criticism in assignments and to offer academic support.  One student with whom I worked was starting a church with her husband. Learning about the excitement she had and hearing about the progress on finding members for the new church helped me to understand the drive behind her earning a degree. I was also able to share some of her accomplishments with other students to show how hard work and dedication can go a long way.

Identify early

I often talk with students who are finally told they need to seek writing support late sophomore or junior year. While the conversation is often tough to have, it is very important. Writing difficultly often translates into a low GPA which can impact acceptance into programs with high GPA requirements and limit students’ opportunities. Not understanding exam structure means the inability to showcase knowledge. Trying to write down PowerPoint notes during lecture can mean not getting the explanations provided. Hold a conversation, connect a student to a TA or other support on campus to get help early on in their academic career.

Being excellent educators means building accessible curriculum, identifying student needs, and building interpersonal relationships to keep the conversational door open. We can all provide these kinds of support for multilingual students– with no additional degrees required.

For more on beginning good work with multilingual learners, view Jessica’s Prime Time Presentation “Starting the Conversation: Building Connection with Multilingual Learners.” 



Jessica Samens
Jessica (Communication Studies) is in her 7th year of teaching at Bethel University. She is currently in dissertation mode, researching disclosure and health communication.

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