Teaching Non-Native English Speaking Students

Participating in Class

The typical learner-centered classroom, in which students are expected to be active participants, might be foreign to non-native English speaking students, particularly if coming from an environment where asking questions or expressing opinions during class is not normal.  Simply telling students that participation is important may not be sufficient.

Strategies to use at the beginning of the semester to reinforce a participatory classroom culture:

  • Encourage students to ask questions.
  • Explain that it is not only acceptable to ask a question, but that students ask questions to show their engagement in the class.
  • Continually encourage participation, not just on the first day.
  • Start out by asking non-native English speaking students to talk about familiar topics.  Speaking on familiar topics can help students get accustomed to speaking class.
  • Ask questions at first that require short answers.
  • Ask leading questions to encourage students to elaborate on their ideas.

Strategies to use before or after class:

  • Assign discussion questions as homework to allow time to prepare answers.
  • Provided directed readings and a list of key concepts.
  • Set up an online discussion board where students can pose questions.
  • Assign quick writing assignments, such as a “minute-paper” or “muddiest point” at the end of class.
  • Invite students to come to office hours, explaining the concept because in some cultures professors and students do not have one-on-one interactions.
  • When necessary, refer a student to ESL tutoring if it is too difficult to understand his or her accent.

Strategies to increase non-native English speaking student participation during class:

  • Allow time for students to formulate a response. Wait a little longer after posing a question before calling on a student.  Because other students in the class may attempt to fill the silence with their own response, you may need to explain that you would like to allow a few seconds for all students to formulate their thoughts before responding.
  • Avoid asking an NNES student whom you have difficulty understanding to repeat, as it might be just as difficult to understand the same words a second time. Ask them instead to restate their answers or write down the key words or ask another student to summarize or paraphrase what was said.
  • Pause during the lecture and ask, “What questions do you have at this point?” Don’t wait until the end of a lecture to ask.  Provide sufficient time for questions to be posed.
  • Ask direct and specific questions, questions whose answers require the knowledge you want your students to have.


The informal and open style of American communication may confuse international students, leading students to communicate too informally.  Students may be unsure of how to address their instructors in person, what title to use or if to use a first name. Emails might also be extremely informal without proper formatting.

To prevent or address inappropriate communication:

  • Tell students how you want them to address you both in person and in writing.
  • Model acceptable ways of speaking in class by rewording a too informal comment into a more acceptable form.
  • Offer guidelines on e-mail etiquette. For example, encourage students to use the university e-mail account, to state the subject in the subject line (instead of their first name or “hi”), to keep the greeting professional (“Professor”) and to end with a “Thank you,” or “Best regards,” followed by their full name as it appears on the roster.


Listening to Lectures

Listening in class and taking lecture notes are also especially challenging for non-native English speaking students.  When speaking to a diverse group, be mindful of your delivery and encourage students to ask for clarification.

To help non-native English speaking students follow lectures more easily:

  • Enunciate clearly, even exaggerating intonation for important ideas. Speak slightly slower and louder than usual with pauses after key words and important points.
  • Repeat important or complex ideas by paraphrasing.
  • Provide brief outlines or write the lecture outline on the board, explicitly explaining the outline at the beginning of class.
  • Avoid lengthy digressions.
  • Do not avoid sophisticated or discipline-specific vocabulary, but do provide synonyms or explanations of unusual words.
  • Write key terms and important names on the board during the lecture or provide a written list of such words.
  • Be aware that idioms and metaphors, such sports metaphors, might be cryptic to people from other cultures.
  • Explain U.S. pop culture references or historical reference. If using references, use current references, rather than alluding to events and trends that occurred 15 or 20 years ago.
  • If you are comfortable with students recording your lectures, let them know. If not, tell them that early on.  It is a good idea to let students know your policy since some students might not realize they need to ask permission.
  • Limit text on PowerPoint slides. Use PowerPoint for main points and visuals (graphs, charts, illustrations) that help clarify the content and engage students.Be aware that a PowerPoint lecture is generally much faster and, therefore, more challenging for non-native English speaking students.

Writing and Presenting

Although it might seem that non-native English speaking students need help mainly with grammar, most also need help with the early stages of the writing process, such as understanding the assignment, conducting research, and organizing and developing ideas.

Suggestions for helping non-native English speaking students with writing assignments and presentations:

  • Give detailed directions that include everything from the format of the assignment to the type of analysis expected.
  • Provide rubrics or checklists for grading that include required elements and specify how many points are allocated to various parts of an assignment.
  • Discuss or provide explanations of what constitutes a well-done assignment.
  • Try to ignore grammatical errors that do not obscure meaning. Underline the mistakes, but do not correct them.
  • Give specific feedback.

Participating in Group Work

Non-native English speaking students can struggle when assigned to do group work due to either language skills or experience collaborating.  They might also be confused over when they are required to collaborate and when such group efforts are not allowed.  In some cultures, students might be accustomed to helping each other on assignments or tests, so it is important to state explicitly the expectations for collaborative work.

Strategies to increase NNES student participation in group work:

  • For in-class assignments, encourage participation by monitoring groups and assigning roles for each member to promote equal participation.
  • For out-of-class assignments, design group projects so each member has a different task and all are dependent on the others’ work and cooperation.

Test-Taking and Grades

Non-native English speaking students may find it more difficult to predict what will be on a test or how to study for a test.  Multiple-choice tests are especially challenging since reading the possible answers requires high-level reading skills and test-taking strategies.  They may not realize the importance of participation, the relative weight of quizzes and test, or opportunities for extra credit.  Many terms used in relation to course work and grading may also be new, such as “GPA,” “pop quiz,” “rough draft,” and “add/drop.”

Suggestions for helping non-native English speaking students with test-taking and understanding grades:

  • Provide focused study guides in advance of tests.
  • Provide sample of essay answers from previous semesters and what is required of an effective answer when appropriate.
  • Practice multiple-choice items during review sessions and discuss multiple-choice test-taking strategies.


Adapted from Georgia State University