Written by Nate Brown

In its 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, the Institute of International Education reported a record breaking 1,095,299 international students were studying at American institutions of higher education during the 2018/2019 academic year. Additionally, the National Center for Education Statistics shows that, in 2018, there were 5,025,995 English language learners enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. At Hopkins, 800 international undergraduate students represent 80 different countries.  

The growing population of multilingual (ML) students enrolled in American colleges and universities presents writing instructors with pedagogical challenges and opportunities. Discussions of how ML students are served in the college writing classroom have frequently framed their position as one of disadvantage. Compared to peers whose first and primary language is English, ML students working in English-dominant classrooms face particular challenges that their monolingual, English-speaking peers may not, including: challenges of acculturation (both to America and to life on an American college campus); instances of linguicism and other forms of language- or culture-based bias; reluctance to participate in classroom discussions for fear of “getting it wrong” or speaking or writing “incorrectly”; and pressures related to the additional time it may take them to closely read course materials and compose and revise writing assignments.  

Contrary to some assumptions made about ML students, translingualism scholar Johnathan Hall points out that “It is no more true that multilingual students uniformly face a disadvantage in college writing than it is true that monolingual students possess a uniform advantage. Nevertheless, language background is unavoidably a part of the picture for all students. All the languages a student has learned or can use in everyday life are inextricably involved, often in complex and subtle and sometimes unconscious ways, in every literacy act and processes that student undertakes.” 

Here we present ways instructors can adapt their pedagogical practices in response to common obstacles to make the classroom and its challenges more welcoming, vibrant, engaging, and meaningful for ML students as well as their non-ML peers. 

Obstacle: Multilingual students may not have familiarity with the kinds of writing assignments typically given in American university classrooms.

Solution: Just as it’s essential for an instructor to explain the learning goals for a course, it’s important to engage students about their expectations for their classes. A low-stakes, reflective writing assignment given early in the term that asks students to describe themselves as writers may help an instructor gage their students’ individual approaches to writing challenges while also giving the instructor direct, personal insight into their students’ beliefs about their own writing abilities. For instance, the “Celebrations and Aspirations” prompt asks students to reflect on their previous experience as writers, noting those approaches and skills that they are most proud of (the skills they can “celebrate”), and to identify goals (or “aspirations”) for themselves as writers. 

Such low-stakes, reflective assignments get students writing early in the term and allow them to set specific goals for the course. The assignment should also give the instructor insight into a student’s basic writing proficiencies, like sentence-building and paragraphing, while also helping the instructor to identify specific interventions, resources, readings, and assignments that can helpfully meet a student’s individual needs. (See our separate article on responding to ML writing, including resources to share with students.) 

Obstacle: Students with varying levels of English language proficiency may be reluctant to engage one another in conversations about writing and language.  

Solution: Fostering explicit discussions of language use, linguistic difference, and cultural assumptions about audience, genre, style, syntax, register, and approaches to research provides students with insight into a much broader world of diverse writing practices and standards. In an increasingly globalized world, students can and should share information about which writing practices have been valuable to them. Yet, an individual student’s belief that their writing should be “perfect” in both its concepts and execution can hold students back from understanding and discussing writing as an iterative process. 

By emphasizing the importance of the writing process, instructors can encourage students to “not make the perfect the enemy of the good,” as the adage goes. If language and writing are understood as ever-evolving, elastic, and editable, students may feel less pressure to create “perfect” texts and instead focus on understanding their own writing and revision processes. When ML students are able to share, for example, how audience expectations about structure and style differ in other cultural contexts, the whole class benefits from increased rhetorical awareness as they are reminded of the importance of thinking carefully about the context of each writing task. Prioritizing process over the creation of idealized texts may also destigmatize linguistic differences, alleviate anxieties about drafting work, and encourage intellectual and rhetorical experimentation during the drafting process. 

Obstacle: During lectures, discussions, and when presenting assignments to students, it may not be readily apparent if an instructor is communicating legibly or equally with all students.  

Solution: English-language instructions, lectures, and course readings can be supplemented with and presented alongside visual information, slide decks, infographics, and illustrations that may help ML students contextualize and better understand the English-language information presented to them. For instance, making important classroom materials available digitally and in print (which students can annotate), students may more readily access and understand lecture content, lessons, and assignments. Similarly, slide decks, lecture outlines, and other course-related content (even a photograph of a blackboard after an in-class activity or discussion) may be useful to students as they simultaneously work to complete assignments and refine their English language competencies. 

Obstacle: ML Students may feel alienated by academic discourse.  

Solution: While this problem is not unique to ML students, initial encounters with formal academic discourse and writing in a college classroom can be confusing and frustrating. As demonstrated by Bernice Sanchez and John P. Helfeldt, engaging students in a rhetorical reading practice (one that engages not only the subject matter of a piece of writing but that subject’s context, purpose, potential audience, potential application(s), and its specific rhetorical features) may improve students’ reading comprehension and their writing. Further, rhetorical analyses performed in class collaboratively by the students and instructor provide an opportunity to move slowly and intentionally through a text, offering students the real-time chance to ask specific questions about audience, grammar, tone, style, diction, structure, syntax, citation, and more. By collectively studying and discussing the rhetorical features of a text in addition to that text’s essential claims and observations (its content), both students and instructors can thoughtfully and pointedly examine and address features of a text that come relatively easily or that pose significant challenges. 

Encouraging students to read like writers and to identify the rhetorical features of an assigned reading invites students to take rhetorical risks in their own work while also fostering close reading. Taken together, these practices encourage students to both comprehend a text’s ostensible subject matter while simultaneously sharpening their own critical reading practice. 

Obstacle: ML students may find it challenging to translate concepts, words, and phrases that have no exact equivalents in English.

Solution: One way to reframe multilingualism as an asset rather than a liability in the English-dominant writing space is to design assignments that encourage all students to reflect upon and to deploy language that is not traditionally thought of as appropriately academic. This could be a personal narrative in which a student reflects on a word, phrase, or idiom commonly used in their home communities or families. For ML students, this can even include the creation of translingual texts in which students employ English and another language or languages in the same composition. 

Such assignments and activities can and should encourage students to think about their own use of language, their language backgrounds and discourse communities, and the differences between English and non-English rhetorical practices. 

Cited and Recommended Sources

  •  Hall, Jonathan. “Language Background and the College Writing Course.” Journal of Writing Assessment, vol. 7, no. 1, Oct. 2014, pp. 18–28. 
  • International Educational Exchange website. 2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. https://www.iie.org/news/number-of-international-students-in- the-united-states-hits-all-time-high/, 2019. Accessed Nov. 17, 2022.  
  • National Centers for Educational Statistics website. Digest of Education Statistics,  2019, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_204.20.asp. Accessed Nov. 17, 2022. 
  • Sanchez, Bernice, and John P. Helfeldt. “Effects of Rhetorical Reading on the Reading and Writing Performances of ELL and Native English Speaking College Students.” Journal of College Literacy & Learning, vol. 40, Jan. 2014, pp. 3–18. 
  • Song, Juyoung, et al. “Translanguaging as a Strategy for Supporting Multilingual Learners’ Social Emotional Learning.” Education Sciences, vol. 12, no. 7, July 2022. 
  • Zamel, Vivian, and Ruth Spack. “Teaching Multilingual Learners Across the Curriculum: Beyond the ESOL Classroom and Back Again.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 25, no. 2, Fall 2006, pp. 126–52.