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Author: Rebecca Zambrano

engaging online students


We who work in higher education are constantly using and learning academic English, often without realizing it. We may not realize that the way we speak English is quite challenging to many students who don’t speak this way at home. College students who struggle to communicate fluently in academic English often experience lowered expectations from professors, stereotyping, and other forms of discrimination without their teachers being aware of their own biases (Lippi-Green, 2011). Research has shown that college professors tend to show positive bias toward students who sound like themselves and negative bias toward those who don’t (Godley et al., 2006). Students may absorb some of these negative messages and become reluctant to participate, which limits their ability to expand their language lexicons. In effect, our insensitivity to academic language can silence our students and limit their capacity to demonstrate their knowledge or skills. This may in turn limit a student’s view of themselves as a competent member of the community, with the same bright dreams and future ambitions as their peers.

How can we support the growth of academic English while honoring the mother tongue?

In reality, all of us are English language learners, and none of us have entirely mastered academic English. But some of us have a great deal more practice and skill with academic English than others. This is important to emphasize because academic English is a golden ticket of sorts. Those who learn it have a much better chance of gaining access to many kinds of jobs, to leadership opportunities, and to other forms of power in their communities. To support our students’ mastery of academic language without devaluing their home ways with words, consider some of the suggestions below:

  1. Invite the mother tongue into your classroom without singling out students. For example, if you know that you have specific languages present in the classroom, you might wish to find subtitled videos, authors, or images that reflect students’ languages or places of origin, which may or may not be international. For example, if using a quote by someone who speaks Arabic, put the translation of the quote in Arabic beneath the English version.
  2. Consider giving international students and students mastering English more time to write due to the time it takes for the brain to process in two languages.
  3. When you lecture, provide lots of “think time” by asking students to journal or discuss a question in pairs before you pose the question to the larger class. Consider providing questions in advance that will be asked in classroom or webinar discussions.
  4. Place students in small groups so that everyone gets practice speaking without the anxiety that can come with speaking in front of the whole class. Consider assigning group roles that allow students to play to their own strengths in the group.
  5. When students work in small groups or pairs, provide them with guiding questions and tell them to journal for three minutes after each guiding question is posed and before opening up the group discussion. Be explicit that you require this so that everyone will have time to think before contributing their ideas.
  6. Do not ask a student to “speak for” any group they may belong to. For example, do not single out an African American student to speak about racism or a veteran student to speak to moral questions about war or foreign policy. The issue here is singling out the student. If you are going to ask students to talk about issues related to race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, ask everyone to discuss them.
  7. A “written accent” occurs when a student writes exactly the way they speak. Consider accepting a “written accent” in such informal spaces as a discussion forum. Then require students to get support to polish their academic English for more formal assignments such as term papers. This is how it works in real life. Researchers with PhDs often speak and write with an accent, but they may move from rough drafts to final drafts while receiving editing support.
  8. Avoid using jokes, slang, and jargon that require cultural background knowledge. Speak or write clearly and avoid irony, sarcasm, and other kinds of communication that rely on tone and nuance for meaning.
  9. Use visuals to support comprehension as you speak about a topic in person or in a video. Consider using graphic organizers as visual aids while you lecture to help students focus on main ideas with very little text. Assign students to create graphic organizers and visual diagrams to communicate complex ideas and relationships with small amounts of text.
  10. Clear routines and structures are very helpful to many students. Clear routines do not mean sacrificing creativity. For example, if you have provided students with lecture notes, hands-on experiment details, and other content in advance of an active learning lesson, students who need more time to absorb the material will have that opportunity.
  11. Provide frequent main idea headings when introducing topics. For example, “Today our main topic is . . .” or “The most important thing to remember about this is _____.” That old maxim for presentations works well: (1) tell them what you’re going to tell them, (2) tell them, and (3) tell them what you told them.
  12. Learn to use the closed-captioning feature when creating multimedia.
  13. Create rubrics to communicate your expectations to students. Rubrics can clarify expectations within a visual format that’s easy to understand. Rubrics also aid the writing center tutors to better support your students who seek help with their assignments.
  14. Ask different students to take notes each class period in their own way. They can use concept maps, cartoons, bulleted lists, or whatever they wish. Have two students taking notes each class post the notes on your LMS each week so all can see how others summarized the material.
  15. Provide examples of work done by previous students (with permission).
  16. Consider allowing students to present their knowledge or skills using a format of their choice, such as a paper, PowerPoint talk, website, or prerecorded video.
  17. Provide multiple formats when presenting content to students. Where possible, provide video, audio, and other formats so that students can access your content in multiple ways. 
  18. Connect students with the writing center right away if you think they may need the support. Some faculty offer extra credit early on if students take an assignment to the writing center for help, which avoids the problem of singling out students.

The dangers of a “checklist approach” to inclusion

While the checklist above might help you create a more inclusive classroom, it also comes with some risk. Checklists can lead us to make assumptions about specific populations and thus stereotype them. We might assume that because a person is “an international student” or “Latinx” or “Arabic-speaking,” that we can confidently apply a strategy that will “work,” as if we were dealing with machines rather than other human beings. The best way to learn what’s working well and what a student needs is to ask. The strategies offered here are thus meant to be used as part of an approach that focuses on building strong learning relationships.

If you’ve noticed that the suggestions above are simply good teaching practice for everyone, you’re not alone. But consider that good practices for some may be essential practices for others. Encourage yourself to try adding just a few of these strategies at a time so that you can pay close attention to their impact. You’ll likely find that as you implement these strategies, more and more students will grow more confident, discover deeper connections with the content, and become more engaged in your classroom communities. They may also discover new identities as they “try on” new ways with words, and these new identities may lead them into roles they had never imagined for themselves.


Godley, A. J., Sweetland, J., Wheeler, R. S., Minnici, A., & Carpenter, B. D. (2006). Preparing teachers for dialectally diverse classrooms. Educational Researcher, 35(8), 30–37. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X035008030

Lippi-Green, R. (2011). English with an accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States. Routledge.

College classroom strategies and resources




The Language and Life Project

Rebecca Zambrano is the director of online learning at Edgewood College. She designs professional development for faculty in all content areas, provides leadership mentoring and instructional design coaching, and helps guide the direction of college-wide faculty development efforts. Find her on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rebeccazambrano.

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