Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Improving teaching & learning for non-native speakers of English

Like many other universities, George Washington is attracting more students, faculty and teaching assistants with different native languages.  I'm not an expert in either second language learning or teaching international students.  What follows are the speculations by a generalist. If you have better information and contrasting ideas, I hope you'll post them below.  In the meantime, here's how things look to me.

Faculty-student interaction, rapid feed back, and student teamwork can each improve learning, but only to the extent that those people can easily understand one another, which includes being able to think quickly in English.  It's not surprising that a study at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in the 1980s found that non-native speakers of English got lower grades, on average, than native speakers.  I'll get back to that study in a moment.

I have a suggestion for how we can improve education for all our students, but especially for non-native speakers of English.

Hypothesis: learning can improve if a campus makes more, better use of vigorous, critical, online, written discussion (e.g., dialogue using tools such as email, threaded discussions in Blackboard, and more specialized tools such as VoiceThread).  

Why might that be true?

Remember that NJIT finding that non-native speakers were getting worse grades in campus courses?  Let me tell you more about that.

in the mid 1980s, NJIT had pioneered online courses. In one study, Prof. Roxanne Hiltz compared the grades of native English speakers with non-native speakers across many courses (Hiltz, 1988). As I mentioned earlier, the native speakers got better grades in their NJIT courses.  One might imagine many reasons for that.  Perhaps their high schools were inferior to ours, for example.

But Hiltz also compared the grades of native and non-native speakers taking wholly online courses.  No significant difference in the academic performance of native- versus non-native speakers of English (nor do students in online courses do worse than students taking campus courses).  

Hiltz concluded that, in the campus classroom, non-native speakers find it difficult to listen, think and speak fast enough in English to fully participate in learning.  

In contrast, in written online exchange, with plenty of time to interpret and respond, non-native speakers were able to participate fully, demonstrating their talent, preparation, and motivation. 

The benefits of online discussion for non-native speakers aren't limited to learning the substance of the course.

Karen Smith, then at the University of Arizona, studied non-native speakers of Spanish:  American students who were taking Spanish IV.  (Smith, 1990) 

In one section of Spanish, the students used a language laboratory, listening to Spanish on headsets and practicing pronunciation. 

In another section, students were assigned to converse online in written Spanish. They were graded only on their fluency in expressing complex thoughts, not on syntax or spelling.  And they had the option of initiating their own discussions, and of conducting some of the discussions in private. (These students also were assigned to work in the language lab but for less time each week, to make time for their work online.)

I visited that section in mid-semester. The students loved that they could converse in Spanish about issues they cared about. In one online discussion for example, a number of students were communing with a classmate who was feeling depressed.  In another discussion they discussed a film that had been shown in class, while in another they planned a class party, all in Spanish.  Students liked the fact that, online, they had time to interpret and consider what they were 'hearing' and then to plan how to reply. And, for these discussions, they were not being graded on their spelling or grammar. 

Here's the surprise. At the end of the semester, the two groups of students were each given an oral examination. And the students who'd been practicing oral Spanish in the language laboratory lost.  The students who, instead, had been conversing asynchronously in written Spanish were better able to think in Spanish. So now, in real-time face-to-face conversation, they found it easier to speak fluently (and grammatically).

This suggests that online discussion can prepare our non-native speakers to listen and speak face-to-face in the languages of their disciplines as well

Adding online discussion to campus courses can help all students learn, not just the non-native speakers of English.

Some years ago, I was talking with a young professor of philosophy at another institution. "I can't talk philosophy with an undergraduate," he remarked. "They just don't know the subject well enough." He paused and then continued, "Ah, but email! When we're conversing by email, we can have quite a satisfactory discussion. The student has enough time to interpret what I've said and to plan their response."

Think about it: in every discipline, students are learning to think in, and speak, a new language: the language of philosophy, or physiology, or law.  It's easier for novices to learn to think, speak and see in a new field if first they can do it at a thoughtful pace. (In a future post, I'll suggest a strategy for fostering  more critical, searching online discussions.)

Bottom line: By incorporating the right kind of vigorous, critical online discussion in our campus courses, we can improve learning for non-native speakers of English, for others with issues listening or speaking in a group talking at classroom speed, and for all our other students too.

If you're interested in learning more about how to use technology in these ways in your own courses at GW, contact our Instructional Technology Laboratory in the basement of Gelman Library about the technology and our Teaching & Learning Collaborative (our teaching center) to talk about how to organize and moderate such discussions. If you'd like to talk with someone from the TLC about these issues, you can use this form to arrange for a meeting.


1988    Hiltz, Starr Roxanne, "Learning in a Virtual Classroom" (Executive Summary and two volumes), Research Report #25 and 26, Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center, New Jersey Institute of Technology.

1990      Smith, Karen L. Collaborative and Interactive Writing for Increasing Communication Skills, Hispania, LXXIII:1, pp. 77-87.

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