Welcome to this module called “English as an Additional Language in the Classroom.” This module was developed as a collaborative partnership between the MacPherson Institute and the MELD Office.
International students, including those who use English as an additional language, are increasingly choosing Canadian universities, including McMaster University, for studies. English language learners (ELLs) bring many benefits, perspectives, and opportunities to campus. ELLs also have unique learning needs and preferences.
This module will explore some of the unique characteristics and needs of ELLs and outline strategies for designing learning materials, lessons, and assessments to support these learners. This module consists of three parts:
Part 1 – Who are ELLs?
Part 2 – Best Practices for Teaching
Part 3 – Institutionally-Available Supports
This module includes a variety of learning activities including short readings, external links, and interactive H5P quizzes.
To get started, Esther Zhang, a former international student, shares her thoughts on how she felt when she first joined the McMaster community.
By the end of this module, you should be able to:
- Identify who ELLs are and some of the challenges they experience in academic programs at McMaster University
- Consider best practices for learning materials, assignments, and assessments to support ELLs in academic settings
- Identify institutionally-available supports and tools for ELLs
“Even though most students in Canada are very kind, sometimes it is challenging to build relationship with them because (a) cultural differences in getting to know each other, (b) I was also not confident speaking ‘native English’ to them.”
– Gum-Ryeong Park, current PhD student
There are several terms that are useful to know in the context of English language teaching and learning.
- ELL – English language learner
- ESL – English as a second language. Often used interchangeably with EAL.
- EAL – English as an additional language. Often used interchangeably with ESL.
- EAP – English for academic purposes. EAP courses include the study of functional communication as well as language and skills specific to academic environments. Many post-secondary institutions offer EAP bridging programs. In these programs, students receive an offer of acceptance to an undergraduate or graduate degree program conditional on completion of an EAP program.
- ESP – English for specific purposes. This involves the teaching and development of language skills required for specific disciplines such as business, IT, and engineering.
Who are ELLs on Campus? Data Around International Students at Mac
There are various types of ELLs at McMaster University. The largest group of ELLs at McMaster is international students. Currently, McMaster has thousands of international students. In the 2020-2021 academic year, there were 4,560 international undergraduate students and 1,180 international graduate students. A more detailed breakdown of where international students came from in the 2020-2021 academic year is available in the McMaster Factbook.
Most international students at McMaster are ELLs, but not all. Many international students come from countries where English is either an official language or English is one of the primary languages used in the education system. ELLs at the university can also be citizens or permanent residents whose first language is not English. Some ELLs at the university are new to the country, while others may have completed some high school in Canada.
Language Proficiency Standards for Acceptance to Mac
An ELL in their first year of their undergraduate program may have:
- Entered directly into their program by meeting the program’s academic requirements and required IELTS score.
- Entered via the MELD program (McMaster English Language Development Diploma). The MELD program is a one-year, intensive bridging program. Students that meet an undergraduate program’s academic requirements but do not meet the program’s language requirements may receive a conditional offer based on completion of the one-year MELD program.
All ELLs who apply for admission to McMaster University must provide proof of proficiency in English. A common test that ELLs take is IELTS. This test assesses the four main language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
IELTS determines language proficiency across 9 bands/levels. A test taker who has little English language and is unable to demonstrate much, if any, proficiency would be assessed at a very low band. Conversely, a test taker at the top level would demonstrate proficiency in English similar to a person who uses English as their first language (L1) in that they can comfortably and accurately use and recognize a wide range of vocabulary, grammar, and structures. Test takers are given a score in each of the four skill areas as well as an overall score.
For acceptance to most programs at McMaster, ELLs need to demonstrate an overall proficiency in English reflective of an IELTS 6.5 level with no skill below 6.0. Students may have strong speaking skills, but their writing skills may still be developing. This means that ELLs may have gaps or imbalances in their communication skills.
As noted, students who apply to McMaster but do not meet the English language requirements can apply to complete intensive English language studies in the MELD program. The MELD program is designed to help students practice and improve their language skills, particularly in academic contexts, for admission to undergraduate level programs.
It is important to be cognizant of the cultural backgrounds and experiences of all students in classes, including ELLs. ELLs may have different experiences and degrees of comfort living and studying in Canadian educational institutions.
Many theories and models have been developed to describe the acculturation process and culture shock more generally. Oberg’s (1960) model of culture shock is useful in understanding the transition that an individual undergoes when they experience new and foreign situations. There are four stages:
- Honeymoon – This stage involves excitement about the new culture. The individual is keen to learn about the new culture and views it positively.
- Crisis – In this stage the individual increasingly notices and experiences troubles in various contexts including language, housing, employment, and education. The individual feels homesick and rejection in the new culture as a result of feeling different. This is an important point in the process as an individual will either persevere in the new culture, or they may return to their home culture.
- Recovery – In this stage, an individual develops an open mind towards the new culture. At this point, the individual is receptive to new knowledge and strategies to adapt to the new culture.
- Adjustment – This stage is characterized by an individual gaining new perspectives in the new culture. An individual develops tolerance and ultimately accepts the new lifestyle.
Of course, not all individuals pass through all four stages. Likewise, the process may be iterative, whereby an individual moves back and forth between different stages.
Recognizing and exposing the hidden curriculum is an important skill for educators. The ‘formal’ curriculum consists of the structured and intentionally planned courses, lessons, activities, and knowledge that students learn. The ‘hidden’ curriculum, on the other hand, refers to the unstated cultural lessons, values, perspectives, and rules that students learn at school. Children naturally learn these unstated lessons at school and at home through interactions with their educators, peers, and environments. However, students who come from diverse cultural backgrounds may not be familiar with the teaching and learning structures that exist in Canadian educational contexts as these lessons are not explicitly stated in course outlines (Egbo, 2009).
Examples of the hidden curriculum that ELLs may not be familiar with include: (1) expectations around participation in class; (2) power dynamics in the classroom between educators and students; and (3) acceptable behaviours for group work and collaboration.
It is important, then, to recognize the hidden curriculum within courses and lessons and to expose it so that students from diverse backgrounds understand expectations and can be successful within the Canadian educational context. The hidden curriculum can be exposed by clearly setting expectations around participation and behaviour at the outset of the course, addressing misunderstandings quickly, and engaging in ongoing discussions about expected behaviours. Integral to these conversations is that classes have an atmosphere of trust, respect, and understanding. Students should not feel judged, shamed, or excluded for not being aware of the hidden curriculum.
Take a few moments to consider and identify whether the following are examples of the formal curriculum or the hidden curriculum by engaging in the drag and drop activity below.
In addition to navigating issues of language and culture, ELLs are often faced with other challenges such as:
- Establishing an identity in the new culture
- Making and developing friendships
- Managing bureaucratic and legal issues such as study visas and setting up bank accounts
- Securing appropriate housing in a new country
- Understanding the expectations and requirements of the Canadian educational system
Approaching ELLs with compassion and kindness will help them adjust to Canadian cultural and educational contexts and will contribute to meaningful and successful learning environments for all.
Test your knowledge by trying the True or False quiz below.
Best Practices for Teaching
“Normally, I am nervous to speak with my classmates, and I always miss opportunities to participate in discussions when we are working on an assignment. Furthermore, I need to read the text twice or three times to understand it; this makes me feel embarrassed … it also inhibits me from having a conversation with others.”
– Seina Yamada, current undergraduate student
To start, Esther Zhang, a former international student, reflects on her experience in lectures in the video below.
Setting up your Classroom for Success
To foster the success of ELLs, there are a few things for educators to keep in mind at the beginning of a course:
- Mention how you prefer to be addressed in class and in email. Naming conventions differ across cultures, and what is considered appropriate in one culture, may be offensive in another.
- In smaller classes, take the time to get to know the correct pronunciation of any non-English or unfamiliar names. Encourage all students to know the correct pronunciation of all names in the classroom. Non-ELLs are less likely to interact with ELLs if they do not know how to pronounce their names.Importantly, use students’ preferred names. If students have two different names (one English, one non-English), ask them which name they prefer to be called.
Many international ELLs are more familiar with a passive style of education, in which students sit quietly and receive information from educators. Active learning and participation might be new for many ELLs, so take time to explain what it is, what it looks like, what its benefits are, and what expectations are for the classroom. Modelling the desired behaviour for class is helpful for students that have never been a participant in an active learning classroom before.
- If possible, include weekly topics, themes, pages covered, and a key word list for each session in course syllabi to assist ELLs. ELLs can pre-read and learn about the topics, themes, and keywords that they will encounter during class and be ready to participate.
- Go through the course syllabus with students at the beginning of the semester and elicit ways they can prepare for each week’s class.
Provide students with examples of what they should and should not email you about throughout the term. Some ELLs are from education systems where students must email their professors about private matters (e.g., health issues, personal issues) if they miss class or an assignment deadline.
Best Practices for Teaching
Below are some strategies to use in the classroom to support ELLs in following lessons, achieving objectives, and learning successfully.
Avoid using overly academic or advanced vocabulary and jargon when simple language will suffice. Use language, both spoken and written, that is easy to understand, clear, and concise. In terms of written communication, avoid writing a paragraph when an idea or instruction can be communicated in a sentence or two. In terms of speaking, moderate the speed of your speech, but keep your speaking natural. Repeat key messages to help with understanding and retention.
Check on an on-going basis that learners have understood lectures, readings, and general materials. This can be done by building in frequent formative assessments such as exit slips and ungraded quizzes to monitor student progress.
As much as possible, make materials available before classes so that learners can review materials and prepare for lectures. This will make listening to and participating in classes easier for ELLs.
Also, consider the vocabulary that learners are required to know or use to access lessons and assignments. Pre-teach difficult or new vocabulary so that students are familiar with it when it comes up in classes. Create a course glossary on Avenue to Learn.
Importantly, elicit feedback and suggestions from students. Ask students about their learning preferences and incorporate activities and options that support them. A great way to get feedback from learners is to do a Stop/Start/Continue activity halfway through the semester. Be open to these comments and modify instructional strategies accordingly.
Best Practices for Assignment Design
Designing clear and accessible assessments is important for ELLs. Below are a few strategies to make sure that assessments consider the language and learning needs of ELLs.
When writing assignments, consider the language used to give instructions. Make sure that instructions are sufficiently detailed so that learners have all the information needed to complete the task without needing to seek clarification, but avoid wordiness or excessive detail, which can be overwhelming or confusing for ELLs. If possible, use numbered lists to give instructions and write direct statements.
When appropriate, provide example assignments so that students clearly understand the expectations of an assignment. Examples are an excellent teaching resource and can help learners feel confident that they are completing work correctly.
Understandings of academic integrity differ across cultures, and ELLs may not be familiar with Canadian expectations. Therefore, take time to discuss plagiarism, provide students with appropriate resources and supports, and explicitly teach about citation conventions and expectations.
Consider the degree to which language should be assessed when marking written work. While it is important to encourage students to submit high-quality work, balance a student’s ability to demonstrate achievement of learning outcomes with their language use.
Consider Universal Design for Learning and design assessments and assignments that allow students to represent their learning in a variety of ways. For example, if the task is to submit a summary of a chapter to demonstrate comprehension, consider allowing students to submit the summary in written form or as an audio/video recording.
Take time regularly to reflect on how successfully students completed assignments. If many students performed poorly, review the assignment for clarity and make sure that tasks appropriately and fairly challenge students.
Best Practices for Exams
Below are some strategies to keep in mind when designing exams for ELLs:
- Keep instructions concise and use simple language where possible.
- Avoid using unfamiliar words or phrases that students have not been exposed to in the course. If an exam contains unfamiliar vocabulary, consider allowing the use of an electronic dictionary.
- If there is a listening component to an exam, consider allowing students to take notes. If students will be exposed to new words or phrases on the assessment, be careful when grading answers. Since spelling in English is not phonetic, it is a good idea to sound out answers that seem illogical or nonsensical. What looks incorrect on paper can sound correct when sounded out loud.
- If possible, create and distribute an exam information sheet to students a week before the exam, which contains the exam instructions and approximate grade breakdown. ELLs will then have a chance to read and understand the instructions, saving time during the exam.
- Create a practice quiz in Avenue to Learn that has the type of instructions and type of questions that will exist on your exam.
- Have another person check exams for clarity and conciseness.
- If the English language itself is not being assessed on the exam, consider not marking incorrect grammar, spelling, or awkward phrasing.
- If an exam is online, consider allowing students different options to record their answers. On Avenue to Learn, quizzes can be setup to capture writing, audio, and video.
A Special Note about Reading and ELLs
If your exam contains long passages of text, be sure to give students enough time to read it. There are surprising differences between L1 (English is the first language) and L2 (English is an additional language) reading rates which should be considered when designing and administering exams.
Led by Dr. Anna Moro and Dr. Daniel Schmidtke, the MELD Research Team at McMaster focuses on how ELLs learn English. The MELD Research Lab is one of the only research labs affiliated with an English-language bridging program. The MELD Research Lab uses eye-tracking technology to study reading rates in ELL students.
A note from Dr. Daniel Schmitdke:
Eye-tracking technology provides arguably the most accurate record of naturalistic reading behaviour. Studies conducted by the MELD Research Lab estimate that ELLs read at a speed of 115 words per minute (wpm) on average by the end of the MELD bridging program (Schmidtke et al., submitted). Though EALs make gains during the bridging program, their estimated reading speed, upon entry to undergraduate studies, falls short of the estimated 238 wpm average for a native English speaker reading a non-fiction text (Brysbaert, 2019). This places ELLs at a disadvantage in learning and examination scenarios where students are expected to cover and understand large amounts of text. Consider that a native English speaker can read approximately 125 more words per minute than a non-native speaker. These estimates indicate that compared to native English speakers, ELLs would cover 15,000 fewer words during a two-hour study period, 7,500 fewer words in a one-hour examination, or 60 fewer words in the 30 seconds that a slide is shown during a lecture.
Test your knowledge by trying the True or False quiz below.
“I moved to Canada on my own … so if I was having a bad day, [my parents] could not help me immediately due to the long distance and different time zone. Moreover, I experienced homesickness like many students experienced. I didn’t have any friends with whom I could share my feelings at that time.”
– Seina Yamada, current undergraduate student
MODEL (McMaster Office for the Development of English Language Learners) is a free English language support service for all McMaster students (undergraduate and graduate) whose first language is not English.
All of MODEL’s services are listed on their webpage.
ELL Teaching Tip: Given that some ELLs do not actively seek out language help and language support can be a difficult and sensitive topic to bring up with a student, it is good practice to share information about supports on campus such as MODEL at the beginning of the semester with all students.
Every year MODEL supports hundreds of ELL learners on campus through the following supports:
Students can meet one-on-one with MODEL’s English language experts for 45 minutes at a time to discuss their various needs. MODEL’s language experts can help students with their current academic work and can also help guide the student by providing them with appropriate resources and exercises that meet their specific needs. Students can book a consultation at a time that is convenient for them by emailing email@example.com or by visiting the MODEL website.
MODEL offers a wide variety of workshops at various times throughout the week where students meet in a small group setting with a language expert to explore certain topics. Topics include cultural workshops, conversation hangouts, book clubs, and other academic language skill workshops. Students can register for MODEL workshops on Oscarplus.
MODEL provides students with a free English Language test called LinguaSkill. Provided by Cambridge Assessment English, Linguaskill tests all four language skills (speaking, reading, listening, and writing), and test results are aligned to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). After the assessment, students meet with a MODEL consultant to discuss their results, and together they decide on a plan so that MODEL can continue to help their language development.
Students can meet one-on-one with a counsellor in MODEL who has a background in both counselling and ELL teaching.
There are several institutionally supported digital tools that can assist ELLs. Below are a few tools and descriptions of how they can be leveraged to support ELLs.
Making full use of Avenue to Learn brings significant benefits for ELLs. Avenue to Learn has several features that can support ELLs in the classroom including:
- Glossary – The glossary tool is a great option for courses that have many terms and definitions to learn and can help ELLs study these terms.
- Calendar – The calendar tool is a useful tool to share information around class schedules, deadlines, and special events.
- Checklists – The checklist tools is useful to help keep learners organized. For example, a checklist can be created to ensure that learners have completed all the required tasks for the week or to ensure that all steps of an assignment have been completed before submitting work.
- Surveys – The survey tool can be used throughout a course to check the ‘pulse’ of the course and to see how learners are feeling. Creating a short 3-4 question survey that students complete every few weeks can assist in getting a sense of how students are feeling, how well they are engaging with content, and if there are any topics that require further teaching.
MacVideo and Echo360 are video recording and hosting tools that have unique features. While the tools have different features and can be used for different purposes, a shared and important feature of the tools is the ability to share videos and lectures with captions and transcripts. This can significantly support ELLs who may find listening for extended periods of time during lectures challenging. It is also useful if learners want to go back and watch lectures again to review.
Videos on MacVideo and Echo360 can also be made interactive by incorporating quiz questions and activities.
Mental Health Supports
Mental health can be a difficult topic in the context of international students and ELLs. Understandings of and discussions around mental health vary significantly across cultures. Accordingly, some students may feel uncomfortable talking about it or reluctant to seek help. Facilitating open and educational conversations with ELLs about what mental health is, the importance of it, and ways to maintain good mental health are imperative and should be handled sensitively. Educators who wish to learn more about mental health are encouraged to take Hippo-On-Campus, an eight-module course offered by the MacPherson Institute about mental health and mental health support.
The McMaster University Student Wellness Centre has a range of services, resources, and programs available to students to help learn about all aspects of health.
Test your knowledge by trying the True or False quiz below.
In this workshop, you have learned about ELLs in the McMaster community and strategies for designing effective and meaningful experiences for these learners.
You are encouraged to reflect on your own educational contexts and consider how you can modify lessons and materials to better meet the needs of ELLs. ELLs bring unique viewpoints, backgrounds, and perspectives to classrooms. We all have a responsibility to support these learners so that they have successful and positive educational experiences.