Teaching students with limited English
17 Jul 2008
Presenting a class in a consistently informative and engaging way is a challenge in itself. But with thousands of international students studying ACCA in the UK, many tutors are regularly presented with classes full of people who are eager to pass their exams – but are plainly struggling to understand what's being said.
Tori Hopkins, who lectures for Finance Business Training in Birmingham, says: 'If students are working on a particularly wordy paper, such as law, then those with limited English may struggle to translate content knowledge into an acceptable exam answer. They may be able to bullet-point their knowledge, but bullets alone are not what's expected; it's converting them into sentences and linking paragraphs that they struggle with.'
Numerical questions tend to cause fewer issues. But when asked to tackle exam-standard questions, those with weaker English often cannot generate or explain ideas.
While many students may have learned how to listen carefully in class - for instance, picking up on key words - Hopkins points out that difficulty with reading can go unnoticed. 'As a tutor, you have to take care to check that students have actually answered the question that's been asked in a written paper,' she says. 'It may only be with longer answers that you can spot that - so you have to keep testing that aspect.'
Not so heated debate
When discursive questions are raised in class, with students invited to argue for or against potential answers, greater interaction is required. According to Shuaib Masters of Kaplan Financial, that is when students whose English is limited lose out. 'They tend to sit right at the front of the class to hear as much as they can,' he says. 'But they're generally quite passive - not asking questions or joining in.
'In some classes, students might bring in digital or tape recorders to help them recap later; others use translation machines at their seats.'
Some students even go as far as getting classmates who are more fluent in English to translate for them during the lecture and many tutors are now resigned to this.
Tutors say it is often easy to spot which students are sitting in confusion, through giveaway body language or facial expressions. So how can they help those whose bewilderment betrays a poor grasp of English?
Hopkins says the most important thing is to be vigilant - and to tailor handouts appropriately. 'I only use notes I've written myself,' she says. 'I ensure they have really detailed headings so that students can break them down into manageable chunks and can access specific topics quickly if they're reading them on their own later.'
Tutors agree that they should never assume that everyone in the class understands what they are saying, however simple the vocabulary. Some will make a habit of repeating each key point, while others will re-phrase their sentences so that students have a second, different opportunity to understand.
For many students, failing to speak up is often down to fear of embarrassment. Masters says that group work can make a big difference here: 'If you encourage everyone in a group to contribute when presenting their findings to the rest of the class, that helps to build confidence - and you can see and hear the results in the way students become more engaged with their classmates, and can even appear happier and more relaxed.'
Language to life
Another of his techniques is to occasionally pepper a class with a mini-lesson in history or even etymology. 'I take time to explain the context of certain words within the language,' he explains. 'A term like "goal congruence", for example, could be illustrated by showing how two shapes are congruent if one can be moved or rotated so that it fits exactly where the other one is - and also giving examples of goals.
Avoidance of jargon, though, is paramount - for students and tutors alike. 'Try to encourage students to get their points across in as simple a way as possible,' advises Moore. 'You might ask them to repeat what they just said to you but using only 15 words. This helps them to cut the waffle and get their point across faster. It also makes their scripts more marker-friendly and will ultimately ease time pressure in an exam.'
Whatever tutors might do to accommodate those with a flimsy grasp of English, there may be occasions where students who are wrestling with the material slip through the net. That is where having a good rapport is vital.
'An informal style is necessary so that students feel they can talk to you in breaks or by e-mail,' says Hopkins. 'It's important to make yourself approachable at all times to those who don't feel they can speak up in class.'
Students with weaker linguistic skills need not be a tutor's nightmare. Patience and vigilance, with a touch of imagination and ingenuity, can help to overcome many of the obstacles.
The secret is to keep it simple. 'Tutors may not realise their vocabulary is overly complex for some students,' says Muchhala. 'They need to modify that, delivering information verbally in a simplified manner or just using alternative explanations.'
And don't forget rapport, concludes Moore: 'A good college and a good tutor should get to know their students well - so that they better understand and resolve any problem that might arise.'
Calum Robson is a freelance journalist.