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Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms, Part 2: Understanding Language and Cultural Barriers

15 May


by Bethany Peters, Minnesota English Language Program,
and Xi Yu, International Student and Scholar Services

Introduction: Context

When working with multilingual students of diverse backgrounds, it may be difficult to identify primary factors that function as barriers to further learning.   Some research documents that multilingual students attribute challenges to language barriers and some studies show that students perceive that the challenges are more related to cultural differences (Anderson, Isensee, Martin, Godfrey, & O’Brien, 2012; Robertson, Line, Jones, & Thomas, 2000). Other scholars propose a range of others factors that can impact students’ experiences with learning, and as learners. For example, Sawir (2005) discusses how students’ challenges may be influenced by prior academic preparation, and Andrade (2006) describes a multitude of adjustment issues that emerge when multilingual students are acclimating to a new academic environment.

In this post, we will offer both a discussion of findings from recent U of M studies to give voice to student, faculty, and staff perspectives on key language and cultural barriers that multilingual students encounter, and an offering of strategic recommendations for faculty to consider when structuring support for multilingual students.

Barriers: Student Perceptions 

Based on the data collected from the International Student Barometer (ISB) during 2013-2015, a majority of the students found studying at the University to be highly rewarding through diverse learning activities and scholarly exchange with faculty and students. See, for example, the Satisfaction Elements reported in Table 1. At the same time, they also felt significantly challenged by reading and writing in English, group assignments and projects, and interactions with domestic students. Even though international students proactively seek opportunities to meet the challenges, students expressed a desire for additional assistance to make better transitions.

Table 1. A Snapshot of Student Satisfaction with Teaching & Learning from ISB 2014. (Note: 6 CIC institutions include: UMinn, UNebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers U, UIUC, and Indiana University.)

The greatest challenge international student identified is a lack of essential English communication skills, a challenge that inevitably influences daily academic life.

I usually spend time studying alone. The biggest problem I have is that I can barely follow the lecture that no lecture notes or PowerPoint is provided. Lacking the material to follow means that it expects more English listening skills for me to follow the lecture. Sometimes it can be very difficult. (Student Quote from 2014 ISB)

This is a particularly salient challenge for first-year international students, with 40% of the survey respondents in the Student Voices study reporting low level of confidence speaking in class, and over 30% reporting difficulties of reading and writing in English, and understanding examples faculty used in class and expectations for group work (Anderson et al., 2012). As illustrated in Table 2, several students also reported struggling with vocabulary and listening comprehension, further demonstrating the complex range of barriers that students may encounter when studying in their second language.

Table 2. Which of the following made learning difficult in your first semester due to English?  Source: Student Voices Survey of International Undergraduate Students’ First-Year Challenges.

International students also identify cultural differences as another major barrier identified that plays out in various aspects of their college life, affecting ways they navigate the U.S. education system, engage in academic classes, and participate in social interactions. Based on previous studies, international students have expressed difficulty understanding the expectations of the U.S. educational system, including how to communicate with professors, what is expected for class participation, what is actually required homework, and how to make use of office hours. The potential for misunderstandings regarding these implicit academic expectations may result in international students’ feelings of isolation and exclusion from other students and faculty (Anderson et al., 2012).

The ISB data also indicate that adjusting to these differences between the U.S. education system and students’ home country educational practices influenced international students’ learning satisfaction. ISB survey participants perceived the U.S. academic structure as requiring more readings and more exams throughout the entire semester, prioritizing in-class discussions and group projects over lecture-based instructions, and enforcing a different grading criteria and ranking system. Students who were surveyed in Anderson et al.’s (2012) study also speak to the challenges of adapting to a new set of academic expectations:

The system here in US is quite different from the system we had in my home country. Adjusting to the learning system here makes the major problem for international students. (p. 13)

Barriers : Faculty and Staff Perceptions

In Spring 2016, the Minnesota English Language Program administered a survey to learn what faculty and staff on the Twin Cities campus perceived as key benefits and challenges of working with non-native speakers of English (which was defined to include both domestic and international students). In response to various multi-option and open-ended questions, over 1,500 survey respondents provided insights on what they viewed as students’ key challenges. As demonstrated by Figures 1 and 2 below, a majority of faculty and staff respondents reported that they perceive low English proficiency to be the primary contributor to the academic challenges that students faced.   Figures 1 and 2 convey what faculty and staff respondents perceive as factors that to contribute the challenges students experience, including cultural differences, prior academic preparation, and confusion about university processes. 

When non-native English speakers struggle with your course requirements it is due to:

 Figure 1.   Faculty respondents’ level of agreement regarding factors that hinder students in meeting course requirements.

When non-native English speakers struggle to communicate effectively with you it is due to:

Figure 2. Staff respondents’ level of agreement regarding factors related to communication challenges NNES students encounter

When asked about the types of language challenges they observed students to experience, faculty and staff respondents indicated high levels of agreement that speaking and writing tasks seemed to pose more difficulties than comprehension tasks such as listening to lectures, reading, and following instructions. Specifically, faculty reported that students experienced more difficulties expressing themselves in class discussions, asking questions in class, working in groups, producing effective writing, and citing sources accurately. In response to open-ended questions, both faculty and staff respondents commented that students’ language-related challenges also often seemed to be related to developing discipline-specific vocabulary and navigating heavy reading loads.

Regarding cultural differences, faculty and staff respondents described how they viewed various types of cultural differences to create barriers for students, including students’ struggles to apply cultural norms in communication, understand cultural jargon and references in conversations or in the classroom, adapt to new expectations about roles and policies in the U.S. academic system, and meet course requirements while dealing with cultural adjustment challenges. One faculty respondent described the challenges in this way:

Many of my international students see professors as infallible, and thus are hesitant to participate actively in class discussions. They also see the role of professors to fill their heads with knowledge, rather than guide learning. They’re also hesitant to ask for help, less the professor’s opinion of them and their learning abilities are diminished. (Peters & Anderson, in press)

Some faculty discussed how cultural differences and language challenges may overlap and limit students’ abilities to fulfil specific expectations in the classroom environment.   For example, one faculty member commented that

I feel that many foreign students are not very open to active learning techniques, which I employ fairly heavily in my course. I believe they are worried about asking questions and participating due to not understanding or speaking English very well. (Peters & Anderson, in press)

Strategies: Addressing Language & Cultural Barriers in the Classroom

Providing Cultural Support

  1. Verbally acknowledge the positive value of diversity and potential benefits to all students in the classroom. If multilingual students hear this from a faculty member, it can help them to feel welcome and reassured that their presence is valued.
  2. Consider planning an ice-breaker that will help students to talk about where they are from. This can be a low-stakes way for students from diverse backgrounds to have an opportunity to make connections and feel more comfortable with their peers.
  3. Make expectations about classroom norms explicit and clear to all students. For example, explain in concrete terms what is expected for class participation, for small group work, and for other common U.S. classroom practices that may be unfamiliar to multilingual students.

Providing Language Support 

  1. Methods to Improve Student Comprehension of Lectures:
    1. Post PowerPoint slides to Moodle in advance so that students have the opportunity to preview the main points before class.
    2. Provide resources for students to preview and review lecture material, which can include handouts of questions to consider, or definitions of key terms that will be covered, and a summary sheet for key points from a lecture.
  2. Methods to Improve Student Comprehension of Readings:
    1. Make reading questions available to help students prioritize their reading load and better manage their time.
    2. Early in the semester, use some class time to annotate a reading together and provide tips for students to improve their reading strategies.
  3. Methods to Encourage Student Participation:
    1. Intentionally plan small group discussion times so that students have opportunities to process information in a lower-stakes environment.
    2. Provide alternate ways of participation in class discussions, such as allowing students to post reflections on Moodle or giving them an opportunity to write comments on an index card at the end of class.
    3. Encourage question-asking by regularly inviting questions throughout the duration of a lecture, and by inviting students to use office hours when they have questions throughout the semester.
  4. Methods to Support Students in Writing:
    1. Provide exemplars of writing so that students can see concrete examples of the type of writing that is expected for specific assignments.
    2. Develop rubrics that very clearly delineate what is expected to be successful in various assignments. See wins.umn.edu for example rubrics.
    3. When giving feedback, make sure to comment on the content of students’ writing and not become too focused on language feedback. See wins.umn.edu for example commentary to provide to students.

Additional Resources

Carroll, J., & Ryan, J. (Eds.). (2007). Teaching international students: Improving learning for all. Routledge.

Shapiro, S., Farrelly, R., & Tomaš, Z. (2014). Fostering international student success in higher education. Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association.

Achieving Access in Your Class – Best Practices/Universal Design https://diversity.umn.edu/disability/achievingaccessinyourclass

Resources for Supporting Multilingual Learners. www.esl.umn.edu

Writing Resources for Instructors Working with Multilingual Students. https://wins.umn.edu/

Links to Other Posts in the Series

  • The series opened with a post “Exploring Teaching and Learning Benefits” to introduce the research context and provide an overview of key findings;
  • This week, in part two, the authors have focused on “Understanding Language and Cultural Barriers,” and
  • The series conclusion features strategies aimed at “Maximizing Peer and Faculty Interactions.”


  • Anderson, M., Isensee, B., Martin, K., Godfrey, L.A., O’Brien, M.K. (2012). Student Voices: A survey of international undergraduate students’ first-year challenges. Global Programs and Strategy Alliance, University of Minnesota. Retrieved online from https://global.umn.edu/icc/resources/umn.html
  • Andrade, M.S. (2006). International students in English-speaking universities. Journal of Research in International Education, 5(2), 131-154.
  • International Student Barometer (2015). Retrieved from https://global.umn.edu/icc/resources/umntc-ugis-data/international-student-barometer.html
  • Robertson, M., Line, M., Jones, S., & Thomas, S. (2000). International students, learning environments and perceptions: A case study using the Delphi technique. Higher education research and development, 19(1), 89-102.
  • Sawir, E. (2005). Language difficulties of international students in Australia: The effects of prior learning experience. International Education Journal, 6(5), 567-580.


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