How to effectively tutor students online who have weak English

You know the situation as a faculty member – you have 15 minutes allocated per student draft, 20 minutes allocated per tutorial, and no time for your own research. You’re already frustrated. Then, you get a tutee that just doesn’t seem to understand what you’re saying or be able to write and speak coherently.  Now, you have to actually tutor this student online and it’s not their poor work you’re dreading, but their poor English. 

“How did this student get into this university?” you might ask.  But they did, and now you have to deal with their English problems through headphones and cheap microphones. Then, when you are conducting your lessons and tutorials online,  technological problems inherent in online tutoring emerge like scratchy microphone, poor connection, lack of good headphones, internet cutouts, and very importantly – no body language “cues.”  

For over a decade my company has been working privately with thousands of Masters and PhD students online to prepare them for some of the world’s leading universities.  We have also helped hundreds of professors learn how to teach in English. In this brief article, I aim to give colleagues who are struggling some techniques to help the students who 1) have English language problems that might prevent good understanding, and 2) are tutored online. 

“Breathe, it’s OK”  Use anxiety-reduction techniques.  The WHO 2019 results show that mental health conditions account for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10–19 years, half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but most cases are undetected and untreated; globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents; and suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds.  So, get students to breathe deep, make them feel valuable to you, and always make sure they can ‘save face’ – otherwise, an English mistake can cause significant stress that could have very negative effects.  As human beings we all get frustrated when online equipment fails or the two-way communication is interrupted by delay.  But if you get frustrated, then that energy will be passed onto the student even in the virtual world.  Make sure to always “keep calm and carry on” even when the limitations of technology irritates you. 

“What are the key words”  Give them relevant vocabulary lists before coming to classes or tutorials. Provide the vocabulary embedded in chunks and teach it aurally as well as in writing.  This is especially effective with students from what Hofstede called ‘high context’ cultures like the Japanese. In their culture, the context of the conversation – what is not said but felt, implied with facial expression, nuance, and other ‘cues’ – creates the shared meaning, whereas Americans for example like to “talk it out.”  In an online tutorial this difference can cause miscommunication. Also, many students who are not confident in English will hesitate in speech and take a lot of extra time that you don’t have to give.  Yet if they know the key words and concepts before the tutorial, they will connect these mentally when they listen and as a result feel more confident in expressing them verbally. 

“Let’s help each other”  Set up peer writing support groups. Collaborative learning is an excellent way to develop community with your students while leveraging the ones with better English to help the ones struggling.  This can be done easily within your LMS by creating a Forum or other Chat function. But it must be designed in a way that gives all students benefit and, yes, sometimes needs to be part of the grades in order to get them to contribute.  Make sure to include the requirement to respond to other people’s posts, like many MOOCs on EdX and others do.  This gives students the necessary writing practice in English that they desperately need.  

“Look at this picture or graph”  Use visual aids as much as possible, and UDL to make sure everyone can understand.  Language learners need pictures, and as 40% or more of us are visual learners first, any picture will help as long as it’s relevant to the discussion. You can have these in a folder on your desktop for easy access, and paste them into the video conferencing tool at the opportune time. Some techniques are discussed in the Faculty Focus blog

“Clarify please”  when using a foreign language without perfect fluency, it is normal to translate in one’s head, which ends up sounding like Google translate.  Students in general have difficulty expressing themselves but when it’s with a professor and the topics are complex, they often will try to articulate something but use wrong words, or speak around the point. When they are online in a group, they have an opportunity to avoid interaction even further. Remember, in many languages indirect speech is the norm, and maintaining the power hierarchy is more important than giving input into a discussion.  So make sure to ‘call out’ the quiet students and give them a voice, otherwise they might never say a word and only the dominant students will talk talk talk.  Online tutoring makes this easy, because you can mute people, or call on specific people to contribute easily as their faces (in a video conferencing tool like Zoom) are right in front of you rather than 50 feet away in a lecture hall. 

“Ask about their culture”  This is very motivating for students, first because it recognizes their unique background and also gives them an opportunity to share in the teaching process with something they feel comfortable with. Online tutoring can be quite impersonal so it’s important to break the ice. With this technique, you can even learn the differences in how they are educated and have more ability to support the next student from their country.  This Faculty Focus blog touches on ways to integrate multicultural learning into your lessons.

In these times where even traditional classes are moving online, it’s important to understand that we are speaking through equipment that is imperfect, that our speech may be misunderstood or may be cut off, and that we might think a student’s English is terrible but it only seems that way because they are used to more context than just speech.  Also, the speech itself is limited to the delays of the bandwidth or quality of equipment which varies.  So let’s avoid getting frustrated because of weak English and just be happy that we have students from all over the World wanting to hear what we have to say. 

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