As international teachers who are non-native speakers of English prepare to teach at Ohio State, they invariably express concern about a possible language barrier.  Will their students understand them?  Will they understand their students?

The way that someone speaks is quite salient.  If students are experiencing difficulty in a course, it is easy to point to an instructor’s accented English as the source of that difficulty, even if it is not true.  There is far more to teaching than speaking English like a native speaker. Attention to those aspects of teaching will compensate for English that students are not accustomed to hearing.  And, all speakers have the ability to learn to listen to and understand different ways of speaking a language.

It may be helpful to know that speaking native-like English is not a deciding factor in successful teaching.  American students value teachers who are enthusiastic about the course content, who challenge them, and who also care about their learning.  Students also give high ratings to teachers who are approachable, flexible, and trustworthy.  This is true even if an instructor does not speak English like a native speaker.

Even so, many international instructors wish to further develop their language ability, especially in a teaching and learning setting, which includes phrases and expressions that are not used in other contexts.  The following paragraphs will give you hands-on strategies for building and maintaining classroom communication, and developing facility with specialized classroom vocabulary and phrases.

Creating an Environment in which Communication is Welcome

Remember that communication flows in two directions: teacher to student, and student to teacher.  Both you and your students are working together to create the learning environment.  As instructor, you are the person who  manages the classroom, so there are some things you can do from the beginning to set up useful and respectful communication practices.

First, let your students know that you care about communicating with them.  When you first walk into the classroom, some of your students may be surprised to learn that you are not American.  Or, they may seem anxious because you are not a native speaker, especially if they are already anxious about the class.  A great way to build rapport with your students when you first meet them is to look directly at them and to smile.  In American culture, a smile is seen as a sign of trust and genuineness.  Smiling at your students will help them to feel at ease and will help you to build rapport with them.  Second, introduce yourself, and if you think they may have trouble pronouncing your name, help them to learn to pronounce it.

Next, and most importantly, make it okay for your students to ask you for clarification if they do not understand something that you say.  Talking openly about your English will help relieve any concerns your students might have about it.  You can let them know that you occasionally make a pronunciation or grammar mistake, or that you occasionally use a wrong word.  Do not apologize for speaking accented English.  Rather, point out that, as they learn to listen to your accent, and as you refine your English skills, if they do not understand something that you say, they should raise their hands and ask.  Students generally do not want to appear rude to the teacher or potentially embarrass the teacher, so they might not do this unless you explicitly invite them to.  Telling them on the first day is a good start, but also remind them as the semester progresses.

Strategies for Speaking

Do not be afraid of speaking slowly.  For all speakers, speech errors tend to increase as speech rate increases.  It is not unusual for instructors to speed up their talking when they are excited about the subject that they are teaching.  Also, consider that your students are processing new information as they listen.  They need time to process new material.  Even native speakers often speak too quickly for students to keep up.

Pay attention to intonation and stress patterns.  These are more important than accurate pronunciation of consonants and vowels.  Intonation, or the melody in speech, serves to communicate beginnings and ends of sentences and phrases, as well as what information is important, new, or contrasting to previously mentioned information.  Improving your intonation patterns helps you to structure spoken information, which in turn will guide your students’ learning.

Practice correct pronunciation of discipline-specific terms.  Your students are working to understand discipline-specific terminology that is new to them.  If you struggle to pronounce it, they may not be able to figure out what you said.  You can check your pronunciation by asking a native English speaking friend or colleague, or by using an online dictionary that has audio, such as http://www.dictionary.com.  As you introduce new terminology during class, write it down on the board when you say the term for the first time (or point to it on a slide), so that students can match the visual representation of the word to the verbal one.

Let your students know which sounds or words are particularly troublesome for you.  If your students can anticipate your speech patterns, they can adjust to them.  For instance, if you have difficulty distinguishing between certain sounds, you can tell them, like this instructor from South Korea told his students:

If I am substituting /p/ for /f/, please let me know.  I work hard with that but I still sometimes say ‘perm’ for ‘firm’ or ‘pactor’ for factor’.  I will write it on the board.

Strategies for Listening and Clarifying Communication

International instructors often express concern to us that they will not understand their students.  English in America sounds different from English that is taught and spoken in other parts of the world.  In addition, there are many different varieties (dialects) of English spoken throughout the US.  It may take some time to adjust to the way students from Ohio and other parts of the US speak.

If you do not understand what your student says, ask the student to repeat their comment or question, more slowly, or more loudly, if necessary.  Another strategy is to repeat the part that you have understood, and ask for the rest.  This confirms for your student that you were listening  and lets the student know that she or he does not have to repeat the whole question or comment.  Here are some examples.

In small classes, you can also ask your students to write the words on the board.  This also can enhance communication and create a more participatory learning environment.

Check frequently to make sure your students are understanding you.  This is a useful practice for all instructors, regardless of language ability.  Here is why:

  • Students may not have heard you, they may have not understood what you said, or they may have misunderstood the material.
  • Students may not want to stop you to ask a question because they are busy taking notes, trying to process what you have just said, or paying attention to what you are saying next.
  • Pausing to check that students are with you provides a break in the flow of information, giving students who have questions an opening to let you know that something was not clear, and giving other students time to complete their notes or to process the material.
  • Checking regularly makes it easier for students to let you know where you were in your discussion when a misunderstanding occurred.  It is easier to ask a question about something discussed in the last few minutes than it is to try and remember something from 15-20 minutes ago.

Here are some expressions that you can use to check for understanding.

When you ask a question, remember to pause for a long enough time (15 seconds at minimum, as long as 30 seconds is okay) to give your students time to formulate their questions. Also, to show that questions and comments from students are welcome, you can use non-verbal communication such as turning to face the questioner, making eye-contact with him or her, or leaning your head toward the student.  Before you answer a student question, repeat it again to make sure that the rest of the class has heard it, especially if the questioner speaks quietly.

Once you have clarified or answered your students’ questions, it is useful to check back yet again, by saying, for example:

  • Is that clear now?
  • Does that clear things up?
  • Does that clear up the misunderstanding?

Classroom Language

There are many phrases that are commonly used in the classroom setting, and many instructors who have worked with us over the years have told us that they do not always know this specialized vocabulary when they begin teaching.  Most of these words and phrases have to do with classroom management, logistics, and instructions.  You can find several on this page.

American Academic Jargon

Academic terms used in the US are not always the same as academic terms in other English-speaking parts of the world.  Even if you are a native English speaker, if you speak a variety of English that is not spoken in the US, you might encounter new phrases or different usage of familiar words and phrases.  An alphabetized list of common expressions used at Ohio State can be found on this page.

If you have questions related to Communication Strategies that are not answered by the information on this page, please contact us.