International Students 10 Minute Read

Navigating Diversity in the Classroom: Identifying, Understanding, and Instructing English Language Learners

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In both online and face-to-face classrooms, instructors will encounter students who have diverse educational backgrounds and proficiencies. More and more frequently, classrooms include students from different countries whose facility with the English language varies. We refer to these individuals as “English language learners.” These students may have recently arrived in the United States, or they may be long-term residents. They could hail from English-dominant regions or from countries where English is not the lingua franca. These individuals all have one thing in common: English is not their first language (L1). For this reason, you will need to not only assess their skill level with a second language (L2), but also consider their L1 proficiency.

So how can you determine how well your students grasp both English and their first language? Providing your students with a prior knowledge assessment that includes questions about their first language can help you determine problem areas and their risk for failure in the classroom. How much of a disadvantage will these students have in your course? Do they understand spoken English? Written English? For that matter, can they read and write in their L1? How much formal schooling have they had? Did they finish the equivalent of high school? Do they have graduate degrees?

In addition to their different educational backgrounds, English language learners can also be quite culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse (Reid, 1998). Although this diversity adds considerable value to the classroom, it also can present instructional challenges for both ESL and mainstream instructors. Many mainstream instructors are unfamiliar with the instructional needs of non-native learners and can be uncomfortable teaching literacy skills outside of their specific discipline (Anderson, 2013). This does not mean, however, that you should feel this same discomfort. It is likely that you already modify instruction for students who need specific scholastic accommodations. You should apply the same practice when your classroom includes English language learners.

This article identifies and describes three types of English language learners so that you may (a) better understand their educational and cultural backgrounds, (b) recognize the disadvantages and difficulties they may encounter in an American classroom, and (c) determine the most appropriate instructional approach for each individual. With this information, you will be able to assist English language learners in your classroom and simultaneously prepare them to succeed in future academic settings.

International (Visa) Studentsimage1

An international student is one who procures a visa to study in another country. In 2016, this group of English language learners represented 5% of the 20 million students enrolled in an American institute for higher education, with China, India, and Saudi Arabia sending the largest number of international students to the United States (Institute of International Education, 2016). These students, sometimes referred to as “elective bilinguals” (i.e., students who choose to become multilingual for personal or professional reasons), typically complete an undergraduate or graduate program in the United States and then return to their country of origin (Valdes, 1991). Generally, international students come from relatively privileged backgrounds, and most are well-educated and highly literate in their L1.

Although international students must demonstrate proficiency in English to gain admission into a university program (or complete a university’s English language pathways or bridge program as a condition for admission), it’s not unusual for them to experience challenges in a mainstream American classroom. First, even though international students may come from a country where English is the official language of the government and the country uses it throughout its educational system (India or Nigeria, for example), English is rarely the language spoken at home. Thus, these students need more exposure to and practice in the target language.

Second, the quality of instruction in a second language (L2) varies widely outside the United States, and some international students may have little experience with the high-level literacy tasks that higher education in the United States demands. Conversely, some students may demonstrate strong literacy skills but struggle with listening and speaking. In fact, most international students are considered “eye learners,” which means they experience learning English principally through the eyes—studying vocabulary lists, verb conjugations, and grammatical rules (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014; Matsuda, 2008). Thus, despite previous English language practice, these students still require language support to successfully complete a program of study abroad.

In addition, an international student’s academic performance may suffer at times due to feelings of homesickness, trouble adjusting to the host country, and pressure to report satisfactory performance to his or her home school or government. Moreover, these students often have preconceived expectations of their academic experience and what is and isn’t necessary for them to learn. For example, some international students may resist following Western writing conventions and learning to write well in English because they won’t be required to write in the target language at length after returning to their home country (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014). Understanding an international student’s background and academic goals will allow you to tailor your approach to meeting his or her individual needs.

Resident Immigrants


Immigrants and refugees who have relocated––usually permanently––to the United States are known as resident immigrants. This group can include unauthorized residents, permanent residents, and naturalized citizens. The English language learners in this group can have very different educational backgrounds. Resident immigrants may be college-educated individuals who are literate in their L1. They can also be individuals who are orally fluent in their first language but due to a limited or interrupted education are not fully literate in their L1. As one might suspect, English language learners who are literate in their L1 acquire English literacy more readily than those who are illiterate (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014; Reid, 1998). English language learners who have limited or interrupted formal education are likely to struggle with high-level literacy tasks. They may need help adjusting to the instructional methods common to American universities, as well as support when developing learning and studying strategies.

Nonetheless, despite the wide differences in English language ability within this group, resident immigrants are highly motivated to learn English and place great importance on academics. This motivation stems from the desire to participate economically in a new country where their first language is not the official language and thus is not an effective means of communication.

These English language learners are considered “circumstantial bilinguals,” or individuals who must “learn another language in order to survive” (Valdes, 1991). They may have immigrated voluntarily to pursue economic opportunity; others may be refugees who fled civil war, persecution, or political upheaval. Therefore, in addition to issues with cultural adjustment and homesickness, these individuals may also struggle with emotional and psychological issues that originate from the circumstances that preceded their immigration (Reid, 1998). For this reason, if you have an English language learner in your classroom who is a resident immigrant, understanding his or her background and current emotional and economic situation is extremely important. This type of knowledge will allow you to best support the student and his or her learning.

Generation 1.5


The term Generation 1.5 refers to the American-educated children of first-generation immigrants. More specifically, this term describes individuals who arrived in the United States as children or adolescents and consequently have a split American–immigrant identity. Although there’s much debate about the cutoff age for qualifying an individual as a Generation 1.5 immigrant, for our purposes, this category describes English language learners who “share the educational and the psychological experience of two or more distinct cultural identities” (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014). In other words, these students identify with both the culture of their parents and the culture of the United States.

As with their parents (resident immigrants), the educational background of these English language learners varies greatly. Generation 1.5 students generally acquire English through intensive immersion in the language and culture. They are principally “ear learners,” which means that they acquire proficiency by actively listening to the language used by teachers and classmates and delivered through television and music (Reid, 1998). Consequently, these individuals develop strong English-speaking skills, and it can be difficult for an instructor to identify a Generation 1.5 student as a non-native speaker because he or she typically has adopted the colloquial language and attitude of adolescents born in the United States.

However, the reading and writing skills of these English language learners often lag behind those of their native-speaking classmates. This disparity is usually the result of the individual integrating into the American educational system during adolescence and receiving little support in learning how to read and write in English. Additional English language instruction is usually limited to the student being pulled out from the mainstream classroom each week for tutoring sessions, not dedicated English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. The gap in literacy that results from this educational shortcoming can become evident to instructors when writing assignments reveal errors that are uncharacteristic of native speakers (Reid, 1998).

In fact, it’s not uncommon for Generation 1.5 English language learners to graduate from American high schools only to find that they still need additional English language instruction to meet the high-level reading and writing tasks that higher education demands. It can be both surprising and discouraging for these individuals to arrive at college and find themselves placed in developmental ESL courses that are perceived as classes for “newcomers” (Reid, 1998). Therefore, it’s important for you to understand your Generation 1.5 English language learners’ circumstances so that you can first encourage and motivate them to persist through any required developmental courses and then provide them with academic support in mainstream general education courses.

Conclusion: Strategies Moving Forward

To assess an English language learner’s individual needs, you may first consider asking him or her to provide background information regarding his or her English language experiences. Depending on the individual’s comfort level, you can do this orally or in written form, such as through a prior knowledge assessment (Reid, 1998; see survey).

Because some students find it difficult to identify their learning communities, you should design questions that will elicit the specific information you seek. For example, instead of asking English language learners to identify their first language, you might ask which language(s) they speak with their parents or guardians, which language(s) they interact with the most (at home, at work, etc.), and which language(s) they prefer to read. Specific questions like these will help you get a clear picture of students’ primary language background (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2014).

Once a student’s background comes into focus, it will become easier for you to identify resources for that student and to provide the necessary academic support. Most importantly, you must recognize that you will need to tailor solutions to the student’s responses. You must also understand that what works for one English language learner may not work for another with a completely different educational and cultural background. The effort you put into understanding these diverse students will be rewarding for both you and your students, as it will serve to enrich their educational experience and the learning community as a whole.


Anderson, C. (2013). Mainstream English teachers working with nonnative speakers: How well prepared are they? The CATESOL Journal, 24(1), 168–173.

Ferris, D. R., & Hedgcock, J. S. (2014). Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Institute of International Education. (2016, November 14). Open doors: Report on international educational exchange, 2016. Retrieved from

Matsuda, P. K. (2008). Myth 8: International and U.S. resident ESL writers cannot be taught in the same class. In J. Reid (Ed.), Writing myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching (pp. 159–176). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Reid, J. M. (1998). “Eye” learners and “ear” learners: Identifying the language needs of international student and U.S. resident writers. In P. Byrd & J.   M. Reid (Eds.), Grammar in the composition classroom: Essays on teaching ESL for college-bound students (pp. 3–17). New York: Heinle & Heinle.

Valdes, G. (1991). Bilingual minorities and language issues in writing: Toward profession-wide responses to a new challenge (Technical report No. 54). Berkeley, CA: University of California, Center for the Study of Writing. Retrieved from

Posted June 23, 2017
Author Lisa Cox