Unique Characteristics and Challenges of Multilingual Students

While students who are not native speakers of English have been described by different names, for example, second language (L2) learners, foreign language (FL) learners, English as a second language learners (ESL), the term multilingual (ML) students is preferable to others because it emphasizes students’ strength – speaking multiple languages – rather than suggesting skills deficiency.

The International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) office provides annual snapshots of international students at Miami campuses and their home country distribution. 

Though ML students vary enormously in demographics, educational backgrounds, and experiences, they can be broadly categorized into international visa students and U.S. residents who are immigrants graduating from U.S. high schools.

The handbook Teaching Multilingual Students sketches educational, linguistic, and cultural characteristics of both groups and the challenges they may face. It also includes some helpful suggestions for faculty.

Identify your International Students

Given the diversity of ML students, the best source of information on how to best support them is ML students themselves in your course.

To find out whether there are international students in your course:
  • Go to "bannerweb" on your mymiami page.
  • Click on "Faculty Services" and you'll see a long list.
  • Click on "Detail Class List.”
  • If a student is international, "Admit type" will be "Oxford - International."

Get to Know Your ML Students

Personal Interactions

Require one-on-one or small group conferences in your office.

Short Writing Assignment

Assign a short, low-stakes writing assignment that encourages students to share their backgrounds.

Please describe yourself as a student-writer in a short paragraph of about 100-150 words. Use any past academic, professional, and personal writing experience to support your description. Feel free to be honest about any hopes or concerns you might have. (You do not have to read the whole paragraph. First few sentences will give an idea about students’ ability to express themselves clearly.)

Short Survey About Academic Background

  1. Where have you received formal English language instruction (grammar, vocabulary, style, for example). Please check ALL that apply:
    • English language learner classes in your home country
    • English language learner classes in the U.S.
    • Nowhere
    • Other (please explain)
  2. Where did you go to high school?
    • Regular high school in your home country
    • International high school in your home country
    • High school in the U.S.
  3. How confident do you feel about your current knowledge of English grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, and other mechanics?
    • Very confident
    • Somewhat confident
    • Not confident
  4. How would you rate your interaction skills in English when it comes to working in groups with your peers?
    • Very strong or perfect
    • Fairly strong
    • Somewhat weak
    • Very weak
  5. How would you rate your English language usage when it comes to writing for school?
    • Very strong or perfect
    • Fairly strong
    • Somewhat weak
    • Very weak

Recommended Readings

Readings Discussing ML Students’ Strength and Challenges

Readings Focusing on ML students’ Experiences in Content-Area Courses

ML students learn content while still learning English. The chapters below discuss ML students’ experiences in various disciplines and the role of faculty in the ongoing process of improving students’ reading and writing skills in academic English.

Suggestions for Inclusive Teaching

For ML students to succeed in content-area courses, they need help with learning content while developing English academic proficiency and learning the academic disciplinary discourse. The resources below include practical suggestions for enhancing ML students’ learning through inclusive teaching.