Tutoring International Students

Communicating with international students not yet fluent in English

A. Speaking to be understood

  • Be patient and respectful.
  • Speak slowly.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Try pausing for an instant after each sentence to give students time to process what you've said. Watch to see whether they seem to understand.
  • Smiling and nodding don't necessarily mean students have understood. They may mean "I'm confused but too embarrassed to ask questions." Try asking a question to check comprehension.
  • Be wary of slang and idioms.
  • Be wary, too, of phrasal verbs (short verbs plus prepositions).
    • Instead of asking if the student "got over his cold." ask if he "recovered."
    • Instead of "came into some money, say "inherited some money."
    • Instead of "get on with the project," try "continue the project." (or resume work...)
  • Use non-verbal aids. Draw pictures. Use numbers. Make graphs. Remember the problem is only English.
  • Write it down. Lots of international students find reading easier than listening.

B. Listening to understand

  • Remember always that it's English language skills, not intellectual ability or knowledge that's weak. Be patient, kind, and respectful.
  • Listen!
  • Be creative. Try to figure out what the student is trying to say. But check your hunches. Paraphrase and ask the student if you've understood.
  • Don't be afraid to ask the student to repeat what he or she has said.
  • When you simply can't understand, ask the student to write his or her thoughts down on paper.
  • Remember that improvement comes quickly. The same student struggling to communicate in the fall may be chattering to American friends by spring.

Helpful reading (available in the writing Center)

Most of the handbooks and workbooks in the Writing Center have sections on grammar that should be helpful when you're working with international students.  Check our books database for a complete list of books for ESL writers.

For a start, you might try one of the following:

  • Arkin, Marian.  Tutoring ESL Students. NY: Longman, 1982.
  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer. Understanding and Using English Grammar. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents, 1989. [Ms. Azar's books are great. This book has a particularly good section in the front of the book explaining verb tenses. Designed for intermediate to advanced ESL students.]
  • Azar, Betty Schrampfer. Fundamentals of English Grammar. 2nd ed. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents, 1992. [Similar to the book above, but aimed at a slightly lower level.]