As we increasingly work and teach online, we have the opportunity to reflect on our teaching and advising practices and ensure that they serve as many learners as possible, including multilingual students. The linguistic and cultural backgrounds of multilingual international students can be incredible assets to everyone, but only if we find ways to include the students as equal and valuable participants.

Below are some tips and strategies to help you better support multilingual learners in online spaces. Many of the specific strategies below are supported by Universal Design for Instruction and can improve learning for all students in your classroom. References consulted and additional resources and online teaching guides are also provided.

Be sure to check out our videos, too.

Tips and Strategies

Learn to pronounce students’ names

  • Ask students to enter their name in the Name Coach feature of Canvas. This feature allows students to record themselves saying their name and makes the recording available to other Canvas users to listen to.
  • In synchronous Zoom meetings, you can also ask students to edit their name to include their preferred name and pronunciation tip along with their preferred pronoun.

Get to know students and be flexible

Learning about and acknowledging your students’ contexts and constraints and allowing for alternative participation can help students feel welcome.

  • Student access to the course platform, tools, and materials may differ.
  • They might be in a different time zone.
  • They might not have private or quiet spaces for learning.
  • They might be joining from locations with high censorship.

Acknowledge and honor the varied languages and cultures present

In order to do this, it’s important to get to know the students. Above all, let students know they are seen and heard and that their varied linguistic and cultural experiences are valuable.

  • At the beginning of the term, send out a survey. Ask how many and what languages the students speak.
    • Consider including options that include different varieties of English (e.g., British English, African American English, Australian English). Share the results with students, highlighting the perspectives that speakers of other languages have and what a feat these learners have accomplished.
  • Create situations or activities where knowing different (varieties of) languages other than standard American English is an asset.
    • For example, you might encourage students to find resources available in other languages or invite examples from different cultural or linguistic perspectives.
  • Create groups or group roles based on the number of languages students speak, acknowledging non-standard varieties of English as legitimate languages.
  • Invite students to use languages other than academic English to discuss and connect with the course content and then reflect on (and share) the impact of using their various linguistic skills.

Explain what you expect of students and why

Educational practices and classroom expectations are deeply cultural and tend not to be as widely shared and understood as often assumed. Students come to the classroom with diverse strengths and understandings of what it means to be a successful student, and adjusting to US higher education values and practices can be one of the most challenging aspects of studying in a new language and culture.

Work to avoid assumptions by making explicit and clear the classroom expectations in this new space. For example, you can:

  • explain your teaching philosophy and why you chose to set up your course in a given way
  • let students know the goals of your learning activities and assignments and how they serve the course objectives and ultimately benefit their learning; and
  • invite students to discuss or reflect on how this might be similar or different from other learning experiences they’ve encountered and then, in turn, listen to and reflect on their stories.

Explain what students can expect of you

Teacher and students roles vary across educational cultures. That said, being present and available is critical in the online space.

Clearly explain how you view your role in the online learning experience and let students know how and when you plan to engage in the course and with them. This includes who/when you might deliver content, engage in activities and discussions, and provide feedback. Have students reflect on or discuss how this might be similar or different to prior learning experiences and ask them to share so you can reflect, too.

Strive for simple and consistent routines

It can be very helpful for multilingual (international) students to have predictability in their learning context. This can support their ongoing adjustment to a new learning environment.

  • Consider the routines and deadlines that might recur from module to module.
    • For example, you might start with an introduction video with announcements and an overview of the current learning objectives and activities. From there you might have a consistent progression from a warm up, to content/concept exploration and checking for comprehension, to application or engagement with the concepts, and ending with a reflection.
  • Operate from a "fewest clicks" mindset.
  • Consider designing your module in a very linear fashion with each component of the learning module presented as a distinct item in a chronological to-do list. This helps avoid a need for clicking around and back and forth through the course making it easier to navigate.
  • Include clear due dates and deadlines that link to the course and student calendars.

Make assignments clear and specific

  • Clearly describe assignments and provide annotated models when possible that help learners understand the strengths and weaknesses of a model assignment.
  • Let students know why they are being asked to do the assignment and how they will be graded. Offer these explanations through short videos and screencasts at the beginning of learning modules or as part of assignment descriptions that include closed captions.
  • Invite questions and opportunities to meet to clarify understanding.

Vary modalities

One way to support ongoing language learning is to present content in multiple modalities. For example:

  • Lectures could be (pre)recorded using closed captions (CC) to provide students with written and oral versions and an opportunity to review content at their own pace.
  • Whenever possible, allow for written or audio/video participation discussions or other activities.
  • In synchronous Zoom discussions or presentations, CC could be turned on to offer a live and exportable written transcript.

Check biases

  • Focus on clear communication of content and ideas and be mindful of negative judgments or grading of accented or "nonstandard" uses of English.
  • Remind yourself and students to check any biases they might have based on how someone speaks, writes, or communicates in English.
  • Foster openness to difference and variation. This makes the goal of clear and effective communication a mutual one.

Be aware of idiomatic expressions and jargon

Using slang, idiomatic language, cultural references, or disciplinary jargon can make it challenging for learners of English to understand.

  • Try either avoiding such language or acknowledging it and offering a quick definition or explanation.
  • You might even encourage a student sourced glossary or dictionary with new expressions and terminology.

Get personal and be present

  • Share personal stories and experiences.
  • Record announcements or thoughts from your phone in informal contexts.
  • Show your students you are there. Offer opportunities and safe spaces for students to do the same so they can get to know each other and share their strengths and talents.
  • Invite students to connect the content to their personal experiences and to critically examine ideas and content through a cultural lens.
    • For example, you might invite students to respond to a reading artistically, and ask them to annotate their creative endeavor and post it for the class to view. This might inspire a musician to write and perform a song, an artist to paint, a budding teacher to create a lesson plan. This kind of assignment allows students to interact with content on a personal level and demonstrate learning in alternative ways.

Get visual

Create assignments and activities that ask students to use audio/visuals of themselves.

  • For example, you could ask students to do a video response to a discussion question. Seeing faces allows for important nonverbal communication to be conveyed and helps students get to know each other.

Create cooperative and collaborative learning activities

Students can feel isolated and lonely in online courses. It’s important to find ways for students to work and learn together and feel part of a team. Students can do this asynchronously through a variety of tools (e.g., Google Docs, small group discussions, FlipGrid, Padlet, wikis).

  • Depending on time zone constraints, consider asking students to regularly meet synchronously either as a study group or to accomplish a specific task/assignment.
  • Support groups by assigning roles and establishing guidelines for communicating and working together.
  • You might join a group from time to time so that you get to know the students, too.

Use synchronous class times interactively

If your class has a synchronous component, use as much of this time for student participation and small group discussion and work as possible.

Be sure to let students know what you expect of them and how they can best prepare for the session.

  • For example, Eric Nelson, an experienced ESL teacher at the U of M, suggests the following: Discuss with students the Zoom culture you want to create. Try to come up with a list of "Let's all try to…" items. Examples: Be punctual. When T says, "Any questions?" students say no or raise a hand. Use each other's names. Unless you have good reasons for not showing your face, show your face.

Reference and share campus resources regularly

Students can be reluctant to seek help from the various support services on campus. To some, it can conjure personal or cultural feelings of failure or weakness.

  • Normalize seeking help, including English language support, by frequently referring or linking to various support resources available on campus and encouraging students to visit these.
  • You might even invite student panels to share their experiences or success stories.

U of M Campus Resources

Center for Educational Innovation (n.d.). Online instruction. University of Minnesota.

Office for Equity and Diversity: Disability Resource Center (2017). Creating Community in the Classroom: Tips for Instructors [PDF file]. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from

Office for Community Standards (2020). Online Learning Expectations. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from, & Faculty Development for Online Teaching task group (n.d.). Guidelines for Online Teaching and Design. University of Minnesota. Retrieved July 3, 2020, from


Online Teaching Guides

Association of College and University Educators (n.d.). Online teaching toolkit. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from

Brown University: The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning (n.d.). Asynchronous strategies for inclusive teaching. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

Cox, M. (2020, April 01). Guidance for faculty: Getting and staying connected with international students. Cornell University: English Language Support Office. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

Darby, F. (2019, April 17). How to be a better online teacher. Chronicles of Higher Education. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

Wehler, M. (2018). Five Ways to Build Community in Online Classrooms. Faculty Focus.

Wesch, M. [Michael Wesch]. (2019, August 23). 10 Online teaching tips beyond Zoom: Teaching without walls Episode 1 [Video]. YouTube.


Research and Other Relevant Resources

Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Strategies for teaching international and multilingual students. University of Washington. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171.

Grier-Reed, T., & Williams-Wengerd, A. (2018). Integrating universal design, culturally sustaining practices, and constructivism to advance inclusive pedagogy in the undergraduate classroom. Education Sciences, 8(4), 167.

Kang, H., & Chang, B. (2016). Examining culture's impact on the learning behaviors of international students from Confucius culture studying in Western online learning context. Journal of International Students, 6(3), 779-797.

Kobayashi, M. (2015, January 22). Supporting international students online. Faculty Focus. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

Kung, M. (2017). Methods and strategies for working with international students learning online in the US. TechTrends, 61(5), 479-485.

Liu, X., Liu, S., Lee, S., & Magjuka, R. J. (2010). Cultural differences in online learning: International student perceptions. Educational Technology & Society, 13(3), 177-188.

Sadykova, G., & Meskill, C. (2019). Interculturality in online learning: Instructor and student accommodations. Online Learning, 23(1), 5-21.

Sailsman, S., Rutherford, M., Tovin, M., & Cianelli, R. (2018). Cultural integration online: The lived experience of English-as-a-second-language RN-BSN nursing students learning in an online environment. Nursing Education Perspectives, 39(4), 221-224.

Shenoy, U. (2020, March 20). International students displaced by COVID-19 also face headaches with online classes. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

Tan, F., Nabb, L., Aagard, S., & Kim, K. (2010). International ESL graduate student perceptions of online learning in the context of second language acquisition and culturally responsive facilitation. Adult Learning, 21(1-2), 9-14.

Watwood, B., Nugent, L., & Deihl, W. (2009). Building from content to community: Rethinking the transition to online teaching and learning: A CTE White Paper [PDF file]. Virginia Commonwealth University: Center for Teaching Excellence. Retrieved from

Zhang, Z., & Kenny, R. (2010). Learning in an online distance education course: Experiences of three international students. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 11(1), 17-36.

How-to Videos

Using Closed Captions in Zoom

The video below offers a tutorial in how and why to use CC in Zoom meetings.

Using Jamboard

This video is an introduction to Jamboard, a free tool you can use like a whiteboard.


If you have any questions about the material and resources found on this site, please email LeeAnne Godfrey at