The University of Minnesota does not have a formal policy on providing language accommodations. However, there may be times when making informal accommodations for multilingual students can help reduce barriers to learning. 

Formal vs. Informal Accommodations

You may be familiar with students requesting formal accommodations from the Disability Resource Center (DRC) related to disabilities. These accommodations are documented and follow University policies to provide equitable access to persons with disabilities.

Developing a proficiency in a second language is not a disability. However, like other issues related to equitable access to learning, language accommodations can be made on an informal basis. No documentation is required for informal accommodations, and they are provided at the discretion of the instructor.

One way to reduce barriers for all students is to implement the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) in learning experiences. 

Engaging with Multilingual Students

This video, along with the responses to questions that appear below, can be helpful in guiding you how to make informal accommodations for multilingual students.

How Can We Implement Informal Accommodations?

  • Will the accommodation compromise a learning outcome? Carefully evaluate what students need to demonstrate to achieve the learning outcomes in your class. Then consider which aspects of the content, format, or assignment design are negotiable for those who may benefit from an accommodation, but which will not affect the construct being assessed. Here are some questions to consider.

  • How feasible is it to adapt course content or assessments? Making informal accommodations often requires flexibility in timing, delivery of content, and setting. Evaluate the options you have to be flexible with these elements.
  • Does providing an informal accommodation give some students an unfair advantage? Students who speak English as their first language have advantages in a classroom where English is the language of instruction. An informal accommodation provides a way to mitigate learning barriers that multilingual students may face and thus can provide more equitable access to learning for all students.
  • Will the accommodation enhance the learning experience for all students? Sometimes making informal accommodations to your existing course content or structure (such as extending test time) is reasonable to consider and, if offered to everyone in the class, may increase access for other students beyond just the students requesting it.
  • Consider the content or skills that are being tested and determine whether extended time would give the student an unfair advantage or would better help them demonstrate their knowledge and abilities. For example, if the speed with which a task is completed is a learning outcome being assessed, then it would be appropriate to limit the time all students have to complete the assessment.  

  • What other supports, if any, is the student using on the test, and are those adding more time? For example, if a student is using a dictionary or has an accommodation for a disability, more time may be required to complete a task.

  • If you choose to offer extended time to multilingual students, a common practice is to provide time-and-a-half. For example, a 30-minute exam in class could be extended to 45 minutes.

  • Should this option be open to all students? If it does not cause logistical challenges with room scheduling or class times, other students may benefit from extra time on an assessment.

“I think it is sometimes useful to give extra time on exams to the whole class, and this can benefit non-native English speakers if the exam involves a lot of reading or subtle wording distinctions.”

  • Consider what skills or content you are trying to teach, and determine whether the use of a dictionary would give the student an unfair advantage or would better help them demonstrate their knowledge. For example, on a vocabulary quiz, it would not be appropriate to use a dictionary. However, on a math test with word problems, it might be appropriate to allow a dictionary, and it could give students a chance to better show what they know.
  • Using a dictionary takes more time and more mental processing, especially if it’s a first-language dictionary and the student then has to translate into English. So you might also want to consider:
    • Is using the dictionary actually helping the student do a task better?  
    • Does using a dictionary slow down their work, and if so, how do you need to plan for this?
  • Determine whether or not the use of electronic dictionaries would introduce the possibility of cheating by storing other information on the device. Using a paper dictionary might work better, if you can check it to make sure there are not notes inside.  
  • An alternative option is to provide a glossary of key terms that may be challenging for students.
  • Should this option be open to all students? Sometimes the use of a glossary is something other students might also need, so the instructor could allow all students to use one.  

“I highly encourage questions and will explain any terms that are not familiar as long as they are not part of the learning objectives.”

  • Offering extra feedback is one way to help multilingual students learn more about the “hidden curriculum”—unspoken rules for assignments that may seem obvious to US students, but may not be clear for multilingual international students. (See the Student Voices report, by Anderson et al., 2012, to learn more about how curriculum format or guidelines may be unfamiliar for international students.) It can also help to accelerate students’ language development when you provide specific examples that meet your expectations.
  • Be selective about which assignments are eligible for extra feedback. For example, it may be more helpful to offer extra feedback on work submitted earlier in the semester so that students have a better understanding of expectations throughout the semester.
  • Another way to offer extra feedback is to give opportunities for early review or informal check-ins during office hours before the official assignment deadline.
  • Should this option be open to all students? Providing extra feedback is a time-intensive process and can only be done when there are sufficient instructional resources available (time, help of TAs, etc.). Identifying specific aspects of an assignment that students can take to the Center for Writing or Student English Language Support (SELS) may be a way of providing some targeted feedback that students can work on outside of class.

"Have student[s] submit drafts of their work especially when they say they are not sure how to do an assignment. Then I can give concrete feedback and get them in the right direction or ask more clarifying questions.” 

  • Be clear about how you will assess student work. For example, provide clear expectations, rubrics, and guidelines to determine whether students have met the broader course learning outcomes. 
  • When grading work from multilingual students, it is important to differentiate when a student has not met the learning outcomes versus when they may simply be demonstrating a written or spoken “accent” in their work. Some specific examples of accent in writing are provided in this handout on Student Referral Best Practices.

“I tell them that although I mark grammatical errors, these don't affect their grade ... so that they can learn from my edits without pressure.”

  • Speaking English as a second language is not a disability. However, it may be difficult to discern whether a student is experiencing a challenge related to a learning disability or a language barrier.
  • If you are concerned that students may be experiencing a disability, you can refer them to the Disability Resource Center (DRC). Instructors can also contact the DRC directly to consult at 612-626-1333 or
  • Students who need extra language support can consult with the ESL Faculty & Staff Liaison to learn about the language resources available.
  • Multilingual students may benefit from a 1:1 consultation at Student English Language Support (SELS). Undergraduate students can schedule a 45-minute appointment or visit during walk-in hours. Consultants offer support for any area of English language development, including speaking skills for giving presentations, participating in class discussions, grammar, listening and reading comprehension, vocabulary development, pronunciation, or any other English as a Second Language need!
  • Multilingual students may also benefit from taking an Academic English course as they continue to enhance their language skills throughout their academic career. MELP offers a range of courses to help enhance students’ speaking, listening, reading, writing, and grammar skills, as well as other courses designed for students in specific majors, such as English for Chemistry or Physics, and English for Business Interactions.  

All quotes are from faculty survey responses found in Supporting Non-Native English Speakers (Peters & Anderson, 2017).