Meeting the Needs of International Students


by Lissa Petersen

When non-native English speakers learn the conventions of American academic rhetoric and build their English language ability to an advanced level of proficiency, they are doing developmental -- not remedial -- work. When they begin their studies in the U.S., they have already reached a higher level of second-language proficiency than most American students ever achieve. But they may need an even higher level (one that many native speakers never reach) to succeed in their programs. 

Challenges International Students Face


International students are struggling with many of the following challenges simultaneously, some to a greater degree than others: 

Cultural and Social Adjustment



Lack of Relevant Academic/Cultural Background for Courses: As a student from Oman notes, "Some professors assume that international students know about what I call 'typical American issues,' which take time for international students to follow. These include politics and societal issues such as TV shows and current events." A first-year Taiwanese student adds: "I lack knowledge background in my field, so there are too many technical terms I just cannot understand."



Listening Difficulties: A first-year Korean student states: "I think listening is more difficult than the other skills because if we can understand what Americans are saying easily, rapidly and perfectly, our adjusting effort to the American way of life, especially academic life, will be easier."



Speaking Problems: Many international students are inhibited about speaking because they are painfully aware of their problems in some or all of these areas:





word and phrase stress


They fear not being understood, not being able to respond rapidly or correctly, and not being able to say what they mean, as the following students testify: 

A first-year student from Hong Kong: "Active participation in the classroom is really a problem for me. Even if I can understand the question, I cannot respond quickly to it or do not have the courage to talk in class. In most cases I feel disappointed. " 


A first-year Taiwanese student: "When asked to speak, international students think in their own languages and then try to translate into English. It is the most difficult thing for international students to react immediately in English. They need some time, but sometimes they don't get it. These situations might make the students upset." 


An Indonesian student: "Although I've been here for three years, I sometimes still have difficulties expressing my opinion in class, and this makes me afraid to speak up. I sometimes find that what I am saying is different from what I am thinking. I lose control of the talk." 


Reading Comprehension and Reading Speed Problems



New Vocabulary, Idioms, Usage



Grammar, Puncuation, Spelling Problems 



Critical Thinking Level/Language Control: Benjamin Bloom, whose taxonomy of thinking skills has been widely taught in education courses, arranges these skills in hierarchical order with the later ones incorporating the former:


As international students address more challenging thinking tasks, you may see their English language ability break down in both speaking and writing. A student may narrate, describe, or summarize information in good English but may produce more fractured language when trying to argue or evaluate ideas. Rhetorical differences and reading comprehension difficulties may also affect performance. Overcoming these difficulties takes time, intensive language exposure, and active practice. 

Rhetorical Differences: What may be less apparent than pronunciation or grammatical problems are the significant rhetorical differences between American academic writing and that of other cultures. What may appear to us as disorganized, illogical, or wordy written expression may be perfectly acceptable academic prose in another culture. While most of our international students have studied English grammar and vocabulary, many have not learned our expectations in this area. Even European students often have to alter their writing styles to make them acceptable to American professors. Here are some of the rhetorical conventions for writing that students may bring with them from their academic cultures contrasted with ours.


Typically Value

Some Other Cultures Value

A clear, focused thesis, stated directly, early in the paper

Thesis is held back to the end or only implied* 

Paragraphs with one main idea 

Paragraphs with several main ideas

Original analysis and evaluation of author's ideas, not just summary

Questioning, challenging, criticizing and authority is unacceptable; demonstrating understanding or knowledge is all that is expected 

Logical, linear organization with clear connections

Digressions, circular logic, or conclusions that introduce whole 
new ideas may be common practice 

Specific supports for generalizations in order to be convincing

Generalizations alone can convince, 
and sometimes repeating them is 
the best way to be persuasive** 

A concise, straightforward style is admired

Flowery, lengthy, indirect language 

Appropriate documentation and use of sources

Conventions on plagiarism vary. It is not treated seriously in some cultures where copying may be done without what we consider proper crediting of the source


* A Korean student: "It was very difficult to follow the American writing style when I began to learn it. When studying in Korea, I did not learn it. Even though I did not start a paper with the main idea, my Korean professor did not take a serious view about it." 


** An Indonesian student: "I express my opinion in a different way compared to the natives. They tend to speak everything in details while I do not. I sometimes assume that jumping into details is not really necessary. The most important thing is to state the main idea since the time given is limited." 

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