9 Limited English Support

Based on personal experience, and not much else, I have often commented that “English as a Second Language is the first language of global computing”. Many of us have had the experience of taking CS classes at university from professors whose technical skills were powerful, but whose English pronunciation was strained at best. Likewise, the sort of global corporations that employ much of the IT workforce include entire divisions of workers who speak non-native versions of English. Thanks (or no thanks) to the historical dominance of the British Empire, English is effectively the leading language of science and technology worldwide. Many of our students are international and are somewhere in the process of learning English. How can we make IT instruction more effective for these students?

ESL instruction is not my expertise, but efficiently managing classes and curriculum is. From an efficiency standpoint, the last thing you want to do is to invent some parallel silo of instruction specifically to accommodate ESL students or any other special category of learner. In the EDI world, there will be no end to that! A more workable approach is to embed your diversity interventions right into whatever becomes your main approach. Do not retrofit diversity onto a curriculum that was really built specifically for highly educated native English speakers. Rather, create a program of instruction that works for different levels of language proficiency at every phase of the instructional process. To illustrate how this can work, the analysis below will sample some ESL teaching ideas from the references  also below and show how they align with the more general philosophy expressed in this guide.

Cultivate relationships and be culturally responsive

It is a good idea to cultivate relationship with all students. You will not need to do this differently for ESL students.

Teach language skills across the curriculum

Absolutely! IT workers need communication skills. Artifacts like progress reports, network diagrams, and comments in code should be part of any IT training program. You do not need to be a stickler for grammar, spelling, or an academic writing style. I tell my students: “Keep it short and sweet. Get to the point. Imagine this is for a busy boss who needs the report, but has no time to waste.”

Emphasize productive language

That is, make the students speak and write. Although this may be challenging for ESL students, they need the practice. (So do IT students in general). You can be gentle in grading where ESL students are involved. If an ESL student needs to prepare an oral report, this is one occasion for which the proverbial “A for effort” is not unreasonable.

Speak slowly – and increase your wait time

Fast talker here! But you can compensate for that. If you say something fast or complicated the first time, you can also restate the same idea more slowly, in shorter sentences, with easier words.  Keep downshifting until you are sure the students all understood the main ideas.

Differentiate – and use multiple modalities

This is not saying anything the rest of this guide is not already saying. If you diversity your instructional strategies as a standard practice, diversity of student demographics will not phase you.

Incorporate students’ native languages – and don’t be afraid of technology

This goes a little deeper, but it is worth the trip! First of all, when it comes to computer languages, any experienced IT person knows that no one language rules them all.  To be effective in the IT workforce, students will likely need at least passing familiarity with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, PHP, SQL, Linux, Windows, MacOS and quite a few more. Likewise, from a business standpoint, a company that fails to internationalize or regionalize communications  and user interface gives up on something like 80% of the potential global marketplace. Unique among all peoples, US citizens sometimes think they can get through life without any “foreign” language proficiency.  I disagree. Everyone needs to try a second or third language, if only to have the experience of what it’s like to navigate the world with a different roadmap. Foreign travel, including study abroad, is highly valuable for this reason. If you have learned at least a bit of some second language, try setting your browser’s search parameters to return results in that language. Then try using Google Translate (or some other tool like that), to help you make sense of the results. Once I was trying to solve a technical problem and the answer was found on a technical discussion board – in Portuguese! That is a language I barely understand, but it worked. Can you get what you need from non-English sources? Try it! At the very least, your teaching skills will likely improve thanks to the experience you gain from being on the linguistic outside looking in.

Modeling, give instructions. check for understanding

These are all meat and potatoes DI techniques. Some people have the well-intended, but thoroughly mistaken notion that when your students get diverse, you need to practice “liberation pedagogy” and not impose anything on the students.  With ESL students, it’s pretty much the opposite. They came to the US to get away from oppression somewhere else in the world. Now they need job skills. DI will get them those. Also, the high structure and repetitious nature of DI is absolutely the best recipe when students are challenged to understand even normal vocabulary in English, which for better or worse must work for them as the language of instruction.

This does not rule out discovery learning, projects, or group  work. Diversify! Bring some open-ended projects too. Remember, you also want to encourage speaking and writing, because ESL students need to work those language-producing muscles. Just use a lot of DI to frame whatever the project is so the students won’t feel like some taxi just dropped them off mistakenly on a lonely road in the middle of nowhere.

Use of non-linguistic cues

Even many native English speakers are visual or hands-on learners.  No IT class should be all talk, all the time. Use screen shots, slides, live demos, and hand-on simulations and lab work to engage all the students’ senses. You should do this anyway, even for a class of English majors. (Especially for a class of English majors!) Again, a structurally diversified instructional program will accommodate ESL students without any major distractions or modifications to business as usual.


https://readinghorizons.website/blog/learning-the-value-of-english/Links to an external site.

https://www.edutopia.org/article/6-essential-strategies-teaching-english-language-learners/Links to an external site.



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Making Connections: Instructors Guide for Information Technology Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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