Teaching with English as a Second Language

Teaching with English as a Second Language

On October 30, 2020, TLL held a panel event for English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) TAs. This event was conceived and hosted by Jingfan Yang, a Teaching Development Fellow, to introduce ESL TAs to resources across the Institute and address their concerns. TA panelists included Cecilia Testart (EECS Teaching Development Fellow), Chuliang Song (CEE), Mohamad Nahleh (Architecture Teaching Development Fellow), Qian Song (DMSE), and Seo Woo Choi (ChemE).

Note: Attendee questions and panelist responses have been paraphrased for brevity.

Question: What do you do if there is some language confusion (e.g., you don’t understand a word in the problem/solution), or it’s hard to understand what students mean because of their accent or because they talk too fast?

Panelists’ Answers: Ask the student to clarify the question—they will usually be okay with that, especially if they know you are not a native speaker. You can also rephrase the question or break it down point by point, then ask if that was the student’s intended question. Even if your paraphrasing is not 100% correct, the student may get a new perspective and phrase the question differently that is clearer to you.

Panelists noted that this issue might be exacerbated in remote teaching because of internet connection/audio issues.

Question: What should I do if I get a question I did not anticipate and have to come up with an answer on the spot?

Panelists’ Answers

  • Normalize that you’re not an expert and be confident in saying if there is a question you can’t answer. Go offline so you don’t get nervous from having to answer the question in front of everyone, and praise the student by saying, “That’s a good question, but honestly, I don’t know. I can get back to you on that.” 
  • You can try to figure out the question with the student, which can allow students to feel more engaged in their learning experience.
  • It is also good to give students resources or refer them to an expert if it’s a topic you don’t know much about. Sometimes, even if there weren’t a language barrier, you might still have had trouble answering the question, so let that give you confidence and find other ways to solve the problem.

Question: I feel like when I’m clarifying a question, students get even more confused. What should I do?

Panelists’ Answers: Don’t assume that students know everything, and teach like they have no background knowledge; this may lead to less confusion. It is also very helpful to have students explain their understanding back to you in their own words because this allows you to “debug” their thought process and figure out what exactly they are confused about. 

Students may sometimes feel afraid to say that they don’t understand something in front of the whole class, so especially if you have a smaller class, you can try scheduling individual office hours with students.

Question: Suggestions for facilitating effective online problem-solving sessions?

Panelists’ Answers: Asking for feedback helps with facilitating online problem solving. Especially in the remote setting, where there are more chances for not understanding what someone is saying due to issues like connection problems, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback and make sure that you understood the question and that the other person understands what you’re saying. Online teaching can be a bit slower, so you may consider preparing fewer questions in addition to asking for feedback.

It can also be worth thinking about ways to embrace the opportunities that online teaching brings, such as access to the same online tools at the same time (e.g., using the whiteboard or taking notes at the same time). 

Question: What can I do to engage students because recitation attendance is dropping?

Panelists’ Answers: Attendance tends to be higher if the TA is very committed and prepares their own material (e.g., recitation sheets summarizing key points and example questions). Try to focus on key points and the types of problems that students need to know how to solve, as opposed to trying to run through an exhaustive list of all the material. It would take students much longer to figure out key points of a topic when they are learning it for the first time, so the recitation is there to help students by making it easier to structure the material they’ve learned. Using the chat function in Zoom to reduce students’ barrier to asking questions is also a helpful tip. 

Question: Any suggestions on how to prepare for TAing next semester?

Panelists’ Answers: Understand what students are looking for from TAs, because it varies based on the class. For example, the professor in a probability math class will more likely cover abstract high-level concepts during lecture, so students in these classes look to TAs for derivations and solutions to problems that are similar to psets and tests. Understanding this will allow you to better help your students. 

Reach out to the professor before classes start, so you can understand what he/she expects of you. Be sure to set those expectations and establish baselines from the beginning, because it’s more difficult to do so in the middle of the semester if you suddenly find yourself overwhelmed. For example, one of the panelists mentioned how in her department, TAs usually are in charge of making sure that Canvas is working, so she knew she would have to allocate a few hours a week to this task. Being aware of this expectation meant that she was able to set up time to talk with the instructor beforehand and get all the necessary materials so that she wouldn’t have to scramble to put things together mid-semester.

On a more personal level, you might think about what your TAship means to you and what you want to get out of it. Do you see it as a way to serve your department, or do you want to use it to build teaching experience? Ask yourself how this experience will go beyond the course you are TAing, so that you can get the most out of the opportunity.

Question: What was your time commitment like on a weekly basis? Was it higher or lower than you expected?

Panelists’ Answers: It varies based on the class and from week to week, but expect that you may have less time for other classes because of TAing – in fact, it is common to take one less class when TAing. Around 10-15 hours a week is the average, especially as typical TA duties may include attending lectures, preparing for recitations, holding recitations and office hours, submitting problems for psets/exams, and grading psets/exams. In order to have a variety of experiences, you may try taking fewer courses and focusing on TAing one semester and having more commitments and being more cautious about TAing time the next semester. 

Overall, the panel was successful—many of the attendees gave feedback that the event was useful and helped them gain a sense of community among ESL TAs, especially with the personal perspectives that the panelists provided from their experiences. Attendees also shared that they appreciated the Q&A format and general TA tips.

Thank you to all the panelists for sharing their advice at this event!

Written by Melissa Cao