Working with English Language Learners (ELLs) is at the center of my academic passion. For the last two semesters, I have taught an International Teaching Assistant (ITA) preparation course, during which I not only helped ITAs navigate the U.S. classroom culture and pedagogy, and address pronunciation issues, but also evaluated my own teaching through those ITAs’ eyes. One main lesson I learned is the vital role meaning negotiation plays when it comes to ITAs’ interactions with undergraduate native English speaking students (NESSs) in the laboratory or in the classroom.
What I mean by meaning negotiation is the ability to implement one’s knowledge about the English language to effectively communicate with others. Needless to say, meaning negotiation is not limited to NESS-ITA interactions, but expands to any kind of communication between two or more individuals regardless of their first language. In this article, I share a few tips that can help ITA instructors or coaches guide ITAs through their interactions with their (future) undergraduate NESSs:
Work with what you know
Because often times undergraduate NESSs inadvertently speak so fast, it becomes difficult for ITAs to understand, let alone respond to, their students. For example, if the only phrase that an ITA could decipher in a student’s question is “midterm exams,” then one effective way to respond to that is, “I believe you’re asking about midterm exams. What is your question about?”
Ask for clarification
Another comment I often heard from ITAs is that undergraduate students often use slang or idiomatic expressions, which could be hard for ITAs to understand, resulting in communication breakdowns.
For example, if an ITA asks a student about the reason they skipped last class session, the student’s response could be, “I’m sorry. I had to pull an all-nighter.” If the ITA is not familiar with the expression “to pull an all-nighter,” then they could miss the reason for that student’s absence. In such cases when there is not enough context to make an educated guess about the meaning of the expression, ITAs are encouraged to ask for clarification. So, an ITA could ask, “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that expression. What does it mean?”
Though one might think that an ITA asking for language clarification could hurt their ethos, undergraduate students often enjoy teaching slang expressions to ITAs. In fact, it is more likely that undergraduates would consider such questions as a sign of strength rather than weakness. In other words, I believe there is a mutual benefit in such interactions. On one hand, an ITA asking a student for assistance could bolster the latter’s confidence. On the other, those interactions could help ITAs establish a rapport with their students.
Ask for repetition
Another common issue ITAs might face is when they miss the entire question a student is asking because the student spoke too quietly or too fast. In this case, ITAs should be encouraged to ask for repetition. Saying something like, “I’m sorry I didn’t catch that” or “Would you please speak up” not only helps ITAs comprehend the question posed, but also gives the student a chance to process their own question and explain themselves better.
Always make sure you answered the question
I always encourage ITAs to make sure they follow their explanation or response with a question such as, “Did I answer your question?” or “Does this make sense?”
Following an explanation or a response with such questions opens the floor for follow-up questions or for other students to ask related questions.
Whatever you do, don’t make a random guess at what the student is asking/saying or stare blankly at them
This tip is especially helpful for novice ITAs, as they tend to be too intimidated by their undergraduate students in a way that compromises their listening skills. In such cases, ITAs might feel reticent to ask for clarification or repetition for fear of losing face. What is really important to emphasize is the fact that ITAs may actually lose face if they do not engage in meaning negotiation with their students. The key here is for ITAs to overcome their fear and start implementing the tips above. In some cases, it’s easier said than done. However, it is usually a matter of time till ITAs conjure the confidence to negotiate meaning. And, like any other skill, the more effort one puts in, the better the results. The more ITAs practice listening attentively and asking questions, the more effective and fluid their interactions with undergraduate students will become.
All the above tips are grounded in the belief that there is strength in ITAs showing their vulnerabilities to their students. In fact, showing one’s vulnerabilities only demonstrates a sense of care toward one’s students. But one must not assume that instructors showing their/our vulnerabilities and sense of care are shared values across classroom cultures. One lesson I learned while preparing ITAs is that cultural differences play an immense role in ITAs-NESSs daily interactions. Those cultural differences will remain under the surface, causing miscommunications, unless ITAs as well as NESSs are made conscious about them. Because, unfortunately, ITA preparation classes hardly ever involve undergraduate NESSs, one can only hope that meaning negotiation skills would transfer from ITAs to their students.