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Accommodating language learners in university lectures


A couple of years ago I listened to a keynote speech delivered by Dr. David Mendelsohn (York University, Toronto), which caused me to remark his name, not because the content was particularly thrilling, but because he was a local. A few years after that, during research for an MA paper, his name crossed my path again through his research regarding how non-native speaking (NNS) students were coping with listening comprehension in their undergraduate lectures in his article, “The Lecture Buddy Project: An Experiment in EAP Listening Comprehension” (2002:64-73). Because of this potent challenge my EAP students face, when Nathan Hall started ELT Research Blog Carnival on listening, Mendelsohn’s project sprang to mind to comment on and so I thought I’d contribute.

It’s news to no one that learners coming into an undergraduate program at many English-speaking universities struggle immensely with getting anything from the content of their lectures, particularly toward the beginning of the course, but Mendelsohn set up the Lecture Buddy Project to gauge this struggle and determine if having a ‘helper’ would expedite improvement. In this project, he paired 2 native English-speaking (NS) students from the same Economics courses with 6 NNS students each (from China, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Russia and Israel) for a semester. Students and buddies attended lectures together and met afterwards to discuss content and any problems the students had during lecture. They both reported their thoughts on why comprehension was an issue. Read about them in his article here.

Mendelsohn concludes his article with ways to alleviate these struggles. Among them, a noteworthy suggestion is that “professors should be urged to provide lecture outlines, to speak slower in the first few lectures, to make more use of the blackboard to write down key concepts and words…, and consciously to repeat the main points… .” (71) Wouldn’t this be ideal, but I don’t see it happening outside of content courses that are uniquely tied to an EAP program. Even if it did, three questions arise, at least for me:

  • Is it realistic to suggest accommodations of any sort are even possible?

One could argue to professors who lecture to an increasing population of NNS students that if they implement these strategies, they would see greater success course-wide, greater attendance throughout the semester and greater student feedback. One could argue that international student fees generate a lot of money for the university, their courses and their salaries, but tenure and unions prevent any real threat to job security. One could, but then one would need access to the professors. Some of us do, some of us don’t. Unfortunately too, many first-year courses tend to be of the ‘weeder’ variety, hovering over those academically-equal participants, searching for weaknesses of any sort, springing upon opportunities to cut the slack before they move on to upper years. That’s their design, so even with access to a sympathetic professor, it may be perfunctory. But perhaps I’m not giving them enough credit. <ba dap bap, tshhh>

  • Where is the line between accommodating NNS students and maintaining the authenticity of a full-credit course?

University credit courses have credits for a reason: they are rigorous enough for students to deserve that credit for learning and applying content.  Long has there been a debate over the credit-worthiness of EAP programs themselves in that they are supportive towards content courses; they themselves have no content to master. In a similar fashion, one side of the coin suggests that if lecturers make these accommodations for the NNS students, they are in fact, decreasing this rigour. I beg to differ by suggesting there is a difference between accommodation and dumbing down. This leads me to the third question:

  • Are these suggestions accommodations for NNS students or are they actually guidelines for better teaching in general?

At the University of Toronto, the credit course my EAP students take is a first-year History course, taught by a university professor who is employed through our department. The consultations we have with her about her lectures are not about simplifying the material or reducing the rigour of the course. They involve vocabulary she uses, organisational cues during the lecture, the types of visual aids or outlines available to students, and the comprehension checks possible, all of which are the province of effective teaching, not accommodation, or so I argue. None are absolute or prescriptive. The pace of the lectures, the readings involved and the strategies for coping with these are unaffected by these consultations.

Referenced texts

Mendelsohn, D. (2002) “The Lecture Buddy Project: An Experiment in EAP Listening Comprehension“, TESL Canada Journal 20/1, 64-73.

Douglas, S. (2012). “A Short Rationale for Credit Bearing English for Academic Purposes (EAP) Courses“, BCTEAL Spring 2012 Newsletter, 9-13.

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Saskia Stille

So glad you added the subscribe function–love getting your posts in my inbox!


not my thing – I don’t lecture really huge groups and when I do lecture (small groups) it is in English but my students have a minimum of 5 years of English lectures behind them before I see them! But I love the idea of buddies for whatever reason. Many “buddy” groups form naturally but my head has already started whirring on how I could build a buddy/small group system into the actual lectures more than I already do. Am now off to read the article from Mendelsohn you linked….

Alexandra Guerson

I suppose you could say I had a buddy system when I was an undergrad. There was a group of 4-5 of us who took most classes together and we would discuss readings, look at each other’s notes during class to catch things we miss, and the discuss the lecture after to figure out what we missed. It was great! I used to miss a lot at the beginning since my notetaking in English was VERY slow.

As far as accommodations go, I’m with you. All the accommodations suggested here come down to better teaching and many of these are precisely what the folks at the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation note when they evaluate lectures.

Anne Hodgson

I really like that approach. On top, I think it’s important to check with the group how they will be divvying up work. Sometimes it feels a bit school-masterly, but giving the students guidance in organizing their group work can be hugely beneficial. When their roles are defined in communication with the teacher, many a student with find him/herself performing with greater focus and pride.

Jennifer MacDonald

I agree that well organized, well-signposted lectures and better teaching usually mean better comprehension and therefore better learning amongst all who attend a lecture, be they NNES or not. Have not read the Mendelsohn article yet, but I wonder too if, similarly, a buddy system between NES undergrads would also boost their comprehension and retention. If I think back to my undergrad days (studying in my L1), post-lecture discussion and study groups certainly had a positive affect on my learning.


It is so weird that you chose this article since I just read it about a week ago. I don’t remember why I stopped to read it since I was looking for something else, but it I found it quite interesting.

I think you are hitting the mark with the comment about ‘better’ lecturing. Others have commented about it above, so I don’t think I need to get into it any more.

The thing that I pulled out of the article was how many of the things seemed to point to better study skills and less about English (although that did have a part in it). Scaffolding is the word of the day here.

Great job on the post and a valuable addition to the blog carnival. Thanks for participating!

[…] Seburn (@seburnt): Accommodating language learners in university lectures.Tyson looks at the problems EAP students face when listening to university lectures. His […]


I have often wondered why EAP courses are non-credit when German, French, Latin, Swahili, etc for English speakers do get credit. I understand the necessity of establishing a proficiency level to take a class in English, but EAP students work as hard on their English as an American learning Italian does.

The first time I ever lived abroad I studied in Singapore. Many students from Denmark, Norway, France and Germany had moved there to study their subject (either International Business or Engineering) in English. I ended up helping a lot of them even though I wasn’t in their classes. They would understand key topics, but get confused with specific vocabulary words (standard deviation for example). Having me re-explain it to them really helped (since I wasn’t teaching a lesson, just explaining a word). I imagine having the same relationship with someone in the class would be a great help!

I do wonder how effective randomly assigned partners would be. I suppose it would save face and allow the ELL to get help without admitting that they needed it. On the other hand, I know that part of the reason pair up to help each other after class is the social aspect, which is often not included when the teacher “makes” you.

Lots to think about!

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