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Mary Kohlmann

October 5th, 2020

Down with the deficit model

0 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Mary Kohlmann

October 5th, 2020

Down with the deficit model

0 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Mary Kohlmann advocates moving away from the deficit-model characterisation of English-language learner students and urges universities, and international development programmes in particular, to name and remove language barriers in order to enable all students to thrive in multilingual and multicultural environments

Like international development departments in Anglophone universities around the world, the Department of International Development at the LSE helps shape the people who decide how development work is practiced by governments, IGOs, NGOs, funding organisations, and more. Students in the department are taught through a combination of lectures, seminars, classes, workshops, etc. As a recent graduate of the MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies programme, I attended many seminars as part of my studies. Something that struck me, given my background as a former teacher, was hearing from English-language learner (ELL) classmates that seminars were an environment which made them acutely aware of language barriers. Seminars are graduate school’s closest analogue to the professional meetings in which students will participate in their later roles. The conversational norms that students learn and practice in seminars shape how they will operate throughout their careers. Observing and responding to the effects of language barriers within seminars is therefore both, a duty of care to current students and a responsibility to the development profession. How are we training these specialists to engage in a profession that is, by definition, multinational, multicultural, and multilingual? 

My research into how ELL students experience and navigate language barriers in seminars offers some insights on how these norms play out and how they can be shifted. In this study, I was able to document the experiences of 18 ELL classmates in ID. Their reflections, and the recommendations we developed in a subsequent discussion group, shed light on how ID departments (not just at the LSE) and universities can reduce barriers to ELL students’ seminar participation and better prepare all students to participate in multilingual teams.

A perfect storm

Many participants found the seminar setting challenging for several reasons: variable class structures, classmates’ unpredictable speech patterns, and the difficulty of planning a comment before the discussion moved on, all of which made it feel difficult to speak up. Although some participants found the transition to LSE smooth and reported few problems with language in seminars, many described the first few weeks of term as a shock. Based on their past experience interacting with English-speakers and on their ability to understand lectures and written materials, they had expected seminars and other aspects of life at LSE to be manageable. “I thought, ‘it’s gonna be fine, I can speak English,’” one participant said. “Then I got to my first seminar and was like, ‘what the hell is happening?’”

participants’ narratives suggest that they experience the language barrier as an amplifier of other challenges

Almost all participants agreed that they find it easier to speak with other English-language learners of any background than with groups of English native speakers. Native English speakers, they explained, tend to talk quickly, use slang, and use varied and sometimes cut-off sentence structures, especially when they make up the majority of a given group. Other ELL students, in contrast, are likely to share a similar grammatical and vocabulary base, making their speech easier to understand. Most participants also perceived other ELL students as more understanding of their challenges and more able to collaborate when they found an idea tough to grasp or articulate.

Overall, participants’ narratives suggest that they experience the language barrier as an amplifier of other challenges, a finding that resonates with existing research about the intertwining of language with other classroom dynamics. Language-based difficulties understanding others and delays in articulating their own thoughts felt especially painful in situations where they felt low on confidence and expertise.

The disadvantage works both ways

As we have seen, the obvious impact of language directly affects ELL students’ experience at the LSE. Perhaps less obviously, ELL students’ seminar participation also affects native English speakers’ education. When ELL students’ ability to participate in seminars is limited, native English speakers miss out on their expertise. In a field requiring a deep, nuanced understanding of global issues which ELL students’ multinational experience often makes them particularly qualified to address, this is a huge loss. And when the dynamic of language is not named and examined, native English-speakers lose the opportunity to intentionally practice the skill of cross-language communication and collaboration. When we (I am a native English speaker) are permitted to perceive our own ways of operating as neutral, we do not learn to see ourselves as others see us. We lose the opportunity to reflect on and adjust aspects of our own behaviour – in this case, styles of speech that may crowd out others’ participation – that don’t match up with our intentions. This skill is a prerequisite for success within the diverse contexts in which ID work takes place.

When we are permitted to perceive our own ways of operating as neutral, we do not learn to see ourselves as others see us 

Interventions: in the classroom

Although these dynamics will remain present to some degree in any English-language class, participants’ reflections showed that there are concrete steps that seminar leaders and departments can choose to take that mitigate them.

Explicitly explain the class goals: Seminar leaders can invest time in articulating their class goals and expectations to students. This sounds simple but isn’t: due to the differing characters of academic disciplines and the differing styles and philosophies of teachers, each seminar is doing slightly different work. Do you want your seminar students to be spending their time practising a certain skill; clarifying ideas discussed in lecture; extending those ideas in specific ways; or all of the above? And how does the way you run your classroom support those goals? The alignment between goals and instructional practices can appear obvious to teachers and students for whom the seminar is a familiar space, but obscure to other students in ways that leach energy away from learning goals. “I have no idea of the meaning and function of ‘seminar,’” one research participant wrote; “I searched online and asked my friends about it. However, the theory differs from the practice. I found every teacher has different strategies and it took me some time to get used to different seminars and to explore my position in a seminar.”

I have no idea of the meaning and function of ‘seminar,’ … the theory differs from the practice. I found every teacher has different strategies and it took me some time to get used to different seminars and to explore my position in a seminar.

Identify and name the issue: This process of articulation should also extend to naming common barriers that ELL (and potentially other) students face in seminars, and what tools these students can consider using. One participant described her instructor’s successful approach in this way: “At the very beginning we were briefed, kind of like, it’s OK to come back to a point that’s gone. Because sometimes the language barrier makes you go, ‘oh, I just have the thought now. Can I just come back to points… people have discussed like five minutes ago? Now they move on.’ They [the seminar leader] made it OK with that. They made it clear at the beginning. So, it kind of makes me feel like, at ease – like oh, OK, if I take a bit longer to talk, to think about my ideas and formulate sentences in my head, I could talk any time. It’s OK even though I come back to another point.” Another participant said they found it helpful that their seminar leader emphasised repeatedly that pronunciation was not a learning priority in their classroom. By describing language-related problems like any other academic difficulty, these seminar leaders defanged them.   

Use structured activities: In terms of lesson components, many ELL participants said that they benefited more from consistent structures than from purely freeform or student-led discussion. This is not to say that student-led discussion can’t be a useful pedagogical tool, only that instructors who choose to use it should put thought into how they will offset its accessibility challenges. When given the opportunity to discuss topics in small groups, students found it more possible to ask clarifying questions and articulate their thoughts at a manageable pace. Some noted that repeated small-group interactions with classmates built trust within the class, which gradually reduced the barrier to speaking up in front of the whole group. Breakout groups also, according to one participant, tend to reduce any undertones of competition among seminar members to make the most notable contribution. Two participants praised a practice in which each class began with a whip-around of mandatory brief comments – students could share a reaction to the reading or lecture, a question, or whatever else they felt was relevant. This, the participants explained, helped them push past the challenge of starting to participate, which they always found particularly hard, and let them anchor at least a small part of the class discussion in the comments that they’d invested time in planning.

By describing language-related problems like any other academic difficulty, these seminar leaders defanged them. 

Facilitate, moderate, mediateParticipants also valued the work that seminar leaders did to mediate class discussions. Several cited instances when a seminar leader helped the class incorporate slightly unclear comments in ways that felt supportive. Receiving clarifying questions, reframing, or even disagreement from a seminar leader in response to a comment was easier than watching classmates sit in uncertain silence for five seconds and then skip to a different topic. Seminar leaders also helped by offering brief summaries of key points when student presentations (irrespective of language background) were hard to follow.

Interventions: beyond the classroom

Moving beyond the classroom level, departments and universities have opportunities to shape student experience in two major ways: by setting expectations during orientation and by fostering social support for ELL students.

Set expectations framed within a progressive, pluralistic narrative: Orientation exists to give new students a framework for what and how they will learn during their programmes. By sharing what past ELL students have experienced in seminars – ideally via direct presentations or videos from the previous year’s students – the department would reduce the sense of shock that many study participants described and prime native English speaking students to be more aware of how language affects seminar participation. These discussions should also signpost existing resources such as language centres and academic skills development centres. Signposting should emphasise that seeking out such resources does not represent a deficit, but is an act typical of highly-motivated, high-achieving students. Like the instructors’ suggestions about coping strategies highlighted above, proactively discussing the role of language in seminars takes any barriers out of the realm of personal struggles and into the realm of navigable academic challenges. Such discussions could also have a broader impact: simply by pointing out that the seminar and lecture aren’t arbitrary or neutral structures, and that they privilege certain ways of communicating over others, the department would push students to think more critically about how their studies connect to the wider world.

Signposting should emphasise that seeking out such resources does not represent a deficit, but is an act typical of highly-motivated, high-achieving students.

It’s never too soon: Additionally, the department could ease ELL students’ sense of isolation by accelerating their social support of one another. “Sometimes all I needed,” one participant said about the first term, “was someone to say, ‘It’s going to be fine.’” Peer-to-peer support among ELL students already exists – many study participants mentioned drawing on the support of classmates who share their language backgrounds, with support modalities ranging from formal study groups to social reassurance to in-class conversations about tricky words. However, within the structure of one-year Master’s programmes, these webs of connection must be formed from scratch very quickly. This process takes time, meaning that each year’s students go through the most difficult part of their learning curve in isolation. At the end of the second term, when our discussion group took place, a participant expressed surprise at reading comments from classmates that felt “like seeing the inside of my head.” Seeding these relationships via discussion groups in the early weeks of the first term (which, again, should be advertised with a focus on the `asset’ of multilingualism) could speed things up, fostering social support at the time when it matters most.

By piloting the ideas above and then tweaking them based on feedback from relevant students, departments can train specialists who engage more ably and inclusively across language barriers. In the shorter term, it can also create a greater sense of belonging for its ELL students in seminar classrooms, which would improve the education that all students receive at the LSE.

The study – the details

With funding from the LSE Change Makers programme, I was able to document the experiences of 18 classmates in the 2019-20 cohort in the ID department at LSE who are English-language learners (ELL) and were completing their first English-language degree.

This study was intended as an exploratory mechanism to help the department understand current student experiences and begin a conversation about interventions; as such, it collapses many groups that would benefit from more specific research. One of many possible examples is that the comments of some participants on language barriers also reflect differences in educational styles between the UK and the participants’ home countries, an intertwining that merits more specific attention.  Another is that many students who are native English speakers, but who did not grow up using a dominant culture’s style of speech, may also experience related (and/or additional) barriers to active seminar participation. I hope this project will serve as a jumping-off point for more detailed research on how language affects student experience.

Participants in this study represented 10 first languages, seven different ID degree programmes, and varying levels of experience operating in English. Immediately after a single ID seminar class of their choice, 18 ID MSc students who were pursuing their first English-language degree each completed a reflection on what they perceived, thought, felt, and did before, during, and after the class in question. To minimise intermediation, reflections were completed independently, although a list of optional prompts was provided. This method was based on the “thinkaloud” process described in Bowles, 2010. All participants were compensated for their time. After a brief in-person orientation with the researcher, each participant chose whether to complete an oral reflection (n=8) or a written reflection (n=10).  All reflections were completed during weeks 2-4 of the 2020 Lent term. Data was analysed thematically and then shared with interested participants via an optional online discussion in May.


Disclaimer: This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions. 


About the author

Mary Kohlmann

Mary Kohlmann is an MSc candidate in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies at the London School of Economics.

Posted In: Shifting Frames

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