5 Chapter 5: Supporting Multilingual Students in Online Discussions

Dania Wattar, Ph.D., OCT

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto


Setting the Context

This chapter merges two of my areas of interests and expertise: supporting multilingual learners and teaching online. These two areas are of a great important for me, both professionally and on a personal level. It builds on my journey as a multilingual learner who continues to work with multilingual students in different settings.  My personal journey has guided my research and teaching practice toward supporting multilingual learners and students from immigrant and refugee background. Integrating technology and teaching online has been another an area of interest in both teaching and research. However, the shift to online learning after the COVID 19 Pandemic has increased the need to look deeper at issues related to online teaching and online discussions. Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, I have worked with different instructors to help them transition to online teaching. I was also part of a Professional Learning Network (PLN) which included different instructors from the University of Toronto. This chapter was born as a result of discussions and collaboration that took place in this PLN to identify promising practices in the areas of online teaching and learning. Furthermore, many of the case studies, examples, and suggestions included in this chapter are based on actual conversations that I have had with students and mentees. Their input, struggles and success stories motivated me to write about this to help online instructors accommodate the needs of multilingual learners. In short, the chapter presents some of the challenges that face multilingual students in online discussions and offers some promising tips to help instructors design meaningful online discussion that accommodates the needs and interests of multilingual learners.


Ms. Bright teaches at the Master of Teaching program. In her class, Sara is usually quiet, rarely participates in synchronous class discussion, and participates minimally in online forums. Ms. Bright was marking Assignment 1 when she came across Sara’s assignment. To her surprise, Sara’s assignment was of an excellent quality. Her ideas were well developed, and her assignment was a great joy to mark. While Ms. Bright was very delighted to read Sara’s work, she wondered why Sara was not participating in online discussions. Her paper was of an excellent quality and illustrated Sara’s interest in the course.

After returning the assignments, Ms. Bright left a note for Sara to see her after their next class. She wanted to know why Sara was not participating, even though she seems to have a deep understanding of the course’s content. When meeting, Sara explained that as a language learner, she hesitates to talk during synchronous discussion, as it takes time for her to formulate her ideas in English. Additionally, she is always worried about how her classmates will judge her entries on discussion forums, so she keeps them as brief as possible.

The conversation left Ms. Bright in wonder. She had wrongfully thought that Sara was not interested in the course. However, she was starting to think that she should be doing something to support Sara’s participation in discussions, but what is it that she needs to do?


Learning Outcomes

  • Develop an understanding of the unique needs of multilingual students.
  • Explore a range of promising practices to accommodate the needs of multilingual learners in the synchronous and asynchronous classes.
  • Strategies to support online discussion in the synchronous and asynchronous classes.

Key Terms: multilingual students, language learners, promising practices, online discussion, synchronous learning, asynchronous learning, translanguaging pedagogy



The number of multilingual students in higher education in many countries has increased. This increase is due to technological developments, globalization, and the increasing number of immigrants and refugees in many societies (Guo-Brennan, 2020). Furthermore, the move to remote learning as a response to the COVID-19 global pandemic has forced many educational institutions to shift to online delivery models (Ferdig et al.,  2020) and, as such, many instructors are now considering how online discussion tools can support learning. This increasing move to online education, coupled with the increasing number of multilingual students, warrants an examination of online discussions, both asynchronous and synchronous, and its implications for multilingual students.

Multilingual learners often come with unique strengths and needs. Being able to offer appropriate accommodations by taking the needs of multilingual students into consideration when it comes to online teaching (and online discussion in particular) can allow these students to share their rich experiences, and provide unique perspectives and insights that benefit all students.

Online discussion can take different forms. Many courses include online discussion components to support deep learning. Modalities of online discussion can differ and include writing in forums, threaded discussions, posting in platforms such as Google Jamboard, Padlet, Mentimeter, and video-based discussion including live synchronous discussions. Multilingual learners can face additional challenges when it comes to online discussions, which include receptive and expressive challenges, as well as cultural differences.



Challenges Facing Multilingual Students in Online Discussion

Multilingual learners often do double the work when it comes to formulating and discussing ideas. First, they need to understand the language and make sure they are familiar with the content terminology in English. Next, they need to be able to communicate their ideas in the target language. Many learners have clear ideas and rich thoughts but require time to translate their ideas into English. This procedure requires processing time as students attempt to formulate ideas and discuss them in person. In synchronous online discussions, instructors may not pick up on some social cues that are often easier to detect in face-to-face classrooms. Hence, it can be difficult to notice some students who may need more time while trying to formulate their thoughts.


Participating in text-based online discussion also requires a unique set of skills and may pose some challenges initially, as multilingual learners establish how to interact with their peers virtually. An example of  these challenges includes developing cultural understanding about the etiquettes of online discussion. Zengilowski and Schallert (2020) mention how most students, in the last three decades, have encountered some form of online interaction through online tools and have had the experience of posting reflections and answering questions related to an assigned reading before class. While this experience holds true for students in countries such as the United States and Canada, it is not as accurate for multilingual learners. Many multilingual learners may have attended schooling or post-secondary education internationally in systems where access to the Internet, and sometimes electricity, is limited. As a result, these students may not have had the same educational experience of engaging in academic discussions through online platforms. Moreover, international multilingual students may not be familiar with writing that focuses on expressive personal reflection (Kiernan, 2018). As a result, the style and genre of writing that is often required in online discussions and text-based discussions may be new to many multilingual learners. The innovative nature of this experience is particularly true for students who come from disciplines such as science and engineering, where procedural writing and informational texts are used more heavily than personal narratives.


In summary, multilingual learners often face additional challenges when it comes to online discussion. These challenges include the need to have time to understand and communicate ideas in English, as well as the need to learn the type of writing required for personal reflection and shorter, text-based discussions.



So, What Can Instructors Do to Support Multilingual Learners in Online Discussions?

Getting to Know Students

The first step is to learn about students, their strengths, and their needs. This step        can be done in different ways, including a getting to know students pre-class survey (see Appendix A), where students can talk about different accommodations that have worked for them in the past. For example, instructors can add simple questions – such as, How can I help accommodate your needs? or How do you learn best? – and offer more specific questions about students’ prior experiences with online learning, online posts, and threaded discussions. Other instructors may want to set up a phone call or online conference to talk to the students, get to know them personally, and understand their needs. Surveys makes it easier to keep data and refer to it throughout the course, while conferencing with students allows instructors to establish a connection with students at a personal level and give them insights about students’ backgrounds, and so on.


Modelling is important in online discussion and can benefit all learners, especially multilingual learners. For example, in one class a professor asked students to pick a quote and write a response to the quote in an online discussion forum. This was one student’s first year in a graduate education program. Since the student, while bright, had never been asked to pick a quote before, they struggled to figure out what a “quote” meant. The student thought that a quote was something that was outstanding or was a famous saying by a famous person. They did not realize that a quote could be any excerpt from the text that they could choose to comment on. The student sought help with the assignment and was relieved to figure out that discussing a quote basically meant choosing something from the reading that caught their attention and then discussing it.

A task that felt overwhelming for a multilingual learner suddenly became easier to comprehend after viewing an example. The struggle and the challenge that the student faced in this basic online activity could have been avoided if the instructor had modelled how to pick a quote or took the time to share some examples of quotes from a course reading. In short, modelling expectations in online discussions and providing examples of discussion posts can help multilingual students learn how to interact better in text-based discussions.

Centering Language and Culture

When teaching a class, especially one with multilingual learners, it is good to acknowledge the experiences that students bring to the class. Instructors are encouraged to focus on the richness of experiences that multilingual learners bring to classes rather than on skills that they still need to learn. This process could be done by allowing students to explore and discuss questions related to their multilingual and cultural experiences, and to allow students to make cultural and linguistic connections. Instructors offering online discussions can also consider discussion topics that centre and explore students’ linguistic and cultural identities, and allow them to explore their unique experiences.

Translation Narratives

Considering that the experiences of multilingual learners may vary, many learners may be trained to write formally but may lack the knowledge and practice of reflective writing. To help students transition into new educational environments and adjust to new writing tasks, Kiernan (2018) proposes engaging students in “translation narrative.” Translation narrative can be done as an assignment that includes three parts: “a group translation, translation reflection, and the translation narrative” (p. 98). Inspired by this example, instructors can design an activity or online discussion prompt to encourage cross-cultural understanding and help learners share their expertise in their field. For example, an instructor may ask students to find a quotation from a text in a language they understand, translate it, and share insights in discussion. Students who only speak English may choose a piece written in a highly academic language and try to simplify the text to explain it to their colleagues.

These activities can engage learners and allow them to build on their linguistic resources and make connections between learning in English and their native language(s). Furthermore, these activities allow students to benefit from a translanguaging pedagogy (García, 2009; García & Leiva, 2014), an approach that allows students to utilize the richness of their linguistic repertoire as they learn new concepts and make sense of ideas in a new language. Translanguaging allows multilingual students to use their different linguistic resources to learn both language and content (Baker, 2006; Mazak, 2018). It is a pedagogical approach that considers students multilingual and multicultural identities (Mazak, 2018), and serves to enhance learning by helping students utilize many linguistic resources to help them communicate. A translation narrative is one example in which translanguaging is used where the input (i.e., reading) language is a familiar one, and the output (i.e., written) language is another one, such as English.

The following table (Table 1) includes examples of discussion prompts that can be used to help multilingual learners build on their cultural and linguistic resources, and to deepen students’ understanding of different courses.


Table 1: Fields of study and examples of discussion prompts

Field Examples of Discussion Prompts
Architecture Look for text that discusses the fundamentals of architecture. Translate the text. Tell us about how this relates to our discussion of fundamentals in previous classes. The text can be from a source that is written in a different language. If English is the only language we speak, we may pick text on architecture from a different country.
Education Look for online resources on parental engagement presented in different languages. Translate one of the texts. This could be a post in an online form, blog, or the like. Explain how parental engagement is explored from this perspective. How does this support our practice as educators?
Math Find a concept in math and look for its meaning in different languages. What does the translation of this concept tell us about how this concept is perceived in different cultures?
Biology Look for examples of biodiversity in one region of the world. Consider an international text discussing plants and animals that live in the region. Translate the text and tell us how biodiversity in that region compares to the prairies in Canada.
English Find an excerpt of a poem in a different language. Translate it. Tell us about the feature of the poem, and its similarities and differences with the kinds of poems we explored in this unit.


Sentence Stems

In addition to encouraging students to utilize different languages to engage them in online discussion, offering templates or sentence stems (Rodriguez-Mojica & Briceno, 2018) can help start conversations. This approach helps multilingual learners who often require explicit language instruction to focus on questions and share their insights.  The following are some examples of sentence stems that can be used for online discussion posts:


In this article, the author discusses the importance of ____________.

While I agree that________, I believe that ________.

This reminds me of ________.

I chose this quote because ________.

One thing that I learned from this chapter is that ________.

The authors provided important recommendations regarding ________.

I wonder whether ________.

I think ______ because _______.

Reading this article made me think about ________.

I noticed that _______.


MidPoint Check-Ins

Completing midpoint check-ins helps us to understand how students are doing, learn about their experiences, and how they can be supported. For example, conferring with students or using online forms (such as a midpoint check-in)  can help students communicate their needs about their learning in the course in general and online discussion in particular (see Appendix B).



Creating a Resource Folder to Support Multilingual Learners

Consider adding a resource folder to the learning management system with tools and ideas to support multilingual learners. This folder could include some tips and tricks to help online discussion, such as suggested reading and writing strategies, translanguaging strategies, and technological tools to assist in skimming text and writing. It could also include additional resources that are offered by the institution to support multilingual learners’ development, such as a writing centre or professional development sessions. The folder could also include tips on discussions, exemplars, and videos with captions. Students can also be invited to share resources that have helped them in the past to support each other.


Inviting Students to Share Resources

As instructors, we can leverage the resources in our classes and invite students to support each other. One way this can be done is through dedicating a thread in online discussion that relates to how students work best, and sharing tips and tricks. For example, early in the semester, instructors can ask students to share three helpful tips on how to participate in online discussions, resources that they have used at the institution, or helpful tools, websites, or blogs. Finally, a Questions thread or folder can be created where students can pose questions and seek answers from their peers.


Leveraging Multimedia Tools

Finally, students and instructors can use technological tools to support their understanding and communication. These tools can include translation software (e.g., Google Translate, DeepL Translate), closed captioning, or live transcription to offer real-time captions and translations, which helps students improve their understanding of discussions. Other tools like Mentimeter, Padlet, and Google Jamboard can also be used to engage learners in discussions by leveraging visuals to support learning. Sharing links to such tools and any prompts before classes and giving enough time for text-based discussions allows multilingual learners to process information, think, and communicate ideas in online discussions more effectively.


In short, there are many strategies that instructors can use to support multilingual learners. These strategies start by developing an understanding of multilingual learners and how they learn. They also include using pedagogical strategies and approaches that support multilingual learners, such as translanguaging. Next, instructors should seek many opportunities to hear students’ voices, and learn about their experiences and what works best for them. This process       can be done through getting to know students through surveys, conferencing with students, and mid-course check-ins. It can also be integrated into discussion activities that utilize students’ knowledge and encourage them to build on their cultural and linguistic strengths . An example of such activities includes translation narratives and encouraging students to share content-related text and ideas from different cultures and languages. Finally, technological tools and assistive technologies can help learners engage in discussion by helping them maximize their understanding, and providing enough time for them to engage in discussions.


Reflecting Back on the Scenario

If we were to revisit our case of Sara in the beginning and apply some of the learning that took place in this chapter, we could start by looking at the reasons why Sara excelled in class assignments but hesitated in discussions. Sara learned how to compose academic essays and write academically. She enjoys the subject matter and has an interest in the topic. However, Sara has not received enough practice on posts that include reflection and peer discussions. She worries about how her peers will judge her entries, especially as she thinks of herself as a language learner and worries about native speakers’ perceptions of her work and intelligence. Moreover, Sara takes time to process new ideas in English, think about them, and formulate her thoughts to discuss them in English. To help Sara increase her participation in class, Ms. Bright can help Sara by implementing the following strategies:

  • Giving Sara an opportunity to discuss interesting insights about her linguistic and cultural assets. This opportunity would allow Sara to increase her confidence and share rich aspects of her experiences with classmates. Sharing such insights will likely yield an increased appreciation and better understanding of her by her classmates . Sharing a quick “translation activity” as mentioned above or a template to help start reflection on past experiences will serve as a great starting point.
  • Turning on live transcripts or captions during synchronous discussions will help Sara utilize both her listening and writing skills, which may improve her understanding of live discussions and the potential to participate in these discussions.
  • Sharing course resources and prompts before class to give Sara time to review class work beforehand and prepare her points for class discussions. Also, pausing and offering some wait time after proposing a question during class.
  • Providing a variety of opportunities for online discussions both oral and written, synchronous and asynchronous, and modelling how to answer questions and respond to peers. In this way, Sara can build on the examples provided to practice her discussion and reflection skills.
  • Adding a resource folder to the learning management system with tools and ideas to support Sara and other multilingual learners in the class.
  • Creating a discussion thread or prompt  that encourages students to talk about how they learn best, and to share tips and tricks that have helped in the past. In this way, Sara can learn from others and may realize that she has more to offer than she had thought.


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Designing for Meaningful Synchronous and Asynchronous Discussion in Online Courses by Kim MacKinnon; Lesley Wilton; Shelley Murphy; Brenda Stein Dzaldov; Dania Wattar; Jacob DesRochers; and Alison Mann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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