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Teaching the TOEFL to a Diverse Group of Students

Omanjana recently wrote a nice post on diversity on American campuses. Omanjana is right—international students really can benefit from studying with peers from all around the world. (And so can domestic students—diversity is one of the things I loved the most about my own college experience.)

For TOEFL teachers, diversity carries both benefits and challenges. This is especially true if you are used to teaching test prep to students who all share the same language and culture. My first TOEFL prep class was with an all-Taiwanese group of students. And our new Magoosh TOEFL Blogger Rachel started out by teaching an all-French speaking, all-military class of learners.

Like Rachel and me, you may need to make the transition from a one-culture ESL classroom to a more diverse one. Or you may be just starting your ESL career with a multicultural classroom as your very first assignment. Either way, this post can help you make the best of the fun and work that comes with teaching TOEFL to a global group.


Student demographics

In the US and Canada, the majority of international students come from China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. Because India has so many English speakers, you’re unlikely to see Indian students in your North American classroom. Most Indian TOEFL preppers manage to successfully pass the exam in their home country.

Statistically, your students are most likely to be native speakers of Chinese, Korean, or Arabic. In reality though, the demographics in different classrooms can vary a lot. Universities sometimes have special arrangements to receive international students from certain countries. And community colleges tend to teach ESL and TOEFL prep to immigrants, not international students. If you’re about to teach a culturally mixed group, be sure to check with your school to see where the students will be from.


Creating diverse study groups

As Omanjana has mentioned, meeting lots of classmates from other cultures can be disorienting at first. Your students will be drawn to classmates from their own countries and native languages, understandably. So when you have your students work in groups, don’t just let the students choose their own partners. Make sure that students with different native languages are getting together.

Creating mixed language study groups can be a little tricky when one language group dominates the class. Often you’ll find that half of your class—or sometimes more than half— are all from the same country or region. In that situation, you’ll want to make note of which students do not speak the main native language in the classroom. Put at least one “minority” language speaker in each study group.

I’ve found that it’s best not to be subtle about this. When I need to plant—for example—a non-Spanish speaker into each mostly Spanish speaking group of leaners—I will directly explain what I’m doing. This helps the other language speakers understand just how valuable they are to the rest of the class. And it helps the whole class understand the grouping of the students is beneficial, not discriminatory.


Being “culturally neutral”… with a North American slant

With a multicultural group of scholars, it’s important not to favor any one culture. But “culturally neutral” is not the same as “culturally bland.” Encourage students to talk about their own countries and cultures—this is a great way to get students speaking and writing. But make sure that every culture is discussed. You don’t want any cultural perspective to monopolize class discussions, and you definitely don’t want a student to feel like his or her culture is being ignored.

Still, it’s best to make North American culture a consistent running theme in your TOEFL course. The TOEFL presents academic content in a very Anglo-American context. Listening tracks, for example, have men and women talking to each other in a coeducational setting—something less common in other more gender-segregated cultures. And when TOEFL content focuses on history, it’s very common for the exam to look at US history.

There are even more subtle references to “the North American way” too—for instance, both Magoosh TOEFL and the official TOEFL practice materials have tasks that look at the expense and limited availability of public transportation. These challenges are common in Canada and the US, but may seem foreign to students from some other countries.

As you go through the TOEFL content you’ll use in class, be aware of these nods to life in the States and Canada. Be ready to use these parts of the material as “teachable moments” about North American life, especially as it relates to the exam.


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