Course Assignment and Design

As touched on in Classroom Tips, a more effective and inclusive learning environment starts with our planning.  In addition to teaching techniques employed in the classroom and online, consider the design of your course and assignments.


Things to consider as you design coursework:

  • Ensure that all students know grading expectations up front with clear instructions and a rubric.
  • Elements of language usage may or may not be relevant to particular assignments.  If they are, assess those elements for all students, not just non-native speakers.
  • If you will grade students on something you have not and will not teach them, make sure they are aware of and have access to resources for mastering that material (e.g., library workshops, Writing Center, etc.).
  • Avoid using accommodations designed for learning differences to handle ESL-related issues.  Doing so misrepresents students with learning differences and lowers ESL student morale.
  • Consider providing opportunities for your students to work in another language, such as a video assignment in the native language with English captions.  This provides unique learning opportunities for classmates and the professor.
  • Allow in-class time to answer questions about assignments when they are assigned.

ELLs face two additional challenges over those faced by native speakers in understanding assignments, both  linguistic barriers and familiarity with academic norms.

The fact that every professor has a unique way of explaining things can be confusing for students—especially for students who are working in a second language.  Just as we should prioritize clarity when we interact with students, we should also take some time to consider linguistic barriers when we design course materials.


The following can help all students hone in on the most important aspects of the task at hand and not get confused about expectations.

  • Keep it short and sweet. If your prompt for their 5-page essay is 2 pages long, you need to devote more class time to key concepts rather than the assignment instructions.
  • Use straightforward vocabulary.  Now is not the time to impress students with your eloquence.  A bit of repetition is ok, too.
  • Provide alternate terminology (wording) if helpful.  See what we did there?
  • Employ textual enhancements/typographical clues to direct students to information they must not miss.  In other words, change the way your text looks.  ELLs, especially those coming from language backgrounds that don’t use the Roman alphabet, often miss subtle changes such as italics. Rather than focusing on how visually attractive your assignments are, focus on effectively highlighting crucial information.  Consider the following textual enhancements.  They are ordered from most to least obvious and helpful for ELLs, and special considerations are included:
    • Color (sometimes hard to employ on printed materials and can create difficulties for visually impaired students)
    • Bold + Underlining
    • Underlining
    • Bold
    • ALL CAPS (can be confusing while learning acronyms, proper nouns, etc.)
    • Italics (can be confusing while learning to format titles, etc.)
    • Font change

Benati, A. (2016) [2] & Smith, M. S. (1993) [18]

Academic norms are cultural, and educators should take this into consideration when teaching ELLs. Do not take for granted that we share the same mental models with respect to academic norms. 


Avoid potential misunderstandings by being explicit.

  • Consider the organizational forms and rhetorical structures that are common in your discipline. As an example, American composition courses teach thesis-driven essays that present the main idea near the beginning, whereas Chinese essays require the author to talk “around” an issue and reach the main point at the end. Students may have great content that is missed simply because its location is lost in translation.
  • Bring up the audience. What needs to be explained? Help students understand how to present themselves as credible but without talking down to the audience.
  • Provide lots of examples of great writing, from both professionals and students. If you don’t have time to discuss in class, keep a folder in Canvas for their reference.
  • Since notions of academic honesty are largely cultural, be explicit about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in your course.  Utilize resources on this topic set up by SMU librarians: workshops, class visits and/or Canvas modules.