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Accommodations for Non-Native English Speakers

International students sitting and smiling on bleachers at sports game.
International students sitting and smiling on bleachers at sports game.

Universally designed support services: How can universities accommodate both ESL and LD students for equitable learning access?

“Do international students get extra time? Is being a non-native English speaker a disability?” This question comes up frequently from international students and disability service offices.  At first thought, many offices would easily say “no” and “no.” Should it be that easy?

Many academic departments and student service offices may initially assume that issues arise solely from being a non-native English speaker, but it may also mean that a disability is not recognized, and a second look should be given to these students.

There are many issues to look into with international students when they inquire about additional support or learning difficulties.


Undiagnosed/Unsupported Learning Disability (LD)

More international students are arriving from countries with very little knowledge of LDs and lack of access for testing, guidance, resources, and information. There’s a lot of stigma or lack of support that many international students have around being identified as having an LD. Some students may have not received full support from family/sponsors to take proper evaluations. International students may show signs of un-diagnosed LDs, and later go through the testing in their home country after learning more about it once they arrive to the U.S.

Challenges Matriculating/Progressing

International students under F1/J1 student visas are required by law to make progress towards their degrees. Failure to progress could result in the cancellation of their student status, and may be required to return home. If students do not receive help early on, it could jeopardize their academic completion and future if they want to matriculate.


Fossilization for second language learners occurs when there is a cessation of learning a language, which happens to many graduate and older students that have studied English for many years. There have been studies showing additional academic challenges fossilized students have versus non-fossilized students. This phenomenon can cause many barriers to learning and academic success for students.

Equity in the Classroom

Native English speaking students will be at an advantage due to not having the language/cultural barriers.


Once we understand the above issues, then the next question is what options do we have to support the students?


Since there’s a stigma that many international students have around being identified as having an LD, this could be a good place for disability offices/learning centers to do some workshops collaborating with the International Office. It is important to educate students from the beginning about your services, so they know this for the present and future, and can also refer friends.


Due to the stigma of LDs in a student’s home country or the lack of resources, it is important to support students to determine if they could have an undiagnosed LD. Many students will not know the terms disability, dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc. Speaking with the students about their challenges, and then defining some of these LDs can turn on a light for them. Also asking if these symptoms are those that they have experienced in their home country could be a clue. Please refer to our “Best Practices” for LDs and English Language Learners under Related Resources.

Immigration Options

For immigration matters, contact the international office to explore options for students on an F-1 student visa, whose first language is not English. They may be able to apply for a “reduced courseload” with their campus International Office or take an English preparation course concurrently with their academic coursework.

English Class/Tutor

Many professors have witnessed “fossilized” students in their classroom, and would likely attest to the support that would be helpful for their students (extra time, tutoring, workshops, individualized ESL classes).

One-on-One Planning

If students continue to have difficulties in class due to language and cultural barriers, it may be beneficial to come up with a plan with the student. This may include:

  • Meeting with their teachers individually to discuss their difficulties and seek advice from them directly
  • Regularly setting up meetings with learning support offices
  • Trying to provide certain accommodations that the student believes will support their progress
  • Keep track of students’ progress and see where most students are benefiting

Obviously, this issue is not black and white, but is an ongoing issue. Speaking directly with the international students that are requesting support, and understanding what their challenges are in the classroom – with learning and succeeding – starts creative solutions flowing. Perhaps then, the next steps within an office’s circle of influence could make learning more accessible for all.

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