How Host Families Help International Students Succeed Academically

When my husband and I hosted our first student, a darling Japanese girl named Minori, we knew communication was going to be a challenge when she would answer questions like, “Would you like cereal or toast for breakfast?” with a radiant smile and a “Yes!” My husband and I knew it would take time to establish rapport, and having more conversations was key to better communication.

Since then, we have hosted over a dozen international students with varying degrees of English proficiency from Japan and China. As a Cambridge Network Student Development Manager, I often get asked how much help hosts should provide on English and how much homework assistance should they offer.

As a small sampling, I asked several of my students this week if their hosts helped their grammar and pronunciation and was thrilled to hear that most of them answered in the affirmative. One student shared that he was twitchy in the beginning because there was so much correcting going on. There obviously needs to be a balance of praise and correction. I feel strongly about working on the “th” sound as well as others that most international students seem to struggle with (otherwise, they’ll still be saying “Sursday” four years from now).

Should we support students in learning English and improving academic success? Absolutely! But I’m not talking about “Let’s solve that quadratic equation” type help, rather much more general support. Like, asking about homework during dinner, which makes for a great table conversation. We can find out struggles and successes, which can help everyone much better support the student. I have to be honest here and admit that helping my international student with AP physics or Calculus AB is just not in the cards for me and probably most host families. And we don’t want to give hosts this kind of expectation.

In our home, for example, we are BIG fans of the science fair. Hand me a trifold presentation board and glue dots, and I get so excited to help the student with a great looking project. My husband offers excellent help with guitar and English, especially working their latest vocabulary list into conversations.

We offer the help we are capable of. We want our hosts to be involved in their international students’ work. Here are some ideas on how we can help improve skills and encourage conversation:

  1. Have your family and international student take part in a word of the day or install the SAT question app on your phone. Every day, a new question or vocab word is available. They are fun to do, and over time, everyone can learn and get lots of practice together.
  2. We have a box of TOEFL words on the dining room table. An international student bought them with the encouragement of their natural parents. Grab a few cards every day. Mastered words go in the back of the box, and challenging ones get revisited until remembered.
  3. There are lots of TOEFL speaking prompts available online. For example: “A friend from another country is visiting your country for the very first time and asking for travel tips. What should she see and why?” These prompts are great conversation starters and good practice for future tests. Dinner time is the best opportunity for family interaction and monitoring progress.
  4. Host a game night where you play Scrabble and put those words to use!

Helping your international students with homework, their pronunciation and grammar, and social skills is a big part of what hosting is about. We have found that teaching them jokes is a big hit. Have everyone join in and fun with it!

Simone Sprague

Cambridge Network Host & Student Development Manager

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