Threaded Discussions: Are "Non-Native" Speakers of English Really at a Disadvantage?

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session Equity and Inclusion

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Does the use of threaded discussion in English-dominant universities intrinsically privilege those learners who have acquired English during their formative years? This presentation offers research-based techniques for supporting culturally and linguistically diverse learners and all learners' meta-awareness of the "rules of the game" implicit to threaded discussions.

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Lynn Shafer Willner provides development, research, and project management expertise with state and national English language development (ELD) standards. She conducts multilingual learner/English language learner (ELL) accessibility, accommodation, and research and analysis for state education agencies and next-generation assessment consortia. In addition, Dr. Shafer Willner provides Common Core State Standards subject-matter, early childhood, and instructional design expertise for face-to-face and online training and curriculum development. Her research interests center around the high leverage language use opportunities in College and Career-Ready standards, ELL accessibility and accommodation issues, online communication, and classroom-based action research. She began her career as a K-5 ESOL teacher at Bailey’s Elementary for the Arts and Sciences in the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools where she participated in and supported teacher (action) research as she worked to deepen her professional practice.

Extended Abstract

The purposes of this presentation are two-fold: (1) to share research on useful techniques for supporting the online threaded discussion participation of culturally and linguistically diverse learners and (2) to present research-based recommendations in a way that moves beyond Anglo-centric, nativist notions of English-medium instruction towards a perspective that honors the multiple, dynamic forms of English and multiple cultural ways of knowing. This topic is important to the online learning community since online learning, by definition, expands beyond geographic boundaries.  As learner diversity increases, not only within the United States, but also through international contact, it is important for online course designers and facilitators to consider the implications related to deeply-embedded Anglo-centric points of view.

Based on available communication modes during the conference (i.e., face-to-face presentations supplemented with live streaming/viewing), the session has been designed with the following activities:

  1. For the session warm-up, the presenter will provide participants with two TinyURLs that will be used during the session. The first TinyURL will contain a five-question Myths and Misconceptions “quiz” to initiate reflection on session participants’ assumptions about the participation of culturally and linguistically diverse learners during online threaded discussions. [Virtual participants can participate in this quick poll.] Results will be immediately shared with the group as a backdrop to the presentation.  
  2. The presenter will then offer a concise 20-minute presentation (described below), moving to the group discussion ten minutes sooner than proposed in the session call.
  3. At the end of the session (and based on the conference design), the group discussion will be launched with a game of Rumors (adapted from AllEd, 2016), a group mixer which warms up the session discussion by allowing conference participants to learn each other’s names and share ideas with each other.
    • Write: Session participants will be given 30-seconds to jot down on a post-it note one idea or technique for supporting culturally and linguistically diverse students during online threaded discussions. The idea or technique may be from the presentation or different one from their own experiences.
    • Share the “rumors”: Presenter will launch the activity: “Now, we’re going to spread our rumors by going up to someone, reading our post-it notes, listening to what each person wrote on their post-it-note, and then exchanging rumors. From there, you’ll swap post-it notes and share the rumor with another person in the room. You might say something like, ‘I heard from Donovan that….’ The goal is to exchange ideas with as many people as possible in 3 minutes. [Listen, Say, Exchange.]”
    • Reflect:  Stop the rumors! Presenter will ask one participant to read outloud the rumor that he/she ended up with. The presenter will write the rumor on a Padlet (a non-threaded, collaborative online discussion area), using the second TinyUrl for the session, and ask others in the room (and those attending virtually) to post their rumors next to the first one if could be grouped with it.) Ask session participants in the first group if they might name this group of rumors and use the Padlet connector feature to select the rumor each posted and connect it to others on the Padlet.
    • Expand: Presenter will ask for a very different rumor – and start a second group. Invite others to post similar rumors to make a second group and brainstorm a name for the new group of rumors. Continue adding groups until all rumors are collected. “Does anyone have an idea that doesn’t fit within any of these categories?”
    • Review: Ask participants to review the entire Padlet board. Discuss as a group, “What other connections do you notice? What might our rumors tell us about our learning, questions, and ourselves?”


Because much of computer-mediated communication and computer technology emerged within the Anglo-American sociocultural milieu, there has been a longstanding concern among information and communication technology (ICT) researchers that students who are “non-native” speakers of English may have greater difficulty with the implicit mainstream Anglo-American social and cultural conventions embedded within computer-mediated communication and computer technology (e.g., Bowers, 2000; Damarin, 1998; Henderson, 1996; Murray, 2000).

What might these the implicit mainstream Anglo-American social and cultural conventions be and how might they shape threaded discussions? Threaded discussions can be defined as graded, asynchronous computer conferencing assignments that take place on discussion boards within a Web-based course management system such as Blackboard or Canvas. The discussion board software allows learners’ written messages to be arranged as if they had occurred during a chronological discussion. Yet, in contrast to email or online chat, learners can select arbitrary entrance points to the group conversation (Crystal, 2001). As a result, the group discussion grows in multiple directions (Leu, 2000; Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2008). To manage a potentially overwhelming number of messages that have been added to the discussion at different entry points, many discussions employ a moderator. The moderator serves as organizer, social host, and facilitator of the norms, roles, and expectations for participants. [It should be noted that threaded discussions use a similar design and delivery within both campus-based, distributed learning courses and purely online (i.e., Internet-based) courses (Bates, 2000; Ritter, Polnick, Fink, & Oescher, 2009).]

Threaded discussions offer a particular culture of learning. A culture of learning is “[the] taken for granted frameworks of expectations, attitudes, values, and beliefs about what constitutes good learning [and] how to teach and learn” (Cortazzi & Jin, 1996, p. 169). There are three basic affordances that shape the threaded discussion culture of learning:

  1. Because reading text on a computer screen is much more difficult than reading printed text and because fewer semantic cues are available to their readers, it is common for learners to favor a direct, concise, low-context communication style and a variety of English that eases the burden of reading written text on a computer screen;
  2. to participate successfully within the many-to-many discussion format of threaded discussions, learners benefit from the adoption of an active learning style to manage the high volume of messages; and
  3. as learners gain experience with threaded discussions, they tend move away from instructor-led Initiation-Response-Evaluation (I-R-E) conversation towards student-initiated dialogue involving multiple [cultural] viewpoints (Banks, 1995) and group knowledge that is contextualized through collaboration and real-world contexts (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2010).     

Yet does the use of threaded discussion in English-dominant universities privilege intrinsically privilege those learners who had acquired English during their formative socialization period, a period prior to adulthood (Worthman, 2010), and describe themselves as having been socialized in the dominant Anglo-American socio-cultural discourse community? Perhaps yes and perhaps no.

Yes, research in the American university context does indicate that learners who acquired English well after acquiring their initial language(s) encounter linguistic difficulties during threaded discussions. Not only might it be difficult for these learners to use English at an advanced level to discuss abstract concepts (Fox, 1994; Tergan, 1997), there may also be cultural difficulties since  many concepts in English use a different metaphorical form or structure than found in common discourse patterns associated with other languages (Acton & Felix de Walker, 1986; Grabe & Kaplan, 1996; Kubota, 2010; Warschauer, 2000).

These learners may also express unease with debate-oriented structure used in threaded discussions, egalitarian structure to instructor-student relationships, and the acceptance of personal experience as being just as important as “book” or expert-derived knowledge. Yet, because language use is defined by context, scholars are increasingly moving away from terms such as “native” and “non-native” English, recognizing that reality of Global English, where English no longer “belongs” to the Colonizer countries, U.S. and Great Britain (Kachru, 1985; Mahboob, 2018).   

No, because greater cultural distance may actually offer an advantage: Some learners who acquired English well after acquiring their initial language(s) report increased meta-awareness of the existence of different cultural rules implicit to social interactions and therefore, actively seek out information that reveals the implicit “rules of the game.”

 In the end, the culture-distance hypothesis does not always hold. [The culture-distance hypothesis, first introduced by Babiker, Cox, and Miller (1980), suggests that the greater the cultural distance between the individual and the target culture, the more difficulties that individual will experience when interacting with members of or experiences from the target culture (Ward, Bochner, & Fumham, 2001).] Those learners from more mono-cultural backgrounds (or a close distance) may sometimes fail to see cultural rules as flexible.

All learners carry cultural ways of knowing and communication styles. Because no one is culturally-neutral, adult learners from either dominant or minority backgrounds may experience a period of transition when adapting from their familiar culture of learning to a new culture of learning. Research [author] has shown that instructors can support all learner’s participation in threaded discussion by (a) adjusting the scheduling of class discussions, (b) adding a requirement that students to serve as discussion facilitators, and (c) offering clear facilitation guidelines and evaluation rubrics which make explicit the rules for participation. A sample basic online discussion rubric will be shared.