Skip to main content


Cultivating Intercultural Growth in Preservice Teachers Through Experiential Learning

by Roxanna Senyshyn |

A teacher sitting at her desk shakes hands with a student and their father.

At the TESOL convention in the sunshine city of Tampa, Florida, USA in March of this year, I presented a session scheduled for a late afternoon slot on Saturday, the last day of the conference. Nevertheless, attendance was surprisingly strong, with more than 35 people choosing to listen to my talk, titled "Cultivating Intercultural Growth in Future Teachers." In this session, I discussed my recent research (currently under review) that examined the intercultural development of teacher candidates, in an undergraduate elementary education program.

For those TESOL colleagues who could not catch the talk in person, this article shares the key highlights—and if you are a teacher educator, you’ll find a rationale and guide to engaging your own future English language teaching (ELT) professionals in a journey of intercultural growth.

Why Intercultural Skills Are Essential in ELT

The notion of interculturality or intercultural development in teacher education generally refers to the ability to effectively teach students from diverse social identities, cultures, and backgrounds (Gay, 2018; Klein & Wilkan, 2019). 

As the number of multilingual learners of English (MLEs) grows in schools, so does the importance of engaging with their families in their education. In the United States, federal funding (i.e., Title III) requires that school leaders, English language teachers, and specialists work effectively with families of MLEs. In addition, researchers agree that developing supportive relationships between schools and MLEs’ families or caregivers is a promising strategy that boosts academic success and achievement, especially for learners who often come from marginalized communities (e.g., Garcia & Kleifgen, 2018; Nieto, 2018).

Because K–12 teacher candidates will certainly meet MLEs in their classrooms and need to know how to successfully engage families in their students’ learning journeys, it is important to include such topics and relevant experience in their coursework (Garcia & Kleifgen, 2018; Nieto, 2018). However, a survey of current teacher preparation programs shows that this is not the case: Parent and family engagement is not often built into teacher education curricula (Caspe & Hernandez, 2021).

Also, even though recent U.S. K–12 education policies advocate for involving multilingual families, it doesn’t always happen fairly in practice. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrant families found it especially challenging to support their children's learning at home and communicate with schools (Porter et al., 2021). In general, the most common ways to engage families in the educational process often use a one-size-fits-all and school-focused approaches, but equity-centered ideas should focus on creating knowledge together, and this means listening to families and having conversations with families (Herrera et al., 2020). 

Building real relationships is critically important for multilingual families to develop trust and personal connections (De Jesús & Antrop-González, 2006). In building these relationships, educators must consider power dynamics, which refers to the way influence is practiced within relationships; it includes who has authority, who makes decisions, and whose voices are heard and valued (Curry, 2021). These are all good reasons for including an intercultural learning project in ELT training programs.

What Is the Immigrant Family Engagement Project?

A few years ago, I added a new component to the EFL Foundation course I teach. The course is a component of the English as a second language (ESL) certification option within the bachelor’s degree program in elementary and early childhood education. This new intercultural learning component entailed engaging with immigrant families of MLEs.

The Immigrant Family Engagement (IFE) project asks each teacher candidate to select an immigrant community that aligns with their interests or opportunities they have available (e.g., colleagues at the daycare facility where they work) and meet with a family from this community. Specifically, candidates are to seek out a family with children who are receiving or have received English language support in K–12 schools. Through researching and meeting with this family, the teacher candidate will acquire firsthand insights into the challenges and experiences these families face within the U.S. educational system.

The design and implementation of activities in a teacher education program (e.g., TESOL, ESL certification) should be informed by theory, cultural values, and the specific teaching context (Golombek & Johnson, 2019). Based on these considerations, the IFE project is a field experience designed to deepen candidates' understanding of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds through direct interaction with immigrant families of MLEs in their local communities. As described earlier, this project is also part of an overall effort to prepare future teachers with the intercultural skills necessary to effectively support MLEs. 

The Immigrant Family Engagement Project: How It Works

The following are the specific steps that teacher candidates complete in this project:

Preparation and Research:  Candidates identify an immigrant family and arrange a meeting to discuss the family’s experiences in the United States and their children's educational journeys, especially regarding English language support.

Before meeting the family, candidates conduct research to familiarize themselves with the family’s cultural and linguistic background. This includes studying provided resources, such as CultureGrams, which offer detailed cultural insights.

Meeting and Conversation: Candidates meet with the family at a location that is convenient for both parties, such as their home or a community center. During this meeting, candidates use a predefined set of questions developed in class to guide the conversation, ensuring a focused and respectful exchange of information.

Observation and Reporting: Postmeeting, candidates are expected to compile their observations and insights into a comprehensive report. This report includes detailed summaries of the discussions, enriched with candidates’ reflections on their fieldwork experience and its implications for their future teaching practice.

Resource Guide Development: Candidates also create an annotated resource guide that includes books, websites, articles, and other credible sources about the family's country of origin, culture, and language. This guide serves as a tool for further education and reference, both for the candidates and their peers.

Reflection, Presentation, and Sharing: The culmination of the project is a classroom presentation where each candidate shares the knowledge gained from their field experience. These presentations are informal and narrative in nature, encouraging a storytelling approach that reflects on the candidates’ journey through the project, from initial planning to the final reflections.

Over the years, teacher candidates have found the IFE project to be both a challenging and rewarding experiential learning opportunity. The first semester that I implemented the IFE project, I was teaching a mixed group of preservice and in-service teachers. Though I knew the topic had direct implications for in-service teachers, I anticipated challenges for my preservice teachers, such as finding an immigrant parent to speak with. 

To my surprise, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, despite initial hesitations (which they noted in reflections) from candidates that often started with “I did not know where to begin…” or “I cannot find an immigrant family to talk to...” or “It stressed me out so much…” The teacher candidates always know they can speak with me—an immigrant parent—about my experiences. Although I am their last resort, they have always found someone else to speak with, occasionally with my general suggestions on potential informants for the project. 


My research utilized the Intercultural Development Inventory as both a pre- and postassessment tool to measure intercultural learning among the cohort of Spring 2023 participants in the IFE project. The findings of the study showed the growth of teacher candidates in their intercultural development as a cohort, suggesting increased awareness and sensitivity to cultural diversity and dynamics, as well as a small shift from a monocultural mindset to embracing multiple cultural perspectives. Therefore, interventions provided throughout the semester have the potential to influence teacher candidates’ intercultural development.

Overall, this field experience prepares teacher candidates to be more empathetic and informed and allows them to experience the complexity and richness of diversity in education through immigrant family perspectives. Through direct interactions with immigrant families of MLEs, candidates gain invaluable insights into the educational and personal challenges these families face and learn success stories, too. Some participants even say that it is their favorite class project.

This hands-on project equips preservice teachers with the skills necessary to effectively support MLEs by enhancing their intercultural development and preparing them to partner with families in the educational process. The IFE project serves as an agent in the development of supportive relationships with families and caregivers of MLEs—a powerful strategy that boosts academic success and achievement for these learners.



Caspe, M. & Hernandez, R. (2021). National survey of colleges and universities preparing educators for family engagement. National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement. 

Curry, M. W. (2021). Authentic cariño: Transformative schooling for Latinx youth. Teachers College Press.

De Jesus, A., & Antrop‐González, R. (2006). Instrumental relationships and high expectations: Exploring critical care in two Latino community‐based schools. Intercultural Education17(3), 281–299.

García, O., & Kleifgen, J. A. (2018). Educating emergent bilinguals: Policies, programs, and practices for English learners. Teachers College Press.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Golombek, P. R., & Johnson, K. E. (2019). Materializing a Vygotskian-inspired language teacher education pedagogy. The Routledge Handbook of English language teacher education, 25–37.

Herrera, S. G., Porter, L., & Barko-Alva, K. (2020). Equity in school–parent partnerships: Cultivating community and family trust in culturally diverse classrooms. Teachers College Press.

Klein, J., & Wilkan, G. (2019). Teacher education and international practice programmes: Reflections on transformative learning and global citizenship. Teaching and Teacher Education, 79, 93–100.

Nieto, S. (2018). Working with families of diverse backgrounds: Learning from teachers who "read" their students. In C. T. Adger, C. E. Snow, & D. Christian (Eds.), What teachers need to know about language (pp. 95–104). Multilingual Matters.

Porter, L., Barko-Alva, K., & Herrera, S. G. (2021). Plexiglass: how power, policy and politics create a mirage of equitable family engagement. Journal for Multicultural Education15(3), 330–342.

About the author

Roxanna Senyshyn

Roxanna Senyshyn, PhD, is an associate professor of applied linguistics at Abington College, coordinating ESL certification. She teaches TESOL education, applied linguistics, and intercultural communication courses. Recognized with the Outstanding Teaching award in 2017 and 2023, she focuses her research on transformative intercultural learning and professional development for teachers. Her work on English learners and second language writing has been published in leading journals. Dr. Senyshyn also provides professional development for regional school districts.

This website uses cookies. A cookie is a small piece of code that gives your computer a unique identity, but it does not contain any information that allows us to identify you personally. For more information on how TESOL International Association uses cookies, please read our privacy policy. Most browsers automatically accept cookies, but if you prefer, you can opt out by changing your browser settings.