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Five points to keep in mind when teaching English online

Educator Simon Dunton shares the top tips he’s gleaned from 15 years of teaching

Since the spring of 2020, more ESOL teachers than ever have experienced online teaching. In some cases, this has been a temporary measure, but in others it has opened new opportunities for both teachers and learners, meaning the communicative language classroom has never been so accessible to so many people.

Working with tutors, trainers and moderators across the globe, the five areas below have been highlighted as key to successful online classes.

  1. Set up the right screen view

Get to know your video-conferencing software well, experimenting with the view features so that you and your learners feel part of a class, helping to build rapport and create a comfortable learning atmosphere.

Open-class discussion is best conducted in ‘gallery view’, as you will be able to see more than one learner at a time, noting who looks like they want to speak or who disagrees with what has been said. Encourage your learners to use the same view, so they can interact with one another, nominating who will answer the next question, etc. This mimics the whole-class view everyone would have in a face-to-face class.

Of course, this means getting learners to keep their cameras on whenever possible. Talk with them about why this is important and how they would feel if you had your camera off during the class.

  1. Think about your teacher talking time (TTT)

Many of us will be familiar with the concept of TTT – the time we as teachers spend talking in the class. In the communicative face-to-face language classroom, we usually try to keep it quite low as this is the learners’ time to talk, not ours.

However, many teachers have noted that their TTT is higher when teaching online and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s the right kind of TTT.

In a face-to-face class, learners would see you giving out handouts, grouping them, writing on the board, etc. In the online classroom, they will see your face, and they may hear some typing and clicking. This is a good time to comment on what you are doing:

  • “I’m now putting you in breakout rooms. There will be four rooms, with three learners in each room.”
  • “I’m putting the link in the chat box. Can you all see it?”
  • “I’m about to share my screen. Can you all see the picture?”

If it is structured, clear and well thought through, this ‘deliberate commentary’ can be valuable as it helps learners understand what is happening in the class when you transition between and through activities.

  1. Take your time

Everything can take a little longer in the online classroom, so remember this when planning and conducting activities.

In a face-to-face class, grouping learners takes seconds, but organising the breakout rooms can take a little longer, especially when first using them. This is normal and learners should expect this.

If you have asked learners to use a new site, tool or function, give them some extra time to orientate themselves and learn how to use it before they start the task you have set them.

When asking questions in open-class discussion, leave some extra thinking time for learners to consider their responses before nominating someone to answer. This allows for any delays in connection, as well as giving weaker learners more time to understand the question and compose their response.

  1. Avoid breakout-room fatigue

While breakout rooms can be great for group discussions and collaborative work, it’s easy to overuse them, which leads to breakout- room fatigue. When you plan your lessons, think carefully about when they are best used and why.

“When asking questions in open-class discussion, leave some extra thinking 

For example, checking several gist questions after a listening task is not a good use of breakout rooms or the learners’ time. Instead, consider asking learners to type short answers into the chat box before asking for further ideas in open-class discussion.

  1. Keep it simple

There are a huge number of blog posts, webinars and video tutorials on using online resources in the online classroom. So many, in fact, that it can be a little overwhelming for both learners and teachers.

Remember that a good language lesson – whether online or face to face – doesn’t need to involve lots of resources. Some of the best learning moments can come from exploring and/ or upgrading the emergent language (the language used by the learners), which can be done with an online whiteboard or a shared document.

If you do want to integrate online resources (videos, quizzes, online exercises, etc), remember to check them carefully to make sure they are suitable and easy to use. Also, remember to give your learners time to figure out how to use any new tools and discover how different functions work.

Take your teaching to the next level

Trinity Teach English Online is an online, self-study course that can lead to a Level 4 Of qual-regulated qualification, the Trinity Certificate in Online Teaching (CertOT). For more information on the above and teaching English online, visit Trinity Teach English Online.

You can also try the Trinity Teach English Online free sample unit and experience first-hand what the course can offer.

Simon Dunton is a teacher- educator, researcher and conference speaker based at Trinity College London, with experience teaching a wide range of ages and abilities from around the world, both face-to face and online.

Images courtesy of PHOTO BY CHRIS MONTGOMERY ON UNSPLASH and Library
Simon Dunton
Simon Dunton
Simon Dunton is a teacher-educator, researcher and conference speaker based at Trinity College London, with experience teaching a wide range of ages and abilities from around the world, both face-to face and online.
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