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Practical tips for engaging young learners online

Ross Thorburn talks to the Gazette about his popular podcast and online teaching

TEFL Training Institute

Ross Thorburn started up the TEFL Training Institute website with hopes of 
building teacher training programs, but it has found its identity as a 
podcast/blog. The podcasts aim to take useful ideas about language teaching,
training and management and present them in way that is fast, easy to 
understand and free.

In each 15-minute episode, Ross discusses practical, thought-provoking or controversial topics with friends, and with some of the biggest names in language teaching. From motivation to materials, training to teenagers, approaches to assessment.

Can you tell us a bit more about the team you work with and what TEFL Training Institute can offer to teachers?

The podcast is all about spreading useful ideas about language teaching, training and management. Much of the literature about language teaching is too long, too difficult to understand and too expensive for teachers to access. The podcast aims to be the opposite. The team is just me and the guests that come on the podcast. Some of the guests have included David Nunan, Patsy Lightbown, Penny Ur and Stephen Krashen.

When did you first start teaching English and where has this taken you in the world?

My first teaching job was in 2006 in Hefei, China. Since then I’ve worked as a teacher, trainer, manager and materials designer, but haven’t left China.

When did you get involved with the TEFL Training Institute, and what prompted you to go down this professional route?

The initial motivation for the podcast was related to teacher training. I liked the idea of the flipped classroom and wanted to try ‘flipped training’. Sending a podcast to trainees before a training session freed up more time for discussion and reflection face- to-face.

I understand that you’ve recently finished your MA. Was this an online course?

It was the NILE MA for Professional Development in Language Education, which was online and part-time. I wrote my dissertation on encouraging meaningful communication in online classes with young learners while working in a school that taught young learners online. I love that part- time online courses are making teacher

education more relevant. What could be more practical than studying a subject area you encounter every day at work?

Are there particular challenges for teaching young learners online?

There are three main factors that make teaching kids online challenging. Firstly, the environment can be very static. Without movement, it’s easy for students to get bored and listless. Movement is usually easy to integrate into offline young learner classes. Incorporating movement in online lessons takes more thought.

The second reason relates to the materials. Publishers have been making communicative coursebooks for offline classes for decades. Teachers can supplement their face-to-face lessons with activities from resource books.

“Asking questions that you don’t know the answer to tends to prompt more 
meaningful interactions.”

But our industry is far less experienced at developing content for online language classes. Online materials are often either adapted from offline or created for online by inexperienced writers. Teachers get hit with a double whammy: a new context and sub- standard materials they need to adapt.

Finally, online teaching can pose cultural challenges if teachers live far away from their students. Good English teaching often involves helping learners talk about the world around them. The better teachers understand their students’ environment and culture, the easier they can do that. I’ve lived in China for a long time now, so I understand what my students are trying to say when they talk about food they like or cartoons they watch. This would be close to impossible if I still lived in a small town in Scotland and my students lived in downtown Shanghai.

What tips would you offer to teachers who are adapting to this new environment, possibly for the first time?

Take advantage of the new environment. Online teaching opens the door to many practices which are impossible offline. In face-to-face classes with beginner-level young learners it can be difficult to personalise language. Often the only possessions students bring to class are a few pieces of stationary, their coursebook and schoolbag. Online classes are the opposite. Young learners usually take online classes in their own bedrooms. They are surrounded by their clothes, toys, books, parents and pets. These can be used as realia in class, replacing flashcards or pictures in the coursebooks.

If you’re teaching a unit on clothes, students can show and describe their favorite outfits to you or the class. If you’re teaching food, students can bring their favorite snacks from the kitchen and learn how to describe these in English. This is infinitely more meaningful than naming generic foods from a coursebook.

Can you offer anything new for teachers who are already very familiar with the online environment, but maybe not with young learners?

I think good online teaching needs to be a mixture of the ‘new’ and the ‘old’. The ‘old’ is the principles behind effective teaching. The ‘new’ is how to make these happen online. Let me share a couple of examples.

All teachers should ask students genuine (referential) questions at least as often as they ask display questions. Asking questions that you don’t know the answer to tends to prompt more meaningful interactions, makes learners more invested in their responses and resembles interactions that happen in the ‘real world’.

The online classroom is a great setting for referential questions because participants know much less about each other’s surroundings. For example, asking “What’s the weather like?” in a face-to-face class isn’t genuine. Everyone can look out the window and see the weather for themselves. Asking the same question online is more genuine, because I can’t see and probably don’t know what the weather is like outside your window. An ‘old’ and meaningless question can become ‘new’ and meaningful in the online setting.

Another example relates to communicative activities. Communicative tasks are important in all contexts, but can be more challenging in online lessons. There are three reasons for this:

Teachers teaching online tend to use materials linearly; most lesson sequences put communicative activities at the end of lesson (e.g. ‘activate’ in ESA or ‘production’ in PPP); and online lessons typically are much shorter than face-to-face lessons.

Add these together and you have a perfect storm. Communicative activities get squeezed into the final few minutes of class time. My advice to teachers and online materials writers is to move communicative activities to the beginning of your lessons. This means the most important activities get the time and attention they deserve. Communicative activities are an ‘old’ idea, but to make them happen online we need a ‘new’ strategy. 

Online learning can offer opportunities to make referential questions, like, “What is the weather like?” more meaningful

How do you overcome technology issues with young learners?

No one wants to have a bad connection or only be able to see the top of their student’s head from their webcam. But the process of solving these problems can be hugely beneficial for language learning.

To sort out tech issues teachers and students need to use language to achieve a goal. This is the same as any effective language learning task. What makes this challenging is the language involved.

Young learners don’t usually have the necessary vocabulary to talk about connections or webcams. Beginner level coursebooks usually include classroom vocabulary like ‘book’, ‘pen’, ‘chair’ and ‘desk’. These allow students to talk about the classroom environment in English. Teachers and students in online classes also need to be able to talk about their classroom environment.

The vocabulary they need to do this is completely different to offline. We need to teach our learners ‘Can you hear me?’ ‘Move your webcam’, ‘click’ and ‘circle’. These and other phrases can help us solve tech problems while helping our learners communicate meaningfully in English.

What is your vision or expectation for the future of online learning generally?

Whatever happens in the future it will be driven by technology rather than by teachers. Education usually isn’t the first industry to take advantage of new technologies. If we look at gaming, virtual reality is a big area of growth. VR could let us visit the arctic with our students instead of looking at a photo of a polar bear on a computer screen or take our class on a tour of the Taj Mahal instead of just reading about it. I suspect this is several years and technological breakthroughs away.

Image courtesy of PIXABAY
Ross Thorburn
Ross Thorburn
Ross Thorburn has been a teacher, manager, teacher trainer and materials writer since 2006. He lives and works in China, and runs the TEFL Training Institute website in his spare time. If you’d like to contact Ross, send him an email at ross.thorburn@yahoo.com
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