This blog post features some personal reflections on teaching English online from Outcomes author, Hugh Dellar.
Like many of you out there, I’ve found myself doing a fair bit of online teaching recently and I won’t lie – I much prefer face-to-face. I miss the way I can read a room full of students with just a glance, I miss the energy that’s created by a whole-class drill, and I miss being able to overhear what one pair are chatting about while I’m monitoring another. I still believe that the real value of tech lies in what it allows students to do outside of the lesson. However, given the current global situation, it’s worth considering in more detail how we can best help our learners maintain and develop their speaking online.
1. The fundamentals remain the same
In essence, what helps students get better at speaking online is the same as what helps them get better at speaking offline: there still needs to be comprehensible input pitched at (or slightly above) the level of the class; there needs to be a clear sense of what kind of speaking you want your students to try and work on – and this is particularly true with lower-level learners who are perhaps less likely to go off at tangents on their own; it’s useful if students can hear recorded versions of conversations similar to those they’re going to have, and it’s useful if we give our model answers before expecting students to come up with their own. Modeling speaking tasks works really well when sharing experiences, anecdotes, opinions, etc.
When students are speaking, whether that’s in small groups where everyone can hear, or to one or two partners in a breakout room, we need to listen in, record ways they could better say what they’re trying to say – which might be whole-sentence reformulations, mini-exchanges or corrections, or a mix of all three – and then wrap up with some kind of language-focused feedback slot, which also feeds forward to the next time they try to have similar kinds of conversations. So far, so similar. However, …
2. Tackling the tech
For many teachers at the moment, an added pressure to what’s already a stressful situation is the relentless barrage of tech tips we’re all subjected to. It’s easy to start feeling guilty because we haven’t watched that latest webinar on integrating Google docs into our virtual classrooms or read up on the ‘17 things teachers must start doing with Quizlet.’ It’s at times like this that we’d all do well to remember Michael Swan’s words of wisdom: “Good enough is good enough.”
Maybe you’re using Skype for your small groups and recording new input in the chat box – or possibly even on a piece of paper that you photograph and email around later; or perhaps you’ve mastered the basics of Zoom and set up breakout rooms for small group discussions; you pop in and out of each one, and then you give feedback. If you’ve taken this fairly minimal approach and students are happy, be happy. In the end, no amount of technical wizardry can match the rapport a great teacher builds with a group through chat, through questions, through caring and sharing – and this is what will motivate learners the most.
That said, technical issues can get in the way of all of this, and it’s obviously vital to ensure that everyone you’re teaching has both access to the tech they need, and a basic understanding of how things work – where the chat boxes are, how to turn audio and video on and off, and so on. It’s also worth establishing some ground rules. For instance, with larger groups (of, say, eight and over), it’s often wise for the main host to mute microphones when they’re talking. Otherwise, a class can quickly descend into a cacophony! Make sure these kinds of survival tactics are clear and transparent.
3 . Where tech comes out trumps
One way in which teaching online can trump face-to-face lessons is that it’s more easily recorded. Obviously, this can mean the whole lesson is available to all participants afterwards, but you can also record the pronunciation of new or problematic words / chunks, as well as ‘boardwork.’ This can be used for revision purposes, and can also provide a record of progress over time. Students often find it very satisfying to go back a few months and hear how they sounded then – compared to how they sound now. For teachers, meanwhile, recordings allow us to find areas to work on next that we maybe hadn’t picked up on during the moment-to-moment intensity of a real-time class.