Teaching ESL online can be both rewarding and challenging.
Get used to a different way of teaching, and utilize these three strategies to produce increased communication in your online classroom.
Try These 3 Ways to Increase Communication in Your Online Classroom
Create Discussions and Keep Them on Track
In an online environment, especially one where the focus is language acquisition, it can be difficult for discussions to materialize and continue. This may be because students don't know each other well enough, the classroom dynamics may be more focused on structured course work, or perhaps there is little opportunity for organic conversation to originate.
There are a few strategies you can employ to keep students talking and to keep them on task. As the instructor and mediator of your online environment it is important to facilitate natural conversation, and to make sure the students don't get too far off course. Of course, you want an effective dialogue to continue and veer off at times, but you don't want your classroom overrun with conversations that have no purpose. One strategy to create a lot of conversation in the beginning is to do icebreakers designed for the students to get to know each other. Keep the icebreaker structured so that students have tasks to accomplish while asking and answering questions. An example could be: Talk about one of the following topics: an embarrassing moment or funny experience you have had recently. Their tasks could be something like: Each person must ask at least one question during the discussion, and there will be a debrief where you are expected to report back some of the facts/funny things/details that you learned about classmates. This way you are promoting active listening and encouraging speaking at the same time.
Set-up perimeters for conversational activities so that you achieve both natural interaction and task-focused work. You may want to set these perimeters for all conversational activities, on a case-by-case basis, or for each activity you entertain. Make the perimeters clear to the class before you begin, and be sure to enforce them if need be. You can make them as stringent or as loose as possible, and also ask your class for input on the perimeters. A few examples are:
During conversations, no one student should speak for more than 5 minutes at a time.
Please do not interrupt students during discussion. Sometimes it works really well to have a hand gesture that symbolizes agreement, so that students don't interject to say things like me too, or I've had that same experience.
Pay attention when others are speaking and do your best to remember details and ask questions.
Troubleshoot Written Communications
It is common to supplement video conferencing with some amount of written communication. Be sure that you troubleshoot this right from the beginning. First, choose the right type of written communication to fit the needs and the desires of your particular group. Consult the class and determine their interest level is in using email, social media, bulletin boards, or a combination. Once the class has agreed on a form of communication, set guidelines on how it will be used. Perhaps you will create a group on Facebook where you can send out pertinent information about the class, assignments, discussion topics, etc. You need to be sure that whatever you choose to do, all students are on board with it and will have access to it. Next you need to decide how to use it. Will you post surveys, handouts, or extra materials for students to access? Will you communicate directly with students or will they all have the capability to communicate with one another? Will the students be required to do some amount of communication with classmates, on a bulletin board, for example?
Knowing ahead of time how the platform will be used and setting those expectations clearly will avoid confusion in the future. Also think about the level of your class and how you plan to mediate communication with a lot of grammatical errors.
Utilize Teachable Moments
In every classroom it is essential to utilize every teachable moment possible, and the same holds true for teaching ESL online. It is imperative that you be able to jump in and interject impromptu lessons when opportunities arise. This can be a little more problematic in an online environment because you miss your opportune window to stop for the natural teaching moment, or you might not want to interrupt the activity at hand. Even still, it might present more clumsily to veer off in a different direction when generally you are trying to keep students on task. You can avoid these pitfalls by making it a priority of yours to take those natural teaching moments as they come and direct the class accordingly. It may feel clunky in the beginning, but if you stick with it you will find that it becomes more natural and adds to the flow of the class instead of detracting from it.
Teachable moments can be anything from a grammar point that students keep misusing, to a cultural error that you learn about in discussion, to a pronunciation issue that multiple students are struggling with. Whatever the issue, you want to address it when you have the chance. A good rule of thumb for grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation errors is to address it if you hear it more than three times from two or more students. It might be a simple correction that you make, or a quick explanation. You can say something like, “I'd like to stop for just a minute and address an error I keep hearing today.” Or you could simply ask the students, “It seems like a lot of you are struggling with present perfect today. Would you like to review it now?” Give them options, and be sensitive to the fact that you are calling out errors. Some of the best teachable moments can create wonderful dialogues that clear up problems for good or can bring to the surface more things that need attention. However you approach teachable moments, include your students and be confident that in the end they will be happy to know that you are paying attention and helping them solve problems.
Communicating in an online classroom environment can be just as stimulating and exciting as a regular classroom setting.
Employ these strategies so students can make the most of the experience and keep them coming back for more.