Teaching English is undeniably a challenging task; taking out the tactility of the classroom and replacing it with a computer screen presents even more of a challenge. The age of the students and the level of prior English skills that they have in store will certainly make huge differences to the online environment. As such, there really isn’t an all-encompassing formula to use when teaching English online. There are so many different areas of English language to study and innumerable teaching methods, so it’s crucial to suss out what will work best for your particular students through trial and error. However, there are a few general tips that are applicable across the spectrum of online teaching, and adding them to your teaching repertoire will only increase your successes as an online ESL instructor.
1) Clarity, tone, and speed
The most obvious yet important tip that I can give to online teachers is to really focus on their voice. In a classroom setting, there are no bad connections, echoes, or bounce backs. Students can closely watch what your mouth does and you can be tactile with them. This is hard to do through a screen and even harder for students (especially young ones) to perceive. If you think you are speaking slowly enough, go a bit slower. Pronounce everything clearly and keep an appropriate tone. Your first few online lessons will teach you wonders that you never would have thought about during in-person classes. Always remember to be clear, repeat, and constantly make sure that your student understands. None of the other tips will matter if you can’t master this first basic of teaching online.
2) Objectivity and direction
Make sure that each lesson has a clear objective and predetermined takeaway. Being focused and diligent is even more important when teaching and studying online. Going off topic and onto tangents can seriously disrupt (and often terminate) the flow of your lesson, and you will not be able to call upon your physical presence to regain control. Design each lesson with a clear objective and communicate this to your student(s) at the beginning of the session. I find sending a powerpoint or bulleted list and screen-sharing effective in doing this. Make sure that your student can understand what he or she is going to work on and be able to do/say/understand by the end of the lesson.
Considering what I said above, do not presume that creating clear objectives necessitates overly arduous prep time. Define the goals while making the lesson, communicate them to your student, then begin at the simplest step. Online learning will require a certain degree of independence on the students’ part, as well, so beginning by asking conversational questions within your topic of the day is a great place to start. Try to communicate as you would normally, and listen for patterns in the mistakes that they make before correcting them. Break things down, step by step, and simplify, simplify, simplify or you will quickly lose them. Depending on the age and skill level, you can make this extra-interactive by asking the students to come up with different ways of practicing the daily objectives. Active, engaged learning is the most effective kind of learning.
Lecturing on how to speak a language to a non-native speaker, which isn’t very effective when conducted in person, is even less successful through a computer. Make your students your resource by asking them to pick a topic and lead a discussion. This, again, is completely dependent on their age and skill level, but anything can be adapted to suit the individual’s needs. Give your students examples and ideas to start them off, before encouraging the independence I referenced above. For example, you can have them find a news article or suggest an appropriate controversial topic for debate. Having a choice not only increases independence but also allows the students to choose a topic relevant to them. Often times, the textbooks that you are forced to use in an ESL classroom abroad have articles or stories that have no bearing on the students’ culture and lives. Being able to hand-pick relevant topics is a huge bonus for teaching and studying ESL online. There are a plethora of sites dedicated to providing articles and podcasts for varying levels of ESL students, such as AllEarsEnglish and BreakingNewsEnglish.
Less is more, except in the case of images. Digital content needs imagery, as text doesn’t really transfer that well on the screen. Your materials need to be extra attractive and brain-friendly in order to keep students engaged. Text links can also be provided for students to utilize on their own time (i.e. homework), but during the lesson, having a lot of images, videos, and mindmaps will incite your students’ visual processing skills. For ESL learners, associating words, ideas, and concepts with images is incredibly useful and allows the new information to be more easily committed to memory. Furthermore, imagery and new media inspire creativity in students, activating more areas of the brain for more comprehensive learning and understanding. Images also allow teachers to explain complex information in a more simple and understandable way. This is particularly useful for online teachers, as they rarely have native co-teachers to send their students to for clarification.
6) Flexibility and adaptability
Sometimes, you won’t nail the lesson. You might think you’ve found the most interesting topic and designed great supplementary activities only to be met with a blank stare. While this will certainly be discouraging the first time it happens to you, you can avoid bombing by being able to adapt. Take time to notice your students’ learning styles, strengths, weaknesses, and interests. While you might have allotted five minutes to a certain element in your lesson plan, be prepared to change if that point ends up taking up the entire lesson. Being flexible and knowing when you need to adapt a the drop of a hat will make you an excellent teacher. If you or your students do hit the wall in the middle of a lesson, make sure you have something fun up your sleeve, just in case. A funny video, a short story, or an activity that you can use as back up can/will save the session and hopefully bring up interesting learning points. Staying on task is almost always the best way to go, but teaching (like life in general) doesn’t always go as planned.