Five top tips for online lessons

Teaching English online was already popular, but for some teachers covid-19 suddenly made it the new standard: idioms like ‘being thrown in at the deep end’ or having a ‘baptism of fire’ spring to mind. Some countries, such as France and Britain, are gradually reopening schools; others, like Spain, seem to be largely waiting until September. Nonetheless, more online teaching may well be necessary and even desirable in the future, so getting to grips with the medium seems a pretty good idea. Having been teaching online as part of the international Live Classes project (recently nominated for a British Council ELTons Award for Innovation in Learner Resources) for the past couple of years as well as teaching Big Live Lessons in Spain over the last few months, I’d like to share a few tips in this blog post. Regarding my suggestions for synchronous classes, I’ve mainly used zoom, but most of what I suggest can be applied to any platform.

  1. The humble chatbox is mighty

Having all your students talking at you at once is the stuff of nightmares, right? The chatbox turns this on its head and allows all students to ‘speak’ at the same time. We can use our chatbox for brainstorming or for ‘races’ for students to type an answer or an idea. We can have our students write the instructions for a task in the chatbox, so we know they’ve understood what we’ve asked them to do. We can use the chatbox to provide feedback as students are speaking (thereby not interrupting them) and we can decide if that feedback goes to individual students or to the class as a whole (private / public messaging). We can get our students sending us ideas privately, read them out and have the rest of the class guess who said what, and why. We can even download everything that is written in the chatbox and provide it to our students with a task or revisit it in further lessons.

  1. Make the students protagonists

Having ‘active learners’ rather than ‘passive recipients’ will sound like pretty well-worn advice to most teachers. But it’s called ‘distance learning’ for a reason, and keeping our students engaged and indeed making sure they’re paying attention and following the lesson can be more of a challenge when they’re so far away! Of course there are lots of ways to do this (for example, see chatbox comments above), but here are just a few ideas to make sure students are getting plenty of protagonism in an online clalssroom by using the drawing tools on your platform.

In the above exercise, I have divided the zoom whiteboard into ten squares, one for each student. They each have to draw an animal. The students take turns to guess which animal is being drawn by their peers and this is confirmed by the artist.

Below, I am revising vocabulary on technology. I say a technological gadget which can be found in the picture below (in this case ‘selfie stick’) and it’s a race between the students to circle that item. Zoom allows you to see who is annotating (you can turn this function on and off), so everyone can see who got there first (in this case Álvaro, see below).

In this exercise, I have left the word TECHNOLOGY on the whiteboard and the students take it in turns to add to it with a technology word, in the style of an acrostic poem. Once the other students know which word is being written they shout their name (like on a game show – it’s a way of telling who’s first, rather than having the class shout out the answer), then the word they think it is. The student writing confirms. Can you get what my student is writing below?!

  1. Use breakout rooms

Platforms such as zoom and bigbluebutton allow for breakout rooms, so you can put pairs or small groups of students in different virtual rooms – thereby allowing pairwork and groupwork. The teacher can pop in and out of rooms to monitor. When I surveyed the teachers in the Live Classes community, this was the feature they found most useful – they told me they used breakout rooms for discussion speaking tasks when students come to an agreement, situational dialogues and they also stressed their importance for keeping up relationships. You can also use breakout rooms for students to be doing a little bit of group research online, before coming back together and presenting what they found. Here is an example from my colleague, Harry Waters, in which groups of students need to go away and research key information on a music artist in breakout rooms, then post their findings on a padlet:

Just as giving students clear instructions and making them accountable for their work are good practice for teaching in general, they’re doubly important here. Do students know exactly what to do? How will they show us they’ve done the work after the breakout rooms? So we might need a finished product, or have students reporting what their partner said, or have them assessing one another, for example.

  1. Use collaborative tools like padlets

To follow on from the last point, digital learning offers so many possibilities for collaboration both in the synchronous lesson and outside of the lesson, asynchronously (‘homework’ in old money). Padlets can be used for brainstorming, sharing links, pictures, videos, audios, projects in general and more. Here is an example of students recording their voices in answer to the question ‘Who uses technology the most in your family?’ Their task was to listen to their classmates’ responses and find a similarity they shared with someone. Incidentally, if you haven’t got breakout rooms and you’re interested in more speaking tasks, this is an option. I have also used padlets in Big Live Lessons in Spain with multiple schools – students had to post a picture of their school and write about it. Then, their task was to read the other entries and look for a school they’d like to go to and give a reason.

This screenshot shows how to record audio on a padlet (click the three dots for options and go to ‘voice’ – you’ll see there are lots of options!)

5. Use a Learning Management System for homework.

‘Blended’ learning was already popular before covid-19, but ‘digital homework’ has taken off even more over the past few months. Examples of LMS such include Google Classroom or Edmodo and Pearson also has LMS which allow you assign activities to reinforce what you’ve done in class, have them automatically graded and keep track of your pupils’ progress. An example is myenglishlab – below is an example of a gradebook – we have information about how many of the assigned activities our students have done, which tells us about our students’ application and their scores, which tells us about their achievement. Other useful functions include common error reports and the ability to differentiate the tasks you set to different students, catering for mixed ability. 

There you have it: five top tips for online classes. What are yours?


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