Four questions and answers about teaching English online

There are so many challenges facing us as we move to teaching our students online. And, since this situation is likely to be with us for quite a while, what are some ways to overcome them?

In this post, Larry Ferlazzo looks at four questions that he has been facing in his teaching Beginning English Language Learners and Intermediates, and his response.

How do I choose which online tools to use with my students when there are so many of them?

Use the remaining time you have until summer break to continue experimenting with all the free and low-cost tools out there, as well as with the higher-priced ones that are making their products available to teachers and students at no-cost.  Ultimately, decide on the ones you’ll keep in your “toolbox” for next year.  “Mixing things up” for students can promote engagement, but doing it too much can create confusion with little additional benefit. 

The free or very low-cost tools that I am using with my English Language Learner students now, and that I’m confident that I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, are Google Classroom (free), Wizer (an interactive “worksheet” generator, Quizizz (online games), EdPuzzle (create interactive videos), and Quizlet (flashcard and game generator).  I use all of those tools for homework that I assign on Google Classroom. 

In addition, I use Quzizz and ThingLink (to create interactive photographs) during my online class lessons, along with Google Slides.

Three additional tools that are ordinarily higher-priced, but available for free now, and that I make available for student homework, are Raz Kids (for reading), English Central (for speaking and pronunciation) and Brainpop ELL (for all domains).  Neither I or my school will be able to afford all three next year, so I’ll have to use the next few weeks to decide which one to keep.  I might replace them with Read Works and EPIC!, both sites providing interactive reading materials.

NearPod is the only remaining tool I’m considering adding to my repertoire next year.  Teachers I respect speaking highly of it, so I’ll be testing it out.

Obviously, I’ve listed quite a few tools.  But, really, they are a drop-in-the-bucket compared to what’s out there. 

Decide what works for you, and then stick with them.  Though the grass might always appear greener elsewhere, it seldom is….

How do I create the conditions for student intrinsic motivation so they want to attend my class?

Researchers have found that there are four primary elements that drive intrinsic motivation:

  1. Autonomy: having a degree of control over what needs to happen and how it can be done;
  2. Competence: feeling that one has the ability to be successful in doing it;
  3. Relatedness: doing the activity helps them feel more connected to others, and feel cared about by people whom they respect; and
  4. Relevance: the work must be seen by students as interesting and valuable to them, and useful to their present lives and/or hopes and dreams for the future.

Consider how you can incorporate these four elements in your lessons.  Here’s a video I did with Education Week sharing suggestions on how to apply some of these principles to distance learning:

How do I respond when students don’t come to my live classes or don’t do assigned work?

It’s tough.  Not only are many of our students having to work at outside jobs to help support their families, they may also have to provide child care and homework support to younger siblings, or could be responsible for elder care.

If they’re not facing those responsibilities, then the prospects of sleeping, playing video games, scrolling through Instagram, and watching movies compete for their time.

In addition to focusing on developing engaging lessons that emphasize student interests, and providing choices of homework to do, I also emphasize relationship-building.  For example, every Monday I have an individual fifteen-minute video conference call with each of my ELL students.  The first half is usually devoted to learning about their lives, struggles and joys, and the second half either reviewing a particular piece of homework or discussing something related to class.

The relationships built through these conversations are critical to students feeling that they are more than “just students” to me.  Those bonds will increase the likelihood of students wanting to come to class.  And, when they don’t, I usually text them with a “I was sad that you missed the class,” which generally brings an embarrassed response and a commitment to return the following day.

When students are not as forthcoming, however, it’s time to have a conversation with their parents.

How am I going to do this for the next two years if I have to?

We’re going to have get through this together, so developing a solid Professional Learning Network of teachers and teacher organizations to turn to for support and advice is going to be critical for all of us.  In addition to our everyday colleagues, check out my previous British Council post, The Top Blogs and Resource Sites For Teachers Of English Language Learners.for other suggestions.

Good luck to us all!

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written or edited  twelve books on education, include four on teaching English Language Learners, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog.

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