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How to get students to speak and engaged in online language lessons

Whether classes are in person or online, many language teachers’ main challenge is about how to get the students to speak in online classrooms. In this article I’m going to explore five easy-to-implement strategies that will help you to spot on when it comes to engaging your students with your online lessons.

Ready to hit the ‘Start’ button, the class gets started. The lesson you have planned has plenty of exercises and topics to cover. And still, there is something that doesn’t seem to work. Do you know when the students seem to be elsewhere? They are there in front of the screen, but they don’t interact, they don’t speak or, when they do speak, they go for very short sentences. The lesson simply doesn’t get going. Familiar with that? It can happen, even to the most experienced language teachers.

Whether you usually teach in one-to-one online lessons, or in online classrooms, the good news is that you can implement five basic, extremely practical strategies for getting your students interacting and speaking – and to get them to do it even spontaneously… WOW!

The strategies I’m going to explore in this article refer to the FREE guide you can download below. The guide is about the top five easy-to-implement strategies for getting your students to speak and engaged in your language lessons. If you haven’t got it yet, I warmly recommend you to download it: there’s plenty of value you can benefit from!

In the guide I give a few tips about how to adapt those strategies to online teaching. Nevertheless, it is not specifically conceived for online teaching. There is much more to say on this topic.

The five strategies for getting students to speak in online classrooms

The five strategies for getting students to speak in online classrooms are:
1. Make sure the tech works! Logistics matters
2. Make your students feel welcome
3. Get them speaking from the very beginning of the lesson
4. Give loads of visuals
5. Wrap up the lesson and make sure they are clear on the next steps

1. Make sure the tech works! Logistics matters

Would you be happy to step in a classroom where you can barely see what the teacher writes on the whiteboard, where you can’t hear properly because of the noises coming from street and, above all, where the teacher doesn’t care about all these disruptions affecting your learning experience? I don’t know about you, but honestly I wouldn’t be happy to step in such a classroom!

As well as for in person classes, logistics matters. Taking care of the logistics in online classrooms means:

  • You will make sure your broadband works and its speed is suitable for running online meetings
  • You will know how to use whatever online tools you want to use. Speaking of which, you shall make sure your students, too, know how to use those tools. It could be a good idea to forward easy-to-digest instructions about the online tools needed to help your students to make the most of the classes
  • You will pick the most easy-to-use tools for online learning. There is a number of things that can go wrong in online classes. Therefore, you really don’t want to get things even more complicated. Try to stick to the online tools you feel confident with and that you think are suitable for your students. Remember that a portable whiteboard (I mean the object) sometimes is the best tool for online classrooms you could ever use!

2. Make your students feel welcome

This strategy is about making sure your students feel welcome and safe in the learning environment you created for them. This is an essential requirement if you want them to feel free, later on in the lessons, to take part in the conversation.

Here is what you can do:

  • Get ready for the lesson, wear something pretty and make sure you look at your best!
  • Set the space behind you on screen properly: clear the space, make it as nice as you can
  • Make sure any noises, distractions or interruptions are out of the way. I know you love your cat, but in most cases your beloved pet shouldn’t show up in the lesson 
  • Set a customised welcome message or a customised background as the students log onto the virtual classroom, while they wait for the lesson to get started. Choose a friendly, informal (even fun) message. A quote will do, as well.
  • Send a welcome email to the students before the lesson or a reminder message, depending on the type of people you are teaching
  • If you can, send them a student’s kit they will be using in the lessons. For instance: a notebook and pen, a workbook, etc. Personalised items are the best! This is optional, of course.

3. Get them speaking from the very beginning of the lesson

You don’t need to wait for the exercises to get your students to speak. Beginning an online lesson by striking up an informal conversation is always good practice. Even with beginner level students you can ask them how they are doing in the target language and then, if you need to, you will switch to their language. The goal is to understand what is going on that might affect their behaviour in the lesson, to have an idea of the level of energy and enthusiasm at that specific moment.

Here is what you can do:

  • First thing in the lesson, ask them how they are doing and enable them to talk about that
  • If you need to save time, ask them to share one single keyword for telling how they are doing
  • Use open-ended questions, try to avoid ‘How are you doing?’ in all lessons. For instance, you might want to ask them: ‘Would you like to tell us something good/ new/ bizarre/ etc. that happened to you recently?’
  • Ask them to share a photo from their everyday life and maybe related to the lesson topic.

4. Give loads of visuals

This is super important! They are not there with you, therefore you need to make sure they don’t feel the distance (that much). Taking notes during the lesson and sharing the notes through an online chat is essential. Also, don’t forget to use evergreen props and tools you would normally use in in-person lessons: whiteboards, portable whiteboards, signs, soft-toys, photos, pictures, drawings, etc.

You will certainly have the lessons planned ahead. In this case, why not creating a Power Point presentation or a lesson outline you will be forwarding to them before the lesson, so that they can have a look at the lesson content and get familiar with it before the lesson. This will help the whole lesson flow.

Also, you might want to try to wrap up the lesson and tell the students where to find all the resources discussed. This is a very basic task for teachers, but it’s good to mention it again. Make sure they are clear on where to find notes, resources, wrap-ups, homework and instructions once the lesson is over. Flipping an email with the wrap-up of the lesson might be a smart move – just remember to mention you are going to send the email and when you are going to do it.

5. Create a sense of belongingness

Any games and exercises where the students work in small groups or in pairs will do, especially when you ask them to pick an identity for their groups (naming the groups, etc.). You probably know that already. Let’s see some more ideas:

  • You might want to take a screen shot of the group at the end of the lesson. You could make it even more fun by asking the group to mimic a keyword for a specific piece of content they learnt during the lesson. At the end of the course, you will have collected photos for a potential group journal.
  • Choose creative, engaging tasks as exercises in order to invite the students to work together for a creative purpose. For example: last year I crated an English course where the native English speaker from my team coached the participants for improving their writing and speaking skills through creative writing, discussion of the choral story they made up from scratch and acting (the participants read the choral story out loud and recorded the reading).
  • Ask them to prepare something for the group to be shared in the next lesson: this can be a photo, a drawing, an object, for instance, and it can be relevant to the topics you are looking at in the lessons.

Putting all on the line

Now you’ve got some ideas you can implement straight away in your online lessons for improving your students’ learning experience. My suggestion is to start with the strategy you feel more confident with. You really don’t have to put all the five strategies on the line altogether at the same. Pick one and for that one choose one idea you wish to put into use.

Above all, enjoy teaching online!

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8th February 2022
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