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Top 10 Tips To Help Your Online Lessons Run Smoothly!

Teacher frustrated at online lessonsFor many of us, it’s been a while since our teaching world got turned upside down and we found ourselves moving from a physical classroom to online lessons in a matter of hours. It feels like a lifetime ago since we were left wondering what the best practice for online teaching was. In this initial online period, often referred to as the period of emergency remote teaching (ERT), the best advice for running a smooth lesson included such sage things as to ensure you have a good microphone and lighting.

Fast forward to the present day and we’re moving out of the ERT situation and gaining confidence in our online teaching. In this light, I asked a number of teachers around the world what advice they would now give for ensuring the smooth running of online lessons. From what they told me I have collated the top ten tips to help your online lessons run smoothly.

1. Manage the technical stuff

Just because we are now more settled into the online rhythm doesn’t mean we should get overconfident with how things work. As such the initial advice of check your sound and video, make sure your internet connection is stable, still hold true. As many of us have learned just because things worked in one lesson it doesn’t mean they will in the next, so always check. If you’re just beginning with online lessons then follow some basic rules:

  • If you can, make sure you have a quiet, uncluttered space that you can run your lessons from. It should have good lightening so that when you are on webcam you can be seen clearly.
  • Be as close to your internet router as you can. If you have the possibility of using a cable for your internet then do as this can give you a more consistent connection.
  • Wear headphones when you’re teaching as this will cut down feedback caused by you and your students having their mics on. Encourage students to wear them as well.
  • Before your first lesson, familiarise yourself with the platform you are using. While platforms vary in their functionality, for your first lesson make sure you know how to switch on sound and vision, use the chatbox, and share your screen. This last one will mean you can show materials to the students.
  • Don’t worry about becoming a platform expert overnight, it is more important to make sure both you and your students feel comfortable with the key features. To that end, use your first lesson to teach students how the room is used, don’t assume they will simply work it out. If you’re looking for more support in this area there are a plethora of resources on the Internet though you could start with OUP’s digital teaching resources.

2. Assume the students are not tech-savvy

To quote a teacher in Portugal, “Just because you’ve spent the last 7 months in online lessons, becoming tech-savvy, don’t presume your learners have!” Always make sure in first classes that you give the students the language they need to operate i.e. “How do I turn on my camera?”. Make sure you’ve explained or introduced any new tools or features of the room before the students are set a language task.

3. Expect the unexpected

Rather like falsely assuming your mic and camera will always work, it would be wrong not to be ready for the unexpected. You never know what the online classroom might throw up. For example, what happens if the students’ connections are having a slow internet day? Is there a low-tech solution? You could send any lesson materials in advance so the students have the chance to get and access them before the lesson begins.

4. Adopt a positive mindset

Many teachers still yearn to be back in the same physical space as their students and continue to find the lack of proximity a major hurdle to their lessons. However, a positive mindset will rub off on everyone in a lesson and as a result should make the lesson smoother. To aid that make sure you aren’t trying too hard, teachers often seek lesson perfection and then dwell on any aspect in a lesson that didn’t quite get to that level, overlooking the many things that went well.

5. Write it down

This is a multi-layered tip. First, it refers to planning. While many of you are bound to make detailed plans already think in the planning stage about elements that encourage the students to talk. One thing you’ve probably noticed is that your online lessons have been quite teacher-led, so now is the time to think about creating opportunities for the students to speak and interact more.

Next, it refers to physically writing it down for students. Have you noticed in a lesson when you rely on oral instructions that you have to repeat it so many times and still not everyone gets it? So, have written instructions to put on-screen to aid your words. You can have these on a slide that you can display by screen share at the appropriate moment.

And last but not least, write it down refers to making use of written comments. Though you’re meeting in a virtual classroom there are still many ways writing is used in your lesson. For starters there is the chatbox, ensure you reply to comments and answer questions in the chatbox so the students feel acknowledged. If your room allows it, use private messaging to do things like praise a student or give them extra support. Furthermore, if you use an external collaboration tool like a Google Doc or a discussion board, leave comments there so the students know the teacher is ‘there’ if needed.

6. Use your classroom tools purposefully

In other words, don’t confuse technology with teaching. A lot was made at the beginning of ERT about what virtual rooms can do and what tools can be added to them. It perhaps led teachers to the expectation that lessons needed to be all bells and whistles. While you’re probably ready to do this now, do remember that your room tools should be used purposefully. For example, there is arguably no point in putting people in and out of breakout rooms for short tasks. While you might feel like this brings a more student-centred lesson, you’re in fact making for a very stop-start sort of lesson and inadvertently giving over a lot of time to managing the classroom. One longer meaningful task will ensure more time for the students to meaningfully work together.

Whatever external tools you choose, stick with them. There is nothing wrong with using the same tool, in fact, the more you use it the more the students get to know it and the smoother the lesson becomes. Chopping and changing to try and utilise the current tool of fashion just leads to confused students and dedicating lesson time to showing how the tool works rather than getting on with the teaching.

7. The whiteboard is your friend

A small confession here, I struggle with online whiteboards. They are difficult to write on, I forget to give students the permission to use it and it often means stopping the sharing of one screen to share another. All things which can affect the smoothness of my lessons. However, rather than simply avoid them I am trying to make them my friend.

Since I tend to use a slide deck I’ve learned to include white slides amongst my deck that I can use as aboard. This eliminates the need to switch back and forth. I can also prepare slides as boards making me feel more prepared. Other teachers have achieved the same by using external whiteboard sites (easy to find with a quick internet search) or using a shared document. Additionally, to quote a teacher in Ukraine “a virtual board makes lessons more visual”. What’s more, you can usually save your board for future reference and to be used as a revision tool in a future lesson.

8. Keep them focused

Let’s face it even in the physical classroom, keeping kids focused is often a challenge and online this is amplified. One technique for dealing with this is to use visual cues at different points of the lesson to check the kids are still following along and not doing something. The visual clue should be a signal or action that you do at various points in the lesson and everyone has to copy as quickly as possible.

9. Community

If ERT was about a quick transformation from face to face to online, now it is perhaps time to think about how we can effectively maximise educational opportunities. A way to do this is to go beyond the lesson and turn the class into a community. Some of the teachers who sent me tips talked about how they’ve used instant messengers to create groups to allow students to discuss things like language issues and homework problems outside of class. By doing so they feel the virtual classes have run a lot more effectively. This might not be suitable for every teacher so another option is to look into asynchronous areas that can have running discussion boards and be used to distribute work.

Not everything has to be done through the live online class, especially as there is so much to achieve within that time anyway.   This will help with the community aspect and it does make language learning fairer for your students. Not all are comfortable synchronously and not everyone has the same access abilities to be online at the same time. Planning lessons that utilise various online means should lead to an all-round better learning experience.

10. Find a teachers’ room

At first glance, you might wonder how this will make your lessons run smoothly, however despite being tenth on the list it was the most submitted piece of advice. Not only are teachers missing their classrooms but they’re missing their staffrooms as well. The place they go to find support and get stuff off their chest. It’s important for both well-being and to keep the positive mindset suggested in tip 4. Looking after oneself and having good support is a fundamental step in ensuring you’re an effective educator. Teaching from home can bring a sense of isolation so if you can, find a place to act as your teachers’ room, be it the various ELT groups on social media, joining one of the many online events that ELT organisations are running or making use of initiatives like the IATEFL BESIG online breakroom where teachers can drop by and chat.

My thanks to all the teachers that gave me their advice to use.

 

Are you ready to explore digital tools for teaching and learning?

Do you need help getting started with the digital tools in your Oxford course?

Or are you looking for tips and ideas for using digital in your teaching?

Get into your stride with digital teaching

 


Shaun Wilden is the Academic Head of training and development for the International House World Organisation and a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer.  He currently specialises in technology and language teaching, especially in the area of mobile learning. His latest book “Mobile Learning” was published in 2017 by OUP.  He is a trustee of IATEFL and also on the committee of the Learning technologies special interest group.  He makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers.


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Collaborative Learning Online And In The Socially Distanced Classroom

Cut-out paper-chain of children holding handsWhat is collaborative language learning?

One of the most satisfying experiences that I have as an instructor is when I have my class make pairs or groups and then, after a few moments, I hear lively chatter. Moving around the classroom, I hear students using the vocabulary and structures that we studied in class. Yet they are doing more than just reciting what they learned in this lesson; they are combining the learning goals of the lesson with the language that they already know in a personalized and creative manner. A casual observer might think that this was break-time or an opportunity for the class to relax. But while I hope they are having fun, I know that they are actually hard at work. This is the culminating activity that we have worked towards together as a class. It is collaborative learning in action.

The key principles of collaborative learning

Having students work in pairs and groups of three or four are key strategies in the collaborative learning approach. Together, they practice the target language and to establish meaning, in a carefully sequenced set of achievable, unintimidating, activities. From our own experience, we know the value of learning by doing. This is even more critical in language learning, where the production of new sounds, new words and new structures is so vital. To be a successful language user, it is not enough to know; students have to adapt their knowledge to create meaning and communicate with someone else. Increasing our students’ opportunities to do something meaningful in class is one of the main aims of collaborative learning.

So, what is the role of the teacher in all of this?

At the start of a sequence of activities, for example, when presenting the target language of the lesson, the method of instruction can look quite traditional; often the teacher speaks and the students listen. After the presentation phase, however, the class transitions in a way that makes the learners, and not the teacher, the focus of the class. The first step often focuses on accuracy. In pairs or groups, the students manipulate the language mechanically. They learn from each other. Crucially, the teacher moves from group to group, evaluating the progress, and correcting the learners as necessary. The subsequent activities in the sequence encourage the learners step-by-step to use the target language in more creative and open-ended ways, with activities that encourage students to combine what they have just learned with the language that they already know.

The collaborative approach is highly motivating because it allows students to communicate about things that matter to them, to be more active, and indeed, more successful learners.

Collaborative learning in the COVID-19 era

Only a few short months ago, the notion that teleconferencing technology would become an essential tool in our professional lives would have been unimaginable. Along with my colleagues, I have struggled to adjust to this new reality. What, now, are the most effective classroom management techniques? Does the collaborative language learning approach even make any sense?

When we went into lockdown in New York City, where I teach, my classroom practice probably resembled a traditional, lecture approach. Eventually, however, I was able to adapt what I typically did in a physical classroom to the virtual classroom.

4 key ways to conduct collaborative language learning in cyberspace:

  1. At the start of the lesson, I present the goals of the class and the target language. I could share my screen, where I could have a PowerPoint presentation, but instead I send my presentation materials to the students earlier. Since unconscious lip reading is such an important part of listening comprehension, I want my students to be able to see my face full size. Instead of sending a file of slides, I use the screen capture feature of QuickTime to record my computer screen and voice at the same time. (I am a low-tech person, but I have found it easy to use). Students, therefore, get a video of my presentation, which they can watch before or after class, multiple times.
  2. Most teleconferencing tools allow the host to make breakout groups. I set these up before class. It is a simple thing to conduct pair work and group work using this feature, and as in a physical classroom, I can monitor them as they work. One added advantage is that my students can video their work, (using any screen capture tool) which we can use later for student self-analysis or peer-reviewing.
  3. Many of the activities that my students do in the physical classroom involve completing charts, matching, and checking items, together. Now, I have students take a photo of their work using their smartphone, and then share it with me and their classmates using email, social media, or our school Learning Management System (LMS). We do collaborative writing activities in a similar way.
  4. In a physical classroom, I can’t imagine teaching in a room without a whiteboard. Almost all teleconferencing tools have a whiteboard feature. I find this feature cumbersome. It takes me a lot of time to write and then erase the digital whiteboard. When teaching online, I find it much more effective to use the chat function when I want my students to see something in writing. For more extended notes or hand-drawn charts, I much prefer to use a small, handheld physical whiteboard, which I hold up to my laptop screen. Some students take photos of this with their smartphone, just like they do in my regular classroom, while others take screenshots.

The Hybrid Classroom

What will happen when we move to a hybrid classroom model, where we combine socially distanced in-class learning and distance learning? Can we have collaborative learning when students must be apart from each other?

Before the pandemic, I frequently had students take photos of their work with their phones, which they posted on a social media platform, and I then projected to the class. Now, I will have them share with each other, in socially distanced pairs and groups.

What activities to do online or in the socially distanced classroom will be an important decision. Right now, I am planning to present new language (vocabulary and grammar) online, in the manner that I described earlier. Writing activities, including collaborative ones, can be successfully conducted online, as can listening activities – my students can access the content on their mobile devices. But since speaking is by its very nature performative, I will prioritize the physical class time for open-ended pair work, group discussions, and role-playing. But at a distance.

 

For more practical tips, and two free activities for running pair work and group work with adult learners, visit our collaborative learning page!

Get Expert Advice On Collaborative Learning


Thomas Healy is one of the authors of Smart Choice as well as an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. He has given several webinars for Oxford University Press on how to use smart devices and social media to encourage collaborative learning including The potential of smart devices, How to use mobile technology in class and How learners can use mobile technology outside of classFind these recordings in our webinar library.


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How we think as (language) teachers

shutterstock_159772340Donald Freeman is a professor of education at the University of Michigan, where he works with undergraduate and post‐graduate teacher preparation in all subjects K‐12. Today, he joins us to preview his webinar How we think as (language) teachers which he will present on March 29th and 30th.

I can imagine my title raises questions. Of course people think when they teach, just like they breathe or they use language. It may be surprising, therefore, to learn that studying how teachers think only became a part of second language teaching about 25 years ago.  Before the 1990s, teacher thinking was part of methodology: When you learned a particular way of working in the classroom, the thinking went along with it. Learning how to do specific things in teaching– like how to conduct a substitution drill or set up a listening activity for example—included the reasons for why and how to do these activities.  In this way, theory was part of practice; the activity embedded the reasoning.  However, with the growth of research in the ‘parent disciplines’ of language teaching, second language acquisition and applied linguistics, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, what we called ‘theory’ took on a life of its own. There emerged theories about how people learned languages, and what languages were, that the teacher needed to somehow combine with understanding of pedagogy.

This changed the role of the teacher. Beyond learning teaching methodologies, and how to do things in the classroom, teachers were also expected to know these general ideas about teaching and learning. But these theories lived in ‘academic’ worlds that seemed very far removed from the messy, complicated work that language teachers do with their students in their classrooms on a daily basis. So to counteract this distance, it makes sense that interest in understanding how people actually think as language teachers increased —the kinds of thinking they do, what factors shape the thinking, how the thinking evolves over time through a teaching life, and how that thinking can be ‘taught’ to (or developed in) new teachers.

I was very fortunate to be part of this work in second language teaching. As we started to investigate how people think as language teachers, we drew from similar work on teacher thinking in general educational research. Like any borrowing, this process had positive and negative implications. On the positive, studying language teachers as teachers focused us on what might be true about the work in general. For example, our understanding of how teachers learn in their first five years in the classroom are anchored in research on the development of teaching expertise generally. A negative was that these general understandings of teaching distracted from examining how language works differently from other subjects (like math or science) when it becomes classroom content. The fact that we do not have a clear view of language as classroom content that is based in research in classrooms and documented in how language teachers actually work has presented major challenges. Too often, the profession has relied on proxies and shortcuts, rather than truly examining how language works in teaching.

Let me give two examples. First,  for years, language teaching has used the concept of the ‘native speaker’ as a reference point for teaching qualifications, although the concept itself is not linguistically definable. This geo-political idea has been substituted for various reasons, for a clear definition of the language that teachers need to know for classroom teaching.

This connects to a second example: the principle of teaching English in English, which is directly connected to how we define language as classroom content. Using the target language in teaching makes a lot of sense pedagogically—it can provide students with exposure and input, and perhaps most importantly it makes the target language real.  But how to teach English in  English is complicated. It depends on the students’ language level, the content the teacher is expected to teach, as well as the culture of the school and the wider society.

This webinar will examine how understanding teacher thinking has evolved in ELT. We will review the ‘generations’ of language teaching and use that generational framework to consider how people learn to teach languages. Participants who are teachers will have the opportunity to frame their own development; those who are teacher trainers, supervisors, or educators will be able to apply the framework to their work with teachers.

If you’re interested in attending the full webinar, simply follow the registration button below.

Register for the webinar


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Teaching changes lives – exponentially!

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Ms. Motta (front row, far right) with her class

Eneais Magalhaes is a former English teacher, who now works as a Marketing Manager at OUP Brasil. Today he shares a story with us about how #TeachingChangesLives, ahead of the closing of the competition later this month.

When I learned about the campaign “Teaching Changes Lives” I was excited – because it invites teachers from around the world to tell their stories, which will certainly be inspiring and encouraging for many others.

As a former teacher of English, I love knowing that what I’ve done professionally has had a positive impact on peoples’ lives. I also like that I have contact with other people who see their work as a mission – their stories inspire and motivate me.

Some time ago I met this kind of teacher during a seminar for English teachers and I learned about her work in a public institution. Her story is worth telling.

Her name is Mônica Motta, and the institution is called CIUG.

The school has been operating for over 20 years now, sponsored by the São Gonçalo Secretary of Education, a city in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro.

CIUG provides free English courses to over 1,600 students who would not be able to afford to study the language in a private school. This exemplary initiative of São Gonçalo’s municipality represents a passport for a better future for their students, once speaking English is a requirement for higher level positions.

As we were talking, I heard several interesting stories about CIUG, but I was particularly struck by one of them. Mônica told me she was approached by a student of a preparatory course saying she had been a student there some years before, and that her experience as a student at CIUG triggered off a deep passion for English, and ultimately, for teaching it, which made her choose to be a teacher of English. After graduating from university she decided to become a student again (at CIUG, of course) in a course to enable her to get an international certificate of proficiency in English. She was impacted in such a way by the work developed at the institution that she decided to become a teacher and change people’s lives as well!

Teachers touch peoples’ lives. Fortunately, some of them will also go on to become teachers, and carry the mission out, perpetuating the cycle. The number of people impacted by a teacher’s work is not possible to measure as it grows exponentially.

Mônica and her fellow teachers, as well as all the people committed to keeping CIUG operating are real agents of social change. I was fortunate in meeting Mônica and getting to know her story. It was touching. The sense of purpose, mission and commitment to their students makes hers an example to be followed. I felt compelled to write about it and share this story with as many teachers as possible, as a way to remind them all of the importance and impact their work has in peoples’ lives.

Teaching does change lives – actually, it changes lives exponentially!


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#TeachingChangesLives – Verissimo Toste

Children in playgroundAt Oxford University Press, we believe that education changes lives for the better. Every day, we aim to enrich the lives of individuals and communities through education and learning English.

We can’t do this without you – the teachers in the classroom! That’s why we have just launched our #TeachingChangesLives campaign – to hear how your English Language Teaching has changed lives for the better.

Verissimo Toste, who has taught English as a Foreign Language for 30 years and is now a teacher trainer working in the Professional Development Team at Oxford University Press, kicks us off with his story about how English teaching changed one of his student’s lives in particular.  A student in one of his classes was having trouble getting his father to sign his school projects. His father went to work before he got up and arrived back home after he had gone to bed. Watch the video below to hear the idea that Verissimo had to help this student, which not only improved the student’s English but also the relationship with his father.

It’s stories like these that remind us how teaching can changes lives. Have you ever thought about how your own teaching has helped to change lives for the better? The   #TeachingChangesLives competition has been created for that purpose: to hear your stories. Enter today and you could win a two-week all-expenses paid Professional Development scholarship in Oxford in summer 2016!

To enter, show us how your English language teaching has changed lives for the better by submitting a short presentation (no longer than 15 slides) or video (no longer than 5 minutes). Your story can focus on an individual student, a class, or an entire institution.

We look forward to hearing how your teaching changes lives! Find out more here and don’t forget to share your stories on Twitter using the hashtag #TeachingChangesLives.

If you want to hear more stories and teaching tips from Verissimo, why not take a look at his videos on our YouTube Channel.