Making the shift to online teaching – Some tips and tools to make life easier.

**Updated**

Since the original publishing of this post, I have come across a phenomenal amount of extra resources, tools, etc. that I think you will all find very useful. I have updated the lists within this blog, and I will continue to do so. Watch this space! – Jim

The coronavirus has sent the world into emergency mode, and this means that most of us now are working from home (or will be in the near future). Here in Spain, as you probably know, we are on full lockdown – no going outside apart from essential trips to the supermarket and/or to walk your dog (I relish my dog walks even more now!). As such, academies and schools are trying to continue to provide their service by offering online lessons. For most of us, this shift will mean many difficulties, issues, and feeling like a ‘newbie’ again. In trying to make this shift just a little easier for the teachers in the academy where I work, I ran a workshop on Friday covering some tips and tools that they can use. We will cover these in this blog post in the hope that they can help you and your teaching in this difficult time.

The online dynamic

I have been teaching online for about six years, five of which were not really serious – it’s only been in the last year that I started to take online teaching more seriously. Recently, I even interviewed one of my colleagues, Steve, who has spent quite a large percentage of his teaching career teaching online full-time. One thing that I found interesting with teaching online more is the fact that the online dynamic is very different to the traditional classroom. There are both advantages and disadvantages, and there are things that need to be taken into account from a planning perspective to ensure that our learners are getting the most out of the lessons. You will find that teaching online often means that your lessons may be more teacher-led, or that learners may miss out on the same level of interactiveness that they are used to. This dynamic takes a little to get used to, but once your confidence builds I am sure will find that they can be just as effective and enjoyable as the traditional classroom.

Problems that you are likely to encounter

Let’s get straight to the problems. These are some of main things that you should be thinking about and coming up with a plan for when they do occur (and they will!).

  • Technical issues: Probably the most frequent of issues that you are going to come across.
    • Internet connection
    • Learners not being able to connect
    • Computer running slow (RAM usage, etc.)
    • Bluetooth/USB mouse/keyboard failures
    • Headphones and microphone clarity
    • Learners don’t have headphones and are in a noisy environment
  • Materials
    • Can available classroom materials be adapted to online use?
    • Accessing material that is appropriate
    • If sharing materials, will learners have to sign in to something to get access?
  • Interactiveness
    • Predominantly teacher-led classes – how can we get learners to interact more?
    • Can learners speak with each other? Does the class size allow for this?
    • Teacher fatigue – if we are always the one leading, speaking, etc. we will undoubtedly burn out quickly.
  • Classroom management
    • Netiquette – ensuring learners (especially YLs) are aware of this
    • Learners speaking at the same time
    • Technological literacy – Do our learners have the necessary tech skills to be able to participate in everything in the lesson?

Teaching the four skills

As mentioned previously, the online dynamic is very different to the traditional classroom. One of the first things teachers note is that practising the four skills in even quantities becomes more difficult. Online teaching certainly lends itself to developing speaking skills more than other skills, however this does not mean that we should neglect the remaining three. I have put together a short list of ideas for developing all the skills.

  • Speaking – The easiest of the skills to practice, however here are ideas to make your speaking activities a little less teacher-led.
    • Hot seat with journalists: This is a variation of the classic Hot Seat, in which one learner speaks about a topic for a certain amount of time. Basically, the same thing happens, although in this variation the rest of the learners are our ‘journalists’, and they take notes on what is being said. At the end of the speaker’s time, these journalists must then ask the speaker one question related to what was said.
    • Topic cards with preparation time: One way to ensure learners have ideas for the speaking part of the lesson is to give them a topic and some time to get their ideas together. Once they’ve had a bit of time, get them to share their ideas. Try allocating the role of ‘conversation leader’ to one of the learners to ensure that your active role in the conversation is minimal – use this time to monitor (and of course assist where necessary).
  • Listening
    • Sharing audio files from coursebooks: Don’t be afraid to use the coursebooks that you have. Learners expect to use them, and plus they come with loads of great and appropriate listening tasks. Sharing audio can be the issue, so ensure that you look at the platform you are using to see how the audio can be shared. In some you need to share it through a hosting site such as Google Drive or Vimeo, while in others you can share video and audio directly through screen share. If you do upload videos or audio to hosting sites to share with learners, ensure that you check to ensure you are not breaching any copyright laws.
    • Teacher-voiced listening tasks: There may be times when it is impossible to share course book audio (you don’t have the track or learners might not be at an age where they can navigate the web easily enough to access it). When this happens, it may be time to go back to the old-school method of teacher-voiced listening tasks. You have probably had to do this in class when CDs have mysteriously gone missing (by this I mean stolen) or your CD player sudden declares it is going on strike and leaves you high and dry. Make these a little more fun and dynamic by changing your voice for each of the speakers, increasing or decreasing pace each time you repeat the track, or even give parts to learners to read out (send this to them individually).
    • YouTube: Loads of videos that can be used for listening activities. Try to keep them short and ensure that you have pre-listening, during-listening and post-listening questions prepared. When getting learners to respond to listening tasks, try using Padlet, a free, online ‘wall’ that learners can write on – it’s collaborative, supports learning, and allows for a record of learners answers.
    • TED talks/lessons: Great for older learners, especially those preparing for higher proficiency exams. On the TED Ed website, there are loads of videos with preprepared questions and tasks that engage learners in higher and lower order thinking.
    • Dictations: You read that right, dictations. These are a great way to get learners to focus and practice discreet parts of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, etc. The traditional dictation works well in many cases, however my preferred dictation is the dictogloss, which is also a multi-system/skill activity. This can be done in the traditional dictogloss manner, or you can make it a little different by getting certain learners to listen for word types (nouns, adjectives, etc.), and then have them reconstruct the text (grammatical dictogloss). When learner reconstruct the text, it is useful to assign a group leader who can lead the discussion, this way you can monitor and prepare for your next transition or for feedback.
  • Reading
    • Use exam tasks: If your learners are preparing for specific exams, why not use exam tasks to practice reading? In taking a materials-focused lesson, one could choose an exam task and use this as the basis for a lesson. For example, I have a number of C1 Advanced learners, so I might choose to find an example exam task for Reading and Use of English part 8 (multiple matching). From here, I may do a number of pre-exam task activities that focus on lexis or strategies for the exam. Then learners could complete the tasks, at which point we would then go through feedback and our post-task activities (vocabulary master, summarising, writing paraphrases, etc.).
    • Use the internet: The great thing about working online is that there is a plethora of great sites for reading texts. The problem that I often find with these texts is that they might not be at the right level for our learners. However, never fear – we have tools for this! You can adapt texts manually or you could try using Rewordify, a website that allows you to make a text less difficult and create comprehension tasks based on the language contained within the text. Alternatively, you can use the Cambridge English Text Inspector, which allows you check the CEFR level of the text and each of the pieces of vocabulary used.
    • Insert learning: Insert learning is a brilliant Google Chrome add-on that allows you to turn any internet web page into an interactive lesson. This is one that every online teacher should be using. My good friend Sam, whose blog you can access here, has created an instructional video on how to get and use Insert learning.
    • Jigsaw reading: Jigsaw reading is a great way to get learners to interact with the same text, however from different viewpoints. The traditional jigsaw reading gets learners to read different parts of a text and then collaborate to answer comprehension questions, hence why this is often called an information gap exercise. However, to mix this up you might get one learner to summarise the text in a paragraph, another learner to write their opinion about what the writer postulates, argues, etc.
  • Writing
    • Padlet: Get learners to respond to short writing tasks by giving them a task on Padlet. As mentioned before, this wall is interactive and allows learners to write in real-time. Whilst learners are responding to the task, you can monitor and look for errors that can be focused on in delayed feedback, or you might like to provide immediate feedback for certain learners (e.g. ensuring they are using the appropriate register, style, etc. in a text).
    • Chat forums: Most online platforms come with a chat forum. Exploit this. Short writing tasks can be completed in these windows.
    • Write and Improve: A brilliant tool developed by Cambridge that allows learners to write and get immediate feedback after submission. This program was developed to allow for more learner autonomy – learners can write at home without having to have a teacher correct their work. This being said, you might like to get learners to work on a task in class and then use this time to work through doubts they have in real time. As I am sure you already guessed, this is also a great tool for homework tasks.

Online teaching tools and sites

One of the best things about working online is the fact that you get to play around with so many cool programs. I would urge everyone of us to experiment with as many as possible – learners love them and you will be amazed at just how fun and, more importantly, motivating they can be for learners (and ourselves!). Here are some of my favourites:

  • Mindmup: Who doesn’t love mind maps? I use them in pretty much every class for something, from brainstorming ideas to highlighting strong collocations – they are so useful. Mindmup (no, that is not a spelling mistake) is a free online mind map that is super easy to use. There is a paid version that allows you to save your mind maps, however with the free version you can download PDFs of the ones you create, or you can publish them so they are available online. Here is one that I created for the teacher training workshop I ran last week.
  • Padlet: I have mentioned this a number of times already, but there is good reason – it’s super awesome! I’m sure you have got the gist of what Padlet is by now, so go and play around with. Here is a wall I have created for you to play around on. If you have any other online tools that you think should be on this list, feel free to tell me here!
  • ESL Video: This site has loads of videos that can be accessed by everyone for free, and what’s even better is that they have prepared loads of lesson plans to go along with these videos.
  • Kahoot: This is a teacher favourite. I am sure that you’ve heard of this before, but if you haven’t then get ready to have your mind blown. Kahoot is an online quiz game in which there is a question with possible answers displayed on one screen (screen share your screen for this) and then learners, who have accessed the game via this site, can see the buttons for said possible answers. They need to choose the correct one – quickly! Points are awarded for each correct answer as well as for speed of response. A great way to review and recycle language, start/finish a lesson, or even introduce topics for upcoming tasks.
  • British Council – Learn English Kids: A great site for working with YLs. You can send them a link to any of the games, reading activities, etc. and then talk them through it. Alternatively, if you’re looking for just that little more control, try screen sharing your screen and then having your learners yell out the answers.
  • Quizlet: A great flashcard website that is good for reviewing vocabulary or playing certain games (spelling practice is great here). One of my favourite things that I like doing with Quizlet is a grammar auction – you can find this Quizlet here.
  • Jeopardy Labs: If you’ve never seen or heard of jeopardy, take a look at this video. In short, there are questions and you can bid how much you want to risk. If you get it correct, you get the points; if you get it wrong, then you lose the points. Jeopardy labs is a site where you can create your own jeopardy-style games. Here’s an example one of film.
  • Trello: This has got to be one of my favourite sites, but not only for online teaching – for everything! It’s an online organiser of sorts. You can create boards, and within these boards you can create cards. It’s much easier to see an example than to read about, so take a look at this one that I created just for you guys. As you can see, you can post things much the same as Padlet and then get learners to respond. But even more than this, I use Trello as a planner and reflective tool. Basically I write down what I cover in each of my classes (see template in the board I made) and then write a short reflection if necessary.
  • Online hangman: A classic game that works for YLs and teens. The great thing about this site is that you can upload a whole list of words at once. A great way to review vocabulary!
  • Google Classroom: So, you may find yourself inundated with private lesson requests, and you may be looking for your own little online classroom platform. One that I have used for a long time and find really, really good is Google Classroom. It’s free, super user-friendly and, well, it’s Google, so everyone likes the sound of that.
  • Kialo: A great debate tool in which you can give learners an argument, and they post the pros and cons. Watch the introduction video here.
  • LessonFlows: This page has loads of flowcharts with lesson plan activities and ideas. Well worth a look!

Taking our understanding of online teaching just that little bit further

If you’re like me, you like to study when you have time. Especially when you are tasked with something that is unfamiliar and/or difficult. If you do feel like taking your knowledge to the next level and being even more prepared, take a look at these free online courses and sites where online teaching is the focus.

  • Cambridge Assessment English – Teaching English online: This is a free (if you want a certificate of completion, you need to pay a fee) five-week course run by Lindsay Warwick and Marie Therese Swabey, and can be found on FutureLearn, a highly respected provider of online courses (loads of things here) website. When you sign up to the course, you’ll see that you can complete the course in your own time – no need to feel rushed!
  • Cambridge Assessment webinars: These webinars are always full of really useful information. One of the most relevant is this one with Marie Therese Swabey and SJ, who talk about what is needed to move into online teaching.
  • Cambridge University Press blog: Again, another page that is packed full of super interesting stuff. One post you are likely to find useful is this one.
  • Cambridge Assessment – Tools to support remote teaching and learning: I came across this page after I first published this post, however it definitely needed to be added. In short, this page has an ENORMOUS list of tools and resources for teaching online. It actually led me to the online site, Kialo, a site used to for debates (really awesome). This page from Cambridge Assessment should be in your bookmarks for shizzle!
  • Trinity College Webinars: Trinity has a great range of webinars on their website, and there is a whole section devoted to online teaching. Here is a link to a webinar in which Martin Oetegenn and Renata Franco Wilmot talk about how to use different tools for online teaching.
  • Pearson English Instructional video series: Pearson has released a series of YouTube videos with Dr. Ken Beatty, a well-known TESOL professor and textbook writer. Packed full of information in easily digestible chunks.
  • The British Council webinars: The BC has just released a number of webinars (and dates for upcoming webinars) covering online teaching, how to use your coursebook online, what do to when tech fails, and many more.
  • National Geographic webinars: Nat Geo has a great deal of resources available to teachers on their website. They also have webinars coming up that will be covering teaching online and working with tech. If you miss them, don’t worry as you will be able to access them at any time via their video links.
  • Macmillan Education webinars: Another great publisher that has loads of webinars available and planned for future dates. Some very big names within ELT are presenting in these webinars – very interesting indeed!
  • Pavilion ELT YouTube channel: This channel has many videos that cover different aspects of the digital classroom and how to make distance learning more enjoyable, effective and fun.
  • UNESCO distance learning solutions: This UNESCO page has a long list of resources and tools that will give you those good tingles of anticipation.
  • Teaching ESL online: A site developed for teachers looking to move into online teaching. On the main page, there is a very detailed video by Jack that goes over online teaching in general.
  • Journal of Nomads: A great little blog which has loads of tips for teaching online – well worth a read.
  • Sandy Millin: One of my all-time fav blogs for many reasons. One is that Sandy basically writes about everything that happens in her teaching. Sandy is the DoS at IH Bydgoszcz, and she has recently been writing about the changes her school is going through with regard to the move to online teaching. It’s nice to read blogs that give tips on how to teach online, but it is also nice and super insightful to read about how schools are dealing with this change in a reflective manner. She has also included a great list of extra places to look for info regarding online teaching and CO-VID 19. Highly recommended.
  • The TEFL Zone: Rachel Tsateri, the owner of the blog The TEFL Zone, has recently written a post about teaching online. Here she includes loads of great ideas, tools, etc. that you can use. A great read!

Some final tips

To finish of this post, I’d like to give you all some final tips. I would love to hear your thoughts on what you’ve read, and if you have any tips that I could add to this list, get in touch through the contact page or leave a comment below!

  • Plan, plan and plan. There is the old saying, ‘prior preparation prevents poor performance‘. Planning is something you should be doing in all your classes anyway, however I would argue that it’s even more pertinent if you are making the change to online teaching and are relatively new to the dynamic.
  • Test your connections and kit before starting. This seems like a no-brainer, but you will be surprised by how temperamental tech can be sometimes!
  • Remember Netiquette. Ensure your learners are aware of what this is as well.
  • Experiment with different apps, programs and add-ons. You’re only going to grow if you try new things.
  • Adapt material from the net. Make content relevant and interesting to learners, ensuring that it’s at their level.
  • Get learners to interact. TTT is still something we should be thinking about with online teaching. Try to get learners speaking as much as possible, and don’t be afraid to take a step back and let them take control.
  • Ensure you practice all the skills – it can be done!
  • Reflective practice is best. Reflect on what works and what doesn’t work.
  • Have fun! I know the world is in a state of doom and gloom (and for good reason), however we need to bring positive energy into our classes, not only for ourselves but for our learners as well.

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