David Grant, full-time writer and consultant, and former Head of English, shares his tips for teaching online at a distance during the coronavirus crisis.
If you can remember the very first time you stood in front of a class of students, you can probably remember the terror: the clammy hands, the pulsing vein on your forehead, the sense that your stomach was rolling down a mountainside at high speed… But it passed, and eventually you felt more confident, comfortable, in control.
Now, with the COVID-19 lockdowns, distance learning, online classrooms, new technology, and all the limitations that go with that, it can feel very much like starting all over again. But rest assured: yes, everything’s changed, but the principles of good teaching remain – and the skills you have worked so hard to build are going to serve you well. I hope these thoughts and tips are helpful.
Establish the new rules
You may be teaching ‘live’, managing a virtual classroom of many students, or working one-to-one with students through video or phone link – but, as with any learning environment, be clear on the rules from the outset:
- How will you minimise distraction
- Have students switched off their phones and found a quiet space where their little sister can’t wander in and start chatting to them and/or the rest of the class?
- How will you know when a learner wants to contribute or ask a question?
- And so on.
Remember: you’re dealing with the same issues you face every day in the classroom – only the solutions are different.
Preparation is still key
Give students as much help as possible before the lesson. Email them any relevant lesson materials – the text you will be focusing on, the worksheet they will be completing, the slides they will be looking at. This will give them a chance to ‘arrive’ at the lesson familiar with the content, and with any problems or confusion ready to be resolved. And if the technology (and your technology skills) allow, set up an online resource hub where students can access current or previous materials: a folder on Google Drive is perfect. Then all students need is a link to get the materials for the next or any previous lessons they might have missed.
Adapt the learning
Use all and any available resources that are appropriate for your students – Inspire English, for example, is full of short, structured activities that are perfect for online learning – but be aware that you may need to adapt lesson planning to the strange new environment in which you and your students are working. The real challenge of online distance learning is to keep the material creative, engaging and interactive – and to take advantage of this potentially difficult situation.
An hour is a long time for learners to sit and stare at a screen. But there are plenty of opportunities to take advantage of screen time – and each one gives students a change of scene. Students on screens have ready access to a whole internet full of reference and research tools: online dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopaedia. Take advantage of that, whether it’s asking them to gather synonyms or definitions or factual information. If you’re working on narrative or descriptive writing, get students to find an image online, or look around the room in which they’re sitting, or through the nearest window, or deep into their minds’ eye to gather ideas – and note them with a pen. After a few minutes away from their screens, eyes will return refreshed and ready to concentrate.
Keep up the pace
Above all, keep the pace of the lesson moving. Give students a variety of activities in every lesson: some listening, some reading, some short-answer writing, some extended writing, even some drawing to help visualise character or setting. Where possible, provide students with templates for the tasks you are asking them to complete: a blank spidergram or table or chart rather than losing valuable minutes and concentration and pace by asking students to create their own.
Any but the most straightforward instructions should be displayed on screen: it’s much easier for students to read and re-read them. Those instructions should be crystal clear and supportive, for example:
- Use imperatives for the objective: Write a paragraph explaining your impressions of Oliver Twist.
- Use ‘You must’ for key elements: You must select quotations from the text.
- Use ‘You could’ to push more confident students: You could comment on the writer’s vocabulary choices.
Keep tasks short and structured by breaking them down into numbered and clearly defined stages with self-evident success criteria. Avoid indefinite articles: you don’t want students to note some adjectives they could use to describe Oliver – you want five. You don’t want them to note some impressions the writer has given them about Oliver: you want them to note three impressions: one about their behaviour, one about their appearance, and one about their relationship with the other characters.
Again, thinking about keeping things tightly structured, avoid ‘open’ questions: don’t ask What do you think will happen next? Instead, provide structured, guided questions: Do you think Oliver Twist should a) explain why he wants more b) keep quiet c) apologise d) run? What will be the consequences? What will Mr Bumble do? Where will Oliver be an hour after the events described in the extract? And where will he be in a week’s time? Will these events change the way the other boys in the workhouse behave? And so on…
Clear structuring of tasks is important but, above all, you want to create the kind of pace and quality of learning to suggest that any student whose attention drifts for a couple of minutes will have missed something good… but obviously not moving so quickly that you leave any student behind.
Before during and after each task, interact verbally with as many individual students as you can. Working together but apart, it’s more important than ever to maintain a sense of contact and connection.
Adjust for teaching by email
Some teachers may not, of course, have access to the kind of technology that allows live lessons online and are having to rely on unavoidably stilted email exchanges. In which case, the principles of pace, variety and structure in resources and in instructions are even more important – but one or two adjustments to the live teaching method can add valuable support for students learning via email.
Opportunities for self-assessment can support and reassure students, for example: check that you have included all (or a given number) of these key words or key features in your response. Offering an email helpline, with clear opening times, and a feasible response time promised, so that students can check they are on the right lines. Finally, offer students an opportunity to review the materials you sent them: what was unclear? How could you have made it clearer? The result is hopefully that your and students’ irritation are reduced – and students feel they have a valuable role in supporting you supporting them.
However and wherever you teach, the principles of good teaching – clarity, engagement, structure, interaction, assessment and evaluation – remain. But whether your relationship with your students is relying on seeing faces on a screen or words in an email, try to be personal, to keep the human touch. Don’t let the technology and the distance divide you. You may even find that the shared triumph of overcoming the hurdles of distance learning brings you closer.
About the author
David Grant is a full time writer and consultant, and former Head of English. He is the author of Pearson’s Inspire English International series.