Teach Abroad

How to Keep Students Engaged when Teaching ESL Online

Eva Wieners

Eva is a German writer and geographer, currently living in Nepal with her daughter Miriam. She has worked and volunteered in South America, Europe, and Asia for more than a decade and loves to travel.

More and more classes are moving online, and so are many opportunities to teach ESL. But while teaching in a classroom is already a challenge, online teaching can be even harder – how do you keep your students attentive and interested when they are sitting in their living room and are far away, maybe even in another country or continent? In this article, we want to share a couple of tips with you to keep students engaged when teaching ESL online. This list is not exhaustive, but it will give you some ideas for your virtual classroom.

Try to use different learning materials

When you think of teaching ESL online, the first thing people think of is video conferences. While this is a very good way of getting in touch with your students and engaging them while teaching online, there are other forms you can also use. You can assign textbook passages, record videos, use YouTube videos, news pages, audio recordings, etc. to get your students to interact with the English language. Maybe you can even bring in guest lecturers every once in a while, so your students don't get tired of only hearing your voice.

Be creative with your exams

When teaching ESL online, sometimes you cannot decide about the form of an exam and have to follow external guidelines. But if you are allowed to design your own exams, you can be more creative with them. Try using different formats, from written reports to oral exams or multiple-choice tests. This way your students will not fall into the habit of always expecting the same, but will be more engaged and challenged with the course material.

Make your lessons shorter when teaching online

Don’t forget that it is much more difficult to keep someone’s attention when looking at a screen than when you stand right in front of them. When you teach ESL online, try to design short lessons with breaks between them, so your students don't zone out and stop listening to you. With the little breaks, you will make sure that you can retain their attention over a longer period of time since they will be able to get their fidgets out. Try breaking the lesson up into digestible chunks--it may take an extra bit of work, but it will be worth it if you can maximize student engagement.

Tell a story

When you teach online, your content must be interesting and exciting for people to follow. You have to rely much more on your presentation skills, and having a good story to tell will help you with that. Think of how you can make your lesson plan more interesting and relatable, with interesting and intriguing stories in between. You can also include examples with a real-life connection and increase the level of engagement and interest this way.

Ask questions during the lesson – not only at the end

Try to make sure throughout your lessons that your students understand what you say. You cannot see their faces directly, so make sure to check in with them constantly and to get verbal assurance that what you say is clear and understood. If necessary, make your students repeat parts of what you were teaching online to ensure that they can follow you and that they aren’t zoning out. This is also a good time to check if the technical side works – when you constantly interact with your students, you will notice quickly if there are any technical issues.

Include an out-of-class project

Even though this can be challenging to coordinate, including an out of class project can be very engaging and would also support your students with practicing their language skills. This could be a small video, interviews, or maybe even just recording news reports or something similar in English to encourage your students to apply what they have learned in the real world and out of “classroom” experiences. You can also encourage them to engage with their local community, whether that’s practicing English with tourists, fulfilling a “scavenger hunt,” or otherwise putting their English language skills to the test.

Create a community

It is very difficult for students to not see their peers – meeting other people is half of the fun in going to school. To create a community amongst students when teaching ESL online will at least help them to feel like being part of a group. You can set up a student group on social media, have a message board, or something similar. Students can exchange experiences, discuss issues, or just get to know each other – this way they’ll be more engaged in the learning process.

Let students make their own videos

The best way to get something is if we teach it – because that really requires a deeper level of understanding. You could ask your students to produce small videos explaining something, acting out a small dialogue or a little play – this way the things you want to teach them will stick with them much better, and your online lessons become more engaging. Creating a video could be part of the evaluation as well and you could assign this task to teams – further increasing the level of cooperation and community feeling amongst your online students.

Always give feedback when teaching ESL online

For teachers as for students, online teaching can sometimes feel like talking to the void. You don’t get immediate feedback from your students, and they don’t get it from you. So, make sure you include feedback loops that show your students that you are attentive and that their actions are noticed. When they send you a question, answer it quickly, when they ask you for further material, follow up with them, and when they submit something, let them know what you think of it. And don’t be afraid to ask for feedback in return, especially if online teaching is new to you. Create anonymous feedback forms to allow your students to let you know how the experience is going from their perspective, and make changes based on what you learn.

Remember to have fun!

We hope with these tips it will be easy for you to keep your students engaged when teaching ESL online. Online teaching is a great way to make education accessible to many more people, so let's do it in a way that works for everybody and is fun at the same time!

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