9 Things to Do to Re-Focus an Online ESL Class

The world of English teaching is going digital! In today's incredible technological era. As such, there are more and more online platforms growing for ESL classroom. This is all kinds of amazing for nomadic teachers who want to bounce around the globe.

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Teaching English online provides an interactive medium with students. For the most part, they are 30-40 minute classes which take place after school hours. They can be one-on-one, or in small groups up to 4. Ages of the student can range anywhere between 2-16 years old. Some companies also seek out English tutors for adults. Talk about expansive!





A large portion of online teaching companies are based in China. It is becoming very popular to have an online English teacher for young students to help them advance with their English skills.


While online teaching is wonderful for the teachers and provides the ability to work remotely as long as you have a solid WIFI connection (hello report writing by the beach!), there are some inevitable downsides. The biggest pitfall is the most obvious: you aren't in the classroom with the student.


Often, you will have the student's parent sitting beside them during the class. This is great because it helps to keep the student focused and paying attention. Sometimes, it isn't so great when the parent tells them the correct answer or corrects their pronunciation - that's the teacher's job!



Nonetheless, having the parent there helps to avoid the student getting distracted. If they aren't there and the student is on their own, distractions can happen. Attentions spans can wander. The student can become disengaged. And you, as the teacher, find yourself wondering how to grab their attention back.


Fear not, online teachers of the world! Here are some handy hints to help re-engage your student's focus and finish your class like a boss. Rest assured, it is nothing personal if your student gets distracted. They are children learning from a bobbing head on a screen - this isn't a school, after all!

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Do an effective warm up

When a lesson begins, the tone is set from the moment your webcam and the student’s webcam are on. The greeting you give, the body language that shows, and the enthusiasm you are bringing to the screen can make or break an online ESL lesson.

The first five minutes can be crucial. Say your student has had a rough day at school or their feeling overwhelmed with the amount of study they have to do or perhaps they didn’t get what they wanted for dinner - so many things can disengage a student in after school classes.

So, it is your job, as the awesome educator that you are, to immediately focus and engage the student. Giving the student a fun, engaging, and dynamic warm up is so beneficial. Just 2-5 minutes at the beginning of the class can make all the difference. Once their brain is warmed up, your student will find it easier to get into the headspace for some English fun.

Warm up possibilities are endless. Whether it is a grammatical activity, a word game, or even a kinaesthetic sing-along-song, you and your student will benefit enormously. Check out some fun warm up ideas here!


Implement a rewards system

Many online platforms will have a rewards system inbuilt. Extrinsic motivation is great for young learners. Visibly seeing a reward can provide a momentum to keep moving forward with the lesson. There are many great ideas for rewards system floating around the internet. Aside from the classic five stars throughout the lesson, here are some others:

  • Draw an animal - each reward is drawing another part of the animal.

  • Build an object - for instance, put 5 scoops of ice cream together and let the student choose a colour of the ice cream scoop on each reward.

  • Dress the object - take a teddy bear or doll, and each reward the student picks an item of clothing to dress them with.

  • Roll a word or story - use some dice and, for instance, if the dice lands on number 6, the student picks a word starting with B.

  • Guessing game - this could be in the form of memory card or something similar.

These are just some basic ideas. The options are truly endless and once you start diving into the world of online teaching rewards system, it will be like snorkelling in a colourful coral reef. It is really up to you, your student, and the amount of time/effort/energy you have to invest in rewards.

With rewards, just remember to keep them fairly simple. You don’t need to bring in a circus act to reward you student. You don’t want them to take up the whole lesson or become the whole focus. Rewards should be handed out 5s (a 30 minute class doesn’t really need 20 rewards throughout it!) and they should be a minute or so segment to break up the lesson. Oh, and the student actually should earn the reward with some good old fashioned learning!



Sing a song

Depending on where you identify with musical talent, why not sing a song. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented ukele players with angelic voices who could woo a room of ESL students in a second. If you’ve got the talent, use it! Music is so therapeutic and relaxing when learning.


Do a counting exercise

Naturally, ESL is all about words. For some students, words, letters, and spelling can be tiring. One thing I’ve noticed with Chinese students is that they are highly mathematical and brilliant with numbers. The great thing about numbers is they are universal. So, why not break up a lesson and refocus with some numbers.

Here is my favourite counting exercise I do.

  • 5 little monkeys - for the little learners, I show them a monkey cutout I have. I hold up one, they count 1. I hold up two, they count 2. And so on. Once we’re at five, the crazy monkeys start to jump. Jump, jump, jump, then I throw a monkey off screen. Now, we’re counting backwards, and the student is hysterically laughing. Brilliant

    PS. my little monkeys are hand-drawn on left over toilet paper roll in my bid to have an eco-friendly and plastic free classroom. They’re still going strong after 6 months of jumping off screen and being thrown around the room!

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Play a game

Who doesn’t love a game!? Some parents, actually. Games should be over-used and they shouldn’t be the main focus. Games should really be a backup just in case things are getting train-wreck off-track. Remember, the students’ parents are paying big money for these online classes, so they don’t want ‘time wasted’ with too many games.

That being said, having a game or two up your sleeve for real focus issues is fine. Here are some games ideas to keep up your sleeve.

Use a toy or prop

This is highly encouraged with online teaching, especially for the little learners. If you’ve got some toys, a teddy, a doll, toy cars, some Lego…anything…use it in your lessons! It is so much easier for younger students to stay focused when they are can see, hear, and visualise. A vague concept or a word becomes more real when you’re holding something physical.

Ask silly questions

If you’ve got a student with a higher level of English, take the chance to play around with it. Say you’re reading some information on children going to school. There is a picture of two children getting onto a bus. The sentence says ‘I go to school by bus’. Easy.

Now, ask your student if they go to school by bus. Still easy, slightly boring. Ask the student, ‘does an elephant go to school by bus?’

Hopefully, you’ll get a smile (or a weird look), but it should re-engage them. You will know your students’ personality and level if silly questions will work well or not.

Get them to tell you things they can see

Some students get distracted easily by whatever is the room. Use their distraction to your advantage. If you can see your student’s mind is wandering or they’re losing focus, try to relate the courseware to what is around them.

For instance, say you’re learning about a classroom. There is a picture of a chair. Ask the student what colour their chair is. Ask them how many chairs are in the room.

Of course, a chair is an easy example. Sometimes you will have to get creative to make a direct link with the courseware. Alternatively, you can just get them to name 5 random things they can see in the room. Or 5 things that start with the letter A. You get the idea!


Draw, draw, draw

That singing stuff I mentioned before is actually redundant for me. I have zero musical talent, but thankfully I’m handy with a pen. Art and drawing is my saviour - especially now in the age of touch-screen computers. When in doubt, I turn it into an art lesson!

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