Keeping Online ESL Classes on Track

Teaching English online is a unique and exciting platform. It opens up an interesting way to connect with students over a screen. For ESL teachers, it provides additional work opportunities beyond a classroom. Even better, it is location-independent so it is perfect work for those who travel or move around.



Another great perk of online teaching is that the courseware materials are provided. Personally, I work for DaDa where they have a sequence of subjects and materials for different ages and levels. It is refreshing to know that the teaching materials will be there when I open the online 'classroom'.



However, teaching is far from a one-size-fits-all thing. In any capacity of teaching, lessons ALWAYS get off track. It comes with the nature of the job. No matter how well prepared you are or how awesome the courseware is, online lessons are susceptible to getting off track.


Here are some reasons why an online ESL class might start derailing (and like any train wreck, you simply can't look away...)


- The student loses interest in the lesson content. This is common, especially when the courseware is boring...which does happen.

- The student is distracted by something going on around them.

- The lesson is too easy or too hard.

- The courseware material is too short for the lesson and you finish all the slides within 10 minutes of a 30 minute class.

- The courseware is flat and you can't extend beyond what's there.

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Seriously, here's a point in case with that last point. One lesson with my 7 year old (very active, energetic girl), the courseware repeatedly went over bland vocabulary words. The words were things like: drum, marbles, broom, mop. Zero correlation between the words, minimal teaching points, and super boring for both of us!


My student is bright and could easily read and spell the words. This just wasn't going to do. So we connected over art. We started drawing funny faces on the pictures of the random vocab words. As we drew, she would tell me what she was turning it into. She would give her drawing life and a story. She was practicing conversational English. The lesson suddenly wasn't so boring anymore. Rather, we were laughing and having fun. That is where the joy of teaching is!

So, it got me thinking that I need to have a ton of backups for these derailing courseware situations. These suggestions are completely adaptable and dependable on your student's age and level (and the courseware you're working with!).

First of all, extension questions are my go-to. I want to stay focused on the lesson the most I can here.

Here are some handy questions to ask to go beyond the courseware:

- What can you see on the right/left/top/bottom?

- How many _____ can you see?

- What colour is the _____?

- Does it/he/she/that/this look happy/sad/angry?

- Have you ever seen anything like that?

- Do you think that looks fun/scary/good/bad/boring?


I also like do exercises where I say the word and get the student to identify the picture. Thankfully, most of the courseware from DaDa good with having images and pictures to work with.



Phrase instructions like this:

- Can you see the _____?

- Draw a circle around the _______.

- What is the _______ next to/near?

- What is the ______ doing?



Another important thing to think about is spelling and phonics. Boring and dull courseware can actually be a good chance to dive into this stuff.



Here are some ideas and questions to look at sounds and letters:


- What letter does _____ start with? What other words start with that letter?

- Look at the letter in the middle, what sound does it make? (Useful for CVC words) (Circle the letter so the student can see it).

- What starts with ___ (Choose a letter and get the student to circle the pictures that start with that letter).



Finally, the most challenging scenario: you've finished the ENTIRE lesson and you've still got a chunk of time left. This is very true for assessment test classes where you finish things within like 5 minutes and you and your student are left hanging.



Fear not, online teachers of the world! Take comfort with these strategies:


- Play games! They're educational and fun! Do it!

- Turn a warm up exercise into an extension exercise.

- Draw and turn that whiteboard and pen function into a masterpiece.

- Chit-chat if your student can.



Now, most of the time it isn't your fault that you're in the midst of a train wreck class. It ESPECIALLY isn't your fault when you get a surprise early learner aged under 4. Whyyy, online teaching world?!



For emergency baby classes, always have some props handy. Toys and puppets are awesome for this. But if you're traveling while teaching, why not consider making some cute flashcards and pictures on recycled materials. There are loads of ideas here.



If you're interested in some other activities for early learners, I have an eBook available here. Shameless plug, sorry. But a writer's gotta make a living, am I right?


Ok, train wreck classes takeaway. First up, it isn't your fault. Second of all, you're going to get through this. Third, you're an awesome teacher. Finally, there are strategies to get the class back on track. Use them with your own touch, your own style, and your own awesomeness!