Preparation Strategies for Stellar Synchronous Language Classes

Since March of 2020, when much of the world was forced into the world of online education kicking and screaming due to the Coronavirus pandemic, there have been hundreds, probably thousands of articles and blog posts written on the topic of how to survive when teaching online. Some have been more entertaining than helpful. Good or bad, I think I’ve read most of them: “7 Tips for Combatting Zoom Fatigue,” “Online Staff Meeting Drinking Games,” and even “Yes, You Can Get Away with ‘Dress Shirt on Top, Pajamas on Bottom!’” 

Seriously though, we’re a resourceful bunch, language instructors. In short order, we’ve risen to the challenge and honed our technology chops. But what language instructors tell me they long for as they scour the internet, is nuanced advice on how to teach languages online—advice that is bolstered by strong pedagogy and grounded in experience. Why? Because, for many language instructors, what they’re still missing is a strong, consistent pedagogy for online language instruction and a specialized bag of tricks. For the pedagogy, I can only urge you to consider enrolling in one of the OLT’s online courses. As for the latter, the tips and tricks, read on!

Prepping Your Physical Space

OK, so you’re following best practices for leading synchronous video sessions. You’ve rearranged furniture so that you’re facing a natural light source, you’ve decluttered your background and raised your webcam to eye level, and you’re practically snuggling up to your upgraded WiFi router for the best signal. (Or better yet, you finally ordered that USB-to-ethernet adapter you’d been eyeing and wired your laptop directly to your router.) But what’s next? What else is important for language teachers?

Preparing a functional space

Because our learners will be listening to and communicating in a language that is not their native tongue, we need to remove as many obstacles to that communication as possible. If our comprehensible input is less comprehensible because of poor audio quality, it’s our responsibility to do what we can to remedy the situation. An external microphone can improve quality, offering a broader, more natural-sounding spectrum of wavelengths than the internal microphone on your laptop is capable of capturing. (It also reduces both computer fan noise and the clickety clack of your typing.)  Even a relatively inexpensive headset or those earbuds you use with your phone go a long way. With the microphone closer to your mouth, you can speak at a comfortable volume, knowing that your voiceless interdental fricatives are coming through crystal clear.

Seeing your students

Another obstacle you can remove is the one preventing you from “reading your class.” On a small laptop screen, it’s difficult to see your students’ faces while also looking at your own screen-shared content and keeping tabs on the virtually raised hands in your participants list. And it’s usually right about at this point that you realize there are 17 questions in the Chat that you haven’t responded to because the Chat window was buried! A second monitor can be a great solution, and there are often low-cost options available. You might be able to snag an old one from your office or IT department. Alternatively, it’s a relatively easy hack to convert an old laptop or iMac to serve as an external monitor. Now, it’s true that a secondary monitor takes up desk space—and it takes some practice getting used to—but once you try it, you won’t want to go back to a single screen. 

Reclaiming the board

I miss my board! I don’t know how many instructors I’ve heard share this lament, myself included. In face-to-face classroom teaching, there are so many ways that we use our whiteboard or document camera to help our students practice handwriting, to gather vocabulary, or to enhance input to aid students’ noticing of language features. Things like the diagramming of sentences and the annotatiation of texts can certainly be reproduced in a slideshow, but it’s painfully time-consuming and doesn’t allow for spontaneity. And while digital annotation tools are available, if you’re like me, you probably find it cumbersome and slow to hand-write even a single word with a mouse or trackpad. (To say nothing of the fact that my handwriting ends up looking like that of a kindergartner writing with their off hand.)

One solution is to use a tablet and stylus or simply a smartphone and finger. Now, you’re probably saying, Didn’t you just tell me to use an external monitor to get away from a tiny laptop screen? How am I supposed to teach from my phone!? The key is logging in to your already running synchronous session from your mobile device separately, as a co-host with screen sharing privileges but without an audio connection, to avoid feedback or echoes. And voilà, you’re ready to write, on-screen edit, or diagram sentences to your heart’s content. For much more on Teaching Handwriting Online and Using Zoom’s Annotate Function, please check out our Blog

With your rockstar physical space now established, it’s time to prepare your virtual environment, so check back soon for Part 2: Prepping Your Online Space.

Join our upcoming course!

These practical strategies—and more of that strong online language teaching pedagogy I mentioned above—will be featured in this upcoming course: Oral Communicative Tasks in Online Language Teaching, which starts in just a few days! 

The course will bring together a community of educators to explore best practices for how to design and facilitate both synchronous and asynchronous oral communicative language tasks. Over the course of three weeks, participants will develop a cohesive week-long module of scaffolded, incrementally more challenging tasks, culminating in a synchronous task featuring the negotiated, spontaneous interaction of interpersonal communication. 

The great advantage about taking this course now is that, because it is a pilot course, you pay much less than what its final price will be.

Learn more and sign up on the Oral Communicative Tasks course page. We are excited about this new course and we are looking forward to seeing you there!

Author: Austin Kaufmann, ESL Instructor and Ed Tech Specialist, Michigan State University