7 Tips for ESL Classroom Management in a COVID World

Guest Blog
As COVID-19 continues to threaten communities across the country, many English language educators have been forced to transition to virtual classrooms for the foreseeable future, causing a host of unexpected challenges. (Will students have internet access? What content will keep their attention over Zoom? How can I provide every student individualized attention?) 
Have no fear! While this school year is certainly going to be different, you will adapt, and Work/Life English will be there to help along the way. This month’s blog pulls together tips on successful ESL classroom management and adapts them to today’s virtual classroom needs.
Novice teachers often assume that “teaching” means developing and following lesson plans. In reality, most of your teaching time as an ESL educator will be spent on figuring out how to manage your classroom in a way that suits both you and your students.
What is “classroom management?” Classroom management = preparation, procedures, and behavior. The objective is to create and sustain an environment (including clear routines, established procedures, etc.) conducive to providing students with the optimum learning experiences.
Even before COVID, ESL educators faced unique challenges. Communicating expectations, enforcing discipline, respecting cultural differences, even establishing simple classroom routines posed special problems due to the language barrier. (1) As classrooms have moved online, these challenges have only been exacerbated, and educators are struggling to get information across within scheduled virtual meeting times.
Below are some suggestions for effective ESL teaching, which Work/Life English has aggregated from numerous sources and modified to address the circumstance so many educators currently find themselves in. To effectively manage a virtual classroom and engage your students for optimal learning:

1. Know Your Learners
One of the hardest things about teaching virtually will be understanding the needs/motivations of and establishing trusting relationships with your students. Whereas meeting in-person typically allows you to get to know your students, their families, cultures, and educational backgrounds and incorporate their interests into the classroom, our “new normal” makes it difficult to visit students’ homes or get to know them in hallway conversations. Take the time to find out what your students want to learn and are interested in (i.e. a needs assessment) and what levels of knowledge they have (i.e. a skills assessment). Try conducting a poll or hosting 1-on-1 (recorded) cell phone Zoom interviews to get to know your students. Explore/discuss and get each student's responses to the following verbally and in writing: What’s going on in the world today that could be relevant to you? What are your fears and goals? Which particular tasks are you doing at home, and that you are asked to perform while at work? Clarify their best channel of communication and hours of availability that replicate the interaction you’d have in traditional classrooms.(2)
2. Thoroughly Plan & Prepare
Comprehensive preparation (e.g. establishing clear learning objectives, sufficient relevant activities, etc.) is critical in order to maximize learning opportunities for your students. Careful planning allows for effective transitions between activities and maximized teaching time, especially on a platform rife with technical difficulties, distractions, and delays. Visual prompts can be a great aid to move the conversation along.  
Establish ground rules (i.e. “Rules of Engagement”) before class starts and make sure to use simple, consistent instructions throughout. Consider muting everyone unless you call on them. Ultimately, the teacher is the authority figure in the classroom and needs to own that position of responsibility. 
Also consider an appropriate sequencing of activities for your students. What time of day / part of the week is your class and what else are your students dealing with? A Friday evening class, for example, may need to be especially lively to keep students up after long days at work. Consider sequencing within the structure of your own lessons, too. Coordinate lessons based on your learners’ needs, reflect on their success, and use what you learn about your students over time to effectively schedule your various activities.
3. Create Conditions for Language Learning 
Typically teachers are responsible for creating a classroom culture (e.g. the physical environment, materials, student social integration, etc.) so that students feel comfortable. What does that look like when interacting remotely? Have you defined the rules of your virtual classroom? Can you build a virtual classroom theme (e.g. decorating your desk/office or personalizing a Zoom background)? Have you established how and when students can interact? Suggest student chats and/or phone conversations and get student ideas! 
Communicating expectations for your classroom, as well as at each stage of every lesson, will help foster an atmosphere conducive to learning and keep virtual learners engaged. Try sharing the lesson objective with your students at the start and during each lesson. Model the target activity using volunteers, and share examples. Especially on an online platform with audio echoes, delays, and other complications, remember to keep instructions brief and sequential, breaking them into chunks and delivering them stage-by-stage, with plenty of time for questions in between.

4. Design & Implement High-Quality Lessons for Language Development 
Considering the needs and skills assessments you’ve conducted, plan relevant lessons that will engage your students, promote language learning, and help them develop learning strategies and critical thinking skills. (What’s going on in the world today that could be relevant to your students? What are their fears and goals? Which particular tasks are they doing at home, and asked to perform while at work?) Motivate your students and get them excited to learn by incorporating timely themes and emphasizing the real-world benefits. Share emotionally-driven content (e.g. images and graphics that are powerful, written content that evokes a certain feeling, etc.) that will engage them, which will improve their absorption and retention of information. 
Leverage comprehensible input when conveying information to students. Comprehensible input – whether oral or written -- is what students hear, see, and perceive as you teach. A teacher’s input should be both understandable and a bit challenging for the students. 
Especially for adult learners, design activities and assignments that encourage them to explore a subject matter on their own to learn from - and connect with - personal experience. Pose a question and then ask them to arrive at an answer on their own, for example. If you’re using a conference room platform like Zoom, have your students write down the questions and then address them in groups on their own breakout conference calls. 
In an online classroom where it’s more difficult to communicate with your students, pay particular attention to how much content you can cover in a given time period. Break your content up into smaller chunks to help avoid cognitive overload, avoid using large blocks of text, and opt for bullet points or numbered lists. Pause throughout the lesson for questions, encourage interaction (within specified guidelines), and speak particularly slowly. Your ESL students will appreciate it!
Remember that practice makes perfect. Include lots of practice exercises in and after your virtual classes to ensure that learners fully absorb and remember the subject matter. Work/Life English offers a number of fun, effective teaching lessons and ancillary resources on its website (www.worklifeenglish.com). (3)
5. Adapt Lesson Delivery as Needed  
In a virtual world, how can you continually observe your students’ responses, determine whether they are reaching the learning objectives, and adjust your lessons accordingly? Will existing methods of assessment suffice, or do you need to consider something different this year? 
Teachers can use quick comprehension checks during a virtual lesson to gauge how the class is doing. Some group response activities include:
  • Thumbs up / thumbs down with video
  • Live chat function
  • Self-assessment (via email or other web/app options)
Adjust your talk, the task, or the materials according to learner responses. Vary your oral language input, use first language or alternative texts, present visual aids, arrange peer support, adapt a task by adding more time, or any host of adjustments to better serve your learners. (2)

6. Monitor and Assess Student Language Development  
It’s likely that your students will learn at different rates, so it is important to regularly gather data, monitor, and assess their language development, based on their verbal and written products, in order to advance their learning efficiently. Interacting frequently – especially individually -- with students will be especially difficult during COVID, but you can establish virtual office hours and other processes that facilitate the tracking of their progress. These learnings can inform plans to reteach material or alter the classroom dynamic to augment students’ understanding. 
Consider how to offer immediate feedback to ESL learners. This will provide them with the opportunity to learn from mistakes by catching them at the moment they occur and seeing the direct consequences of that error, rather than waiting until the moment of need has passed to offer invaluable feedback.
7. Engage and Collaborate Within a Community of Practice  
It is especially difficult to collaborate with other educators to provide the best support for ESL learners (and pursue their own professional development) without the typical in-person interaction with fellow teachers, networking events, and conferences. We recommend getting social and leveraging online resources such as LinkedIn, Facebook, TESOL, LINCS, and other virtual English language teaching groups. COVID should not stop you from continuing to grow as a teacher and an individual!
(1) Busy Teacher
(2) TESOL; The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners.
(3) eLearning Industry
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About Work/Life English
For over 35 years, Work/Life English has been dedicated to improving the lives of English language learners. We offer a comprehensive range of fun, effective English language improvement lessons and activities to help adult education ESL educators successfully engage their English language students and improve their English competencies, leading to a host of positive effects in students’ professional and personal lives. Better English, Better Life. For more information, visit www.worklifeenglish.com.

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