Now that the dust has settled, online teaching is fast becoming the new ‘normal’ for many of us and the knee-jerk emergency teaching measures are slowly being replaced by a renewed drive for ways of delivering quality lessons. One observation from the last two months of teaching online is that at times the digital platform can be an isolated place, where despite being in an online room we actually feel very distant from one another. So how can we bridge this gap to work on our connection, make our lessons more interactive and increase language production?
In the present unfamiliar digital landscape, many teachers are commenting on how the class dynamic is changing, that classroom community can feel strained and while the ‘mute all’ button has done wonders for classroom management, lessons can feel perhaps a little too quiet at times. I recently wrote about the power of connection online and how this is more important than ever, but how is the online environment affecting language production?
Laura Edwards @EdLaur, in her excellent IATEFL Get Together Presentation raised the pertinent issue of how, for a variety of reasons ranging from technical issues to being unfamiliar with the format, students’ verbal participation can be reduced in online lessons. She helpfully suggested using forms, polls, and the chat feature in order to overcome this and this made me think of all the ways that we can reach our students through the chatbox.
Why should we use the chatbox?
Offering a medium that for many teens and adults is already familiar, thanks to years of online chat and social media, the chatbox can provide an opportunity for constant interaction and engagement throughout the lesson and give you as a teacher the assurance that everyone is being attended to, switched on and engaging in lesson content. Rather than giving students limited opportunities to participate, particularly in large classes, the chatbox allows for a constant stream of language production, giving students plenty of written production practice which they otherwise wouldn’t have. Many online platforms have now, for security reasons set the chat default to sending messages just to the host, which has opened up the perfect channel for student-teacher dialogue, away from the potentially judgemental ears of other class members. What this means is that during a lesson you can continue an ongoing dialogue with every student, giving everyone ample opportunity to contribute and differentiating tasks and feedback to individual learners, something which would have been impossible in a physical classroom and which can build community and offer a personal connection that, particularly at a time like this, can be a much-needed lifeline for a number of students.
Using the chatbox can stop the laborious one-student-at-a-time feedback, highlight individual ability, and make lessons more interesting for students by giving them a reason to pay attention. Not only does it provide a great consolidation of both grammar and lexis, but it also gives those who are shy a voice, alleviates feelings of negativity from over-competitive students, gives individuals the much-needed thinking time that is so crucial in quality production and allows the teacher the opportunity for real differentiation, something which online can prove quite difficult to orchestrate. It can be a great way to conduct CCQs, reiterate instructions (which we all know online need to be clearer than crystal), and check-in with individual students. It can change pace, inject fun, clarify difficult vocabulary, or simply act as a channel to provide banter which can often be lost online. We can use the chat to have meaningful conversations with students, show that we care by checking in on them, focusing on well-being, and giving students a safe forum away from the everyday pressures of self-isolation, social distancing, increased schoolwork or workload or the requirements of juggling a family with working. And of course, ever more than all that, it can be a teaching tool to make lessons pack a punch.
Convinced? Here are 10 ways you can use the chatbox to increase language production and makes sure are lessons are providing endless communicative possibilities.
- Sparking interest – Let’s face it, what we present to our students might be fascinating to us as teachers but could bore our students silly. Why not use the chatbox to activate schema by asking students at the start of the lesson to share what they know, either with you privately or with the rest of the class. This can be an instant way to get an idea of how the students are likely to engage with the topic and at the same time give students a reason to learn by sparking curiousity identifying exactly what they know, and thinking about what they want to learn. We can then tailor our lessons accordingly to try and make content more relevant to our learners.
- Interactive storytelling – A good storyteller naturally invites their listeners to take an active role in their stories by inviting them to participate throughout their narrative. Weaving in questions, pregnant pauses, and opportunities for listeners to participate and react is part of the natural fabric of listening to a story, and this can be emulated and executed brilliantly through the use of the chatbox. Pausing and ‘forgetting’ words and inviting our students to finish them for us, asking students to predict what happens next, asking for reactions to key points in the plot or by simply asking students to embellish the bones of a story that we are providing can all be wonderful ways to gauge interest, involve our students and maximise language production.
- Designing dialogues – The interactive nature of the chatbox means it is perfect for encouraging students to have a go at using language which they might feel intimidated to offer in front of a live class. Therefore, it lends itself wonderfully to creating dialogues. Give students a scenario, offer the first line, and ask students to come up with what comes next. Dialogues can be presented on a whiteboard and student contributions can simply be copied and pasted from the chatbox.
- Disappearing dialogues – After having collaborated to create a fantastic dialogue through the chatbox, practicing it in breakout rooms, and performing it to classmates in the main session, students can then have an opportunity for retrieval practice to help commit language to memory through disappearing dialogues. While students are practicing in the breakout rooms, simply select some keywords to remove from the dialogue and at some later stage of the lesson get students to complete the gaps and cement their learning.
- Error correction – Perhaps the most obvious use of the chatbox is for error correction. Having the opportunity to give personalised error correction feedback to individuals during speaking or written work without drawing attention to the student can be a godsend in certain situations. However, it is also a great tool for offering peer feedback, or to project incorrect sentences with the mistakes underlined and ask students to correct those mistakes, which can give you as a teacher a good indication of each student’s progress, offering the opportunity for formative assessment with integrity.
- Secrecy games – It has been noted that the pace of online lessons can tend to be much slower than it might be in the classroom and so using the chatbox is a great way to change the pace during a lesson. A nice, easy way to do that with a focus on communication is by using games that require some veil of secrecy, for example, charades, wink murder, or Pictionary. Send your instruction, clarify instructions, and let the fun begin!
- Vocabulary focus – Call my bluff, Taboo, and connect 4 or odd one out games can all be played through the chatbox. From a logistical point of view, it can be a way to feed information for pairwork activities, get students to report, record or define key lexical items, or take part in competitions such as synonym searches or translation exercises. The speed of using chat means it lends itself well to vocabulary related exercises and can be used throughout the lesson to make sure that students are really connecting with what you are presenting.
- Modifying model texts. Whenever a model is introduced to the class to show language in context and to offer opportunities to explore new linguistic features, the chatbox can be employed to give students a further opportunity to work on the text. Through the chat, the teacher is able to suggest ways to change the model, for example by personalising it to make it true to the student or by rewriting it for a certain character like Harry Potter or Donald Trump. Not only does this give the students ample practice of the model language but it also allows them to add their own creative touch to whatever level they are comfortable with, which is a great way to differentiate to mixed ability classes or learners.
- Pronunciation focus – When you think of chat you don’t necessarily think of it as a pronunciation tool but the teacher can use is to mispronounce words which they want the students to pick up on, or display phonemic script which students need to transcribe. Word or sentence stress can be highlighted by students in the chat and by dictating simple sentences which the students transcribe it can provide lots of scope for focussing on phonological aspects of connected speech. If you want to focus on a particular sound you can read a sentence and ask students to write all words that included that sound, and extend that exercise by asking them to provide their own answers through the chat.
- Reflecting on the lesson – We all know the importance of reflecting on our own teaching practice as well as fostering autonomy in our students to help develop intrinsic motivation and to make language learning an ongoing process. Polls and forms can provide a detailed opportunity for reflection but can often be overlooked or rushed through by students who view external links provided in the last five or ten minutes of a lesson as just another distraction. By carrying out reflection activities through the chatbox which can then be saved and reviewed by the teacher, it can help to support the students’ reasoning, and allows the teacher to scroll back through the chat to highlight any important moments mentioned by the student. In other words, it provides a reflection in context which can help the teacher inform their future lessons or develop feedback for that student.
Spelling tests, dictations, or sentence starters; an opportunity to open up dialogue with individual students, suggest, correct or simply listen, in my opinion the chatbox is a fundamental feature in creating communicative lessons and with a little creativity and enthusiasmm can maximise engagement, language production and ultimately interest in whatever it is you are teaching.
How do you use the chatbox? Let me know in the chat below!