Published 7th October 2020

how to engage young learners online

Teaching English online is a whole new world for most of us. For sure, TEFL teachers have been doing it for many years, but it has only been in the last few that learning English online has seen a boom in popularity. Because of this (and other reasons we’d rather not talk about!) many TEFL teachers who have only ever taught face-to-face have found themselves in a virtual classroom. As with any classroom, the virtual classroom has its own set of challenges. Again, as with any EFL classroom, learner engagement is essential for your lessons to be successful. Engagement and participation can be difficult to facilitate in a regular classroom but it can be so much more challenging in a virtual classroom because you cannot make the personal connection as easily. This is especially true for Young Learners. So, let’s look at how to engage young learners online.

Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why teaching Young Learners online can be difficult to help us understand these difficulties, and then we can consider solutions to these problems and ways we can engage our Young Learners online.

Read more: What are the Requirements for Teaching English Online?

Problem: Young Learners crave movement

Online lessons can be very static. By its very nature, for online lessons learners need to sit in front of their computers for the entire lesson. There aren’t the opportunities for getting up out of their seats or playing a ball game or change partners that there are in a regular classroom. If Young Learners are required to sit still for extended periods of time they are likely to become disinterested or bored.

Solution: Change it up

One advantage of having your learners in their own home during your lesson is that they are surrounded by their own stuff. You can consider how you can incorporate their house into your lessons, and this will usually involve some movement. For example, if you are talking about clothes, you can ask your student to stand up and describe what they are wearing, or they can fetch certain items from their cupboard to show you. 

You should also be mindful of incorporating some form of movement into your lessons whenever possible. If you are teaching a group of learners, ask them to use gestures at different points in the class – for example, put your hands on your head when you’re finished, or put up your hand to ask or answer a question – to keep them active.

how to engage young learners online

Read more: Top Tips for Teaching Young Learners

Problem: Online lessons are not very communicative

Generally lesson plans keep the communicative activity til the end of the lesson. This allows sufficient time for the teacher to introduce the language and work on accuracy before the students get to practice the language in a communicative situation. Because online lessons are usually shorter than usual lessons, this often means the communicative activity is very short. For Young Learners, communication is important in order to keep their attention.

Also, in regular lessons we utilize pairwork and groupwork to maximize opportunities for communication. However, organising pairwork and groupwork is difficult to do in online lessons. This can mean that students often don’t get to engage in the fun part of EFL lessons – talking and interacting with their classmates – in online lessons. 

Solution: Adapt

Make sure you incorporate communicative activities in every stage of your lesson. If you are teaching an individual student, make sure there are plenty of opportunities for meaningful communication between the two of you, rather than only checking answers, for example. If you are teaching more than one learner, make sure you know how to divide the group up into break rooms in order for the students to work with partners as much as possible. Also make sure that your students know what they need to do in order to chat to their partners!

Problem: Online materials leave a lot to be desired

Any materials you find for online lessons might not be of the same standard as those we find in our coursebooks. This is simply a result of the history of developing ELT materials for offline learning; we’ve had more time to hone our skill for materials development for physical classrooms. This can mean that what you can rely on to work well in a physical classroom won’t necessarily work in the online classroom. As you can imagine, this can make lesson planning that much harder. 

Solution: Supplement

TEFL teachers are no strangers to supplementing classroom materials. Planning lessons for online lessons is no different. Look at your materials before your lessons and think about what you could utilize which could improve your lesson. Visuals and media are a great addition to any lesson both online and offline, but you could also make use of realia and real-world situations. For example, if you are teaching food, ask the learners to bring some food from their kitchen to discuss in the lesson. Or, if you are teaching a fairy tale, find a clip online that you can use. Don’t rely too heavily on your lesson plans if they are not aimed for online lessons. You will need to do a bit more work to make sure the lesson activities will translate to the online classroom.

Read more: Top Resources for Teaching English Online

Problem: The cultural divide

A large part of our EFL lessons involves connecting to our students and responding to them. This requires knowledge not only of their individual lives but also their backgrounds and cultures. When you are living and teaching in a country, it is easy for you to get to know the culture and therefore understand references your students make and know popular culture they enjoy. When we are teaching online we might be sitting in a flat in New York while our Young Learner is in a house in Bangkok. If we have no prior knowledge of Thailand it can be difficult for us to get to know our learners to the level our Young Learners need us to. 

Solution: Really get to know your students

Start each lesson with a quick chat. With Young Learners it is not essential to jump straight into your lessons. Rather warm them up with a conversation about their day, what they had for lunch, what they watched on TV the day before, what their parents are doing. This will not only gear them up for the lesson but also give you a glimpse into their lives. Do this every lesson and soon you will have a better understanding of their interests and cultural background.

Teaching Young Learners can be challenging on any given day, but when you add in the extra element of teaching online it can be very tricky. That’s not to say that it’s impossible! Being clever and using a few simple tweaks to your lessons will ensure your Young Learners are engaged and happy in your online lessons.

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