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7 Tips for Managing Online ESL Group Classes

Some people may associate teaching online ESL classes with one-on-one tutoring, but group classes are as popular. Online ESL group classes can typically range anywhere from three to 20 students. While technology allows for teachers to separate students in small groups, the classroom dynamic changes dramatically with the large group class. Here are 7 tips for managing online ESL group classes:

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1. Take Control

The first point for managing online ESL group classes is that you, as the teacher, need to manage the class.

When you have a group of people, they need someone to take control, and that someone is you. You need to be able to control, at minimum, with the class objectives and the opportunities you provide for speaking.

2. Control the Speaking

If everyone talks at the same time, not much will get accomplished other than recreating a scene at an open-air flea market. So, there must be a way to control the microphone for each person. Many ESL companies use learning platforms with microphone control features. In other words, the teacher can turn a member’s mic on or off as needed.

The drawback is that it adds another task to your multitasking load in an online class. There may be times when you don’t have control of each person’s mic. In that case, instructions should be provided before the class or at the beginning of the class.

Students can be informed of classroom etiquette where they should turn the mic on to speak and turn it off when not speaking. This is to allow everyone the opportunity to speak without interruption.

3. Control the Lesson

Since you’re the teacher, you need to maintain control of the lesson. Your class members look to you to manage how the lesson unfolds.

Don’t let yourself be led by every whim of your students. Rarely can you please everyone in a group class, but you can focus on what everyone is there for: the ESL lesson. So, rather than allow yourself to get sidetracked talking about a certain grammar point that one learner asked about. Cover it and move on.

This goes a long way in helping the majority of your students get the maximum benefit from the lesson.

4. Involve Other Class Members

Since it’s a group class, utilize the valuable resources you have—class members. When a question is raised, avoid the instinctive urge to answer immediately, let someone else do it.

By directing questions to other students, you facilitate more student participation and decrease your talk time. A simple, “Does anyone have an answer for that?” will do. Or, if a student gives an answer that isn’t quite on target, you can ask if someone else has anything to add or if they have a different response.

This helps everyone stay involved in a group class.

Teaching ESL Online to Groups

5. Keep it Active

Lecture-style of teaching, as is the case with Direct Method, don’t work well in any ESL class regardless of location or format. People get bored, especially children. So, when you are managing online ESL group classes, you have to keep things active. Some teachers do this by use of TPR (Total Physical Response)-type activities like asking members to touch a part of their upper bodies or do something.

That can work, but if that’s all you’re doing, the class becomes more like a physical education class. So, how can we keep things active? One way to do this, if possible, is to ask students to use their classroom tools to mark something on the screen (such as a check box, placing a mark, drawing a line, or even adding art to an image) or use polls to assess comprehension of a topic.

Online ESL teachers can also use the same communicative and task-oriented methods used in the classroom. Most platforms allow online teachers to divide students into groups for class activities and presentations that help students learn English while having to communicate in English to complete the activity.

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6. Use Visuals / Classroom Tools

Most company-owned learning platforms I’ve encountered over the years have classroom tools such as markers, highlighters, pens, text tools, shapes, and even icon options that can be used on the main screen. Some teachers may not give them much thought, but they’re there for a reason. Use pointers to point to what you’re referring to and provide greater clarity. You can use highlighters to focus on a certain word.

Try using shapes to box in a certain reference or image. Use text tools to type instructions or clarification on the screen. Insert a smiley face to show humor or a pointing finger to indicate a location.

All of these tools take your class to the next level. They allow the more visually oriented learners an opportunity to see and hear what’s going on. They also keep the screen in flux. So, instead of having a text or image sitting on the screen while you talk, you can use these tools to keep the class members engaged.

7. Give Feedback

In the majority of online group ESL classes, there were at least one or two students with a higher or lower level of English than the class average. That means higher-level learners can show other class members how to communicate. They provide examples and even encouragement to the lower level learners that it is possible to achieve higher levels of English skills. 

And remember, each person in your class is an individual. That means each member has difficulties in areas that are not the same as the other class members. So, give feedback that can be used to reinforce learning in other class members.

On the other hand, language learners tend to get stuck in certain common areas (e.g. present perfect verb tense, preposition use, and collocations). As each member is allowed or encouraged to participate in the class, they will reveal these issues. Each time you provide feedback, you are helping all the other learners with the same issue. Therefore, feedback is invaluable in the online ESL classroom, and a very good reason why the teacher should talk less to give students more time and opportunities to use the English language.

It may be the case, that they help each other more than the teacher teaching in those instances. That’s why I tell group class members that the more they participate, the more they help themselves and their class members. And it’s why a group class can be viewed as a collaborative effort.

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