How Do I Even Do That? Principles of Teaching ESL Online

How Do I Even Do That? Principles of Teaching ESL Online

The world is in the midst of a technological revolution the likes of which it hasn’t been seen since the Renaissance: the amount of electronic innovation just over the last five years in terms of devices and social networking is overwhelming.

Terms like gps, the cloud, and app have become part of our everyday vocabulary. A year ago, I couldn’t operate a smart phone, gps system, or use an e-reader; those are skills I possess now. In addition, five years ago I probably wouldn’t have considered teaching an online class; today I consider myself proficient at online teaching. Teaching online may seem uniquely suited to some classes; for example, I teach fiction writing classes to adults on a website devoted to writing and responding to it; the students are motivated and self-directed learners because they have chosen the course, and writing is a subject that is easy to assess and discuss in an online setting.

But what about classes that seem by nature less suited for an online setting? How does one even begin teaching ESL online, or should the instructor not even try and say “no” to the class in an at face value reasonable belief that the teacher just can’t do it, and students won’t be served?

However, there actually is a rationale for teaching ESL online, and there are some basic principles to create a successful online ESL class.

Rationale for Teaching Online ESL Classes

  1. There are actually a few defendable reasons for online classes, beyond the obvious financial one (i.e., forty students can be crammed into an online class at much less cost to the school than a traditional face-to-face class because there is no facility nor support staff like custodians to pay for.) However, there are positive pedagogical reasons, rather than financial, for online instruction that apply to ESL classes as well as to classes in other fields.

  2. 1

    Accessibility to students.

    All students generally, ESL students specifically, have limitations in their lives that prevent attending traditional classes—a major reason ESL students have trouble progressing in English. There are geographic, transportation, work, and childcare limitations. Online classes remove some of these barriers: students don’t need to travel to a campus or hire a sitter, for example, to attend an online class. It is for this reason, actually, that technology has been seen as somewhat of a social leveler—removing some of the barriers to access to information and education, for example, that have traditionally separated social classes.

  3. 2

    More focus.

    Because students attend class at their own convenience, usually, they are more focused on the work. They aren’t worried about a meeting they have to make right after class or what their children might be doing at home. More focus is then possible on the actual course content and students aren’t as distracted when posting to a discussion board or completing a course reading because they are accessing the class at their own convenience and can focus on the material.

  4. 3

    Fewer classroom management problems.

    It is, believe it or not, possible to be disruptive and a troublemaker in an online environment as well as a face-to-face one, but it is more difficult. If a student begins rambling off topic about the movie she just saw that weekend, for example, in a face-to-face environment the instructor has little choice than to bring the discussion to a screeching halt and deal with that student. In an online live chat, however, the instructor can choose to ignore the comments (sometimes pretending, as I like to, that I didn’t see them until later because of the “lag time” in responding in online chats, if two participants were typing at the same time.) The instructor can then refocus the discussion on the class topic.

  5. 4

    More and varied participation.

    Often the most frequent participants in a traditional class discussion are not the most insightful; they are simply the most extraverted and capable of quick responses and extemporaneous speech. More introverted students, however, actually have been shown to thrive in an online environment because they need time to compose their thoughts, which is possible when posting to an asynchronous (out of real time) discussion thread. Often these more introverted students, who might rarely speak in class, offer very thoughtful comments online.

  6. 5

    Live chats offer the best of both worlds.

    Finally, live chats, in which the students and instructor meet in “real time” at a designated hour in a chat room, can offer the best of both worlds as the discussions have more context, all participants being present at the same time, as well as more focused: again, they are all attending at a preselected time convenient for everyone and are less distracted.

So these are some of the advantages of online instruction. There are also some definite principles for keeping instruction running smoothly and avoiding some of the pitfalls that can exist in the online world.

Principles for Teaching Online ESL Classes

  1. 1


    Expectations, due dates, objectives should be clearly establish the first week. Because the context is reduced and teacher and students are not in the same room at the same time, there is more chance for miscommunication. This can be addressed through clear deadlines, assignment directions, and due dates posted prominently on the site, in several places, and sent out in email messages to students as well, if possible. If student confusion persists into the second week, step up efforts to clarify through live chats, and if possible, that are audio-enhanced, and which students almost always find more clear and personal.

  2. 2


    Maintaining constant contact with students is of utmost importance because students and teacher don’t see each other informally in the halls between classes, where students can stop the instructor with a quick question. Checking into the course site regularly—daily, if possible—and seeing if there are questions posted, responding quickly to email, calling students if necessary, turning around student papers quickly, and taking active part in the threaded discussions all show students that you are serious about the course and their individual progress.

  3. 3

    Provide worthwhile content.

    Thoughtful posts, related links to websites and articles, and posting your own written “lectures” on the course all demonstrate to the student that you are an authority on the course topic who is concerned about their progress—a more difficult task in an online setting as students do not see you regularly and “live,” so they have less sense of you as a professional. Providing worthwhile content demonstrates your seriousness and professionalism.

  4. 4

    Encourage or require student interaction.

    As in traditional classes, students often learn the most from each other because they are at the same developmental level and have more understanding of each other’s needs. Require students to post to a weekly topic at length on course material and then to respond to at least one other student’s posts. Students quickly develop collegial relationships this way and may even arrange to meet outside the class setting; for example, I have arranged to meet in person both students and classmates with whom I’d developed relationships in online writing classes. Often these relationships might actually be more authentic and less superficial than face-to-face ones as a lot of the idle conversation that occupies most of our face-to-face interactions is stripped away in an online environment. And again, it has been shown that online interaction like this is actually more effective for ESL and/or introverted students as they have more time to actually compose a response rather than speaking extemporaneously, which is more difficult for them.

  5. 5

    Set up chats and if possible audio or webcam enhanced chats.

    It is through these chats that students gain a sense of the instructor as a person; many students have mentioned to me the value of “attaching a voice to a name.” In addition, it is also often easier to clarify course expectations in audio/video enhanced chats as the context is not so reduced as in discussion boards because misconceptions can be cleared up at once.

At first blush, teaching an online ESL class can seem a difficult, if not impossible task.

However, by establishing clear expectations, maintaining contact, and providing worthwhile content, the instructor can turn the possible pitfalls of online instruction into positives.

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