7 Ways to Keep Online ESL Learners Engaged

Not only is teaching English online convenient, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. You can teach online ESL learners wherever and whenever you like while encountering an abundance of hardworking and grateful students. I know I will struggle to say goodbye to my favorite students when I hang up my teaching headset! 

But as we know, no job is perfect. You will always encounter students who are either reluctant to learn or are easily distracted, which can be frustrating. The truth is, this doesn’t reflect your teaching style or personality. Teachers will always come across disinterested students regardless of their experience in the classroom.

While it’s not your responsibility to reshape the student’s etiquette and behavioral discipline, it’s something you will have to tolerate. After transferring my skills from schools to online platforms, I’ve trudged through the good and the bad to discover how to be more engaging. Here are seven tips to engage online ESL learners to create a positive learning experience;  

1. Use a Furry Friend

Remember your furry childhood toy which is hibernating somewhere in your house? You’ll witness the greatest renaissance as your expired toy goes from dusty zero to trusty hero. Watch out, though, your students may even like them more than you! Including a toy adds plenty of novelty to the ESL classroom. 

You can name the toy and give it its own persona to increase its allure! Toys can play consistent roles in your lessons, appearing when relevant to the topic or if eyes are fixated elsewhere. This is also an effective way to converse with your student! Utilize the toy as a member of the dialogue, and the student will associate this toy with communication! My students have even brought their own toys into the lesson and had them communicate with mine! This is an excellent way to facilitate dialogue whether it’s improvised or a key structure of your lesson. 

teaching online TEFL learners
Will incorporating toys into his ESL classroom

2. Utilise the Reward System… Wisely

“Power resides where men believe it resides.” Okay, I didn’t expect to use a Game of Thrones metaphor to describe the value of a reward system for online ESL learners, but hear me out! 

Most online teaching platforms utilize a reward system, where you will be able to provide students with stars that exemplify their efforts and success in class. If you treat the reward system as an important framework and a reflection of the student’s performance, it will manifest itself as such. As a result, you’ll be able to use the reward system to maintain your student’s focus and sustain their motivation!

However, balance is key. Don’t expect to just spam the star button expecting the student to experience an endorphin rush each time they are awarded the currency. Treat the reward currency as if they are rare! Save them for when your student works hard enough to earn them, not when they’re distracted and you need their attention. If you overuse the reward system, the student will become indifferent to its significance! 

3. Personalize the Lesson for Online ESL learners

Most online teaching platforms will provide you with sufficient material to conduct a fun and engaging lesson. However, if you want to be more creative and prevent your courseware from becoming stale, you should personalize the activities. Why ask what Biff and Chip are having for dinner (I’m looking at you, DaDaABC), when you can ask what Batman is having for dinner? Even the simplest of changes can light a spark in your student. 

Don’t feel obligated to remain 100% faithful to the material. By going beyond the lesson content, you’re exposing the student to new things and prevent any sense of monotony. The last thing you want is the student to see your lessons as an endless treadmill. You’ll struggle through the lesson if you rely entirely on the incredibly lackluster onscreen dialogue and activities.  

which online teaching platform is right for you

Discover Their Interests 

You should always make an effort to find out what the student likes. By personalizing the lesson, you display interest while acquiring useful tools to create a more familiar and comfortable environment for your student.

There are a few ways you can approach this. If their level of English is good enough, you can simply ask the student what food, sport, or character they like, and allow them to discuss their interests! This can be done within the context of your lesson objectives, or you can allow the student to discuss their hobbies freely. 

Whether they’re using targeted sentence structures or not, they’re still practicing their English. Some online ESL learners may be very shy and reluctant to speak English, and their interests may be the best way to facilitate communication. This will increase their confidence and willingness to converse dramatically! If it is too difficult for the student to respond to open-ended questions, you can gather clues using the prints on their t-shirts or objects in their room! Whether they’re wearing a Captain America t-shirt or they’ve got a poster of Hello Kitty in the background, take the opportunity to personalize the lesson as much as you can! 

»Great English Lessons Teaching Resource Websites

4. Warmers are Key! 

The power of the warmer activity of the class must not be underestimated. They can very well set the tone for the rest of the class and determine whether it’ll be a fun lesson or not. Just how you would like to make a good first impression with anyone, treat the opening five minutes of the class as the most important! 

A student’s enthusiasm towards your lesson will be influenced by the first interaction. Why wouldn’t a student focus on someone who is interesting and provides fun activities? By opening the lesson with smiles and lots of energy, you set the precedent that the lesson will be very engaging. If you get off to a slow start, however, you might feel you have to overcompensate during the following activities to maintain their attention. 

What are some examples of excellent warmer activities, you might ask? Every student is different, however, there are a plethora of options when it comes to engaging the student. You can use a hilarious tongue-twister, which has always been fun for my students. It’s hilarious for the student attempting to say “She sells seashells by the seashore” quickly, and it’s also an effective pronunciation activity. Or, you can play Simon Says, which relies on focus and movement from the participant to make the game interesting. You can even use something as simple as a song to begin your lesson. 


warmers fillers and coolers activity ebook

5. Sing Songs to Keep Online ESL Learners Engaged

You may not have the voice of Adele (maybe you do?), but don’t be afraid to include songs and chants into your lessons. You can use songs to study adjectives, nouns, animals, or simply liven the atmosphere. Got a beautiful singing voice? Great! The student will be introduced to some sweet melodies! Got the voice of someone who has no rhythm and needs a throat lozenge? Fine! It will encourage the student to participate more if they see their confident teacher letting loose. 

Auditory Learners

Apparently, 30% of your students will be auditory learners, and songs will be especially engaging for this learning group. The auditory learner’s language acquisition will be optimized through listening, whether its dialogue, discussions or songs. Auditory learners will struggle to sit there and read the lesson content monotonously. Singing songs is an excellent way to introduce new vocabulary or practice pronunciation, and it has more replay value than simply repeating a sentence. How often have you found yourself randomly singing or humming a song, even if the song is terrible? Many times, I bet. I’m still singing “un, deux, trois, comment tu t’appelle” and the last time I studied French was in 2012.

Greetings and Farewells for Online ESL learners

Singing songs at the beginning or at the end of the lesson is also an effective way to teach lower-level students how to greet people in English! Not only this, it will establish a habit that the student will do instinctively! Open your lessons with a greeting song followed by some free dialogue, and they will learn to greet you without thinking. You can also end your lesson with a farewell song. By doing so, you are instilling English phrases for your student! It will become very natural for them to greet you and say farewell without reminding them to do so.

Thankfully, there are songs for all levels, and you’ll have an unlimited amount of songs you can turn to. Want to consolidate the alphabet? Sing the ABC song. Want to introduce phonics? Chant “oggy oggy oggy” while your student chants back “oi oi oi”! If you google ‘songs for ESL learners’ you might be overwhelmed with options. There are many options for each category, whether you are looking for songs to improve pronunciation, vocabulary, or general fluency. When it comes to songs, it does not have to be complicated, remember that they are learning English. Keep it simple! 

6. Active Body Language

According to someone, somewhere, 93% of communication is non-verbal. Whether you believe this statistic or not, you better believe it when it comes to teaching. It’s true that it’s not always about what you say, but how you say it. If your body language is closed, your student will feel less encouraged to participate, and maybe even intimidated. Smiles and laughter are also infectious, so be sure to use these alongside positive body language to maximize student participation!

Cross-cultural communication is difficult to achieve, you will need more than words to elicit a response. Students can decode specific movements to associate them with particular actions or sentences. If you’d like the student to repeat a sentence, count the words with your fingers, or make a hearing gesture to indicate when students should speak. Want to consolidate a word? Associate words with gestures and noises, don’t be scared to cluck like a chicken to foster memorization!

Energy breeds energy. Why should online ESL learners be inspired by a teacher that has the charisma of a lifeless barnacle? 

body language for esl learners
Will using positive body language to get his message across to his students

7. Go Off-script (When Necessary)

Although you are here to develop the students’ English communication, don’t forget that online learning is supposed to be fun. You want to inspire the student to take part and utilize their spoken communication skills in creative ways. The process aims to increase their confidence when speaking English, not associate English as a necessary evil. You should also take into consideration that students may have already had school, work, or a tough day. It is okay to go off script and play games with the student, as long as they are still applying their English. 

You can set the precedent that games will be included if the student behaves well or if the lesson is finished sooner than the allotted time. It goes hand in hand with the reward system. This way, the student will be more willing to finish the lesson sooner to play games. While that hated teacher in your school discouraged games, it can facilitate development if used appropriately. Introducing English terms to new games can be an effective method to increase their articulacy. Students can gain insight into more casual and informal English vocabulary, and familiarise themselves with the language on more levels.

»DIY Teaching Resources for Your ESL Classroom

Practice What You Preach

While there’s no perfect formula for engaging online ESL learners, these are some of the things that experienced teachers use in the classroom. I can personally attest to these tips having an influence on student participation, as can many other teachers. You can theorize whether they work all you want, but you must become a practitioner! Embrace these new tips in the classroom and they will manifest themselves as crucial aspects to your lessons! Whether you become the songbird of your generation or a comedic duo with your toy, your lessons will engross the student. Online teaching relies on reciprocal energy, if you evince energy and enthusiasm, so will your student. Teaching is all about experimenting and tailoring the lesson to your student’s needs. Amalgamating your personality with these activities will result in a creative and engaging lesson for the student.  

Need some help managing your virtual classroom, Teacher Melissa has shared her best tips to help you achieve expert virtual teacher status!

What do you do to keep your online students engaged? We would love to hear your ideas in the comment section below!


The post 7 Ways to Keep Online ESL Learners Engaged appeared first on Premier TEFL.

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