Teaching a second language remotely requires redesigning many of the teaching approaches, activities, and assessments that would otherwise be present in a face-to-face, on-campus language classroom. Waterloo’s Learning Management System, LEARN, offers many tools that can be employed to create a supportive learning environment for your students.
There are many resources and articles that explain the many affordances of teaching/learning a language online. There are indeed many benefits, and the online language learning experience can be just as effective as an on-campus language course. Yes, the focus of the course must be inherently different (more written, individual work as opposed to oral, group work), but with careful planning and design, the language learning experience can be just as powerful.
A word of caution: These courses normally take months to develop, but currently we do not have the advantage of time. The best practices below therefore are reflective of our current situation.
Finally, should you have any other ideas of best practices, assessments or assignments to include, please let us know and we’ll do our best to include them as this resource evolves.
Best Practices and Considerations
- Don’t expect to be able to replicate your on-campus language course online verbatim – many exercises are not immediately adaptable to remote learning, and students also need guidance as to how to progress through a course rather than just read the textbook.
- Identify the threshold concepts in your course. What do students absolutely need to know, and what aspects can be omitted to focus on these major concepts?
- Plan to communicate frequently with your students – let them know what they should be learning – what the learning outcomes are, what your expectations are, and what they can be doing to improve their second language development.
- Your role will be as a facilitator. Spend 75% of your time providing feedback and communicating with students, and 25% providing instruction through pre-recorded videos or short slides/notes/handouts.
- If possible, video or audio record yourself speaking the language in announcements or weekly/bi-weekly updates. Since language courses are typically very social and interactive, creating an online presence (even if infrequently) helps build community with your students.
- Remote language teaching is best suited first for reading, writing, and listening. Waterloo’s video assignment tool, Bongo, is an excellent way for students to practice speaking in authentic situations, and for you to assess them, but bear in mind that this can take a lot of time.
- Feedback is key, but it is equally important to determine how to provide feedback. What feedback can be provided to the entire class, and what feedback needs to be individualized for each student? The means of feedback provision in a language course are important too – when can you provide oral feedback in the second language, and when is written feedback more appropriate?
- When providing instruction, focus on short lessons that can be watched asynchronously so that students need not all be present at the same time. Synchronicity is of course valuable but consider keeping it simple at key intervals and provide a recording for students who miss it. This might be best employed to discuss feedback after a major assignment, or to introduce students to a core language concept.
- Although group work and group projects are a common aspect of many language courses, be aware that there are many challenges in trying to institute this online. Some strategies to get students to write or speak to each other asynchronously are explored below.
- Attempt to maintain some semblance of community by using discussion boards to encourage interaction between students. Find some way to assess this interaction/engagement, as otherwise it will be seldom used.
If you are using a textbook for your language course, first consider what tasks/activities/exercises you can ask your students to work through on their own. If your textbook includes an Answer Key, point students to that to self-assess. The textbook publisher may also have Answer Keys on their website which students can be directed to. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to – as noted above, find the threshold concepts and their associated exercises and curate a list of exercises for each topic/unit/chapter you want to cover. Critically judge what you need to create – if the textbook covers it, you likely don’t need to repeat it, unless it’s a concept that you’ve found most students struggle with.
Many language textbooks come with full audio-visual exercises and support for students. If you are not currently using these, now is the time to start. Even if you don’t intend to grade these aspects (although with many packages, you can), they provide a wealth of practice and self-assessment opportunities for students and will decrease your feedback load. It may be worthwhile contacting your textbook sales representative to discuss opportunities to use their online resources.
You may want to include additional activities that take advantage of the remote learning environment. Below are some examples of activities that address the four main language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Some may be more applicable than others, depending on the language you teach, so treat each with a critical lens and consider their potential utility.
- Virtual field trips – send students to a website of a museum or cultural site in the second language. Ask them to locate vocabulary items they know or are currently learning, write short sentences about what they learned or experienced, or answer quiz questions about the field trip
- Children’s books – locate children’s books online that are copyright free and have students read them. Children’s books are ideal due to the repetitive nature of the language and that they are written for native speakers
- E-reserves – add readings that are vetted by the library and free of copyright restrictions directly onto your LEARN site
- Under the ‘Instructor Tools’ widget on LEARN you can access your course’s e-reserves
- You are able to add any number of readings that are then accessible to students regardless of where they are physically located
- LEARN quizzes – set up weekly or bi-weekly quizzes to help students develop the requisite vocabulary and grammar for each chapter/unit in your course
- Consider allowing for multiple quiz completion attempts to emphasize the learning that comes from developing new vocabulary and grammatical rules, rather than assessing pure memorization
- You can create quiz question libraries of vocabulary items and randomize so each student gets a different set of items
- Include questions aside from just translation from the second language to English. Short answer, sentence writing, matching, multi-select all have use in a quiz that tests basic vocabulary
- See if your textbook provider has created online quizzes for students; some of these quiz libraries can be imported directly into the LEARN
- One-to-one discussion boards – set up individual discussion boards between you and each student to practice writing. You can ask questions in the overarching discussion board topic, and then engage with them in a written conversation as they respond. These discussion threads can function as a quasi-portfolio for students to document their writing skills over time.
- Narrate short passages, dialogues, or questions from the textbook and ask students to answer questions about what they heard
- Students can then respond, either by submitting directly to a dropbox, or in a discussion board so that students can see how their fellow students responded to the question
- Your recordings can also be directly embedded into discussion boards using the Video Note feature in LEARN: when composing a new post or reply, click the ‘Insert Stuff’ button
- Dictation quizzes – create quiz questions in LEARN that have audio recordings where students listen to a word or phrase and dictate what they have heard. See this video for an excellent tutorial to construct these quizzes in LEARN (Kent Williams, Lecturer, English Language Studies Unit, Renison)
- Encourage students to listen to music or watch films in the second language
- You may not want to formally assess anything in relation to this activity, but it can serve as an opportunity to listen to authentic language in an engaging modality
- Students can curate their own vocabulary lists from what they listen and watch
- Bongo Interactive Video – students watch a video, such as a recorded lecture, and respond to choice questions throughout
- Audio recording in LEARN – students can record up to four minutes of audio directly in LEARN and then either upload it to a dropbox or make it available for others via a discussion board
- You can assess your students’ oral proficiency by asking them to narrate an assignment they’ve written or a piece of text from the course and submit it to a dropbox; you can then provide oral feedback by recording your evaluation of their work
- If you want to promote language production rather than assessment, students can record themselves doing short tasks like introducing themselves, reading a short passage of text or dialogue, and posting their recording to a discussion board
- Pronunciation practice using Google Docs – use the Google Doc's Voice to Text feature for students to self-assess the accuracy of their pronunciation
- Students must select Voice to Text under the ‘Tools’ menu within Google Docs and then select the appropriate language. The tool then attempts to identify and write what they speak in the chosen language
- Should anything be incorrect, the student must self-assess and pronounce the word again. Note that this is not always perfectly accurate, and students should be made aware as well that a failure to accurately transcribe their speaking may not always be due to poor pronunciation
- Bongo individual project – students record themselves and self-assess using Bongo’s auto-analysis, which produces a transcript and highlights things like unclear words and filler words (available in English only)
- Peer review of individual projects - other students can watch their presentations asynchronously and provide feedback
- Bongo recordings can be audio only – students just need to cover their webcams
- Q&A – students are presented with prompts and given a set amount of time to respond.
- See this video for a great example of using Bongo in FR 250 (Nicolas Hebbinckuys, Assistant Professor, French Studies, University of Waterloo)