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June 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Discussions in Online Classes of English at University Level

Mariya Neykova, PhD, is an associate professor at New Bulgarian University. She teaches various courses in the area of foreign language teaching methodology and English for specific purposes. Her current research interests fall mainly in the areas of ESP, multilingualism and plurilingualism, action-oriented approach, intercultural communication, rhetoric and debate. E-mail:



Discussions have always been a central and much loved task in English language learning. Today, with COVID-19 restrictions going on for more than a year, both lecturers and students face various types of challenges. The parameters of the new learning environment affect the task procedures and the learning outcomes. However, the benefits from discussion sessions are even greater, since the task not only contributes to the development of students’ speaking skills but also provides invaluable opportunities for social contacts, which enhances its authenticity.



As a language learning task, discussions can be exciting but they can also be a bit scary. Sometimes students “have nothing to say” (Harmer 1991:123), or they might be afraid they would not be able to express their ideas in a convincing way. University students might even feel under stress to master speaking skills not only as part of their tuition but also as part of their professional communication skills. In addition, in a lockdown context when university education is conducted mostly online, learners have to adapt to “embedding” study activities within the framework of their personal space. The distractions that they have to eliminate make speaking activities, and online discussions in particular, more challenging.


Discussions as a language learning activity

Shopov theorises that, as a learning activity, communicative exercises allow for free speaking in the form of a dialogue or a monologue. Their design is based on the principle of the “information gap”, i.e. some of the participants are not familiar with part of the information. He points out that such a communicative exercise is the free discussion. In the discussion learners can express their own opinions, which brings learning communication closer to real-life communication (Shopov 2008). The lack of information guarantees the implementation of interactive procedures in the process of learning and a purposeful formation of communicative competence (Drinova 2006).

Productive activities like delivering oral academic presentations (cf. Hadjikoteva 2017; Hadjikoteva 2015), making statements and comments, asking questions, etc. come to the front but they require receptive activities like active listening to the utterances, etc. to be implemented as well. Interactive communication presupposes alternation of receptive and productive activities. Still, in some cases the receptive and productive activities could take place simultaneously, e.g. while the participants in a discussion are listening to their partners, they are trying to think over and mentally formulate their answers, comments, contributions or questions, depending on their purpose – to give or receive information. Naturally, most discussions are oral but they can also occur in a written form, e.g. an online forum discussion, in which case they can well be asynchronous.

Turn taking is a crucial skill in both the oral and the written form. Discussions may have a pretty rigorous structure, which is negotiated between the participants in advance, or they can have a more relaxed and spontaneous character. The former procedure provides equal opportunities for all participants to express themselves while mastering English at the same time. The latter approach is more informal and stress-free but it might deprive the shy or the more reserved students in the class from the chance to improve their language and communication skills. Whichever form of work is preferred, there might be certain sociocultural parameters of language use to be considered.


Discussions within the framework of the action-oriented approach

According to Stoycheva, action-oriented learning usually comprises three phases:

1. Introductory phase (planning)

2. Working phase (implementation)

3. Presentation and assessment phase (presentation, control, assessment)

During the first phase the learners have to tackle a problem, issue, case study, etc. The instructor facilitates them to activate their background knowledge and skills and to establish what additional information, knowledge and skills are necessary to solve the problem. The learners make a plan and formulate the goal. The necessary language material is processed and practiced.

In the second phase the learners search for the necessary information, sort it and arrange it, they work on the solution to the problem, create the product and prepare the presentation.

The result/the finished product/the solution to the problem is presented in the third phase. The learners discuss, justify, argue, defend and compare the final product with the preset goal (Stoycheva 2007).


Structured and free discussions

Among the myriad methods of improving English language speaking skills in an online academic environment, structured and free discussions stand out as effective, motivating and inspiring.


Structured discussions

With the purpose to achieve a better discussion organisation, Harmer suggests three concrete techniques: (1) Put students in groups first; (2) Give students a chance to prepare; (3) Give students a task (Harmer 1991). The above steps have a great potential to guarantee a successful discussion. Working in small groups can considerably reduce the stress levels, while the preparation of arguments prior to the discussion and the completion of concrete tasks within the framework of the discussion process can boost students’ confidence in their ability to express themselves in a convincing way.

The above considerations refer to in-person English language teaching but they can also apply to online distance learning as well. Breakout rooms are to be found in most online learning platforms. Language instructors can use them to divide participants in small groups, assigning different tasks for the preparation of a discussion or giving students the chance to agree upon the best arguments to support their position in a discussion. Group work in a traditional classroom does not provide the necessary isolation and privacy for a smooth discussion in which learners do not have to lower their voices in order to avoid interference with their fellow students’ discussions and even to prevent eavesdropping. Conversely, in a breakout room learners interact with their team members only and the language instructor may join them to facilitate the discussion only when necessary.

Students may be assigned to different groups randomly, of their own choice or in compliance with the lecturer’s considerations. Whatever the method, effective teamwork qualities, namely responsibility, accountability and positive interdependence, are to play a crucial role.

Sample structured discussion for online classes


1. Introductory phase (planning)

While still in the virtual classroom, the students are given three debatable topics to choose from. They agree upon the topic they like best. The language instructor, who is also a moderator when learning takes place online, divides the students in two groups which are going to defend opposing views and assigns them to two breakout rooms. Then the instructor joins the breakout rooms to check for possible problems. The students choose a spokesperson and ask the instructor for help if necessary.

2. Working phase (implementation)

The students brainstorm ideas in support of their position and select the best ones. Then the shortlisted arguments are arranged in logical order.

3. Presentation and assessment phase (presentation, control, assessment)

The learners rejoin the virtual classroom. Each spokesperson presents the respective group’s main arguments. A discussion follows, involving all the students in the class. They argue, they justify and defend their position. At the end of the discussion the students are invited to reassess their personal views on the subject matter.



The above discussion takes place synchronously, which has its pros and cons. To begin with, there is a limited number of topics that the students can choose from. In addition, the learners do not have much time for preparation – they cannot really fathom the topic or search for impressive linguistic devices. Instead, they have to rely on their acquired knowledge of English and their background information on the topic. Some of the major merits of these discussions, though, are their spontaneity and the excitement they evoke.

Group discussions in breakout rooms prove to be more efficient than in-person group discussions for several reasons. In an in-person class, when students are assigned to different groups in the same classroom, they find it difficult to start talking because the other groups might still be silent and might be able to hear their conversation. Of course this initial unwillingness disappears when all groups start talking and the background noise creates the feeling of privacy students need to discuss their arguments within their own group. The lecturer is to be seen walking around the classroom monitoring and facilitating each group’s performance. However, group discussions in breakout rooms are by default more relaxed. There is no interfering noise, lecturers can monitor the discussions only if they join the respective breakout rooms, so students can focus on the topic and the stance they are going to defend.

Turn taking is an essential skill especially in the presentation and assessment phase. In the context of online learning, the lack of this skill might present a challenge, since the students have to signal the moderator when they want to take the floor, they have to mute their microphones to cancel out background noise and unmute them again when they want to speak. Some students may be slow in doing this, they might even forget to unmute their microphones and start speaking with their mics muted. These are all minor inconveniences but they might affect the natural flow of the discussion.


Free discussions

Free discussions also deserve a fair share of attention in English language teaching and in online language learning in general. From a methodological point of view, a free discussion provides full-blooded near-authentic communicative practice. Lecturers and learners often negotiate the topics in order to find common areas of interest in the class. Thus students are given ample opportunities to express and justify their viewpoints.

Free discussions, with or without thorough preliminary preparation, are gradually turning into one of the most frequently used language learning activities for exchange of opinions, making comments and asking for information. Although there is definitely a difference between an oral discussion and an online forum discussion which takes place in a written form, the latter obviously follows the logic of an oral discussion.

An online discussion bears an enormous potential for English language learning. To begin with, it is familiar to the learners of today, since they are accustomed to participating in real-life online discussions like forum discussions, chats, etc. Additionally, an online discussion may take place asynchronously, which is quite convenient, especially for the modern adult learners who are usually overloaded with tasks and responsibilities. What is more, in an asynchronous online discussion students have the opportunity to research the topics and formulate their own answers, comments and contributions without significantly disrupting its natural flow. They also have control over the time, the place and the rhythm of their activity, which fosters their will to become self-directed learners.


Sample free discussion for online classes


1. Introductory phase (planning)

In a discussion forum in an e-learning platform (e.g. Moodle), each student suggests a topic supporting it with an online article, most frequently a popular science one, and attaches a link to it, accompanied by a short comment on the main issues that the article deals with.

2. Working phase (implementation)

This phase encompasses the discussion itself. Each student hosts their forum discussion in the e-learning platform – they answer their fellow students’ questions, agree or disagree with their fellow students’ comments, invite their fellow students to express their standpoint, etc. All the learners in the class participate in their fellow students’ discussions as well. The role of the lecturer is mainly to facilitate and direct the process in order to keep the students focused on their common goal but the role of the lecturer is also the one of a full-fledged participant in the exchange of arguments and information. This phase may take place over a week or even longer.

3. Presentation and assessment phase (presentation, control, assessment)

In the virtual classroom each student summarises orally the questions, the opinions, the comments, the suggestions and the conclusions from their discussion forum. They also report about the changes or the lack of changes in the initial positions of the participants as a result of the arguments between them or the additional information they have received.



On the one hand, the fact that all the students in the class can choose topics for discussion themselves is stimulating because they feel free to present their views on something they find interesting and motivating and they are free to select the sources of information they consider reliable. On the other hand, this freedom requires a great deal of responsibility on their part, because they have to select the right arguments in order to succeed in convincing their fellow students that this material is worth discussing. Thus, throughout the whole process, the participants have to use the target language in a meaningful way – searching for information and conveying their own ideas, which is an example of “learning by doing”.


The task, namely participation in a forum discussion, is authentic, since by its nature it is a means of communicating and sharing ideas, which is widely used in real life, the only difference being that the discussion takes place in the target language, not in the learners’ mother tongue. The participants have the possibility to use the target language in the way they use their mother tongue every day, while the low-stress supporting atmosphere contributes to their success as well. Thus free discussions motivate students to develop their skills to use English for various purposes.

The topics range from general interest ones to topical issues. Of course, each and every topic can be interesting and motivating but when students choose a topical issue, the discussion usually reflects the debates going on in the social media at that moment. Logically, the participants in the discussion are likely to use arguments and ideas from real online forums but they have to render them in English.



As a communicative task within the framework of the action-oriented approach, a discussion builds upon the necessity for communication with the purpose to find information which is available to only one of the participants or to only part of them. It also involves skills for conveying ideas, thoughts and opinions. The focus in a discussion class is laid upon meaning and fluency, which contributes to its authenticity. Online discussions in an e-learning platform can follow a detailed structural pattern but they can also be of a free nature allowing for unexpected twists and turns, though still under the supervision of the lecturer. Free online forum discussions are not seriously affected by the specificity of online learning in a COVID-19 context. It can be argued that structured online discussions in a virtual classroom involving group work in breakout rooms may prove to be almost as successful as in-person discussions. Both free and structured discussions enhance the mastering of valuable learning skills and oral communication skills. The role of the lecturer is to facilitate and direct the process in order to keep the students focused on their common goal, namely the development and improvement of speaking skills in English as a foreign language.



Drinova, R. (2006). Deynosti i zadachi v obuchenieto po chuzhdi ezitsi. Sofiya, Chuzhdoezikovo obuchenie, Number 3. [Дринова, Р. (2006). Дейности и задачи в обучението по чужди езици. София, сп. „Чуждоезиково обучение”, кн. 3]

Hadjikoteva, M. (2017). Challenging Academic Presentations. Balti, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing

Hadjikoteva, M. (2015). Challenging Academic Presentations. Journal of English Studies at NBU, Volume 1, Issue 1. Sofia, NBU

Harmer (1991). Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. London and New York, Longman

Shopov, T. (2008). SAVREMENNITE EZITSI: podhodi, planove, protseduri. Blagoevgrad, Mezhdunarodno visshe biznes uchilishte [Шопов, Т. (2008). СЪВРЕМЕННИТЕ ЕЗИЦИ: подходи, планове, процедури. Благоевград, Международно висше бизнес училище]

Stoycheva, D. (2007). Deynostno-orientirano obuchenie po chuzhd ezik. In: Kiryakova, I. (sast.) „Slovoto – klasichesko i novo”. Yubileyna konferentsiya na FKNF, 2005 g. Tom 2. Sofiya, Universitetsko izdatelstvo „Sv. Kliment Ohridski”. [Стойчева, Д. (2007). Дейностно-ориентирано обучение по чужд език. В: Кирякова, И. (съст.) „Словото – класическо и ново”. Юбилейна конференция на ФКНФ, 2005 г. Том 2. София, Университетско издателство „Св. Климент Охридски”]


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