ELT at Pandemic Times – Making Impossible Possible
Sujani Balasooriya is a senior lecturer at Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technological Education (SLIATE). She is interested in teaching the English language to adult learners at the intermediate proficiency level. Her research interests are on trends in ELT and teacher education. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Teaching the English language is a challenging task. The gravity of the task heightens when the teacher encounters disturbances external to the teaching process. The purpose of this piece of writing is to see how English language instructors and teachers can succeed in facing the challenge of teaching language during the Covid -19 pandemic. Some common issues related to teaching language online are addressed here.
Teaching the English language is treated with care in most countries including Sri Lanka where English is not the native language. With the gradual rise of the need to learn the language, English language education was systematized and was considered in language policy preparation, compilation of course curriculums, and implementation of language policies, etc. The intention is to equip the young generation with the proficiency of the language that makes them competent in the English language. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation of ELT underwent drastic changes. All the educational institutes throughout the world were shut and many started teaching online. This is a situation where the educational policies related to such an unexpected outbreak have not been defined previously. In keeping with health guidelines imposed during the Covid-19 outbreak, online education became commonplace among academicians, teachers, and students. The presumptions that promoted teaching online were the easy accessibility from any place, low cost compared to the maintenance and infrastructure expenditure in conducting face to face teaching sessions, being free of traditional barriers such as age limit, parental support to the pupil during teaching sessions, getting familiar with technology through exposure, flexibility in arranging/changing schedules, and above all, the certification of safety granted by online sessions.
Nevertheless, this favorable image of online education has by now crashed with a lot of criticisms from several parties involved in the teaching-learning process. Online education is reproached by many pointing at several issues from different perspectives. Among the general issues that can affect the education of any discipline, technology-based difficulties come in the first place. Connectivity problems during online lessons are a much-complained issue by many learners and teachers (especially during classes via zoom, google meet, teams, etc.) and disturbances due to external distractions such as noise. Also, lack of awareness on technology in using devices and relevant software has been observed to be an additional hindrance to the smooth teaching and learning process online. From a medical perspective, too much exposure to the screen can lead to long-term audio and visual defects in kids.
When it comes to talking about ELT, teaching and learning online have caused a huge difference in the arena. Everything done during face-to-face sessions was transformed into online sessions. This change was not wholeheartedly welcome due to the notion that language learning can never be compatible with remote teaching. There are fair reasons for this view. It is a common belief that a language can be learned through exposure and interaction. These two elements are addressed in planning curriculums and designing course materials too. But according to the common observation, these essential components are absent in online language learning. Some reasons lead to this notion. In the first place, it is observed that the interaction between teacher and pupil is not possible during online teaching sessions. For an effective interaction to take place, everybody in the session should feel the presence of others, which can be achieved through the maintenance of eye contact and body language with facial expressions. The complaint is that none of these can be practiced online. As a result, the teacher loses several advantages that can otherwise be achieved in a face-to-face session such as recognizing weak pupils, making the lesson interesting to the pupils, arousing curiosity, providing the pupils with exposure to the language, etc. Also, monitoring difficulty is another problem during language teaching. The teacher cannot act as a monitor in checking the pupils’ works. The main reason is that the pupils do not have close physical proximity to the teacher. Inability to provide/receive feedback is a resulting deterrent from the teacher’s end when the pupils find it difficult to always ask for clarification. Consequently, they may end up either with stuff that is not understood or a feeling of laziness caused by constant listening and watching the screen (although the lesson could be comprehensible). Another complaint against online language teaching is that there is no distribution of authority in the class. The authority is always with the teacher that negatively affects the critical thinking ability of the pupil.
With all these issues, it is still possible to make the impossible possible! There are ways and means to convert the unfavorable conditions favorable in ELT online. The major drawback of creating interaction can never be a challenge to the EL teachers when the online medium is used properly. A task-based approach is recommended to be effective in generating interaction among pupils and between teacher and pupils. After the particular online medium is decided by the teacher for the lesson (zoom, teams, meet, etc.) and the sessions start, it is necessary to maintain communication with the pupils either via a social media group or an online discussion forum, that runs parallel to the lessons. Also, the teacher can use the chatbox available in many online meeting software for this purpose. Compatible with the topic of the language lesson, it is advantageous to set a goal for the pupils at the commencement of the lesson so that their concentration driven by the need lasts throughout the teacher’s oral delivery. The best method is to follow a task-based approach in getting the pupils to achieve the prior-set target. The teacher can design group activities allowing the pupils to gather facts, discuss and synthesize the findings on their own using distant methods of communication. The findings can be presented during the teaching session itself where the teacher can act as a facilitator. This guarantees healthy interaction among the pupils. Further, the teacher can distribute the authority among the pupils by screen sharing and appointing co-hosts during the performance. During pupils’ performance, it is good to have the video on that can make the pupils feel live. Teachers can promote the pupils to have a real picture of their own as the DP (Display Picture) when they work during the online session with the video off. All these minor tasks can add to creating a feeling of involvement and contribution to the work going on online.
During pronunciation practice, the teacher can make the best use of online media. Pronunciation of certain vowels and consonants cannot be audible to the pupils in a classroom. But, the teacher can help improve the pronunciation of pupils with the use of headphones, and the effect generated with headphones is far better than natural voice. This is more advantageous than a face-to-face session concerning clarity and audibility.
The teacher can be a good monitor in online sessions maintaining close virtual proximity with her pupils. She needs to be responsive to the pupils’ inquiries not only during the lesson but even during other times. Making the pupils aware of the convenient times when she is available for inquiries and clarifications can add much value to her role as a helper and monitor, even if face-to-face meet-ups are not possible. Posting and replying in discussion forums and social media groups can convince the pupils that the teacher is approachable to them. Teachers can think of ways to assign the pupils with works to be assessed via online platforms such as google classroom, google forms, etc. There is a higher degree of possibility in providing feedback through these media. This can primarily enhance the pupils’ interest in the lesson, need to score marks, and ultimately their language skills together with the self-study ability. Assessment via online platforms is a sure way to build up the confidence too of the pupils in their capability.
Apart from all these, teachers can reap the best harvest out of their pupils in online education with many other practical assets. They can make maximum use of the feature that online teaching best suits with theory discussions. In language teaching, it is required for the pupil to obtain a sound knowledge of grammar. It is necessary to teach them grammar before the practice stage. And also, an explanation of a reading extract and some theoretical explanations on different writing styles require the presentation of facts through the teacher’s oral delivery. This can be satisfied via online teaching as a lot of facts can be passed to the pupils within a short time, which can take comparatively a longer duration in face-to-face sessions. If the teacher is smart enough to grip the attention of the pupils throughout the session, the productivity of the session can by no means be compared with an equivalent face-to-face session.
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