Teaching English Remotely

Here a guest post from Justine Thomas on how she teaches English as a second language:

Teaching English as a second language to people from different countries via Skype is a lot of fun and seeing that your students understand and work at lessons is a real pleasure. Your students will like you and everything you say will catch their attention, simply because you are so alien (hence, interesting) to them. Speaking about teaching on Skype, I would like to mention its advantages over teaching in-class: since you’re not a school teacher to discipline students, you will never be hated, which is a great help for building a good rapport. Also, as a Skype tutor, you’ll plan all the lessons and activities yourself and you will be free to change the strategy or a program due to the student’s needs. However, there are certain pitfalls that might trap both beginner and experienced teachers – there is no guarantee for the smooth connection, excellent understanding (especially if you do not know student’s native language) and other thing like this. And if with the technical aspects you can deal simply by setting your computers properly, I would like to talk more about the issues, which cannot be “fixed” in a couple of minutes.

1. Understanding.
The most important thing, let’s say, a corner stone in the building a communication with your students will be your advertency and openness to intercultural dialogue. You should keep in mind that different cultures approach to teacher-student relations in a different ways, for example, if in the Western countries a teacher and a student are partners of the educational process, in Eastern Asian countries they would never be equalized. Teaching language to foreigners is inseparably connected with culture and social aspects, so you should pay utmost attention to the student’s background. When I taught English to girls from Spain, I realized it is totally okay for them to treat a teacher as their senior friend; I was rather a mentor than an actual teacher, we played together and chatted about all the stuff the girls could chat about. The point is that to a Western non-native speaker of English a second language can become a convenient extension with a very little cultural interference because of many similarities. To Asian students, English as a second language will bring not only new speaking patterns, but also a huge cultural layer, including body language and gestures. For example, showing a “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” in front of Japanese class may cause a tear burst, because a “thumb down” is considered as an extremely rude and accusing gesture. Thus at the ESL classes, a teacher should give more thought to how these subtle signs are used so that the learner enhances the skills without being overwhelmed or offended.
And this gradually flows into….

2. Behavior
In a class, foreign students usually show special obedience and politeness, they always try to do their homework and rarely disturb other classmates or ask questions. However, during the Skype lessons (both individual and group) it could become a real trouble, because you are limited in the means of communication and time and need a direct response. In some cultures (for example, Japanese), an outgoing participation in the class activities is a form of “boasting” and might be really embarrassing for them. They believe their job is to memorize the things the teacher says and they simply repeat that when needed, but repeating English and speaking English are totally different things. Of course, paying special attention and encouraging students to participate more freely is a good idea, but yet might not be efficient enough due to the lack of time. At my Skype lessons with Japanese students I found that drawing and co-working through Google Documents is a better option. You see the progress of all of your students and do not have to point the most shy kids out. Besides, creating common mind-maps has been proven as a great method for visualizing. Aside of social behavior, you as a Skype teacher, should pay attention to the linguistic peculiarities of your students.

3. Speaking and Spelling
The first step in teaching foreign students correct pronunciation is to help them realize that English has different sounds than their native language, even if some sound similar. Most students simply substitute “hard” English sounds with close of their language. You should help them understand that there is a difference and incorrect producing of the sound could change the meaning of words. A good way for you would be to learn at least basic patterns of your student’s language to get the image of the language and be able to point on the differences. Aside the recorded audios and pronunciation exercises, an effective tool to teach spelling to students has always been flashcards. However, you will have to adapt this to your Skype lessons. I suggested my students to work on the flashcards together – we cut out the shapes and then painted them, naming colors and patterns. Hence, we not only prepared our tools, but also learned new vocabulary. Another convenient activity may be a “stripped essays”. You send a mixed text to your student and ask to cut that in lines, which, in future, should build up a logical story. This is a simple and quite popular exercise, and performed in the “offline” way it will add more “reality” to your virtual lessons. Teaching students on-site includes personal contact, such as shaking hands or winking or smiling and other small gestures. In online communication this part falls out, so it should be substituted with at least named “kinesthetic” activities.

Justine Thomas is an ESL tutor, passionate about creative teaching and psychology. Her hobby is everything connected with language and writing. Justine is a contributing blogger to Edubirdie.com.

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