Having recently qualified to teach English as a foreign language and being unable to teach abroad due to travel restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, I volunteered my services to Action West London, a charity who have been providing English language courses since 1998 for members of the community for whom English is a second language. I spoke about the learning assistance I was giving to my 5-year-old nephew in the US online and was asked if I would be willing to tutor in predominantly maths and English to the Year 1 children of the parents who were currently learning with Action West London. Once lockdown began, it was clear that these children, whilst receiving home learning activities and resources from their schools, were inevitably missing some of the teacher contact they would have in normal times.
To prepare myself for online learning I took an extremely helpful course from Cambridge Assessment English on Teaching English Online, accessed via FutureLearn. I was issued, by Action West London, with a set of safeguarding guidelines covering online safety. Choosing Zoom as a platform for learning made the most sense because of ease of access, password protection and the ability to ‘lock’ the classroom and share my screen with the learners. Whilst there had been initial concerns in the world of education regarding its use, Zoom responded to the issues raised and tightened its security, adding additional features including the locking of rooms (see Children’s Commissioner, 2020).
I use physical wipe-clean boards to support my lesson plans and instruction. Being able to respond ‘in the moment’ allows me to focus on the areas where the students need most support, rather than sticking rigidly to worksheets. I use them constantly for breaking down and building up vocabulary with the students. The biggest challenge I have faced has been around ensuring that every session has engaging content and is pitched at a level that appeals to all learners. I have used various methods to achieve this, including the use of different characters, taking them to virtual pizza and ice cream parlours and holding birthday parties whilst teaching fractions, and with no worksheets!
With the share screen facility, we have been able to read books online – slideshare.net has useful resources so that you can turn the pages as you go, enabling me to model and discuss effective reading practices. We have watched videos and shared quiz questions, creating a collaborative learning culture. As my group is young, I have made the use of age-appropriate technology, my colleagues with older children have used breakout rooms to set tasks, send students off in small groups into a ‘room’ and then bring them back for group discussions.
Maintaining discipline has been greatly helped by the implementation of a basic set of classroom rules, laid out at the first meeting. This initial meeting also looked to establish a needs analysis of the learners, which then informed the production of lesson plans. Retrieval practices and repetition have been useful to consolidate learning (Picardo, 2020). I start each lesson with a five-minute review of the last, which quickly tells me which children had remembered key points from the previous lesson and enables me to focus my attention where it’s needed before moving on to new material.
Each week, we meet online as a team of teachers and review each week’s challenges and celebrate successes. For me, this interaction has been an important part of teaching online. I learn much from my fellow teachers and will be implementing their ideas of end of term quizzes, certificates and general celebrations once term ends.
The experience of transitioning to online learning has taught me some valuable lessons. First, to keep it simple and be adaptable. If a physical wipe-clean board is getting the message across clearly, there is no need for handouts and presentations. Be prepared to deviate. If your learners are losing focus, a short, simple game or fun seated activity can bring them back to you with minimum interruption to the day’s lesson plan. Secondly, don’t be afraid to be firm (but fair) with young learners, even with the parents present – you must be in control of the classroom. Do not drop your expectations of your learners simply because you are online. Stop the learning if necessary, tell them to sit up straight, make eye contact, remind them of your expectations, and repeat as required! I will definitely take the ‘keep it simple’ lesson back into the classroom. Ironically, as this has been learnt from teaching online, I’ve realised that with a well thought out lesson plan, you do not need to be reliant on technology (video clips, worksheets on projectors and so on) to deliver the lesson effectively.
I can see online learning becoming a way in which schools can better assist disadvantaged learners. This could be, for example, via online homework sessions with a teaching assistant (TA) – this could involve a 30-minute one-on-one online reading session where both the TA and child are in their own homes. I believe that, following the lessons learned from lockdown and the shift to online instruction, learning will become more flexible in the future, beyond the traditional boundaries of the school gate. This will not be the last pandemic we see in our lifetime – we must be ready for the next.
Children’s Commissioner (2020) Keeping virtual classrooms safe online. Available at: https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/coronavirus/keeping-classrooms-safe-online/ (accessed 12 June 2020).
Picardo J (2020) Using online quizzes to check and build understanding . Available at: https://my.chartered.college/2020/03/using-online-quizzes-to-check-and-build-understanding/ (accessed 12 June 2020).