Being asked to teach an ESL course online is a daunting task for many instructors. The challenges for individual attention in teaching ESL classes in the traditional setting are compounded when the process is transferred to the virtual arena. How will students receive the necessary individual attention they require when there isn't a physical place where students and instructors regularly meet?
In reality, the online format may be a superior medium in which to address the needs of ESL students because all ESL students need to read and write in English as much as possible to develop proficiency. Because of the nature of online coursework, students are required to do much more reading and writing than in the traditional classroom. Also, instructors can utilize chat rooms to create more intimate settings where students can receive focused and individualized instruction.
Email, Internet forums, and chat rooms can be very useful tools when teaching an ESL course online.
Email is an essential component of an online ESL class. Students who enroll in an online class need to check their email several times a day so they don't miss important messages and announcements.
Most email programs allow users to create groups of email addresses. Early in the semester, the instructor should send the entire class an email with instructions on how to save the class email list as a group in the address book of the student's email client. As the semester goes on, students can then easily send email messages to the entire class.
One of the most useful online tools to teach an ESL course online is the Internet forum. Internet forums have been prominent on the World Wide Web since its earliest days and have been referred to by many names such as bulletin boards, message boards, or web-based discussion boards. Internet forums are a great way for an educator to create a sense of classroom community within the virtual online environment.
Internet forums function like real-world forums in many ways. Typically, a forum will have an administrator who functions as the moderator. In the online classroom setting, the moderator is logically the course's instructor. The students in the class create usernames that they use to log into the forum. In more full featured software, students are able to create avatars, or virtual representations of themselves, that are connected to their usernames.
Instructors typically start discussion prompts that students then reply to, although students can also be asked to start discussions. Discussion prompts can be responses to readings, topic proposals for papers, or reflections on writing assignments. In addition to responding to the initial prompt, students can reply to the responses of other students creating an organic, multi-dimensional discussion where ideas are freely exchanged.
Chat rooms are virtual meeting places where people can meet to send text messages and images back and forth in real time. Chat rooms are another powerful tool for the instructor who has chosen to teach an ESL course online.
Much in the same way students create usernames to log into Internet forums, usernames or screen names are also created as a form of identification in chat rooms. To conduct a lesson in a chat room, an instructor needs to first establish a time when students are to meet in that room. The instructor will typically serve as the moderator of the chat session, helping conduct the discussion in a clear, sensible manner.
Because of the nature of chat room communication, chat sessions typically benefit by having a smaller number of participants. If 20 people are freely typing at the same time, ideas and discussions quickly become disjointed and confusing. Instructors should consider holding several chat room sessions during the semester and rotating students through the sessions in smaller groups of four or five. In this way students can participate in more intimate discussions, and the communication medium is less likely to break down.
Chat room features are included in many education-based online applications, but free online chat rooms are readily available. The oldest and still popular from of online chat is Internet Relay Chat, or IRC.
Newer, more sophisticated software allows for the use of web cams in chat rooms, so users can see each other extending the feeling of community even further than in text only chat sessions.
Modern students write more in their personal lives than any other generation that has come before them. From cell phone text messages, to instant messaging, to Facebook comments, both ESL and native English students are more proficient at written communication than most give them credit for.
Because of these recent technological advancements, many of today's students are more comfortable in online settings than in real world environments. While this may be foreign to older generations, educators can use this to their advantage when teaching online ESL courses. By incorporating more informal types of writing like discussion posts and chat room sessions, ESL students can practice their English reading and writing skills in familiar settings with less of the formal pressures associated with traditional classroom writing.
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