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Masked Challenges of Language Learning

By Bonnie Billak
Masked Challenges of Language Learning

Photo by Aditya Saxena on Unsplash

In this time of COVID-19, face masks have become an important part of our everyday life. As schools start to reopen for in-person classes, the use of masks becomes critical in order to keep both teachers and students healthy. However, their use also presents various, and sometimes not-so-obvious, challenges for ESL students, thus prompting the need for teachers to alter their teaching methods to ensure that students experience maximum success.

Many people may not be aware that much of language learning and comprehension is based on visual perception of facial body language. This is lost when the faces of teachers and students are covered with masks. The students cannot see if the speaker is smiling, frowning, etc. Therefore, students need to be taught to gauge responses by using other body language signs, i.e. is the forehead wrinkled thus showing anger? Are the eyes glinting with mischief? Does the tone of voice of the speaker give hints or the tenseness or playfulness of the person’s body? All students in a classroom can benefit from varied classroom activities to teach these new “sensing” skills.

In addition, clarity of speech may be muffled by the masks, thus creating comprehension challenges for both teachers and students. Therefore, both classroom and ESL teachers need to take care to speak as clearly as possible. Pronunciation corrections may also be an issue, since it will be impossible to visually show students proper placement of the tongue when making certain sounds due to the mask blocking vision of the mouth. Alternative methods need to be used to help in this regard. A puppet or stuffed animal with a tongue can serve as a fun and effective way to demonstrate tongue positions.

From a social/emotional standpoint, teachers need to be extra sensitive and on-guard regarding the emotional state of the students throughout the day. With faces covered by masks, it is difficult to immediately see that a student is in emotional distress or having trouble making friends. Without realizing it, our choices as to whom we approach for friendship, assistance, or other needs are made through our impressions about them largely based on facial expressions—whether, for example, the people look friendly, approachable, etc. Since creating the feel of a “community of learners” in the classroom is so important for making students feel secure and willing to take risks as language learners, it’s imperative that they be taught that there are ways to get to know their classmates even with everyone wearing masks.

ESL students already face huge challenges in schools. However, it’s amazing how quickly they find ways to communicate and often learn the language even faster than expected. Therefore, with just a little preplanning and understanding on the part of teachers, ESL students will find ways to overcome the facial mask challenges as well.

Bonnie Billak holds a Master’s degree in ESL/Bilingual Education. She has more than 20 years of ESL teaching experience and also does consulting work in the field of ESL teaching, program design, and evaluation.

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