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You are here: Home > Online Articles > Helping ESL Students Transition from Virtual to Face-to-Face Classes



Helping ESL Students Transition from Virtual to Face-to-Face Classes

By Bonnie Billak


Now that schools are reopening, special attention needs to be focused on ESL students to ensure that the transition from virtual to face-to-face classes is a smooth one. In the case of language learners, emotional as well as psychological factors play a key role in their learning. How you teach is as important as what you teach. Following are some key areas to keep in mind in order to ensure that you have happy and successful ESL students.

After months of virtual classes, students have become accustomed to being at home with parents. Now, they suddenly find themselves in classrooms with many other students both ESL learners as well as native speakers. This can cause them to become nervous and self-conscious. At home they may have had an abundance of assistance from parents, so now they feel all alone in a vaguely familiar classroom setting. This may result in lack of both motivation, participation, and especially in lack of risk taking—an important element of language learning. They may feel inferior to other students in the class due to their lower English proficiency levels and may fear ridicule from their classmates because of this.

To lower anxiety levels, teachers should make sure that their own demeanor is cheerful, easygoing, and non-stressful. This will set the stage for learning. To further lessen stress levels, each lesson should start with a brief outline stating what will take place in the lesson, i.e., writing activity, reading, game, etc. This will help to eliminate student stress related to uncertainty regarding what might happen during the lesson and/or what students might be asked to do. Also, rules related to COVID, such as social distancing, use of masks, etc., should be explained in a very visual manner so that even students with very low English language proficiency levels can understand them.

Teachers should also strive to develop lessons with activities focusing on various learning styles, i.e., visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. By switching from learning style to learning style after short intervals, you can grab the attention of many students. It also helps build up student tolerance levels for activities that seem stressful and too difficult when based on learning styles outside their comfort zones. Learners are more likely to participate if they feel that you will be changing to a learning style more to their liking in a few minutes rather than having to endure a whole lesson based on a learning style far from their realm of comfort.

Most of all, students should be praised often to build self-esteem and self-confidence. Often a teacher will feel the student is doing fine, whereas the student believes he/she is not doing very well. This happens often with students at very low English proficiency levels. Mark their work with happy faces or use other symbols to physically show and convince them that you think they are doing well.

It’s also quite effective to end each class with a fun game or activity based on the day’s lesson or on language development in general—for example, a 10-15 minute activity. This will serve as a time for students to de-stress before returning to their regular classrooms. It will also help to build team work and a sense of community in the classroom, two very important factors in the learning process for all students.

Teachers should also keep an eye out for social/emotional behaviors that may need attention due to the transition from virtual to face-to-face classes. Recent research is showing that the transition back to regular classroom classes is proving to be very stressful for many students, not just ESL students.

Perhaps a first-day-back activity in which students express their feelings about returning to school will help to identify students needing extra attention. The activity can take the form of a class discussion, journal writing, or even a drawing to be shared with the class. Perhaps the school counselor or psychologist can be invited to the class to discuss stressful areas repeatedly expressed during the classroom activity.

With a bit of special attention and fine tuning, the transition from virtual to face-to-face classes should go smoothly. However, it’s important to keep in mind that in the case of ESL students there are often elements in the picture that may require extra attention for academic as well as social and emotional reasons.

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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