Finding Language Development Opportunities During Distance Learning

by Tina Beene

Whether you’ve been an educator for four decades or five minutes, you’ve never had a start to the year quite like this. As unbelievable as it may seem, at this point in time we cannot say with certainty what form the school day will take when we return, nor what the school year will bring in the months that follow. Given this, it may be worth taking a moment to acknowledge how this ambiguity may be affecting both you and your future students. Maybe you’re sleeping more or less, or you may already be having back-to-school nightmares. I’m used to being on the road during this time, and I find myself constantly waking up in a panic from a nightmare about missing a flight, or showing up to a training prepared for the wrong topic or dressed inappropriately. It’s exhausting! All of this uncertainty can bring about anxiety, so please give yourself some grace for whatever you are feeling about the upcoming academic year. And when you can, try to find the positives — however meager they may seem. 

While educators are often lauded for our flexibility and adaptability — praise that is certainly earned — we also rely on a foundation of routines and structures to make those adjustments possible. This year, we may not always be able to depend on the daily bell schedule or monthly calendar for our structure. With those routines no longer guaranteed, instructional consistency will become paramount. That’s why, as we consider approaches, strategies, and resources for implementation in the 2020-21 school year, it is essential to prioritize practices that transition most easily from in-person to remote learning and from synchronous to asynchronous timetables for completion. Within those instructional frameworks, we can offer students a small semblance of routine that can be incredibly comforting. And if we play our cards right, we can also leverage these remote activities to build academic language. 

As we ramp up for whatever lies ahead, it can be beneficial to focus on the opportunities alongside the challenges. The first time this happened for me was during a colleague’s webinar during the first weeks of distance learning. I was apprehensive about my own upcoming session and listening as much for presentation tips as I was for content when I realized how authentic the opportunities for language practice were for session participants. Between the sentence stems, response signals, chat responses, and written responses that served as our own notes, we were all responsible for communicative output throughout the session. This could be beneficial for some students, I thought, who don’t always volunteer to share. That was the first positive thought I had about this whole mess (several weeks in, did I mention?) but it seemed to pave the way for others. Soon I found myself reflecting on several different ways that distance learning encourages language development and feeling just a little better for just a little while — and sometimes that’s enough to keep us going. So in that spirit, here are three positive aspects to the absolute quagmire that is distance learning. 

  1. Additional processing time promotes higher quality responses. Lord love ’em, every classroom in America contains at least one blurter-outer who can’t even wait for their thoughts to fully form before sharing with the rest of their learning community. Sometimes, it’s a “eureka” level contribution that astounds with its astuteness. Most of the time, though, it’s a half-baked idea that could have benefited from a few more moments of internal pondering before being expressed. In an asynchronous environment, the student has a window of time to respond in written or spoken form. A packet for written responses, an online assignment, or a recorded video response all provide built-in time for reflection as students transfer their thoughts into expressive language. Not only do the learner and the audience benefit in the moment from the additional thinking time the format provides, but evidence of the learner’s expanding understanding is preserved in the written or spoken submissions. 
  2. Flying under the radar is no longer an option. Students can’t hide behind a more gregarious group member or fake a bathroom emergency to avoid sharing in distance learning environments. For students who have become stuck between intermediate and advanced proficiency, this additional “forced” practice may be the impetus needed to finally propel them forward. More reluctant students may come to life in collaborative Google Docs or with their faces hidden behind an emoji mask during a Flipgrid video. And once we get them talking, they might just find they have quite a lot to say. 
  3. Several barriers common to voluntary language practice have been removed. The power of fear to deter linguistic risk-taking can’t be overstated. Fear of speaking incorrectly or with an accent (Soapbox sidebar: I don’t know who first said “accents are the sound of courage,” and I’m not going to stop writing to Google it because I’m kind of in the zone here, but that person was right, and we need to shout it from the rooftops.), fear of making a content-related mistake, and even just fear of being seen are all reasons students use every day to avoid speaking up or out. When the element of on-the-spot peer-review is removed, some students may find themselves better able to express their unique thoughts and opinions. Making adequate and intentional space for their voices leads to a richer overall classroom chorus from which we all benefit. 

There’s a lot about our current reality — academic and otherwise — that frankly isn’t great. Taking a moment to focus on the opportunities it presents can be helpful for retaining some semblance of sanity. By being intentional in our instructional selections and focusing on practices that we feel comfortable implementing in both in-person and remote formats, we can offer students some essential structure during a chaotic time. Implementing those practices with grace for adults and students alike just might be the key to maximizing your own mental health while minimizing the number of back-to-school nightmares you endure.

Godspeed and sweet dreams, educators. You’re doing a wonderful job.  

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