When endeavouring to develop students’ English language skills, building confidence in their pre-existing abilities is a key consideration. This in turn goes to build a stronger foundation onto which they can further develop their vocabulary, fluency and comprehension skills.
Structured conversations help language learning
Within courses aimed at language development, small (i.e. 4-5 students) group discussions can prove instrumental. Such discussion groups can be given guidance in the form of subjects to discuss, as well as end objectives to be achieved (i.e. specific questions to be asked and answered or conclusions to be shared). This structured support can help to shift the focus away from the fact that the participants are speaking in English.
Light and interesting conversation topics encourage students to engage in group discussions. Such topics also break down students´ personal self-critical language barrier.
Traditionally, discussions have taken place during lessons in the classroom. However, during the pandemic time when teaching moved to online environments, the environments in which the discussions took place were very different. For example, when using Zoom, virtual breakout rooms offered controlled and insulated experiences only for the specific conversation group members, and other students were completely excluded.
Online discussions offer a sense of security and better focus
Looking at feedback from students of English language-centred courses we can see, that students consider online environment discussions to be less intimidating than conversations in classrooms.
Students have felt less self-conscious, as they are interacting with a small number of participants in the discussion group. Within such quieter environments, they have also found it easier to focus.
Consequently, they have felt that they have been able to build their confidence sufficiently over a matter of weeks within a course, feeling better prepared to enter into face-to-face discussions. Additionally, creating online discussions have allowed students to develop skills necessary for online business meeting situations.
Interactions within groups can be challenging online because we can only see each other’s head or shoulders, or sometimes just a series of names. Knowing when to respond or interrupt, or in perceiving how others are reacting to specific comments, etc. can be sometimes challenging. With time however, it is possible to better visually read other participants, as well as be more expressive through for example, one’s own facial expressions, head movements and hand gestures.
Combining online and in-class experiences provides optimal support
Online discussions are not a substitute for face-to-face interaction. They can however, prove instrumental in building confidence in language skills. Therefore, online conversations are suitable at the beginning of a course. The discussions can then later progress to the classroom environment, when the students’ language skills have improved, and they are more confident.
When we consider different teaching methods, such as classroom teaching, online or hybrid teaching, we should be mindful of their benefits in further facilitating students’ learning and developmental paths (and perhaps even expanding them). Using combinations of both online and in-class experiences, we can potentially provide the optimal environments to fully guide and support our students in their developmental journeys.