TESOL Connections

Humor in ELT (Part 3): Online Teaching Techniques

by John Rucynski

In this final article in the three-part series on teaching humor to multilingual language learners, learn about challenges and strategies in teaching humor when your classroom is virtual. Easily adaptable classroom activities help you bring laughter and understanding to your online class. 

From the spring of 2020 until the summer of 2021, all of my English classes were online. Even as I grew accustomed to this (for me) completely new teaching format, I also realized an integral part of the classroom experience was sorely missing: the sound of my students’ laughter. I thus found myself sadly nodding my head (and I know I wasn’t alone) when reading an article by Henderson (2021) in which he discussed the negative impact of online teaching on humor use. He argued that humor is more difficult to incorporate in the online format because of, among other reasons,

  • missed context cues,
  • poor audio or video connections, and
  • less contagious laughter.

In the classroom, humor is a powerful tool that teachers can turn to in order to lighten the atmosphere, make speaking in the target language less intimidating, and enhance the teaching of grammar or vocabulary. Though the spontaneous joking that helps to improve the atmosphere of traditional language classes is indeed much more challenging when you are speaking into your computer and looking at video thumbnails (of webcams which may or may not be on), it is not all bad news. Humor merely needs to be modified, not eliminated, when it comes to online teaching. Additionally, there are some advantages to the online format. The online teaching format can provide

  • a safe environment for experimenting with humor,
  • more time for learners to digest the humor, and
  • the opportunity to focus on the importance of how humor is used online (e.g., on social media).

In the third (and final) part of this series on humor in English language teaching (ELT), I introduce practical techniques that illustrate these three potential advantages of humor in online teaching. (Read Part 1 on the benefits, misconceptions, and risks of using humor in ELT, and Part 2 on classroom techniques.)

1. Online Teaching Provides a Safe Environment for Experimenting With Humor

Pomerantz and Bell (2011) argued that “engagement in spontaneous humorous performances can provide rich opportunities for language use and development, beyond those habitually found in more tightly controlled classrooms” (p. 157). Though I wholeheartedly embrace this approach, many of my students still hesitate to engage in humorous interaction in the classroom, either because they lack confidence or aren’t sure if the humor lacks appropriateness.

When I assigned my students to prepare and share prerecorded speaking videos for the class LMS in my online courses, I encouraged them to relax and have fun. A very pleasant surprise was that students actually incorporated humor into their speaking tasks more than in the traditional classroom. I had a number of “this probably wouldn’t happen in the regular classroom” moments. One of these occurred in a video presentation in which students had to design a themed tour of Japan for international tourists. One student chose natto (fermented soybeans infamous for its gooey, stringy texture and strong odor; see Image 1) as the focus of his tour. I have often advised my students that starting a presentation with humor is a great way to get the attention of the audience. Instead of yet another presentation starting with “My name is ____ and I will talk about ____,” this student opened a fresh package of natto, then demonstrated the gooey texture as he stretched the beans right up to the camera and explained the theme of his tour. He got my attention!

Image 1. Natto.

The great thing about this student’s use of humor is that it was contagious. Because they were mostly taking lessons from home, other students started incorporating humorous props into their speaking videos. As stressed in Part 1 of this series, humor should not only be teacher centered. Though the teacher may encourage the use of humor, it is often much more effective when it is learner initiated, as this inspires other students to include humor in their own speaking tasks. The important thing to remember about humor, however, is it should be used to enhance, and not replace, learning. The natto student got an A on his assignment because his humorous and attention-getting introduction was just one aspect of a high-quality presentation.

Though we may lose the contagious laughter in online teaching, classes like this one still featured a lot of (or even more!) humor. Additionally, in self- and peer evaluations, students wrote comments like, “Because I wasn’t in the classroom, it felt more natural to use humor” and “Other students’ funny videos cheered me up during COVID-19.”

2. Online Teaching Gives Learners More Time to Digest the Humor

Humor can be a double-edged sword in the classroom. Some language instructors avoid using humor because they worry that it can be both motivating and demotivating—students who understand the humor benefit, but students who don’t understand the humor may lose confidence and feel frustrated. It takes a lot of time to get humor in a foreign language, and it should be a step-by-step process in the language teaching classroom.

One way to give learners more time to digest the humor is to create online humor “quizzes” (e.g., on Google Forms). One type of humor that works well with this approach is satirical news. As explained in Part 2 of this series, humor instruction works best when it has value beyond just a laugh. A deeper understanding of English satirical news helps multilingual language learners (MLLs) to improve their

  • digital literacy (e.g., understand the types of humor that are shared on social media),
  • media literacy (e.g., differentiate between real and “fake” news), and
  • understanding of English-speaking cultures (e.g., get insights into how humor is used to critique contemporary issues).

You can create an out-of-class online quiz that mixes satirical news headlines with real (but offbeat) news headlines. Students complete a Likert-style survey in which they rank each item from 1 (definitely satirical news) to 6 (definitely real news). Sample items I have used before include the following:

  1. Namco unveils potato chip-flavored cola (real news: Sora News 24)

  2. Teen boasts of drunken driving on Facebook, arrested (real news: CNET)

  3. Study Reveals: Babies are Stupid (satirical news: The Onion)

  4. BREAKING NEWS: Husband Cooks for Wife (satirical news: The Rising Wasabi)

See the full quiz, which I created in Google Forms for my students in Japan (answer key here). Doing this humor quiz online takes away the pressure of having trouble understanding this form of humor. Though students may need to enter their name, student number, or alias to get credit for the assignment, their classmates cannot see their answers.

Whether teaching face-to-face or online, you should provide guidance to help learners better detect and comprehend satirical news. Simple tips that can help to differentiate satirical news items from real news items include

  • rhetorical cues (e.g., not newsworthy, absurd situations) and
  • linguistic cues (e.g., informal style, more nouns in the title).

After providing humor construction on detecting satirical news, I highly recommend giving a second quiz featuring new items. In previous research I did with Caleb Prichard (Prichard & Rucynski, 2019), students were able to significantly improve their ability to detect satirical news after just one class period devoted to humor instruction.

3. Online Teaching Provides an Opportunity to Focus on How Humor Is Used Online

As I have stressed in this three-part series, a deeper understanding of the humor of the target culture(s) is an integral component of cross-cultural communicative competence. However, this includes both humor that takes place in face-to-face communication and online communication. Social media and other Web 2.0 platforms provide countless free opportunities for MLLs to develop their English language skills, but the frequent use of humor by users can impede language learners’ ability to fully comprehend some content.

In Part 2 of this series, I explained the importance of understanding verbal irony in intercultural communication. However, detecting and comprehending online ironic statements (e.g., sarcastic comments on social media or other platforms) is equally important because

  • irony is frequently used on such platforms,
  • cues to normally detect irony are missing (e.g., verbal and nonverbal cues), and
  • a lack of understanding of ironic statements can lead to embarrassment or misunderstandings.

With regards to cues for detecting irony, we have all likely had frustrating experiences when reading an email message or Facebook comment and not being completely sure whether the other person is serious or joking. Decoding whether written language is ironic or sincere is even more challenging when reading in a foreign language.

As an introduction to helping learners detect true intent, prepare easy examples with visual support and task learners with differentiating between ironic and sincere comments. Again, learners can do the activities anonymously using online tools such as Google Forms or a class LMS. You can even use the same “model” for multiple examples, such as with my family’s dog Ziva, shown here in Images 2 and 3:

Image 2. Good Ziva.

Image 3. Naughty Ziva.

Though verbal (e.g., exaggerated intonation, flat tone) and nonverbal (e.g., winking, rolling eyes) cues are missing in online ironic comments, different cues are available. In another study I conducted with Prichard (Prichard & Rucynski, 2022), we shared some tips with learners, including the following:


/s = sarcasm

BiG aND sMalL lEtTeRs = sarcasm

Emoji and comment do not match ("I love rainy days...") = sarcasm

Laughing emoji  or LOL does not always mean sarcasm.

Stressing a word (CAPS). ("I TOOOTALLY love natto.") = maybe sarcasm

If a person says something very different than you expect = maybe sarcasm

It is important to stress that some cues only sometimes mean irony or sarcasm. For example, the laughing emoji could follow either an ironic comment or a humorous, sincere comment. After the simple cues (e.g., /s = sarcasm, BiG aND sMalL lEtTeRs = sarcasm), move on to more complex tasks like identifying incongruity, or detecting comments in a social media thread that do not seem logical. Create fictional threads (featuring either two or multiple commenters) and task learners with identifying whether the final comment is ironic or sincere. Here is an example:

Thread 1

A: I have to take the TOEFL test this weekend!

B: Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll do great! [ironic / sincere]

Thread 2

A: I have to take the TOEFL test this weekend!

B: That sounds like a fun weekend. I envy you! [ironic / sincere]

As any MLL can tell you, Thread 2 features the ironic comment!

Again, designing this type of humor quiz online not only exposes MLLs to the types of ironic online comments they may encounter, but also provides an anonymous format to give learners the opportunity to practice detecting humor without potential embarrassment. Having all student answers on a platform such as Google Forms also makes it easy for you to track which types of humor are more challenging for your learners.


Although this part of the series focused on online teaching, these three advantages are important regardless of teaching format. Whether you are teaching face-to-face or online, it is important to provide a safe environment for learners to experiment with humor, give learners time to digest humor, and include a focus on how humor is used both in face-to-face communication and online. Though Henderson (2021) was certainly correct in arguing that using humor in online teaching does have some obstacles, I also agree with Anderson (2011) that using humor is still a way to “take the distance out of distance education” (p. 80).


Anderson, D. G. (2011). Taking the “distance” out of distance education: A humorous approach to online learning. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(1), 74–81.

Henderson, S. (2021, February 5). No joke: Using humor in class is harder when learning is remote. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/no-joke-using-humor-in-class-is-harder-when-learning-is-remote-153818

Pomerantz, A., & Bell, N. D. (2011). Humor as safe house in the foreign language classroom. The modern language journal, 95, 148–161. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01274.x

Prichard, C., & Rucynski Jr., J. (2019). Second language learners’ ability to detect satirical news and the effect of humor competency training. TESOL Journal, 10(1), e00366.https://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.366

Prichard, C., & Rucynski, J. (2022). L2 learners’ ability to recognize ironic online comments and the effect of instruction. System, 102733. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2022.102733

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John Rucynski has taught EFL/ESL in Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, and the United States. He is currently associate professor at Okayama University in Japan. His articles on humor in language teaching have been published in English Teaching Forum, HUMOR, and TESOL Journal. He has also edited New Ways in Teaching with Humor (TESOL Press) and (with Caleb Prichard) Bridging the Humor Barrier: Humor Competency Training in English Language Teaching (Rowman & Littlefield).

TESOL Board Connect: This Year, Graduation Ceremonies Are So Much More

by Shelley K. Taylor

TESOL President-Elect Shelley Taylor shares some of the challenges, transitions, and achievements experienced when the COVID-19 pandemic began, both for her personally and in her teaching context. She also talks about her teaching, her professional development, and her own learning—including virtually learning (another) new language while in relative isolation. 

What university holds 28 separate graduation ceremonies in a little over a month, and why would a TESOL board member happily attend three of them? In June, my university held two convocations a day for 9 days in a row, and then it held two a day for 5 more days in a row in July. I first participated as “orator” for my faculty and announced the names of graduates crossing the stage. Next, I attended one family member’s graduation in June, and another one’s graduation in July. Diplomas had already been sent out, but some students had had to wait 2 years for their graduation ceremony due to the university closure in mid-March 2020. Therefore, the reason why my university held so many graduations in short order this spring was to catch up on all those missed opportunities to celebrate loved ones’ successes by seeing them proudly walk across the stage. (And, in two of the three ceremonies I attended, service dogs crossed the stage as well!)

We have all faced life, work, and educational challenges since 11 March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Many of us can remember where we were when we heard the (surreal) news about upcoming work closures. I was in a meeting of Senate on 13 March 2020 when our university president told us to clear key things out of our offices because we would not be allowed back in them for the foreseeable future—and all teaching was going online. All of the senators’ jaws dropped, including mine.

The instant closure meant that for one course, I had to teach the last 2 weeks of Winter term using an online platform. We had already used that platform occasionally, so it did not involve a learning curve for the students or me. As for my other course, it was designed as an online course, and we had been using VoiceThread to satisfy an oral component anyway. Overall, finishing off the term totally online was not too disruptive.

The closures did wreak havoc with conferences, however. Having rotated off the TESOL Board of Directors the year before, I had jumped into being the local conference chair of the Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics’ (ACLA) 2020 conference with Program Chairs Dr. Francis Bangou (ACLA President) and Dr. Guillaume Gentil (ACLA Vice-President); they were from Ottawa and my university was hosting ACLA and Congress, of which ACLA was part. But after that fateful day in March, messages began swirling around email about conference cancellations: American Educational Research Association, American Association for Applied Linguistics, Congress (and ACLA), and, sadly, the annual TESOL convention.

Along with signing up as local conference chair for ACLA, I had also joined in a consortium of universities in my province to hold an on-site symposium so local professors and graduate students could meet and find out about related studies going on not so far away, but that they would never have known about otherwise. Dr. Enrica Piccardo was spearheading the consortium and, rather than cancel it, we ventured into shifting it to an online event.

Having just seen how the first wave of COVID-19 hit her Italian homeland, Enrica’s rallying cry was: “People need hope.” Therefore, we decided against cancelling the symposium. Hosting it online turned out to have a steep learning curve (Zoom-bombing, links that wouldn’t link, etc.), but at the end of the day it was a success because it provided a sense of community. TESOL also dusted itself off and took a giant leap of faith, offering its first fully online convention a few months later—also providing a much-needed sense of community.

Before everyone caught on to Zoom, I was able to catch up on work. Since I already had pets, there was no need to get a pandemic puppy, and I started learning a new language online, which, as it turned out, was me getting my just reward.

Previously, I had incorporated an online language learning component into a graduate course on language learning. My students endeavored to not only read about language learning, but to dip their toes into doing so themselves (using the online program of their choice). One criterion was that the target language not be in the same language family as any language(s) they already knew. Their assignments involved comparing their personal experiences to the sage advice of their readings. I thought the task would be easier for me because I had an online instructor via Zoom, and classmates that I could see and hear online. (Nobody kept their camera off).

I discovered, however, that learning synchronously and having “live” classmates sometimes placed me at a disadvantage. By learning a Gaelic language, I fulfilled the criterion that it not be related to any languages I had studied before (language families, orthographies, etc.). It had been a while since I had ventured off the deep end and exposed myself to a totally unknown language, but, still, I was not immersed or submersed in it; we just met synchronously on Zoom as a cohort with an instructor for a few hours a week. I began to fear the false beginners who would go “off script,” and leave we rank beginners in the dust as we clung onto our limited vocabulary and the few phrases we had learned.

I also experienced all the discomfort that metacognition (second language anxiety, the monitor model—read more about the monitor model here, p. 15) could throw my way; however, my biggest distress came from accidentally turning the camera of my iPad the wrong way and not noticing what was showing up in gallery view until there was no turning back. The horror! The horror! I kept emailing (uninvited) reflections on my learning process to a colleague that spoke the language I was learning, reflections sprinkled with: “It’s so hard!” and “How did you ever learn that language?” When I looked back on these messages later, I thought: “Ohhh, maybe I wasn’t dealing with total lockdown, masks, people dying, and fear as well as I thought I was.”

And yet, I was able to work from home. I did not lose my job, I did not end up in the hospital, and my short-lived discomfort with language learning did not interfere with my grasping the content of central topics. Neither was it crucial to my grade progression nor to my completing a degree. My thoughts turn to multilingual learners lacking a sufficient number of devices or connectivity at home, to colleagues in my university who had never ventured into online teaching before, and to elementary and secondary teachers who did not have the luxury of shifting their teaching onto familiar platforms or who sought to deliver all teaching on cell phones via WhatsApp. In my province, schools had already been closed for 26 weeks by the end of the 2020–2021 school year (Wadehra, 2021), and more closures followed right up to January 2022.

We are still in a process of catching up: catching up on content learning and teaching, on language and literacy development, and on important life events. Catching up on travelling (hence the bedlam in many airports); socializing; being able to see a doctor in person instead of over the telephone; attending weddings, sports events, and—heck—even standardized testing in person. And yet, even with all this playing of catch-up, now is a time for us in the TESOL community to celebrate our achievements.

Now is the time to listen to each other’s stories and support one another, and to walk across the metaphorical stage and celebrate—with our students, colleagues, friends, families, service pets and pandemic puppies or goldfish, as the case may be. We are nimble, we are here, and we are more international than ever. Yay, us!


Wadehra, R. (2021). The impact of school closures on Ontario students. Centre for Global Social Policy. https://cgsp-cpsm.ca/ceic/2021/07/05/theimpactofschoolclosures/

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Shelley K. Taylor, professor, teaches in the graduate TESOL/Applied Linguistics and Bachelor of Education program at the University of Western Ontario. She has conducted research on multilingual language education and language policy in Canada, Denmark, Greenland, and Nepal, and on youth refugees’ language and literacy learning. She has also chaired TESOL’s Bilingual-Multilingual Education Interest Section, served on the (former) nominating and professional development committees and the board of directors, and served as associate convention program chair for TESOL 2015, as well as contributing to numerous TESOL publications (as editor and author).

If We Must Label Language Learners: EL vs. MLL

by Raichle Farrelly
Words and labels matter, and one way to show up for underrepresented or marginalized populations is to lean in, listen, and (un)learn. 

What’s in a label? In this article, I reflect on the labels that we use in our field to refer to those learning English as an additional language, and how those labels matter. A few of my intersecting identities—linguist, teacher educator, TESOL program director, language learner, activist—demand that I reflect on the role language plays in assigning social meaning and contributing to identity formation.

One of my favorite classes in my Introduction to Linguistics course entails an exploration of “everyday language you didn’t know was racist.” Students often experience some dissonance when trying to think differently about language they have used for a lifetime (“I can’t say ‘gypped’ anymore?!”). I share with them that when we reach the other side of deep reflection and enact language practices that uplift—rather than oppress—it can be liberating. It’s important to dive in and consider how our language impacts others. In fact, our words can create counter narratives, redistribute power, and contribute to a deeper understanding of one another.

The terms we use to refer to others (and ourselves) will constantly evolve—until they don’t. In a 1994 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Pinker wrote “The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge: give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name.” However, he goes on to assert that when the labels used for certain groups remain, we have reached a place of mutual respect. Can you think of positive or neutral labels for groups that have stood the test of time?

Despite the challenges faced in coming to some semblance of agreement about terminology, words and labels matter, and one way to show up for underrepresented or marginalized populations is to lean in, listen, and (un)learn. Many of us, for example, have learned the meaning behind each part of the acronyms BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+, as well as the fact that the latter expanded acronym is neither complete nor perfect in its capacity to reflect gender complexity. Learning and reflecting on labels and applying them mindfully and with respect are ways we can elevate each other—to honor all that each brings to the table, and to make sure there is a seat at the table for everyone in the first place.

TESOL has been called to move beyond being an association committed to contributing to the research, practice, and service endeavors related to English (only) language teaching and learning. In recognition of the full linguistic repertoire of language learners and in celebration of linguistic diversity, TESOL is increasing its focus on multilingual education, benefits of translanguaging, and ways to leverage home languages in and out of the classroom. Additionally, TESOL is aware of the need to reconsider the labels assigned to those for whom English is an additional language. In the United States, Canada, and other English-dominant countries, the labels used to denote students for whom English is not the native or home language contribute to decisions about policy, assessment, and placement in schools and programs. They also influence perceptions held about these learners by various individuals, including peers at school, teachers, community members, and politicians. Students themselves have demonstrated concerns about and resistance to how they are labeled in their schools (Oropeza, et al., 2010; Shapiro, 2014).

Critical reflections on the nature and application of deficit discourse about individuals using English as an additional language have led to an avoidance of labels such as limited English proficient (LEP). Seemingly more asset-oriented labels like English language learner (ELL) have become more commonplace. However, in their article “Labels as Limitations,” Kleyn and Stern (2018) note that

while the new term English Language Learner (like its cousin, English Learner or EL) removes the word "limited," it still focuses on what students are lacking: English. Students are positioned not as learners of math, science, or social studies, nor as artists, athletes, or poets.

To reflect the dynamic nature of language learning as well as students’ linguistic capital, García and Kleifgen (2010) proposed the term emergent bilingual; however, the adjective emergent generally means “coming into being,” so for those who are advanced bilinguals, the label emergent bilingual seems to discount the extent to which they have developed proficiency in the language; yet advanced bilingual doesn’t take into account newcomers who are learning a new language for the first time. Some of our colleagues embrace the label culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. In some states in the United States, the education endorsement for teachers working with this population is referred to as a CLD endorsement. The issue some have with that label is that it doesn’t distinguish those learning English as an additional language from students of various cultural backgrounds who speak varieties of English that are not legitimized in academic settings, such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black English (BE) in the United States.


Gunderson (2020) notes that the ELL/EL category is implicitly deficit based because it homogenizes an otherwise multidimensional group of individuals—typically determining inclusion in the category on the sole feature of English ability. As TESOL practitioners, we are among the first to recognize that learners of English as an additional language vary tremendously in terms of home language(s), cultural background, age, gender, socioeconomic status, educational experience and expectations, familial capital, academic goals, personal interests, personality, and so much more! Accordingly, we should also recognize that any label, no matter how equitable we perceive it to be, will likely remain problematic in its inability to truly reflect the kaleidoscope of characteristics that makes up each individual.

So where are we now—as a field, as a community, as an organization? TESOL has moved toward the use of “MLL”—multilingual language learner—in place of ELL or EL in an effort to recognize the assets, funds of knowledge, and linguistic capital of all individuals using English as an additional language. Will this label be embraced on a global scale? Will it have an impact on the ways in which learners are perceived? Will it stand the test of time? Will it be viewed as equitable and respectful by those to whom it refers? I suppose the optimist in me would say—maybe? This reflection is simply an invitation to be mindful of how we refer to MLLs and to engage in conversations with students and colleagues about labeling. What does the hive mind in your context think, and how will that impact language, policy, and action in your educational spaces?

In closing, I propose a few playful interpretations of well-known acronyms: ELLs = experts in language learning and EALs = experts in acquiring languages, and a few new ideas: EMLs = experts in multiple languages and MOLs = masters of languages. Perhaps a short lesson on acronyms with MLLs in your context will bring us to the next best label!


García, O., & Kleifgen, J. A. (2010). Educating emergent bilinguals: Policies, programs, and practices for English learners. Teachers College Press.

Gunderson, L. (2020) The consequences of English learner as a category in teaching, learning, and research. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 64(4), 431–439. https://ila.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jaal.1116

Kleyn, T., & Stern, N. (2018). Labels as limitations. MinneTESOL Journal 34(1). https://minnetesol.org/archives/3886

Oropeza, M. V., Varghese, M. M., & Kanno, Y. (2010). Linguistic minority students in higher education: Using, resisting, and negotiating multiple labels. Equity & Excellence in Education, 43(2), 216–231.

Pinker, S. (1994, April 5). The game of the name [Opinion]. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/05/opinion/the-game-of-the-name.html 

Shapiro, S. (2014). “Words that you said got bigger”: English language learners’ lived experiences of deficit discourse. Research in the Teaching of English, 48(4), 386–406.

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Raichle Farrelly, PhD, is an associate teaching professor and director of the TESOL Program for the Department of Linguistics at the University of Colorado Boulder. She offers courses on a range of topics, including language teaching methods, teaching L2 oral skills, pedagogical grammar, world language policy, the TESOL Practicum, and introduction to linguistics. Her professional interests include L2 teacher education, reflective teaching, curriculum design, community engaged learning, and teaching refugee-background adults.

Get In-Formed: The Power of Forms to Get to Know Your Students

by Brent Warner
Learn some of the many ways you can use one simple tool—online forms—to get you started building a stronger classroom environment.

As we start to prepare for our new semesters, many of us have begun to reach into our toolbox of “Would you rather” questions, “Find someone who” bingo sheets, and “Two Truths and a Lie” type activities. All of these are great fun, and good ways to get your students comfortable with each other, but as teachers we often have a hard time hearing any more than a couple of responses at a time. Additionally, while encouraging students to speak up, circling the room, and doing our best to monitor for language issues, we’re lucky to remember one or two things about a handful of students by the end of the first hour.

I’d never advocate for leaving the icebreakers behind, but a number of teachers are recognizing the need to develop more personal one-to-one relationships with their students (see these articles at Edutopia, teachthought.com, and The Education Trust), and the often quick shift from icebreakers to classroom content may not leave much time for teachers to get the direct time with students they need to build the foundations of a trusting relationship. Luckily, there are lots of solutions to help us make deeper, more meaningful connections with our students, and today we’ll discuss some of the many ways you can use one simple tool to get you started building a stronger classroom environment.

Taking the Time

Before we get started, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the old truism, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This maxim comes up in education circles all the time for good reason! But in the hustle and bustle of the first weeks of school, many of us sneak by with a smile and a few kind words, and then we often move along to our next responsibility. Make no mistake, though: Your students can tell the difference between a superficial greeting and taking the time to think about them (yes, each of them!), hear what they have to say, respond to them, and be vulnerable in your own sharing. So, as you look through the following suggestions, I’d like to challenge you to make two promises to yourself and to the class you have yet to meet:

  1. I will complete my own responses to any activity I ask my students to respond to, and I will let them see my responses before asking them to send anything to me.

  2. I will set aside the time I need before the second class meeting to watch, read, or listen to every student’s response, and I will respond to each of them privately and thoughtfully.

I recognize that this may add quite a lot of time to your first days of work, but it will also set the tone for the whole semester, and it will give students the opportunity to see that you are there for them. So did you promise yourself? Great! Let’s get started!

Surveying Students Through Online Forms

Many teachers offer surveys at the beginning of the semester, but usually not much comes of them. Some of us hand out paper forms where students can fill out a few quick questions. Others have moved online to quickly collect basic information. However, using simple online tools, like Google Forms or Microsoft Forms, allows us to make far deeper connections than you might initially imagine.

Text Questions

Let’s start with the basics. Many of us know that we can collect basic text answers through forms. But far fewer have considered how to turn boring questions into real touch points. Of course, you can ask questions like “Why are you studying here?” or “What’s your favorite food?”, but consider changing the questions to elicit more visceral responses:

  • Share one way you hope that learning English can improve your life.
  • Describe in detail the best meal you’ve ever had.

A simple change to the form of your question can be the difference between “I answer this in every English class I ever join” and “Oh, this teacher wants to know about me!”


The power of forms doesn’t end with just a lot of text. Students can do so much more, but the easiest next step is asking them to share links. One of my favorite uses for links is to ask students to share a link to their favorite song on YouTube. You can listen to their favorite song while reading the rest of their responses, and you can also add the song to a class playlist. Students almost always forget that they shared the song with you, so I like to start playing the playlist a few weeks later during class breaks, and they’re often shocked to hear their favorite song playing over the classroom speakers. As a bonus, you can follow up the request to link their favorite song with a question about it. Again, surface level questions like “Why do you like this song?” will usually come up with answers like “Good rhythm,” or “She is cool,” but a question like “What memories come up when you hear this song” will open up a treasure trove of personal connections.

In addition to music links, you can have your students share links as far as your imagination takes you. Here are a few possibilities that you can have them share; feel free to customize as you see fit to match your population:

  • Wikipedia article: Favorite actress, athlete, artist, historical figure, and so on.

  • Funniest meme: This could be in their language and they could try to explain why it’s so funny to them.

  • Who should I follow on Instagram or TikTok?: Again, follow up with questions, such as asking about the best upload that content creator has made.

  • Most underrated website: Perhaps a site you refer to on a regular basis, or something that helps you be more productive.

  • Favorite app that isn’t social media: Many phones let you see what apps you use most regularly, and often times people are surprised at what comes up as most used.

Once you start breaking your form questions from traditional questions to linkable resources, you can build a much stronger understanding of what drives your students. Savvy readers will note that I didn’t include questions about movies or TV shows. As much as I love movies myself, I’ve noticed over the years that more and more students respond with “I don’t watch movies/TV shows.” A sign of the times? Maybe. Regardless, I’ve found they’re more likely to share content that is short and digestible, so I’ve updated my questions to reflect that change.


The ability to upload files directly into forms means that students can send you any media—no need to get them logged into the EdTech flavor of the month to record an introduction or snap a picture. Whatever they can make, however they can make it, they can send it straight to you: photos, videos, digital drawings, written documents, and so on; their world is at your fingertips.

Keeping in mind that the goal is to get to know them as people, not students, consider some of the following things you might ask them to upload. As always, make sure you follow with a question that probes at what makes the upload personal to them. I’ve added some potential follow-up questions, but I encourage you to think of better ones!

  • A photo of your pet: How would you describe its personality? Tell a story where it showed its personality off.

  • A short video from your most recent vacation: What is one thing you didn’t get to do while you were there?

  • A drawing of your childhood bedroom: What were you most proud of in your room? (Note: I’m a terrible artist, so showing off my own stick-figure drawings can set students at ease for showing their own work.)

  • An audio recording of a place you go to relax or have fun: (This can be ambient noises from a coffee shop, birds chirping on their favorite hiking trail, a concert they went to recently, or anywhere else.) If you could never go to this place again, what would you tell people about it?

As you can see, once the ball starts rolling, you’ll have a harder time editing and cutting questions than you will coming up with them. And hey—you don’t have to have the perfect survey right away. You can build it, adjust it, and improve it every semester.

To see an example online form with all of the elements I discussed in this article, see this one I created on Google Forms. Please feel free to reuse any of the questions, or even the form itself.

The most important part of this process is to take the time to enjoy their responses. Here is a chance to revel in each student’s unique experience and to get to know them as more than just another passing face, but as a person with an incredible history, dreams, and a limitless future. With some simple tech and a dedication of a little time, you can do more than just break the ice—you can crack the iceberg of the student-teacher relationship.

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Brent Warner is a professor and cochair of the ESL department as well as cochair of the Online Education Committee at Irvine Valley College in California. He’s an educational technology enthusiast and cohost of the DIESOL podcast, the only podcast with a specific focus on edtech and innovation in ESL. He frequently presents on the crossroads of technology and language learning, focusing on student engagement and developing learner autonomy.

8 Tips for Refreshing Assignment Guidelines

by Ilka Kostka and Cristine McMartin-Miller
As the school year begins, it's important to examine your assignment descriptions and consider these eight elements when designing and reviewing assignments.  

An important part of preparing for the upcoming school year is developing assignment guidelines and accompanying rubrics. Though busy teachers often reuse materials, looking at assignment guidelines with fresh eyes is an excellent way to ensure that they are up-to-date and ready for students. In this article, we invite teachers to examine their assignment descriptions and consider the following eight elements when designing and reviewing assignments. Though we wrote these tips with higher education courses in mind, most of them easily apply to other levels and contexts as well.

1. Connect the Assignment to the Goals of the Course

Ensure that all assignments, ranging from low-stakes homework to major course assignments, connect to the major goals of the course. This element is particularly important for not assigning “busy work” that serves little purpose and takes students’ time away from meaningful tasks. Each assignment should also include learning objectives that are precise, measurable, and focused on what students can do (Richards, 2017).

The following example shows objectives that were revised to be more measurable and relevant to the overarching goal of an English language course for international students. One of the course goals stated in the syllabus is to strengthen students’ spoken intelligibility and listening comprehension skills in preparation for the academic listening and speaking tasks students will engage in during graduate school.

Original assignment objectives: After completing this assignment, you should be able to improve your knowledge of English consonants.

Revised objectives: After completing this assignment, you should be able to:

  1. Produce all 24 English consonant sounds accurately.
  2. Distinguish among consonant sounds you hear in an authentic academic lecture.

2. Foster Transparency

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TILT) Project states that “transparent teaching methods help students understand how and why they are learning course content in particular ways” (n.d.). By focusing on the purposes, tasks, and criteria for their academic work, students can better understand the reasons they are completing an assignment and how the assignment will improve their learning. For example, in the guidelines for a survey report assigned in one of our graduate-level writing courses, we included the following:

This assignment will familiarize you with the type of research and writing you might do as part of a quantitative or mixed methods research paper in graduate school. You will gain additional knowledge of your topic, as well as practice email etiquette, writing logical survey questions, creating an online survey, and summarizing results clearly and concisely.

3. Ensure That language Is Consistent and Accessible

An assignment can be effectively designed, but if students struggle to understand what they need to do, they can quickly become frustrated. Using the same language across assignments is one way to help students become familiar with our expectations. For instance, in all assignments in our writing courses, we consistently use the term “organization” to refer to paragraph formation, coherence, and unity among ideas throughout the paper. Using another word in a different assignment to refer to the same concept (e.g., “essay structure”) may be confusing. You should therefore check that you are using consistent language and may even consider putting the criteria in the same order across all rubrics. Likewise, avoid using jargon or unnecessarily complex vocabulary when writing assignment guidelines.

4. Address Expectations for Academic Integrity in Each Assignment

Explanations of academic integrity policies are typically included in course syllabi. However, you should also include policies for using outside sources in each particular assignment as these policies may vary among individual tasks. For instance, students should know if they need to cite images on slides or to what extent they can collaborate with others. If matched text detection software is used in a writing class, be clear about its purpose and whether students can see their originality reports before the due date. Students should also know how to access these reports and whether their papers will be stored in an online repository. Also make students aware of any penalties for academic integrity violations. Figure 1 includes an example of information about incorporating images appropriately on slides for an oral presentation, as posted in Canvas.

Figure 1. Excerpt of academic integrity guidelines for an oral presentation.

5. Make Submission Information Explicit

Submission information may seem obvious to teachers, but students may not know basic information if it is not stated clearly, such as

  • how and where to submit an assignment, especially in online courses or distance learning;
  • formatting instructions, such as using Times New Roman or Arial fonts; and
  • citations guidelines (a link to a trusted resource, e.g., APA Style, within the instructions of each assignment is often welcome).

When reusing an assignment from a previous class, ensure that all due dates have been updated. The assignment instructions should also include reminders about late work and zero submissions (e.g., whether points will be deducted from a student’s grade). Finally, some instructors find that requiring specific naming conventions for files—for example, “Last Name, First Name_Assignment Name_Month_Day”—reduces confusion and the possibility of students submitting the wrong item.

6. Include Information About Assessment

Assessment is a critical component of any assignment, as we need to measure whether students have met the assignment’s objectives and can demonstrate learning. In our English language programs, we typically give students a variety of formative and summative assessments, such as writing assignments, discussion board posts, exit slips, quizzes, and oral presentations. We develop and make rubrics available to students in our learning management system well in advance so that they know exactly which criteria will be used to assess them.

Figure 2, for instance, is a participation rubric we introduce and explain during the first week of classes, a week before we use it to assess students.

Figure 2. Sample participation rubric. (Click here to enlarge)

7. Provide Resources for Support

Teachers typically include information about student support resources in their syllabi, such as how to access peer tutoring services or the campus disability resource center. However, it is worth including information about specific resources for each assignment in the assignment guidelines, as well. For instance, the contact information for a writing center may not help students who are working on an oral presentation but would be useful reminder within the guidelines for a paper. Making connections to course materials (e.g., a specific chapter in a textbook or particular readings) can also help students complete a particular assignment.

8. Keep a Running List of Revisions for Future Classes

We suggest keeping an ongoing list of any changes made to assignments while a class progresses and everything is fresh in mind. If there are multiple teachers of the same course, a shared document (e.g., a Google Doc) can be used to facilitate communication. Within the document, teachers can add any feedback they receive from students about assignments, including through informal check-ins and teaching evaluations at the end of the term, as well as their own thoughts about an assignment. In this way, updating assignment guidelines and rubrics is a simpler and more straightforward process that does not rely as much on memory after a course has finished.


Strategically refining assignment descriptions is one critical way to foster a productive learning experience and contribute to students’ success. As we hope we’ve shown, reflecting on assignment guidelines using the eight elements we described can ensure that they are relevant to the course and accessible to students.


Richards, J. C. (2017). Curriculum development in language teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Transparency in Learning and Teaching. (n.d.). Transparent methods. https://tilthighered.com/transparency

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Ilka Kostka is an associate teaching professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. She teaches and oversees English language courses to undergraduate and graduate international students in the NU Immerse and Global Pathways programs, respectively.

Cristine McMartin-Miller is a teaching professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. There, she teaches and coordinates courses for undergraduate and graduate international students and serves as the program coordinator of the International Tutoring Center.