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Quick Tip: Supercharging the Start of Online Classes in the New Year

A screen of black squares. Silence. Back pain from sitting too long. Silence. Shoddy internet connections interfering with presentations. Silence. Unmuting the mic for the millionth time. More silence.

With the emergence of the Omicron variant around the world, more and more teachers who have been transitioning back into the classroom this fall may have to transition back into the online learning environment for the new year.

This presents the challenge that haunted many of us throughout our pandemic teaching experience: How do we as teachers engage more students in English during our classes?

In pondering this question throughout the pandemic, I asked myself, “Why don’t I take something that is required and mundane and make it a language learning activity?”

Roll call is something most of us have to do, but replacing your normal roll call with the following activity can be an exciting way to engage students right from the start.

Here is how it works:

  • Find an interesting topic on Conversation Starters World or on your own. I like to use some of the following, starting with easy topics and gradually shifting to more personal or complex ones:

    • What is your favorite color?
    • What is your favorite food?
    • What kind of movies do you like?
    • Who is your role model in life?  
    • If you could learn a language other than English, what would it be and why?
    • If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
    • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be and why?
  • Post the question in the Zoom chat or paste it onto the Whiteboard.

  • For a more interesting element, ask students to find a picture to demonstrate the answer.

  • Send students to breakout rooms for a set amount of time (depending on the topic) and emphasize that students must use the whole time to discuss in English.

  • Instruct students on using follow-up questions to fill the time allotted for the breakout room. For example, if students are describing where they want to travel in the future, a follow-up question might be, “Would you travel alone or with friends?” or “When would you travel there?”

  • Students return to the main classroom, and you call roll by using the question (e.g., “Jing, what is your favorite color?”). Ask follow-up questions if you’d like.

  • Continue until all students’ names have been called.

This type of engagement in the beginning of each class accomplishes many goals for you as a language teacher:

  • Students are immediately engaged in inquiry: If at the outset of every class, students know that they must engage their minds, they will be more focused and begin to know that this class expects more than passive participation.

  • Students are asked to speak in English very quickly: By putting the ball immediately in the students’ court, you’re compelling them to get their English “muscles” moving early in the class, acting as a helpful warm-up for later activities.

  • These activities can be modified to suit course goals: If you have been instructing students on, for example, how to use relative clauses, the question could be focused in that direction in order to produce context-rich practice.

  • The spotlight is shifted: Because the students must immediately speak to each other and you, the class becomes student focused and learner centered. Student lives, interests, hobbies, and concerns become a focus in the class, which leads to greater student self-esteem and buy in.

As we look to this new year with both excitement and uncertainty, we know that engaging our students will always be at the forefront of our minds. By starting our classes with inquiry, discussion, and sharing, we can build a more engaged, inclusive and dynamic classroom.

Shared screens. Students sharing experiences. Breakout room discussions. Learning about students. Seeing new places. Speaking more English. No more silence.


Philip Rice is an assistant professor at the English Language Institute of the University of Delaware. He enjoys learning new technology for use in the language classroom, has created an ESL website for teachers and students, and has taught abroad in Liberia, West Africa. He has presented numerous times at TESOL, English USA, and other professional conferences.

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