Moving Forward: Teaching in Uncertain Times

Community Blog on online, hybrid, and F2F teaching during the pandemic

Meeting Students Where They Are: 3 Types of Functional Language for Teaching Synchronous Online Classes

By Viviana Cortes and Sally Ren (Dept. of Applied Linguistics and ESL)

Voice delays, no instant feedback, overlapping interaction… The format of online synchronous teaching has demonstrated itself to be a challenging task for teachers, not only for the amount of planning required before class, but also for the use of instructional language during an online classroom. Unless our class is specifically designed to be highly interactive, online teaching tend to be more monologic because of the technical restrains – instructors typically found themselves talking for longer turns, filling in silence, and readdressing overlapped speech. In these cases, what can instructors do (or say) to make online teaching a slightly smoother experience?

Informed by corpus linguistics research, this post lists three short and practical communication strategies that help instructors make informed language choices to structure their classes.

  1. Use wh-questions that help focus students’ attention, but do not require an answer.

We use questions to keep students engaged, but online teaching doesn’t always allow the quick back and forth interaction we are used to in face-to-face classes. In times like this, we can use more content-oriented questions instead of audience-oriented questions.

Content oriented questions are raised to direct students’ attention to the upcoming content, and are answered by the instructors themselves. Here is an example:

“So what is binary? Binary is a base-two numeral system that is made up of only two numbers. Which two numbers? Zero and One. Yes exactly…”

– from an introductory computer science class

These questions are typically raised by the instructors with an intention to introduce new information, without the expectation of receiving answers from the students. Instructors do not need to pause to wait for answers; instead, they move on to bring out the information.

Empirical studies in corpus linguistics show that questions in monologic lectures are commonly used to draw attention from the students without needing a verbal answer. In addition to the simple yes/no “check-up” questions (e.g. “does it make sense?”), teachers use wh- questions to provide definitions (What is …? It is…), explain causalities (Why is…? Because…), or describe processes (What happens next? Let’s look at…). We have definitely used these questions in our everyday class already, but now it may be the right time to incorporate more questions like these ones in our online classes.

2.  Use wh-clauses to organize the discourse and provide more information

In addition to asking a wh-question in a question form, we can also use embedded wh-clauses to draw students’ attention and organize the class discourse. In online teaching, it is important for students who are in front of their screens to understand what is going on in the class at a certain moment. Embedded wh-clauses provide us with metalinguistic tools to draw students’ attention and verbally organize our lectures. Here are some examples:

what I’m gonna do is to show you an example of…

what we just covered is a type of ….”

what you’ll see in the next slide is…”

 These statements signal the structure of the lecture as well as direct the students attention to the upcoming information. In addition to wh-clauses, we can also use other metalinguistic devices (language that is used to describe what we’re talking about) to organize our lecture discourse, so that the students are constantly reminded of where they are at during a lecture through these “road signs.”

3. Be explicit with evaluative language

Take a pause and let students know what is important. In addition to delivering the class content, it is tremendously helpful to take a pause and comment on what was just covered in class, and what will be introduced next.

“What we will now talk about is XXX, which is a very important concept. … “

“Ok, so what we just covered in the last minutes is the core of XXX.”

 These language exponents explicitly draw students’ attention to class content. During synchronous online teaching, when students can get easily bored or distracted, surrounding the important information with explicit evaluative language helps students stay informed and focused.


lcarruth • October 15, 2020

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