Transitioning to K-12 Online Language Learning: Essential Questions for Teachers

By Joe Terantino, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Foreign Language Education
Stella V. Andersen Endowed Professor in Secondary Education
Oklahoma State University

Introduction

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic currently besieging the United States and other countries, many public and private K-12 schools have mandated or are contemplating a shift from traditional, face-to-face instruction to online teaching and learning for the foreseeable future. We have all seen the memes and read the news stories which cast parents as the new homeschool teachers (Peters, 2020). Yet we have not read much about how the workload of teachers across the country has just shifted and increased exponentially. Arguably, teachers are those who are most affected by this sudden and unexpected transition. They are being asked to plan for online teaching and learning, rewrite curriculum, and simultaneously learn a wide range of new online tools. Furthermore, in most cases, K-12 teachers do not possess any real experience, training, or expertise as it relates to teaching online. 

There are numerous examples of online language instruction in colleges, universities, and K-12 schools (Murphy-Judy & Johnshoy, 2017), which have been carefully crafted by educators and curriculum designers with expertise in language teaching methodology and online learning. For example, some online K-12 programs, such as Georgia Virtual School, Florida Virtual School, and Virginia Virtual, have online language courses that are offered on a regular basis. They also solicit teachers with online teaching experience and provide a training program to develop online teaching skills. We know that teaching languages online is not a new concept; however, most K-12 teachers have not been prepared for online instruction. In fact, some may be feeling very anxious about this transition, because they have concerns about their own technology skills or training (Comas-Quinn, 2011; Mitchell & Geva-May, 2009; Tabata & Johnsrud, 2008). It is important to note that the current shift to online teaching and learning is better classified as “emergency remote teaching”.

The purpose of this article is to present some of the essential questions that educators should consider when making the initial transition from face-to-face instruction to online teaching and learning. This article is intended primarily for K-12 foreign language teachers but may also be applicable for any educator transitioning to online instruction. 

Initial Thoughts About the Transition

With this general understanding in mind, I would like to share with you my initial thoughts about the transition to online teaching and learning. My first piece of advice is to simply do the best you can. Embrace the challenge of enhancing your technological repertoire and formulating your approach to teaching online. Yet, avoid dwelling on any perceived shortcomings as they relate to utilizing technology or teaching online in general. The glass is half full. In addition, try not to compare yourself to others who may have more advanced technology skills, but do draw from the good work of others where possible. 

Second, each school district and individual school is different and has unique needs. It will be essential that you take these key considerations into account. 

  • Has your district accounted for students who may not have access to the internet or devices needed to participate?
  • Will your district restrict teaching new material or will you continue with your curriculum as planned?
  • Has your district made a decision whether to administer quizzes or tests?
  • Is your district planning to continue issuing grades?

Knowing how your school district plans to frame the transition to online instruction will help you to revise your curriculum and your overall approach to teaching online.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

If a decision has already been made to transition your language classes online, communication with your students and their parents or guardians will be paramount. You will no longer have the convenience of sharing that quick reminder with your students as the bell rings and they walk out of the classroom door. How do you intend to replace this word of mouth communication now that you have transitioned to online teaching? How will you communicate with the students? To what extent do you plan to communicate with parents and guardians of your students? 

If you do not already have a class email list, create one right away. This is one of the easiest and most direct forms of communication. If you are currently using a learning management system or other online platform, such as Canvas or Google Classroom, maintain communication with your students via their built-in messaging functions. However, remember that in some cases it may be necessary for you to communicate with the parents or guardians of your students to solicit their help in encouraging the students to participate and maintain the pace of learning. Therefore, you may want to set up a parent email list as well.

As it relates to communicating with your students, be prepared to share the same information multiple times, in numerous places, and in different modalities (audio, text, and video). To maximize learner engagement, your students will need to receive important messages in various formats. Create video or audio recorded messages using your phone or a web-based tool such as Voki.com, which allows you to create an animated avatar. Also, consider the use of social media, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, or Twitter. Based on those crazy dances you see in the classroom and school hallways, you know that students utilize these tools quite often. This may be your chance to release your inner creativity and connect with the students on an entirely new level. You, too, may be the next Beyoncé of your school (“Spanish Teacher Calls Himself…Beyoncé”, 2020). 

At the same time, do not forget about providing students with opportunities to communicate with you through the same channels and also to connect with you on an individual level to address their concerns. Hold some type of virtual or telephonic office hours. Post and share a weekly work schedule that informs students and their families when you are available to answer questions.

The Biggest Decision You Will Have to Make

The biggest decision that you will have to make is whether you will meet synchronously with your students. “Synchronous learning takes place … when the teacher and students are on the same platform, at the same time” (OCWLP, 2020). If you plan to meet synchronously with your students, what video conferencing tool will you use? While Zoom quickly became a favorite of many educators across the country, concerns over its security have also surfaced (O’Flaherty, 2020). Alternatives include Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams, and various other online meeting tools. When committing to synchronous meetings, it will also be important to consider how often you will meet and what the goals of your meetings will be? To maximize the use of this time, I suggest incorporating target language communicative activities with the students.

If you are not able to meet synchronously with your students, you will be teaching asynchronously, which means students’ learning will be self-paced. They will “work on their own or with peers completing instructional activities at times that are convenient to them” (OCWLP, 2020). This form of instruction requires a consistent weekly schedule, and I highly suggest preparing a weekly checklist that you can share with students and their families. In these checklists, you can post links to video-based instruction, website links, and most importantly the activities required for that week. Research has linked the use of checklists with higher assignment completion (Chiu, 2017), and with our students’ current unfettered inclination toward distraction at home, we may need all the help that we can get. 

Keep It Simple 

As you ponder how to organize your weekly checklists and activities, remember to keep it simple and be consistent whenever possible. There are various ways to approach this, but I find the three-step process below to be quite simple and easy to repeat:

  • Instruction: read, listen to, or watch this short instructional segment
  • Practice: comprehension questions or a try-to-do-it exercise
  • Extension: apply this knowledge to a real-world situation

Also, keep in mind that you do not have to reinvent the wheel. Beg, borrow, and steal, not literally, from existing online resources. If it is not already, YouTube just became your best friend who is willing to lend you an extensive collection of short instructional videos. Many other sites offer free online flashcards and practice activities. Quizlet and StudySpanish.com are two examples of such sites. As it relates to practice and extension activities, do your best to incorporate the various linguistic skills (reading, writing, listening comprehension, and speaking) and do not forget to utilize authentic texts, audio, video, or written texts created by native speakers for native speakers’ consumption. Last, make sure to design practice and extension activities that include interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes. In fact, this might be an opportune time to consider how you can work more explicitly to balance these communication skills in your general approach to teaching. The top five sites that I frequently use to achieve this balance are: Flipgrid.com (presentational/interpersonal), Piktochart.com (interpretive/presentational), Kahoot.com (interpretive), Socrative.com (interpretive, interpersonal/presentational), and Voki.com (interpretive, interpersonal/presentational).

Quality of Online Language Learning

As research has documented, language educators are particularly concerned about the quality of online language learning (Terantino, 2020). As you proceed with the transition to online instruction, many will begin to ask, “Will my online teaching be as good as face-to-face teaching? Will my students achieve the same results?” Initially, I surmise that your online teaching will not be as good as your face-to-face teaching. I do not intend this to be a jab, quite the opposite. You are likely a highly trained educator with years of preparing for teaching in the classroom and perhaps years of experience in the classroom refining your craft. We cannot expect that you can transition from being a highly successful face-to-face teacher to a highly successful online teacher overnight. It will take time for you to adjust, figure out what works, and make the necessary changes to improve your teaching and the potential for students’ learning. We should also note that we are living in unprecedented times, and there are many other human concerns at play for both teachers and students, which are likely to cause some interference. Ultimately, only you and the students will be able to gauge the relative success.

This transition to emergency remote teaching will require somewhat of an unwritten pact between you and the students, which joins you in an effort to make teaching and learning as seamless as possible. As in any educational setting, try to make the online learning experience as student-centered as possible. Where possible, give students freedom to choose topics or multiple paths to reach the same result. Encourage students to work together as much as possible. Last, consider eliminating any traditional assessments and transition to a more project or task-based approach to teaching and learning. This will allow your students to have more say in their learning process while simultaneously linking to tangible goals and real-world knowledge and skills.

Concluding Thoughts

This article is intended to get you thinking about key decisions related to transitioning to online language instruction, not to prescribe any solutions or make product endorsements. Teaching is very personalized. We all have our own unique style, which is shaped by an array of personality traits, academic experiences, classroom experiences, and professional development. Teaching online is no different. Bring these personality traits and experiences into your online teaching. Figure out how to address the initial basic questions and then keep moving. Choose what works for you and the students and what you think is important. Last, if you feel overwhelmed or in over your head, reach out to someone with more experience or expertise. There are many of us who are willing to help. 

References

Chiu, C. L. (2017). Keep them Engaged!: Using Self-Monitoring Checklists to Increase Assignment Completion. The Journal of the Effective Schools Project24(24).

Comas-Quinn, A. (2011). Learning to teach online or learning to become an online teacher: An exploration of teachers’ experiences in a blended learning course. ReCALL23(3), 218-232.

Mitchell, B., & Geva-May, I. (2009). Attitudes affecting online learning implementation in higher education institutions. Journal of Distance Education23(1), 71-88.

Murphy-Judy, K., & Johnshoy, M. (2017). Who’s Teaching Which Languages Online? A Report Based on National Surveys. IALLT Journal of Language Learning Technologies47(1), 137-167.

OCWLP. (2020). The basics of teaching online. Occidental College World Language Project. http://www.ocwlp.org/basics

O’Flaherty, K. (2020, April 10). Zoom security: Here’s what Zoom is doing to make its service safer. Forbes.com. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/2020/04/10/zoom-security-heres-what-zoom-is-doing-to-make-its-service-safer/#49c9485630fc

Peters,T. (2020, March 25). The funniest posts from parents about homeschooling. Today.com.  https://www.today.com/parents/funniest-posts-parents-about-homeschooling-t176811

Spanish teacher calls himself the Beyoncé of Bellaire High School. (2020, February 13). Abc13.com. Retrieved April 15, 2020 from https://abc13.com/dr.-trevor-boffone-bellaire-high-school-teacher-dancing-viral-videos/5870918/

Tabata, L. N., & Johnsrud, L. K. (2008). The impact of faculty attitudes toward technology, distance education, and innovation. Research in higher education49(7), 625.

Terantino, J. (2020). Exploring Factors that Impact Faculty Decision to Teach Languages Online: Is It Worth the Individual Return on Investment? Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 23(1).

One thought on “Transitioning to K-12 Online Language Learning: Essential Questions for Teachers

  • May 8, 2020 at 6:08 am
    Permalink

    We have transitioned very smoothly at our 7-12 school. We are a small charter school w agile leadership and w the infrastructure and resources needed for the quick switch. We are lucky.

    Our CI Spanish program was desk free and our class groups are small.

    I wanted to share that a key learning I hope we can carry back to whatever real time teaching becomes the new norm.

    My anxious students are doing so much better. The ”fun” games and physical nature of class were hard for them. I have been able to see them anew and have set up small learning groups for them where they are now just starting to feel safe circumlocuting.

    I have created large group synchronous drop in hours for all, but hand picked small groups for kids who are needing a boost. I’ve learned that those kids are almost all anxious socially.

    This anxiety has crippled their willingness to practice circumlocution. They generally are hesitant to make mistakes or appear foolish by making sound effects or gestures or making drawings to communicate. They have been told to stay in Spanish or USE WHAT YOU KNOW, DRAW IT OR ACT IT OUT.

    Shielding them in small groups or even 1on 1 has been a pleasure because I am finally seeing what they can do. I am able to address their basic skills, been their cheerleader, and am watching them as they gain the confidence and skills to enter the larger group conversations down the road.

    Something about being in their own homes w the barrier of the computer, I think, has added to their comfort. The group dynamics has helped— knowing and agreeing to the groups, that make this arrangement even better than doing small groups face-to-face.

    This would be an interesting study to pursue.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.