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Online ESL Instruction

Christie Sosa

Online ESL Instruction in the Time of COVID

By Liza E. Martinez

Spring 2020 began as any semester. On our first week back, teachers came to campus to prepare for the upcoming semester; this culminated with the Faculty start-up meeting. The next two months progressed as usual. During that time, we heard of COVID-19 increasing and spreading, but we were not alarmed. It was still far away and not a part of our daily lives. Everything changed during the week of March 9. We heard that ASU, our sister institution, would be abandoning face-to-face classes and switching to online instruction. “We need to get ready,” advised Dr. Susan Salminen, a fellow ESL professor. “Since we share two classes, I can get them Zoom accounts,” she continued. I meekly agreed hoping it would not come to this. 

Being a Zoom participant was one thing; teaching through this medium was simply different. Furthermore, I held the view that synchronous ESL instruction, particularly in the beginning levels, did not have a place in the ESL curriculum. Nevertheless, everything came to a head on March 13. My division chair, Professor Martha Martínez, told our division’s faculty that our college was suspending all face-to-face classes and going online. We would have the following Monday and Tuesday off to prepare for the transition. On Wednesday and Thursday, we would teach the new formatted classes. Then the following week would be Spring Break. During this period, we would be told what format would be used for the rest of the semester. The following two weeks came and went quickly. We also received the verdict: for the remainder of the semester; classes would be held online. “How will I manage this?” I asked myself. The remainder of this article recounts my journey of teaching ESL synchronously online. 

First Things First

First, I had to learn how to host a Zoom meeting. Fortunately, Dr. Salminen taught me all of the intricacies of Zoom, such as sharing materials and having students go into breakout rooms. The fog in my mind began to dissipate. However, a new fear arose. How would students take the paper multiple-choice final exams? When I raised this concern to my division chair, she offered to teach me how to use the college’s learning platform, Blackboard, to create online multiple-choice exams. She expertly broke down how to create the exams. I was relieved; I also realized that by preparing to teach online, I was a student who would be learning with my students.  I contacted all of my students via email and gave them assignments to complete over the following two days; these were posted on Blackboard. “If we were to switch to online instruction, how would my students react to this new format? Maybe, we will return to face-to-face instruction after the break,” I hoped. During spring break, the college announced that all instruction until the end of the semester would be online. “How will I manage?” I wondered. An inner voice told me, “Take it step by step.” And so, I did. During the remainder of spring break, I set up my Zoom classes and contacted my students via email. Hopefully, they would all show up.       


For Spring 2020, I taught five classes. I decided to teach my 4-day morning classes twice a week; for the other two days, student would be given assignments to complete on Blackboard. For my two evening classes, I would meet an hour for each class twice a week. Finally, for my pronunciation class, which met once a week (Saturday’s) for 3 ½ hours, I would meet with them for the entire period. 

And We’re Off 

The take-off with Zoom was bumpy. Sometimes, I thought I was “sharing” an item only to find out from the students that the screen was black or something else was being displayed. At other times, I was trying to join students in a break room only to be thrown out of Zoom. Students also experienced being thrown out of the program; fortunately, they found their way back. In another instance, I search for the “chat” button but could not find it. One of my students highlighted where it could be found; it was evident that my student was a digital native as compared to my being a digital immigrant. Despite these mishaps, I learned how to use the different buttons that Zoom offered. I could color code items, use the whiteboard, play YouTube or audio. Everything was in one place unlike my face-to-face classes where I was moving constantly from the computer to the whiteboard and back again.  

Adapting to the New Format

My fear that my students would not join Zoom was mostly unfounded. Out of 69 students, 8 students (12%) did not join the Zoom class. For those who did, many expressed the desire to return to face-to-face classes. I sympathized but reminded them that this medium would enable them to finish the semester. The alternative would be to cancel classes, and this would be a disaster for all. They reluctantly agreed. Nevertheless, the Zoom format sharpened their online and language skills. For each class session, I would give a mini-lecture. This was followed by class activities and then group activities in breakout rooms. Once they were back in the main room, we would check the activities. If there were any weaknesses, I would clarify points and provide students with extra activities to do in groups.  

In the case of my intermediate writing class, students learned how to create a 5-paragraph persuasive essay. I started with a mini-lecture and provided students with a handout which broke down the different components of the essay. We did some preliminary activities as a class. Then students worked in breakout rooms on activities, which ranged from writing a hook to a body paragraph to a concluding paragraph. When it came to writing the class essay, each group was responsible for writing a section. Students would send me their section through chat or email. I would put the information on a Word document, and we would review each section and make corrections. In the end, students created a class essay through scaffolding. When it came to writing their final essay, they were confident and prepared. 

Lessons Learned

The Spring semester is over. What have I learned from teaching online?

Zoom had issues like kicking one out of the breakout room and fuzzy screens. Unfortunately, I was unable to do anything. Despite these mishaps, the overall Zoom experience was positive. Both students and I were co-learners throughout this process. My students and I became more adept at a new online program. Furthermore, the language instruction they received through Zoom enabled them to complete their classes and reach their course competencies.  Out of 69 students, 60 or 87% passed their course.  Nine out of 69 (13%) failed; of these, 8 of the 9 never joined Zoom, nor did they drop their course.  From these experiences, I have found that online synchronous instruction has a place in the ESL curriculum. 

Concluding Thoughts

In Fall 2020, I will be teaching 5 classes; they will be Blended Realtime classes. Our classes will be capped at 18 students. For large classes, we will meet with half of the class face-to-face one day while the other half will meet online through Zoom. In the following class, the order will change. The face-to-face class will meet online while the online class will meet face-to-face. For morning classes, which meet 4 days a week, this switch from face-to-face to online and vice-versa will continue for the next two classes. In this way, our college can meet the COVID-19 guidelines. In the meantime, I am reading books and attending webinars on online instruction; my goal is to have all of my students succeed in this new format.