By Leslie Sherwood and Kara Mac Donald
Teachers have continually sought ways over the last year to make online language learning more dynamic, incorporating engaging activities. The topic of sharing and engaging with resources for online learning activities is still relevant, even with the availability of a vaccine and lock-down restrictions being loosened as online learning for many students will continue as the situation is fluid across the state and nationally. There will be forms of hybrid instruction, some learner groups continuing full virtual instruction, while others may be returning in some form to the f2f classroom. The dynamic nature of what is to come requires teachers to continue to think outside the box for hybrid instruction and ongoing virtual teaching. 101 Activities and Resources for Teaching English Online, Practical Ideas for ESL/EFL Teachers is a super accessible, lesson activity tool kit with online teaching ideas and suggestions arranged across 7 sections with numerous activities offered within each section, and with a resource section at the end. Since each section offers so many activity ideas, with little to no textual discussion associated with each section, the book review will provide a brief overview of each section and a description of a few activities that stood out to give the reader a feel for the types of engaging activities offered.
The first section, 20 Tips for Teaching English Online, is super accessible as the format parallels the rest of the book’s sections with easy to access tidbits in short paragraphs in each section. There is no extended textual discussion, so if you are in a hurry and pressed for time, the author provides her message in short effective segments. One of the tips that stood out as particularly meaningful is one where the author suggests that the teacher consider specializing, and offers suggestions such as focusing on teaching IELTS preparation courses or job interview skills in English. The blurb offered is short and offers a few other examples, but the examples are not the valuable aspect of the tip, but rather the suggestion gives space for the reader to consider other specializations. These could be pronunciation skills, academic writing skills, academic editing support, workplace language skills and so on. She also offers a warning that students may come and go more frequently than in a face-to-face conventional classroom, as the online format may permit more flexibility and ‘hiding’ on screen and how to address this. Also, if not teaching with matriculated students, learners may come and go often as they have short-term goals and re-enrollment and long-term course study is not part of their objectives. Therefore, teachers need to consider these and take these factors into account when planning lessons, courses and longer-term commitments, as she reminds us it can be difficult to lose students.
Listening Focused Activities, the second skill-focused section, is quite short in comparison with only offering 6 activities, while other sections have 20 plus activities offered. Yet maybe this is a consequence of an assumption that teachers talk, and students listen in the online context to a large degree. Nonetheless, the 6 activities are great. One that stands out is the dictagloss, which is geared towards intermediate and higher levels. Dictagloss is so easy to deliver in an online classroom, where grammatical structures are taught interactively in which student groups summarize the form of a target-language sentence, followed by further guided discovery by the teacher.
Moving to the next more receptive skill, Bolen introduces reading focused activities. In this section, a variety of pre, during and post reading activities are presented, to be used with a variety of written genres, including novels, academic texts, and travel brochures. Helpfully discussed in terms of sub-skills, the lessons offer practice in a range of reading strategies: skimming, scanning, inferring, predicting, and others. The activity “Headline Prediction Practice” is a great example of a pre-reading activity that not only has the student predicting, but also inferring and activating schema. The student is presented with an enticing news headline before being asked the “5Ws + H” questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how so that they can make assumptions about the article’s content. After 3-4 guesses are made, the student skims the text to check their guesses, before a more detailed second read is completed.
Reading’s counterpart, writing, is the focus of the fourth section. Bolen presents a great menu of writing activities that involve playful and creative writing tasks, which range in genres from poetry to email. One such activity, which would pair well with the author’s suggested reading activity of reading through vacation brochure PDFs, is the “Plan a trip” lesson. In this task, students practice the skill of outlining to plan their vacation, which seems especially relevant as the pandemic’s travel restrictions begin to gradually lift. Bolen accurately points out the transfer of skills: although this is a seemingly “fun” activity, the students are essentially learning outlining, which is a useful test-taking skill.
The next section of the book “Warm-ups and Icebreakers” offers instructors a menu of short, low-prep activities, many of which can also be used to foster community, which can be especially difficult to cultivate but perhaps even more necessary in a remote learning environment compared to a f2f context. For example, suggested as a good first day activity, “My World” suggests that the instructor and then students draw circles with words and numbers that are significant to them, e.g. 1982 and California, from which the rest of the class guesses their significance to the drawer, which would be year of birth and location, respectively. For the remote environment, participants can easily use draw and show their papers on their cameras in class, or use an online drawing tool, such as the annotation feature on Zoom.
Ending the book’s category of activities with multi-skills, Bolen presents an array of tasks identified by skills involved. For example, “Text Me!” involves both reading and writing, and is a great option for focusing on these skills during a synchronous lesson. In this task, Bolen suggests that the instructor conduct the lesson using text message instead of the skills that often dominate in a synchronous class: speaking and listening. Of course, instead of using cell phones, students and the instructor could use a chat function on a computer program, like Zoom or Facebook Messenger. In this way, students get to practice reading and writing in class, as the instructor announces what the class will be about and what tasks students will complete, and students can respond in real time to the instructor. This activity may also be useful to get more introverted students or ones with lower speaking proficiency involved in class.
The last section of the book is short but offers valuable online resources for teachers to access teaching material and online tools for creating activities and games. The number of resources is limited, but this in many ways is a strength as well-known and maintained sites are provided, so the content is timely and easy to access. Additionally, since the list is relatively brief, readers can easily explore the resources without getting overwhelmed by a large number of websites. Also, it can possibly be understood that these are the golden go-to sites of the author that she is sharing because she knows they are beneficial.
The text can be pleasantly deceiving from the outside. The cover is flashy. The pages inside, like a recipe book. It is so easy to navigate to what the reader wants, and once there, quick, to-the-point practical activities or opportunities to build on what is offered. And beyond teaching online, this text can also be easily used for f2f classes or hybrid approaches, making it relevant in a variety of teaching and learning contexts. After a year of online teaching, instructors do not need ‘lesson plans’, they need food for creativity and well, this book is it.