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6 Tips for Teaching Small Groups Online

activity online teaching reflection teacher talking time ttt wait time warm up Jan 10, 2022

The world of TEFL is full of a huge combination of classroom configurations.  Teachers go to social media groups and online forums all the time to seek advice, but the truth is that every teacher has a unique experience!  Someone who only teaches 1-on-1 classes with children will have a fairly different experience in the field than someone who teaches small group classes to adults! So when you’re thinking about how to shape your courses, what you want to consider is the context of your teaching.  Are you going to teach online or in-person? At a school or university, institute, or as a freelancer? Adult learners or kids? Individual classes, large groups, or small groups?

If you’re planning on teaching small groups of adult learners (groups of 2-10 students), keep reading to find some ideas on how to conduct your classes in a way that makes for a productive lesson for everyone!

Tip 1: Take time to warm up. 

Warm-ups are great for so many reasons– they help students shift into learning mode from whatever they were doing prior to class, they activate students’ background knowledge, and they provide an instance to introduce a topic and break the ice at the beginning of a class.  With the power to do all that, it’s no wonder we include a warm-up task at the beginning of each of our lessons here at The TEFL Lab– but if you know your students, you might want to take those warm-ups one step further!  You can include other tasks as well that are specific to the course you’re teaching or the work you’ve completed in previous classes.  This could be a quick review or comprehension check of target language from past lessons, a vocabulary brainstorm, or a thought-provoking question you want them to answer before getting the lesson started.

The important thing about warming up in a small group class is to get everyone involved.  A great warm-up at the beginning of a class can give some easy wins to the less confident students, motivating them to push themselves in the class.  On the flip side, it can give more proficient students a chance to try out language they might be curious about that perhaps won’t come up in some of the more structured activities of the lesson– a chance to show off new language they’ve learned in their independent studies is a different motivator for them.

Another handy thing about having a warm-up at the beginning of each class is knowing that it provides a bit of a buffer for the students to arrive before starting.  You might not want to hold up five students for too long if the sixth is late, but if you only have one or two students that appear on time, you might want to get them interacting in English while giving your other four students a few minutes of flexibility– this helps you keep everyone on the same page as you begin the lesson, with fewer instances of needing to re-explain something as each person joins a few minutes apart.  It also gives a bit of special attention to the student or students that came to class on time, which is usually very appreciated!

Tip 2: Maximize turn-taking. 

It seems obvious to say that students should be taking turns in a small group class, but it’s not that simple! Taking turns shouldn’t just look like having students rotate turns as they answer a set of questions in an activity (which, to be fair, is one instance of turn-taking that you’ll still likely use often).  

One of the best ways to keep students involved in the whole activity, and not just the sections where it will be their turn to answer, is to assign roles to students throughout activities. Imagine you’re working with a dialogue, for example.  Two students will perform it, but how are you going to keep the others engaged in the activity instead of simply checking out until it’s their turn?

Think of this task as having not only speakers, but also judges (or coaches, experts, or anything else you’d like to call them)– give everyone a task that they’ll be held responsible for.  Ask one student to take notes on pronunciation, ask another student to take notes on grammar details, ask another student to make notes on vocabulary details (if you have a slightly larger group, assign two people to each of these roles).  Let students know that they’ll rotate in and out of these roles and the idea is that after each dialogue “performance”, you’ll ask them to share their observations on errors they noticed, details they liked, and what they thought the speakers did well.  Having the judges rotate out from one type of observation to the next keeps them on their toes while waiting for their turn. 

What’s the drawback to this type of involvement?  It will certainly take up more of your class time– The facilitation in terms of roles assignment and asking for feedback is definitely going to add minutes onto your activity.  That drawback is the price of engagement, though.  If the activity does end up taking ten minutes longer, but students are engaged throughout, analyzing and speaking and sharing and asking questions, that’s something to count as a win!

Tip 3: Increase your Teacher Wait Time (TWT). 

You probably already know all about TWT in the EFL classroom, but it’s worth revisiting in the online teaching context.  In the online classroom, you’ll likely find that you need a slightly longer TWT than what you would use in the physical classroom.  Think about online meetings you’ve participated in– they’re a little less fluid than meetings where everyone’s sitting at the same table.  Why? In group settings, most of us are trying to be on our best behavior and not interrupt others who are about to speak.  In a physical context, we’re usually situated so we can see everyone and there are lots of subtle cues that we pick up on to tell us when someone is about to speak up.  We lose a lot of that in the online classroom, and this can add a little extra time to the wait for someone to speak up. Pair that with the fact that you never quite know who’s experiencing a slight lag in their internet connection and that fact that you never know exactly what’s happening in the room where each of your students are located, and there are plenty of reasons it might take a bit longer to get students to speak up and respond to a question or prompt.

While you’ll still want to have an open floor for some questions, it can help to call your students by name and ask them to answer a question for some activities.  This eliminates some of the guesswork that students feel about who should speak up when you ask a free-for-all question. This can make an activity run a bit more smoothly and can also help you ensure that each student has had a chance to participate, try out new target language, and ask questions.

Tip 4: Recognize and meet individual needs.  

The cool thing about teaching small groups is that you still have a small enough group to provide some individualized help to each student, but you also have a large enough group to do a big variety of activities with. The fact that you’ll have already built some rapport with the learners in your small groups means you’ll also be able to detect some of their needs as the course progresses.  For example, you’ll start to see which students are more interested in grammar vs speaking, which students are the least and most proficient in a given group, what consistent errors each student makes, who seems to enjoy class the most, and who seems the most nervous or the hardest to engage.

It can be a challenge to meet each individual’s needs in a group setting, but by reflecting and taking notes in each class, you’ll start to get a feel for who needs what and how to plan for meeting those needs. If you notice one student is shy, less proficient, and has a harder time participating in some tasks, it’s not a bad idea to call on him or her for the easier items in a task– giving them a few easy wins can be a real confidence boost!  Students who are less motivated by free production tasks can be called on to read instructions– it’s still a great opportunity to get them speaking aloud and working on pronunciation, but without the pressure to “perform” on the spot by producing in English freely.  For students who are the most proficient in the class, being prepared with a follow-up question or prompt can give them a bit of an added challenge without altering the task for everyone else.  In the case of a more proficient student or someone who has attended each class recently where there were several absences, asking that student to lead a review of something you covered in those classes is a great way to have them test their own knowledge by helping bring others up to speed.  Everybody is going to bring something different to the table in class, and it’s your job as a teacher to give everyone opportunities to use their strengths while also helping them work on their weaknesses. Even in a group of students who have scored relatively the same on a placement test, there’s no way to control for background knowledge, motivation for independent study, and other factors that can affect intra-level variation from one student to the next.  Between those factors and student personality types, you’re bound to have some differences in a small group, and that can be an enriching factor if you approach it with an open mindset!

Tip 5: Reflect on the course with your students every so often. 

There are two main reasons you want to reflect on the course with your class.  The first reason is to see how motivated or interested they are in a specific topic/lesson/task.  By simply asking for feedback on a specific activity or idea, you might be surprised what you learn– the person who has a scowl on her face the entire roleplay activity might actually love roleplays (that’s just her focused face!), so ask for feedback instead of making assumptions about what’s enjoyable and what’s not.  Every so often, check in with students about how your class works.  You might ask them about the types of activities they’re doing (which do they want to repeat or do more of? Which did they not enjoy as much?), about how easy or hard they perceive a task or target language item to be, etc.  Getting that feedback can give you ideas on how to prep for future lessons or how to give students more support.

You can also take some time at regular intervals to check students’ comprehension in a class.  Using comprehension checking questions (CCQs) throughout a lesson is a really quick way to check in and see what students understand and what they need more help with.  Don’t underestimate the power of a very quick pop-quiz, either!  Simply asking them to answer 3-4 multiple choice questions about a topic by sending you their answers before the end of class can give you insight into how successful the lesson was and how much might need to be re-taught or drilled further before moving on.  These strategies are easy ways to implement formative assessment— the process of monitoring student learning via feedback the teacher receives from students.  Simply asking students if they have any questions frequently won’t return many questions. 

Tip 6: Have a plan in place for how to deal with absences. 

With a group of 2-10 learners, it’s inevitable that you’ll occasionally have someone absent from the class.  It can be tricky sometimes to plan how you’ll progress when absences occur– if someone missed something really important, do you re-teach it? If so, when do you break that cycle if it becomes repetitive and impedes progress?  It’s difficult to say what the correct answer is and you’ll have to make your policy in line with the institution you’re working for (unless you’re working as a freelancer and running your own business).  Consider recording your class if you start and see that one or two students haven’t arrived– that video can be sent afterward to give them a chance to stay caught up.  Even if they don’t get all of the interaction and feedback that the students who attended received, they’ll have a basic grasp of what was taught, which will be helpful in your next class.  The class after that, it can be helpful to invite students who attended previously to lead a review– that will keep them engaged while also providing the recap that returning students will need, and will give you a chance to check everyone’s comprehension as you observe and provide extra guidance.

Teaching groups can be a really rewarding experience.  It’s fun to see how each of your courses can take on a dynamic based on the mood and tone you set from the beginning, combined with the mix of personalities, strengths, and weaknesses among the learners.  Get ready for inside jokes, teachable moments, classroom routines, and all of the other great things that come out of bringing a group of learners together!