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Distance learning – Help students speak up when teaching remotely

At a time when many of us are having to teach remotely, giving students the confidence to speak up is more important than ever, says Joanna Boon…

Joanna Boon
by Joanna Boon
Female British Army soldier
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Every classroom will have some quiet students and others who are more confident in speaking up. This has been exacerbated by the current situation, with the majority of students now working from home and liable to develop gaps in their learning.

Even students previously eager to contribute in lessons may be more nervous about doing so in an online context, or when they eventually return to school after such a significant break from their normal learning routes.

If you’re currently teaching via a virtual classroom, you may well have noticed an increase in shyness among your students. That’s hardly surprising, given that it’s such a different learning format, so it’s important to try and reconnect with them.

That can be as simple as taking a few minutes at the start of the class to catch up; showing students where you’re working, or talking to them about the mug you have with you.

Get them talking to you about something other than work. Asking them to tell you about their working environment in return can provide you with useful information about how well supported they are at home, and what’s realistic to ask of them.

Settling in

Personally, I don’t begin the lesson content until I’m sure that everyone’s feeling comfortable. To help loosen things up, I’ll play a short game that involves everyone taking turns to say the numbers between 1 and 30 (or lower, if you prefer) in a random, non-sequential order, without repetition.

The rest of the class ends up working as a team to check each number as the next person speaks, making for a low-stress activity that often gets everyone laughing.

Once everyone’s relaxed, tailor the content to what you know will work well for them. There may be some students who’ll panic if you call on them by name, but this tends to be a necessary strategy for ensuring everyone is heard.

With smaller groups, I’ll rotate my questioning so that everyone is heard equally, and can anticipate when I’ll next call on them.

Some students may not speak up because they genuinely don’t know what’s going on, or have profound feelings of uncertainty that colour their perceptions. It’s important to address this as soon as possible so that the engagement gap doesn’t widen any further.

If you see that a child is finding the work a challenge, start putting interventions in place before the lesson, ideally on the day the lesson’s due to take place.

Whether it’s going over Macbeth or delving into fractions, covering core skills beforehand gives students a chance to keep up, and the confidence to speak up more often when participating in your virtual classroom environment.

Everyone benefits

Once these less confident students start speaking out, assign competence to what they say. Students will notice which of their peers are struggling and who is quiet.

Those learners will often have a low opinion of their academic ability that self-perpetuates, and that’s the cycle you want to break.

By running effective interventions that enable all students to speak up, you can start identifying those things they say or do that contribute to the learning of the whole class.

Try setting activities that give students a chance to prepare what they want to say beforehand, such as a research project, a story-writing assignment or a class debate.

Set the ground rules ahead of time, and make it clear that everyone will be expected to offer their thoughts. This will not only encourage independent study and research, but also let them prepare themselves, academically and mentally, to speak out.

Encouraging everyone to speak up and praising valuable contributions is good for all students. When students are confident in sharing their ideas, the more opportunity they’ll have to learn from their peers.

Joanna Boon is intervention and inclusion specialist at Cheadle Hulme High School.

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