Emily Bryson ELT

Tips for teaching online – lessons from teaching learners with limited digital skills

Teaching online can be highly satisfying and relatively simple if your learners are self-directed and confident with technology, or if they already have some English language skills. If that is not the case, then things can be more challenging. Since March, this has been my teaching context, so I’ve shared ideas with colleagues, listened to podcasts and webinars, read blogs, done short online courses and signed up for an MEd Module in TELL.

Here’s some hints and tips for teaching digital skills to students who need extra support with technology and autonomous learning. As always, I’d love to hear yours.

1. Expect the unexpected

This could be said for all online teaching, or, indeed, all teaching in general. Students with limited digital literacy can surprise in many ways. For example, since starting Zoom classes with my new cohort, I was contacted on three separate occasions by three different students to ask why Zoom wasn’t working. It transpired that they were trying to login to class, not at the scheduled time, but at completely random times.

This should give you some context to how limited my students digital skills were. While I was still teaching them face to face, we were practising using the return, space and caps lock keys to type, and before March many didn’t have email addresses. But we’ve come a long way since then.

2. Preparing students is essential

If students are unfamiliar with the technology, we need to support them to use it. Teaching key vocabulary and how to use certain features is a great starting point, and will make everything easier in the long run. For video conferencing platforms, teach words like ‘mute’, ‘unmute’, or simply ‘I can’t hear you.’ I also found teaching prepositional phrases like ‘on the top right of the screen’ or ‘on the bottom left’ helpful.

Before the lessons, I created walkthrough videos of how to use the most common functions, and for low level learners who needed more support, I found videos in their L1 – like this one in Arabic or this guide for Polish learners on Sandy Millin‘s blog site: If you know of any more, please share them with me and I’ll add them here.

New additions (thanks Kamalika):

Zoom – Bengali walkthrough

Zoom – Urdu/Hindi

3. Be creative

My colleague, Rosie Quin, gets creative with tech.

We don’t always have the right tools to do what we need to do, but there’s probably a way of doing it with what you have. This is my imaginative colleague, Rosie Quin’s, innovative way to teach letter formation to her students without a visualiser. I think this sums up just how far teachers go to make their lessons accessible and engaging.

4. Slow and steady wins the race

At the moment, I feel like I’m mastering a new piece of tech just about every day, but I’d consider myself to be pretty tech savvy. For students who are not such digital whizzes, getting to grips with a new tool can take time and can often be frustrating or even overwhelming. Allow students time to master one new tool or function before adding another one. For example, try using the chat room function in one lesson (or even two or three), then move on to using the remote control or breakout rooms once you’ve built their confidence and digital skills.

5. Use visuals

As you’ll know from my previous posts, I’m a great believer in using visuals. Students understand international icons more than words they don’t know (who knew?). I’ve found that having a document to hand with various icons students might need to click (e.g. video on/off, share screen, etc) has helped me immensely. I can show them the icon, and they can find it on their phone or laptop.

I’ve also used quick sketches to explain online learning vocabulary:

A quick sketch for explaining ‘breakout room’ to beginners. Save yourself a thousand words!

6. Find ways to break out

Students who take time getting to grips with tech may feel out of their depth in breakout rooms. Breakout rooms are great if students can screenshot or photograph the activity before being split into groups, or if one student has the ability and know-how to share their screen. Or, indeed, if students are very fast at copying down the task. This year, my students are A0 and mostly access their zoom session via their mobile. Some haven’t learned to read or write in roman script yet, so giving them text prompts isn’t viable. I’ve found that screenshotting the activity (which could just be an image based task, like ‘What vegetables can you see in this picture?), and whatsapping it to them before breakout rooms works a treat. As long as they can easily switch between apps!

On that note, help me out… Wouldn’t it be great if students could see your shared screen in break out rooms, without having to rely on students’ tech skills? Email them to suggest: info@zoom.us

7. Keep it simple

I have mentioned in previous posts that students with limited digital literacy may find it hard to login, especially if they are also learning the English script for the first time. Could you login to a computer in Arabic, Korean or Chinese? I know, I’d probably be asking my teacher to reset my password at least once.

Tools like YouTube, EdPuzzle, Google Quizzes, Quizlet, Wordwall and Padlet remove the password hoop and take ‘one click’ to access. I particularly love using the Google Suite as I can quickly flit between tabs (showing slides, docs, images, email, websites), rather than having to re-share my screen. And I’ve recently discovered that Google Jamboard is a wonderful blend of powerpoint and interactive whiteboard. You can search for and add images quickly, highlight phrases, resize text and have students use it to draw or write collaboratively.

8. Have a plan B (and C and D)

In my first zoom session with my new students, we played around with the chatroom function, but, despite demonstrating on my screen using images, some still couldn’t access it on their phones. So I logged in on my own mobile and showed them by holding it up to my webcam. Then, the majority of students could use chat, but one still didn’t manage. I asked them to send me messages via whatsapp instead. I’m now in the habit of logging into my Zoom sessions via my phone. It means that I can see what the students see (or don’t see), check that the font size of materials is accessible on a phone, and screenshot tasks for breakout rooms.

Don’t forget to include others in your plan A, B, C, D or Z. Encouraging support from peers or family members will save a lot of time. Learning new tech in L1 is always going to be simpler than in a new language.

9. Teach each lesson head on

Sometimes it feels like everything is backwards.

I quickly learned that Zoom automatically ‘mirrors’ videos streaming on webcams, so when I held up a beautifully crafted example of a notebook for students in my literacy class, they looked utterly confused. No wonder, as the letters were all back to front. Not great when your learning objective is to teach them to write from left to right. I have since found and deselected the ‘mirror my video’ box in video settings. It’s next to the ‘touch up my appearance’ and ‘adjust for low light’ settings, which are equally (if not more) important.

10. Never say never

When I first started teaching students with limited digital literacy online, many didn’t even have email addresses, but slowly we’ve built up to using various different tools and self-study techniques. Like all life skills, teaching students to be autonomous digital learners involves support, patience and perseverance, but it is possible. Hang in there!

What tips do you have for teaching student digital skills for a digital world? I’d love to hear them.

If you’d like to learn more about Teaching a Virtual Classroom, Teaching ESOL or ESOL Literacy, why not check out these courses from ELT Training Library?

Teaching a Virtual Classroom

Getting Started with Adult ESOL

Teaching Adult ESOL Literacy: What is it, and What is Involved?

Practical Activities for Teaching Basic Literacy to Adult ESOL Learners



Check out my online courses! Click the laptop to find out more!

Emily Bryson ELT. Engaging Learners with Simple Drawings. Graphic Facilitation for English Language Teaching Professionals. Online Course. Group Programme. Simple drawing of a laptop with the text 'online course'.

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