Teaching languages remotely: How to keep students engaged

Picture of a bored female student

For teachers and students alike, the years 2020 and 2021 were stressful with social distancing, a global pandemic, a lack of spontaneous weekend getaways, and a universal move to the virtual realm oozing its way into everyday life. How have your students responded to remote teaching?

Whilst the virtual classroom has been the normal everyday teaching and learning environment for many of us during and after the pandemic, not all subjects have proven to be equally easy in making the switch to virtual teaching platforms. One such subject is languages.

How do a teacher who has been removed from their home turf (the comfort of the classroom), and removed from the ability to engage and opening up their students in person replicate the same needs and understandings when teaching languages online?

Language learning within a classroom environment thrives off of conversation, physical cues, active engagement and listening, and most importantly student confidence to be able to speak their own mind on any given subject matter. As such, maintaining student engagement online can be a bit of a daunting task, but not impossible.

Therefore we wrote this blog post and included our short list of ways to keep language students engaged when teaching remotely and to help them develop their language skills whilst learning languages online.


8 tips to improve students’ participation when teaching online

1. Use the online whiteboard function

You’ll often find it’s possible to give students control to write or highlight on the whiteboard in a virtual classroom. This can be great for brainstorming ideas or eliciting vocabulary, or for getting students to find mistakes in a text, or identify new words.

2. Set polls and quizzes

Many virtual learning platforms have an integrated polling function. If they don’t, you can easily share a link to a poll you’ve created (e.g. Kahoot is a free and fantastic interactive poll service for learning engagement). 

Use polls as a starting point for discussion, or to check understanding of a language point. And then, crucially, use the answers your students give to deviate from the original class material to open up interactive discussions and to allow the development of new ideas. The more students talk during classes, the better their language development shall be.

3. Use the chat function

The chat function is an invaluable tool for teachers when teaching online. You can use it as a teaching aid to reinforce instructions or backchannel with a struggling student with the private chat feature. Plus, it can also be integrated into language learning activities, by getting students to share answers, opinions, and ideas in real-time writing.

4. Record remote teaching sessions

By setting up short speaking activities, and recording your students, you can re-use these recordings in class, and get students to engage critically with them (e.g. listening back for their use of key language, pronunciation, or whatever your focus is).

5. Expand on your students’ pre-existing ideas

Remember that your students will come to class with their own ideas, opinions and experiences that you can build upon and develop discussions. The more realistic the conversation is, the more beneficial it will be for students in the real world.

6. Plan how to interact and engage online

Just like in the physical classroom, one needs to plan ahead for each task and think about how students can interact. It might either be via a ‘round robin’, or via specifying tasks. 

The private chat, breakout rooms, and group audio functions can also prompt students to ask each other questions, and develop private discussions surrounding a topic area or task.

This may also be useful for student engagement and development, as students may feel that they can talk more freely if the activity has been set up and you turn your camera off (after having nominated one student to lead the activity).

7. Recognition

Recognition can be a motivator for many students and can lead to higher levels of engagement in the learning process. There are a variety of different methods of recognition to consider as there is no one right way to recognise each student. 

Just remember that you know your students as individuals and therefore should select forms of recognition that fit their individual personalities and needs.

8. Regular breaks

Sitting in front of a computer for hours on end is exhausting for anyone, and thinking and speaking in a foreign language spends a lot of energy and willpower, especially for students who are learning at home surrounded by distractions.

As such, taking regular intervals during classes is a good way of not just breaking the class up, but allowing students to recharge and regroup.

By acknowledging and being aware of the challenges to online teaching, you are better prepared to develop a lesson plan that can accommodate and even mitigate these obstacles, and even turn them into strengths!

Languages are an invaluable skillset to have in our globalising world, so being able to get the best out of your students during your scheduled class time is beneficial to them, and highly rewarding for you.


Sanako provides language teaching tools that are designed to maximise the opportunities for speaking and actually using the target language in formal language education and during language classes even when teaching remotely. Book a FREE remote demo to learn more!

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