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Opportunities and challenges of Distance Learning – an English teacher reports

An English teacher from an Austrian secondary school talks about her experiences with Distance Learning or Homeschooling in 2020 and 2021. We can anticipate that it is difficult for everyone involved – whether teachers, parents, or children. This article delves into one teacher’s experience and sheds light on teachers’ and children’s opportunities and challenges from a teacher’s perspective. There are undoubtedly several other points that we could address in this topic, but that would go beyond this article’s scope. At the end of the article, you will find our tips for more success and serenity in foreign language teaching at home – so be sure to read until the end!

Overview of the opportunities and challenges of distance learning in foreign language teaching

Opportunities of distance learning or homeschooling in foreign language teaching

  • Encouragement of independent work
  • Use of digital media
  • No stress due to tests/exams

Challenges of distance learning or homeschooling in foreign language teaching

  • Accurate reading of work instructions
  • Independent thinking – understanding grammar and other explanations
  • Communication and interaction is missing
  • Listening to the foreign language is not enough – learning of wrong pronunciation
  • Comprehension/verification of completed work orders is difficult

A teacher tells from everyday life

“It’s so difficult; the traditional way of teaching foreign languages just doesn’t work in homeschooling,” the English teacher begins to tell. She has been teaching English and music to 10- to 14-year-olds at a middle school in Austria for several years. Right now, the challenges probably outweigh the opportunities. “Again and again, there are discussions with parents. They accuse me of not preparing work instructions in enough detail; I have to listen to complaints about the overall situation of overburdened parents; at any time of day, I should be on call for children and parents. On the one hand, I understand this because many parents go about their business and deal with their children’s schoolwork in the evenings or on weekends – this is where work merges with free time for everyone involved. But at some point, enough is enough.”

The teacher’s school was not prepared for homeschooling during the first lockdown in 2020. Teachers individually found strategies to deal with the situation. In the 3rd lockdown in Austria, they are very well prepared after months of homeschooling experience. The school uses apps and software to communicate with children and parents, and the school presents a unified front. So the basic structure is right. But there are all kinds of obstacles: “Children and young people are supposed to be so tech-savvy, but I can’t say that from my experience. Even before homeschooling through the COVID-19 measures, we ran into challenges in class. For example, students didn’t know how to play a video on YouTube on a laptop.”

Listen carefully, I thought to myself. People always criticize teachers for being old-fashioned and unable to deal with modern technology, but it’s the children who are to blame in many cases. “Even now in homeschooling, there are often difficulties because students don’t know how to handle modern media. It’s about simple things like installing an app or how to use it. Also, students read far too imprecisely. As a result, they overlook work instructions, comments from teachers, etc. Keeping kids organized is a big problem in the current situation. And many parents can’t help.”

In the conversation, I was surprised by one thing, in particular: the way foreign languages are taught is outdated anyway and no longer corresponds to our zeitgeist. In homeschooling, it now occurs to us that foreign language teaching is suffering immensely. “The teaching and learning technology just doesn’t fit. It isn’t designed for homeschooling.” But no one seems to think of using this as an opportunity to question traditional teaching right now. We blame the system.

“The face-to-face interaction is missing. That applies to teaching the language, but also to the organizational stuff around it. On the one hand, children are not used to receiving written work instructions. In the classroom, they check with the teacher if a task is not obvious at first glance. Of course, it is still possible to ask questions now – via mail or even phone. However, it is only now that I have noticed how much children rely on us and get everything ‘pre-chewed.’ Most of the students do not think for themselves and do not read carefully.

And on the other hand, there is a lack of interaction regarding the learning material. Example: I give the children the task to read through the grammar rules regarding the difference ‘here – there.’ After that, there were tasks to solve – cloze texts, for example. The first challenge for some children was to understand the rules. Without an additional explanation, many did not understand or were too lazy to read and understand the content. Additionally, in a class call on our communication app, I found out that about half of the class mispronounced these two words, e.g., [here] instead of [hiir].”

In distance learning, communication and listening to the language are missing. Teachers recite words correctly several times in class, and thus the children learn the correct pronunciation. But in homeschooling, listening to a foreign language comes up short. “I give listening exercises as a task, but unfortunately, I can’t check whether the children do them. The example here-there shows me that many of my students do not take the listening exercises seriously. But there is no other (comprehensible or checkable) task to listen to the foreign language at the moment.”

However, it is not all difficult and wrong. Distance learning also has good sides. For example, during this time, children learn responsibility, how to organize themselves and their work, how to handle different media, how to manage their time, how to think in networks, and much more. These are things that usually miss in traditional classes. “It also eliminates the stress that students would otherwise have with all the tests and schoolwork.”


Our tips for homeschooling/distance learning in the foreign language classroom – for teachers, parents, and kids

1. De-coding the foreign language

Now is the time to discover and establish new things. One way to do this in the foreign language classroom is through de-coding. This is a word-by-word translation into the native language and can be excellent to set as an independent task, but you can also use this for independent practice at home. Besides, you can create, match and compare de-coding in groups, adding to the interaction and even more fun. Through de-coding, children learn in sentence context, which is essential for using the foreign language. You learn the meaning of the foreign language words and the application in the sentence context (grammar) intuitively. You can find fascinating info about this learning method in these related articles: The best grammar exercise for language learning. Easy language learning with de-coding, according to Vera F. Birkenbihl.

2. Active and passive listening

We must give listening to a foreign language more importance in foreign language teaching. Pronunciation rules and phonetic transcriptions are auxiliary tools created for teachers and trainers. It is much easier and more purposeful to simply prick up your ears: Listening is the most crucial step in speaking a foreign language well and without accent:

  1. listening and understanding
  2. reading along (softly and loudly)
  3. speaking for yourself

Have you ever spent a long time abroad? If so, you know how easy it is to immerse yourself in a foreign language when you hear it all the time. You develop a feeling for the language, and the sound and melody become familiar. This is because the brain is continually listening and processing what it hears. You brain creates neural pathways that you need to speak the new language.

Active listening is about an active exercise: listening to the foreign language and reading along with the native language. We also call this exercise karaoke exercise because it is close to singing karaoke.

In passive listening, you play audio recordings of the foreign language – preferably permanently – in the background. Engage in some routine activity while listening in the background. During passive listening, you brain slowly transfers the words and sounds from short-term memory to long-term memory, and you develop a good feel for the new language. You don’t need any extra learning time for passive listening. It’s incidental and effortless. You can read more about it here.

3. Bye bye grammar rules

Does grammar have to be? As children, we could speak our native language very well, even without grammar lessons. So why torture our children with it? The human brain is very good at discovering rules on its own. Suppose we learn the foreign language in complete sentences and with de-coding. In that case, we open our brain’s view of the language’s grammar, and it will (with many repetitions) automatically understand the rules – without any description of the rule at all. We have the neuro mechanisms of our brain to thank for this.

Laura has been a big fan of foreign languages since her childhood. She grew up bilingual - English and German - and through international vacations, she got a taste of many other languages.

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