Skip to main content

ESL teachers have an exciting and sometimes challenging job! Just like brick-and-mortar ESL teachers, online teachers encounter students of varying language levels, sometimes even in the same class. In both situations, it is vital for ESL teachers to modify oral instruction to make it easier for less fluent students to understand you and to develop their English skills.

Dreamstime Xs 34477994
Modify your teaching strategies to help students of all levels of fluency learn at their own rate in the online classroom.

 “With time and lots of opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact, ELLs progress in understanding and are able to produce language that is increasingly complete, complex, and grammatical.”

Brown Department of Education

How do you modify oral instruction in the online classroom? What exactly does that look like? It may look many different ways. You can modify or change your instruction by implementing varied teaching strategies such as effectively using teacher talk, introducing tasks, using TPR, allowing time for practice, and utilizing teamwork during partner and group activities.

Modifying Through Modeling

“Beginners in English and those who have not yet learned to read in their primary languages will need more modeling….”1 ESL teachers should begin modifying their instruction the moment the need presents itself.

For example, you may begin class with, “How are you today?” A less fluent student may respond with, “I am five.” With this simple answer, you can pre-assess their language skills and determine their understanding and begin to adjust your instruction accordingly. After acknowledging the student’s response, you can modify the question and ask, “Are you happy?” Then give the options of yes or no. If the student replies with, “happy,” you can then recast or restate their response with, “I am happy,” and ask them to repeat you. In this small way, you have adjusted your teaching to meet the need of your less fluent learner.

Another way to modify instruction is to provide explicit modeling for tasks students are expected to perform. For instance, if there is a free talk question. Ask the question and have students repeat it. Then, you can say, “While you think about the question, let me tell you my answer.” This technique allows students to have extra time to formulate their answers while you model the response for them by typing it in the text box or on-screen as you say it using simple words and simple sentence structures.2

This process provides students with an explicit visual and auditory example of a way to respond to the question. Your answer can provide a sentence stem or beginning for your student. This teaching strategy helps to eliminate anxiety associated with learning a new language. “Effective teachers help ELLs by modeling the task that children are expected to perform.”3

“Through meaningful and fun interactions, students can develop and practice their language skills.”

~ “Oral Language Development for Beginners,” Colorín Colorado


Another effective strategy for ESL Teachers is the use of Total Physical Response, also known as TPR. TPR allows you to teach by acting out a word or concept using props, pictures, or actual objects with the purpose of having the student mimic the action. It engages the use of speaking, listening, seeing, and moving. It helps the less fluent student to make a mind/body connection to the new word or concept through his senses. “TPR strategies are good teaching strategies for all students, not just ELLs.”4

For less fluent students, using TPR to give directions is key. To get your students to listen, say ‘listen’ and point to your ear. To encourage them to speak, point to your mouth and cup your ear as you lean in toward the camera. You can also have fun with TPR by playing the game, “How do I feel?” and using your facial expressions to act out various emotions. 

Vocal Tone/Intonation

 “For ELLs, … how the teacher speaks is as important as what the teacher says.”5 For online ESL teachers, this is very true! While tasks and TPR are useful teaching strategies, so is tone. A speaker’s tone can share non-verbal information. As you teach your students, consider your tone when asking or answering a question. As you model your lesson or concept, change your voice to ask a question. Your students will pick up your voice change, and mimic it. As your response to a question is given, your voice should change as well. Emphasizing intonation and mood can help students to develop a fuller understanding of the language they are learning.

Teamwork and ESL Partner Activities

Group or partner practice is an excellent tool for introducing new words or concepts and reinforcing previously learned ones. Practicing with classmates can also reduce anxiety and build confidence in the online ESL classroom. ESL teachers can “..use role-playing to teach and reinforce good conversational skills.”6

To introduce a partner activity to the whole class, start by partnering with a student. Have the student ask you a question so that you can model the answer, and then rotate through the students so that they have equal turns asking and answering questions in a conversational style. As you rotate through the students, provide any necessary feedback and encouragement unobtrusively so that you don’t interrupt the flow of the conversation. “As ESL teachers we need to establish classroom structures …, as well as providing opportunities for pupils to purposefully practice.”7

Being flexible and creative when teaching in order to modify your lesson to match your students’ fluency levels is essential to delivering successful online ESL classes. The strategies mentioned in this post are just a small sample of the kinds of teaching methods you can employ to help less fluent students experience success as they develop their language skills.

Check out these other helpful articles to improve your skills as an online ESL teacher: Understanding Second Language Acquisition, ESL Teaching Aids: One Prop Does Not Fit All, and How to Teach English Online to Students with Different Learning Styles.

Citations for ESL Teachers: How to Modify Oral Instruction in Your Online Classroom :
1, 4 “Teaching Diverse Learners About Oral Language Instruction.” Education | Brown University. Accessed April 13, 2020.
2 “Five Components of Effective Oral Language Instruction – Oral Language Booklet.” Professional Development Services for Teachers. Accessed April 13, 2020.
3, 5, 7 “Strategies for Teaching Content to ELLs.” Document adapted from Gary Giblin, ESL Coordinator for Winton Woods City Schools, and from ESOL
Strategies for Teaching Content by Jodi Reiss (Pearson Education, 2005)
Accessed April 13, 2020.
6 Colorín Colorado. “Oral Language Development for Beginners.” Colorín Colorado. Colorín Colorado, December 1, 2015.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x