Now that so many of us are faced with school closures, Facebook groups and teachers forums are buzzing with discussion about teaching online. The problem is that with so much information flying around it’s a bit confusing to know what the best option to teach English online to kids is, and how to go about making the transition from the traditional classroom to a virtual one, especially when you are teaching young children.
The first step is to decide how you’re going to actually set up your online classes, which I cover in this article. The next step is figuring out what activities to do with your students! If you need help with that, take a look at our article on ESL games and activities you can use in your virtual classes with young children.
I run after-school English classes for small groups of kids and I have groups of different ages, from 3-8 years old. Since our lockdown here in Spain, I’ve been looking into the different possibilities of how I can still carry on teaching my little students until this crisis is over, and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of each. Having done all this research, I thought it might be useful to share all the information with you and provide you with a summary of the main ways other teachers are doing it as well as the pros and cons of each one.
Many preschool and primary teachers are using group video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom to continue their classes online, with great success. However, these seem to be mainly teachers who are teaching kids in their native language. To me personally it seemed like there would be a lot of potential for problems down that route with my little ESL students and I wanted keep it as simple as possible for the parents of my kids, for myself and for the kids themselves.
For this reason, I have decided to send parents pre-recorded videos of myself that children can watch in their own time, as many times as they want, along with support material they can print out if they so desire. I upload the material to my Google Drive and share it with the parents via Google Classroom. No meeting times to coordinate and schedule. No connection problems to deal with. Just access links that parents use to download the material. Having said that, there are technical issues that need to be considered when making videos, so I’ve included a section at the end to help you if you are thinking about doing it.
At the end of the day, the choice of how you move your classes online is a personal one that depends on your particular teaching situation, technological ability and personal preference. Take a look at the different options summarized below, and I hope that it will help you decide!
Zoom is a video-calls and conferencing platform which includes a lot of features to support online learning. Many teachers are successfully using this to connect with their groups of young students in real-time, and I’ve seen rave reviews for it.
However, I personally had nothing but problems with the platform: links to join meetings didn’t work and I kept getting error messages when trying to share documents. This well could have been due to the dramatic increase in users that the platform has seen recently. Give it a try if you think it might be a good option for you – you might have better luck than me!
The free plan has a time limit of 40 minute per session on video-conferencing (although to be honest this is more than enough for a class with kids online). You need to pay to access unlimited time. During the coronavirus epidemic they have lifted the 40 minute limit in certain countries, but they do require an official school signature to qualify for this so it won’t be available for freelance teachers.
One word of caution, however: there have recently been concerns raised about the privacy and security of Zoom and some schools and districts are requiring parents to sign waivers or simply not allowing teachers to use the platform at all to avoid problems. You can configure the privacy and security settings, but it’s important as teachers of young kids that you are aware of this issue and take measures accordingly.
- Live streaming, so you can connect with groups of students in real-time and see their happy little faces altogether! They can also see each other, so it’s a way for them to connect with their classmates in this time of quarantine.
- There are some nice features, such as a whiteboard you can draw on and screen share with students
- It’s more like holding a real class in person than other platforms I’ve looked at, albeit with limitations on the kinds of activities you can do
- Parents don’t need to set up an account to access (only the teacher does), but they do need to install Zoom software on their computer or mobile.
- There’s potential for technical glitches and connection problems.
- You have to schedule a time for all your students to connect at the same time
- It doesn’t work well as a centralized “classroom” area, which parents can access to download materials
- Potential privacy and security issues – you may need parents to sign waivers
Google Classroom is a service that allows teachers to share files, add assignments and communicate with students via “classes”. Once you set up an account you can create as many classes as you want and add students (or their parents) to them.
If you work at a school and want to use Google Classroom, be aware that your school or district will need to sign up for a GSuite for Education account in order for you to use it with your students. This is to provide more privacy and security for them. However, you can still use Google Classroom and provide your students access to it if you are a freelance teacher or work in an academy. One thing to note is that parents will need a Google account in order to access (this means creating a Gmail account, although it’s quick and easy to set up from here).
I really like Google Classroom as a way to share videos and support material with parents because you can create different classes for your different groups and organize everything easily. However, at the time of writing the email notification feature is not working. In theory parents should receive an email notification whenever you post in Google Classroom, and you should also receive one if anybody else posts. This may not be a problem if you don’t have many students, but if you are trying to manage a lot of classes and assignments it may hinder your ability to work effectively.
- It’s completely free
- You can use it to easily share videos, documents, PowerPoint presentations, links, YouTube videos etc.
- You can create different classes for your different groups and give parents access only to the classes that are relevant to them
- You can schedule your posts to be published at a specific date or time
- You can create assignments and quizzes, set due dates and even grade assignments (although these features are better suited to older students)
- Both you and your kids’ parents need a Gmail account to access Google Classroom
- It’s not designed to be directly used by young kids. The kinds of assignments and quizzes you can create within Google Classroom are better suited for upper primary, high school or adult students
- No live-streaming available, so no real-time interaction with your kids
- The email notification feature is currently not working
Seesaw is not a video-conferencing platform like Zoom; there is no real-time interaction with kids. It’s more similar to Google Classroom, in that it’s a centralized online space specifically designed for teaching with features that allow you to design interactive tasks that you can assign students.
Once you set up an account you can create virtual classrooms, add students to those classrooms and create and add activities via your dashboard. However, the kinds of tasks you can create are a lot more interactive than Google Classroom, making it a much more kid-friendly option.
- Free to set up a basic account
Includes a nice interface and features for teaching young students
- You can create and assign interactive activities, add voice instructions, record video of yourself etc.
- Kids can complete any tasks you assign and add their own photos, videos, drawings etc.
- You can check your students’ answers and responses
- Students can access and complete tasks in their own time
- Parents need to set up an account and sign in with email or a QR code
- It’s not a platform very young kids would be able to use on their own, especially non-native
- English speaking children or kids who can’t yet read
- It’s a bit confusing to figure out how it works at first and not immediately obvious how students can access activities
- While there seems to be translation support within the messaging feature of Seesaw, the main platform seems to only be in English. I can imagine many of my students’ parents here in Spain having problems understanding how to access and navigate without explicit instructions from me beforehand
- Many of the features, such as skills assessment, require you to upgrade to the paid version
- You can’t create more than 100 activities with the free version
- It’s time consuming to set up and create tasks and activities, at least initially
- No live-streaming feature available
This is the method I have chosen to teach English online to kids. All you need is the camera on your computer or tablet and a way of sharing the files. However, there are some things you need to bear in mind when recording videos.
- Children can watch the videos when they want, as many times as they want
- You don’t need to coordinate a time for all of them to be there
- There is no need for parents to create accounts to access the material
- You don’t need to worry about having a good internet connection
- You don’t need to deal with live-streaming connection glitches and issues (which will inevitably arise)
- Kids can see and hear you
- There are technical aspects that you’ll need to sort out (see below)
- You need to get used to talking into a camera (channel your inner YouTuber!)
- You may have limits on the length of video you can record on your device
- Video files are large, so you can’t attach them to an email and will need to share them via a third party platform
- No real-time interaction with the kids
- Video classes will be shorter than classes in real-time. A pre-recorded video is more like a presentation as you won’t have interruptions or interaction with your students
Technical aspects of recording videos
Be aware that the larger the file size of your video, the more space it will take up on your device and the longer it will take to upload to online storage sites. I recommend recording at a resolution of 720p (1280 x 720p) or 480p (640 x 480p) in mp4 format. Stay away from avi or wmv file formats, as the video files will be too big. It’s a good idea to a test on your device first at different resolutions to see the difference in quality and file size.
Your camera software may also give you the option of changing the frame rate or flicker reduction. Most apps set the frame rate at 30 fps (frames per second), and you can leave it at that. Reducing the frame rate to 24 fps won’t reduce the file size much, but will make the quality poorer. On the other hand, recording with a flicker reduction of 50Hz instead of 60Hz will reduce the file size quite a lot without a noticeable difference in quality, so I recommend recording at 50Hz if you have that option.
I tested some different apps to compare the file sizes for each (Windows only, as I don’t own a Mac). For each app, I recorded a 10 minute video at 720p and 30 frames per second in mp4 format:
- Windows 10 native Camera App (50Hz flicker reduction): 575MB
- ManyCam (free version): 245MB
- YouCam (free version): 250MB
ManyCam is an intuitive, user-friendly app and it’s immediately obvious where to change the resolution settings. The quality of the videos is good, and the file sizes are amazingly small considering. The only problem is that in the free version your video will have a watermark stamped at the bottom of the screen, which some people may find bothersome.
YouCam doesn’t stamp a watermark on the videos, but it’s not quite as obvious where the settings are and I found it didn’t record the video as smoothly as ManyCam. It also required me to register an account and integrated itself with my Skype, which I personally didn’t appreciate.