Real-Life Skills for Remote Language Learning

Teaching kids to engage with virtual media in a meaningful way.

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As elementary level and early childhood language teachers in an increasingly digital world, we need new pedagogies specifically designed to boost the outcomes of screen-based learning for our students.

I spent decades researching the way children consume media, including films, video games and other online content. After working with more than 500,000 students, I understand both the upsides and the downsides of digital media, as well as how to harness it as a powerful and effective tool in the classroom.

Digital content has long been used to support students’ language studies because audio and visual learning materials can be extremely helpful in improving vocabulary, pronunciation and fluency. But the sudden switch to remote learning has put an enormous elephant in the e-learning room, and if we know it’s there, our lessons won’t get trampled!

In 2019, the average primary school student in the U.S. spent 1,600+ hours staring at a television, tablet or their parent’s cell phone. But 95% of that screen time has been for entertainment purposes.

Now we’re asking students to use these devices to learn for hours at a time and they can’t make that shift instantly. To improve our e-learning incomes, we need to learn and use best practices for engaging digital devices in ways that swiftly support remote learning.

First, we need to integrate short-term kinesthetic and sensory support into our lessons. Second, we need to use an enquiry-based approach to incorporate what students are feeling, thinking and noticing into our teaching. This is where we can make a significant difference as educators.

Here are some proven, practical strategies to help language educators enhance their remote or classroom teaching.  We can use these steps during each lesson to equip our students with the ability to self-regulate, focus, and acquire empathy, along with improved literacy skills and confidence.  Best of all, these strategies will complement and support your lessons regardless of what languages are spoken in the classroom.

  1. Before using any digital content as part of the lesson plan, prime your students’ minds to consume the content mindfully.  Talk to them about paying attention to what’s going through their minds while they watch. For example, “Today we’re going to pay attention to what’s happening on the screen and what’s happening in our minds.”  You’ll see a fast uptick in metacognition, and a new alertness that will help students notice details and connect them to intellectual constructs during your lessons.
  2. Build in fast, fun “brain/body breaks.” If students are restless and unfocused, they aren’t ready to learn.Whether your students need to recharge their energy or burn-off excess energy, I recommend leading them through a series of micro-movements and brain/body exercises so they can give their complete attention to the lesson you’re teaching. Another exciting and useful element of these brain-body exercises is that they are effective for ELL students because they can be cued visually. The physical and kinesthetic tools suggested here not only boost focus and energy, they level the playing field so students can participate as equals.  Even without speaking English, students can follow or LEAD the movements, and execute them as well as any native English speaker.
  3. While viewing, ask questions and interact.Digital media are full of details that lead to learning and SEL connections and make perfect springboards for open-ended questions. In the real or virtual classroom, I recommend that you pause and question (P&Q). Every time you see a detail you want your students to notice, stop and open up a dialogue about what’s on the screen before continuing
  4. Reinforce Character – Plot – Setting. Every narrative video gives educators the opportunity to strengthen students’ understanding and use of core literacy constructs like character, plot and setting. For example, instead of asking “What’s special about that castle?” you can ask, “What’s special about that setting?” With younger children, you can extend literacy learning simply by talking during screen time the same way you do when reading books aloud to your students.  
  5. Strengthen emotional intelligence.  Using the same P&Q process, stop the video at points where characters make emotional transitions. Ask questions like, “How do you think that character feels right now?  Why?  What clues do we see about the character’s feelings?”  To go deeper into SEL and help students make text-to-self connections, you might then ask how they would feel if whatever happened to the on-screen character happened to them…and how they might respond. 
  6. Practice inferential reasoning. You can use the same emotional moment in the story to strengthen inferential reasoning. In this case, you would drill down into the details, asking additional questions about the character’s appearance or the lighting and the colors, or the sounds or the music.  All aspects of audio visual content can provide clues about emotion and motivation and give you the opportunity to ask students for “predictions”.  Let students start “mining” all the “evidence” on the screen, and they will make astonishing SEL and inferential reasoning connections.
  7. End with a Socratic round-up discussion. At the conclusion, ask students a series of open-ended questions about what they thought and how it made them feel. You can get younger students to engage in a dialogue about other “special” things they noticed, their reactions, and how they felt about the content. You may want to ask older students if one of them would like to facilitate the discussion. This can lead to a friendly debate of opposing opinions that are substantiated using deductions and inferences drawn from the content. 
  8. Extend the learning with writing. You can have students write a “reaction paper” incorporating terms and ideas in your current lessons. Younger students can write a “media report” using the same language and literacy vocabulary you ask them to use in book reports. 

Noticing and talking about details in audio visual content helps students process what they see inside and outside the classroom.  This, in turn, helps them learn to be critical thinkers and observers, not just consumers of digital content.

Such close analysis of audio-visual texts also results in improved visual literacy which is an extension of language learning.  By taking the time to pause and have students describe what they think and feel based on what’s on screen, students will become active instead of passive viewers. This helps strengthen critical thinking, builds a robust vocabulary, and strengthens the confidence of language learners.  

During my 40 years working with children and teachers, I have seen these techniques improve learning across language barriers in thousands of classrooms. Once a young mind is primed to watch digital content discerningly, it isa skill they will utilize for the rest of their lives.  

For schools that need e-learning tools and support, I offer two in-service workshops:  Fast FOCUS! provides proven kinesthetic techniques for teachers to elevate engagement and energize students within a matter of seconds.  Screen Smart® is a neuroscience-based pedagogy that accelerates early learning, and teaches emotional intelligence. Detailed instructions for all these techniques are included my book The Upside of Digital Devices: How to Make Your Child More Screen Smart, Literate, and Emotionally Intelligent. Anyone seeking more information or interested in booking a professional development workshop for teachers, please visit our website or call 773.528.6854.

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